‘Only the Animals’ by Ceridwen Dovey


245 p. 2014

This book is a series of short stories written by the souls of dead animals mentioned obliquely in literature.  Not a promising premise, I must admit. When I mentioned to my husband what this book was about, he said  (rather derisively) that it sounded like the little tsunami of books that emerged a few years ago about the overlooked wives of famous men ( Mrs Cook; Shakespeare’s Wife; Ahab’s Wife etc).  While I’m not enamoured of the comparison, I can see the similarities. Dovey is writing into and against a better-known narrative by using imagination to bounce off her historical and literary research.

The stories are arranged chronologically and range across continents.  They are set during times of war, and all of them explore human-animal interaction. In each case, there is a connection with a writer who paid homage in some way to an animal in her or his work. In the case of the parrot, Dovey pays homage to Julian Barnes who himself paid homage to Flaubert in Flaubert’s Parrot. The stories have this layer-upon-layer texture.

We start with the Camel who accompanied Henry Lawson on an inland expedition in 1892; we meet the Cat that Collette took with her to the Western Front in 1915; we meet Tolstoy’s tortoise who ends her long life in space; we encounter a dolphin trained by the US navy in 2003, and a parrot in Lebanon in 2006- and others in between.  I’m not sure, though, that the narrative voices of the different animals were different enough (unless, of course all souls sound the same), even though there were cadences and allusions referencing the authors mentioned in each chapter.

I must confess to feeling rather out of my depth in catching the allusions and little in-jokes that I detected, but could not understand, as I read the stories. As with any mash-up, which is I suppose what these are, there’s a blurry line between the derived and the truly original. There’s a list on Dovey’s website that references her sources, both literary and historical, and it further blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.

As a result, I found this book a rather uneasy reading experience.  As with The Girl with the Dog, I found myself discomfited by feeling as if an academic and literary game was being played over my head, or as if I was being excluded from a conversation spoken in riddles by a group determined not to let me understand. Does that matter, if you’re enjoying the story in its own right? I suppose not.  Or is it that I resent being excluded by ignorance and am chafing against how that makes me feel?

There’s enough curiosity about seeing the author perform that keeps you reading,  because this is a book of literary performance.  Any collection of short stories is arbitrary- what is included, what is left out- and I felt that way with this collection as well.  There could be an Only the Animals II, or III if she felt so inclined (and I strongly suspect and hope that she does not).  Not because the project is flawed, but because it should only be done once, and done well, as it is.

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site


Movie: ‘Holding the Man’

I’m pleased to see that Cinema Nova is still screening the Australian movie ‘Holding the Man’ twice each day.  I saw it about six weeks ago and expected that it would have finished by now.

I don’t know much about homosexual relationships or the gay scene during the AIDS ‘epidemic’ but certainly the attention to detail in depicting  late 70s-1980s Melbourne is exquisite- right down to the ‘Web of Life’ textbook in the locker room at Xavier. I can only assume that its fidelity in other areas is just as sound.   I hadn’t seen either of the lead actors before (which may say more about me than them), but the supporting cast is a veritable ‘who’s-who’: Anthony La Paglia, Sarah Snook, Kerry Fox, Guy Pearce and even Geoffrey Rush pops up as well.  Go to see it while it’s still on.


‘Lost Relations: Fortunes of my family in Australia’s Golden Age” by Graeme Davidson


2015, 288 p.

How to produce a good family history?” asks fellow-historian John Hirst in his blurb for this book. His answer: “Get a master historian to write about his own.”  Hirst is right.  Davidson is a master historian and this book is far more than a family history.

Graeme Davidson, who is most familiar to me with his Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne and The Use and Abuse of Australian History, has not been (and still is?) not completely comfortable with family history as a pursuit.

For most of my life I have avoided family history.  The crowds of chattering genealogists in public libraries and archives are one of the daily hazards of the academic researcher. I have written critically about the perils of ‘speed-relating’, the craze for online genealogy, and the business activities of Ancestry.com and other commercial genealogical websites… Only as I grew older and my parents passed on did I begin to recognize how much of my life had been shaped by family tradition and expectation, not to mention genetics; although even now, when temptations to reminiscence and nostalgia grow stronger, I resist them, conscious of their distortions.  In the end, however, encouraged by my family, I succumbed to the appeal of family history, not only because I wanted to better understand who I am, but also in order to think more concretely about the relationship between the familial and the communal pasts. And ‘doing’ my own family’s history, or a part of it at any rate, seemed the best way to tackle it  (p. xiii)

He doesn’t leave behind his identity as professional historian in doing so, though.  He starts his book in Hampshire, with the railway carving its way past the Hewett family’s village, and finds himself wondering what the Hewetts thought about it- and the historian in him makes its presence felt:

As an academic historian I would not even attempt to answer the question: it is too conjectural.  I would be better off examining the opinions of people who actually wrote them down. But the people who wrote things down are not the people whose feelings I want to know. Ancestry inspires the assumption that our forebears, being our own flesh and blood, are somehow more accessible, as well as more important, to us than other dead people… However, our distant forebears were not people just like us in period costumes…The idea that we can actually put ourselves in the shoes of our forebears is a harmless enough delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. [However] By reconstructing the situations they faced, taking account of the beliefs and attitudes of the time, comparing their situation with that of others, we can begin to understand their actions, even if we cannot enter their minds or hearts. This is what historians call the discipline of historical context.  It begins by treating our own forebears not as special but as ordinary people of their time, and it ends- I would argue- not by enhancing family pride but by expanding our common humanity. (p. 18-19)

Unlike Nick Brodie’s Kin, (my review here) which makes the rather large claim of being “The Real People’s History of Australia”, Davison’s book works on a more modest canvas. He focusses on “Australia’s Golden Age” and those members of his family who emigrated to Australia in the years surrounding the gold rush. He stops his account at his father, who did not emigrate until 1911.  Like a spider weaving a web, he tethers the thread in England- in Hampshire, in London and the journey of the Culloden to Port Phillip-  and stretches it to the gold fields of Castlemaine, strings it across the seaside town of Williamstown on Hobson’s Bay,to  the small cottages of Richmond and eventually to the middle-class prosperity of suburban Essendon.

He notes that

Family historians rely largely on sources created by the state, or earlier by the church. Our narratives are hung on the skeleton created by legally defined events-  births, marriages, deaths, bequests, leases, taxes, property transactions, crimes, censuses and the like. But little of what matters most in our lives is captured by such documents. If we are lucky, a few old letters… or bits of oral testimony…are left to reconstruct the most intimate, precious, fragile, irreducibly personal part of our lives from the outside in, relying on materials that are cold, standardised and impersonal.  Like the prophet, the family historian sometimes seems to inhabit a valley of dry bones, inert and meaningless until they are clothed with flesh and the spirit is somehow breathed into them (p.100)

Davidson does breathe life into them, not from filling them from imagination (as a novelist might) or by speculation (which a less disciplined historian might do) but by bringing to the endeavour what historian Keith Hancock called ‘span’- that big picture perception that makes sense of the small.  I learned a great deal from this book, particularly in terms of push-factors, both in the United Kingdom and within Australia itself, that prompted the geographical shifts revealed by those dusty dry documents.  As it happened, his family history provided a rich case study for the effect of religion on individuals and families, not just as an entry in a document but as lived experience.

Davidson is a much older and more experienced historian than Brodie, and he does not feel the same urge to slash at the historians who surround him.  In this regard, this is a much gentler and more mature history than Brodie’s, told with humility and grace.

Does the world need a deluge of  autobiographical, family-based histories, written by historians? I’m not sure that it does, and perhaps this will be a passing phase. Nonetheless, I suspect that Davidson’s book will survive when the genealogical juggernaut moves on.

‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’ by Annah Faulkner


2015, 321 p

I gave this book 120 pages before putting it aside.   I found the main character, conservation architect Christopher Bright self-absorbed, and just didn’t care enough for his existential crisis over his birth father to continue.  The book is written in present tense, with many, many flashbacks of dubious significance, and I found the handling of tense switches awkward.   Do all books have so many small editorial errors or was  it just that I wasn’t enjoying it?  Add to this the  many descriptions of food and appearance: all these things are warning signs that this book is not for me.

I find that many of the books I abandon or finish resentfully are set in recent or current-day Australia, and it’s possible that I’m rejecting current-day obsessions as much as the books themselves.  But I found that I just didn’t buy sufficiently into the secret and deceptions that lay at the heart of Christopher’s emotional pain, and there are too many other books that I want to read.  I have obviously bailed out before the title became explanatory, and I see from the acknowledgments at the end that the plot obviously moved beyond the beachhouse in Coolum and the Queensland bungalow and affluent angst. This particular reader, however, hasn’t been engaged enough to go along for the ride.

‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ by P. A. O’Reilly


2012, 247 p.

She’s certainly versatile, is P. A (or Paddy). O’Reilly. I’ve read her book The Factory and was kindly (thank you Lisa) given a copy of The Wonders, but am rather embarrassed to say that have not yet read it yet  (a TBR#20 contender perhaps?)  Both of these books have little in common with The Fine Colour of Rust  which is a light, humourous read, ideal for a book group (which is how I came to read it) or just for a lay-back-and-enjoy read.

Loretta Boskovic is one of three sisters, named by her mother in tribute to women country-music singers (her sisters are Tammy and Patsy). She lives a country life, and in many ways it reflects the staples of country-music lyrics: a small town, a no-good husband, and single motherhood.  But there’s no misery here: Loretta is funny, self-deprecating and a crusader for her small rural local community of Gunapan. Her children’s local school is threatened with closure, and so Loretta charges up the Save our School Committee, regales the local MP on his fleeting visit to the school, and has a partial success.  It is not long before she becomes aware of other nefarious doings involving local movers-and-shakers and big money.

