• Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cycles of tragedy and hope: ‘Daughter of the River Country’ by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams

    Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.

    This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.

    Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.

    Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.

    Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.

    I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.

    Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
    My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Some things change (and some definitely remain the same!) ‘Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia’ by Matt Murphy

    Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.

    Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.

    Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.

    We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.

    Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:

    A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229

    Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?

    Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A romp through colonial Sydney: ‘Flash Jim’ by Kel Richards

    Did you know that Australian expressions such as yarn, snitch, swag or cove originated from Flash cant, the jargon and coded language spoken by criminals in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and transported along with convicts to the Australian colonies? And that the very first dictionary written in Australia was written by a convict in an effort to curry favour with authorities – a vocabulary of the Flash language written by an Englishman by the name of James Hardy Vaux.

    Kel Richards’ biography of Vaux is based in part on the convict’s own memoirs, though as Richards points out, Vaux’s account of his actions needs to be treated with caution. He was a nineteenth century version of Peter Foster, an complete fraudster and convincing con-man, who skipped his way through English and Australian society with a fast and slick turn of the tongue and an apparent inability to stick at an honest job for more than a few weeks.

    Born into a respectable middle class family, Vaux declined opportunities available to him that were not offered to people from less comfortable beginnings, preferring instead to swindle, rob, steal, pickpocket and scam his way to an income. He seems to have been a clever man with very little judgement and a breathtaking level of recklessness, and it must be said, very good luck that frequently enabled him to avoid capture or, when he was arrested, got him acquitted on some legal technicality or other.

    I thoroughly disapproved of his criminal activities but I admit to being amused that the methods Vaux employed to hoodwink people in authority (employers, magistrates, etc) were the very aspects of ‘respectable society’ so sacred to those authorities: letters of recommendation from one acquaintance to another, for example; or the ability to present himself well and speak in a cultured and respectful manner. It was also ironic that at times, he got taken in by the very same sorts of scams he himself loved to perform on others.

    Good luck eventually runs out and so Vaux was finally found guilty of one of his many crimes and transported to NSW on a convict ship. Here his education again served him well; being one of a small group of convicts who could read and write enabled him to wheedle his way into easier jobs such as clerical or transcription work – much preferable to assignment as a farm labourer or on the iron gangs, especially for someone who seemed to have an allergic reaction to anything looking like physical work.

    I was astonished that he served not one, but two sentences of transportation – after arriving back in England after his first sentence expired, (in itself an unusual achievement) he returned straight away to his life of crime, resulting in a second period of transportation to the colony. This was clearly a man who did not learn from past mistakes!

    His example also serves to show that the horrific sentencing laws of Georgian and Victorian England were no deterrent to crime: people either stole because of extreme poverty and desperation, or because they preferred it to legal employment. Either way, the threat of a death sentence or of transportation to the far side of the world, did not stop the rising tide of crime in England.

    It was on his second stint in Australia that Vaux began work on his dictionary of Flash slang. Serving time in the convict settlement of Newcastle (reserved for re-offenders like Vaux) he recorded the huge array of words and expressions used by criminals, that so bewildered and frustrated magistrates and colonial authorities. Vaux planned to present his helpful guide to the Commandant of the Newcastle convict station. It was eventually published in London in 1819.

    Richards has included the dictionary as an appendix in his account of it’s author’s life, and it makes for terrific reading. There are many words recognisable today; though some have expanded or changed in meaning or use, many are used exactly as they were in Vaux’s world. If, for example, I said ‘He looks like he’s about to croak’, I suspect you’d know what I meant. ‘Can I cadge $10 from you?’ means just the same as it did in 1800, except with different currency.

    There are some expressions that have faded into the past and are as inexplicable to me as they must have been to a magistrate in Vaux’s time. What, for example, would ‘I’ll get the vardo and you can tow the titter out so she can be unthimbled’ mean?

    Some of the entries are hilarious, some quite grim, but they all give the feeling of the world in which they were created and used. It was a hard, unforgiving time for many and their language is imbued with sly humour and an anti-authoritarian slant that arguably still underpins aspects of modern day Australian culture.

    Flash Jim is a romp through the world of nineteenth century crime, criminals and their culture. Readers who enjoy language and it’s origins, and history brought to life, will find it an engrossing read.

    Flash Jim is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • 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.