Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London

goldenage

2014, 156 p.

I don’t know how Joan London managed it, but by only page 32 into this book, my eyes were brimming with tears.   It was a feeling that stayed with me  right until I turned the last page – a deep sadness that not once threatened to tip into sentimentality.

The (real life) Golden Age was a former hotel in suburban Perth during the 1950s.  At a time before the Salk vaccine put an end to the fear of polio, rehabilitation hospitals were established for children affected by polio.  The door stayed open all night and parents were welcomed but many  –  fearful, distressed and bound to work and their other children- came only at set times, or barely at all.  They were frightened by the illness and the future for their hurt, sick, too-aware children.

Thirteen year old Frank is almost too old for this children’s home but too young for adult hospitals. He is the only child of Jewish Holocaust survivors, cultivated educated Middle European migrants who have already lost so much, finding their way in a new country.  He falls in love with the frail, thin, Elsa who tumbles from her harried family into the quiet world of the Golden Age.

The horrific scenario of young bodies stilled, weakened and contorted by polio is lulled into a quiet, soothing, muffled presence.  This is a serene book, told in very short chapters like snapshots.  They are laid out before us, intersecting each other:  gentle, soothing middle-aged Sister Penny who takes lovers when she can;  Albert Sutton who runs away; the older boy Sullivan, an accomplished athlete and poet who dies in an iron lung; and Frank’s own parents, his father a successful Budapest businessman now driving soft drink trucks and  his mother the angry, coiled-tight concert pianist who plays a twilight concert in the yard of the Golden Age with the factory lights blazing next door.  The thread that connects them is Frank and Elsa, shyly negotiating new feelings.

This book reminded me of two other books: Atonement by Ian McEwan and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.  Both those books are suffused with summer heat and bathed in regret and nostalgia.  So too is The Golden Age.  It is a beautifully crafted book, quiet, confident and sad.  It’s very good.

awwbadge_2014I really must tally up my books for the Australian Women Writers challenge.

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‘When it Rains’ by Maggie Mackellar

Whenitrains

2010, 223 p

Right at the end of this book the author, Maggie Mackellar, tells us what she has set out to do:

At times I feel like a voyeur in my own life.  What right do I have to portray these events, to try to place them in a frame I might understand?  I return to the question asked by Anne Carson of Euripides’ tragedies: why is tragedy so important as an art form?  Her answer brings me up against my own terrible truth. Tragedy is important because it enables us to imagine our own reactions in a dark well of horror.  It lets us watch others suffer.  By watching, we are prepared. By watching, we place a frame around our world and pace its boundaries.  We guard against unknown horrors that call to us from beyond our walls.  I watch so that I might know, and write so I might be understood. But my terrible truth is that no matter how carefully I place that frame, no matter how deeply I dive under the sea, I will never really understand why. (p216)

As readers, we have been watching a tragedy unfold as this young widow, historian, mother, daughter packs up her Sydney life and academic career to return to her grandmother’s home in a small outbook town with her two young children. She has come undone with grief.  Her husband  had committed suicide, four years earlier, leaving her with a five year old daughter and an unborn son.  Her husband (for this is how she refers to him throughout)  had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, when he absconded and killed himself. She had been many miles away, unable to reach him in the depths of his illness and frightened by his violence. Her mother was there for the birth of now father-less child, and it was her mother who taught her to love her new baby:

It was my mother’s hands that received my baby boy as he slipped from my body. She held him and sang to him, her hands firm around him, swaddled him, patted him, learnt him…. It was a relief to let her hold him.  To watch her loving him. I followed her lead.  This baby, whom I’d sheltered and who’d grown stronger within me even as his father’s mind was splintering; this baby, who was my constant companion through trauma and despair, had finally arrived. I didn’t fall for him as instantly as I did for Lottie…. In the end it was my mother who taught me to love him.  She held him high, she held him to her.  (p. 17)

Then suddenly her mother died, struck down by a fast-moving cancer.  Her grief for her mother’s death was not alloyed by anger and a sense of betrayal as her response to her husband’s death had been.  Her mother’s presence and assistance had been the rope that tethered her to the semblance of a career and single motherhood, and with the cutting of that connection, it just all became too hard: the child-care, the teaching, the marking, the academic hamster-wheel. She took leave of absence from her job and eventually resigned, knowing the significance of turning her back on a job as an early-career researcher and lecturer at Sydney Uni.

