These days of concern and self-isolation due to COVID-19 are strange times indeed. To lighten the mood, here is a little story I wrote, before the craziness got too crazy, for the March Australian Writers’ Centre Furious Fiction competition.
visions did appear…’
From my place in the wings, I can see Ella and her best friend Toni. Ella clutches the edge of the stage curtain, her jaw set with determination to not mess up her scene. Her parents are out there in the audience, their faces probably tight with worry. I know they’d had misgivings about the whole thing.
On stage, Bottom leans back in Titania’s arms. His ass’s head wobbles precariously but stays in place. Titania rests her head on the cushion of soft ferns in the fairy bower.
Ella had gasped when she’d first seen the set, hung
with greenery to conjure a park, a woodland meadow. The play cast its magic
over everything. In the dressing room, she’d looked into the mirror and
‘I’m a fairy!’
She wears her yellow gown and fairy wings as if born
to them. A long blonde wig completes the disguise, transforming snub nosed Ella
into a fairy sprite. Even Rick—the handsomest boy in the school—is convincing
as Bottom, the fool with a donkey head. It is all working.
Now here is Ella’s cue. She bounces out on stage
beside her fairy friends. Ella has just two words to say, and I know she won’t
get them wrong.
Peaseblossom calls, ‘Ready!’
Moth and Mustardseed chorus, ‘And I!’
Within minutes their scene is done and they all
run off stage again, giggling and hugging each other.
Ella spots me in the wings and rushes over, her
round face one huge smile. She puts her arms around my waist and hops up and
down, her excitement spilling over like a fizzy drink.
‘Shhh!’ I warn, but I can’t help smiling back. ‘You
did great, both of you.’ I put my finger to my lips, and they quieten to watch
the action until the play’s closing lines.
I give them a gentle nudge.
‘Curtain call! Go and take your bow, girls.’
Ella and Toni hold hands with the other fairies and
bow to the audience, beaming. The applause and cheers rise to a crescendo. I
blink away tears. When the curtains swish shut for the last time, the whole
cast rattle off the stage together, breathless with joy.
I wait with Ella and Toni until their parents find
them. Ella’s dad is shaking his head. Oh no… Is he unhappy with Ella being in
the play? I’d fought hard for the chance for Ella and Toni to take part. Does
he still disapprove?
Before I could speak, he takes my hand.
‘Thank you, Ms Roberts!’ he says. ‘What a wonderful
night. It worried me it might be too much for Ella, up there on stage. I know the
school hasn’t had special needs students in the play before. How can we thank
I grin. ‘Just look at their faces.’ I turn to Ella
and Toni. The girls’ eyes shine as they grin back. They are still fairies,
inside and out. ‘That’s thanks enough.’
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.
No Small Shame takes the reader into the world of emigrants to Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century: specifically a young woman, Mary O’Donnell, from Irish Catholic roots who travels across the world to Australia in 1914. Her father and that of her childhood friend Liam are miners from Ireland who emigrated to Scotland in the hope of finding work. Now, they are uprooting once again to work ‘down the pits’ in Wonthaggi, a coal mining region of Victoria.
The author immerses us in the appalling poverty of these families and communities: the cold, cramped row houses in Scotland, the deaths of babies and children from diseases like diphtheria and pneumonia, the grinding work in the pits, the smell of chamber pots and unwashed underarms. It is not a romantic picture of the past which is just as well, because there is precious little romance to be had in the lives of people like the O’Donnells and the Merrilees, nor in the life of Mary’s friend Winnie, married off in her teens to a surly, uncaring man who takes her to live on a farm outside of town – if ‘live’ is the right word here. ‘Survive’ is probably more accurate.
Despite their unpromising start in life, Mary and Liam both dream of better things. Mary nurtures her secret love for the boy she grew up with, but her feelings don’t seem to be reciprocated. All Liam cares about is getting away from his family and the seemingly inevitable work in the mine with his father. he wants to buy a good house and have money to spend. To ‘be his own man.’ And his growing frustration leads him into a life of drink.
Mary tries to muster dignity and defiance against everything that is ranged against her: her poverty, her employer, the religious and social strictures of the day, the unbending anger and resentment of her mother, her misplaced love and loyalty to an undeserving man. She finds herself in a situation all too common at that time, with a lack of agency a reality for so many women. It is a stark portrayal of the transactional nature of a loveless marriage:
But life for them was never meant to be more than what it was. Even marriage didn’t mean you had to be happy every bloody minute of every bloody day.
