• 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.

  • 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

    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

    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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fact & fiction merge: ‘The Royal Correspondent’ by Alexandra Joel

    I first encountered the work of Sydney based writer Alexandra Joel when I read her work of narrative non-fiction Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. This book was a good example of how truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. In her new novel, The Royal Correspondent, fiction is blended with real people and events from Australia and England in the early 1960’s.

    The author is the daughter of Sir Asher Joel, who was born in the Sydney suburb of Enmore, and went on to a long and esteemed career in journalism and the press. So it is not surprising that much of the action of this novel takes place in the rough and ready (and male dominated) world of daily newspapers.

    Blaise Hill is a young woman from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, as Enmore was regarded in the sixties, but with a passionate desire to be a journalist. She battles the entrenched sexism and outright hostility of the many men she encounters who believe that a woman’s place is at home and certainly not at a typewriter.

    Much to her surprise and delight, she is sent to London to cover the wedding of Princess Margaret to photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and then the opportunity to become the newspaper’s permanent royal correspondent lands in her lap.

    Of course, it is not all easy sailing for Blaise. She has a secret that she cannot share with anyone. And there are two men in her life: one with secrets of his own, and one who appears to be kind, attentive, and very much in love with her. Eventually, she has to decide who to trust.

    Blaise finds, to her horror, that she has somehow become entangled in a dangerous set of circumstances – and that rather than reporting on the stories, she has herself become one.

    The novel’s settings (both Sydney and London) are vividly portrayed: the poverty of her childhood, with the scourge of a polio outbreak and the struggle to make ends meet, is contrasted with the glamour and excitement of the ‘swinging sixties’ in London and the pomp and ceremony of Royal events.

    Blaise is a relatable character: her deep love for her family and her determination to succeed in her career are set against her uncertainty in the new situations she must confront. I also liked that she has a bit of a temper which occasionally lands her in trouble!

    What I enjoyed most about The Royal Correspondent was the seamless way in which real-life characters and events from this time are dropped into the narrative. I had fun spotting the personalities and scandals that filled newspapers and magazines in the decade of my childhood.

    It’s also a good reminder, if one were needed, of the barriers that prevented the full participation of women in the workplace and society: unequal pay; the sequestering by men of the important and interesting jobs (leaving most female journalists working on the ‘women’s pages’ of publications); the requirement that women resign from public sector jobs once they married; male-only clubs; a bar against women entering public bars; just to name a few.

    I thought The Royal Correspondent was, in parts, a little reminiscent of a twentieth-century Pride and Prejudice. However, I enjoyed the characters and setting, and the intrigue kept my interest throughout. There is an informative Author’s Note (which I always love to read, especially in novels with an historical setting) which pinpoints the inspiration for many of the novel’s component parts. Overall, The Royal Correspondent is a satisfying read.

    The Royal Correspondent is published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Gentle story of loss & resilience: ‘Penguin Bloom: Young Readers’ Edition’ by Chris Kuntz

    If you have been to an Australian cinema this year you will have at least seen the posters advertising the movie Penguin Bloom. It’s based on the real-life story of the Bloom family in Sydney: Sam and her husband Cameron, who with their three young sons faced tragedy head-on when Sam was injured in an accident whilst on a family holiday in Thailand.

    She went from being an active young mum who loved surfing and running on their nearby beach, to a broken woman confined to a wheelchair. She was depressed, traumatised – and angry, too. She struggled with the impact this huge change had on her young family and despaired of ever feeling like a ‘real mum’ again.

    When an injured baby magpie is introduced to the family, this little bird transforms their lives. ‘Penguin’ brings hope, purpose and companionship to Sam and the boys and shows Sam a path back from despair.

    Cameron captured the story of Penguin’s time with the family on camera and Instagram and it was published in Sam’s 2016 memoir of the experience. Now a feature film starring Naomi Watts, it’s been a hit at the cinemas this summer. Perhaps its popularity reflects the need we have just now for stories of hope and overcoming hardships.

    The version of the story published for young readers is based on the screenplay and told from the point of view of Noah, one of the three boys. It expresses the confusion and sadness and yes, guilt, that children can experience when tragedy strikes. It doesn’t shirk from the anger and stress that bubbles within the family but is essentially a story of love and hope.

    Penguin Bloom Young Readers’ Edition is a gentle way to introduce the concepts of loss and resilience to youngsters, from a child’s point of view. It will be particularly enjoyed by children who love nature, wildlife and caring for animals.

