Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History’ by Linda Colley

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303 p. & notes, 2007

Now THIS is the sort of history I want to write!  I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, ever since I began writing my thesis.  It takes just the approach that I want to use:

…this is a book that ranges between biography, family history, British and imperial history, and global histories in the plural.  Because of the tendencies of our own times, historians have become increasingly concerned to attempt seeing the world as a whole.  This has encouraged an understandable curiosity about very large-scale phenomena: the influence of shifting weather systems on world history, ecological change over time, patterns of forced and voluntary migration, the movement of capital, or commodities, or disease over continents, the transmission of ideas and print, the workings of vast overland and oceanic networks of trade, the impact of conflicting imperial systems and so on.  These, and other such grand transcontinental forces, were and are massively important.  Yet they have never just been simply and inhumanly there.  They have impacted on people, who have understood them (or not), and adapted to them (or not), but who have invariably interpreted them in very many different ways.  Writings on world and global history (to which I stand enormously indebted) sometimes seem as aggressively impersonal as globalization can itself.

In this book, by contrast, I am concerned to explore how the lives of a group of individuals, and especially the existence of one particular unsophisticated but not unperceptive woman, were informed and tormented by changes that were viewed at the time as transnational, and transcontinental, and even as pan-global, to an unprecedented degree.  I seek to tack between the individual and world histories ‘in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view’. (p. xxxi)

Linda Colley is an acclaimed historian of Britain and empire.  Her book Britons is heavily cited in discussions of Britishness ( although may I admit in a very small voice that I have this book on my shelves, too, waiting to be read?)  She writes big histories, but in this book she brings it back to individuals and their families.

So who was Elizabeth Marsh?  As in many cases when writing biography of a person who is not a public figure, the source material is patchy and in several instances, contestable.  From genealogical sources, Elizabeth Marsh can be located as a woman who lived from 1735 to 1785, who had two children, and was a wife, daughter and niece.  From her own writing in published travel narratives, we know that she was kidnapped by the Moroccan Sultan, Sidi Muhammed, and that she travelled extensively along the eastern coast of India.  From her uncle’s scrapbooks and journals, we learn of her extensive family networks and its mobility across the world.  A map on the opening pages of the book shows just how wide-ranging these family travels were: the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa.

And yet there is so much that we don’t know about her, right down to the question of her appearance.  Her mother was Jamaican, but there is no way of knowing whether Elizabeth or her mother were coloured.  Elizabeth tells us that she was not sexually compromised during her kidnapping but can we believe her? She is largely silent on the nature of her relationship with George Smith, who accompanied her on her travels in India.  Nor can we know how her marriage to James Crisp, her fellow-abductee in Morocco, worked.  Colley speculates and imagines but she is upfront about the guesswork and supposition that she has utilized in piecing together Elizabeth Marsh’s life.

The book commences with a short introductory summary of Elizabeth Marsh’s life and clear identification of the themes that run through it:  her life; her family; her worlds; herself; history and her story.  There- it can be done in just thirteen pages!!  (says she, whose introduction threatens to engulf the whole thesis].   There are only six chapters and a conclusion, organized chronologically and each taking up a separate continent on her travels.   Without fail, each time I thought “Jeez, I could use a map here”, I turned the page and there it was.

But the book is much more than a biography (i.e. writing about the life of an individual) : it is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks,  sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial.  Each step of Elizabeth’s own life is embroidered with contextual and supplementary information so that as a reader you’re better able to judge the exceptionality or conventionality of what you have just read.  Is this distracting? Possibly, if you’re after a straight biography, but there was only one occasion where I felt that she was wandering a bit too far offtopic.

At times Colley moves into the present tense when describing Elizabeth’s lived experience, returning to past tense in her analysis,  with occasional shifts back into the present tense when describing her own insights as researcher and investigator.  These changes in tense are handled so adroitly that you’re barely aware of them.  They add to the immediacy of the narrative, and the feeling as if you’re being addressed by a researcher steeped in expertise and well in control of her material and eager to share it with you.

