• Books and reading,  History,  Life: bits and pieces

    All about stories – and identity: Reflections on Survival/Invasion/Australia Day, and Patti Miller’s ‘The Mind of a Thief’

    For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)

    The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.

    For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.

    Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul

    After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.

    At the Vigil at Barangaroo, Sydney Harbour, 25th January 2020

    On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.

    All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.

    Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.

    Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read.  The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!

    Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky,  a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.

    It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.

    In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.

    However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that: 

    There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.

    p. 68

    Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:

    Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)

    Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.

    Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:

    What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)

    Indeed.

    And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)

    Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.

    Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.

    Miller writes:

    Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.
    … It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.

    pp. 123 & 166

    I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.

    So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.

    The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:

    I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.

    p.233

    This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.

  • Books and reading

    Why Bri Lee’s skull is a sign that women have had enough of abuse

    Eggshell Skull, published in 2018 by Allen & Unwin, is a memoir that peels back layers of personal and societal abuse, as seen by the author in her first year as a Judge’s Associate, and throughout her own foray into the legal system as a complainant.

    If you or someone close to you has had contact with the police or courts in Australia, either as defendant or complainant, you will relate to much of Bri’s story. Many years ago, I survived a bitter drawn out dispute in the Family Court. Loud bells of recognition jangled in my head as I read Bri’s descriptions of the powerlessness, despair and frustration she experienced during her own ‘journey’ through complex legal processes. She had the advantage of familiarity with at least some of the jargon and steps involved in bringing a matter to court, having completed a law degree and worked as a Judge’s Associate for a year—insight which most of don’t have access to.

    Ironically, it was precisely that experience so early in her working life that led her to bring forward her own complaint. After travelling with her Judge on court circuits to Queensland country towns and regional centres, and hearing case after case of rape, sexual assault, and child abuse—not all of which were resolved in the complainants’ favour—something tipped inside her. She began to recognise that her conflicted feelings about her chosen profession, her disturbing memories of an episode of childhood sexual abuse by a teenage friend of her brother, her negative self-image and episodes of self-harm, were all connected.

    ‘Since puberty I had accepted…that I wasn’t worth anything; that the ugly thing was ever-present inside me. That it was the dark truth, a rotten core, and that the smiling daytime Bri was the façade. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that so many of the feelings I struggled with are perfectly normal for abuse and trauma survivors.’

    p. 131

    She decided to do something about it.

    So began her transformation from wearing the robes of a Judge’s Associate, to entering a police station and court house wearing the everyday clothes of a complainant. She experienced the labyrinthine, slow passage of legal matters from complaint to trial and sentencing—and the many points along the way at which the matter can be deemed not serious enough or unlikely to be brought to trial and so dropped from the lists. The cliché ‘roller-coaster ride’ barely suggests the emotional highs and lows someone experiences at these times. Small vignettes, like the painful process of making her initial and later statements to a police officer whose two-fingered typing meant the ordeal was dragged out much longer than it needed to be, increasing her discomfort, are details that brought me right into her experience. I was there with Bri, wanting to shout hurry up! at the slow typing officer. The way the defendant delayed matters endlessly by not showing up or having tasks completed on time, became another form of abuse.

    …I’d felt totally powerless…Samuel in control again. He was taking up my time, my energy, my life. Calls about the case invaded my beautiful home. Reminders of the next mention invaded my mind when I slept. So long as the legal process continued I would be the complainant—and every two, three or four weeks, I would be reminded of that. Reminded that I was just the girl, reminded of being pushed on my back, belly-up, frozen.

    p 284

    On top of all that is the added layer of social attitudes towards women who make allegations of rape or other sexual assaults or abuse. How can they be believed? Does their use of the contraceptive pill while not in a steady relationship imply they are sexually promiscuous? Are their memories of childhood abuse accurate or are they imagining it? Unlike other crimes, there is often no ‘hard’ evidence of crimes of a sexual nature, especially historical crimes. So there are plenty of holes into which these matters can, and often do, fall.

    The title, Eggshell Skull, refers to a common legal rule that a defendant must ‘take his victims as they find them.’ (p.v) If, for example, a victim of a punch dies because of an existing medical condition, the person who threw the punch is still responsible for their death. When her matter is resolved, Bri Lee finds herself reflecting that the rule works both ways. If a perpetrator of abuse decides to fight the allegations in court, and finds the complainant more determined, braver, better supported by family and friends than he’d expected, well…that’s his problem, not hers.

