• Books and reading

    Whose stories can we tell? ‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

    Jacqueline Maley is an award winning journalist and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age whose work I have admired for some time. The Truth About Her is her debut novel and it’s a beauty. Literary, funny and sobering by turns, it takes familiar stories and situations and makes of them a wry, incisive commentary on modern life, motherhood and the nature of truth.

    The main character is Suzy, an almost-forty journalist whose professional and personal lives have both hit major snags. Her article exposing a fraudster, Tracey Doran, who claimed to have cancer which she cured by an organic diet and lifestyle, was published just before the young woman killed herself. Suzy experiences crippling guilt although friends and family reassure her that the suicide wasn’t her fault.

    At almost the same time her casual, secret sexual relationship with her (married) boss is exposed, so Suzy herself experiences the distress of public shaming and the online vitriol and abuse that goes with that. She quits her job and faces a bleak financial future as she tries to support her pre-school aged daughter, Maddy, as a single parent.

    Unexpectedly she is approached by Tracey’s grieving mother who asks her to write the story of her daughter’s life – on her terms. Suzy agrees and so begins a connection that is strange and fraught and laden with secrets and emotional burdens. Through it all, Suzy examines her own life, her beliefs about relationships, truth and the role of the journalist.

    This novel captures with devastating clarity the challenges and moments of joy in the life of a working single parent. Suzy has sudden flashes of what she calls ‘the parallel life’, in which her former partner, Maddy’s father, is still with them and they lead a ‘normal’, middle class life together, with enough money to pay the bills, and love and support for each other. Instead, Suzy’s sadness and confusion mean she has a barely-in-control lifestyle and constant worries about the future.

    The author paints with delicate and humorous brushstrokes the little details of a mother-daughter bond, the small moments of unadulterated love and joy along with the hefty dose of guilt that seems to accompany the parenting role:

    Often, when I inquired about the dolls, or the tiny bunnies, or the little mice, that Maddy was playing with, asking their names and how they were related to each other, Maddy would say ‘Dair mummy is at work.’ Even her toys were latchkey kids.

    The Truth About Her p64

    There were moments when I felt I knew Suzy – that we were friends, perhaps, catching up over a coffee and bemoaning the state of the world. Her take on so many aspects of our modern world – the ‘on demand’ nature of everything, from sex to television; the sad lack of noise-killing soft furnishings in restaurants; the carefully designed nature of corporate premises, just to name a few examples – felt so similar to my own, and many of her wry asides elicited knowing chuckles as I read. A strong theme in the novel is the nature of truth: in a world where people curate their own stories and images for public consumption yet give little away of their inner lives, it poses the question: can we ever truly know another person? And who has the right to tell their story?

    The relationships are beautifully drawn, including Suzy’s sometime lover, Tom, her critical mother Beverley, her loving and good humoured great-uncle Sam, Tracey’s mother Jan, and especially little Maddy – all become real people, alive on the page.

    As the story plays out and reaches its conclusion, Suzy has learnt some things about herself, about the other people in her life, and possibly also what life was for. I enjoyed this novel so much and I can’t wait to read Jacqueline Maley’s next offering.

    The Truth About Her is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Mystery & history for kids: ‘The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle’ by Jackie French

    Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.

    Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.

    A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.

    Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.

    There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)

    All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.

    Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:

    His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Beautiful prose with a dark story: ‘The Ripping Tree’ by Nikki Gemmell

    For me, this new work of fiction by best seller Nikki Gemmell (Shiver, The Bride Stripped Bare, among other titles) is a conundrum. I had been excited to read it as I enjoyed her earlier works and it is set in colonial era New South Wales – my cup of tea. It tells the story of Thomasina, raised by a free spirited father who she is mourning after his death; sent by a manipulative half brother to the colony. His plan is to marry off his vibrant, ‘untameable’ young sister to a vicar, a man she has never met.

    Fate intervenes and the ship they are travelling on goes down just off the Australian coast, with Thomasina the only survivor. She is washed up on rocks, rescued by a mysterious Aboriginal man and deposited, with care, at the doorstep of ‘Weatherbrae’, the home of the respectable Craw family.

    The family takes her in but there is no sanctuary here for Thomasina.

    She befriends Mouse, the young boy who shares her love of nature and passion for life. Mouse’s nervous, dissatisfied mother first sees the strange young castaway as a replacement for the daughter she lost to illness – and a welcome female companion. There is talk of Thomasina becoming governess for Mouse, offering her a home and refuge from an unwanted marriage and constrained life as a respectable wife.

    Very quickly, though, she realises that at the heart of the Craw family there is a dark secret. ‘Weatherbrae’ itself becomes a character, almost gothic in its claustrophobia, while the wild country outside its doors beckons to the young woman on the cusp of adulthood, who is confused and troubled by what she sees, hears and suspects. Told over the space of one week, the story becomes a tale of terrible acts committed, a family eaten away by their secrets, willing to do anything to preserve their respectability in the eyes of themselves and their community.

    As always, Nikki Gemmell’s writing is beautiful, startling in its originality and lyricism:

    ‘Isolated by the alone…’ p21
    ‘I miss my father, corrosively.’ p 9
    ‘…light slips in through a curtain gap as strong as a cat, enticing us both out.’ p11

    I loved the language, losing myself in Ms Gemmell’s beautiful prose.

    And yet…

    There were aspects of this novel that threw me out of the story, annoyingly and at times violently. I could not warm to Thomasina; while I admired her determination to remain true to herself and the way she was raised, her naivety and blindness to the risks around her irritated me. She continually acts in ways that can only increase the risk to herself and to others and while by the end of the story she realises her mistakes, it’s too late. Occasional expressions that feel wrong for the historical period also jarred: ‘I guess’ or ‘Hang on’ seem inconsistent with colonial English, even in a colony planted at the far end of the earth.

    The dark heart of the story is to do with the troubled relations between First Australians and settlers; it’s no spoiler to say that as it is obvious from the beginning that atrocities of the sort committed during the colonial era will be involved. I respect the author’s choice to write a story about difficult events like these.

    ‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it.’

    The Ripping Tree p339

    This quote from the end of the book speaks to the truth of the novel and the author’s purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. For me, the disappointment lies in my inability to care for the protagonist or most of the other characters.

    Others may disagree: I would be most interested to know if you have read The Ripping Tree and if so, what you thought.

    The Ripping Tree is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    What can be put right? ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ by Susanne Gervay

    This new historical fantasy / timeslip novel by Australian author Susanne Gervay is aimed at middle grade or younger ‘young adult'(YA) readers. I do love a good timeslip story – I still remember the pleasure I had reading Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and the way it brought Sydney’s past to life. This one moves between 2000 in Sydney, to the winter of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary- perhaps Hungary’s darkest period during WWII. The novel is inspired by the author’s own family’s experiences in Budapest during the Holocaust and I particularly love that Ms Gervay honours her family story in this way.

    I think it it always hard, when deciding how much and what to tell youngsters about such awful events, to find that balance between honesty, not minimising the horrors, and respect for the sensitivities of younger readers. In my view this novel strikes the right note, visiting some of the crimes and atrocities committed by Nazis without becoming gratuitous. As always when I read historical fiction that includes events or people about whom I previously knew little, I looked for information on Hungary during WWII, and sure enough found references to the youth underground, the children’s houses in Budapest, the fascist Arrow Cross regime and the war crimes that took place along the banks of the river Danube. There is a terrific section at the back of the book that gives the historical facts of events and people included, in bite sized offerings just right for younger readers.

    I found the present tense narrative style, and short, almost staccato sentences, didn’t work for me, but that is just a matter of taste. The main characters (Louie, Bert, Teddy, Grandma and Pa) are believable and likeable and the fantasy elements flow well. I loved the motifs throughout: music, shoes and magnolias connect the past to the present in a natural and evocative way.

    The theme of the novel is perhaps summed up well in this quote:

    ‘Terrible secrets.’ Louie catches her breath.
    “Terrible secrets,’ Naomi repeats quietly. ‘We have to know the past, otherwise everything’s just a maze. We’re buried in lies and dead ends. It’s hard to find the way out then.’

    Heroes of the Secret Underground p137

    The three children at the centre of the story travel unwillingly back to a time when terrible deeds were done that became terrible secrets. They find that many things can’t be put right, but that there are some things that can.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground will suit middle grade and younger YA readers who enjoy fantasy elements in historical stories that explore some darker moments in history, but also show how unity, friendship and courage can help restore a balance.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Remembering the heroines: ‘Legends of the Lost Lilies’ by Jackie French

    Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!

    Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.

    The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.

    I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:

    The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431

    The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.

    A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:

    They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.
    Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428

    In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More about the codebreakers of WWII: ‘The Rose Code’ by Kate Quinn

    You know that thing where you buy, say, a red Mazda and suddenly, it seems that every second car on the road is a red Mazda? For me, the same phenomena sometimes happens with books. I had just finished reading The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair, which tells the story of the women who worked in an Australian signals intelligence unit in WWII. The next book I picked up was The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, a British historical fiction best-selling author. This new release novel is also about codebreaking women – this time at Bletchley Park, the better known facility in England that did so much to turn the war in the Allies’ favour.

    I loved this book. I found it an ‘easy’ read in that it engaged me right from the start with characters that are believable and a compelling storyline, complete with a mystery that must be solved by them. The setting of both time and place – wartime Britain and the top-secret facility which employed a wide range of interesting people with astounding skills and commitment – grabbed my interest and added to my understanding of this important work and how what was done at Bletchley Park, and other units scattered throughout Allied territories, fitted together.

    The main characters – charming wealthy debutante Osla, impoverished East End girl Mab, and shy but talented Beth – are all either based on real-life historical figures or an amalgam of people who really did work at Bletchley Park. These three young women – so different and from such dramatically diverse backgrounds – illustrate how Bletchley Park recruited all kinds of people, so long as they had the skills required.

    The historical detail is terrific but always serves to progress the story. The novel also canvasses conditions of the time: casual sexual harassment and inequality experienced by women, for example; the intense concentration and high stakes of the work at Bletchley Park; the awful practices at mental health institutions then, just to name a few. There is tragedy, destruction, fear and distress and amongst it all, people had to continue with life:

    I know there’s a war on, Osla wanted to shriek. I know, I know! But something else went on at the same time war did, and that was life. It kept going right up until the moment it stopped, and this was hers, limping along like a horse suddenly gone lame…

    The Rose Code p457

    As in The Codebreakers, a strong theme in this novel is the secrecy that Bletchley Park demanded, and the sometimes awful toll it took, both during and after the war. Can you imagine having to lie to your family and closest friends about the work you did during the war? I cringe to think of young men, stopped in the street by people accusing them on being shirkers because they were not in uniform, and unable to say that their work is crucial to the war effort.

    I enjoyed The Rose Code so much that I was rather sad when I’d finished it. I’ve since watched several documentaries about Bletchley Park and I might just re-watch the movie The Imitation Game very soon! And – one day – I’d love to visit Bletchley Park museum.

    The Rose Code is published by HarperCollins Publishers in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    An unusual take on bodies and our world: ‘The Octopus and I’ by Erin Hortle

    I was drawn to this book by one of its themes – breast cancer and the effects of this disease on a person’s body and mind. Having myself had double mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, and read a lot of memoir and other non-fiction about breast cancer, it struck me as unusual to find a work of contemporary fiction about these experiences. I was right about this being an unusual novel, in more ways than I’d expected.

    The first pages plunge readers straight into the sea, where the narrator is an octopus, and the lyrical prose conjures the movements of water, seaweed, moonlight, air currents:

    I feel the surface sink and I feel I see moonlight with my skin and it is caught up in the eddies that bubble and swirl about my arms that curl and unfurl and the moonlight envelopes me caressing my arms as they caress the kelpy floor the kelpy shore.

    The Octopus and I p21 (ebook version)

    In this opening we learn that the octopus meets a human woman in the sea. From here the author introduces us to that woman, the protagonist Lucy, who is knitting… breasts.

    So, a unusual opening.

    The breasts, we discover, are prosthetic ones, because Lucy has had her natural breasts removed in surgery for breast cancer. Her psychologist suggests this knitting exercise to help Lucy work through her feelings about her new body and lack of breasts. And the link with the octopus? Well, that soon becomes clear as well.

    I can’t begin to describe the plot of this novel because it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not read it. I will say that it maintains its unusual style throughout, varying straight narrative about human characters with a more stream of consciousness style, when the author is describing experiences as they might be felt by animal characters: the octopuses, of course, but also seals and birds.

    Through these sections, she explores the impact of humans on the environment, at a micro level as well as bigger picture issues. We inhabit the bodies of animals and birds for just a moment and ‘see’ their world as they perhaps do.

    For me, the sections focussing on the human characters worked best, perhaps because of my own interest in the exploration of how people respond to cancer. This includes both the person with cancer but also, acquaintances and people close to her. Ms Hortle does this well:

    It was all avoidance and eggshells before, when all I had were scars and a bald head. And clearer still was the fact that it wasn’t so much the word remission but the fake breasts that relaxed everyone in my presence. That flick of the eyes, from my face to my chest, and I could see – almost feel – their shoulders soften, their exhale. It was if when my breasts entered the room, the elephant that was my cancer exited via the other door.

    The Octopus and I pp73-74 (ebook version)

    The novel is set in the coastal region of south-east Tasmania and I also enjoyed how the setting becomes a big part of the story.

    This novel will be of interest to people who enjoy a challenge in their reading, those who like a book to explore individual dilemmas and losses, and those who like fiction that asks questions about environmental issues we face today. The Octopus and I weaves all three into an unashamedly Australian story that will leave you thinking.

    The Octopus and I was published by Allen and Unwin in 2020.

  • Books and reading

    Domestic noir: ‘Other People’s Houses’ by Kelli Hawkins

    Kate, the protagonist of this psychological thriller set in Sydney, Australia, is not an especially attractive character – but then, in my experience, addicts rarely are. At the very least it can be difficult to live with someone who seems determined to create a train wreck of their life, which is what Kate does for much of this novel.

    Kate began her downward spiral ten years earlier, after the tragic deaths of her young son, Sascha and his father. Since then, she has (barely) held down an uninteresting job at a real estate agency, and spends her spare time drinking, eating junk food, and indulging in a new ‘hobby’ (read ‘obsession’) – attending open houses of properties for sale, and imagining the lives of the occupants.

    The reader is plunged head first into Kate’s world – her grimy, uninspiring flat, her abandoned dreams of becoming a photographer, her old car, frumpy appearance and self-neglect.

    It’s an uncomfortable space to be in, especially as we are also privy to her inner thoughts which are full of both self loathing and self justification.

    Kate fixates on one particular property, her ‘dream home’ in a wealthy suburb, and the apparently perfect family that live there. Her obsession grows deeper and more out of control as the novel progresses, resulting in tragedy and ultimately, danger.

    The cover design features a fractured image, representative of Kate’s fractured life. I empathised with the tragedy Kate had experienced and understood that her subsequent behaviour was due, in large part, to post traumatic stress disorder. Still, I found it hard to like Kate, particularly as the unfolding events are largely the consequence of her own behaviour, and because other people get caught up in the disasters.

    The strengths of this debut novel are its setting – Sydney’s northern beaches and north shore areas are portrayed well – and also the subtleties of a controlling and abusive relationship, as well as the inner workings of a damaged psyche.

    For me, the climax and resolution did not work as well.

    Other People’s Houses is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More stuff I didn’t know! ‘The Codebreakers’ by Alli Sinclair

    Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.

    People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.

    I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.

    What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.

    Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.

    Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.

    The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.

    Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.

    The Codebreakers p324

    If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.

    The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Confounding and intriguing: ‘One Last Dance’ by Emma Jane Holmes

    As I read this debut by Emma Jane Holmes, it occurred to me that perhaps everyone should read a book like this. Not necessarily this exact book, but a book that confounds and challenges a closely held belief about some aspect of the world.

    This was one such book for me. Let me explain why.

    The subtitle of one Last Dance is this:
    My Life in Mortuary Scrubs & G-Strings.

    So, this is no memoir of an ‘ordinary’ life, lived in the clear daylight. Much of the author’s working life has been spent inside, behind closed doors (a mortuary and funeral home) and also a nightclub, where she worked nights as an exotic dancer under glitter balls and low stage lighting. This is where the G-strings come in, obviously.

    I have always been uncomfortable with what I have regarded as the exploitation of women under the male gaze. I acknowledge that there are women from the adult industry who have begun to speak out about what they do and their role, defying the stereotypes of oppressed women. But my discomfort lingers and that is why I found this book to be a confounding read.

    I also found it engrossing, sometimes amusing, often touching.

    Emma Jane tells of her happy childhood on a farm in rural Australia, her loving family, and her childhood pull toward things to do with death. As a child she buried dead animals she came across on the farm and created headstones for them. She explored cemeteries. Her much loved Nan’s death and funeral propelled her into thinking about a job in the industry that had cared for her Nan after she died.

    Unusual, right?

    Her thinking about dying and death led her to regard it as a beautiful part of life. She approached her eventual work in the funeral industry as a necessary service but also an opportunity to make things better for the grieving people left behind.

    Her memoir includes so much detail about what happens when a person dies, how the deceased are collected (from hospitals, mortuaries, private homes, accident sites and aged care homes); how staff of a funeral home prepare a body for burial or cremation; the wide array of choices available to loved ones as to how to say a final goodbye (and some of the more unusual choices she’s observed); the protocols around Western-style funerals.

    Always, Emma Jane speaks of the clients (both the deceased and living) with utmost respect and recognition: of the life that person lived, of the mortality of us all, and of the sadness experienced by loved ones. I loved her accounts of talking to a deceased as she prepared them, or the little extra tributes she’d offer.

    As someone who has attended quite a few funerals in recent years, including that of a parent, I can only hope that the people looking after those loved ones had a similar approach to their role.

    Inevitably, there are stories of things that can go wrong; of black humour as a way of releasing stress; but also of the camaraderie and support that workers offer each other.

    After a difficult divorce, Emma Jane found bills and debts mounting and she looked to the adult industry, initially anyway, as a way of earning quick money to shore up her finances. Overcoming her initial hesitation she threw herself into her night time role as exotic dancer with the same enthusiasm as she did her day job. She found it to be, in a strange way, a kind of respite, an escape from the world and a way of healing.

    That is absolutely not how I would expect a woman who strips for money to describe her experience.

    Exhausting? Yes, especially after a full day’s work as a funeral director. Degrading? According to this author, never.

    Dancers are just regular – actually, extraordinary – ladies who walk down the street, shop at the grocer, stand in line with the rest of us at the chemist. Just like Death, exotic dancers are all around us. I pine for the day society stops turning their noses up at the adult industry. I wish for people to not be so quick to judge a woman just because she dresses in sequins after dark.

    One Last Dance p264-265

    While Ms Holmes eventually gave away her dancing work, her thoughts on what her dual experiences gave her summed up beautifully here:

    …Death taught me to live my best life. I came to appreciate the smallest of things, like a fresh cup of coffee and the sound of wind at night. In any moment I could cease living… Death has enriched my soul in the most beautiful way and has strengthened my soul like I never thought possible…
    But Madison {her nightclub stage name}…she’s taught me I can be pretty. I can be powerful…She’s taught me how fit I can be and that my body looks damn fine with abs. Madison has taught me that I don’t need a spouse to help me in life if I choose singledom; I can pay my own way.

    One Last Dance p279

    An oppressed, exploited woman? I don’t think so. And if I was to die tomorrow and find myself in the care of Ms Holmes in her funeral director’s suit, I would be fortunate indeed.
    If you read and enjoyed The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, I’m certain you will be equally intrigued by this insight into two different worlds.

    One Last Dance is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021. My thanks to the publishers for an opportunity to review the book.