• Books and reading,  History

    How the heart survives: ‘The Tolstoy Estate’ by Steven Conte

    The Tolstoy Estate is described as ‘a novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times’ and literature – particularly the work of Leo Tolstoy – is at its heart.

    During the ill-fated German assault on Russia in the winter of 1941, military doctor Paul Bauer is assigned to a field hospital established at ‘Yasnaya Polyana’, the ancestral home of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. We quickly realise that Bauer’s heart is not invested in the ideologies of the Nazi Reich, though he does feel loyalty to his comrades and to his mission as a doctor.

    On arrival at the estate he meets Katerina, the guardian of the property which has great cultural importance for Russians. In Katerina’s youth, she was a passionate supporter of the Revolution; this conviction has faded over the years, replaced by what could best be described as a critique of its methods and results, mixed with a deep love for her country in the face of the invader’s army. She is – understandably – hostile towards the Germans, but Paul recognises her fierce intelligence and a shared love of literature, and a friendship develops between them, despite the difficult circumstances.

    Paul’s job is to treat and repair the damage done to German soldiers on the front. He and his colleagues work under appalling conditions, made particularly hard by the brutal winter cold – with temperatures as low as minus 41 Celsius – inconceivable to someone like me, who lives on one of the warmer continents on Earth.

    The author is unflinching in describing the kinds of operations Paul and his colleagues perform, with enough authentic detail to make the scenes in the makeshift surgical theatre feel visceral. The waves of injured, sick and frostbitten soldiers keep on coming throughout the novel; the horror of the conflict always there. Even eyelids could be lost to frostbite, apparently: a prospect too awful to contemplate. The German troops were ill equipped to wage war in a Russian winter, with winter clothes late arriving, so that the soldiers were wearing summer uniforms well after the onset of cold weather.

    The theme of literature’s role in society is explored throughout, contrasting with the butchery taking place on the battlefields. Paul’s commanding officer Metz (who is experimenting with new drugs to ‘sharpen his soldierly performance’ – with awful results) boasts to Katerina that:

    ‘Deeds, not words, gnadige Frau, are the currency of greatness…with his rifle our humblest Landser shapes the world more profoundly than your Tolstoy ever did.

    To which Katerina replies:

    ‘How odd. You sound rather like him in War and Peace -the dull bits: the little man as mover of Great Events. But you’re mistaken. Lev Tolstoy’s books certainly did shape history. He’s still at it, in fact, tipping the war in our favour.’

    The Tolstoy Estate p28

    And of course, the events of War and Peace are foregrounded, as the fate of the German army replicates that of Napoleon’s, on his unsuccessful invasion of Russia a century earlier.

    This novel is a celebration of the human heart and the beauty of words and ideas, even when surrounded by the very worst of human behaviour. Paul is certain of this when he says to Katerina:

    Yes, what do is important. For the individual it’s vital. But the body is transient, we all know that. It’s stuff. You writers, you forge culture, and culture is eternal. Or as good as…I believe {literature} is beneficial…And enduring. Even the worst of it survives its author, and the best outlives the language it’s composed in. I can’t imagine what it must be like to … know that in fifty, one hundred, two hundred years there will be someone, somewhere reading your books.

    The Tolstoy Estate p175

    The Tolstoy Estate is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Resilience and friendship: ‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor

    This novel introduced me to a previously unknown story of WWII : the experience of teachers and pupils at a Protestant boarding school in northern China while under Japanese control. The students, children of missionaries, business people or diplomats from around the world, received a traditional British-style education including the classics, religious instruction and preparation for English university study.

    After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, school life continued largely as before for a time, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Overnight, citizens of the US and the British Empire became enemy aliens and everything changed at Chefoo School. They were, suddenly, prisoners of war. They were moved twice; firstly to another location in the town and later to Weihsien Internment Camp, where they were kept captive for two years until liberation by US soldiers in 1945.

    The author heard about these events and knew this was a story she wanted to write. The novel’s characters are her own creations but she researched accounts of internment and pored over the archives from Chefoo School, to write an authentic and moving account of people living through great hardship and fearful times with humour, compassion and resilience.

    The story centres around a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and three pupils who are young girls at the novel’s opening but teenagers by the time of liberation. Nancy, known as ‘Plum’ to her friends, is the child of missionaries and, even before her capture by the Japanese, had not seen her parents for three years. For someone like me, not familiar with the boarding school system, that seems an incredible time for a child to be without her parents. Nancy and her friends endure an additional four years under the most testing of circumstances.

    What holds the children and teachers together are their friendships and the teachers’ steadfast adherence to maintaining a sense of safety and unity, and what we might think of as a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or, as Miss Kent puts it,

    I closed my eyes and absorbed the simple familiarity of the moment: chalk dust on my fingertips, the pool of winter sunlight against my cheek, the sounds of singing and instruction drifting along the corridors. Routine and discipline. The glue holding me together while the world was falling apart.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p25

    Told through alternating viewpoints of Miss Kent and young Nancy, we see the circumstances under which the school community must survive deteriorate rapidly; the brutality of some of the Japanese guards; the tragic experiences of the local Chinese communities.

