Monthly Archives: June 2013

‘Eugenia: A Man’ by Suzanne Falkiner

I recently read Mark Tedeschi’s book Eugenia.  It raised quite a few methodological and narrative questions for me, and so I was interested to see how other writers dealt with the same material.  You might  want to read my review of Tedeschi’s book too, because my response to this book was formed after reading it.

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1988, 243 p.

The blurb on the back of this book reads:

In the spring of 1917 an apprentice from the Cumberland Paper Mills, just outside Sydney, was walking along a bush track beside the Lane Cover River when he discovered the partially burnt body of an unidentified woman.  The arrest three years later of a 45 year old Italian woman, Eugenia Falleni, for murder, led to an investigation that fascinated the people of Australia.

Known in the newspapers as the ‘Man-Woman Case’, the trial revealed that from the time she had left New Zealand and gone to sea as a cabin boy, Eugenia had lived at least 20 years of her life in the guise of a man.

There is a entry on Eugenia Falleni in the Australian Dictionary of Biography if you’re not already familiar with her story.

The title of the book is quite definitive- “Eugenia- a Man.”  The image Falkiner has used for the front cover shows Harry Crawford as a young man and is taken from a photographic postcard created between 1900 and 1917 in Sydney.  On the back of the postcard are the words “I am sending you my photo for (a) keepsake, with love from H. Crawford”.  We do not know who wrote these words, as Harry Crawford himself was illiterate; nor do we know to whom they were written.

This book is written is two parts.  Part I, comprising twenty one chapters,traverses Eugenia’s life: her early life, his marriage, the crime and the trials.  It doesn’t take long to get to the death: just 25 pages. Unlike the Tedeschi book, Falkiner is careful to note the source of her information in the text itself (without footnotes), and I must admit that I felt more comfortable with such an approach.  I knew who said what, and when.  Also, this book differs from the Tedeschi book in that it is absolutely silent about what happened on Eight Hours Day when the death of Annie Birkett occurred.

Much of Part I is taken from the trial transcripts, especially those printed in the newspapers.  The press took a close and rather prurient interest in the trial: you only need do a Trove search to find the many print columns devoted to the trial. Falkiner goes through each of the witnesses in turn, and spends almost as much time on the magistrate’s court hearing as the Supreme Court trial.  Like Tedeschi, she is critical of Eugenia’s defence lawyer McDonnell, but it is the appraisal of an onlooker rather than the critique of an insider, as Tedeschi Q. C.  is.

There are occasional chapters during Part I where the author herself comes onto centre stage.  She explains at the outset how she came to be interested in Eugenia; she visits the locations where the death occurred; she traces the houses where various characters lived.  The ‘quest’ narrative is quite a common framing narrative for us now, both in fiction and through shows like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and I must admit that it’s becoming a little hackneyed- but perhaps less so in 1988 when this book was written.

In Part II, the author shares the limelight with Falleni as she tries to get behind the trial to find some sense of Falleni as a person.  She tracks down relatives,  visits them in New Zealand, she even visits Eugenia’s birthplace in Italy.

Histories always exist within an historiographical context, and this is true of Falkiner’s book as well.  You can sense the presence of the 1980s in her interest in the migrant experience and the gender roles of  men and women in the early twentieth century.  She does address the issue of trans-sexuality, but in nowhere near the depth that it might be explored today (and in Tedeschi’s book)  and not at all from the perspective of lesbian history or queer theory.  A recent review written as background material for the play ‘Passing’  tackled the author for her sentimentalized view of Eugenia:

Falkiner’s book is perhaps the most detailed study of Eugenia Falleni’s life but its insight value is diluted by Falkiner’s sentimentality and subjectivity. Falkiner projects unabashed sympathy and no small amount of pop-psychology about gender and sexuality towards her subject – she frames Eugenia as a misunderstood gentle soul suffering from a vague kind of gender identity crisis to such a point that Annie Birkett’s murder, which Eugenia was tried and convicted for and later admitted guilt to, is relegated as a footnote.  (From Passing Research Notes: ‘Trans theory- a brief guide)