No Small Shame p337
The author vividly illustrates how religious and social hypocrisies impacted unfairly on women, who were expected to uphold standards of virtue and responsibility that some men seemed to avoid. The edicts of church and community left no room for mistakes, or allowance for people to change.
On top of all of this, the world is plunged into war which further strains families and communities to breaking point. Once the survivors return home, we see the cruel negligence of all who’d suffered in the fight for ‘King and Country.’ (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I struggle with ANZAC Day commemorations each year – knowing that while our leaders mouth platitudes about ‘Lest We Forget’, the physical and mental health, and the family and financial well-being of returned service people, is still shockingly neglected.)
Then the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic hits – which to a reader in 2020, echoes the panic and fear about the latest virus now sweeping the world.
This might sound like No Small Shame is a litany of misery. There is sadness, despair and anger, yes. But the author shows us Mary’s growing internal defiance and her arguments with herself. The narrative is close third person, so the reader is able to hear Mary’s thoughts as well as watch her actions. Her voice in the novel is lovely – full of idioms of the day, especially of the working class Irish Catholic community in which she is placed. Mary develops a stronger sense of independence, a realisation that she must stand on her own two feet. She also has an ironic, humorous bent which helps to soften some of the more difficult aspects of life:
With thousands of men gone to the front, she’d not reckoned on the Government decreeing it not proper for women to take over the jobs of men. What was the big call for women in Australia? Socks! Socks and pyjamas, thank you. Don’t trouble yourself to fill a real job, just sew and knit a bit! It made her wonder if women struggling in the bush to keep sheep alive in the drought, and bringing in a harvest with their menfolk away, knew they ought not to be doing ‘men’s’ work.
No Small Shame, p197
By the novel’s end, Mary has come to an acceptance of who she is and what she deserves in life, and is taking steps to change her situation for the better:
Placid, good, gentle Julia. The type of wife and mother she could never be. She’d always be one to question the justice, or the lack.
No Small Shame, p338
This is Christine Bell’s debut novel for adults, though she has published many works of short fiction for both adults and children, and has also written a Young Adult manuscript. I hope she continues to write stories like this one, which brings history to life and also tells us important things about our own times.
No Small Shame will be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) on 1 April 2020. My thanks to Holly for an advance reader copy.
Today I was listening to episode 1 of a brand new podcast called AusFolkus, which will explore the people and stories behind Australian folk music and dance. (Full disclosure: the podcast is presented and recorded by my husband, Andy Busuttil from Blue Mountain Sound studio) The podcast guest chatting with Andy was Gary Dawson, who has been participating in and teaching dances from the Balkans region for fifty years.
I was intrigued and amused to hear him relate the story of how, as a young university student, he stumbled upon folk dancing one night, when he and a few mates were wandering around Sydney, looking for something to do. They happened upon some ‘interesting music’, as he recalls it, wafting out from a building. Deciding to investigate, they were invited to join in. That was it for Gary. He was hooked, and went on to explore the eccentric rhythms, exciting music and colourful energetic dances from the Balkans, and eventually to become one of Australia’s most respected and loved folk dance teachers.
This anecdote got me thinking about the way ‘happenstance’ can knock us off a trajectory, or start a new one. A new passion, as for Gary, or a new career, love affair, favourite travel destination, even a brand new country to live in. There are so many ‘sliding door’ moments in life. Have you ever stopped to consider all the ‘what ifs’ that brought you to where you are today? Those split seconds where you might have chosen differently, got off at an earlier bus stop, missed a flight or train, or not taken a phone call. We can never know what the outcome might have been had we done it differently, of course.
And how wonderful when happenstance leads you to something that changes your life in a truly positive way, introducing you to a fulfilling and absorbing new pastime or life path. When you land in your happy place, as Gary did.
Dance is one of those activities that appear across all cultures, because it allows us to express ourselves and experience the joy of movement. Our bodies were created to move, to express, to feel joy and exhilaration. The colours, the traditions, the music and the rhythms of dances from around the world show us that dance is one of the ways we can be comfortable in our human bodies.
