Category Archives: Australian literature

‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’ by Annah Faulkner

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.

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‘To Name Those Lost’ by Rohan Wilson

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:

https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/39634

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

bishop

2015, 279 p

I put a hold on this book some time ago, having heard good things about it. I was startled to find that I was number 30 on the waiting list but when I actually picked the book up from the library some weeks later, I was prepared to be disappointed.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, we are told- but I do.  The gold embossed font suggested genre fiction (as Lisa from ANZLitLovers learned recently) and the pastel colours suggested romance. The sickly-sweet blurb “The only thing harder than losing home is trying to find it again” was not encouraging, either.

But this book is poorly served by its cover, because instead of fantasy or romance, this is a beautifully nuanced book about nostalgia, motherhood and the sense of ‘home’.   It is written in the present tense, a stylistic choice that I usually bridle against (despite writing nearly all this blog in the present tense myself!) In this case, however, I barely noticed, as was the case in Black Rock, White City which I read recently too: perhaps I’m moving away from my prejudice against present-tense narratives?

Set between 1963 and 1966, Charlotte has been plunged into rapid motherhood, long before she feels ready. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Henry, an Anglo-Indian academic and she is suffocating under what we would now probably diagnose as post-natal depression. Ground down by the sheer mindlessness and fatigue of dealing with babies, she acquiesces in Henry’s dream of emigrating to Australia and ends up in stark, hot, sun-drenched Perth, where he gains a position at the university.  She hates it and wants to return home but he resists her unhappiness, convinced that the opportunities that Australia offers their children and time will overcome what he assumes is temporary homesickness.  She resents Henry and is drawn to a fellow artist, Nicholas, who understands better the nature of the sacrifice that this move to the other side of the world has cost her.

Although  Henry rests in the assurance that he has done the right thing by bringing his family to Australia, as an Anglo-Indian he faces his own challenges in 1960s White Australia Perth. When he is called to India where his mother is dying, he leaves Charlotte alone with the children.  Back in his childhood home and increasingly conscious of his parents’ choice to send him back to England for his education,  he is brought up against his own concept of ‘home’.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to work as research assistant for A. James Hammerton, who along with the noted oral historian Alistair Thomson, wrote Ten Pound Poms, a fascinating book about the experience of post-war English migrants who emigrated to Australia under the assisted migration scheme that ran between the 1940s and 1970s.   He was working on a second book (not yet published as far as I know) about mobility between the UK and her former colonies especially after the assisted emigration schemes had drawn to a close, and the interviews that I read as part of my work for that project, along with those in the earlier book Ten Pound Poms very much echo the experiences of the characters in this book.  It rings absolutely true.

Not so true, however, are some of the small infelicities which arise, I’m sure, as a result of the youth of the author.  Refrigerator freezers in 1965 barely contained an ice-cream brick let alone a loaf of bread; playgroups didn’t emerge in Australia until the 1970s and the smacking of children- at least in many families- didn’t have quite the connotations it has now.  I suspect that the author has spent much time examining the copies of the Womens Weekly available on TROVE but the references to it are awkward and jangly.

Charlotte has the eye of an artist and the author, Stephanie Bishop, has the voice of the poet.  This comes through most strongly in the descriptions of setting and place that run throughout the book and which underpin Charlotte’s longing for England.  At the same time, the book is minutely domestic with well-observed (if perhaps a little too lengthy) descriptions of parenthood with small children in the absence of a family or community network.  Overall, it’s a very assured, mature and nuanced second novel by a clearly talented young writer.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

‘The Mothers’ by Rod Jones

themothers

2015, 334 p

Spoilers ahead.

By rights, I should have loved this book.  It’s a family saga, focussed firmly on the female characters; it’s based largely in Melbourne; it covers 1917-1990 and is rich with social history. It is written in five parts, encompassing seven separate chapters.  Each of the chapters is named for its female protagonist, followed by location and year (e.g. Alma, Footscray 1917; Anna, Cockatoo 1990.) So it is a book firmly anchored in its characters who are embedded into a particular place and time- usually a structure and concept that I enjoy. However, in this case, I found myself dissatisfied.

