• Books and reading

    What price beauty? ‘The Beauties’ by Lauren Chater

    The ‘beauties’ in the title of this new historical fiction by Australian author Lauren Chater, were elegant women of the court of Charles II of England. Chosen by the Duchess of York for their looks, grace and, of course, position in the pecking order of Restoration-era nobility, the ‘Windsor Beauties’ portraits adorned palace walls and now hang in Hampton Court.

    Several characters’ stories weave across each other in this narrative.

    Emilia is a young wife whose husband’s lands and title have been stripped from the family due to her brother-in-law choosing the ‘wrong’ side to support during the English Civil Wars. Seeking the King’s favour in order to have the family’s position reinstated, she comes to the uncomfortable realisation that the surest way is to use her beauty – by striking a bargain with the King himself, agreeing to become his mistress in return for his forgiveness for her husband’s family.

    First, though, her portrait will be painted to join the other Windsor Beauties.

    Henry is the ambitious artist who sees this commission as a way to a secure future and favour from the royal family.

    In the process of painting Emilia’s portrait, Henry realises that the road to fame is not straightforward, especially as his elusive and troubled sitter tries to delay the completion of his project for as long as she possibly can.

    Anne is a young lady-in-waiting to the Princess Anne, the King’s niece (and later Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch.) She experiences the rivalry, malicious gossip and betrayal that is the royal court. She, too, has her portrait painted – in different circumstances and with very different results than Emilia – and it changes the trajectory of her life.

    The Beauties encompasses many of the tumultuous events of mid-seventeenth century England: the Civil Wars that tore communities and families apart; the frippery and indulgence of Charles II and his court; the reinvigoration of London’s theatre scene after the oppression of the Republic and Puritans; the constraints of the roles assigned to women; the devastation and ugliness of the dreaded plague that tore mercilessly through homes and towns.

    Towards the end of the novel, Anne expresses one of its strongest themes, when she muses:

    I was a duchess now, not a frightened lady-in-waiting. Not a girl, waiting for her life to begin. What if I could do that for others? Help them find their power, the courage to go on? I thought about the women I knew – mothers, sisters, daughters, mistresses, wives. Did they know how strong they were, that those roles, assigned by society, failed to define them? Did they ever see themselves in all their wonderful complexity? Did anyone ever hold up a mirror to show them how well they were doing, how far they’d come, how much they’d grown?…Why shouldn’t women see themselves as they truly were – strong, powerful, intelligent? Instead of gazing outwards, I wanted them to look within, identifying the unique skills and accomplishments that would allow them to endure the trials every woman must face.

    The Beauties eBook loc 350 of 384

    The Beauties is published by Simon & Schuster in April 2024.

    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an advanced reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Page turner with a message: ‘Reputation’ by Sarah Vaughan

    British author Sarah Vaughan made a splash with her 2018 novel Anatomy of a Scandal, in which she explored the often-fraught issue of consent in sexual encounters. Later adapted into a TV series, it was a story that somehow reflected and tapped into some of the preoccupations of the time, especially in the worlds of high-profile people and the law.

    Reputation is a worthy successor. It is a cleverly constructed story of a divorced female UK MP, her teenage daughter, mistakes and spur-of-the-moment decisions sorely regretted. The novel opens with a body at the base of a staircase, so it’s not a plot spoiler to say that someone dies.

    What makes it a page turner is that we need to know just how and why this character met their end. It’s clever because the reader is never quite sure where the fault lies: the precise sequence of events that led to this moment. The last third or so of the book is taken up with the trial, in which the defence team lays out all the reasons why the accused is innocent of murder, and the Crown makes the opposite argument.

    The author has embedded timely and topical issues of online and physical bullying (at all ages), hate speech and trolling, and especially, the sexualised invective to which high profile women are subjected. These are all too familiar: readers in Australia will recall the hideous and gendered abuse our first female PM Julias Gillard was subjected to during her time in office – and that speech (often referred to as ‘the misogyny speech‘) which went viral.

    Emma, the main character, faces the usual quandaries of being a working single parent with a teenager who is experiencing her own difficulties. In her role as an MP, Emma speaks out strongly against so-called ‘revenge porn’ – which wins her an army of trollers, death threats and stalking. This is all horribly recognisable – down to Emma holding her house keys splayed between her fingers when walking alone at night, ready to employ as a weapon should she need it. Hands up if you do the same. It was something taught at a self defence for women class I did many years ago – so yes, believable.

    The court room drama forensically examines the various stories, interpretations and impressions by those involved – showing that what we read, hear, even see with our own eyes is not necessarily either the truth, or the whole truth.

    The novel is a psychological thriller, yes; but it delves into issues that perhaps many would prefer to avoid thinking about. As Emma considers the dangers faced by public figures, especially women in male-dominated environments, she feels gratitude for those who worked alongside her without the public profile:

    I think of their loyalty in working for me despite regularly having contempt hurled down the phone at them; of their steadfastness despite knowing that every time they open a parcel, they risk being exposed to something unpleasant or toxic. I think of the Simon Baxters we’ve known. Men who fizz with anger, their aggression only just reined in, the potential for them to erupt, for a situation that appears civil to escalate in a flash, always present.

    I accepted that danger was part of the job, but when did I internalise this belief? When did I accept these precautions as normal? And why did I believe my staff should accept this, too?

    Reputation p405

    I could not put this book down until I’d finished it. It’s engrossing, compelling and entirely believable.

    Reputation is published by Simon & Schuster in 2022.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Sorrowful truths: ‘Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray’ by Anita Heiss

    The first thing I love about this new novel by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss is the title. Translating to ‘River of Dreams’ in English, it is in the Wiradjuri language, which is also sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. What a privilege, to be given an opportunity to understand and experience words and phrases in the language of First Nations people.