Do I regret leaving it so long to read this book?  Not really. I think that I would have been intimidated by it earlier in my own research, and reading it at the stage I’m at inspires me with an example, right there on the page, of the type of historian I’d like to be.

Other reviews (by a veritable Who’s Who of authors):

Claire Tomalin in the Guardian

Megan Marshall in The New York Times

Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books (a lengthy but excellent review)

Lisa Jardine in the Times Higher Education Supplement

Ben Wilson ‘The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain 1789-1837′

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2007, 389 p & notes

One of the basic questions in writing history is how to define the period under examination.  Sometimes historians use seminal events- particularly military ones- as markers.  Others use famous people: “the age of Beethoven” or “Austen’s world”.  Centuries can be used as markers, stretched out to form “the long 18th century” or “the long 19th century”. A recent approach, reflecting no doubt the effect of sociology on history, has been to look at generations.

My own research takes an individual life as its starting point: that of John Walpole Willis, born in 1793.  I’ve been interested in some time in the mental furniture with which his mind would have been stocked, having grown to adulthood in pre-Victorian times, yet living most of his professional life under Victoria’s reign.  As a judge, his pronouncements from the bench seem steeped in Victorian rectitude, but he was himself born in Georgian times.  Using the British royal family as periodization (Georgian, Victorian) is convenient, but it doesn’t explain how any qualitative change from one era to another occurred. How did the rambunctious disorder and ribaldry of Georgian times turn into the moralistic earnestness of Victorian times? How did this affect the way that people thought? Continue reading

Julie Szego ‘The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama’

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2014, 256 p.

Our attention span for court cases is very short indeed.   There might be a splash of publicity during the committal hearing, then nothing is heard for some time.  The actual case, some months later, might attract attention if it is particularly salacious or graphic.  The sentence is given, then the main characters subside back into obscurity and you’re left thinking “Now, what was that case again?”.  Usually.  But sometimes there is something about a case that snags the attention of a passing journalist or essayist, who picks at the threads and expands our gaze beyond that particular case into society more broadly.  This book does just that.

Farah Jama was a young Somali man who was jailed for raping a woman thirty years his senior in a nightclub.  He insisted that he was not at the nightclub and that he had never seen the woman before.  The woman could not recall seeing any African men at the club that night, and could remember nothing at all about the attack.  Farah was convicted solely on DNA evidence and eighteenth months later his conviction was overturned.

In this book, journalist Julie Szego traces through the crime, the case and the circumstances that led to the overturning of his conviction.  On the way she finds herself on the edges, and eventually outside, the local Somali community as Farah becomes increasingly resistant to her questioning. He becomes determined to take his own story back with an eye to his own book somewhere down the line, and sees her as a competitor.  She finds herself bridling against his anti-woman stance, even while she can understand it on one level.  Her investigation takes her into the management practices and risk management policies of the Macleod Forensic Laboratory where the DNA was tested, and the organization’s defensiveness after several previous errors in dealing with DNA.

I think that the first book of this kind I read,  where the journalist wades into the backwater of a crime, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  I’ve read several others in recent years: Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation and The First Stone, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Anna Kreins Night Games.  It strikes me, looking at this list, that these later books are all written by women, and they all share an ambivalence and tentativeness about coming to a firm conclusion.  This is probably because defamation lawyers are lurking, but also I wonder if there’s not a reticence to be too black-and-white, too certain.

It’s a strange genre in that generally readers know the outcome before they even crack open the book.  The books do not appear on the shelves until some time afterwards, and they often follow a flurry of newspaper and television coverage at the time of the crime and then at key points in the resulting trial.  The writer herself (or himself, in the case of Capote) becomes part of the story as well and often has to face her own prejudices and doubts. There’s often a larger picture as well: the football culture, black/white policing relations, the sharp edge of perfection, feminism and in this case, Somali ‘integration’.

This book is an easy read, told in an easy conversational style. There are chapters, but the narrative is presented in small segments within a broadly chronological structure.  The focus shifts from one participant to another, and in this case, there are no baddies as such, only powerlessness and an underlying question of racism.  Questions are raised, of course, about the dubiousness of the prosecution in the first place, and the reliability of DNA evidence.

Sometimes I watch television reports of the sentencing statements given from the bench after a particularly newsworthy crime.  The judge often mentions that the accused “showed no remorse” as a factor for increasing the sentence. That seems odd to me. Why would a person who claimed that they had not committed the crime- especially to a stranger- be expected to show remorse?  Perhaps a detached, abstract sympathy, but no remorse.

Farah Jama has every right to be angry.  I guess that we can take some small comfort that everything worked out in the end, although we have no right to expect him to feel that way.  The ease with which any questions about his original ‘crime’ were deflected is unsettling.

awwbadge_2014I’m posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Bill Bryson ‘The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid’

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2006, 375 p.

When feeling that I need to justify being in a CAE bookgroup when, heaven knows I surely have enough reading that I should be doing, I often say “Well, you read books that you wouldn’t normally choose”. This is very much the case with this book. As it happened I didn’t really mind sinking into its fairy-floss peaks, aware that I had only two days to read it before our bookclub meeting. I’d just finished reading N and was feeling exhilarated and supremely sated, and I would have found it difficult to turn straight away to a challenging or complex book. Fortunately, in this case then, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is neither of these things.

I’ve read a couple of Bill Bryson’s travel books, and find them wryly amusing. Although this is a memoir, he approaches it in much the same way: it is a travelogue around his childhood memories. The book moves chronologically towards his adolescence, but is structured thematically with chapters titled (among others) ‘Hometown’, ‘Welcome to Kid World’ ‘Birth of a Superhero’ ‘Boom!’,’What, Me Worry?’ and ‘The Pubic Year’.

Bryson was born and raised in Des Moines Iowa in 1951. Unusually for the time, both his parents worked at the Des Moines Register, his father as sports writer and his mother in the women’s section. Bryson’s viewpoint is unashamedly child-centred, with his parents benign but almost peripheral characters, and his sibling almost invisible. Bryson is much attracted to lists, and they pepper the book- a rather lazy way, I think, of leaving the reader to recognize and make the connections. There are one-liners on every page, and it’s the voice of the raconteur that you hear.

One of the things that struck me was how self-containedly American his life was. He lists his favourite television programs (all American), films (all American), comic books (all American) and school readers (all American). It reinforced for me how much an Australian childhood (albeit five years later than his) was a mixture of British, American and Australian influences.

This is not to say that there’s not some social commentary in here as well. He points out the disjunction between the fears of the time (polio, Communists, nuclear war) and the sunny abundance and self-confidence of affluent, middle class White America.   He deals with racism in a couple of pages because it was not on his horizon at all.

All in all, it’s an affectionate, humourous wallow in nostalgia. It reminded me a bit of the television show ‘The Wonder Years’.  I enjoyed it in half-hour episodes but I know I would have drowned in schmaltz had it gone on for an hour.

Like a sit-com or a travel book, this book could have stopped ¾ of the way through, or gone on for another 100 pages, although at nearly 400 pages I think that it was plenty long enough.

I’ll leave the last words with him:

What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.

‘N’ by John A. Scott

N

2014, 597 p

I remember that when I finished reading War and Peace, I didn’t really want to read anything else for a while because of the sheer big-ness of Tolstoy. I felt somewhat the same way after finishing John A. Scott’s big 600 page book N. It’s not War and Peace to be sure (although that certainly sums up the content), but both books are large in their scope, long in their pages, and peopled with memorable characters. And for me, I just wanted to luxuriate in their big vision for a while, before turning again to the small-canvas books that seem to fill the shelves today.

N. opens in war-time, amongst a bohemian group of artists and writers who gather in the coffee shops and studios of inner-city Melbourne. There are multiple narrators and at first I found myself wondering how I was going to keep them all straight, having forgotten completely that there was a Dramatis Personae at the front! But the book settles into the stories of four or five main characters who each bring in a constellation of smaller characters. One of these is Missy Cunningham, disillusioned and unhappy wife of Roy Cunningham the Social Realist painter; there is Reginald Thomas, clairvoyant writer and latter-day Tiresias who writes up his visions into radio plays; Albie Henningson, a writer of far-right political persuasion; another is Robin Telford, public servant in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office.

War-time politics are on a knife-edge. The balance of power is held by two independents, and when one of them is found dead in a public toilet-block, Sir Warren Mahony, already a member of Fadden’s War Council, takes up his position as Prime Minister of the Emergency Cabinet. The widow of the murdered independent politicial, Norman Cole, approaches the public servant Robin Telford, asking him to dig deeper into the death of her husband. Britain and the United States withdraw their attention and military support to the northern hemisphere; the AIF returns home but is no match for the Japanese, who quickly spread down from the north. The Mahony government sues for a truce with the Japanese, and becomes a Vichy-like government operating out of a large house at Mount Macedon. Critics of the government, activists and members of the intelligentsia are silenced or disappear completely, and out of the direct sight of the Mahony government, the Japanese inflict cruelties on soldiers and citizens alike.

The book combines real life characters with fictional ones. The writer Frank Clune is there, but his ghost writer, the real-life P. R. ‘Inky’ Stephenson is rendered through the fictional Albie Henningsen. There are real artists combined with fictional ones, and the Social Realist art show that brings the wrath of the Mahony Government to bear against the artists has resonances with the activities of the real-life Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition in Melbourne. Even the whole political scenario of two independents in a war-time cabinet echoes the real-life Arthur Coles (of G.J.Coles fame- and a name very similar to Scott’s fictional Norman Cole) and Alexander Wilson who voted in 1941 to bring down Fadden’s government.

The narrative voices and genres that mark the different characters are playful and well-rendered. Missy Cunningham’s sections evoked for me the writing of M. Barnard Eldershaw and even reminded me a little of Neville Shute’s On the Beach.   Robin Telford, the public servant, speaks in careful bureaucratese, while Albie Henningsen is fervent, passionate and driven. The whole thing is a pastiche, and a baggy pastiche at that, but I loved it for its sweep and noisiness.

It is appallingly violent in places, and I recognized situations from Iris Chang’s horrific Rape of Nanking. At times the disappearances and conspiracies stretched credulity, but they shouldn’t in these days of disappeared boats and the ‘you don’t need to know about that’ of our refugee policy.   It was no surprise to me at all when Scott breaks out of historical fiction mode at the end of the book to comment on such things and remind us that this ‘what-if’ scenario is not so absolutely far-fetched.

I’m a fan of John Scott, and I’ve read most of his books over the years: the erotic narrative trickiness of What I Have Written; the bleak flatness of The Architect; the carefully rendered setting of Warra Warra. I can’t say that I’ve always felt that I understood the book at the end, and must admit to sometimes being bemused by the digressions and spin-offs.   But I don’t know why he’s not numbered up there with the Flanagans and Careys, because, like them, he writes across a number of genres and takes risks. And like them, he keeps me coming back for more.

Other reviews:

T.W. in The Saturday Paper didn’t think much of it;  Susan Lever in the Sydney Review of Books had some reservations; as did Peter Pierce at the Australian But Lisa at ANZLitLovers loved it and it was her enthusiastic review that launched me into reading it.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe

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Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

156 p. 2014, Magabala books

On July 3rd, just 3 days before NAIDOC week, my Prime Minister (who had dubbed himself the first ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’) made a presentation to the Australian-Melbourne Institute.  In extolling the benefits of foreign investment for Australia he said

As a general principle we support foreign investment. Always have and always will. Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment.  I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

There is a particular argument that could be posed about the word ‘settled’ in relation to the law of colonies, but Abbott here was talking economies, not law. You can almost hear the wheels turning in his brain as he thinks “oops- not ‘unsettled’ because I suppose that they were there, I guess-‘ scarcely settled’- that’ll do”.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

The start of [the] journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity. P. 156

Bruce Pascoe has a Bunurong/Tasmanian indigenous heritage, and if you watched First Footprints, (my review here) you will recognize him as one of the talking heads on that wonderful, paradigm-rattling documentary. He is not an academic historian as such, and described himself in his earlier book Convincing Ground (2007) as a “mug historian with no training” (p. 200). His interweaving of personal, current day narrative with historical analysis, in both this and his earlier book, places his work in that uneasy space between local history and academic material.

