Category Archives: Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge

Australian Women’s Writing Challenge

Surely I’ve finished this challenge by now, I thought, adding a book that I read about a month ago. And so I have.  I went to sign in that I had finished the challenge and they wanted a post linking to my reviews.

Well, here t’is.  In no particular order.  Actually, I’m surprised that I have read as much contemporary fiction as I have.

1. Past the Shallows– Favel Parrett

2. Swallow the Air– Tara June Winch

3. All That I Am – Anna Funder

4. Forecast Turbulence– Janette Turner Hospital

5. Animal People – Charlotte Wood

6. Memoirs of a Suburban Girl– Deb Kandelaars

7. Mateship with Birds- Carrie Tiffany

8. Otherland– Maria Tumarkin

9. Black Glass– Meg Mundell.

10. The Voyagers: a Love Story by Mardi McConnochie

11. Alexander Macleay: From Scotland to Sydney by Derelie Cherry

12. For Those Who Came After- Elisabeth Holdsworth

13. The Lost Mother by Anne Summers

Thirteen- is that unlucky?  There’s more I could add I guess but that’s enough. Look to 2013, I reckon.

‘Those who come after’ by Elisabeth Holdsworth

2011, 342 p.

I snapped this book straight off the shelf as soon as I saw it because I remembered the author’s Calibre-Prize winning essay that was published in The Australian Book Review about five years ago.  I recall where I read the essay: in a cafe in North Melbourne that I walked to from the Public Records Office to stretch my legs after a morning steeped  in the archives .  It was a powerful read that combined history, memoir and reflection as a middle-aged, Dutch-born, now Australian narrator returned to her childhood home in Walcheren, a flat island sheltered from the sea by a network of dykes off the coast of Netherlands.  Her father had been the scion of an old, aristocratic family; her  mother a Jewish beauty.  She tells of the war and its aftermath that swept away the history of her family with such  a flatness of tone that the reader is left  to fill in the betrayal and violence that such actions engendered for herself.  I found myself sitting there, quite stunned by the strength of such a quiet retelling. You can read the essay here:  it’s called An die Nachgeborenen: for those who come after, published in the Australian Book Review in February 2007.  I had remembered the essay, and its effect on me for all those years.

But on reading the book, it seemed as if I was reading the essay again, except in a longer form.  Here was the child, the old aristocratic family, the Jewish mother, the dykes, the flooding again, but now intertwined with a longer travel narrative and a migrant story as well.  It was fuller, but somehow seemed emptier.

It was only when I read an essay that Elisabeth Holdsworth wrote about the writing of the book in ABR in October 2008 that I realized that what I was missing in the book was the writer herself.  I hadn’t noticed the switch between first person voice in her original Calibre-prize essay and the third person voice of her novel, and having now read her reflection on her decision to write her memoir as fiction, I’m even less sure of the distinction between them.

I think, actually, that I preferred the first essay.  There, the flatness of tone conveyed a dignified restraint, whereas in the book it seemed like an absence and a distance.  It’s unusual to read three versions of the same story like this – essay, novel, reflection – and it raises many questions about the choice of genre, the line between memoir and fiction, and the author at work.

My rating: for the book 7/10; for the essays 9/10

Read because: I enjoyed the essay so much

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

awwc2012

‘Past the Shallows’ by Favel Parrett

2011 251 p

This is the debut novel for Favel Parrett, who has published several short stories  and looks from her photograph to be impossibly young.  According to her bio, she is a surfer herself, and this comes through in her writing about the sea which is almost a character in its own right.  Hence, I kept sensing resonances with Tim Winton in Breath, and in his exploration of the troubled and troubling people of the  marginal coastal towns in The Turning.  I felt echoes of Sonia Hartnett as well, in that the story is told from the perspective of children powerless against the cruelties of their elders, and as with many Hartnett books, you know almost from the opening pages that this is not going to end well.

Joe, Miles and Harry are three brothers, living on the south coast of Tasmania.  Joe, the eldest, has escaped the family but the two younger brothers still live with their embittered and widowed father, an abalone fisherman.  It is an intensely masculine world, and their father is a harsh taskmaster.  He forces the middle son, Miles, to work on the boat with a small crew of hardbitten and hardliving men, and he treats his youngest son Harry with a neglect that has an edge of hatred.

Perhaps the failing is in me as a reader, but I found it hard to picture the setting of this novel.  My overwhelming impression was one of coldness, both physical and emotional, and a bleak rural poverty, but I didn’t really have a sense of landscape at all- although perhaps the evocativeness of the seascape made up for that.