Of course, your happy place may be reading, or writing stories, or horse riding. You might buzz from creating a garden, or painting one, or sculpting a native animal. Maybe creating a meal to die for is your thing. It hardly matters what it is that takes you there. We all need a happy place to recharge and to get in touch with what makes us, us.
And if happenstance is what connected you with your thing in the first place, so much the more magical.
Please do let me know in the comments if happenstance has happened to you. I’d love to hear your story.
And, if you are interested in folk music and dance and the community of people who make it happen, do have a listen to the AusFolkus podcast.
My heart was full as I read this unusual and generous book. When I had finished, I felt two things: humility and gratitude. Along the way there were many ‘light bulb’ moments, when aspects of Yolŋu culture that had been confusing or which I had previously misunderstood, became a bit clearer.
Songspirals (published 2019 by Allen & Unwin) was written by the Gay’wu Group of Women (or ‘dilly bag women’s group’), consisting of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north, and non-Aboriginal women. Four sisters and a daughter, and three non-Aboriginal researchers from Macquarie University and the University of Newcastle, have collaborated on cultural and research projects over a decade and also co-authored three other books. Songspirals is an invitation to come on a journey of exploration and understanding.
The women describe songspirals (sometimes called songlines or song cycles) as:
… the essence of people in this land…We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.
Songspirals p xvi
The book was written to share something of Yolŋu culture, language, song and law, that have guided and protected people for thousands of years. The women write of milkarri:
We Yolŋu women from North East Arnhem Land … we cry the songcycles, we keen the songcycles – this is what we call milkarri. Only women keen milkarri. Milkarri is an ancient song, an ancient poem, a map, a ceremony and a guide, but it is more than all this too. Milkarri is a very powerful thing in Yolŋu life.
They share particular songspirals in the book, describing the deep knowledge and deep names of places, animals, clans, things. They also give the clearest explanation I have read of ‘Country’, of what it means within Yolŋu culture and spirituality:
Country is home, it sings to us and nourishes us. It is the feeling of home, the feeling of the seasons that communicate with us. It is all the beings of home. It is everything that we can touch or feel or sense, and it is everything beyond that too. It is everything that belongs in Country, with Country and as Country, including us. And it is the relationships between all those beings too. We come into being together…
Yolŋu keep Country alive with language…the land grew a tongue and that tongue is the Yolŋu people…
Everything communicates and comes through the songspirals. This communication between animals, between land, animals and people, between the tide, the sun and the moon, is about giving and receiving messages, about the seasons, about the weather, about people’s and Country’s safety and well-being.
Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41
I felt humble because of the breathtaking generosity of the women in sharing so much about their culture and their lives. Woven through the narrative are stories from their families, illustrating the resilience, pride and energy of Yolŋu in the face of appalling arrogance and dismissal on the part of non-indigenous people, from the very earliest contact to the present day. The depth and complexity of culture and languages that have been kept alive and vibrant through difficult times, shine from this book. All the authors ask in return is that: ‘...you respect this knowledge, to be respectful and be aware of the limits of what we are sharing.’ Songspirals p 258
Issues such as land rights, the destruction that mining inflicts on the land, bilingual or ‘two-way’ education, the dangers that come with losing language, and the ‘homelands’ or ‘outstations’ movement, (where indigenous people moved away from missions and towns, back to care for Country) are discussed in the book. It is clear that living on homelands is about health – the physical and mental health of people and of the land – NOT a ‘lifestyle choice’ as once dismissively described by a former Australian Prime Minister. Non-linear concepts of history, of time and of relationships, are also touched on.
These are hefty topics and the book is not an ‘easy’ read, partly because of the depth of the issues and partly because of its unusual narrative style, which cycles and repeats as do the songspirals it describes. But I was grateful for the opportunity to read about these important issues, not from commentators or political figures, but from Yolŋu women themselves. And the language – Yolŋu matha words are used liberally throughout (there is a glossary to help) and it’s a wonderful way to be introduced to the complexities and richness of one of Australia’s First Languages.
There is so much more I could say about this book and about the authors: sisters Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Banbapuy Ganambarr, their daughter Djawundil Maymura, and Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright.