I don’t live in a small town, but largely because of my participation in the Heidelberg Historical Society,  I am involved in local community action about heritage and development issues.  I haven’t yet earned ‘regular feature’ status at Council meetings, but I’ve been often enough to see grassroots politics in action, and Loretta’s activism and community involvement rings absolutely true to me. I’ve met several “Lorettas”  in committees, in local politics, at the school gate. They are the sinew of local life.

Her husband has breezed back into town with a new girlfriend in tow, and she watches sadly as her teenaged daughter reads significance  into his fleeting visit. Her kids drive her crazy, and she loves them like mad. She has women friends who she doesn’t always treat well, and her friend Norm, the old scrap-metal collector up the road, is a steady backstop and surrogate grandfather for her children.

When we discussed the book at bookgroup, we found ourselves calling “But what about when….” and flicking through to find yet another small snippet that had us laughing anew.  I didn’t even notice that the book was written in the present tense, and at times I had a lump in my throat just a couple of pages after laughing aloud.

The Fine Colour of Rust is an affectionate lovesong to community, to friendship, to motherhood and to small country life.  It’s not high literature, but it’s honest to the core.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website

‘To Name Those Lost’ by Rohan Wilson


2014, 304 p.

Although there are a couple of convict stories set in  colonies other than Tasmania, the genre and stereotype is almost synonymous with Van Diemens Land ( For ‘other colony’ stories I’m thinking particularly of Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant and Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves,set in Queensland; and  Kate Grenville’s colonial trilogy and  Keneally’s The Playmaker  set in Sydney).  The fifty years that Van Diemens Land served as a penal colony threw a long shadow, one that is still being explored in the Founders and Survivors Project in recent years.

Rohan Wilson’s second book To Name Those Lost is set in Launceston in 1874, some twenty years after transportation to VDL ceased, but for those expired convicts, uprooted to the other side of the earth and now set adrift, it is a hard place.

Tethered  on a real-life riot in Launceston in summer 1874, Wilson’s book traces the hunt between two fictional ex-convicts Thomas Toosey and Fitheal Flynn as they pursue each other through the streets and bushland surrounding post-convict era Launceston.  Thomas Toosey is searching for his young son, cast adrift after a stroke killed his mother, while Fitheal Flynn is accompanied by a silent, hooded figure.  The town itself is heaving with dissent over a tax imposed to bail out a failed railway company: a scenario not unknown to us today.  Thomas Toosey appeared in Wilson’s earlier book The Roving Party as one of John Batman’s posse during the Black War, and here there is a hunting of a different kind.  The narrative has twists and jerks; there are surprises; there is resolution.

I particularly liked the way that Wilson captured the more-formal tone of a nineteenth century narrative.  He animates the voices of ex-convicts, brought to VDL already with their accents formed, and those of their children born in this new, co-mingled colony.  His description of Launceston was historically-informed without descending to Trove-based historical visual tourism.

However I did, I must confess, have difficulty with imagining Launceston in summer, having only visited it in winter, even though I know that it does get hot there too. The descriptions of Launceston kept evoking for me images of small-town America, and I found it hard to stop imagining  Toosey and Finn as cowboys. Many readers have likened Wilson to Cormac McCarthy as a writer, and I can see why.  Wilson takes pains to underline the Australianness of his landscape, and the British (rather than American) nature of his characters, yet the Americanism keeps soaking through and I don’t know what- if anything- Wilson could do to prevent this.

In an appearance at the Adelaide Festival Writers Week in 2015, Wilson spoke of the research that went into this book, and the effect of reading about the Launceston riot as a trigger for the setting of the book.  He almost underplays the historical understanding that the book displays of the generational effect of convictism and historical change in Tasmania, but it is certainly there.  This book is, surprisingly, about love between parent and child, and  the bequest of opportunity between generations in this most unlikely of settings and among the most unlikely of founding fathers:

The chiefly gift of parent to child is this, to bed down the land with their ash and make a place where fire will breathe and be warm, and the debt is told in beads of white smoke, the furrowing heat.  And the sound of love is to name those lost who lived for others. (p. 295)

I enjoyed this book very much, and there is much to admire in Wilson as an attentive, talented new writer.

An aside: Rohan Wilson’s PhD related to his writing can be found at:


My new best friends on podcast

I’m really enjoying Chat10Looks3, a podcast put together by Leigh Sales and Annabelle Crabbe.  You can subscribe on I-tunes or download them from their website at  http://www.chat10looks3.com/   It’s worth downloading them all and listening from the beginning because there’s quite a few in-jokes.


They rabbit on about the books they’ve read, films they’ve seen, a little bit of current affairs and politics, favourite recipes and -yes- they cook cakes and biscuits for each other. Podcasts are often interrupted by their children coming to the door, the sound of them eating their delicious gifts to each other and bursts of laughter.  It’s like sitting beside two uproariously funny girlfriends having a coffee.

It was through Chat10Looks3 that I heard about a fantastic podcast called The Living Room by Diane Weipert



What a podcast! Within 30 I found myself recoiling in disgust at the narrator’s voyeurism, sobbing at the sadness of what she saw, and wondering if, by making this podcast, she has committed an even more egregious betrayal.   It’s one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to- see if you agree.