Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 Completed

These are the books that I read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.  I had great intentions of reading more history books written by female historians but I only read five.  I seem to have read more memoirs than I realized.

Oh well. Next year. Roll on 2017

January 4, 2106. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead by Marieke Hardy

January 5, 2016 The Convent by Maureen McCarthy

January 7, 2016  In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward

January 23, 2016  Hello Beautiful! Scenes from a Life by Hannie Rayson

February 17, 2016  Leap by Myfanwy Jones

March 4, 2016  High Seas and High Teas by Roslyn Russell

April 20, 2016 The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

May 4, 2016  Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Lucy Sussex

June 20, 2016 From Rice to Riches by Jane Hutcheon

July 4, 2016 The High Places by Fiona McFarlane

July 13, 2016 Fractured Families by Tanya Evans

August 3 2016, Reckoning by Magda Subanzski

August 19, 2016  Skin Deep by Liz Conor

September 9, 2016  Tiger’s Eye by Inga Clendinnen

October 3, 2016 Of Ashes and Rivers That Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara

December 5, 2016 Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

December 15, 2016 Living with the Locals by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins

December 19, 2016 Only Daughter by Anna Snoekstra

December 22, 2016  The Good People by Hannah Kent

December 26, 2016  Wicked But Virtuous: My Life by Mirka Mora

December 28, 2016  The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman

‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M. L. Stedman

the-light-between-oceans-ml-stedman-small

2012, 345 p.

As it happened, I read this book with my bookgroup (AKA The Ladies Who Say Oooh) just as the movie was released.  No doubt I’ll see the movie about two minutes before it closes, when it’s down to one session a day at Cinema Nova in a cinema with six seats. I’ll be late to review the film, just as I am late to review the book. By reading it  in November 2016, everything that could be said about this book has already been said before.

And so you probably already know that it’s set in the 1920s on a lighthouse off the Western Australian coast.  The time and setting is important. The 1920s in Australia, so geographically distant from the European battlefields, were hollowed out demographically and emotionally by the loss of men who didn’t come back or returned as wraiths of the men they were.  Tom Sherbourne has returned apparently physically and emotionally intact, but when faced with questions of life, death, parenthood and morality, we realize that he has been moulded by his war experience. He craves the order and solitude of lighthouse life, and feels the moral burden of having survived when others didn’t.   His wife Isabel, like 1920s women throughout Australia, rejoiced in Tom’s physicality and masculinity at a time when men were scarce, but could not grasp the enormity of the war experience and its existential ravages on her husband.

The setting in a lighthouse on an island is important too.  Not only does the mechanics of the plot hang on the logistics of infrequent contact between the lighthouse and the mainland, but the emotional and ethical question at the heart of the book relies on isolation as well.

The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.  p. 120

The book is a Jodi-Picoultesque dilemma set in 1920s Australia, but it could in many ways be located in the country of any of the  Commonwealth Allies – Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand. The dialogue, to me, had some infelicities (were the terms ‘kids’ and ‘cubbies’ in use in  1920s Australia?)  but she captured the historical theme of return from the war well  without labouring it, and the descriptions of landscape were carefully crafted.  In the face of such happiness, you know from the start that things are not going to end well. It is this feeling of impending doom that keeps you turning the pages. I felt a little cheated by the ending, not so much in terms of plot, but from a feeling that it was rushed and the nuances unexplored.

Sourced from: C.A.E. library

My rating: 8/10

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I’ve read this for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge

 

 

‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

kentgoodpeople

2016, 380 p.

Literary debuts don’t come much bigger than Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, the story of the last woman hanged in Iceland in 1829.  An international best-seller, recipient of multiple awards,  the first of a million dollar two-book contract and optioned for filming: hey, no pressure for the second book! But Hannah Kent has well and truly risen to the challenge with The Good People which I think I enjoyed even more than Burial Rites (my review here).

