Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

‘The Philosopher’s Doll’ by Amanda Lohrey

Lohrey_Philosopher

2004, 306 p

It’s a strange thing, re-reading a book. You’re not the same reader that you were the first time and the context in which you’re reading the book is often very different. I read Amanda Lohrey’s The Philosopher’s Doll soon after it was released back in 2004, straight after reading two big, fat books: The Sotweed Factor and Tristam Shandy. At the time I leapt on it because it was local, domestic and female in comparison to the two hefty tomes that preceded it. Now, twelve years later I’m reading it again, this time for my face-to-face bookgroup. I didn’t view it quite as kindly the second time round.

The book is set in Northcote  with social worker Kirsten trying to summon up the courage to tell her husband Lindsay about her pregnancy. Lindsay does not want children, (or at least, not yet) and Kirsten is aware that she has fallen pregnant in benignly deceptive circumstances. Her philosophy lecturer husband Lindsay, on the other hand, thinks that all she needs is a dog to settle her maternal urges and so he embarks on a secret plan to buy a pure-bred Chow, a breed whose aloofness appeals to him. The dog is not Lindsay’s only secret: he is also receiving letters from an infatuated doctoral student, Sonia,  that he just puts away for now, not telling anyone about them.

The book is presented in four parts, and this part of the storyline plays out in the first two parts over a matter of several weeks. It is told in the third-person present tense (a tense that I don’t enjoy much) and the two perspectives are interwoven. Then, abruptly, in the third section, the infatuated student Sonia is speaking in the first person, past tense, some ten or more years after the events first part of the book.  Things have changed, and we see them in their new form, but not how they arrived at that point. Coincidences may be more planned than they appear, some mistakes are replicated and new ways of being are learned and embraced.

This is a very Melbourne book, and as a resident of the northern suburbs, I could pinpoint almost to the street – James Street, Northcote do you reckon?- where Kirsten and Lindsay lived. In this regard, the book has Garnesque features, but it is burdened with a didactism that you don’t find in Garner’s work. Lindsay’s occupation as philosophy lecturer gives scope for digressions into the emotional capacities of humans v. animals, and the question of the rhetorics of the heart. The final section of the book launches into a discussion of stunt -no – precision flying that almost sinks the book, if the lengthy retelling of dreams hasn’t already done so.

Does the book need all this philosophy trowelled onto it? I tend to think not. I felt a little betrayed as a reader by the abrupt change half way through, and as if I were sitting through a boring, one-sided conversation in the philosophical parts.

Reading back on the review that I wrote on this book back in 2004 (before I started this blog), I didn’t mention any of these criticisms. Did I just read it as a Melbourne-based story, and did I skip the philosophy? Or did I enjoy the philosophy perhaps?  Have I changed since then? Or am I more conscious of Lohrey’s earnest spiritual intentions in writing now after reading A Short History of Richard Klein, which I found even more didactic than this book?

Sourced from: C.A.E. Bookgroup

Rating: 6.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

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‘The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia’ by Anna Clark

clark_thecatch

2017, NLA Publishing, 145 p.

In a beautifully presented book, the “story” (but really, the “history”) of Australian fishing is told by historian and fellow fishing enthusiast, Anna Clark. This shared love of fishing permeates the text of this  book, not just in the “we” language that Clark deploys, but also in the carefully crafted ‘fisher’s-eye’ paragraphs that commence each chapter. Here, for example, is the start to the chapter ‘Early Industry’ that takes us right into the boat with a single fisherman in his small boat:

The boat glides out of Albany and sails across the sheltered waters of Princess Royal Harbour. A breeze skims across the bay and fills the sails- just enough to push the little boat along into the incoming tide to set the nets.  There’s plenty to catch here, and the fisherman fills his woven baskets with herring, whiting and bream, with a few skipjack and pike thrown in for good measure.  But there’s not much point chasing the big hauls, since the fish go putrid after a day or two ashore- and anything left over has to be buried. (p 49)

Or here we are on a modern commercial fleet ship:

The engine’s running and its gentle throb can be felt through the humming deck. Filleting knives are neatly lined up by the cutting boards near the ship’s bow, someone’s hosing off the blood from this morning’s catch and there’s a constant and slightly unpleasant smell of fish.  In the centre of the deck is a little hatch with a lid. Inside, a steel ladder drops down to the icy hold below. It’s dark and filled to the brim with neatly stacked ten-kilogram boxes of fish fillets, snap frozen by the boat’s powerful compressor. They sit waiting to be unloaded and taken away by refrigerated truck to the city’s markets. (p.97)

As well as capturing the tone of the narrative, these two opening paragraphs encapsulate many of the themes of the book: the joy of fishing, the deceptive abundance of fish, the problem of wastage and storage and the effects of technological change.

Published by the National Library of Australia, this lavishly illustrated book shares the high production values of its other volumes, and draws generously on the holdings of the library in photographs, maps and diagrams.