    This memoir is an interesting read in the context of the Me Too movement, in which women all over the world began to call out male sexual abuse for what it is and took action to stop it. Bri Lee’s eggshell skull is perhaps one part of that worldwide picture.

  • Books and reading

    Bookish challenges for 2020

    Happy New Year lovely readers. I do hope 2020 treats you kindly and you give and receive love in abundance – because that’s the thing that we all need in great quantities. Every single one of us.

    In addition, the readers among us need books! Perhaps you have added some new books to your shelves: Christmas gifts, or books borrowed from your local library or a friend, or ones you have bought yourself. Like you, I’m looking forward to another year of great reads.

    In 2020, I am signing up to three reading ‘Challenges’. I like to do this to motivate me to expand my reading repertoire and discover authors and books I might not otherwise know about.

    The first is one I’ve participated in for the past couple of years – the Australian Women Writers Challenge, now in its ninth year. The #aww2020 Challenge aims to increase the number of reviews of works by women authors in this country. So far it is having great success, if the published review statistics are anything to go by, improving the ratio of reviews of works by male and female authors to near equal.

    From the AWW blog:

    The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.

    For 2020, I’m selecting the ‘Franklin’ challenge, which means I aim to read ten books by Australian women authors, and review at least six. Given that the majority of books I read in 2019 were by Australian women, I’m feeling pretty confident!

    The second challenge for 2020 is the Nonfiction Reader Challenge, which is a new one for me. I’ve chosen to participate in this one because I’ve always thought of myself as mainly a fiction reader, but lately I’ve enjoyed many more nonfiction titles. Some of these were books chosen by members of my book group, others ones I gravitated to myself – mostly in the areas of history, memoir or biography. So, why not set myself a challenge to read more?

    For this one, I’ve chosen the ‘Nonfiction Nibbler’ level, in which the aim is to read 6 books, from any category, which are:

    1. Memoir 2. Disaster Event 3. Social Science 4. Related to an Occupation
    5. History 6. Feminism 7. Psychology 8. Medical Issue 9. Nature

    10. True Crime 11. Science 12. Published in 2020

    The third challenge overlaps a bit with the others- the 2020 Aussie Readers Challenge, which aims to

    Showcase the quality and diversity of books by Australian authors.

    Book lover Book Review

    I’ve opted for the ‘Kangaroo’ level. This means I will aim to read 12 books by Australian authors, at least 4 by female and 4 by male authors and at least 4 by authors new to me, and across 3 different genres.

    So, there are my reading challenges for the next twelve months.

    Do you like to set reading (or other) challenges for yourself? Do you find it helpful to do so? Let me know in the comments what your best challenges have been, or the ones you look forward to in 2020.

    And happy reading.

  • Books and reading

    2019: A year of books in review

    In the past year I have read around 53 books. This year, for the first time, I tried to make a record of each book I read (or in the case of audiobooks, listened to). However I do have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve inadvertently left a few off the list.

    Of the 53 titles I did record, 39 were by Australian authors, and of those, 32 were by Australian women. No doubt this is at least partly due to my natural lean toward reading books by women, and also my commitment to reviewing books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

    Some of the books on my list this year were read for the book group I belong to, others for research and background for my own writing project, and the rest were books recommended or just ones that held an interest for me. As usual for me, the majority were fiction with a few nonfiction titles in the mix.

    So, what were my standout reads for 2019?

    For surprise value, The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein tops the list.

    Fled by Meg Keneally, The Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson and
    Tidelands by Philippa Gregory, share my historical interest prize.

    For sheer fun and imagination, Nevermore by Jessica Townsend

    Crime titles I loved: The rules of backyard cricket and On the Java Ridge, both by Jock Serong.

    Intriguing, inspirational and engrossing memoir: Educated by Tara Westover, Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie and The Girls by Chloe Hooper: four very different stories told in unique voices.

    And my nonfiction pick is Esther by Jessica North

    Oh, it’s hard to choose a few favourites from a long list of books read. A bit like choosing a favourite chocolate! There were so many great books this year.

    What’s on my To Be Read list for 2020?
    I plan to keep reading and reviewing plenty of books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
    I’ll read twelve titles for my book group (one choice for each of the group members).
    I’ll no doubt get through plenty of historical fiction, as I always like a good portion of historical fiction in my reading diet. I believe Sulari Gentill and Pamela Freeman both have new historical fiction titles to be released in 2020 so I look forward to those.
    And I’m sure that a few crime books will land on my TBR pile, too.

    And now, to you: what have been your stand-out titles for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (I love sharing fave book lists)

    And your TBR list: do you have a pile ready for holiday reading or to get started on in the New Year?
    Whatever direction your choices take you, I wish you a happy new reading year and hope that through books, you’ll discover new places, different times and interesting people.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A beautiful marriage of crime and historical fiction

    Tara Moss is a Australian-Canadian author of many bestselling books, including the non fiction titles Speaking Out and The Fictional Woman, and her crime fiction and paranormal series. She is also a journalist, former model, documentary maker and presenter. In 2015 she was a recipient of an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children. Oh, and she is UNICEF national ambassador for child survival. Probably all this keeps her pretty busy.

    Luckily for lovers of crime and historical fiction, she has found time to begin a new series that is a happy marriage of the two. Dead Man Switch (published 2019 by Harper Collins) is the first in the Billie Walker series and features a terrific new female protagonist. Billie is a ‘PI’ (Private Inquiry agent) who returns to Sydney at the end of WWII to re-open her deceased father’s agency. She is stylish and courageous and, I was happy to note, compassionate.

    Her experiences as a journalist, following the events of the war in Europe, have left her with some difficult memories and current challenges, not least of which is her photographer husband, Jack, who disappeared on a mission towards the end of the war and has been missing since. Also, Billie needs to make a living, which she does by taking on cases for people needing evidence of spousal infidelity in order to get a divorce – hardly satisfying work. So when she is approached by a woman to find her missing 17 year old son, Billie jumps at the chance of getting her teeth into a challenging case.

    And challenging it proves to be. The sinister tentacles of the murderous Nazis have found their way to Australia and Billie gets caught up in a much bigger and nastier plot than she could have expected.

    The author weaves a whole lot of history into the fabric of her story. Social history (the return of women to the home after having done important jobs during the war, changing fashions, the lingering effects of wartime rationing), events of the war (the shocking cruelties of the Nazi concentration camps), the inhumane treatment of Aboriginal people during the period, and attitudes to women, are all encapsulated in a vivid portrayal of post war Australia and the world.

    I was especially thrilled when the action moved to my own territory: the Blue Mountains including Katoomba, Mt Victoria, Colo, Bilpin (where I grew up) and Richmond. It’s not often I read about these places in contemporary fiction, so that was fun!

    The plot has enough twists to keep a reader turning the page, and some interesting and likeable characters: Sam (Billie’s assistant), her mother Eva and Eva’s ‘ladies’ maid/companion’, women police officers (very unusual at that time), and a courageous young Aboriginal woman who I hope to see more of in future books in the series.

    Dead Man Switch introduces a new player in the Australian historical crime genre. It’s a little noir, though Billie is certainly no Sam Spade – thank goodness. She’s very human and relatable even while up to her stylish hat in adventure. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

    You can find out more about Tara Moss and her books here:
    https://taramoss.com/

  • Books and reading

    When a book surprises: ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

    For reasons I don’t quite understand, I avoided this book for some time. When it was published in 2017 (Text Publishing) I read and heard a lot of praise about it, but I didn’t rush to get a copy. I’ve puzzled over the reason why: possibly, thinking it was simply a book about the work of a trauma cleaner, I was reluctant to indulge in what I’d thought of as a kind of ‘morbid curiosity’. How wrong I was!

    This book is so many things. A biography, yes: it tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who runs a cleaning company that specialises in trauma cleaning. For those new to this term, this includes the obvious sorts of scenarios: buildings in which a murder or suicide has taken place, or where someone has died and been undiscovered for a long time…you can imagine the sort of mess resulting from these situations. But trauma cleaning, I learnt, also includes residences that would be described as sites of ‘hoarding and squalor’, where a council or community service has stepped in to order the removal of rubbish or to offer help to a resident unable to cope with household hygiene and maintenance.

    The author shadowed Sandra on many of her jobs, and describes the scenes into which Sandra and her staff set foot, and the residents/clients, when they were present. We come to understand that there are many, many reasons why people become overwhelmed by the tasks of daily life, frequently involving their own personal traumas, or ill health (physical or mental), or a combination of these things. And we come to understand that these situations are much more common than we may like to think.