Although completely self-contained, the two books act as companion pieces to each other. The time frame is similar, but this book is set in rural south-west Ireland in 1825.  There might not be the rotting potatoes in the fields of books set in the Irish Famine of 1845, but the sodden, threadbare poverty that underpinned that later catastrophe permeates this book as well.  The stone cottages, smoky and candlelit, cling to the mossy sides of the valley, the families inside sharing their beds with kin and their shelter with their domestic animals. Women gather around the well, muttering.  The cows are not yielding milk and the butter will not churn. It’s been this way since Nóra Leahy took over the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál after her own daughter died. Micheál, to our 21st century eyes clearly has a developmental delay that is worsening over time, but for these deeply suspicious villagers, he is ‘fairy’.  The real Micheál has been taken, his grandmother believes, with a changeling left in his place.  When Nóra’s husband suddenly dies, the burden of caring for this screaming, drooling, limp child becomes too much and so she engages fourteen-year-old Mary from a neighbouring fair.  Mary, who takes on the burden of the vomit, piss and saliva, comes to love the child as his widowed and grieving grandmother’s heart hardens against him as she becomes increasing convinced that ‘it’ is not her Micheál but instead, a fairy changeling.  Nóra enlists the assistance of Nance, the old, marginalized woman on the edge of the village who, as well as having the knowledge of  herbs, charms and cures, also knows The Good People- a euphemism for the fairies.These fairies are not Disney’s Tinkerbell. They are a continual parallel presence, congregating in secret places, fighting, dancing, with a power of their own.

Within three pages, this book had me hooked.  The tone is formal and slightly archaic, with the dialogue unusual enough to reinforce that we are in a different world, but without lapsing into caricature. It is clearly deeply researched and, as a result, Kent has built up a self-contained folk world, where there is no division between the supernatural and the natural. It rings absolutely true.  As a historian, this is historical fiction at its best: authentic to the mindset of the time, with no 21st century sensibility clumping in with heavy boots to make judgments about right and wrong.  Certainly, like Burial Rites, the book reflects the intersection of gender and class in shaping (and mis-shaping) women’s lives, but this is an analytic frame outside the story.  The history that underpins the book is true to its own internal logic.

I have one quibble only.  In the court scene, one of the accused was cross-examined in the witness box: under British law at the time, the accused could make a statement but generally did not do so. The accused was not expected to condemn him/herself- instead, the court needed to be convinced of ‘character’ rather than a chain of events.  Reading Kent’s own explanation for how she came across the story and her use of the scant primary sources about it, I wonder if perhaps the original newspaper reports were ambiguous.

I very much enjoyed this book, the tension of the scenario and the richness of the folk-world that she establishes so securely.  Excellent.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (and I must take it back right now for the 95 other people who are on the waiting list!)

My rating: A solid 10/10.

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I have added this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 page.

‘Living with the Locals’ by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins

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2016, 223 p plus notes

Living with the Locals: Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins, NLA publishing, Canberra, 2016

One of the few Australian expressions to make it into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is the saying “You’ve got Buckley’s” -a little Australianism that I myself use quite frequently to mean “you’ve got no chance”.  Although its origin probably lies in a reference to the Buckleys and Nunn department store (“you’ve got Buckley’s chance or Nunn (non)”), for Melburnians it has another layer of meaning . William Buckley was a tall escaped convict who emerged from the bush, startling the early settlers of Melbourne, having lived with the  Wathaurong people for thirty-two years after escaping from the short-lived convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803.  He was not, however, the only white person to be accepted into an indigenous group, as John Maynard and Victoria Haskins show in this book. The information that these Europeans brought back into white society when they were ‘discovered’ or ‘saved’ can, read sensitively, provide a different perspective on pre-invasion or invasion-era indigenous life to counter the settler or missionary narratives which then (and to a large extent, now) largely framed knowledge of indigenous practices.

Our main focus and concern has been on trying to recapture what living with the locals was really like for these European individuals. The fact is that, in the main, they were treated with great kindness, compassion and care by their Indigenous hosts.  And therein lies a great tragedy of the Australian historical experience.  The wild white men and women were witness to the beauty and richness of Indigenous culture in this country that no other outsiders would ever see.  For us, these men and women are our eyes into another world on the cusp on an incredible upheaval. (p. 8)

The fold-out front cover of the book serves both as map and chapter outline as it plots the examples discussed in each chapter against the coastline of eastern Australia.  Early white settlements clung to the edge of the continent, with the sea the main source of communication and commerce.  The chapters of this book proceed chronologically, and the first two examples deal with Sydney and Melbourne.  All the other examples, however, are plotted from Brisbane northwards, where the Great Barrier Reef spelled the end of many ships and where the ‘frontier’ was shifting inexorably up the coast.