I’m not sure that in 1988 there was the  interest or theoretical frameworks at the popular level for queer theory analysis.  If there is sentimentality, I think that it springs from the emotional investment that any biographer makes in her subject, especially where the research springs bottom-up from interest in the individual and their story rather than from a top-down interest in a theoretical phenomenon.  I’ve been aware recently of research into European migrants to Australia at the turn of the century from the perspective of whiteness studies, which is a 21st century twist on the 1980s’-era multiculturalism that Falkiner explores in her book.  One thing that came through very clearly was the marginality and fluidity of a working class existence where housing, jobs and, in Eugenia’s case, identities were temporary and rootless.  I was surprised, in both this book and in Tedeschi’s, about the silence about World War I and its effect on working-class communities and men.  Perhaps the silence is in the documents, but it did strike me as strange.

The book itself is a very easy read, not dissimilar in tone and approach to a Good Weekend article in the weekend’s newspaper.  Perhaps it doesn’t have the little stabs of insight of a Helen Garner (e.g. Joe Cinque’s Consolation) or Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, but it is similar to both of them in that the book deals with a crime and the consequences in court and afterward, and the observer’s response.

Should you read this book, or Tedeschi’s?  I’d say “read them both”- perhaps reading this one first.

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‘Eugenia’ by Mark Tedeschi Q. C.

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2012, 236 p & notes

I must admit that I don’t very often come away from the ANZLHS Law and History Conference rushing  to my library website to look up a book.  I did, however,  with this book last December only to find that it already had multiple reservations.  I put a hold on it in December and finally received it in May.  Perhaps they should buy another copy….

You’ve probably seen or hear of Mark Tedeschi  QC, even if you don’t know you have.  He’s the NSW Senior Crown Prosecutor, and he has been involved in a slew of important and famous criminal trials: Ivan Milat’s Backpacker Murder; the trial of the men who murdered the heart surgeon Victor Chang;  the trial following the assassination of politician John Newman; the Gordon Wood case over the death of Caroline Byrne at The Gap; and Counsel assisting the Coroner in the 2007 trial into the killing of the Balibo Five.  It was in his role as Senior Crown Prosecutor that he addressed a gathering of former and present Crown Prosecutors gathered at NSW Parliament House in 2005 to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the appointment of the first Crown Prosecutor,  Frederick Garling, in 1830.At that presentation he listed a number of extraordinary, complex and bizarre trials, and first on his list was that of Eugenia Falleni. In the introduction to this book he writes:

In the intervening years, I have come to consider that the trial of Eugenia Falleni in 1920 should be viewed as the single most important criminal trial of those 175 years.  Its prominence is not because of any  lasting effect that the trial had on the law or the administration of criminal justice, but rather because of the multitude of legal and social issues that Eugenia’s life and trial throw up for us to consider, so that we can use them as a yardstick to ask ourselves what we have learned and how far we have progressed since then.” P. 228

So who was Eugenia Falleni?  I’m wary of spoilers, so I’ll cite from the publicity on the back cover.

Eugenia Falleni was a woman, who in the 1920s was charged with the murder of her wife.  She had lived in Australia for twenty two years as a man and during that time married twice.  Three years after the mysterious disappearance of Annie, her first wife, Eugenia was arrested and charged with her murder.  This is the story of one of the most extraordinary criminal trials in legal history anywhere in the world.  The book traces Eugenia’s history: from her early years in New Zealand, to her brutal treatment aboard a merchant ship and then her life in Sydney, living as Harry Crawford- exploring how Harry managed to convince two wives that he was a man, culminating with Annie’s death, the police investigation, Harry’s second marriage to Lizzie, and then arrest for Annie’s murder three years after she had disappeared.