    The story starts with the drama and tragedy of the devastating 1852 Great Flood of the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in Gundagai, NSW. There are shocking losses of human and lives, property and livestock despite the heroic efforts of several men from the Aboriginal camp near the river, including Yarri, the father of the main character, Wagadhaany. She works for the Bailey family, a local White family. Yarri rescues his daughter and the two Bailey men who survived the flood, from their precarious perch on the roof of the house.

    The river is a central theme of the novel, a presence both benevolent and destructive. It gives life and just as easily takes it away. The flood is important, as a real historical event that highlights the skill and courage of the Aboriginal rescuers, and also as a metaphor:

    …as the canoe floats with effort to the shore, Yarri thinks about the two men there together; a naked White man and a barely clothed Black man are nothing but two men stuck in the middle of a devastating flood… A life is a life, he says over and over in his mind, knowing that the weather, the rain, the river don’t care what colour anyone is right now, and that in this moment they are equal. Yarri takes a deep breath and works his arms harder than he ever has, willing them both to bring both men to shore, and wishing they were both equals every day.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p33

    Louisa is the other main character: a young Quaker woman who has been recently widowed in the flood, she meets and marries James, the eldest of the two surviving Baileys. Her Quaker beliefs lead her to wish for an equal relationship with the original people of the land, and she endeavours to achieve this with Wagadhaany.

    So much gets in the way of a genuine friendship. Louisa is a good example of how well intentioned White people can still end up using relationships with First Nations people for their own purposes, while still desiring to act in a benevolent manner. The most obvious way that Louisa does this is to insist that Wagadhaany accompany the Baileys when they move to Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany is devastated to lose connection with her mayagan, her family and the Country on which she was born and raised.

    This allows the reader to try to understand something of the grief and loss experienced by First Nations people since colonisation:

    How can she explain to Louisa, whose family chose to live on other people’s land, that she feels her sense of identity has been robbed, that everything that makes her Wagadhaany, the dancer, has been taken from her?

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p162

    Louisa is in many ways a sympathetic character, and in making her so, the author goes beyond the stomach-turning racism and cruelty perpetrated by Whites against First Nations people in this country, to explore some of the other ways in which racism manifests: the more subtle, systemic and insidious ways in which unequal power and racist assumptions play out.

    Wagadhaany is an intelligent young woman, trying to assert her self and make sense of a world which has changed irrevocably for her people.

    The irony is that, despite all her advantages and relative wealth, by the end of the novel Louisa is not necessarily the happier of the two women. Both characters face profound grief and loss. Wagadhaany’s connection to Country and kin help her to travel through these difficult events and by the end of the novel, there is space for hope.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a novel that uses real historic events to paint a picture of a colonial world which many Australians would prefer to either forget or romanticise. It’s a novel that made me think – always a good thing.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray was published by Simon & Schuster in 2021.

  • Books and reading

    Chilling glimpse into a possible future: ‘The Mother Fault’ by Kate Mildenhall

    Mim is on the run. Her husband Ben is missing from his workplace, a gold mining project on an Indonesian island. The Department assigns a ‘liaison team’ to the family and they take the passports of Mim and her two young children, Essie and Sam. The Department, she has come to realise, is not a benevolent body but the principal instrument of a controlling, all-powerful oppressive government. Mim is right to be afraid.

    So she takes the kids, goes offline and flees – first back to her family home, then to the place of her childhood seaside holidays. With high school sweetheart Nick, she and the kids embark on a long drive north; then out to sea on Nick’s boat to Indonesia, hoping to find her husband Ben. All the while trying to avoid detection by The Department. Oh, and to be a good mother to her kids.

    The Mother Fault is set in the very near future, in an Australia where Government tentacles reach everywhere, assisted by technology that feels very familiar (think Siri or Google Home), but includes microchipping babies at birth so that they are literally never ‘off line’.

    Mim’s dash towards freedom and her husband invites new dangers and risk for herself and everyone she loves. At the novel’s heart is Mim’s struggle to know if she’s doing the right thing by her family. Is she careful enough, protective enough, loving enough? An age-old anxiety, this one; surely recognisable to most mothers. As is its corresponding struggle: to return to a sense of self, of personhood, amidst the layers of responsibility and distractions that come with busy modern lives.

    She shouldn’t leave them out there on their own, but see if she fucking cares. Little shits, not listening, making fun.
    ‘Mum!’ A shriek from outside and her legs don’t even hesitate, already making deals with fate. Sorry sorry sorry stuck in her throat as she races out through the gate, sees them both out of the water and a long trickle of watery blood down Sammy’s shin, a small rupture of flesh near the knee.
    ‘It got caught on the brick climbing out,’ Essie says, glaring at her. ‘You shouldn’t have left us alone.’
    …and it doesn’t even hurt, her daughter’s admonishment, because it’s just the way it is.
    She’ll never get it right.

    The Mother Fa
    ult, ch 13 (Audiobook version)

    At the opening of the novel is a quote from The Great Hack (Netflix, 2019):

    But no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.

    Professor David Carroll, The Great Hack

    The Mother Fault certainly got me thinking about all the trade-offs we make for the conveniences and luxuries of our modern lives: connectivity, streaming services, personal entertainment devices, labour saving technologies. How often do we stop to consider what is lost amongst the gains?

    Because the novel is set in an Australia that is so familiar to our own current-day one, the dangers Mim experiences feel very real and entirely believable. There is a dramatic climax in which Mim is forced to face some very unpleasant realities and make an excruciating choice in order to keep her kids safe.

    The Mother Fault is gripping speculative fiction with the added bonus of Mildenhall’s beautiful prose. I listened to the Audible version narrated by Claudia Karvan whose flawless performance added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel.


    The Mother Fault was published by Simon & Schuster, 2020.

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