    There are two potent themes throughout: sunflower seeds and the Girl Guides. The seeds are given to Miss Kent by the school’s Chinese gardener just before they are moved from the campus. She plants a seed at various locations throughout the story, one in each place they are interned and in remembrance of specific people.

    She resolutely keeps the rituals of the Guides alive for the girls in her charge, as a way of holding onto meaningful traditions for her pupils, and to follow the teachings of the Guides about honourable and right behaviour and deeds, despite the suffering and cruelty around them.

    One interesting character who really was at Weihsien Internment Camp is Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete on whom the film Chariots of Fire was based. He was held captive at the camp and sadly died there before the prisoners were liberated. There is a memorial at the location where he was buried.

    Both Miss Kent and Nancy come to realise that freedom can be taken away from without but not from within. Nancy’s version of this understanding is this:

    For the first time since we’d been under Japanese guard, I understood that freedom wasn’t something I had to wait for, but was something I could choose. In my mind, in my imagination and my memories, I could be as free as the birds that raced the wind, as free as the clouds that chased the sun far above me.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p277

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is a beautifully told story of loss and courage, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Historical fiction in a vivid setting: ‘The Sea Gate’ by Jane Johnson

    Following the death of her mother, Becky begins the sad task of sorting through her things. Among the unopened letters she finds an envelope post-marked from Cornwall that will change her life forever. In it is a desperate plea from her mother’s elderly cousin, Olivia, to help her save her beloved home…

    The Sea Gate

    The Sea Gate is a dual-timeline story: the historic storyline is about wartime Cornwall and 16 year old Olivia, and the modern day one involves Rebecca, the adult daughter of Olivia’s cousin. I enjoy novels that bring together past and present in this way and this one is no exception.

    I especially loved the setting of this book, having travelled to Cornwall and been enchanted by its dramatic rock-strewn coastlines, picturesque fishing villages and brooding moors. They provide a wonderful backdrop for a tale with plenty of family secrets; an old rambling house full of mysteries; intrigue and danger; past wrongs and a dash of romance.

    Becky sets herself the task of restoring Olivia’s neglected family home to some semblance of habitability, so that her elderly cousin can come home from hospital. In the process she finds herself piecing together the secrets of Olivia’s past, especially events that took place during the war.

    She also re-examines her own life and makes some surprising decisions about her future; she is a cancer survivor, still recovering from surgery and treatment and the shock of her illness:

    Fear has trapped me, rendered me immobile and powerless: fear of losing Eddie, fear of the cancer, fear of everything, really. I’d forgotten I ever had wings, let alone how to use them.

    The Sea Gate p304

    This was for me the most satisfying part of the novel: the emotional development of Rebecca’s character and her trajectory of self-discovery and change.

    The one part that didn’t work so well for me was the chapter in which Hamid tells his story. An important secondary character, his story is a good one, so it is perhaps simply personal taste that meant I didn’t enjoy his first-person narrative inserted into the the story in this way. It did not, however, detract from my overall enthusiasm for The Sea Gate.

    It’s an engrossing read, recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, dual timeline stories and an evocative, dramatic setting.

    The Sea Gate was published by Head of Zeus Publishing in June 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heartfelt search for the truth: ‘The Other Side of Absence’ by Betty O’Neill

    The Other Side of Absence is Betty O’Neill’s debut memoir. The author information tells us that she is a writer and teacher in areas such as writing family history, the Cold War, migration and the domestic space as an archive. This wonderful book includes all of these themes, and more.

    She begins by explaining her unusual family situation. Her mother Nora, a young Australian woman on working holiday in England in 1952, met and fell in love with Antoni (Tony), a Polish political refugee. Tony had joined the remnant Polish army under British command in Italy at the end of the war, but later moved to England where he worked for a time at the Bata Shoe Company. (That company name rang bells for me; Bata school shoes were de rigueur for Aussie kids in the 1960’s and 70’s but I didn’t know it was a British company.)

    Tony was older, well dressed and charming. After a brief courtship they married and soon Nora was pregnant with Betty. Nora’s mother sponsored Tony to emigrate to Australia and in 1954 Nora and Betty moved to Lismore, NSW, to live with her. Tony arrived eight months later. Within days, he had disappeared: gone from their lives with no word of explanation. Betty did not meet her father until she was nineteen – a troubling connection with a damaged and troubling man – and soon after that he returned to Poland. She never saw him again.

    It is with this family background that Betty navigated life as a young adult, but not until later did she begin the search for her father’s story. Who was he? What did he experience as a member of the Polish resistance during the war, and then as a political prisoner at three Nazi concentration camps? What damage was inflicted on him during this time? Why did he marry her mother but then desert his wife and infant child? What motivated him to make contact with Betty when she was nineteen? What about her Polish family – who were they and what stories did they have to tell about their lives and about Tony?