The book is written in three parts.  The first, ‘The Search for Love’ takes us up to the trial.  Many chapters start with a paragraph identifying the year and listing a number of events that occurred that year.  It reminded me a bit of the technique in the film Same Time Next Year where each new encounter was separated from the last by a film clip of significant events.  So, in this book Chapter 5 is set in 1913, marked by Roland Garros’s flight from France to Tunisia, Emily Pankhurst’s jail sentence and the commencement of work on Canberra.  It’s rather repetitive and overt, but on the other hand I could actually name the years in which events took place instead of just having a vague idea after a single date is given at the start of the book , then not mentioned again.

The book is written using fictional techniques, but it is not fiction.  There are conversations in the book, and frequent internal dialogues where the author suggests the thoughts of various characters.  Despite the spoiler on the back cover, there is little foreshadowing of events that will unfurl during the story.

In his introduction, Tedeschi  signals how he is going to deal with his sources.  He writes:

The historical facts of Eugenia Fallini’s story that I have related in this book, including quotations from newspaper reports and evidence from her trial, are based upon contemporary public records, press reports, court transcripts and other written accounts, as well as subsequent recollections of people who had direct contact with the main personalities.  I could have provided footnotes or endnotes for the historical facts, but I believe that including numbered notes in a text creates a visual and psychological hurdle for the reader to overcome.  For this reason, I have instead included a bibliography at the end of the book and I have only inserted numbered endnotes in the text  where they are essential for an explanation.  Where I have referred to personal thoughts and emotions, these are generally inferred by me from the background factual circumstances in which they occurred.  Most conversations are taken from police statements or evidence given in the committal proceedings and the trial.  In those two instances (in chapters 1 and 8) where, in the absence of established facts, I have engaged in conjecture about significant events, I have clearly indicated that this is the case and stated the basis for my supposition. P. xiv.

I didn’t find this particularly satisfactory.  The bibliography at the end of the book is divided into legal documents, newspaper articles, obituaries and family histories, and secondary sources.  The legal documents, which are probably the most important, include the transcript of the trial, the judge’s trial notes, the register of post mortem examinations , NSW female penitentiary records and a police statement.  Yet in the text itself, there is no indication which document a particular fact draws upon and thus no way of the reader weighing the authority and interests that the statement reflected.  The footnotes are more like explanatory notes e.g. conversion of imperial measures into decimal, biographical details of minor characters, or references to tangential legal cases.  Occasionally, though, there are footnotes directly related to the narrative.

He makes many assumptions about his characters’ state of mind without indicating the basis for his reconstruction .  For example:

 Over the long weekend, Harry languished in his kitchen over a bottle of whisky, agonising about what would become of Annie’s fourteen-year old son, and indeed himself, without Annie.  When the boy returned from his long-weekend holiday at Collaroy with the Bone family, how was he to break the terrible news to him that his mother had gone off without telling him or even leaving a note, leaving him with his stepfather? He felt great sorrow for this boy who had lost his father when he was very young and who now faced being informed that his mother was gone.  P 66

There is no indication of the evidence he used for deducing Harry’s feelings about his stepson, or whether this ‘terrible news’ of Annie’s desertion  was clearly thought through rather than an excuse conjured up on the spot. We do not know whether this reflects Eugenia (Harry’s) own confession, the step-son’s testimony, or Tedeschi’s assumptions- and surely that matters.