    So, that was my first surprise with this book – it taught me about the job of a trauma cleaner in a way that did not titillate or shock, but portrayed the lives of Sandra’s many clients in a manner that was both compassionate and matter of fact – exactly the way that Sandra herself approaches each cleaning job she embarks upon.

    But the biggest surprise was that the book told so much of Sandra’s own story. She is a remarkable woman who has herself experienced deep and profound trauma and loss, and who now draws on the well of her own humanity to offer care and respect to the people for whom she works: families of deceased, people living with severe mental ill health, or in squalid situations.

    Sandra’s story begins with her adoption – as a baby boy into a Catholic, working class family riven by domestic violence and alcoholism (well done, Catholic adoption system of the 1960’s!) and goes on to include her rejection by her adoptive parents when they have two biological children after adopting Peter, as baby Sandra is known in the book. The little boy was dealt levels of cruelty and neglect that were breathtaking, and which spark the uncomfortable thought that such childhood experiences are more common than many of us could know. Peter grew up, was kicked out of the family home, married, had two children, then discovered the gay scene of the 1970’s, and embarked on a path of self discovery (and self abuse via illicit drugs and alcohol), thinking all the while that the ‘difference’ for which his adoptive parents rejected him so vehemently in his childhood, was that he was homosexual.

    Peter eventually realised that the truth was more complicated. He was not gay, but was a female born into a male body. With enormous courage, he decided to do what he could to right that wrong, by beginning a course of medications and hormones to change his outward appearance to a more feminine one, and then to endure sex reassignment surgery – one of the earliest people to undergo this procedure in Australia. Eventually, after numerous iterations, setbacks and new traumas, Peter became Sandra.

    There is so much to the story of Sandra’s life that it is impossible to do it justice in a few paragraphs. What I loved about this book, though, was the author’s way of telling the story, giving the reader gems of information, circling around to the present and weaving back to the past. Krasnostein tells Sandra’s story with lyrical language and a thoughtfulness that befits such a complex, multi-layered life.

    The Trauma Cleaner was the recipient of many literary awards: Victorian Prize for Literature in 2018, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction 2018, the ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year 2018, and the Dobbie Literary Award for First Time Published Author, and it was shortlisted for many others. Having overcome my initial (and still puzzling) hesitancy to read it, I can understand why. It’s a wonderfully written book about a remarkable person.

    As a footnote, I listened to the Audible audiobook version of The Trauma Cleaner, (Audible 2018) and the narration by Rachel Tidd was perfect, adding much to my experience of Sarah Krasnostein’s beautiful words.

  • Books and reading

    A sad and haunting tale of our near futures: ‘Wolfe Island’ by Lucy Treloar

    This is the second of Lucy Treloar’s novels I have read and it’s an eerie, brooding tale of environment, home, family and a society on the edge of catastrophe. Her first novel, Salt Creek, was also an exploration of the way humans and the environment interact, but it was set in a different place and time: South Australia’s Coorong region in the 1800’s. Wolfe Island begins on a fictional island in Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the USA. Time-wise, it is sometime in the future – though a not too distant future, as there is much that is recognisable and familiar.

    The opening of Wolfe Island introduces us to Kitty Hawke, whose forebears have lived on the island since the 1600’s, but who is now the last inhabitant there. The reason? Wolfe Island is being consumed by rising sea levels and salt infestation, with houses and docks tumbling into the sea and large segments of the island already submerged. Kitty is unperturbed by her isolation. She is an artist who collects items and objects she finds along the shore line or dredges out of the mud, to create sculptures that she calls ‘makings.’ Her urge to create is intense and not to be ignored. She lives with some guilt that she left her two children and partner to live on the mainland while she returned to live alone on the island, apart from Girl, a wolfdog and long time companion. Otherwise, she is content.

    This all changes on the day her granddaughter arrives in a small boat, in the midst of a storm and fleeing from unstated dangers. With Cat is her boyfriend Josh, another young man Luis, and Luis’ young sister Alejandra. Kitty understands that Luis and his sister are ‘runners’ – in this world there are many such people escaping from injustice, environmental havoc, or the law. It’s not stated explicitly but we understand that the pair are what would be termed ‘aliens’ in the US – illegal immigrants coming in across the US-Mexican border. They have already experienced horror and trauma in their young lives which is revealed slowly throughout the novel.

    Part one of the novel is about Kitty, her deep relationship with the island and her art, and the world changing around her. She must learn to accommodate the newcomers and in doing so she grows to care deeply about them and will do anything to protect them. So much so, that in part two, Kitty herself becomes a ‘runner’ as the little group seek safety up north – again not specified, but very reminiscent of the paths taken by slaves seeking freedom in Canada in the nineteenth century. This section of the book feels like a road trip / adventure tale, with dangers (both human and environmental) at every turn. Part three sees Kitty back where she began, trying to create a home that feel right, and coping with memories and competing feelings of guilt and justification for actions she took to protect those she cares about.

    The book is a deep dive into human behaviour, the bonds of family and friendship, and what it means to have a home. The environmental theme is strong, of course, and I was impressed by the way the author illustrates the sometimes contradictory and unhelpful ways that humans respond to threat. Much of it feels very familiar indeed:

    There was nothing new in worrying about crops and vegetable gardens, but people had always paid more attention to the island being whittled away. Seawater coming up your hallway is disconcerting, I suppose…Islanders watched the tattered shores and kicked at them and said, ‘She’ll turn around again, just you wait. It’s always been changeable. (p 50)

    It was like a dream. People prefer to live like this, ignoring the things that might wake them, as if ignorance might force the world into returning to its proper course. (p130)

    What do you do when everything falls apart? You gather up the people you love and the few things you hold dear, and all the rest? You let it fall away. (p184)

    There are beautiful descriptions of place: the birds, plants, wildlife of the island and the landscapes the little group travel through on their search for safety. One of the strengths of this book is the way the physical and emotional states of place and people reflect and affect each other. The disintegrating island is a wonderful metaphor for a society that, despite pockets of kindness, goodwill and generosity, has allowed the worst of human nature to rise up, leading to the disintegration of the human world as well. Girl, Kitty’s beloved wolfdog, is a companion but also a strong link to the wildness of the world outside Kitty’s home. That wildness is one of the reasons Kitty loves the dog so much.

    Here is an example of the richness of language in Wolfe Island :

    I heard everything there as clear as if I’d been half deaf before: the thin call of a gull, the whistle of a kite, the wind sounding like rain in the grasses. I might sit for a morning, watch the clouds, feel the wind on my left cheek, and how it shifted by noon, the way the clouds shadowed the sun and I shivered, insects going to ground, birds plunging to trees, everything but weather growing still and watchful, and without a thought I went into the house with Girl at my side and secured the windows and watched the storm. This was my world and I was its. I wished for nothing else. But life does not go on in the same way. Sometimes the world is a blizzard-filled snow globe. Things happen in the shaking and the settling. (p287)

    For me, the most thought provoking parts of the novel were those that prompted me to reflect on what it means to be human, in all its messiness and loveliness. Certainly, there are echoes of many current global concerns throughout this book: climate change, the huge cost to individuals, nations and the planet of the vast movements of refugees across the earth, whether due to environmental, political or religious factors.

    It’s a beautiful, sombre book and I recommend it.

    Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, published by Picador, 2019

  • Books and reading,  History

    Discovering a new favourite author: Tea Cooper

    The Woman in the Green Dress (Pub 2019 by HQ Fiction) is Tea Cooper’s latest historical fiction and the first by her that I have read. I enjoyed it very much and I’m putting her on my ‘favourite authors’ list – which is, I might add, rather long. It’s always a pleasure to discover a ‘new’ author especially when they have written lots of other books, so there are plenty of others to enjoy. I’m not at all sure why I’d not discovered this author before now!

    The reason I picked up this particular novel was its setting, both time and place. It is a dual narrative / dual timeline novel, with two interweaving stories that play out separately, but of course overlap at crucial moments – to say any more would be to give spoilers so I’ll leave it at that, except to say that I particularly enjoy dual time frame novels. There’s something about them that when done well, brings the past more fully into the present.

    There are two main settings in this book: Mogo Creek, a remote tiny settlement on the Hawkesbury River, and Sydney. The dual time settings are the mid nineteenth century, and the (slightly more modern) early twentieth century – just after WWI draws to its bloody conclusion. I was attracted to the Hawkesbury setting because it is where my own roots lie, though my ancestors settled in the more ‘tameable’ farming land around Windsor and Richmond. For readers of The Secret River by Kate Grenville (one of my all-time favourite and most admired historical fiction novels) Mogo Creek is not too far from the area explored in that book.

    There are two protagonists: Della, in the 1853 story, and Fleur, who we meet in the novel’s opening, in 1918. Fleur is an ordinary English woman who lost her parents in the bombing of London during the war. Added to that, her husband Hugh, whom she married in a hasty ceremony just before he went off to fight, is reported as killed in action – but Fleur refuses to believe it. After all, there has been no official telegram, no parcel of his personal items sent to her. Her life turns a somersault when she is informed that Hugh has left her a substantial fortune and parcels of land – in far off Australia. Not a particularly adventurous woman, Fleur is astonished to find herself on a ship bound for Australia. She is convinced she can ‘sort out the misunderstanding’, return to England and wait for Hugh.

    In this she is proven wrong. She finds herself trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, but obstacles present themselves. Eventually she travels to Mogo Creek herself and meets a strange old man there. She discovers other clues in the boarded up Curio Shop of Wonders, a Sydney store owned by Hugh’s family for many years.

    Gradually we come to see how Fleur’s story overlaps with Della’s. Della is a taxidermist, an unusual occupation for a woman in the nineteenth century. Della is sympathetic to the Aboriginal people she knows – the Darkinjung of the upper Hawkesbury – and distressed to learn of brutal raids and attacks against them by some white settlers and also by the collectors of wildlife ‘specimens’ for her aunt’s store in Sydney – the very same Curio Shop that puzzles Fleur in the later timeline. I enjoyed the descriptions of Sydney across the two timelines, as well as the more rugged parts of the Hawkesbury river and its valleys. The characters of Fleur and Della are both very likeable and we see how they each change as the novel progresses.

    A motif throughout the novel is the opal, which in the mid nineteenth century garnered a reputation as a stone that brought bad luck to its owners. It was interesting to read of the very beginnings of the opal industry in Australia as it is now an iconic Australian gemstone, and (as far as I know) it no longer brings bad luck!

    Sometimes in dual narrative stories, the reader needs to suspend disbelief a little at the neat way the stories get tied together. In The Woman in the Green Dress, the clues are planted throughout, resulting in a climax and resolution that feels satisfying and believable. I enjoyed this novel and have already added another of Tea Cooper’s books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile.

  • Books and reading,  History

    The intriguing stories of hidden histories: ‘Esther’ by Jessica North

    ‘Esther’ by Jessica North, published by Allen & Unwin 2019.

    Esther, ‘the extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became the First Lady of the colony,’ is about one of those largely unknown figures from Australia’s past. When told well, stories such as this can bring our history to life.

    This meticulously researched account, written in narrative non-fiction style, recreates the conditions of London in the late eighteenth century, the journey of the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn, the stark reality of the first years of the fledgling English colony perched on the edge of the world – all from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Esther Abrahams (also known as Esther Julian). She was just sixteen and pregnant when convicted of the theft of some lace and sentenced to transportation to NSW. On arrival she became servant to First Lieutenant George Johnston of the British Marines. Together they spent a short period on Norfolk Island before returning to Sydney. She bore him children and along with her own young daughter Rosanna, they made a life together in Sydney.

    Interwoven with her story are characters from the fledgling British colony (Watkin Tench, Major Ross, Captain Arthur Phillip, D’arcy Wentworth, the Macarthurs, and Lachlan Macquarie among others) and Indigenous people such as Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, Arabanoo and Colbee.

    Esther was witness to the dramatic events that played out in the early colony. The near starvation of the first years, the brutality of English punishments, the deaths of so many of the Dharug around Sydney Cove due to disease (very likely smallpox), the incredible escape of Mary Bryant with her husband, small children and a boatload of other convicts, the Rum Rebellion that removed the unlikable Governor Bligh from office. These were formative events that shaped the future nation of Australia. For me, seeing them through Esther’s eyes brought them to vivid life.

    But it is Esther’s story that is most remarkable. During the course of her life she moved from the shame and powerlessness of life as a convict, to become the wife of the most powerful man in the colony, after George Johnston led the Rum Rebellion and became for a brief time, Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. In doing so she had to navigate the many perils of convict life, maintaining her dignity in the face of a system that seemed determined to strip it away and later, enduring the entrenched elitist attitudes of those who saw convict beginnings as a stain on the colony. Esther proved her worth by raising her family, managing Johnson’s large agricultural estate at Annandale in Sydney’s west, and earning respect from some of the most influential people in the colony.