    Penguin Bloom Young Readers’ Edition was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    True crime finally solved: ‘Stalking Claremont’ by Bret Christian

    A genre that I enjoy (but for some reason tend to regard as a guilty pleasure) is true crime, particularly the police procedural type of non-fiction. I enjoy the ‘behind the scenes’ feeling when learning of the ins and outs of a major crime investigation. Stalking Claremont is just such a book. The author, Bret Christian, worked as a newspaper journalist and publisher in the areas of Perth in which the Claremont serial killer operated, so the events of 1996-1997, and the subsequent drawn out investigation, would have been of great interest to him.

    In 1996 eighteen year old Sarah Spiers disappeared outside a Claremont nightclub and was never seen again. Four months later, Jane Rimmer disappeared from the same area. Her body was later found in bushland. In 1997 a third young woman, Ciara Glennon, was murdered. A manhunt ensued and the district went from being Perth’s party-central to living in fear that the killer would strike again.

    Christian describes the ups and downs of what became Australia’s longest and most expensive investigation. Police failed to make an arrest, until forensic evidence pointed to Bradley Edwards and linked him with at least two of several other attacks that had occurred in the Claremont area. He was found guilty of two of the murders in September 2020 – more than two decades after Sarah’s disappearance.

    The book outlines the missteps that were made: valuable clues overlooked; a tunnel-vision focus on three men as ‘persons of interest’ in spite of no physical evidence linking any of them to the crimes, resulting in great distress and trauma to the men and their families; a failure to link earlier attacks on other young women with the later murders; and careless record keeping which resulted in earlier mistakes being copied over and thus distorting information for later investigative teams to work with.

    Once they discovered the ongoing errors, a startling notion hit the two men, What if these mistakes meant a vital piece of forensic evidence had been missed? One that cracked the case?
    That brought excitement, but also trepidation. Big police forces are no different from any other political beast, bureaucracies where reputations are jealously protected and promotions coveted.

    Stalking Claremont p224-225

    However, Christian does give credit where it’s due. His admiration for the work of specialist forensic and cold case review investigators is clear, as is his regard for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Hall, who presided over the judge-only trial, parts of which were held during Covid-imposed restrictions. The killer was found because of the incredibly detailed work of the forensic experts and long hours, days, months and years of grunt work by detectives assigned to the case. Edwards may well have thought, after a decade or so had passed, that he had ‘got away with’ his crimes, so I confess I had a thrill to think of how he must have felt when he was finally arrested.

    Several things stood out for me in this book. In two of the cases under investigation, people admitted hearing a woman’s blood-curdling and distressed screams in the middle of the night – and did nothing! I’m amazed and horrified that anyone could hear unexplained screams and not, at the very least, pick up the phone to report their concerns to police.

    Also of note is the role that local businesses, local and state governments can play in improving safety and security for residents and patrons. For example, if improvements in public transport, taxi services, CCTV cameras and street lighting had been made earlier, some of the young women may still be alive. Such prosaic measures don’t hold the same allure as forensics or crime scene investigators – but surely it’s better to prevent terrible crimes being committed in the first place?

    Stalking Claremont is an engrossing examination of a high profile and complex campaign to catch and convict a serial killer. Readers who enjoy true crime and police stories will find it is a detailed examination of a case that absorbed so much police time, resources, public attention and of course, caused enormous grief and trauma for all involved.

    Stalking Claremont is published by HarperCollins Australia in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Long overdue – the real story of the Hawkesbury-Nepean: ‘People of the River – Lost Worlds of Early Australia’ by Grace Karskens

    I was born and grew up in the Hawkesbury region and returned to live there and in the nearby Blue Mountains in my thirties. I have at least four ancestors who arrived in the Hawkesbury and Nepean region after serving their sentences, to take up land as settlers. Despite this, and despite attending high school in Richmond, not far from the river itself, I had learnt little of the early history of the region – which is rather sad, when you consider that it was an area rich in stories of the people who lived here before and after British colonisation.

    In People of the River, historian and author Grace Karskens brings those stories to life, digging down into layers of history, back to what she calls ‘deep time’, tracing the ways in which the First People of the river and its surrounds lived before the English arrived, and the subsequent interactions between and among Aboriginal and settler communities.

    This is no lightweight or dry history text. It’s an incredibly comprehensive account, though the impeccable research is always conveyed with a deft touch. The book includes chapters about the Hawkesbury-Nepean’s ancient geology, geography, earliest human habitation, the cultural and spiritual lives of its people (both Dharug and settler), the economic, political and social contexts of the colonial era, as well as the tragedies endured by the First Peoples, such as disease, family and community dislocation, child stealing, and violence.