There are four mothers in this novel.  The book opens with Alma, who has walked out on her adulterous husband with her two children in 1917, at a time long before Supporting Mothers’ benefits and in the midst of WWI.  Homeless and without support, she is taken in by Alfred Lovett and his mother. It is  when she falls pregnant to Alfred that the relationship sours, and under pressure from his mother, Alfred pays for Alma, her two children and her new daughter Molly to shift to Seddon.  When this arrangement falls through, Alma cannot afford to support her daughter and so young Molly is sent to the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Brighton. Jones writes a nuanced account of Molly’s time at the orphanage: it is not a horror story of deprivation or cruelty, but a stripped down, anxious time. Molly does rejoin her family and marries, but does not fall pregnant.

The second mother is Anna, an unmarried, pregnant twenty-year old girl from Cockatoo who is brought to the Salvation Army ‘Haven‘ in Alfred Cres, near Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy in 1952.  But this institution was no haven: instead it was part of the twentieth-century adoption process-line so heartbreakingly detailed in the Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption Practices of 2012.   I read this section with a sinking feeling of inevitability and found it the most compelling part of the book.   It comes as no surprise, really, that the adoptive mother- the third mother in the book- is Molly who, in many ways, projects the insecurities of her orphanage experience onto her adopted child, David.

The fourth mother of the book is Cathy, David’s girlfriend in 1975. Cathy, too, is pregnant but it’s a completely different scenario in Whitlam’s Australia than the one faced by David’s unknown biological grandmother Alma when she fell pregnant in post WWI Footscray.  David, the father of Cathy’s child, is prickly and restless, reluctant to engage with the bourgeois conceit of marriage.  He is aware that he had been adopted but unwilling at that stage to follow it up any further.  It is not until the 1990s, in the final chapter of the book, that there is a coming together – an awkward, tentative and inconclusive coming together- of his birth and adoptive mothers.

So, why didn’t I fall in love with this book?  Part of it, for me, was its rather self-conscious attempt to be historically grounded.  Much as I love Trove,( and I truly do), I wonder sometimes if it’s not strangling Australian historical fiction by enticing writers to indulge in a form of literary product placement.  There were too many details that Jones seemed unable to omit, and rather than adding authenticity, I felt as if I were being conducted around a movie set.

This was compounded by the very simple writing style that Jones uses.  I found myself craving something that was meatier- although not in an emotional sense because he did manage to get inside his characters’ consciousness, and equally well for both his male and female characters.  But this was achieved through a succession of many short sentences, and I felt as if I was being written-down-to. This is  a book about hard things, and I wanted the language to match it.

In an article written by Jane Sullivan about an interview with the author, we learn that Rod Jones was adopted and that this very much is his story.  Perhaps we need to read it as fictionalized memoir, and acknowledge the pain that seeps through it.  But it’s much more than the “penitential exercise, however worthy” that Peter Pierce denigated it as in his review in the Australian, and it has an emotional integrity that shines through.  I just felt that it was smothered by the period detail and short-changed by the writing.

‘The Girl with the Dogs’ by Anna Funder

girl_with_the_dogs

2014,  57 p.

This book is published as a Penguin Special, a series that is spruiked as

“concise, original and affordable… short enough to be read in a single setting- when you’re stuck on a train; in your lunch hour; between dinner and bedtime.”

Looking through the other titles in the series at the back of the book, they’ve engaged some good writers, mainly but not exclusively fiction.  I see that this novella was originally published as “Everything Precious” by Paspayley.  Paspayley? Publishers?  It’s only now, as I write this blog entry that I’ve remembered reading about this: Anna Funder (winner of the Miles Franklin back in 2012) was funded to write a short story aimed at a young female demographic by Paspayley Pearls.  The company had come in for some adverse publicity through a Four Corners episode in 2012 investigating the death of one of its pearl divers, and the company contracted Special Group advertising agency to produce a campaign aimed at a market that had not, until then, seen pearls as a fashion item.   A chapter of the book was released online each day, accompanied by a video clip featuring an actress wearing Paspayley pearls.  At the end of the week-long campaign, the whole book was available for download as a free e-book and in hard copy.  Of course, if I’d read the back cover, I would have known that it had been published online under a different title.

Learning all this changes the direction of my thinking about this book. I wonder how Penguin came to publish it, when it’s available online anyway? Is that why they changed the name?   I think I’d feel a little cross if I shelled out the $9.99 to buy it, only to find that I’d downloaded it for free six months earlier under another title.

In fact, I’d been thinking about the pricing of this book, even before I learned of its digital incarnation.  I read it in 45 minutes, and $9.99 seems rather expensive for less than an hour’s reading.  Then I remembered Weight Watchers (of all things). They consciously price their sessions to be the same price as a cinema ticket- enough to twinge, but a price comparable to a fairly common entertainment activity.  I suppose that movies go for about 100 minutes at $20.00 for a full-price ticket at Hoyts, so I guess that an hour’s reading (I’m a fairly fast reader) at $10.00 makes the book and a movie  somewhat comparable.  This all seems rather grubby and mercenary, but I must confess to feeling emboldened to pursue the idea now, knowing that the book was funded as a commercial venture in the first place.  Although all books are, I suppose: the difference lies in the fact that instead of a publisher funding it, a jeweller did.

As for the book itself: it is very much a modern story.  Tess is the mother of three children and the daughter of a widowed Judge now in an aged care facility; she has a career as a legal editor that takes her to international conferences; she has been married for seventeen years to Dan, an academic.  It’s a life of school-runs, mobile phones and i-pads. All this technology both suffocates and liberates, and it is through technology that she can find a man she knew and loved long ago.

Despite its modernity, the story is told in a detached, rather interior fashion, and to my shame, it was only when I read the Saturday Paper review of Funder’s book that I realized that it’s a Chekhovian voice that I’m hearing.  The story is a riff on Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog (available online here), and realizing this, I have even more respect for what Funder has done with it. I shouldn’t imagine, though, that there will be many readers who will make the connection with the Chekhov story- I certainly didn’t.

This story is strong enough to stand as a novella in its own right, and I think that it would be stifled by being in a collection of short stories.   Tess is a nuanced character and her lifestyle and thoughts completely plausible, even for someone a good fifteen years older than she.  In my 45 minutes of reading, I experienced a full range of emotions: fear for her, a gooey warmth at the romance of it, an ending that satisfied.  In all this, the book is thoroughly self-sufficient. Nonetheless,  I can still imagine that Paspayley would have been delighted that she’d encapsulated their target market (Western, educated, wealthy, approaching middle aged without admitting it, female) so well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Black Rock White City’ by A. S. Patrić

blackrockwhitecity

2015, 248 p.

“I never taught you how useless words are, did I?” says Jovan, encountering a former student, who offers her stilted condolences on the deaths of Jovan’s children in a far-off country in a far-off time.   Ah, but words are not useless to Jovan, nor to this novel, which interweaves graffiti, poetry and silence in an exploration of grief and displacement set in bayside Melbourne during the 1990s.

Jovan had been a Bosnian poet and, like his wife  Suzana, an academic  in the former Yugoslavia,  but that is in the past. Now, newly arrived in Australia,  Jovan is a hospital cleaner, while Suzana does domestic work.  They are distanced from each other, but joined by a raw, inarticulate grief over what they left behind in Sarajevo.  Jovan is sleeping around, Suzana teeters on the edge of mental illness and buries herself in literature.

At the hospital where Jovan works, an unidentified graffiti artists carves, daubs and etches cryptic messages that become increasingly violent and unhinged.  This mystery is the hook that draws you into the book, but by half-way through you realize that the story lies elsewhere.  Not that the thriller aspect is abandoned completely, because it certainly drags you by the hand in the closing pages which were quite unputdownable.  But for me the real strength of the book was in the layering of Jovan and Suzana as characters, and their tentative negotiation of a new life in a new place.

The book is written in present tense, which usually I bridle against. But in this case, I barely noticed.  Many of the sentences are short, and the text is disrupted by bursts of poetry. The duality of the book is reflected in the title: Black Rock (the bayside suburb) White City (the literal translation of ‘Belgrade’).

The cover carries a blurb from Christos Tsiolkas, and there are resonances here of Tsiolkas’ book Dead Europe.  However, it’s very much an Australian book, and its darkness is set against a hot dazzling Australian summer.  It’s very good- I’m detecting murmurings of ‘Miles Franklin’ and I think they’re right.  Reviewers often use the word “powerful” too often to describe a book that is either engulfing or a steamroller.  This book is powerful, but quietly powerful in terms of the depth of its observation, the handling of different genres and purposes, and the poetry of its writing.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I’d heard of it.

REVIEWS

The Saturday Paper review

Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers

SMH review by Owen Richardson

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan

flanagan_narrowroad

2014, 480 p.

There are spoilers in this review

I haven’t been writing this blog long enough for it to capture my deep admiration for Richard Flanagan. Only his recent book Wanting has made it into this blog.  Over the last twenty years I’ve read all his books, with the exception of The Unknown Terrorist, which I have on my shelves and which may surface as part of my #TBR20 challenge (once I start it!). For me,  Gould’s Book of Fish is right up near the top of my list of best Australian novels.  So I was delighted that Flanagan won the Booker Prize for this book, although I must admit that my praise of it is not completely unalloyed.

The main character in The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Dorrigo Evans, met in the opening pages as an elderly, famous doctor, lionized for his role in tending to the men on the Burma Railway.  He is uncomfortable about the acclaim that has attached to him but not enough to eschew it completely.He enjoys women and has had a series of extramarital affairs throughout his life. He doesn’t really like himself very much.  One’s mind turns immediately to  ‘Weary’ Dunlop – the iconic war-hero doctor of the Thai-Burma railway-  although I’m in no position to know how closely the fictional book parallels the real-life.

We follow Evans from his childhood in Tasmania, his move from humble beginnings  into ‘society’ as the handsome young medical student and then his sudden encounter in a bookshop with Amy- a young woman who, he later learns, is his uncle’s wife. Interwoven with this love story is the muddy, oppressive heat and downpours of the Burma jungle as Evans,  now a Prisoner of War, is placed in an unsought leadership position because of his medical skills.  He holds the power to order men to stay in the rudimentary camp hospital, but he is forced into a nightmarish bargaining ritual with their Japanese captors who demand men to work on the railway.

Flanagan is a writer of images, and in all his books (and particularly in this one) he luxuriates in the visual and the visceral.  We can envisage the gnarled gums that the young Dorrigo sees above him as he lies back in a horse-drawn dray, jolting through the bush as he joins his older brother in a bush camp.  We see the golden dust-motes swirling in the still air of a first-floor bookshop when he first sees Amy; we hear the sigh of the waves outside the beachside pub that Amy manages with her husband.  We can see – and our imagination flinches away from –  the mud, pus and shit of the Burmese camp.  Parts of the book are disturbingly violent: so much so that I found myself unable to sleep after reading some sections of it.

The book is consciously literary, with small extracts of Japanese verse separating the different parts of the book. The Japanese guards are monsters: the Japanese guards are also cultured men.  It is this paradox that he explores in the latter part of the book, as the war ends and somehow these men- both Australian and Japanese- are somehow meant to rejoin life again.  Memory smooths and distorts; men on both sides grapple with questions of goodness and evil.

I mentioned that my praise is somewhat tempered in this book.  There are too many coincidences, and too much squeezed into the last quarter of the book. Flanagan himself in interviews said that he had started with the scenario of two people who had been lovers long ago catching sight of each other in a crowd, and I felt as if this scenario, which appears near the end of the book,  was a writing exercise in its own right.  So, too, the bushfire scenes near the end felt like a self-contained piece of descriptive writing, undertaken as a set piece and not particularly germane to the narrative. I found that the ending was messy- almost as if Flanagan wanted to tie everything up and yet couldn’t quite bring himself to bring the book to a close either.

That said, these are just qualms and not at all the demolition job that Michael Hofman unleashed in the London Review of Books.   No-  I was overwhelmed by the bigness of the book and its themes.  The love scenes were tender, physical, and finely crafted, and so too, paradoxically,  were the war scenes: both part of being human.  In interviews, Richard Flanagan seems to think of this as the book he’s been driven to write, all along throughout his writing career. I think he might be right.