She returns to her grandparent’s pastoral property in Central Western New South Wales, her mother’s childhood home and a place that has happy memories for her.  Her aunt and uncle have taken over the farm, and she knits herself into small-town country life with the  primary school, the Tuesday Ladies tennis club, sheep, tractors, horses, dogs, chooks and snakes.  In many ways she is fortunate: she steps back into an extended family network; she has the financial resources to take the children to Europe for seven weeks for a holiday (brave lady!) and academic projects seem to come to her, instead of having to seek them out.

Her outback country life is juxtaposed against her memories of a six-month trip she and her husband took to Alaska when she was twenty-three years old and unexpectedly pregnant.  They had rock-climbed and kayaked in the wilderness, then lived for three months in a tiny shack outside a small Alaskan town. It had been a “shape-altering” trip that underscored her husband’s physicality as they talked about the future, study, life with a small child.  And now, as she watches their children fit into their new life in the red dust of the NSW outback, without him there, Alaska seems very far away.

The blurb on the back of the book describes her as “a brilliant new talent”, but I’d met her on the page before and even blogged unwittingly about her here.  She talks about her academic work, and I know the SLV manuscript room that she describes and, because I’m a historian of the Port Phillip district, I know of the people she’s researching.  She brings her skills as historian and academic to this memoir as well.  She tells us that

After he died, I sought clarity by writing in strict chronological order the events that led to his death.  I took each day, sketched its beginnings and end, recalled each mood, read into every silence some sort of message.  I wanted to trace the trajectory of his breakdown, to look for clues about spaces into which I could have stepped and saved him.  I wanted his past to speak to me.  As I wrote, what emerged was not clarity, nor understanding, nor peace; what was left was a chaotic scrawl filled with pain- and, looking back, an inevitable end (p. 5)

In this book, she has left strict chronological order behind and instead spirals around her story. The book is written as a series of short chapters, mostly in the present tense, that read a bit like newspaper columns in that each one seems self-contained with apparent closure in the final paragraph of each one.  But you turn the page, and still it goes on – just as she must.  As one chapter follows another chapter, she is still circling warily around her pain but gradually stepping away from it as well.  The academic is always there, making connections with other writers and literature, and her observation that she is a “voyeur in her own life” is apt.  There is much pain here, but there’s a detachment and abstraction as well.  A memoir is a construction, and I was very aware of the layers in this beautifully written, honest, intelligent book.

awwbadge_2014 I guess I’m still doing this Challenge although I’ve probably reached my target by now.  Nonetheless, I’ll still post my review to the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge.

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

kayles

1922, 286 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

awwbadge_2014  This review posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

 

 

 

 

Julie Szego ‘The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama’

szego

2014, 256 p.

Our attention span for court cases is very short indeed.   There might be a splash of publicity during the committal hearing, then nothing is heard for some time.  The actual case, some months later, might attract attention if it is particularly salacious or graphic.  The sentence is given, then the main characters subside back into obscurity and you’re left thinking “Now, what was that case again?”.  Usually.  But sometimes there is something about a case that snags the attention of a passing journalist or essayist, who picks at the threads and expands our gaze beyond that particular case into society more broadly.  This book does just that.

Farah Jama was a young Somali man who was jailed for raping a woman thirty years his senior in a nightclub.  He insisted that he was not at the nightclub and that he had never seen the woman before.  The woman could not recall seeing any African men at the club that night, and could remember nothing at all about the attack.  Farah was convicted solely on DNA evidence and eighteenth months later his conviction was overturned.

In this book, journalist Julie Szego traces through the crime, the case and the circumstances that led to the overturning of his conviction.  On the way she finds herself on the edges, and eventually outside, the local Somali community as Farah becomes increasingly resistant to her questioning. He becomes determined to take his own story back with an eye to his own book somewhere down the line, and sees her as a competitor.  She finds herself bridling against his anti-woman stance, even while she can understand it on one level.  Her investigation takes her into the management practices and risk management policies of the Macleod Forensic Laboratory where the DNA was tested, and the organization’s defensiveness after several previous errors in dealing with DNA.

I think that the first book of this kind I read,  where the journalist wades into the backwater of a crime, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  I’ve read several others in recent years: Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation and The First Stone, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Anna Kreins Night Games.  It strikes me, looking at this list, that these later books are all written by women, and they all share an ambivalence and tentativeness about coming to a firm conclusion.  This is probably because defamation lawyers are lurking, but also I wonder if there’s not a reticence to be too black-and-white, too certain.

It’s a strange genre in that generally readers know the outcome before they even crack open the book.  The books do not appear on the shelves until some time afterwards, and they often follow a flurry of newspaper and television coverage at the time of the crime and then at key points in the resulting trial.  The writer herself (or himself, in the case of Capote) becomes part of the story as well and often has to face her own prejudices and doubts. There’s often a larger picture as well: the football culture, black/white policing relations, the sharp edge of perfection, feminism and in this case, Somali ‘integration’.

This book is an easy read, told in an easy conversational style. There are chapters, but the narrative is presented in small segments within a broadly chronological structure.  The focus shifts from one participant to another, and in this case, there are no baddies as such, only powerlessness and an underlying question of racism.  Questions are raised, of course, about the dubiousness of the prosecution in the first place, and the reliability of DNA evidence.

Sometimes I watch television reports of the sentencing statements given from the bench after a particularly newsworthy crime.  The judge often mentions that the accused “showed no remorse” as a factor for increasing the sentence. That seems odd to me. Why would a person who claimed that they had not committed the crime- especially to a stranger- be expected to show remorse?  Perhaps a detached, abstract sympathy, but no remorse.

Farah Jama has every right to be angry.  I guess that we can take some small comfort that everything worked out in the end, although we have no right to expect him to feel that way.  The ease with which any questions about his original ‘crime’ were deflected is unsettling.

awwbadge_2014I’m posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

wyld_allthebirds

2013,  229 p.

Well, it’s won the Miles Franklin. The author was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her earlier book After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was acclaimed everywhere. So why was I underwhelmed by All the Birds, Singing?

It certainly starts with a jolt:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p.229)

Jake is a sheep farmer on a remote, unnamed British Island, where she lives in a dank farmhouse with only Dog for company. We do not know how she came to be there, and why she is there unfolds gradually during the book.   It’s a visceral book, with not only carcasses of sheep and the bloodied life on the land, but the bodily violence of her other life- the one before this- as an abused prostitute in remote outback Australia.

The book is told in alternating chapters, with her life on the island told in first person past tense, and the Australian chapters told in first person present tense. It took some time into the book for me to realize that the Australian chapters were being narrated in reverse chronology. And so the author juggles two questions from the reader: ‘what happens next?’ as Jake gradually opens herself up to the company of an itinerant rambler who somehow ends up staying at the farm, and ‘what happened before?’ to bring her to such a lonely, cold and harsh environment.

The author is a master of setting. The whipping rain and inky darkness of the island is a stark contrast to the dessicated, searing light of the outback that opens the book. The motif of birds runs throughout the book like a soundtrack.

Part of my problem with this book might have been that I read it so quickly after finishing After the Fire, a Small Still Voice. When I look back at my review of After the Fire, I find that I could apply most of my observations about that book to this one as well. It’s almost the same story, with variations. Both books interweave two narratives. Both involve trauma and separateness that is heightened by isolation. In both, the setting is rendered carefully.  Even the titles are structurally similar and almost interchangeable.  Yes, there are differences- there are two characters in the first book and one in the second; the first book deals with the issue of masculinity, whereas there is a female main character in the second.   But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading variations on the same basic structure. Is this deliberate? Are these books elaborations on the same structure, rendered with different characters and scenarios? Is this part of a bigger project?