I would encourage readers to visit the website of the Bawaka Collective to find out more about their work and research. Also check out the music of other family members in the band East Journey. These musicians write and sing songs which are closely linked to much of the content and meaning of Songspirals. Siena Stubbs, another of the younger Yolŋu generation, wrote and self published a book (since published by Magabala Books) called Our Birds: Ŋilimurruŋgu Wäyin Malanynha when she was just 16 years old. Another member of this talented clan, Maminydjama Maymuru, has a successful modelling career as Magnolia. For this young woman,
…living in both worlds has given her a deeper understanding of both worlds and of life. In the Yolŋu way, she talks through the songspirals and that is where her message comes from.
Songspirals p 133
For the authors of Songspirals, it is crucial that the next generations keep the language and culture strong while they negotiate living in two worlds. This is for the young people, their well being, health and connection to the things that will keep them strong. But it is also for the wider community, the land, the nation.
There is so much wisdom in this book, so much to absorb, to try to understand and to think about. I thank the Gay’wu Group of Women for their teaching and their generosity.
I’m a bit of a medieval and Tudor history tragic so the opportunity to delve into twelfth-century English and French goings-on (courtesy of Holly at Ventura Press) was most welcome. The Lioness Wakes (published March 2020 by Ventura Press) is the fourth in a series by Blanche d’Alpuget called ‘The Birth of the Plantagenets’. They were a dynasty that ruled England for over three centuries, had fourteen kings of England among their ranks and included the inter-family conflict known as The Wars of the Roses.
The book opens with the bloody drama of the murder of Thomas Becket, one-time friend but now a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry may or may not have ordered this murder, but its consequences were to dog him, leading to rebellion and revolt throughout his kingdom and into lands controlled by him in what is now modern day France. With such a graphic start, the reader is plunged into the complexities and brutalities of twelfth-century European courts, monarchs and their families – especially the Plantagenets, riven by suspicion, plots and intrigue. A Netflix crime series has nothing on the drama of this period.
Eleanor, wife of King Henry II, is a particularly compelling character. Known for her beauty, daring and intelligence, and the former wife of the French King Louis VII, Eleanor is behind a revolt against Henry, pitting their three sons against their father in the process. I recalled the character of Eleanor as portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter and it was with pleasure that I was introduced to her again in this novel. She was certainly a formidable woman and foe.
Remembering stories of her son Richard, who succeeded Henry and became known as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ it was surprising to read d’Alpuget’s rather more unflattering picture of him as a young man – cruel, capricious and arrogant. Although they band together to oppose their father, there is no love lost between the three eldest Plantagenet sons – Henry the Younger, Richard, and Geoffrey. John (‘Baby’ in this book) later becomes the notorious Prince John in the Robin Hood legends and then King John of Magna Carta fame, but in this book he is a toddler, already spoiled by his adoring father.
There are vivid pictures of the places peopled by the novel’s characters. In Scotland, for example:
As the cold of an ill-tempered autumn laid thick sheets of ice on the surface of lakes, one morning of muted light he heard the screams of gulls and saw a dark outline rear through the fog. Edinburgh Castle was perched at the top of that monster of nature, Black Rock.
The Lioness Wakes, p 143
I wanted to draw a cloak around myself to keep out the chill air as I was reading.
A few times I found the narrative a bit disjointed, but that may have been due to my lack of knowledge of events and some characters from the first three books of this series, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read. The story deals with complex (and at times for me confusing) negotiations and power plays between members of the European royalties and aristocracy. If we are ever tempted to think that self-serving and ambition are peculiar to modern-day politics, this novel swiftly puts that belief to rest:
…centuries deep in their blood runs ambition, pride and aggression, generation after generation, back to the mists of the north wind.
The Lioness Wakes p 148
d’Alpuget shows how the Church, no less political, wielded huge power at a time when people of all stations in life were as likely to believe in dreams and magic as in miracles of the kind purportedly brought about by Thomas Becket after his death, and goddesses shared in the affection of villagers and nobles alike, along with the Virgin Mary.
This novel is a vivid portrayal of events and people from a turbulent time in European history. I’ll be on the lookout for the first three books in the series, and the fifth and final book when published.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
Dedication by author in Bruny, published 2019 by Allen & Unwin
That dedication by the author is a good heads-up to what this novel is: part thriller, part study of family, part love letter to a place, and also, a manifesto against the onslaught of political and economic movements that support power, wealth and progress at any cost.
