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.
The Weekend takes place, as you might expect, over a Christmas weekend during which three friends – Jude, Wendy and Adele – come together to clear out the coastal house of their friend Sylvie, who has died. They have been friends for decades and so their efforts are a final act of love for Sylvie. As the weekend progresses, though, their friendships, along with some deeply held beliefs, are tested.
The novel is told through alternating points of view interspersed with the memories of each of the three women. I loved this, because it allows the reader to get ‘into the head’ of all three main characters, and sometimes the same situation or event is recounted from alternate perspectives, giving real insight into their personalities. They are such different women, it seems miraculous that they could have become friends in the first place, let alone kept their connection over a long period of time. There is potent meaning associated with the minutiae of their lives: the food each one contributes to the weekend meals, their choice of (and attitude towards) clothing, the colour of nail polish and the like, become rich metaphors for the circumstances and approach to life of the characters. It is these differences that add tension, conflict and also laugh-out-loud moments to the narrative.
The author weaves in several contemporary issues as her characters move throughout their weekend together: homelessness amongst older single women, dwindling careers and perilous finances, attitudes of younger people towards ‘baby boomers’, dealing with dementia in failing parents, and conversely, the neglect and resentment women can experience from their adult children. There are astute observations on the physical, mental and emotional changes that occur with ageing:
It was true Wendy was further along the timeline of her life than she might prefer. This was obvious, and yet more and more she found, in place of urgency a kind of spongey spaciousness, commanding her to slow down.The Weekend p207 (ebook version)
A motif for the ageing process is Finn, Wendy’s very old dog which accompanies her. Finn is deaf, incontinent, and suffering from a form of doggy dementia, but Wendy loves him and cannot contemplate having him put down. The women all react to Finn’s presence in ways that describe their personalities. Finn is a perfect symbol of the differences between them but also of the inexorable processes involved in ageing.
The women snipe, argue and resent each other’s idiosyncrasies during their time together, as only people who have known and loved each other for many years can. Yet their deep bonds of friendship and shared experience are clear.
Charlotte Wood demonstrates her profound grasp of the power of language, with acute descriptions of the women and their inner thoughts, including this one, as Wendy imagines how lovemaking between two acquaintances might look:
Wendy imagines him and Sonia wrestling slowly on a bed; one insect carefully devouring another.The Weekend p259 (ebook version)
Wendy looked around the street at the houses, the trees. At the world: the rich, tawdry, unjust, destroyed and beautiful world.The Weekend p 355 (ebook version)
This novel made me wince in recognition of all-too-common human foibles and at the trials we can subject our friends to. As a ‘woman of a certain age’, there was also recognition of some of the less celebrated aspects of growing older. There is pathos and sadness here, but also material that gave me satisfying belly-laughs and much that had me gasping at the beauty of the language.
The Weekend was published by Allen & Unwin in 2019.
This is a sweet book, perfect for reading aloud or for children beginning independent reading. It is number three in a series, early chapter books, all about six -year-old Evie and her best friend, Pog, who is a dog. They live in a tree house right near Granny Gladys and their friends Noah and Mr Pooch, and Miss Footlights, Evie’s teacher.
Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, who lives in Australia’s capital, Canberra, the three stories in Party Perfect are about the various escapades of Evie and Pog, well suited for children of those early school years: such as the school Book Parade, creating a work for the village art show, and a special party. The text is simple yet satisfying, with plenty of repetition to allow familiarity, and important or new words highlighted to help children learn. The illustrations are witty and engaging.
This is a lovely little book to absorb youngster and encourage reading while being absorbed in the safe and loving environment of Evie and Pog’s world.
Evie and Pog: Party Perfect was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente, is for older readers, perhaps 8 and older (‘middle school’ ages). The second in a series all about the young witch Willow, her family and friends, and her adventures in the world of Starfell, where magic exists but sometimes (as with Willow in this book) goes awry. Willow’s special magic is supposed to be about finding lost things. Instead, she inadvertently makes things disappear – with perplexing and sometimes humorous results.
When Willow’s friend Nolin Sometimes is kidnapped, he writes an urgent letter to Willow pleading for her help. Willow sets off with her trusty companion kobold (a cat-like and cantakerous ‘monster’ called Oswin who spends most of his time in a carpetbag) to find and rescue Sometimes. They recruit more helpers along the way, including a strange and mysterious part boy -part raven called Sprig and a ‘cloud dragon’ called Feathering, while travelling across Starfell and finally into the dark land of Netherfell.
