• Books and reading

    A (sometimes confronting) personal and social history: ‘A Particular Woman’ by Ashley Dawson-Damer

    I may have only two things in common with the author of this memoir: we are both women, and have both experienced grief and trauma in our lives. I can think of a long list of ways in which we are different: family background, political views, life experiences. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that for much of the time while reading A Particular Woman I felt a certain alienation from its author – or at least, from her representation of herself. Having said that, the book is an interesting read, partly because it’s a journey through Australian life in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and up to the present time.

    I’ll start with the blurb on the back cover:
    Embracing the excitement and turbulence of sixties Sydney, Ashley is set to make her mark amid uni classes filled with ambitious young males. She imagines her future with a successful career, husband, and a house full of children.
    But life is never quite that easy.

    As a university graduate with a degree in economics (unusual for a woman at that time) Ashley travels to London and Canada, marries, and lives with her new husband as an expat in the Philippines, Singapore, Nigeria and Argentina. Later, as a single parent, she supports her young children through work as a model; eventually find love and security and a country lifestyle, before venturing into a role in the arts world as a member of various boards. Throughout the years she comes up against tragedy, hardship and profound grief.

    I admit to a certain amount of distaste for aspects of her life, or at least for the way she describes them. She recounts jobs with a large tobacco company with no apparent reflection on the evils of this industry. Similarly, her descriptions of her life as an expat in countries with high levels of poverty hint at a limited awareness of the position of relative privilege held by monied, white youngsters in countries previously colonised and often pillaged by the West. Several interactions between various friends and some local people struck me as shameful, but are recounted by the author with no apology or reflection.

    Dawson-Damer seemed to move through the world as a young, blonde, beautiful woman with an apparent line up of men ogling her and wanting to take her to bed. I found this uncomfortable reading.

    However, I decided to regard this memoir as a first hand account of the times in which she lived. Australia, as with much of the world, was undergoing a period of great change; upheavals as economies and societies transitioned from the post-war era to a modern day understanding of issues like imperialism, racism, and sexism. As an example: while completing her economics degree, it was still the custom to hold a ‘Miss Economics’ competition in the faculty! And as the author puts it:

    Work was opening up for me, and yet women in the workplace had to be careful. We knew not to catch lifts alone with certain men; there’s no denying it, in those days we were fair game.

    A Particular Woman p36

    Dawson-Damer’s life did not play out as expected. She was to endure loss and hardship and several transformations of her own life before reaching a place of acceptance and stability. I warmed to her more as she recounted these difficult times and the way she dealt with them. I could admire her hard work, tenacity and commitment to whatever challenges she set herself. Her philosophy is best summed up in these words:

    We must celebrate life. Not just our own, but the life we have with others. Most of us are going to have difficult times dished up to us. The awful times are balanced out by the good times. If we are lucky, we will survive the tragedies that might occur and go on to be stronger…Suffering mellows us. It makes us humbler and wiser. It adds steel melded with compassion to our strength.

    A Particular Woman p235

    The book is illustrated with a collection of photographs from different times in her life. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the people and places in some of these, but they were a welcome addition, helping to bring her story alive.

    A Particular Woman is a story of resilience against a backdrop of a changing Australia, and would hold plenty to interest readers who enjoy first-hand accounts of interesting lives such as
    Ashley Dawson-Damer’s.

    A Particular Woman will be published in July 2020 by Ventura Press.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Indigenous Literature Week 2020

    This week, 5 – 11 June, is Indigenous Literature Week, celebrating the richness of fiction, non fiction, poetry, memoir and biography authored by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australians. Of course, July is also NAIDOC time, during which events are usually held to mark the culture, history and achievements of indigenous Australians. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, NAIDOC events will be planned for November.

    But we can still safely honour National Indigenous Literature Week in July. To find out more about NAIDOC and Indigenous Literature Week, check out these links.

    Over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, there is a wonderful list of titles by indigenous authors in both Australia and New Zealand that could serve as a good launching point for anyone wanting to read more indigenous authors. And below are links to books that I have posted about here on my blog. I would recommend each of these books; they all have something special.

    Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
    Taboo by Kim Scott
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
    Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
    The White Girl by Tony Birch
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    SongSpirals by the Gay’Wu Group of Women

    #IndigLitWeek

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Another Australian ‘living literary treasure’: Helen Garner and her book ‘Everywhere I Look’

    I’m late to this book (published by Text Publishing in 2016) but I’m an avowed Helen Garner fan, especially her non-fiction, which Everywhere I Look is: a collection of short anecdotes, musings, essays, film and book reviews, and a catalogue of everyday incidents in the life of an author who has made observing and recording a daily habit. In the hands of someone as skilled as this, the everyday become poetic, luminous, full of beauty, humour and mystery.