Set on Bruny Island, just off the Tasmanian coast near Hobart, the novel explores several themes. A main one is progress and its price, especially for small, relatively isolated communities such as those on the island, and Tasmania more generally. Astrid, the main character, is a Tasmanian with strong links to Bruny, who has established a life in New York and a career as a conflict resolution expert, working for the United Nations in trouble spots around the world. When a massive new bridge joining Bruny Island to the bigger island of Tasmania is blown up just before its completion, she is called on to help by her twin brother – who just happens to be the Premier of the state and leader of a conservative political party.
Astrid’s first task is to meet and talk with as many of the ‘stakeholders’ in the bridge project as possible – including the sizeable group of locals who are bitterly opposed to its construction. She muses that:
I was sure Tasmanians would resist…with everything they had, despite the economic advantages. Because to live on an island isn’t just a location. It’s a sense of belonging. It’s history and sacrifice. It’s a choice to be remote. It’s a kind of metaphor…
When you settle for Tassie, you’ve settled for less in some ways; less of what matters out there, more of what matters here.
p 254 and p567 (ebook version)
What she discovers is much more complex than it appears, crossing international and government borders and quite a few surprises and shocks. To outline more of the plot would be a spoiler, so I won’t say any more about that here.
The time frame is set in the very near future so everything is recognisable – so much so that I had to remind myself that the novel was published last year, because there were several references to occurrences that mirrored very recent events within Australia or the wider world and which rang uncannily true: epidemics on cruise ships, scandals about government pork-barrelling, unprecedented natural disasters and weather events, to name a few.
The novel canvasses other themes along with the geopolitical ones. Relationships – intimate, sibling, parental, collegial, political – are all examined within the story of the island and its bridge. I especially loved the examination of family – what it means to belong, how we are always part of a family even if we have a life elsewhere. The character of Angus, Astrid’s elderly father who suffers from dementia, is both poignant and wise, though he can no longer communicate except in quotes from his beloved Shakespeare – quotes which are unerringly apt. My favourite is when he quotes Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (from Henry IV Part 2) at the moment his children are discussing fraught political and public relations issues.
Other timely themes which emerge are to do with the rapid pace of technology and automation, and the moral choices that must be made even as the world drives forward towards new technologies and ways of production. For example:
The people who owned the robots, who employed the techies ignoring in-bound traffic, those who could afford high-protein, low-carb medical care and organic sex, they were going to be sitting pretty in their driverless cars. They would be the ones the car would save when it had to choose between the wellbeing of the driver and the life of the pedestrian crossing the street.
This is Astrid’s musing, though I suspect it is the author’s viewpoint also. A few times, I did feel that the narrative veered into ‘telling’ (via Astrid’s thoughts and dialogue) which were mostly condemning of those in power – not that I disagreed with most of these views – just that they occasionally felt a little out of place in a novel.
I especially resonated with the word solistalgia which appears about a third of the way through – it apparently means ‘a deep melancholia for the assault the world is experiencing.’ (p465) I checked for this one in both Macquarie and Oxford Concise Dictionaries with no luck, though did find it on Wikipedia. It’s a great word, don’t you think? Earlier, Astrid thinks to herself that:
There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight. If it’s not environment, then it’s human rights. If it’s not human rights, it’s women’s rights. Law and order. Gun control. Invasive species. Water pollution. Tax reform. Refugee policy. Education. Health care. The list is endless.
Perhaps solistalgia is the name she was looking for. For anyone who is or has been an activist on any or all of the issues listed above – well, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and melancholic about the tasks that still lie ahead.
This novel does not end on a melancholic note, though it is not a ‘happy ever after’ ending either. Instead, it examines what happens when a small group of people make a choice for what they believe to be the right reasons. And how individuals, families, and communities can continue to push on within the face of challenges from multiple sources. Bruny is a thought provoking read that does not have all the answers but certainly asks the right questions.
woman shimmied across the floor. Bumping her hips to make the coins on her
belly belt jingle, she executed a perfect, sinuous camel move, the undulations
of her lithe body casting a spell on her audience. She glimpsed the slack
mouths and vacant eyes of the watching men as she brought her finger cymbals
together with a rhythmic click click, keeping
time with the drummer on his darabuka.
The music and drumming rose in a crescendo, many of the men clapping along in
time. It spurred her to dance faster, spinning around until she finished with a
dramatic sweep of her long filmy scarf, before letting it fall to the floor.
her arms out, head high, gleaming hair cascading down her back. Bowing low, she
swept up the scarf and disappeared through the curtain, out of sight. The men,
she knew, would awaken from their trance and turn back to their meals, order
more drinks, perhaps even speak to their wives. They were like small boys, so
easily bewitched by female flesh and a sparkling dance costume. She despised
them and pitied them in equal measure.
small space between kitchen and bathrooms where the dancers and musicians
gathered before each performance, she drank a glass of water as her breathing
returned to normal.
grinned at her as he put down his drum.
“Your dance sizzled tonight!”
smiled at the compliment, and then grimaced.
men… no respect!” she complained. “Some nights it’s like a—what do you
out a shout of laughter. “No strip joint ever had a dancer like Yasmin to
entertain the audience. You are the queen of dance out there.”
sighed. “Thank you, my friend. I know you appreciate the dances. As I enjoy
your beautiful darabuka playing. I wish only that our audience were more… more…”
Zamir supplied helpfully, and it was Yasmin’s turn to laugh.
civilised! If only they knew a little about the richness of the music and dance
we perform for them, they might not slobber as they do. Now,” she stood and
collected her coin belt and bag, “I must go. I promised my little Rana I would
be home in time to read a story before her bedtime.”
Hurrying through the darkening streets, she held close the hope for her daughter. Rana would not have to dance in a restaurant to earn a living. No, she would have a good job in this new country. Yasmin would make sure of it. She had a plan.
eyes widened when she saw the envelope in the mailbox and its sender: Macquarie
University. Once inside, she opened it
and read through the document once, twice, then gave a deep sigh and looked up
at the ceiling as tears gathered in her eyes.
to study for a physiotherapy degree next year.
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.
Frankl first published Man’s Search for Meaning in Germany in 1946. It is a book about surviving the horrors of several Nazi concentration camps during WWII – and the book was written and published just one year after the war ended. On reading his account of what he saw and experienced in those camps, and the conclusions he drew about human psychology and behaviour, I was astounded that someone who had experienced what he had, could write with such heart and clarity so soon afterwards.
Before the war Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna. He was sent, along with his wife, to Auschwitz camp, and spent time at Dachau and other camps until liberation at the end of the war. By this time his family, except for a sister, had perished. He used his observations and his own experiences of life inside the camps, to further develop his psychological theory known as Logotherapy. In essence, Frankl came to believe that the sort of person the camps’ prisoners became during their time there, was the result of an inner decision that each prisoner made, as much as the experiences and conditions in the camps. Frankl died in 1997 at the grand age of 92.
The version of his book I read was published by Penguin Random House in 2008, translated by Ilse Lasch, and comprised two parts: firstly an account of his wartime experiences, and secondly a description of his theory of Logotherapy and how the two are related. I will be honest and say that for me, the most gripping part was definitely the first, full as it is of acute observations of human behaviour under the most trying of circumstances imaginable.
He describes the three stages of prisoner response to incarceration: The illusion of reprieve (characterised by shock, or when the individual imagines that what is to come will be short-lived, or not so bad); the phase of apathy (a kind of emotional death but also a very necessary protective shell); and the final stage which comes after freedom is restored, which can include everything from joy to bitterness.
He states that every person’s deepest desire is for meaning and purpose in life. This can come through completing work or deeds, by experiencing and loving others or nature, beauty or culture, or by how we approach and experience the inevitable suffering that occurs in life.
Frankl, commenting on prisoners who showed kindness to others despite their horrific treatment by guards and SS, stated that these individuals proved that:
…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Several points made by Frankl in this book resonated for their modern parallels. His comment on the detrimental effects of prisoners’ uncertainty about the likely duration of their incarceration, or the possibility that they would die there, made me think of modern-day asylum seekers in immigration detention centres around the world, including those held in camps run on behalf of the Australian Government. For many of those prisoners, the uncertainty about how long they will remain prisoners is one of the most crippling aspects of their imprisonment.
Like so much that is written about the Holocaust, Frankl’s experiences have been contested, and aspects of his earlier life, his account of his imprisonment, and his psycho-therapeutic theories and methods, have all been questioned. I suppose it is up to each of us to decide what we think about all this. However, I found Man’s Search for Meaning a very thought-provoking and engrossing read, seventy four years after its first publication.