The voice of the novel is unusual, and I’m not sure if it is completely successful.  The writing is expressed in very short sentences, which makes it feel like a Young Adult book.  It is told from the boys’ perspective, switching its focus between Miles and Harry, but is not a first person narrative.  I wondered if the simple voice was matched with the perspective of the younger boy, but there did not seem to be a clear distinction between the narrative voice when dealing with the older brother.  I’m not sure.

But the real bite of this book is in the relationships and its exploration of brotherhood and masculinity.  It has a sharp edge, right from the start, and a feeling of impending sadness that builds up over time.  It’s certainly an impressive debut.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.  It took such a long time for my reservation to become available that the Miles Franklin is done and dusted!  And I’ll add it to my Australian Women Writers Challenge tally as well

 

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch

2006, 198 p.


This is only a small book that fits right into your hand.  It is a series of short vignettes,  surrounded by quite a bit of white space, with several pages separating each chapter from the next.  The Sydney Morning Herald review of the book likened it to “short stories strung together like beads on an outlandish necklace”, and I found myself thinking of it in much the same way- as a series of small, glittering stones, carefully polished.  I soon stopped reading through the book quickly, but instead took my time, turning over her language and concentrating on the close-up, rather than striding through the broader arc of the story.

There is an overarching narrative in this book: it is essentially a quest story as a young girl leaves home after the death of her mother, who was raising her family alone and battling her own demons.

When Billy and me lost our mother, we lost ourselves.  We stopped swimming in the ocean, scared that we’d forget to breathe.  Forget to come up for mouthfuls of air.  We lost trust because we didn’t want to touch something that was going to fall away.  Like bubbles, too delicate, too fragile, too brief.

Her brother, Billy, had descended into his own half-light of drug addiction, and her aunt, who had taken over care of the siblings had her own battle with alcohol. So sixteen-year old May Gibson set off north, looking for her father, looking for her mother’s people, looking for some sense of belongingness.  Her journey takes her to the Block in Redfern, to the red sand rodeos in outback Queensland, and to the ironically-named ex-mission town of Eubelong.  She finds acceptance in the midst of poverty, addiction and anger; she comes to distrust her own memories of her father, and her dreams of the embrace of a grounded, intact aboriginal family are dealt with brusquely.  As an author, Winch does not resile from the violence and hopelessness of these different settings, but she does also overlay this with the humour and easygoingness that exists alongside it, just as Maria Munkara and Alexis Wright have done in their own books. There are good people here as well as lost ones: truck drivers who don’t take advantage of a young, rather vulnerable young girl; Joyce of the Block who accepts her at the same time as pushing her out to keep searching; Aunty who is still there, even though May has travelled far away.  She has a good ear for dialogue.

However, in reading this book, I was more struck by the language than the overall narrative.  It is very carefully written- perhaps too carefully written?- with lyrical imagery that forces you to slow down. It’s more like reading poetry than a novel.  At times the imagery clags up the meaning and becomes nonsense (can, for example, sand be said to ‘stew’?)  but overall, it challenges you to take the book on the writer’s terms, rather than your own.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Lisa at ANZLit Lovers has held an Indigenous Reading Challenge to mark NAIDOC week (which, ahem, I am a little late to join).  Also, I’m reading this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

2011, 363 p.

No wonder this book is garnering award after award.  So far it has won the Indie Award Best Debut Fiction and Book of the Year Award, the Australian Book Industry Award for best literary novel and Book of the Year, the Barbara Jefferis Prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”  and it has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Prime Ministers Prize .

This is Anna Funder’s first foray into fiction, but she does so with one foot still in the non-fiction camp.  Her earlier, much acclaimed non-fiction book Stasiland explored individual lives within the pervasive and intrusive panopticon of  East German communism.  This book traverses similar territory in a fictional mode by imagining the lives of real-life socialist dissidents who sought refuge outside Germany during  Hitler’s rise.  Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian, Hans Weserman, Berthold Jacob and Ruth Becker are all real-life historical characters, and indeed Funder herself knew, and was friends with, Ruth Becker (by then Ruth Blatt) in Sydney before her death in 2001.

