I may have only two things in common with the author of this memoir: we are both women, and have both experienced grief and trauma in our lives. I can think of a long list of ways in which we are different: family background, political views, life experiences. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that for much of the time while reading A Particular Woman I felt a certain alienation from its author – or at least, from her representation of herself. Having said that, the book is an interesting read, partly because it’s a journey through Australian life in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and up to the present time.
I’ll start with the blurb on the back cover: Embracing the excitement and turbulence of sixties Sydney, Ashley is set to make her mark amid uni classes filled with ambitious young males. She imagines her future with a successful career, husband, and a house full of children. But life is never quite that easy.
As a university graduate with a degree in economics (unusual for a woman at that time) Ashley travels to London and Canada, marries, and lives with her new husband as an expat in the Philippines, Singapore, Nigeria and Argentina. Later, as a single parent, she supports her young children through work as a model; eventually find love and security and a country lifestyle, before venturing into a role in the arts world as a member of various boards. Throughout the years she comes up against tragedy, hardship and profound grief.
I admit to a certain amount of distaste for aspects of her life, or at least for the way she describes them. She recounts jobs with a large tobacco company with no apparent reflection on the evils of this industry. Similarly, her descriptions of her life as an expat in countries with high levels of poverty hint at a limited awareness of the position of relative privilege held by monied, white youngsters in countries previously colonised and often pillaged by the West. Several interactions between various friends and some local people struck me as shameful, but are recounted by the author with no apology or reflection.
Dawson-Damer seemed to move through the world as a young, blonde, beautiful woman with an apparent line up of men ogling her and wanting to take her to bed. I found this uncomfortable reading.
However, I decided to regard this memoir as a first hand account of the times in which she lived. Australia, as with much of the world, was undergoing a period of great change; upheavals as economies and societies transitioned from the post-war era to a modern day understanding of issues like imperialism, racism, and sexism. As an example: while completing her economics degree, it was still the custom to hold a ‘Miss Economics’ competition in the faculty! And as the author puts it:
Work was opening up for me, and yet women in the workplace had to be careful. We knew not to catch lifts alone with certain men; there’s no denying it, in those days we were fair game.
A Particular Woman p36
Dawson-Damer’s life did not play out as expected. She was to endure loss and hardship and several transformations of her own life before reaching a place of acceptance and stability. I warmed to her more as she recounted these difficult times and the way she dealt with them. I could admire her hard work, tenacity and commitment to whatever challenges she set herself. Her philosophy is best summed up in these words:
We must celebrate life. Not just our own, but the life we have with others. Most of us are going to have difficult times dished up to us. The awful times are balanced out by the good times. If we are lucky, we will survive the tragedies that might occur and go on to be stronger…Suffering mellows us. It makes us humbler and wiser. It adds steel melded with compassion to our strength.
A Particular Woman p235
The book is illustrated with a collection of photographs from different times in her life. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the people and places in some of these, but they were a welcome addition, helping to bring her story alive.
A Particular Woman is a story of resilience against a backdrop of a changing Australia, and would hold plenty to interest readers who enjoy first-hand accounts of interesting lives such as Ashley Dawson-Damer’s.
A Particular Woman will be published in July 2020 by Ventura Press. My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.
This is the third in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
I wear my mother’s wedding ring. She stopped wearing it several years ago; possibly she worried about losing it. It’s a plain, narrow gold band – my father was broke back then, as for much of his life, so a larger or fancier ring was out of the question.
I love it. I remember as a child, trying it on and pretending that I was a ‘married lady.’ The idea had seemed both attractive and ridiculous. Now I wear it as a tribute to my mother – her absence of need for showiness, her discomfort with ostentation. Mum was – is – a simple woman in many ways, though possessed of complexities in others.
To me, this plain little ring also symbolises the ordinary comforts of Mum’s life: the old houses she lived in, which had needed close attention and much effort to become family homes; the plain but nourishing meals she prepared; likewise the many apple pies, jams, cakes and sweets she made for her family and for community fund raising; the clothing she sewed and knitted for us.
Almost everything Mum did was achieved in less than perfect circumstances, but added so much to the lives of others. All of which is held in the memories evoked by one unadorned golden ring.
This week, 5 – 11 June, is Indigenous Literature Week, celebrating the richness of fiction, non fiction, poetry, memoir and biography authored by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australians. Of course, July is also NAIDOC time, during which events are usually held to mark the culture, history and achievements of indigenous Australians. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, NAIDOC events will be planned for November.
But we can still safely honour National Indigenous Literature Week in July. To find out more about NAIDOC and Indigenous Literature Week, check out these links.
Over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, there is a wonderful list of titles by indigenous authors in both Australia and New Zealand that could serve as a good launching point for anyone wanting to read more indigenous authors. And below are links to books that I have posted about here on my blog. I would recommend each of these books; they all have something special.
I’m late to this book (published by Text Publishing in 2016) but I’m an avowed Helen Garner fan, especially her non-fiction, which Everywhere I Look is: a collection of short anecdotes, musings, essays, film and book reviews, and a catalogue of everyday incidents in the life of an author who has made observing and recording a daily habit. In the hands of someone as skilled as this, the everyday become poetic, luminous, full of beauty, humour and mystery.
These were qualities of other books I’ve read by Garner: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, The Spare Room, and of course the classic Monkey Grip, among others. How does she do this – write about the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that make both seem familiar or, at least, understandable?
The second-last piece in this book, titled ‘The Insults of Age’, should be a must-read for any woman approaching mid to later life (and their partners, family and friends.) Her warning to thoughtless (younger) folk who might presume to act towards older women as if they are invisible, stupid, deaf or helpless, is one of several paragraphs that made me chuckle.
There were, as well, moments when I gasped in recognition of the situation described and at the beauty and simplicity of the prose, such as in the piece describing her mother and their relationship. ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ also made me weep a little. There is this:
When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.
Everywhere I Look, p94
And these sentences, describing a photo of Helen as a baby in her mother’s arms, which capture the other side of the parent-child relationship:
I am six months old. I am still an only child. She is carrying me in her arms. She is strong enough to bear my weight with ease. I trust her. She is my mother, and I am content to rest my head upon her breast.
Everywhere I Look p105
There it is – the entirety of the complicated bond between parent and child in a handful of understated or pared-back sentences. Who could say more, or more beautifully?
A wonderful offering from a living literary treasure.
This is the second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, it may be worth having a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Mum sounded tired this morning on the phone, her words slurring a little. She agreed she was weary, adding that it was because she’d been on a long drive to Canberra with a car full of youngsters. ‘What were you doing in Canberra?’ I asked. ‘Well there were young people here in the nursing home wondering what they should be doing. I asked if they’d like to get a singing group together and they said yes! So that’s what we did.’ ‘Fantastic! Were they a nice group?’ ‘I got to know them quite well. They had to be escorted from one stage to another but they got used to it. Some of the songs were poking fun…’ ‘Satire?’ I wondered. ‘Yes, I suppose so. Some satirical songs and some others.’ ‘It sounds a lot like the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Going from stage to stage. Was it like that?’ ‘A lot like the Festival, yes.’ ‘Any wonder you feel weary today, Mum. You’ve been doing a lot.’ ‘Yes, I think I’ll just rest today.’
For many years, Mum was a regular attendee at the annual National Folk Festival held in Canberra, Australia, over the Easter weekend. She’d stay with my sister who at that time lived in that city, and they’d come to the festival site each morning equipped with warm clothes, sun hats and water bottles, ready to enjoy a variety of concerts, dance displays, spoken word presentations and other cultural delights.
The festival is held over a large open site with most venues set up in large marquees. Wandering around the festival site is always a pleasure, as is sitting under the trees with their autumn tints, sipping a coffee and chatting with friends. Mum loved these times.
As her physical aches and pains increased and her eyesight started to weaken, her hours at the festival began to shrink. When my sister moved away from Canberra, going to the National was no longer an option. So these events are now in Mum’s past.
It’s a pleasure that is no longer available to her except through her memory and imagination. I’m certain that these earlier experiences are at the root of our conversation and her carload of youngsters, as she drove them to Canberra for performances on various stages.
Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.
The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.
I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.
We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.
In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.
She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228
There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:
How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363
The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.
Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook. It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020. My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.
After a long life lived with intelligence and a shrewd awareness of the world around her, my mother’s mind is failing. Not in a ‘railing at the world’ kind of way; hers is a much gentler decline, expressed in a vague blunting of her wits and a profound forgetfulness. I think her memory loss must feel like falling into a black hole every five or ten minutes. She often can’t recall answers to a question and will ask the same one over and over. Once a teacher, mentor and sounding board for her daughters and grandson, her attention now wanders, so it’s hard to maintain a conversational arc for longer than a few minutes at a time.
I treasure my connection with Mum, and this is painful to watch. She was the person who supported my learning and my studies: the boring parts (spelling lists in primary school, equations in high school) and those that were more fun (discussing books we’d both read, bouncing around ideas for an upcoming history essay for uni.) Mum and I enjoyed trips to the movies, watched classics together on Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood TV presentations, held season subscriptions to the theatre, talked politics and current affairs, and debated social issues over cups of tea and home made cake.
She was a vibrant conversationalist with a keen interest in and knowledge of world history, geography, literature and politics—much of it self-taught, and squeezed into rare moments of leisure from her demanding roles as orchardist, store keeper, café owner and home-maker. A sounding board for ideas or problems big or small, Mum was my ‘go-to’ person to share news, to fine-tune plans, and to swap stories.
Now, my heart aches as I witness her vagueness, her struggle to follow a conversation; her reduced engagement with the things and people around her. On my visits and daily phone calls, I keep up my chat about my life and things I’m doing, and also current events and important things on the news. But these are no longer meaningful for Mum in quite the same way.
I grieve for the connections we once had over ideas, places, people, books.
There is another side to this. As the insidious progression of her dementia damages parts of my mother’s brain and cognitive function, other facets emerge in original ways that are always fascinating, often surprising. After each visit or phone call I wonder about the conversation we just had, trying to parse the things she said or did, to pinpoint their meaning or origin. There is generally an echo of an event or comment from earlier that day or week that somehow makes sense in the fresh arrangement of Mum’s mind.
What this has meant for me is the possibility of engaging with my mother in novel ways, not informed by sadness alone. I am learning to see and appreciate the pleasure she might take from her perception of the world. Instead of mourning the erosion of her faculties, I strive to notice the beauty of her utterances and be intrigued by her sometimes startling statements. There is often humour, too—conversations with Mum are frequently hilarious.
All this is to say that I have recently embarked on a new journey with my mother, travelling with her on her winding pathway through the last months and years of her life. As I like to write, and writing helps me to make sense of my own experiences, I thought I’d begin a series of occasional blog posts about our explorations. Together, Mum and I will time- travel, meet people from the past, and venture into unknown territory. We will do some amazing things.
I invite you to join me on my travels with my mother.
I adore picture books. I loved to read them aloud to my son and continue to do so with my grandkids. There is a special magic that happens when the text and pictures work together; sometimes quirky, sometimes joyful, occasionally wistful. Always beautiful. And we are so fortunate to have in Australia such talented authors and illustrators of children’s books.
Margaret Wild was a favourite read-aloud for me, with books such as Mr Nick’s Knitting and Going Home. So I was pleased to see a new offering from her, with illustrations by Judith Rossell. Pink! is all about a young dinosaur who loves being pink – until she realises that she is always the first to be found in games of hide-and-seek with the other little dinosaurs. Then she longs to be brown or green, so she can hide in the forest like her friends.
Mum suggests: ‘Perhaps try being brave and smart about this…Try being happy with who you are.’ One afternoon Pink discovers that being a little bit brave – and a little bit different – can be a big advantage.
Margaret Wild’s simple text allows plenty of space – visually and metaphorically – for Judith Rossell’s gorgeous illustrations, full of the lush greens of the forest, soft blues and greys of the sky, pops of yellow, and of course, pink.
Pink! is a delightful story with a positive message that will appeal to youngsters as a read-aloud or to very early readers – especially those who love dinosaurs (and which pre-school or kindy kids don’t?)
What do you call your grandpa? by Ashleigh Barton is an affectionate love letter celebrating grandfathers and the special relationship between grandpa and child that can be found the world over. It also introduces youngsters to different cultures and languages and the various ways that children enjoy time with their grandads.
Each double page spread features a child, their grandfather and a special thing they love to do together. The four lines gently rhyme and this assists in the pronunciation of each name for ‘grandpa’, as that is always the final word and rhymes with the last word of the line before it.
We see children and grandpas playing hide-and-seek, star gazing, splashing in rain puddles, racing boats on a stream and enjoying a bedtime story together, among other fun activities.
The illustrations by Martina Heiduczek are soft blends of colours, with plenty of movement and things to spot and name on each page. On the last page, is an opportunity to learn the language and culture in which the different names for ‘grandpa’ are found.
What do you call your grandpa? and Pink! are delightful celebrations of diversity, special relationships, and the things that bring us together.
They will be published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in July 2020. Thanks to the publisher for copies of these titles to read and review.
I’m generally not a romance reader and have only recently begun to re-visit the world of young adult (YA) fiction, so at first I was not sure what to make of this new novel by US author Kiera Cass. She is a New York Times best selling author (the series The Selection have been particularly popular). Judging from their covers, her books could be best described as fantasy/romance in the ‘Princess’ mode, of which I’m not a great fan. So I came to The Betrothed with something of a hesitant mindset, to say the least.
The Betrothed managed to do two things at once: confirm some of my prejudices and confound them. Here’s how.
The novel is set in a fictional world loosely based on Europe or Britain of around the eighteenth century. Lady Hollis Brite is a beautiful young woman at Keresken Castle, the court of King Jameson, who is thrilled to be singled out for attention by the handsome young king. Soon the king makes clear his intention to marry Hollis, much to her joy and that of her self seeking parents. She now has to step up and learn about the kingdom and its relations with neighbouring countries, and prepare herself for the demands of her future role.
What happens next, of course, throws an unexpected obstacle in the way. Hollis finds herself drawn towards another young man, Silas, who with his family have escaped from the cruel and paranoid King Quentin of the nearby kingdom of Isolte. She must choose between the life she had dreamed of and the new possibilities that now present themselves with Silas.
For my taste there was not enough world-building in this novel. There is a lovely map at the beginning, showing Hollis’ homeland of Coroa and surrounding countries, but few of the map’s features are part of the story. To be fair, the author might be planning to explore more of her created world in later books, as I’m guessing The Betrothed might be the first of a new series by Cass. In this book, though, the clothing, manners and lifestyle feel ‘borrowed’ from historical romance tropes. At the same time, the language used by its characters, particularly Hollis and her friends Delia Grace and Nora, don’t really match the setting, with plenty of Americanisms and teen expressions that regularly threw me out of the story.
However…I acknowledge that for her army of loyal readers, Cass uses expressions that are familiar and accessible. I also acknowledge that I am not one of her target audience and not familiar with the language typically found in this genre of books.
Finally, I want to mention the way in which The Betrothed confounded some of my expectations. Towards the end of the book, I realised to my relief that this was not going to be a ‘happy-ever-after-Princess’ story. Far from it. Hollis has to confront the consequences of decisions she has made, and is plunged into a harrowing sequence of events that test her mettle. In this, the author has given her heroine a range of experiences and characteristics beyond her beauty and an initial desire to become queen. I thank Ms Cass for that.
TheBetrothed will no doubt please Kiera Cass’ fans who’ve been waiting for her next novel, and other young adult readers who enjoy a mix of fantasy, romance and a royal theme.
The Betrothedwas published by Harper Collins in May 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
OK, so perhaps COVID-19 isolation rules had something to do with it. I’ve been reading a whole lot more in the first five months of this year. As a result, my 2020 Reading Challenges are done and it’s not quite halfway through the year yet.
So, here’s what I’ve achieved between the pages (you can find my reviews for each of the books in the links to my earlier posts):
Have you set yourself any reading challenges this year? Maybe a new author? Or trying out a genre you don’t normally gravitate to? Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been searching out more titles by indigenous Australian authors.
Now, on to the next half of 2020 and more reading.We’re into winter here in Australia and of course that’s the perfect time to settle in a sunny spot or in front of the fire with a good book or three.
The first in a new trilogy by British-Mauritian author Kester Grant, The Court of Miracles is a complex, action-filled story of what might have happened had the French Revolution failed. A large cast of characters, many of them re-imagined versions of Victor Hugo’s creations from Les Misérables, includes the protagonist Eponine (‘Nina’). At the opening of the story, Nina is a frightened child but she develops courage, quick wits and skill in order to survive in early nineteenth century Paris.
This is no City of Lights, but a far darker and more dangerous city. Nina’s older sister Azelma is sold by their father Thenardier to the Master of Flesh (the head of a sex-slave and prostitution ring as hideous as it sounds). Before she is taken, Azlema instructs her sister:
Be useful, be smart, and stay one step ahead of everyone. Be brave even when you’re afraid. Remember that everyone is afraid.
The Court of Miracles p14
What follows is a series of exploits as Nina struggles to survive, while also trying to rescue Azelma and a youngster, Cosette (‘Ettie’). Ettie is a beautiful, naive girl towards whom Nina feels a protective love. All three girls join the Wretched – those who survive in the poverty-stricken streets, invisible to royalty, the nobility and the wealthy. As Nina sees it:
After the revolution failed, the city was carved into two parts. Half of Paris is rigid, boxtree-lined avenues haunted by the aristocracy. The other half is a murky jungle of crime and misery.
The Court of Miracles p70
The lives of the Wretched who inhabit that shadowy Paris are governed by the Miracle Court, made up of nine Guilds: the Guild of Thieves (to which Nina is pledged), the Guilds of Flesh, Assassins, Smugglers, Beggars, Dreamers, Mercenaries, Chance and Letters. The Guilds are akin to the trade and craft guilds of the mediaeval period, but they operate via criminal activities and with a complicated code of law and behaviour which members must follow. The Guilds, their Masters and Lords are brought to vivid life and there is a helpful summary of the main characters and activities of each at the front of the book, which I referred to often. Perhaps the best explanation of this underground world is this:
We all come to the Miracle Court as equals. The Court recognises no race, no religion, no marriage or tie of blood. The Wretched have only one Father, their Guild Lord; one family, their Guild; and one Law.
The Court of Miracles p134
There are some surprising twists and revelations which kept me turning the pages, leading to Nina’s understanding that ‘sometimes we must pay a terrible price to protect the things we love.’ p379
Readers who like a fast-paced story will enjoy this novel. There is also plenty to love for fans of historical fiction, fantasy, and the characters from Les Misérables in its various forms. It’s a vivid re-imagining of a dramatic time and place.
The Court of Miracles is published by Harper Voyager (an imprint of Harper Collins) in June 2020. Thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.