This year I didn’t get round to reading the other short-listed titles for the Miles Franklin. I think that I might just have to think “Well, interesting choice….”

awwbadge_2014 Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

‘After the Fire, a Small, Still Voice’ by Evie Wyld

wyld

2009, 296 p.

For some reason, this book seemed to take me an age to read. Perhaps it was the structure of alternating chapters as it swung between two related men, forty years apart, which made it rather too easy to put down.  Once put down, its dual-narrative structure also required more back-tracking than usual to pick up again.

Frank has left Canberra after breaking up with his girlfriend, moving to a shack amongst the canefields on the north-east coast that was originally owned by his grandparents. He’s a damaged, angry, fragile man, estranged from his widowed father, with few apparent friends. It takes him some time to tentatively reach out to his neighbours and their daughter, and settle uneasily into sporadic work.

Forty years earlier, Leon was growing up in Sydney, the son of a pastrycook and Jewish refugees. His father had felt compelled through gratitude to his new country to join the Korean War, but came back home a shattered shell of a man. Leon, in turn was conscripted to Vietnam, and when he returned from Vietnam, he too was a damaged, angry, fragile man, traumatized by his war experiences and unable to settle.

These men feel much, but do not – can not- verbalize it. They are largely unreachable, encasing themselves in a masculine armour and a restlessness that deflects any attempts by others to reach the softer part of them. Women here are either idolized or uglified. There’s a hum of violence that runs underneath their stories.

The real strength of this book is its depiction of place, which is so crystal-sharp that you can picture it in your mind. Flipping through the book, I find myself surprised that there is as much dialogue as there is, because to me it seemed a very intense and silent book.

But I don’t think that I actually engaged in it at an emotional level although perhaps the writer has intended that, by mirroring the brusqueness of the male characters. With my disjointed reading of the book, it took me an inordinate time to work out the relationship between the two men, and it became an intellectual rather than emotional challenge to see how the two stories intersected. I’m not sure that I actually liked the book. I admire the writing; I doff my hat to such a strong debut performance; and her rendering of setting is very accomplished, but it just left me a bit like her characters- cold.

awwbadge_2014I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Letter to George Clooney’ by Debra Adelaide

Adelaide

2013, 294 p.

I see that Debra Adelaide’s book of short stories Letter to George Clooney has been shortlisted for Kibble literary prize for an established female writer.

I can think of many reasons why a collection of short stories should be nominated for major literary fiction prizes, but I also still have niggling reservations. What about the ho-hum stories in a collection? Do the constraints of the genre render particular criteria impossible? But having said that, this book really does deserve the highest accolades and recognition. It really is good.

As I have said many times before, I find it rather difficult to review a collection of short stories. The curatorial act of choosing one story to include over another, and the ordering of the stories within the volume suggests to me that in a collection of short stories there is another creator at work: the editor. In this case, Debra Adelaide is an editor herself, so perhaps she ‘owns’ that aspect as well.

Looking at the book as a whole there seemed to be several stories that deal with writing, and stories of a similar theme presented together- or am I imposing this order onto it? To me, the first two stories deal with writing; the next two with rituals. The fifth story ‘The Harp Society’ and the sixth ‘Glory in the Flower’ involve performances of some sort, while the seventh ‘Chance’ and ‘The New Millenium’ address ways in which technology have affected our lives. ‘The Pirate Map’ and ‘The Moon Will Do’ are both administrative challenges of a sort- the first to find the ATO office, the second to complete the instructions on a chain letter.  ‘Harder than your Husband’ and ‘Airlock’ both involve work places of different types. The final story, and the one that gives the collection its name absolutely stands alone.

Even in a collection of the quality of this one, there are one or two short stories that stand out. For me, there were two. The first, ‘Chance’ had me laughing maliciously, having dabbled in the waters of middle-aged internet dating myself. It’s the story of a woman away on a romantic weekend with a man she has met on the internet and the awful, intimate messiness of plunging early into relationships as we tend to do.

The second standout story is  ‘Letter to George Clooney’. I don’t want to talk about at all because to do so would diminish it. It is brilliant. Read it for yourself.

awwbadge_2014I have posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.