    However, we also learn of the many ways in which the First Nations communities adapted to and survived British colonisation and the many, sometimes surprising, ways in which they interacted with settlers. Referring to artefacts discovered, some held in museum collections, she writes:

    These are the poignant ‘small things forgotten’, the scattered, silent, yet insistent record of a vast and extraordinary human experience: the enforced creation of new worlds and lives, woven from the old. Despite the terror and violence, the determined campaigns, the loss of so many of their kin, the disruption to their food sources and their social and sacred places, the people of Dyarubbin survived, and remained in their Country.

    People of the River p175

    Ms Karskens is a gifted writer and her histories are engaging, lyrical and deeply moving – if you have read her earlier work, The Colony, about the history of the Sydney region, I am sure you will agree.

    Along with her research for this book, the author has also been involved in a project with Dharug knowledge holders and fellow historians, that aims at re-discovering and reinstating the Dharug place names of the region. I am so glad to learn that the town I lived in for ten years, Richmond, has a much older name: Marrengorra.

    I struggle to keep this post about People of the River brief – there is so much to enthuse about and so many amazing stories here. If you, like me, enjoy learning more about the real history of our country, this is a must-read. I lingered over it for several months – it’s a hefty book at 525 pages (not including appendices) but such a joy. I finished it with a satisfying sense that I now have a better understanding of the corner of Australia that has been so personally meaningful to me.

    People of the River was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

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

    An absolute delight: ‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell

    It was fitting that my final book review in 2020 is for a book whose publication I’ve anticipated for over a year, since I heard Kate Forsyth speak about her 4x Great-Grandmother Charlotte at a women’s literary festival in 2019. A little later, I was lucky enough to see a copy of Charlotte’s book at a Rare Book Week event at the State Library of NSW.

    I was so keen I pre-ordered a copy and it was sitting on my shelf for a bit, while I got through some other books on my to-be-read pile.

    The story of Charlotte Waring Atkinson had attracted me for several reasons. Firstly, there was a literary mystery: who was the author of the very first children’s book published in Australia? – until 1981 when Charlotte was identified as the author.

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to me personally, I related to the story of this woman who arrived in New South Wales in the 1820’s, and to the search by the authors (sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell) for information about her origins and her life.

    Her arrival in Australia occurred at around the same time as that of several of my ancestors, some of whom I have been researching and writing about. Charlotte’s first husband originally hailed from the English county of Kent, from where my great-grandfather (many times over) originated.

    Later in life, Charlotte and her daughter lived for a time at Kurrajong, very close to where I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Bilpin, just a few kilometres along the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains.

    Also, Charlotte lived so many of the experiences of women in the nineteenth century: an extraordinary and dangerous journey across the seas to an unknown land; pregnancy and childbirth at a time when both of these meant death for so many women; violence at the hands of men; great love and happiness, at least for a time; love for and dedication to her children; horrifying inequities under the law including in financial and family matters.

    In tracing Charlotte’s story, the authors bring to life these aspects of women’s lives – some of which have, thankfully, changed; while others appear remarkably similar today.

    This book is more than a biography of an accomplished colonial writer, artist, naturalist. It is also a memoir of the authors’ own journeys of discovery – about themselves, their families, their connections to the past. Here is a beautiful quote which perfectly expresses how I feel about the links between the past and present:

    On her wrist, my mother wears the charm bracelet that has been handed down to the women of my family for six generations. The golden links of its chain, hung with tiny tinkling charms, seems to me like a metaphor for the miraculous spiral of our DNA, the coiling ladder that connects us all, both to our far-distant ancestors and to our unborn descendants.

    Searching for Charlotte p274

    I appreciated that the authors did not shrink from acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of their ancestors’ lives, including the fact that by settling on NSW land, they participated in the dispossession of the First Nations peoples who lived there. I, too, have to accept that about my own ancestors, many of whom were recipients of ‘land grants’ made to them by a colonial system that had no right to do so.

    Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman, although she was probably not regarded as such by her contemporaries. And here again I resonate with her story, because my exploration of my forebears comes from the impulse to uncover the extraordinary aspects of ordinary lives:

    Charlotte Waring Atkinson was just an ordinary woman. She loved a man and gave birth to children, then tried her best to raise them and care for them, even though she was ground down by grief and harmed in both body and spirit by cruelty and violence. She fought for her children, she found her voice, and she stood up and spoke out at a time when many women were kept mute.

    Searching for Charlotte p275

    This is a delightful book, proof indeed that the descendents of one of Australia’s first female authors have ‘writing in their blood.’ If you are interested in colonial Australian history, women’s history, literary, legal, scientific and educational history….get your hands on a copy! I promise you will not be disappointed.

    Searching for Charlotte was published by NLA Publishing in 2020