In his introduction, he particularly signposted Chapter 8 as a section where he was creating his own explanation.  I cannot fault the care with which he does so in the opening paragraphs of that chapter:

There were only two people who knew exactly what happened next in the clearing at the Lane Cover River Park: Harry Crawford and his wife, Annie.  Neither of them was in a position afterwards to give an account, for reasons that will become apparent.  What follows is therefore a possible version of events, re-created by the author, that is entirely consistent with all the known facts that later emerged, but interpreted with the benefit of today’s superior knowledge in the forensic sciences and unimpeded by the considerable prejudice that existed at the time for someone in Harry Crawford’s predicament  (p.55)

What follows is a narrative that is highly sympathetic to Harry Crawford (Eugenia).  It is very much the sort of legal narrative that a defence counsel could create, but it is oddly placed in Part I, which is a straight chronological account.  The author gives no indication of the evidence from which he has drawn up the scenario, and once created, it skews the rest of the narrative.    What would I have done, were I writing this book?  I think I might have created this narrative, and then immediately created a counter-narrative.  Perhaps I would have put it in Part II where Tedeschi writes as a lawyer, or perhaps at the end of the book.  I would certainly, at least identified the sources for my explanation here, if not elsewhere.  This chapter has no notes at all.

It is in Part II of the book  (“Legal  Proceedings”) that Tedeschi really hits his straps.  Using his legal knowledge, he examines the investigation and trial from beginning to end, noting discrepancies and anomalies and distinguishing changes in the law from the early 20th century to today. He notes flaws in the Crown’s case and is particularly scathing of Harry’s defence lawyer.  You’re very much aware of the lawyer at work here.  He creates a long list of fifteen alternative questions that the defence layer could have but did not ask, and embroiders the narrative with the rhetorical flourishes that a lawyer in full flight might use: for example,  a succession of paragraphs that each end with the sentence “it has not always been so” or in another section listing things that the defence lawyer could have done “but would he do so?”  Whatever my misgivings about the first part of the book, only a barrister could write this second section.

Part III, “Incarceration and Release” examines Eugenia’s life after she has been released from prison. Here he quotes more directly from medical reports, oral histories and newspaper articles, and I felt as if I was on surer evidentiary ground.  It is only a short section and rather sad.  He concludes with a retrospective that reviews the trial from a 21st century perspective.  It’s an interesting chapter.  Finally, there is an appendix that follows up on the main characters and what happened to them later, and the places and institutions in which events occurred.  I’m not really sure that it was necessary as an appendix because the story stood well on its own two feet.

The book addresses the issue of sex and gender directly.  It’s a fairly human response, I suppose, for us to wonder “But surely his wives would have known that she wasn’t a man?!” and Tedeschi goes into quite a bit of detail about the object coyly referred to in the court cases as “the article”.

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I found myself returning again and again to the police photograph of Harry on the front cover.  It was taken immediately after his arrest.  Not only had he been charged with the murder of his first wife, but his second wife now knew about his false identity.  He was afraid that he would be placed in a male prison with his identity as man/woman common knowledge.  There’s cockiness and yet sorrow in his face, and he had every reason to be fearful.

It’s a compelling story and, quite apart from the narrative itself, this book has raised so many methodological questions for me that I want to read more. How would a journalist deal with the story, or an historian?  Tedeschi acknowledges his debt to Suzanne Falkiner’s book, and I know that the historian Ruth Ford has written about her as well.  I haven’t finished with this story yet.

Ballarat Bound #3: The Gold Museum

The final stop on our weekend in Ballarat was the Gold Museum that is adjacent to Sovereign Hill.  It’s been there for some time- in fact, it even has a statue of Sir Henry Bolte out the front, welcoming his contribution to the creation of the Sovereign Hill/Gold Museum precinct.  I suppose that there’s a long tradition of commemorating patrons with a statue.

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The Gold Museum had always seemed a rather strange place to me.  I remember it having many displays of gold coins and nuggets which have never particularly interested me.  I’m not sure whether they’re authentic or reproductions: I suspect the latter because there seemed to be little overt security presence.  As a display, it seemed even more disjointed this time around and rather tired.

However, this was only part of the display, and the rest was excellent.  There was a rather dimly lit exhibition about gold and its impact on Victoria generally, and Ballarat in particular, and it was very well done.  We spent probably 45 minutes looking at a panorama of Ballarat taken by William Bardwell from the top of the town hall spire in 1872. (See here for just one of the 15 images)  I assume that the photographs had been taken in the early morning because there are not many people about and the clarity, especially for a photograph of its age, is amazing.  We spent ages picking out buildings we knew, contemplating the variety of industry and civic life depicted, transportation etc– very well done indeed.