Willow is an entertaining protagonist, full of life and very well-meaning, but sometimes unsure of herself and her magic. The youngest in a family of accomplished witches, she nevertheless faces danger, dark magic and betrayal to find her own magical abilities and help her friend. She doesn’t always get things right, which makes her very relatable for young readers who are also working out their place in the world.
The world building is terrific, full of vivid descriptions and a fast pace. Emotions (such as grief and fear) are dealt with sensitively. The characters are a delightful collection and there is a great deal of playful use of language, especially Oswin’s utterances from within his carpetbag. The illustrations by Sarah Warburton add the perfect amount of whimsy and context.
Starfell is perfect for readers who love books such as Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, and who are perhaps not ready for the somewhat darker themes of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books. It is evidence, if that were needed, of the unfailing delight that can be had from stories of witches, wizards and magic.
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.
Thanks to Harper Collins Australia for a copy of both these books to read and review.
What a national treasure Jackie French is! One of our most popular children’s authors (think Diary of a Wombat for picture books, A Waltz for Matilda, Pennies for Hitler, or Nanberry: Black Brother White for older children, she writes everything from historical fiction for adults, to fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction. Jackie was the Australian Children’s Laureate in 2014-15 and is a member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to literature and especially youth literacy.
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is historical fiction for middle school (and older) readers. My love affair with historical fiction began around the age at which The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is aimed – ten and up – and I absorbed much of what I knew about the past at that age from my reading of fiction set in historical times. It’s one of the things that I love most about the genre – a young reader can learn so much from well researched books without it feeling like ‘learning history.’
This new book by Jackie French is an excellent example. Set in 1901, as Australia enters a new century with a brand-new national Parliament and (as Hannah’s mother hopes) ‘laws made by every man and woman in Australia’ (p92) Hannah begins her new life in northern NSW, with her little brother, mother and father. Her father is about to start work as schoolmaster at the small school in Port Harris, named for the wealthy cane grower and landowner of the district. Hannah is full of excitement and plans about what she will learn at the school, her dreams of writing poetry and later, studying at university.
Their arrival is marred by their ship becoming stranded and then wrecked in a storm just off the beach, and this sets the scene for what Hannah learns over the next few months. Things are not always as they seem on the surface, adults do not always say and do the right things, and cruelty and injustices exist everywhere. The book introduces the younger reader to important developments in Australia becoming a modern nation: Federation, women’s suffrage, and the right of all Australian children to schooling – but also to darker events such as racism, slavery, education denied to children because of their gender or skin colour.
The author’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy shows in the tiny details of everyday life in this time and place: dress, food and cooking, transport, children’s games and books, schooling and education practices, popular songs, toys, books and poems. Younger readers might well be shocked to learn of the dark practice of ‘black birding’, where men from Pacific islands were brought (either against their will or through false pretenses) to work as virtual slaves on the sugar cane farms of northeastern Australia. And Australian children today might be surprised to read about the way girls were expected to behave during this period:
A good girl put her family first. A good girl looked after younger children. A good girl would give Papa a cup of tea and a slice of Mrs Murphy’s horse-droppings fruit cake when he came back from school this afternoon, and apologise for her disobedience and promise she would never do it again.The Schoolmaster’s Daughter p132
A good girl would never keep secrets from her father, like ordering books he didn’t know about, or studying with a young man with darker skin.
Hannah is a sympathetic character and we feel for her as she puzzles out the hard truths she is confronted with. It’s also interesting to compare and contrast the challenges facing young people in the past with those experienced by their modern counterparts. Another opportunity for learning through historical fiction. I particularly liked that the author drew on her own family history as inspiration for this novel – proof of my belief that every family has stories and characters worth knowing.
I loved this book and will tuck away my copy for when my grandkids (a boy and a girl) are old enough to read it.
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was published by Harper Collins in May 2020.
Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
I always enjoy novels about families. The sticky-beak in me enjoys peering into the domestic dramas of others – a bit like glancing through a window to see the activities, furnishings and colour choices of unknown residents as you walk past.