    These questions took her to Poland and Austria to retrace her father’s history, his movements and experiences during the war, his life once he returned to Poland from Australia. There were many surprises and troubling revelations in store for Betty as she dug deeper into the past. In the process Betty faced the impact of her father’s experiences on her own life:

    I attempted not to judge anyone, particularly not my father, but my knuckles were white holding onto the see-saw of emotions, trying not to fall off…
    I knew that crush of feeling unwanted. I had felt it when each of my parents left me..It never leaves when it is imprinted onto a tiny heart. A shaft of darkness was embedded from deep within me to just under the skin. It painfully broke through from time to time. I could easily recognise it in others.

    The Other Side of Absence p183-184

    The author’s research and personal visits to significant wartime sites, add depth and authenticity to this story of discovery and growing understanding. She describes the feeling when she saw her father’s prisoner card from Auschwitz concentration camp – in a small way I have experienced a similar thrill at finding my ancestors’ names on convict muster lists from the nineteenth century, although of course the emotional punch was much less in my case. She also reflects on the way trauma plays out from one generation to the next. Her conclusions are beautifully nuanced:

    Not knowing and wondering had been replaced by understanding and acceptance in ways I could never have predicted. The past no longer haunted my present. I’d come to an appreciation of human complexity: not good or bad but layered by circumstance and context.

    The Other Side of Absence p288-289

    This memoir, like others I have read (such as Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, or Esther Safran Foer’s I want you to know we’re still here), illuminate the present by examining the past.
    The Other Side of Absence is a beautifully written, engrossing and heartfelt addition to Australian memoir.

    The Other Side of Absence is published by Impact Press in August 2020.
    My sincere thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic
    ##AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    A WWII story with a focus on women: ‘The German Midwife’ by Mandy Robotham

    Along with writing historical fiction, Mandy Robotham delivers babies. She is an experienced midwife – and it shows in this, her debut novel. The story opens in a Nazi labour camp during WWII, where Anke, the midwife of the book’s title, is imprisoned for helping pregnant women in the enforced Jewish ghetto of Berlin.

    Immediately we are plunged into the darkness, despair and filth of the camp, where giving birth is another trial to be faced by exhausted women weakened by harsh conditions and malnutrition. Having endured labour and birthed a child, their babies are ripped from their arms to be murdered by the guards. This is not a war story where miracles happen and people live happily ever after.

    Then Anke is transported from the camp and taken to a mansion high in the mountains, which we learn is the Berghof, Hitler’s luxury Bavarian complex. She is to be midwife to none other than Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. This is the what if? question at the heart of the novel: if Hitler had fathered a child, what might that have meant for the Reich, the progress of the war, and the victims of that war – including the midwife and her family, who are all at the mercy of the Nazis and their leader?

    At a deeper, more personal and profound level, the question becomes: how should a person act in such circumstances? What is the right choice: to care for a woman and her innocent child, or to sacrifice either or both for the greater good?

    The stakes are high for Anke as she navigates her way through this treacherous territory. There are flashbacks to her loving family before the war, her work in a Berlin hospital as the Nazis ramp up their cruelty and their control of the nation, and to Anke’s actions which lead to her arrest and imprisonment in the camp. There are examples of the various ways in which ordinary people coped and survived in a world that had become savage and unforgiving. Anke’s dilemma underlines everything from the moment she is chosen to be Eva Braun’s midwife:

    I didn’t know whether to be grateful for my life chance, or angry at her naivety. A thought flashed, ‘a child within a child,’ and I forced a smile in response, while every sinew in me twirled and knotted.

    The German Midwife p62

    One thing that makes this novel stand out from others set during WWII and the Nazi regime, is that childbirth, and the midwives who assist, are the central points around which the story spins. Against a backdrop of widespread death and destruction, the descriptions of birthing are a welcome shift of attention to the act of creation of new life. The midwifery expertise of the author lends great credibility to these scenes: they are believable; never once do they feel gratuitous. The birthing scenes are there for a reason and they anchor the protagonist to a reality other than the one presented by war. Anke reflects on this:

    I soon realised my role – and that of the ten or so other qualified midwives in the camp – was to bring dignity where we couldn’t prolong life. We could create memories, perhaps of only hours or days, where kindness and humanity won out…
    Each of us had our way of creating a small world impenetrable to the harsh reality of noise and stench around us. It was a tiny cosmos where we cried and laughed with them, where we held a space – perhaps only for a few minutes – so pure that only their child, their baby, existed for that time. Their history. The burning ache of a child’s parting was no less painful, but alongside the sadness sat memories of what they did for their babies – memories of being mothers.

    The German Midwife p280

    The German Midwife has plenty of tension as the pregnancy of Eva Braun plays out, and plenty of drama. At its core, though, is an invitation to ask ourselves: What would I do, if this were me? What is the right choice in a world where every decision is fundamentally flawed?
    It’s a gripping read with the experience of women at its heart.

    The German Midwife is published by Harper Collins Australia in
    August 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    The real stories of life after WWII – from the women of Australia: ‘The Women’s Pages’ by Victoria Purman

    I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.

    Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.

    It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.

    Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.

    In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.

    In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).

    While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.

    The Women’s Pages p363

    Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!

    As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.

    The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.

    The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
    Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.