A temporary display highlights letters of the goldfields, and in particular the Petford Letters Collection.  This is a series of 36 letters written by James Petford who arrived in Adelaide in 1848 then travelled between goldfields in Victoria.  It’s sobering to see how tenuous the communication links could become between family members with letters waiting literally years before being collected, and vain attempts to keep some sort of chronology intact with marriages occurring and breaking down, children being born and dying and people moving on.

We had been lured up to the museum by the Anne Frank travelling exhibition which had closed in Melbourne before I got to see it.  No doubt, those who have seen the Anne Frank house itself would sniff at this travelling exhibition but given that I’m not in Amsterdam….  There was a good video, then a pictorial display based on a timeline.  All very apposite, given that last week was Refugee Week.  I’d like to think that I would have had the courage to help had I been in the situation, but I fear that I wouldn’t.  Life was so cheap.  I hadn’t realized how close to liberation Anne Frank’s death was, and I continue to be impressed, especially when I hear readings of her diary entries, by how well she wrote.

And so,  completely museum-ed out we headed for home.  Where next, I wonder, within 100 km of Melbourne?

Ballarat Bound #2: The Museum of Democracy at Eureka

Victoria’s newest museum, M.A.D.E , The Museum of Democracy at Eureka opened in May this year.  The building looks a bit like a grown-up version of Julia’s schoolrooms throughout the country, with the timbering on the back expanse referencing the stockade that was erected roughly on the site in 1854.

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As all of the kerfuffle over the National Museum in Canberra during the Howard years demonstrated, museums are rarely neutral institutions and this is particularly true of this museum.  You can see a number of worthy priorities at stake here: a desire to ‘teach the young ones their civics’; a desire to take advantage of one of the colourful episodes in Victorian history as something that kids might get excited about; a bit of local pride and tourism opportunities for Ballarat as a region.

The Eureka Rebellion of 1854 was a revolt of gold-miners against the expense of the mining licence they were required to hold in order to pan for gold and its administration by the Gold Commissioner and his troopers.  Civil disobedience had been rumbling along for a while, and culminated in the creation of the Ballarat Reform League and a shoot-out at a hastily erected ‘stockade’ (probably a generous term) on 3rd December 1854.

One of the claims for the Eureka Rebellion- and one that is pursued through the displays in this museum- is that the Eureka Rebellion marked the birth of Australian democracy.  This is a rather tenuous and parochial claim, and one that you’d rarely find enunciated in other museums celebrating democracy in other states.  It’s a view that largely overlooks the contribution of Chartism in UK and other international political undercurrents,  and struggles to explain why South Australia had manhood suffrage before Victoria did.  Direct links between the Eureka rebels and the Federal Parliament and its policies some 50 years later are also fairly slight.  However, not to put too much weight on this particular thrust of the display, the museum does also explore the concepts of democracy, power and participation more widely.

The exhibition space is laid out with the Eureka Story in the centre, with alcoves around the room other sections discussing differing aspects of power through words, influence, numbers and symbols.  The Eureka Story display had a good chronological narrative and was, rather surprisingly, very heavily primary document-based.  The displays were operated using all the display syntax of the i-phone: swiping, pinching to reduce and magnify etc- something that people would not have known how to do three years ago (and possibly will be surpassed in future years).  That said, it’s not a particularly option-laden display: your choice involves choosing which particular topic to explore on a given screen and then just clicking ‘next’ on the transcription of the primary document attached to it.  It was frustrating and troubling that already, after less than a month, some of the touch displays required several pressings.    Only two or three people can gather around each display tablet at a time, and only one person can ‘drive’ it. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable poring over the primary documents in the way I did, had there been a queue of people behind me.  There’s always the tendency to keep pressing buttons (or in this case, icons) quickly just as a way of seeing what comes next, and I think that under the pressure of crowds waiting for you to move on and let them control it instead of you, you’d feel a strong pressure not to linger.