In his preface, Pascoe says that he conceived the theme for this book in the wake of writing Convincing Ground, when he was inundated with letters and information from fourth-generation farmers and Aboriginal people. These responses, along with material that he had tucked away unused from his earlier book, suggested to him that not only had the Frontier War been mis-represented, but that the whole economy and culture of Aboriginal people had been undervalued. (p. 11)

His methodology was to return to the diaries of the early white explorers, surveyors, pastoralists and protectors. These men (for they were overwhelmingly male) espoused the racial superiority of white settlement, decried the primitivism of Aboriginal culture and predicted the inevitable extinction of Aboriginal ‘nomads’. Yet at the same time, they described large structures capable of sheltering thirty or forty people, stockpiles of ground seed and grain, dams and redirections of water courses, fish traps, and storehouses. They were unconscious wreckers (or at least one hopes they were unconscious): eating the grain that had been carefully piled up waiting for consumption at a later date, gladly taking advantage of a clay-daubed shelter, or rather more ominously, testing the strength of the roof of a shelter by riding over it. It strikes me as deeply ironic that explorers, starving, blinded and maddened by bites and sun, could look at aboriginal people serenely co-existing with the environment, and then write about them as ‘primitive’.   He finds example after example in the words of explorers Major Mitchell, Sturt and Howitt, early colonists Isaac Batey, James Dawson, and protectors and missionaries George Augustus Robinson and Joseph Orton .   He reproduces some of their sketches that, when you extract them out from the scrawled text that surrounds them,  demonstrate much more deliberation and ingenuity on the part of the constructors, than the 19th century authors’ commentaries convey.

Major Mitchell is one of Pascoe’s most heavily used informants, and Pascoe captures well the contradictions within Mitchell’s work, and the ambivalence with which he views him:

Mitchell talked in sorrow about the demise of Aboriginal Australia… but despite this compassion Mitchell writes, a mere two paragraphs later, ‘We again (on the Hunter) find some soil fit for cultivation, and the whole of it taken up by farms’… At one moment he expresses sorrow for the losses of the Aboriginal population but within a page he’s extolling the value of the lands forcibly taken from them.

On his previous explorations Mitchell has seen the use Aboriginal people made of their lands, although some of the food production techniques were too discreet to capture his attention or understanding, but then opines mildly about the future of Australian farming as if Aboriginal food production had never existed. He looks down the valley at the sheds and houses of the settlers where smoke dwindles from the chimney and squares of amber light glow at windows and revels in the domesticity. Only a year before he was envying the warmth and domesticity of the Aboriginal village, but now he prides himself on opening up this land to to his own race.

He’s a good man, Mitchell, but he shares the ambition of every British man in the colony: land… The confidence of Mitchell to assume that the land had been waiting for Europeans and their animals is at the heart of European intellectual arrogance. (p. 141-2)

Pascoe draws also from the work of anthropologists, well known ones like Stanner and Rhys Jones, but also some maverick ones who are challenging established understandings. There are a number of places in the book where you sense Pascoe sitting in on conversations, listening carefully to the debates, and weaving in their work into his argument.  Some of the texts he draws upon are small productions, well outside the mainstream, like a small saddlestitched 70 page book produced by Peter Dargin for the Brewarrina Historical Society, or a similar book by Rupert Gerritsen, published in London for want of Australian interest, and No. 35 on a Google search into ‘Australian Aboriginal Grain Crops.’ He does his own work no favours by including (albeit with misgivings) wild estimates of Aboriginal occupation of Australia going back 120,000, alongside other figures of between 40,00 -65,000 years. Nor does he burnish his own reputation by citing Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, a book largely dismissed by academic historians.

The book has eight chapters. In the first, ‘Agriculture’, he focuses on the yam and grain harvesting, irrigation, and the harvesting of emu and kangaroo. Chapter 2, ‘Aquaculture’ examines fishing operations, particularly in Brewarrina and Lake Condah, and watercraft on the rivers and seaboard. Chapter 3 is titled ‘Population and Housing’, where he argues that villages marked the movement towards agricultural reliance, most particularly where there were stone constructions. Chapter 4 ‘Storage and Preservation’ explores the use of pottery and stockpiling , while Chapter 5 examines ‘Fire’ in the creation of grasslands. Chapter 6 is a divergence into ‘The Heavens, Language and the Law’ where he explores the theories that posit a qualitative shift in the ‘intensification’ of food production and technology about 4000-5000 years ago. This chapter is largely the representation of other people’s theories, which he views rather sceptically. I found this chapter rather hard to follow, although it seemed to resolve into an examination of concepts of land ownership, and what he called “jigsawed mutualism” whereby people had responsibilities for particular parts of the jigsaw, but could only operate that part so that it added, rather than detracted, from the pieces of their neighbour (p. 138). Ch. 7 ‘Australian agricultural revolution’ is only four pages in length and suggests several Aboriginal crops that could be farmed commercially in the future. The final chapter ‘Accepting History and Creating the Future’ is a plea for an acceptance and re-visioning of Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement, and allowing this to inform the future.

It is perhaps unfair to review a book by making reference to another author’s work, but in this case it is almost unavoidable. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth was published prior to Pascoe’s work, and indeed Pascoe cites him in several places. A beautifully crafted and lushly produced book, Gammage’s work has been debated within academia and received the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History in 2012. The two books, although mismatched in production values and ‘clout’, cover similar material and arguments. However, having only just flipped through Gammage’s book, it seems that he speaks more of land management, with a particular emphasis on fire.

Pascoe’s much smaller and more modest book, on the other hand, concentrates rather more on economic and social systems, with rather more emphasis on interventions in settled places as a challenge to the ‘hunter-gatherer’ image. A challenge, too, to a Prime Minister who sees the land as “unsettled- um- scarcely settled”.

Posted as part of Lisa’s  ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week.

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Yvonne Perkins has reviewed it as well.

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

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2013,  229 p.

Well, it’s won the Miles Franklin. The author was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her earlier book After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was acclaimed everywhere. So why was I underwhelmed by All the Birds, Singing?

It certainly starts with a jolt:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p.229)

Jake is a sheep farmer on a remote, unnamed British Island, where she lives in a dank farmhouse with only Dog for company. We do not know how she came to be there, and why she is there unfolds gradually during the book.   It’s a visceral book, with not only carcasses of sheep and the bloodied life on the land, but the bodily violence of her other life- the one before this- as an abused prostitute in remote outback Australia.

The book is told in alternating chapters, with her life on the island told in first person past tense, and the Australian chapters told in first person present tense. It took some time into the book for me to realize that the Australian chapters were being narrated in reverse chronology. And so the author juggles two questions from the reader: ‘what happens next?’ as Jake gradually opens herself up to the company of an itinerant rambler who somehow ends up staying at the farm, and ‘what happened before?’ to bring her to such a lonely, cold and harsh environment.

The author is a master of setting. The whipping rain and inky darkness of the island is a stark contrast to the dessicated, searing light of the outback that opens the book. The motif of birds runs throughout the book like a soundtrack.

Part of my problem with this book might have been that I read it so quickly after finishing After the Fire, a Small Still Voice. When I look back at my review of After the Fire, I find that I could apply most of my observations about that book to this one as well. It’s almost the same story, with variations. Both books interweave two narratives. Both involve trauma and separateness that is heightened by isolation. In both, the setting is rendered carefully.  Even the titles are structurally similar and almost interchangeable.  Yes, there are differences- there are two characters in the first book and one in the second; the first book deals with the issue of masculinity, whereas there is a female main character in the second.   But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading variations on the same basic structure. Is this deliberate? Are these books elaborations on the same structure, rendered with different characters and scenarios? Is this part of a bigger project?

This year I didn’t get round to reading the other short-listed titles for the Miles Franklin. I think that I might just have to think “Well, interesting choice….”

awwbadge_2014 Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014