Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ by Bill Gammage

gammage

Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia

384 p. 2011

I was aware, while reading this book, that I was reading what could turn out to be one of the really big books in Australian history: a book that changes the received understanding of Australian settlement,eventually rippling out beyond historians to politicians and the media to finally become part of the way we see ourselves and our country.  Maybe.

Gammage’s argument is that, instead of being marginal hunter-gatherers, ‘people’- for that is the terminology he has chosen to distinguish aborigines from ‘newcomers’- farmed prior to 1788.  They were not farmers, which is a lifestyle; but they did farm – the activity of tending and shaping landscape.  They developed what he calls a ‘template’ of landscape, a mosaic comprising open pasture with few trees,  strips of scrub and stubby trees, other plains, then clearly delineated forest.  It was a landscape ideally suited to the growing of tubers and providing both shelter and feed to encourage the presence of kangaroos and animals suitable for hunting. Instead of being forced to keep moving because they were on the verge of starvation,  people were well-supplied with food through this manipulation of their environment.  They moved across country as part of tending it, shifting and imposing the  template, created through careful burning, onto new land at will. They were well aware of species that tolerated or encouraged fire.

It is an argument that forces us to change our view of the landscape around us.  The bushland that we prize as ‘native’ landscape is often not that at all- instead it is product of neglect as the custodians of the country could no longer farm it.   The plains of green ‘pick’ were engulfed by scrub, and forests left unburned exploded into huge conflagrations that were not seen under the care of ‘the people’.

He mounts his argument through repetition, almost to the point of overload.  He draws on the writings of early settlers and explorers who again, again and again, observed and documented the same thing:

The country consisted of open forest, which, growing gradually thinner, at length left intervals of open-plain…Penetrating next through a narrow strip of casuarinae scrub, we found the remains of native huts; and beyond this scrub, we crossed a beautiful plain, covered with shining verdure, and ornamented with trees, which, although ‘dropt in nature’s careless haste’, gave the country the appearance of an extensive park.  We next entered a brush of the acacia pendula, which grew higher and more abundant than I had seen it elsewhere  (Major Mitchell, NSW, cited on p. 219)

And Gammage repeats their descriptions too- twenty, thirty, fifty, more-  explorers and settlers, repeating ‘parkland’ and ‘plains’ again and again.  He is at pains to emphasize that this occurred across the breadth of Australia as he draws together descriptions from each state, identified in brackets. The open spaces were covered in kangaroo grass, a summer-flowering grass that turned tan-coloured in summer, and their horses sank into the soft, flour-like soil.

Gammage reinforces these descriptions with photographs and paintings.  I had always assumed that the similarity of early paintings reflected a shared English sensibility that superimposed an English aesthetic of parkland onto an Australian landscape.  But when you couple these paintings which again and again depicted open grassland fringed with forest, with written testimony that again and again described exactly the same thing,  the supposition that they were blinded by European sensibility becomes shaky.  The blindness is ours.

If you’re not convinced by the descriptions and the paintings, he then moves from one capital city to another, drawing on the same descriptions  that sprang from their earliest newcomer settlers, reinforcing that he is not just talking about one corner of Australia, but the continent as a whole.

I had been anticipating reading this book for some time.  Many people speak of Gammage’s book The Broken Years in glowing terms, and his contribution to documentaries (e.g. The War that Changed Us that is screening on ABC1 now) and public discourse more generally has always been sensitive, articulate and insightful.  This book was awarded the Prime Ministers Literary Prize for Australian History in 2012, and Victorian, ACT, and Queensland awards. Yet I found myself disconcerted by the abrupt and utilitarian tone of the opening chapters.  Chapter 2, ‘Canvas of a Continent’ is replete with colour photographs and landscapes and paintings, but the text reads like a series of separate, lengthy captions. Chapter 3 ‘The nature of Australia’  is divided up into a number of subheadings, enumerating 5 changes, followed by 8 notes.  It felt a bit like reading a speaker’s notes.

But these two chapters are followed in Chapter 4 ‘Heaven on Earth’ and Chapter 5 ‘Country’ by one of the clearest explications of the Dreamtime and its connection with action in relation to land that I have ever read. He made intelligible to me the connection between spiritual and ecological activity on the land, highlighting even more starkly the insult on so many levels that settler activity inflicted on  Aboriginal reality.

Gammage’s beautiful, clear writing seemed to be ribboned with utilitarian, ‘hard’ writing, not unlike the ecological template that he was describing!  I think that I only really grasped what he was doing in the writing of this book when I read Appendix 1.  There he explained that he had been invited by the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies of the University of Tasmania to speak on 1788 land management.  As it transpired, the invitation lapsed.  This book seems to be to be the response he would have given to the scientists with whom he hoped to speak.   In many ways, I feel as if he is not writing for historians, but for scientists.  His footnotes- so beloved by historians- are stripped back and unwieldy, as they give author and page only, requiring a further search within the bibliography. Sometimes the original date of the quote – an important detail in this case- is obscured in the publication date of recent editions .  The footnotes corroborate, rather than carry on a conversation. The dotpoints and headings are part of constructing an argument on scientific terms, and a perusal of his truly extensive bibliography shows his immersion in not only historical, but also scientific, archaelogical and ecological literature.

I read this book after reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, and I wondered when reading that book how it compared with Gammage’s.   Although there is some cross-over between the two books, Pascoe’s describes people much more, and their economic practices across a range of activities- fishing, , food storage, shelter, etc.   Gammage’s book, I think, focusses more on manipulation of the landscape.  Pascoe’s has the emotion of political action: Gammage’s is more dispassionate.  Gammage has the academic clout of a long and distinguished career in academe: Pascoe speaks as a Bunurong/Tasmanian indigenous man.  Pascoe reports on the academic debates from the side: Gammage is there, (especially in the Appendix) right in the midst of that academic skirmishing.

Taken together, the two books challenge our conceptions of ‘hunter/gatherer’ and what ‘native bushland’ looks like.  This in turn has implications for our responses to fire and how to act ecologically.  Most importantly, it throws up a direct challenge to the idea of ‘terra nullius,’ not in a legal sense this time, but in a practical and environmental one, by completely reshaping our idea of pre-1788.  It doesn’t fit neatly into a “defining moments” view of history at all  and it should give the lie completely to our Prime Minister’s view that Australia was “um, scarcely settled” prior to white settlement.  That’s what a big history can do.

 

 

 

 

‘The Kayles of Bushy Lodge’ by Vera G. Dwyer

kayles

1922, 286 p.

I had never heard of this book, and probably would never have, without a review by Debbie Robson as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.  I was intrigued: an Australian book about the home front written by a woman in the years immediately following the war.  I wasn’t aware- and please correct me if I’m wrong- of many other books that fit into this category.

In the RHSV conference I attended recently, Bart Ziino spoke of the deep anxiety that pervaded the home front during the war.  It’s here in this book as well, underneath a chirpy little domestic story about a family of adolescents  negotiating the drudgery of housework in a motherless home when domestic servants are hard to find.   One of the sisters takes on too much and has, in effect, a nervous breakdown until the rest of her siblings step up and take up their responsibilities.  Not much about war,  you might say, but it’s there in the surrounding characters: the melodramatic schoolgirls who are certain that a young man of their acquaintance has enlisted as a form of nationalistic suicide because of a broken heart; a young wife aching with loneliness with her husband on the front; the teenaged boy too young to enlist and keenly aware of ‘manning up’ in a community where men are largely absent;  the creation of ‘comforts’ for the men overseas; the injured men coming home.   In a sudden jolt of setting and speed near the end of the book, it does shift to the trenches of Europe, before returning ‘home’ again.

Reading it ninety years later, it has certainly dated.  It reminded me a little of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (where you’ll remember that the father was absent at the Civil War) and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians- although without the emotional fidelity of either of these books.  However, I’m sure that any attempt to replicate the time and setting by a modern-day author would over-emphasize the small home-front details that arise almost unconsciously in this contemporaneous book.

I was interested to see how it was received at the time.  It was marketed as a children’s or young-adult book, and published- as was customary at the time- in England, and attracted English reviews.  The Christmas edition of the Bookman of December 1922 described it in a rather vague review as:

a story of Australian girls in the suburbs of an Australian town, is of very general interest because, to a great extent, it is a story that might have happened anywhere.  At the same time its surroundings and its outlook give it a freshness for English readers which adds to its charm.  It is a book for a child-girl, or for a girl in her teens, or for one in her twenties- and a pretty love story threads its way through.

The Sydney paper, The World’s News reviewed it on 5 January 1924

In Vera Dwyer’s latest Australian book, “The Kayles of Bushy Lodge,” the author has presented a suburban family, every member of which, in some way, finds a place in the reader’s heart. The book is alive with incident, and the characters, evidently drawn from life, as is the habit of this author, pass through varied scenes to which they are drawn in the effort to realise their aspirations. Shirley, the young violinist, upon whom tremendous responsibility is thrown in a motherless family, is a beautiful human study. There is a good deal of romance in the story, as well as humor, and a tinge of pathos, and the interest is not engrossed by the chief characters entirely. There is a shy bush boy in the book, a real boy, who takes upon himself the responsibility of guarding and protecting the wife of a soldier who is at the war. No one but the boy himself knows that he has taken this work on, and his efforts are highly entertaining. The two little girls who construct the romance round the life of Adam Deering are intensely amusing.

The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express of 23 November 1923 described it as:

 a picture of domestic life in Sydney during the war. Mr. Kayle is a dentist who, as a result of his own improvidence and lack of foresight, sees his practice growing less and less, and his motherless children are hard put to make ends meet. The Kayles are delightful young people, especially Shirley the heroine, who takes her responsibilities very seriously. In spite of their troubles, the whole family have a sense of humour that enables them to get the best out of life, and carries them through triumphantly to a happy conclusion.

Vera Dwyer seems to have written several books, which seem to focus on girls, and certainly the Kayles of Bushy Lodge offers an insight into early twentieth century girl-life.  The girls in the family are seen to rally around the ailing Shirley (after she work her fingers to the bone), with varying futures beckoning them within a still-circumscribed domestic sphere: romance and marriage; a successful but thoroughly respectable boarding house; an art-school career and overall resilience.    Miss Dwyer, who married the rather splendidly named Captain Warwick Coldham-Fussell,  died in 1967 and deposited her papers with the Mitchell library, where there is still a sealed box of restricted letters!

The Kayles of Bushy Lodge is the only one of her books freely available online,

awwbadge_2014  This review posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

 

 

 

 

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

colley_ordeal

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′

wilson1

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’

szego

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’

bryson_thunderbolt

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.