The displays on the outer walls were rather less touch-screen based.  There was an interesting video with a woman talking about feeling powerless in a Muslim country, followed by a video of a refugee;  there was an  activity where your face was scanned for digital recognition and you were either granted or denied the right to vote based on age or gender (not colour, interestingly enough given the salience of colour as a criterion for the right to vote, historically).  It was rather funny: I was trying to look as happy and beautiful as possible (!) and was assessed as a 45-55 year old MAN in a ‘neutral’ mood.  There was a display about songs, which had a rather primitive stop/start mechanism based on standing on footsteps on the floor.  The one song was played,  no matter which set of footsteps you stood on- perhaps there would have been too many competing sounds in a small area otherwise.  I don’t think that it was well enough explained why those songs, in particular, were chosen.  There was a good video-based display about the power of persuasion, with an interactive quiz at the end, and an excellent auditory presentation of famous political speeches highlighting the rhetorical devices used by the speaker.

Then, of course, there’s the Eureka Flag itself, on permanent loan from the Art Gallery of Ballarat, where it has been on display for a number of years.  It’s in a darkened room behind glass, and it’s quite a reverential experience.  A video outside the display explains the conservation techniques that have been used on the flag, and the complexity of its shift from the gallery to this new museum.

Like all  new public buildings of its ilk constructed today, the gift shop, cafe and auditorium dominate most of the usable space.

All in all, it’s a very multi-media laden display and I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the director of the museum is a digital-content expert rather than a historian.  In fact, any mention of curators or historical consultants seems to be missing entirely. Perhaps that’s why, too, the transcriber of a particular government document seemed to be completely unaware of the bureaucratic convention of writing the gist of the government reply on a diagonal angle across the back of a document.  This led to a rather garbled and nonsensical transcription, and one that should not have appeared in a display of the quality and expense of this museum.  Still, given the huge conceptual difficulties of displaying and even enthusing visitors (and especially young people) about democracy,  this museum is a very twenty-first century approach.

I’ll be interested to see how this museum fares under a conservative government, if that’s what we’re heading for.  I’d be willing to bet that Christopher Pyne, who has already reprised the cry against ‘black arm band history’ will be hightailing it to Ballarat very quickly, calling for an enquiry into this exhibition that celebrates protest so overtly.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

Ballarat bound #1: The Art Gallery of Ballarat

So what if the Aussie dollar is dropping?? I’m still on the road:  Geelong a couple of weeks ago; Ballarat this weekend! Who needs to go further than 100 kms from home?? Wot larks!

I’d been disappointed to miss the Anne Frank travelling exhibition that closed recently at the Jewish Museum and when I found that it had headed off to the  Ballarat Gold Museum, I thought I’d follow it.  Then there’s the new Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE) which opened just last month, and a scientific drawing exhibition from Museum Victoria on show at the Ballarat Art Gallery.  So, all in all- a good reason to go!

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For those of you not familiar with Ballarat, it’s a large provincial gold-rush town about 100 km north-west of Melbourne.  Enormous wealth poured into both Ballarat and the similarly-sized Bendigo  in the early 1850s and is expressed in its grand architecture and densely-woven civic culture.

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First stop- the  Art Gallery of Ballarat, the oldest and largest regional art gallery in Australia (yet another manifestation of the wealth brought by gold, no doubt).  There were two temporary exhibitions that we were interested in, both as it happens  touring exhibitions from Melbourne-based institutions.

The first was The Art of Science: Scientific illustrations from Museum Victoria, featuring 300 years of scientific drawings from nature.  Birds and wildlife dominated the first room, with pictures by John Gould and his illustrators, various French and British naturalists who had come to Australia in the late 18th century and several plates from Audubon’s Birds of America.   I’m often fascinated by the very first scientific drawings of -for example, Australian fauna- that are really grappling with trying to depict something that has not been seen before and yet don’t quite capture it properly.  Possibly it’s lack of skill, or perhaps it’s because the painter is reaching after comparisons and analogies that don’t work.

There was a chronological and conceptual narrative  in the way that the works were displayed in this exhibition.  The illustrations in the first room tried to replicate reality as accurately as possible, then the exhibition moved on to scientific depictions of the unseen through the  reconstructions of fossils and then finally magnification as a form of hyper-seeing.

Stairway leading up to galleries, Art Gallery of Ballarat

Stairway leading up to galleries, Art Gallery of Ballarat

All of which formed an interesting juxtaposition with the exhibition in the adjoining rooms Living Traditions: The Art of Belief  from the NGV which showed man’s attempts to draw or respond through art to something definitely unseen (and in my opinion, not real at all).

Then upstairs briefly to look for Mr Judge’s Grand-dad’s contribution to the Gallery.  Most major  galleries in Australia have a Web Gilbert somewhere tucked away.  Here’s Ballarat’s:

'Psyche' by C. Web Gilbert, Art Gallery of Ballarat

‘Psyche’ by C. Web Gilbert, Art Gallery of Ballarat

A pie for lunch (what else?) then next stop- The Museum of Democracy at Eureka.

‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska

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2012, 426 p.

There are spoilers in this review.

Why would an acclaimed non-fiction author ‘go over’ to fiction?  Perhaps there’s something about the personal meaning of the material for the author that makes it easier to deal with fictionally. Perhaps there are ethical challenges in grappling with it, where the story is based on real-life, still-living people? Perhaps there’s squeamishness about ownership of the story: whether the story is the author’s to tell.

The Mountain  is Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction, although none of her work fits neatly into defined categories. Her non-fiction has always straddled the genres of non-fiction, memoir and imagination.  In this book, too, I sense that it is not ‘straight’ fiction and I felt almost deceived when reading her acknowledgements at the back of the book that elide the fact that she, herself, was the young wife of an anthropologist in New Guinea in the 1970s. She has made no secret of the fact in her interviews after the writing of the book, and even before, and yet there is this strange distancing of herself from the narrative in her acknowledgements in the book itself.

The book opens with a prologue set in 2005.  Although called a prologue, it is actually at the chronological fulcrum between Part I, set in 1968-73 and Part II set in 2006.  As such, it was largely incomprehensible at first, although I found myself flipping back to it several times while reading the book as the characters became (somewhat) more settled in my own mind.  The book closes with an epilogue in 2006 that largely mirrors the opening prologue.

Part I, told in the past tense, focuses on Rika, a young Dutch woman who accompanies her older husband, Leonard, an Australian ethnographic film-maker to New Guinea.  Set in 1968, she is absorbed easily into a mixed-race, expatriate social milieu gathered around the university.  Her husband Leonard goes ‘up the mountain’ to film villages and their inhabitants, and in his absence she falls in love with Aaron, who has come ‘down the mountain’ and is acclaimed as a future leader when Papua New Guinea achieves  the independence which is on the horizon.  Rika, racked with guilt but also determined in her love for Aaron, travels ‘up the mountain’ to tell Leonard personally of her decision and returns to take up her life with Aaron leaving Leonard heart-broken.  However, as time passes and Aaron becomes increasingly caught up in the politics of independence, Rika does not fall pregnant and  is thus unable to be fully accepted as Aaron’s wife by the villagers.  When five-year-old  Jericho is sent down the mountain, Rika realizes that Jericho is actually Leonard’s son by a village woman up the mountain.  She adopts him and he too becomes part of this large, mixed-race expatriate community, viewing Rika and her friend Martha as his two mothers.  I was engaged by the love story between Rika and Aaron, but found myself bewildered by what seemed like an endless succession of men with biblical names coming ‘up’ and ‘down’ the mountain and their wives.

My bewilderment and confusion carried over into Part II when Jericho, now a grown man, returns to PNG in 2006. There had obviously been a rupture: he had been brought up in Oxford where Leonard still lived; he was still in contact with Rika who was now a famous photographer but alienated completely from all contact with PNG and those who still lived there, and Aaron was dead.  The hopes and optimism of independence had soured, and the threats of palm oil plantations, mining leases and ecological exploitation were ever-present.  I actually managed to read about 50 pages into Part II before realizing that I had confused Aaron and Jacob (there’s those biblical names there) and had to go back to re-read once I realized my error.  Inattentive reading on my part, to be sure, but obviously the characters weren’t etched sufficiently into my own reading to survive the time-gap of thirty years between the two sections.  Part II is told in the present-tense and it largely revolves around solving the mystery of the rupture between Rika and the expatriate and village communities she had been trying  so hard to join.  At this level, the book is essentially a story of relationships against a wider political and ethical backdrop.

Although the book is fiction and centred on fictional characters, it is very much a book of ideas and it’s the ideas that I take away from the book.  There are poetic word-pictures of the beauty of the jungle and the garishness and incongruity of modern development.   Betrayal and alienation and being ‘hafkas’ (half-caste), and the multi-layered issues of colonialism and independence, exploitation, superstition and development are all explored with intelligence and nuance.  The focus on art and representation evokes Modjeska’s work in Stravinsky’s Lunch, and there are layers upon layers of thought  in the book that speak to the influences that Modjeska makes reference to in her Acknowledgements.   The book has been short-listed for many awards, including the Miles Franklin, and despite the Miles Franklin’s (sometimes disregarded) restriction to Australian works ‘in all their….’, this is very much a book about Australian colonialism as well.

I’m not sure, though, that I was completely satisfied by the book.  I recognize its depth and the importance of the ideas it carries but I don’t know if fictionalizing was a solution to the problem of how to represent them.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it has been shortlisted for several awards, and as a review for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Toy time!

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Well, well- the toy catalogues are here.  It must be mid-winter.

I’ve noticed that the toy catalogues always appear in the middle of the year, harking back no doubt to an earlier time when we actually saved for things. I remember that the newsagent in Upper Heidelberg Road Ivanhoe used to have a big toy sale in the middle of the year and ‘the mothers’ would line up along the footpath, waiting for the shop to open.  Presents would be put on layby and would be wrapped in brown paper and stored above the shelves, up near the roof with the surname written on the parcel with texta.  All the second half of the year they would sit there.  You could see the names from child-height below, and wonder if there was something there for you.  A win-win situation, you’d have to say: a present could be bought on sale and paid off gradually with no tricky Santa-hiding problems, then whip along on Christmas Eve and pick it up!

So is there any such thing as lay-by any more?  I see that the K-Mart catalogue has a sticker on the front that tries to make the absence of a service a virtue:

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No need for Layby! Low prices every day!

On the other hand, ToysRUs do still have layby, but there’s a catch!

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They’ll waive the $7.50 layby set up fee but the 10% deposit and $2.90 monthly fee still apply- and there’s more conditions to see in store! So- set-up fee, monthly fee on top of the repayments- hope it’s a good special!  I do note that it’s ‘lay-buy’ (with an emphasis on the transaction) rather than ‘lay-by’ (with an emphasis on the storage location).

But of course we don’t wait for things these days, do we?  If you want it, buy it! I’m sometimes saddened by those ‘Nothing to pay until 2016!’ advertisements when I think that whatever was purchased in such haste will probably be shabby and thrown out by 2016 when the repayments start.

It all seems a long way from gazing at a brown-paper parcel on the toyshop shelf. And of course, perhaps there’s no thought of Christmas at all- perhaps it’s just toys for the sake of toys.