But the book is most certainly fictional in terms of its structure and in its exploration of the emotional space of love, fear and betrayal.  It uses the device of two alternating narrators.  The first is the elderly Ruth in Sydney, whose memories of the 1930s are bleeding into her present-day life as an increasingly frail post-war immigrant who has had a successful career in teaching, but is sliding towards a lonely and regretful death.  A week earlier she had received a manuscript from an American university that had acquired a box of documents written by Ernst Toller, the poet, in 1939  that had been addressed to her.  The narrative swings between the present-tense description of an old woman in the drug-induced half world of pain and confusion, and the past-tense reminiscence evoked by this manuscript, received from a time fifty years earlier.

The second narrator is Toller himself, in 1939, in the act of writing that very same manuscript in a hotel room in New York.  His narrative, too, swings between the present-tense in describing the act of rewriting an earlier autobiographical manuscript to acknowledge the impact of Dora Fabian and other dissidents in his life, and the past-tense narrative that was to become the document delivered in Sydney  sixty years later.  He dictates to a young female notetaker, herself wracked with fear for her brother, marooned on the refugee ship the St Louis which was denied entry to Cuba, America and Canada.

This narrative quadruple act is complex, and throughout the book I found myself marvelling at how deftly she managed it.  I found her characters thoroughly convincing at the emotional level: in fact, it was only an epigraph by W. H. Auden that marked Part II that stopped me in my tracks with the realization that it was very much based on real-life people.  I resisted the temptation to rush off to Google the characters; indeed I have not yet done so (and probably will not do so) because I’m happy for them to exist in the rounded, fleshed out fictional form in my mind.  Somehow, to see them rendered into black-and-white again will flatten them somehow.  I note, however, that Simon Schama the historian in his review of the book in the Financial Times  felt that the “knottily knitted time line snags the narrative at every turn” and that there were “points where the research somehow clots the blood flow of the plot rather than transfusing it with vitality.”  Yet he suggested that the real-life Ruth’s later life story, which is sketched only briefly in Funder’s book, is even richer with fictional possibilities, thus wanting to draw her back to real-life again.  I don’t agree with him.  Schama warns that “the ball and chain of history can hobble the gait of the imagination if the novelist isn’t ruthless about knowing when to cut it loose” and yet I feel that Funder has been completely disciplined (in both senses of the word) by restricting her focus to the political and emotional claustrophobia of the time, instead of paying homage to the historical ‘afterwards’ of her real-life characters.

Yet her book is very much about the historical issue of memory and forgetting.  “I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting” says Ruth the narrator. “Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so” wrote Ernst Toller. But as Ruth the narrator (and I suspect, Funder the author) says:

   Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any….But Toller, great as he was, is not right.  It is not that people lack an imagination.  It is that they stop themselves using it.  Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing? (p. 358)

It is also a book about the weight of an individual against the wider scale of history.  At a personal level,  we grapple with our measure of those we love-

When you are in love with someone, you cannot see around them, you cannot get their human measure. You cannot see how someone so huge to you, so miraculous and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin. (p 150)

And yet we ourselves have to think about our own value in the world:

Though it is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value. (p. 299)

This is a beautifully written book, although there are the odd jarring notes.  The awkwardly introduced date of Toller’s narrative was clumsy and heavy-handed, and  I don’t think that she handled the authorial problem of bringing her two first-person narratives to a close very well because she had painted herself into a narrative corner.

But in other places, her descriptions are crystal sharp, as for example, in this description of a Weimar nightclub-

The doors of the TicTacToe opened into a floor-length leather curtain drawn against the cold.  We parted it.  The entry level was on a mezzanine; below us lay a vast, ornate room hollowed out into the earth.  I moved to the balcony rail.  Pools of light shone on a hundred tables, bright circles into which hands moved, gloved or ungloved, for a drink, to ash a cigarette, touch an arm.  The air was filled with trumpet notes and smoke, the chinking sounds of cutlery, laughter, something smashing at the upper bar.  At my shoulder a vase of lilies breathed, open-tongued.  P. 105

I’m not sure whether this book will win the Miles Franklin, even with the slightly widened criteria that allow an ‘Australian’ sensibility without necessarily being set in Australia.  I’m not sure that the Sydney section of the book is a sufficiently sturdy anchor to describe it as ‘Australian’, but I am not cynical enough to  think that the Australian section was included only with the Miles Franklin in mind.   It’s a beautifully written opening up of the imaginative space around real-life people, and it should be celebrated as such.

Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin Prize.  Also posted on the 2012 Australian Womens Writing Challenge

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

My rating: 9/10

‘Forecast: Turbulence’ by Janette Turner Hospital

2011, 232

I find it hard to review a collection of short stories.  Usually the stories themselves have been written over a period of time and published in multiple journals, rather than written with a themed collection in mind.  If there is a theme, it is detected more in the act of collecting than in the act of writing.  That said, writers often work out a theme in a variety of ways, as if they are circling it, coming at it from different directions.  It’s also difficult to talk about stories that themselves only take up about 10 pages or so, especially if the reader of the review hasn’t read them.

This collection is somewhat easier to talk about, because the title ‘Forecast: Turbulence” is such a strong theme that emerges from these stories.  They are all about family members in turmoil, and nearly each one makes reference somewhere to the weather which in many ways reflects the pain and turbulence inside.  In many ways, it is a blessing that these ARE short stories:  ‘Weather Maps’ in particular, about a young woman cutting, is so intense that you wouldn’t want to extend for much longer.  The most memorable of them for me is ‘Afterlife of a Stolen Child’, which revisits the kidnapping of a child many years previously, from the perspective of the family members and a man who believes that he is the missing child.  The narrative revolves between the main protagonists, and it leaves the reader just as unsure and ambivalent as the characters find themselves.

I felt as if there were flashes of her other work in some of these stories.  ‘The Republic of Outer Barcoo’, for instance,  reminded me of her book Oyster for its outback setting of a cult.  Several of the stories involve fathers.

The final story ‘Moon River’ is a memoir, and here the author speaks in her own voice.  It is the most Australian of the stories, set in and around Brisbane.  It is attached almost as a coda, and it does change the feel of the rest of the stories.  It’s as if the author has stepped out from behind the curtain.

These are tight, well-written stories.  She’s good.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: it was our April read in the Australian Literature online group and as part of the 2012 Australian Women’s Writing Challenge

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

2011,  262 p.

There must be something about the challenge of writing a book set completely within one day, because many writers seem to have done it: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf (and in homage, Michael Cunningham), Gail Bell and, although I haven’t read it yet, my latest craze, Mollie Panter-Downes.  Limiting one’s focus onto a single day gives scope for close scrutiny of the quotidian and the elapse of hour after hour runs underneath the narrative like a bass-line.  But there’s a risk too – we all have our own mundane lives that are ticking over hour by hour too, and somehow or other the author needs to make you care enough about an ‘ordinary’ person to devote some hours of your life to watch someone else’s day unfolding as well as your own.

Characterization is fundamental to this contract between writer and reader.  You don’t need to like the character as such, but you have to at least care.  In this case, Stephen is a bit of a drifter, with a dead-end job as a kitchen-hand at the zoo, living a rather spare and bitten-down existence, aware of his family’s disappointment in him, likeable enough but wary of being tied down by commitment.  As he wakes on this hot Sydney morning, he knows that he is going to break off his relationship with Fiona, a good, passionate, separated woman, that day.  In this, he is quite steely, even though he knows that she is beautiful, that she loves him and her young daughters tolerate him, and that his mother has already absorbed them as ‘family’.  He combines inflexibility with irresoluteness; he is hard as steel and yet soft, he is selfish without asking for anything.  We probably all know someone like him.

Charlotte Wood is a good observer and it’s as if she has inserted herself behind our own eyes.  Her descriptions of the various people who orbit around Stephen have a verisimilitude similar to those in Tsiolkas’ The Slap– in fact, in many ways this book reminded me of The Slap in reverse.  The mounting heat of the day, and the brittle mania of a child’s birthday party add to the sense of unreality and the rising shriek of the day, as Stephen drifts closer and closer to making his break with Fiona.

There’s a second theme in the book- that of animals and the human relationship with them- that I felt was rather heavy-handed.  The parallels were rather too obvious, and it just seemed rather laboured.

I have read several very positive reviews of the book- in fact, people seem to be struck emotionally speechless by the book (for example, John Purcell on Booktopia and Michelle on Book To the Future).  I wouldn’t go that far.  Certainly, it was very easy to read, and I was quickly drawn in enough to want to keep reading, and it captured urban, middle class Sydney very well.  It had just a touch of the ‘book club’ about it, something that Lisa at ANZ LitLovers noted as well.  I don’t think that I mean this as a put-down (after all, I belong to online and face-to-face bookgroups myself) but there’s something about the straining for theme and topicality that made me wonder if it was written with this demographic in mind.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I enjoyed The Submerged Cathedral and because I wanted to review it as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge.