• Books and reading,  History

    A mix of tragedy and hope: ‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

    The Yield (shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize) introduces us to August, a young Wiradjuri woman from a fictional valley in NSW. August returns home when her beloved grandfather (‘Poppy’) dies, after she’d been living in England for some years. The reader quickly realises that August is something of a restless soul running away from – or searching for – several things, including the sorrow and guilt she experienced after the mysterious disappearance of her older sister Jedda, years ago.

    The author does not flinch from dealing with the troubling issues and problems that beset many indigenous communities around Australia. In doing so, she places them firmly within the context of inter-generational trauma, the fracturing of families, communities and culture that began with the colonisation of this country by the English just over two hundred years ago. August is dealing with her own childhood memories but also the hints of far bigger events that took place in and around her childhood home. Early in the book, she dreams about her grandfather speaking to her:

    …he was telling her that there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your childhood, but there is something to forgetting it too…There are few worse things than memory, yet fewer things better, he’d said. Be careful.

    The Yield p9

    This theme of memory is woven throughout the novel in several ways. While we never meet Poppy (Albert Gondiwindi) we are introduced to him through his book, a carefully compiled dictionary of lost words and phrases from the Wiradjuri language. This is such an effective device, bringing the reader as it does into his world view, touching on his own life experiences but also the history of white settlement of his country and the interactions between settlers and Wiradjuri. And his widow, August’s nana Elsie, tells August:

    There was a war here against the local people. In that war the biggest victim was the culture, you know?…Please don’t be a victim, Augie. It’s an easy road, that one…The land, the earth is the victim now – that needs an army, I reckon. She’s the one in real trouble.

    The Yield pp92, 93

    Certainly the valley is now under direct threat by a proposed tin mine that …slithered up like a snake – worse than a snake – ready to make a million, a billion or more for a couple of greedy mates. (p127)

    The place names in the novel’s fictional setting are a deliberate reminder of atrocities committed against indigenous people in the not too distant past: Massacre and Poisoned Waterhole Creek (both of which are real place names), Prosperous Mission, which is based on a real Aboriginal mission that operated in the 1880’s. There is also mention of the ‘homes’ to which Aboriginal children were taken after forcible removal from their parents; practices now known as the Stolen Generations.

    If in doubt about the extent or veracity of massacres and other atrocities, you may wish to look at the Colonial frontier massacres map of Australia, compiled by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities through University of Newcastle. It is a sobering website.

    Another thread running through the story is to do with the fictional Reverend Greenleaf, a Lutheran pastor of German heritage, who founded and ran Prosperous Mission in the 1800’s. During WWI he is the victim of anti-German sentiment and interred, and we read his impassioned plea for the welfare of the Aboriginal people of his district, foreseeing a grim future for them.

    All the disparate threads are brought together by the end of the novel and August is left reflecting on the changes brought about within herself. She thinks about her grandfather’s dictionary and the importance of their language:

    English had changed their tongues, the formation of their minds, August thought – she’d drifted in and out of herself all that time. The language was the poem she had looked for, communicating what English failed to say
    …I’m writing about the other time though, deep time. This is a big, big story, the big stuff goes on forever, time ropes and loops and is never straight, that’s the real story of time.

    The Yield pp306&2

    This is reminiscent of the reflections about time made by the Gay’wu Group of Women in their beautiful book Song Spirals. It prompted me to think again about the fascinating differences across human cultures, as well as the similarities.

    The Yield was published by Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House Aust) in 2019. It is an accessible story with beautiful language and imagery. It asks some deep questions such as: is Australia mature enough to embrace all aspects of its history, both ancient and more recent?
    The Yield is a worthy contender for the 2020 Stella Prize.

    #2020StellaPrize #AussieAuthor20 #readthestella

  • Books and reading,  History

    A sobering look at recent history: ‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

    I’m not sure when I realised that the practice of removing indigenous Australian children from their families (resulting in what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the subject of the 2008 National Apology by then Prime Minister Keven Rudd) did not only happen way back in Australia’s history, but was still happening during my childhood in the 1960’s. The understanding that while I was growing up, safe and secure in a loving family, other children my age were in very different circumstances – grieving the loss of their parents and communities, frequently subjected to abuse and neglect in institutions charged with their care – appalled me, as I know it has many other Australians. This is not ‘history’ (locked in the pages of a text book about the past) but the lived experience of generations of Australian families.

    The White Girl (Queensland University Press, 2019) is in part an exploration of this blot on Australia’s record. The reader experiences 1960’s rural Australian life through the eyes of Odette, a strong and loving grandmother to Sissy, who she has cared for since her daughter Lila left their town after giving birth to her baby. Odette does not know where Lila is and has had to get on with the task of raising a granddaughter, drawing on her considerable personal resources of inner strength, kindness and respect for her culture and ancestors.

    But this was a time and place in which overt racism was part of the everyday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and Odette and Sissy experience the worst and the best of people as they go about their lives in their small community. The local policeman, Bill O’Shea, went to primary school with Odette and they were friends back then – but he is now an alcoholic reaching the end of his career and prefers to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in town, including the bullying and aggressive behaviour of Joe Kane and his eldest son Aaron, who takes against Odette and Sissy and threatens harm.

    Then along comes a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, who is determined to be the new broom the town needs and who takes seriously his responsibilities as the official guardian of the Aboriginal people in it. Unfortunately for Odette and Sissy, what this means is that he is set on removing Sissy from her grandmother’s care because in his view, an Aboriginal family is no place for a child to grow up, especially one who could ‘pass’ as white – like Sissy.

    Matters are complicated by Odette’s health problems and she must find a way to protect Sissy from Lowe while dealing with her own uncertain future.

    Along the way the reader is confronted by difficult truths about black/white relations at this time. For example, Lowe has a chart in his office on which he has listed each Aboriginal child in the local area, along with descriptions such as half-caste, quarter-caste and octoroon. Sissy is listed here, categorised as near white (p 115) Later, Odette reflects that:

    …white people were fascinated with the skin colour of Aboriginal people, and what it might indicate…(She) understood that what this woman really wanted to know was how she’d inherited the white blood she carried and who it had come from. Odette didn’t know the answer to such questions. All she knew was that the women in her family loved all their children, regardless of the suffering and violence that had created them.

    p 146

    Through Odette, Tony Birch suggests that the appalling and cruel behaviour exhibited by white people in authority over indigenous people, comes about because in order to carry out unjust government policies and laws, they needed to see Aboriginal people as ‘other’ and somehow at fault. Odette comments to her friend Jack:

    Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job. This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry with us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.

    p 164

    The novel also deals with the so-called ‘exemption certificate’ that some Aboriginal people applied for. In essence, it was a document stating that they were no longer to be considered Aboriginal – which meant no longer subject to the laws and regulations governing every aspect of life for indigenous people under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Where you lived, if you were allowed to travel, who you might marry – these were all controlled by the relevant Protector or his delegates. Birch deals sensitively with what I am imagine has been a contested and difficult issue for many indigenous people, families and communities.

    One of Odette’s friends answers Jack when he asks ‘What will we do, then?’ with the following:

    What we’ve always done. Keep our heads down, think smart and get on the move again if the need comes.’

    p 247

    What gets Odette through such difficulties are her recollections of a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and her connections to the natural world and the old people – her ancestors. She teaches Sissy about these things too, hoping that her granddaughter’s strong will and Odette’s love will guide her through life.

    Each night, before Odette fell asleep, she asked the old people for help, that she would not lose Sissy as well.

    p 42

    The White Girl is a beautiful book that deals sensitively with confronting issues of Australia’s past – and present.

    For more information on Tony Birch and his books, see the UQP website.

    #AussieAuthor20
  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Why FAFL-ing and FOF-ing might be good for us all: Clare Bowditch’s ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’

    Clare Bowditch is an Australian singer-songwriter, journalist, actor and writer. She is also an ARIA award winner who has toured with Leonard Cohen and fellow Australian performer Gotye, has been on stage with the likes of Sara Storer, Katie Noonan and Ruby Hunter, acted in TV and theatre roles, and has now written a book (published by Allen & Unwin 2019). Her eighth album will be released this year (2020) Check out her lovely website for updates.

    With all this behind her, may come as a surprise that Clare is someone who has suffered mental ill health and struggled with serious doubts about her own self-worth. Which is, in part, what her memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, is about.

    Before you think ‘Not for me, then’, let me add that this memoir is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, incredibly honest, moving and encouraging. I listened to the audiobook format which had several bonuses—the story is told in Clare’s own voice, which felt like a warm and comfy chat over a coffee with a good friend. Also, her wonderful mum, Maria Bowditch, shares her traditional Dutch apple tart recipe at the end! What’s not to love? Each chapter is welcomed by a snippet of one of Clare’s songs, relevant to that part of her story. And most gorgeous of all, Clare’s mum also gives a ‘language warning’ at the start of the book, adding in an understated sort of way, ‘I was a bit surprised by the language.’

    It is the story that Clare promised herself at age twenty-one that she ‘would one day be brave enough, and well enough, and alive enough, to write.’ from Your Own Kind of Girl Audiobook version 2019

    Clare traces her life from her earliest memories of growing up in a loving family in Melbourne’s suburbs to the beginning and development of her career in the arts. Her childhood was essentially a happy one, but marred when she was still a pre-schooler by the illness and death of her sister Rowena. Clare’s memories of this time—the regular visits to the hospital, the kindness of friends and neighbours, the stoicism and enduring faith of her parents, Clare’s own thoughts and feelings—are told with sympathy but not self-pity. It was sobering to hear her description of the ongoing effects of this childhood loss on her own development through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

    What Clare’s story shows is how children can be both resilient and fragile—that youngsters can come through all kinds of early trauma, but there will be scars. For Clare, the scars manifested as a ‘bad feeling’ that she couldn’t understand or name. Much, much later she learned that the feeling incorporated grief, and guilt, and fear. The ‘bad feeling’ was to have a profound effect on her life.

    Throughout childhood and puberty she struggled with her size: being a ‘big girl’ became problematic once she was old enough to compare herself with other girls, and to realise that people treated her differently because of it. While still in primary school she lost weight by going on a strict diet. So began years of see-sawing weight, at times dangerously close to serious eating disorder, which flared and receded according to what else was happening in her life.

    The ‘bad feeling’ also manifested in an inner critical voice, that told Clare she was too fat, too stupid, not worthy. This voice spoke most insistently whenever she thought of trying something new, like following her love of music and singing. Who are you kidding? the voice would tell her. As if you’d ever be good enough!

    A relationship break up led to her a trip to in London while in her very early twenties, and it was here that she experienced a full blown breakdown which she later understood to be an episode of extreme anxiety. She returned home to Melbourne to try to recover. Her family and friends gave great support but most helpful was discovering a book called Self Help For Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes (pub 1962), who was an Australian GP and health writer, considered by many to be one of the early leaders in the field of dealing with anxiety disorders. (see Wikipedia article for more info about Dr Weekes)

    This book provided a glimpse of a pathway to better health. Clare realised that what she’d experienced in London was a panic attack but also what she could do to manage her anxiety. This is where ‘FAFL-ing’ comes into the story, an acronym that stands for one of Dr Weekes’ techniques, which is, when faced with anxiety inducing situations or thoughts, to:

    Face the fearful thoughts and feelings (don’t run away) Accept (don’t fight against it) Float (don’t freeze) Let time pass (let go of impatience)

    Clare describes how she practiced this technique: when difficult emotions or thoughts appeared, she would ‘FAFL’ her way through. Her recovery was slow, but she persisted, establishing a meticulous self-care routine involving times to rise and sleep, healthy eating, quiet times, and FAFL-ing daily. This part of Clare’s story is poignant but as I listened to her sharing at such an intimate level, I could feel nothing but admiration for her determination in the face of frightening and confusing situations and emotions. It was a time in which mental health and illness was not discussed nearly as openly as today and she admits that she knew almost nothing apart from what she saw on TV.

    So she followed the steps laid out by Dr Weekes and found that—bit by bit—she was getting better. One day she decided to give the negative, critical voice in her head a name: Frank. And so ‘FOF-ing’ eventuated—‘F#@k Off, Frank’. She realised that trying to ignore Frank’s harping attempts to undermine her confidence and self-belief was not enough. This moment, and subsequent descriptions of how she ‘FOF-ed’ whenever the voice tried to spoil things for her, gave me some laugh-out-loud moments. I still smile when I think of them and I’ve taken to trying out some (silent) FOF-ing myself when the situation requires it.

    Claire describes her ongoing recovery, setbacks, first tentative steps towards a creative, fulfilling life with friendships that sustained her, travel, romance and parenthood. All of this leading towards the ‘Amazing Life’ she’d dreamt about but for such a long time did not truly believe was possible.

    You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something/ You’ll be a little bit older in October/ You’ve been acting on your pre-birth promise/ Now you think that the story is over/ Let me encourage you to know/ You will feel it when it is over/ It feels like hell taking inside of me/ Time to be still and listen for a while/ You want this amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You think you have to be fully formed already/ Don’t you?/ You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something from ‘Amazing Life’ on the album ‘The Winter I chose Happiness’ by Clare Bowditch

    At the end of the book there are additional resources for readers who may wish to explore ways to overcome their own ‘bad feelings’ and move towards recovery and their own amazing lives. I loved the way Clare gives these: once again it was like receiving a gift of relevant information from a close friend.

    This is an honest, funny, poignant memoir that made me wish I could sit down with Clare and have a chat about her amazing life.

  • 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

    The art of memoir: ‘The Girls’ by Chloe Higgins

    Can a book be both raw and nuanced? After reading The Girls, I believe it can. This ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ tells what happened to Chloe and her family after her two younger sisters (‘the girls’ of the title) were killed in a car crash when Chloe was 17 years old. Chloe and her mother were at home because Chloe was studying for her high school exams. Her father, who had been driving, sustained only minor injuries and could never remember or understand what had happened to cause the accident that killed his two daughters. Understandably, he suffered from crippling guilt and confusion as a result.

    The author tells the story from many different time periods, braiding each subtly into the narrative, to trace the to-and-fro of loss. Over the thirteen years between the accident and the publication of this, her first book, Chloe Higgins tried out different versions of life as she experimented with alcohol, drugs, sex work, overseas travel, psychiatric treatment…all while ‘trying to figure out how to have healthy adult relationships with these two people {her parents}, within the context of our shared grief and vastly different world views.’ (The Girls, p.306)

    The rawness of this work comes from her honesty in describing aspects of her life, thoughts, relationships and behaviours that are difficult, challenging, sometimes confronting. She says in her author’s note:

    But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only ones struggling with these feelings…Publishing this book is about stepping out of my shame, to speak publicly.

    The Girls, pp.305-306

    The nuance is in the delicate way the author navigates between the shocking or difficult, and the ordinariness of everyday life. She comes to learn that there is peace and beauty to be found in routines, even in the ritualistation of the day-to-day. Chloe starts to observe and recognise the things that keep her healthy: a good dose of quiet ‘alone time’ each day, time to write and read, exercise, friends, travel, nature, freedom. Simple but essential components of a ‘good life.’ I would agree – these are essential for me as well.

    Her contemplation and exploration of grief is at times visceral:
    “Grief stains the body.’ (p.150)
    “This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak.” (p. 131)

    Then, years later, she looks at a photo of the accident site and realises:

    ‘That is exactly what happened: this is the place on the road where the car, my sisters inside, burst into flames…I am almost thirty-one. I have been putting off this remembering for thirteen years, and I am terrified.’ (p.286)

    But she perseveres, asking for and receiving photos, memories and videos of her sisters, of the whole family of five at different ages before the accident, and suddenly :

    ‘For the first time in more than a decade, I am beginning to see them as three-dimensional humans. I see their bodies moving, hear the sounds of their voices, rather than experiencing them only as the flat, two-dimensional faces of their funeral memorial card.’ (291)

    This is a beautiful, honest, sometimes harrowing but ultimately hopeful account of a journey through loss and deep sorrow, the story of a young woman trying to figure all that out while also discovering what kind of life she will live. A perfect book for parents trying to understand the challenges that so often face young adults, and for young people to know that no, they are not alone.

    Here is a short video of Chloe talking about her book:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PR1r1zSUhHo

    Published by Picador, 2019

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘In a Great Southern Land’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Published 2019 by HQ (Harper Collins Aust)

    If you have read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction based on or inspired by real historical people and events. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest book, In a Great Southern Land, fits this bill nicely.

    Set during the Goldrush times in Victoria and NSW (the mid nineteenth century) it follows the stories of two Irish newcomers to the colony: Eve (who arrives on a convict ship) and Keiran (who with his brother, sister and brother-in-law, arrive as free settlers.)

    The book is a romance and we see the blossoming of love between the two main protagonists, with inevitable barriers placed in the way of them achieving their heart’s desires. Of course there is a happy conclusion. Because it is historical fiction, the plot complications arise from the times in which the story unfolds: the social, political and economic factors at play at this period of Australia’s history, including the poverty and hardship experienced by poor Irish farmers which drove many thousands to seek a better life elsewhere, the need for workers in the colonies due to the winding down of convict transportation to Australia, and especially, the feverish flocking to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria in search of the sought after ore.

    I loved the fact that the characters and story were inspired by the author’s own Irish ancestors. It’s so important these stories of our forebears are told, not only to keep the stories themselves alive, but also to signal our beginnings as a modern nation. In these arguably much easier times, it is hard to imagine life before electricity, clean running water, accessible medicine, education, motorised transport, electronic communication devices and nearby grocery stories. The women and men who lived in the 1850’s had none of these things, yet still managed to love, laugh, establish families, argue, hold grudges, have fun, make music, learn, travel and earn a living. Just as we do today.

    A big part of the plot of In a Great Southern Land centres on the story of the Eureka rebellion, when miners banded together against the injustices of the colonial authorities, ultimately facing off at the doomed Eureka Stockade. This battle is up there with Ned Kelly and Gallipoli in terms of iconic Australian history, but I sometimes wonder how many Australians know much about it or about the injustices that sparked the rebellion. Mary-Anne O’Connor has deftly woven these events in and around the stories of her characters and it makes an effective climax for her novel. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch credibility a little, but all in all this is a satisfying novel, firmly placed in a very Australian context, with deep Irish roots.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    An exploration of art: Book review ‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose

    Australian author Heather Rose’s 2016 novel The Museum of Modern Love’ is her eight novel and the winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

    Published by Allen & Unwin 2016

    It is unlike any book I have read before. Literary in its style, it is an accessible read and populated by a varied cast of characters, most of whom could be described as ‘creative types’ – musicians, artists, writers, poets, broadcasters, journalists. The novel takes the viewpoint of several characters, though it circles back to two main protagonists: Arky Levin, a film score composer, and Marina Abramovic, a well known performance artist.

    Now, part way through the book I had to stop and ‘Google’ Marina Abramovic. I needed to check if the performances described by Rose in the novel were based on real events. They struck me as especially far-fetched. To my astonishment, there they all were, listed on various websites describing Abramovic’s artistic career. For example, Let’s See what happens, 1972, in which the artist sat in a room equipped with seventy two items (including wine, scissors, a knife, a whip, a gun – with a single bullet – paper, flowers…) and invited people to use the objects on her as they wished; Balkan Baroque, 2000, in which the artist sat scrubbing an enormous pile of cow bones; and the performance at the centre of this novel, The Artist is Present, which took New York by storm in 2010.

    In this piece, Abramovic spent seventy five days in a bare room, at a table with two chairs facing each other. She sat in one, and audience members took turns to sit in the other. During each sitting, the artist and participant did nothing except gaze on each other’s face. A sitting could last between several minutes to several hours. When one participant vacated the seat, another took their place and the gazing resumed. Abramovic kept up this still, silent sitting every day until the Museum of Modern Art closed each evening. She did not move, drink, speak, visit a toilet – she did nothing but sit and gaze at the revolving cast of people in the chair opposite.

    Before reading this book, I knew very little about performance art, and thought even less of it, to be honest. If asked, I probably would have dismissed it as ‘indulgent nonsense.’ While I’m not sure that this novel has convinced me to rush to the next performance art piece I hear of, but it has made me stop and reflect on the place and value of art – in all its forms – in our human world.

    In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose describes the impact of sitting across from the artist, on those who chose to do so and those who watched but did not participate. A surprising number were visibly moved or shaken by the experience. In the novel, we get an inside view of this impact, from the point of view of several of the characters.

    Reading this book has made me realise that art can take many more shapes than I had previously thought, that it is not always static – as in looking at a painting or sculpture, or listening to a piece of music, for example. It can also be an exchange between two or more people. Each participant will take from the experience their own meaning.

    The other pleasure in this novel is Rose’s beautiful language. Here is just one example:

    He saw how her students must see her. This bird of a mind leaping from branch to branch.

    And here’s another little snippet, which I think sums up one of the main themes of the novel:

    Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice,then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die.

    As an aside – a shout out to Blue Mountains Library Services, who have introduced a range of books printed in a font style that is easier for readers with dyslexia. The copy of The Museum of Modern Love that I borrowed from there just happened to be in that format. What a great innovation!

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Fled’ by Meg Keneally

    Published by Echo Publishing 2019

    What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.

    Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.

    Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.

    We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’

    Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.

    Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.

    And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!

    I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.

    Meg Keneally has done a wonderful service to this incredible, larger- than- life story. Her Jenny Trelawney is an Australian literary heroine to be proud of.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Cedar Valley’ by Holly Throsby

    This is Holly Throsby’s second novel, following her debut Goodwood. Like it’s predecessor, Cedar Valley is set in a small Australian country town. In an interview I heard with Throsby, she admitted that she’d not lived in rural Australia, but is drawn to small towns in her writing. She does capture the feel of small town life very well in this novel.

    The book’s plot is an interesting mix of ‘coming of age’ (the story of Benny, a young woman seeking information and connection with her lost, dead mother by returning to the town where her mother once lived) and gentle mystery/police investigation story (local cops trying to figure out the identity and story behind a man who arrives, and dies, in the town on the same day.)

    I say ‘gentle’ because this is not a crime novel. There is no blood, no murder weapon, no tense climactic scene. The stories of Benny and the mystery man gently unfold throughout the book. Seemingly unconnected, there is a ribbon of plot that ties them together in the end. The conclusion is nicely done.

    Throsby’s style is almost ‘naive’, if that’s a term that can be used in literature. The book moves slowly, as Benny absorbs the sights, sounds, and people of the town she has come to live in for a while. The mystery plays itself out in a measured, thoughtful way, never taking over from the emotion of Benny and the other characters, but somehow, in odd ways, drawing the town’s population together as they variously try to puzzle out the story of the man who died in front of the Antiques shop.

    I enjoyed this book. I read it in between Kristina Olsson’s Shell (slow moving plot but exquisite language) and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (an important but harrowing book). It contrasted nicely with both.