Of course, the authors could only deal with those Europeans who actually returned. Maynard and Haskins occasionally mention that the tribes were aware of other Europeans who were among them, or sometimes the escapee/survivors themselves report catching sight of them, but they do not break into the European historiography at all.  Maynard and Haskins only draw on the cases where there is sufficient  written documentation or oral testimony- flawed and incomplete though it may be- but there could be countless other similar scenarios that went unreported or even unknown. Continue reading

‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner

garner_everywhere

2016, 240 p.

When I checked out how many Helen Garner books I’d reviewed on this blog there are five, which makes her (along with Kate Atkinson) the author I’ve read most often in the last eight years. I read others of hers, too, read before I started blogging. It’s no secret that I very much enjoy her writing and feel a sense of wary affinity with her, bolstered by being much the same age and a fellow-Melburnian.

This book differs from the others I’ve reviewed in that it is a collection of her essays, several of which I have read before in the Monthly. None of them are particularly long and they offer a slice of perspective and a way of looking, as the title suggests. She has a penetrating intensity that disguises itself as a general-looking-around. I find myself wishing that I could discipline myself to look more carefully and thoughtfully, instead of just letting things wash over me.

As with short stories, it’s hard to talk about essays, because each one stands on its own two feet and it feels almost unfair to single one out above the others. A collection of essays, just as with short stories, does not just fall together but is instead a curated arrangement and selection.  This is particularly apparent in this book, which is divided into six parts. Continue reading

‘Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea’ by Marie Munkara

munkara2

2016, 274 p.

For me, the day that then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations is a day lodged in my memory, along with moon walks, assassinations, bushfires and planes crashing into buildings. I was on a train to Bendigo for a history conference, and it seemed rather appropriate to sit with other historians, heads bent over a small transistor radio, listening to Rudd give a historic speech that was much better than I expected it to be.  But although as white Australians the speech may have made us feel a bit better about ourselves, it was always an apology to indigenous Australians.  They sat in the parliament and on the lawns outside, many in tears.  This was their apology. As a white Australian, I know the policies and justifications that led to the removal of indigenous children from their parents, but I can only imagine, incompletely, the emotional toll of this government-encouraged policy.

Marie Munkara’s book takes us into the heart of it because the author is one of those stolen children.  Born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhem Land in  the Northern Territory, she was taken from her mother at three years of age. Her white foster father sexually abused her for years, and her white foster mother was bitter and harsh. Nothing was said about her birth family, although her religious family did meet with other families who had likewise adopted Aboriginal children under the aegis of the Catholic Church. Twenty-eight years later she found a baptismal certificate, and after some enquiries, she found out that her mother was still alive and that she had siblings at Nguiu on Bathurst Island.  Within weeks, she was aboard a plane to meet her family.  It is a troubled, awkward reunion.  Months after returning for a second stay, she confronts her birth mother:

‘Did you want me to come and stay here with you?’ I say petulantly. ‘You’re always so grumpy.’

‘You nebber ask me,’ she says tetchily like I’ve struck a raw nerve.

And mummy is right, I didn’t ask her. And I have never asked her about how she felt about her three-year-old child being taken from her life and a twenty-eight-year-old stranger waltzing back into it again.  I assumed that we would take up where we left off but I realise now that the years have been too long and the differences between us too many for that to occur. (p 232)

Certainly Munkara crashes back into her family’s life full of justifiable anger at her foster-parents.  But her perspective on her new family is steeped in urban, white values. She is appalled by the squalor, poverty and community violence and frightened by the snakes, rogue cattle, crocodiles and lice.  Repulsed by the barely-cooked meat served up to her, she decides to become a vegetarian: an urban affectation not easily catered for in a remote area. She is torn between judgment and an aching need to be accepted and folded back into her family.

If you’ve read Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (my review here) you’ll recognize the humour in this book with it’s ‘up-yours’ insouciance.  Many of the book’s small chapters are short vignettes where Munkara tells of meeting family members, nights at the alcohol-sodden club house, hunting trips and bush-bashing in completely unroadworthy cars.  Much of the time the humour is at her own expense.

The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent.  This is not high literature by any means.

The crispy sauvignon blanc that I had bought to help pass the time left a subtle lingering citrus taste on my palate… (p. 4)

Nonetheless, particularly in the last forty pages of the book, there is an honesty and poignancy that transcends the rather pedestrian prose.