    These were qualities of other books I’ve read by Garner: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, The Spare Room, and of course the classic Monkey Grip, among others. How does she do this – write about the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that make both seem familiar or, at least, understandable?

    The second-last piece in this book, titled ‘The Insults of Age’, should be a must-read for any woman approaching mid to later life (and their partners, family and friends.) Her warning to thoughtless (younger) folk who might presume to act towards older women as if they are invisible, stupid, deaf or helpless, is one of several paragraphs that made me chuckle.

    There were, as well, moments when I gasped in recognition of the situation described and at the beauty and simplicity of the prose, such as in the piece describing her mother and their relationship. ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ also made me weep a little. There is this:

    When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.

    Everywhere I Look, p94

    And these sentences, describing a photo of Helen as a baby in her mother’s arms, which capture the other side of the parent-child relationship:

    I am six months old. I am still an only child. She is carrying me in her arms. She is strong enough to bear my weight with ease. I trust her. She is my mother, and I am content to rest my head upon her breast.

    Everywhere I Look p105

    There it is – the entirety of the complicated bond between parent and child in a handful of understated or pared-back sentences. Who could say more, or more beautifully?

    A wonderful offering from a living literary treasure.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Chaos and conflict in post-war Europe: ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’ by Celia Rees

    Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.

    The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.

    I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.

    We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.

    In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.

    She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228

    There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:

    How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363

    The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.

    Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy
    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook.
    It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    New YA (young adult) novel about a very different French revolution: ‘Court of Miracles’ by Kester Grant

    The first in a new trilogy by British-Mauritian author Kester Grant, The Court of Miracles is a complex, action-filled story of what might have happened had the French Revolution failed. A large cast of characters, many of them re-imagined versions of Victor Hugo’s creations from Les Misérables, includes the protagonist Eponine (‘Nina’). At the opening of the story, Nina is a frightened child but she develops courage, quick wits and skill in order to survive in early nineteenth century Paris.

    This is no City of Lights, but a far darker and more dangerous city. Nina’s older sister Azelma is sold by their father Thenardier to the Master of Flesh (the head of a sex-slave and prostitution ring as hideous as it sounds). Before she is taken, Azlema instructs her sister:

    Be useful, be smart, and stay one step ahead of everyone. Be brave even when you’re afraid. Remember that everyone is afraid.

    The Court of Miracles p14

    What follows is a series of exploits as Nina struggles to survive, while also trying to rescue Azelma and a youngster, Cosette (‘Ettie’). Ettie is a beautiful, naive girl towards whom Nina feels a protective love. All three girls join the Wretched – those who survive in the poverty-stricken streets, invisible to royalty, the nobility and the wealthy. As Nina sees it:

    After the revolution failed, the city was carved into two parts. Half of Paris is rigid, boxtree-lined avenues haunted by the aristocracy. The other half is a murky jungle of crime and misery.

    The Court of Miracles p70

    The lives of the Wretched who inhabit that shadowy Paris are governed by the Miracle Court, made up of nine Guilds: the Guild of Thieves (to which Nina is pledged), the Guilds of Flesh, Assassins, Smugglers, Beggars, Dreamers, Mercenaries, Chance and Letters. The Guilds are akin to the trade and craft guilds of the mediaeval period, but they operate via criminal activities and with a complicated code of law and behaviour which members must follow. The Guilds, their Masters and Lords are brought to vivid life and there is a helpful summary of the main characters and activities of each at the front of the book, which I referred to often. Perhaps the best explanation of this underground world is this:

    We all come to the Miracle Court as equals. The Court recognises no race, no religion, no marriage or tie of blood. The Wretched have only one Father, their Guild Lord; one family, their Guild; and one Law.

    The Court of Miracles p134

    There are some surprising twists and revelations which kept me turning the pages, leading to Nina’s understanding that ‘sometimes we must pay a terrible price to protect the things we love.’ p379

    Readers who like a fast-paced story will enjoy this novel. There is also plenty to love for fans of historical fiction, fantasy, and the characters from Les Misérables in its various forms. It’s a vivid re-imagining of a dramatic time and place.

    The Court of Miracles is published by Harper Voyager (an imprint of Harper Collins) in June 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.