    I very much enjoyed learning about Esther. Jessica North tells the stories of the early years of Australia in a vivid new way. It’s an absorbing and accessible history read.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Who are the savages?

    Review of ‘Paris Savages’ by Katherine Johnson.

    Published by Ventura Press 2019.

    I alternated between feelings of horror, anger, shame, and sorrow, reading this new work of fiction. Through a reimagining of the fate of three Badtjala people from K’gari (Queensland’s Fraser Island) who travel to Europe in the 1880’s, the author explores the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shows’ (also known as ‘human zoos’.) In doing so, she uncovers dark stories and tragedies and prompt the question: Who were the savages?

    The late nineteenth century was a period of immense excitement in the scientific world. Darwin’s theories of evolution were still being hotly debated. Naturalists, botanists, anthropologists and physicians were clamouring for opportunities to explore and examine evidence to prove various theories about race and human development. The general public was agog at stories about the people and lifestyles of those in Europe’s far-flung colonies. This curiosity and excitement, combined with an opportunity to make money, resulted in the mounting of travelling shows in which people from various ethnic groups and cultures were ‘displayed’, often alongside exotic animals and birds, exactly as we would today imagine a zoo. The human ‘exhibits’ were usually required to perform – everyday tasks such as cooking and eating food, building a shelter, or dancing and singing.

    It is in this context that we meet the main characters of Paris Savages. The three Badtjala people (Bonangera/Bonny, Jurano and his niece Dorondera, are taken to Europe by German engineer Louis Muller and his daughter Hilda. The Mullers have spent six years on the island with the Badtjala, learning their customs and language. Hilda’s mother Christel has died, although she appears throughout the novel as a ghost-like presence, an omniscient narrator, a device which allows the reader to see and understand events from the Badtjala people’s perspective.

    At first the little group are pleased and excited to be going, and Bonny and Hilda believe it will be an opportunity to educate Europeans about the Badtjala people and the need for better treatment of the First Australians – Bonny especially, wants to meet the Queen of England to plead his people’s case, and Hilda wants to fulfil her mother’s desire to see K’gari become a reserve to allow the Badtjala to live in peace. Hilda writes in her journal:

    …why we are in Europe, not just for people to discover the humanity in our friends through their beautiful music and dance but to search for the truth and humanity in themselves.

    Paris Savages p.238

    Hilda and her friends are to be sadly disillusioned. There are glimpses of past atrocities against the Badtjala, mirrored in the unkind or cruel treatments that begin from the moment the trio board the ship chartered to take them to Germany where their tour will begin.

    Their situation hardly improves once they arrive. They are shown very poor hospitality by their hosts, housed very like the animals they are displayed beside, stared at, touched and sometimes insulted by the crowds who press in around them during the ‘shows’. Even worse, they are subjected to demeaning and intrusive measurement of their persons, in the name of science and so that ‘certificates of authenticity’ can be issued. The direct links between these behaviours by members of Europe’s scientific community and racist terms such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-cast’, as well as theories of Social Darwinism and the idea of Indigenous Australians being a ‘dying race’, are clear to see. It was during these parts of the novel that I felt my shame and anger rise.

    Hilda, too, feels shame at the behaviour of her fellow Europeans. Her view of her father Louis begins to change, as she observes his complicity in the abuses meted out to her friends. She wonders, “Perhaps I do not know my father at all.” (p. 297) And her mother’s ghost voice adds:

    I would like to tell you what I feel about Louis, this man I once knew, but I will not be distracted from my task of relaying this version of Bonny’s story, which I fear otherwise will not be told….

    …I whisper the tale directly into the air so that it might reach the ears of those who are listening, now and into the future. Shhh, listen, I say.

    Paris Savages, pp. 250 & 285

    This is a powerful and beautiful book. The language is lyrical while it also conveys unpleasant truths. There is a lengthy author’s note in which she outlines her considerable research and historical sources. The re-telling of this period of disgraceful behaviour by some Europeans can only evoke a strong emotional response and, I hope, a vow to do better into the future.

    Thank you to Sophie Hodge at Ventura Press for a review copy of the book.

    #AWWchallenge