…there’s a little piece of something in my heart that no one can reach because it lives deep down inside me. I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white.  I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them.  The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents.  The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both.  I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. (p. 234)

Despite the raucous auntys and cousins surrounding her in her black family and the sterile figures in her white family, this is a lonely journey with higher emotional stakes than, say, Sally Morgan in My Place.  Its authenticity transcends its unsophisticated prose and structure. I haven’t read a book quite like it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2016

‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor

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375 p & notes, 2016

On the first page of the introduction to this book, there is a picture of a young aboriginal woman, staring directly at the camera.  It comes from a book by Alice Duncan-Kemp called Where Strange Paths Go Down, published in 1964 and written in the tradition of Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Daisy Bates or Mary Durack.   Liz Conor, the author of Skin Deep does not know who the young girl is, despite searching for almost a decade for clues to her identity in order to repatriate the woman in the image to her descendants and to seek their permission and cultural clearance.  Conor uses her image nonetheless, and in this- as in much of the material in this book- she is conscious that in historicizing and interrogating the use of settler impressions of aboriginal women, she is also resuscitating tropes and assertions that might best be forgotten. As she says:

Focusing at times on unnamed women, that is, women already subjected to this very appropriation, creates a dilemma: should such images be left outside the historical account, when they have played a significant role in shaping ongoing imaginings of Aboriginal women? (p35)

She decides to proceed, however, after consulting with women in several communities in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The book does not concentrate on photographs alone: there are lithographs, cartoons and prose descriptions as well, often twisted with racism and misogyny and deeply offensive.  She warns readers that the material will be found repugnant, and it is.

The book starts with the earliest descriptions and depictions of Aboriginal women by the first European explorers who, deeply imbued with Enlightenment thinking, categorized Aboriginal people as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘native belles’. Images were engraved, reproduced and co-opted again and again through the new print medium. This chapter lays the basis for the central argument of the book:

…that colonial racism and gender relations hinge in particular ways and depended on the facility of print to reiterate and thereby entrench meaning as truth. (p. 38)

The second chapter reiterates this argument in a different way through the ‘bride capture’ trope, whereby white men could conveniently overlook their own sexual atrocities to deplore what they described as the kidnapping and enslavement of aboriginal women by aboriginal men.  Just as with the lithographs described in Chapter One, these assertions were repeated again and again by explorers, protectors and anthropologists. It took some time for a degree of nuance to emerge, whereby the women could be seen as not just victims but participants in a tightly regulated pre-elopement  marriage ritualized performance. What was left largely unsaid was the perilous position of Aboriginal women on the white/black frontier where white men accused of violence towards Aboriginal women were exonerated, or able to deflect blame onto the native police.

A similar process of repetition attached to the trope of infanticide and infant cannibalism explored in Chapter 3, although this is a more complex area. Unlike the bride capture assertion, which was spelled out in lurid detail, claims of infanticide and infant cannibalism were not actually witnessed by white writers, but drawn from Aboriginal testimony.  Weight does have to be given to some  writers on infanticide and cannibalism who had ongoing and generally trusted contact with their Aboriginal informants. However, it is very possible that in the midst of complex inter-tribal indigenous politics, informants to a trusted white settler or ethnographer were disparaging other tribes by accusing them of cannibalism, to distinguish them from their own tribe (which did not indulge in such practices). At the same time, too, white mothers were sometimes charged with committing infanticide, and it is possible that the  atrocity of cannibalism was  added to differentiate white and aboriginal female criminality.

These initial three chapters reinforce the power of repetition in embedding a particular impression of Aboriginal women into the settler and metropolitan consciousness, even when there was little or conflicting evidence. Print culture in particular facilitated this easy re-use and reproduction.  However, as a reader, while I know that the whole point that she is emphasizing is that repetition was a powerful tool, the chapters felt rather repetitious themselves. There is a chronological progress through the reports and depictions that she describes, but because they themselves were derivative and recursive, it felt as if you were reading the same thing again and again, without little new knowledge or insight being gained.  Her research is exhaustive here (and indeed, at the end of the book she exclaims that there are reams of such material), but it is exhausting reading as well.

So it was with some relief that from Chapter 4 onwards, she takes up a slightly different approach by following through the depictions of Aboriginal womanhood from domestic servant to sexual partner to old woman.  Chapter 4 ‘Footfall over Thresholds’ explores the descriptions of Aboriginal women’s gait, either as a sashaying, silent, dignified ‘native belle’ or as a  ‘felt-footed house lubra’ (p.261).  Certainly, Conor has been able to identify and reproduce many pictures of thresholds, with the white woman on one side of the doorstep, and the disheveled or sneaky  black woman on the other, and her point about the depiction of large flat feet is well-made with several derogatory cartoons found in twentieth-century ‘humorous’ publications like the Bulletin or Aussie.

In Chapter 5 she takes as an illustrative episode the moral panic that was provoked in 1936 over the prostitution of Aboriginal women and girls to Japanese pearlers, with accusations that they were being pimped by Aboriginal men.  This was a double outrage: not only did it reference the ‘bride capture’ trope of Chapter 2 but these were Japanese pearlers (i.e. non-white; increasingly suspect) who were pillaging Australia’s fisheries and natural resources in the leadup to World War II. Again, indigenous women were seen to be passive against the power of their men, without agency. It was only with the contribution of Aboriginal men to the defence of the Australian coastline during the war that they were reinstated as defenders, rather than purveyors, of their women.  Within the deluge of newsprint prompted by the prostitution scandal,the suggestive term ‘black velvet’ (a reference to Aboriginal women’s genitalia) was never used to describe the attraction of Aboriginal women to the Japanese.  Instead it was a coded phrase for white man/aboriginal women sexual relations. I was rather startled to learn that ‘Black Velvet’ was the original name for Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

However, there is nothing titillating or alluring about Chapter 6 ”Absolute frights’: appearance and elders.’  It was as if newcomers felt compelled to record and publish their disgust at the appearance of elderly, emaciated Aboriginal women, and they did- with derision and at length. This chapter really is offensive, and is well placed at the end of the book, after the reader has already been exposed to less offensive (but no less corrosive) nineteenth and early twentieth century commentary.

This book has been written for an academic audience and UWA publishing have not stinted on scholarly conventions and tools.  There are lengthy footnotes, a full bibliography and a good index which includes references to historians.  What luxury it is to be able to look up a historian’s name in the bibliography instead of having to track back through footnotes to find the original reference!  The book does draw heavily on theoretical work, and I really appreciated that Conor was not forced (in the cause of ‘attracting a general readership’) to strip out all references to other historians with the vague term “some historians say….” but was able to name the historian, and quote directly from her/him.  It’s a form of academic sociability: because Conor has been able to quote and summarize the key findings of other historians, you know the argument that she is embedding her work within. You’ve read that work too, or if you haven’t then it distills the argument so that you can see how Conor has integrated it into her own work. It’s an academic pleasure that is so often being withheld from us in the cross-over between academic and ‘popular’ history.

It sometimes happens that the argument of a book becomes known by a sort of  short-hand reference.  For example, you only have to say ‘Blainey’ and you think either ‘distance’ or ‘black-arm band’; you say ‘Reynolds’ and you think ‘frontier’. I think that Conor’s work here will spring to mind as a short-hand reference to the abhorrent and self-perpetuating use of imagery, especially in relation to indigenous women.

I finished reading this book in a week when Bill Leak published a cartoon in the Australian not too far removed from the late19th-mid 20th century cartoons reproduced in these books. ( In The Conversation, there’s a good article about the cartoon, which I will not dignify with reproducing or linking in this blog). In the face of Leak’s repetition of past injustices (and not-so past, in view of the Don Dale video) the last paragraph of Conor’s book, which encapsulates her argument, comes to life:

Construing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations.  The recursion of these effacing yet exposed constructs of Aboriginal women was advanced through print and its syndications on a global scale.  Once aware of how such racial distortions become entrenched, a renewed impetus to resist them at every iteration ought to become part of a nationwide apology and commitment to recognizing the dignity of Aboriginal women.  By extension, whenever and wherever we hear a misrepresentation advanced in public about a people that contrives to mark them off with exaggerated disparity or disregard, we need to call it out then and there. (p. 370)

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I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writer’s site.

 

Further reading: You might be interested in this article that Liz Conor wrote in New Matilda that draws on the book.  The article, as with the book itself, warns of the offensive content.