The blurb for When Grace Went Away describes the Fairley family, around which the story revolves, as ‘functionally dysfunctional’, which really means a very normal family, in my opinion at least. We follow Grace, eldest daughter of Sarah and Doug, who her younger brother Tim describes as ‘corporate suit on a six-figure salary.’ There is envy of Grace’s corporate banking career, her job offer in London, her expensive SUV. Tim remains stuck on the hard-scrabble farm north of Adelaide with his father, longing for a different life but not knowing how to break away. His father, Doug, is bitter – about lots of things but especially about the death in an accident eight years ago of his youngest son Luke, and the way his wife left him and the farm three years later.
Faith, another sibling, is also angry that Sarah left. Never mind that her mother spent three years (unsuccessfully) trying to reach her husband emotionally so that they could grieve their son together. Or that since she moved to Adelaide, with Grace’s financial and emotional support, Sarah faced a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Faith refuses to engage with her mother or allow her two young children to see their grandmother.
So, this is a family with a whole lot going on, much of it (though not all of it) stemming from Luke’s death. Grace returns occasionally to her childhood home town of Miner’s Ridge, a small community in South Australia, and this is where the novel opens. She is trying to pluck up the courage to tell her father that in a couple of weeks she will be in London, tackling what she hopes will be an exciting new job and life. But we meet Grace throwing up in the toilet of the local pub after having a few too many wines while waiting for her perennially late brother Tim to join her. This visit ‘home’ does not start well and sets the tone for the rest of the family interactions.
She meets Aaron on this trip, and he forms the basis of an important romantic thread and the catalyst which propels Grace to make some hard decisions – about her life, her job, her home, family and other relationships. Other characters fill out the small town atmosphere of Miner’s Ridge (where everyone knows everyone’s business) and the equally enmeshed though more glamorous corporate world of London. They are brought to vivid life and very recognisable – especially if you have spent any time in either of those types of settings.
Grace’s predicament is also recognisable – a very common one in the complicated world of today – torn between career and family, opportunity and duty.
Grace is a sympathetic character but I found myself relating more to Sarah, her mother – perhaps because some of my own experiences are more akin to hers and we are closer in age. I was especially moved by the portrayal of the decline and death of Sarah’s elderly mum, her grief as she cleared out her mother’s room in the nursing home, her sadness that:
All that was left of Mum were the memories – and a suitcase and a cardboard box, both sitting in the back of Grace’s SUV. How sad was that? All that was left of her life fit into the back of my daughter’s car.When Grace Went Away p104
I well remember that feeling from when my father passed away.
For me this is one of the strengths of the novel: exploring experiences and emotions common to many, so that we, along with the characters, reflect on what is important to us. Grace’s brother Tim, sums this up well:
I’ve learned that we all need to work out who, and what, are truly important in our lives. Then we need to look after what we have, and go all out for what we want. Doesn’t mean we’ll always get it…but at least we will have tried.When Grace went Away p328
When Grace Went Away is published 2020 by HQ Fiction. Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
The opening of this book puts the reader slap bang into the intrigue and action. There is a brief prologue where we are given a hint of the mystery at the centre of the novel: who is Amira’s family? To whom does she owe loyalty? Then we are thrust into the action: an assassination being carried out by the protagonist, Amira. She is very good at her work. But here is another puzzle: why is she killing a wealthy European businessman in his garden greenhouse?
We are quickly introduced to the reason. Amira, adopted as an infant to parents who lead the Authenticity Movement, has been raised to be one of the Movement’s Warriors, who carry out assassinations of people considered to be ‘infected.’ It becomes clear that what this means is that they are people who have benefited from the capitalist system, accumulating huge wealth, power and advantage. The Movement aims to instigate a global revolution against the capitalist system.
Here is the catch, and the conflict at the heart of the novel – Amira is beginning to doubt that the methods used by the Movement are justified by its lofty goals. She also starts looking for clues about her birth family. By questioning the Movement and her place in it, she puts herself and others in danger.
I don’t read much in the thriller genre, but I do enjoy well written crime fiction, especially if there is an intelligent female protagonist and a strong emphasis on character. Cutting the Cord has both, and the narrative is told through tight, snappy sentences and some evocative descriptive language. The tension escalates as all the threads of Amira’s complicated life meet in a pulse raising climax.
I would have liked more explanation of the Authenticity Movement. It read to me as a type of closed quasi-religious cult in which members are brainwashed and cowed by the powerful leader, Amira’s adoptive father. There were aspects that were familiar from stories of other cults – alternating abuse and favoritism, violence and love welded together in powerful ways. I think I needed to see more about where the Movement’s manifesto came from and the reasons why it’s leader chose acts of terrorism to achieve his aims. This may have helped me to suspend disbelief more easily.
What I did enjoy was Amira’s journey, as she moves towards discovering who she really is, in all ways:
She closes her eyes. Cramped tears threaten to tumble. Thoughts scramble around in her mind. She is coming to understand that: slaves have brains and there is so much more to the world than she has been taught. But how can she move on from the past when it stains the present?Cutting the Cord p171
This is a moment familiar to most of us – when we begin to peek through the curtains of childhood or our upbringing to see the wide world outside, and begin to wonder about what we think we know and what we have yet to understand. This is exactly the challenge Amira faces in Cutting the Cord – but with much higher stakes.
Cutting the Cord is the debut novel by Natasha Molt and published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) in May 2020.
Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
In her author’s note, Sonya Bates admits that she has a ‘fascination with secrets and mysteries’ and that this led her to write a very different novel than the one she’d planned to write. I, for one, am pleased she did, as I enjoy a tale with some secrets and twists. I read this book in record time, and would describe it as a ‘page turner’, but it is also a book that prompted me to think about some of the issues covered in its pages.
To begin with, the question ‘How well can we really know another person, even a family member?’
Juliet, the protagonist in An Inheritance of Secrets, must confront this question after the murder of her beloved grandparents, who emigrated to Australia after WWII. They were German, and Juliet knows that her Opa served in the German army. As events unfold after his death, Juliet realises that there were things she didn’t know about her grandparents’ lives before they came to Australia. She is caught up in a web of intrigue and danger, and urgently needs to find out more about what her grandfather may have been involved in during his youth. She is torn: does she really want to discover the truth if it means knowing that her Opa was not always the kind, loving man she’d believed him to be?
There have been many real-life cases, in Australia and around the world, where later generations are confronted with unpleasant truths about beloved parents or grandparents – things they would rather not know. So we feel for Juliet, faced with this awful dilemma. Danger stalks her and she must find answers: who killed her grandparents and why? The tension ratchets as Juliet comes closer to the truth, making this novel an engrossing read.
Along with the mystery, there are interesting characters who interact in believable ways: Juliet’s estranged sister Lily, her current boyfriend Jason, her old school friend Ellis, all of whom play a part in the drama. Juliet’s journey of discovery is about more than her grandparents – she learns about her family, her relationships, and about herself.
There was so much I didn’t know about my grandparents. I’d known them only in their later years, seen them from the self-centred perspective of a child. Inside that letter were two people I’d never known, who I wanted to know, to bring those people to life in my memories, make my grandparents complete, something I should have done a long time ago.Inheritance of Secrets p125
Who hasn’t had that realisation as an adult – that we need to move beyond the limited understandings of childhood, before we can appreciate our parents or grandparents, with flaws and all, as fully formed people who made choices in life? And don’t we all have to live with the consequences of our choices?
This novel is a textured, absorbing thriller that ticked many boxes for me: a mystery from wartime Europe, a modern story line with a believable, sympathetic heroine, fast paced action and a satisfying emotional arc. A bonus: much of the modern day action takes place in Adelaide and Victor Harbour in South Australia, settings not often seen in novels but which work wonderfully in this story.
An Inheritance of Secrets is published by Harper Collins, April 2020.
Thanks to the publisher for an advance copy to read and review.
I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.
Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.
It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.
Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.
In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.
In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).
While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.The Women’s Pages p363
Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!
As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.
The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.
The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.
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 sayThe Yield pp306&2
…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.
This is reminiscent of the reflections about time made by the Gay’wu Group of Women in their beautiful book Song Spirals. It prompted me to think again about the fascinating differences across human cultures, as well as the similarities.
The Yield was published by Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House Aust) in 2019. It is an accessible story with beautiful language and imagery. It asks some deep questions such as: is Australia mature enough to embrace all aspects of its history, both ancient and more recent?
The Yield is a worthy contender for the 2020 Stella Prize.
#2020StellaPrize #AussieAuthor20 #readthestella
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.