The book starts with indigenous fishing, which was described at length by Cook and Banks to illustrate the abundance of the eastern coast, and which was captured in many of the early drawings and paintings of New South Wales.  The amputation of the pinky finger on Eora fishergirls made it easier to use a line for fishing. It attracted the attention of these early commentators and was clearly shown in convict artist Thomas Watling’s drawing of Dirr-a-goa in the 1790s, while the term for the amputation, “Mal-gun”, was noted in William Dawes’ notebook of translations of Eora words.   However, as Clark notes:

While early colonial sketches and paintings give wonderful snapshots of Indigenous fishers, they do so from a distinctly European perspective.  Written accounts are similarly revealing – and we should be grateful for the faithful record of fishing practices and winning catches they’ve produced- but we can’t forget that these early settlers viewed Indigenous society through a distinctly colonial lens. (p. 17)

Indigenous perspectives on fishing come through the presence of scar trees where bark has been excised to build canoes, the remnant fish traps in rivers, shell middens and through indigenous carvings and paintings of fish.  This indigenous perspective is not relegated to the obligatory opening chapter, but instead continues through the book, with the continuation of fishing at riverside and coastal Aboriginal missions and Traditional Owners claims on traditional fisheries.  As she points out, fishing participation rates among in the Indigenous population sit as high as 92% in some communities, and it is an integral part of connection to country and cultural knowledge. (p. 132)

The abundance of fishing was reported by Captain Cook, and the First Fleet was well equipped to take advantage of it. However, Governor Phillip was less effusive, reporting that some days the fish were there- other days not. The photographs in the book – taken specifically to celebrate the size  of the catch – highlight abundance, but the text tells another story as fishing grounds are fished out and one species of fish collapses after another.

Another theme is the ongoing contest between competing interests. Colonial gentlemen craved the manly sport of fly-fishing and introduced European species into Australians waters with sometimes catastrophic results. (I knew about the European carp, but to be honest, I didn’t realize that the trout was an introduced fish- shows how little I know!) The government supported the establishment of commercial fisheries and the storage and infrastructure requirements to transport fish to lucrative markets, but in response to political pressure, it has more recently championed recreational fishing and set aside no-go zones to increase stock numbers. The emergence of Senators representing recreational fishing interests is likely to keep this political contest alive.

I did find myself wondering who this book is aimed at.  Its appearance just prior to Christmas is, I’m sure, well-planned. Its copious and beautiful illustrations mark it out as a coffee-table book, but the text ranges beyond the ‘whoa! look at that!’ response to a photograph of a big fish. Its author, Anna Clark, is well known in academic circles for her work on public history and history teaching and she brings to the book an awareness of sources and a keen sense of finding history in the everyday.  Most importantly, she brings her own love of fishing to the text, and I think that this is what fishers will respond most to in this book.

Sourced from: Review copy from Quikmark Media and N.L.A.

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I’ve included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

MeWRiteMyself

2017, 331 p.

It’s not often that I close up a history book with a “Well done!”, but I did with Leonie Stevens’ beautifully written Me Write Myself. Right from its quietly restrained front cover, through to its ending which rounds off and yet expands and invites further conversation, this is a exquisitely crafted book.  It works on so many levels: as narrative, as critique and as history.

Stevens mounts her argument right from the subtitle on the cover:  ‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna’.  “Wybalenna?” you may ask. It’s more commonly known as Flinders Island, most often characterized as the doomed settlement off the coast of Tasmania, where the remnants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes were shunted to be forgotten in silence by colonists and colonial officials alike, in the 1830s and 1840s.  And “free inhabitants?” Wasn’t this a form of concentration camp, on the way to what was seen to be an inevitable extinction? In Stevens’ hands, we see that  these are not victims but “free aboriginal inhabitants” and not silent, even though historians may silenced them, often while bemoaning their fate.

Flinders Island, for a place so small, has attracted the attention of historians, right from James Bonwick in 1870 through to Henry Reynolds.  The publication in 1987 of N.J.B. Plomley’s gigantic Weep in Silence,  with its 1034 pages, might have been thought to have exhausted all there is to say on Wybalenna. Not so.

Stevens starts her book in a crowded, metaphorical baggage-room where we ‘check-in’ our assumptions, narratives and language.  First there’s the question of names, often Europeanized and of slippery orthography. Then there’s scientific racism, underpinning the rationale of colonialism and assuaging guilt, and seeping through much of the historiography of Wybalenna, right up to recent writing, which sees it as a narrative of tragic and helpless death. Then there’s the question of credibility of sources and this is where Stevens steps right up. She takes historian Ann Laura Stoler’s term “the hierarchy of credibility” and turns it upside down to give priority to the VDL texts over European texts.  This is where Stevens’ approach is new.  She depicts the texts relating to Wybalenna as a pyramid.  The deluge of government reports, memoirs, newspaper reports and journals from which other historians have drawn their work form the large base of the triangle. Up from them are the texts recorded by Europeans where VDL First Nations people ‘speak’ as their words are transcribed and collected. Right at the apex are the texts written by VDL First Nations people themselves: texts that have been largely sidelined by historians and dismissed as ventriloquistic curiosities, parroting the views of white chaplains and superintendents, and of little worth in themselves. By placing them at the top of the hierarchy of credibility, “the VDL word takes on an urgency and new level of insight, revealing a more nuanced, personal, human story.”(p. xxx)  Finally, the metaphorical baggage-room is full of historians, especially white historians, who have either “made such fervent use of the extinction myth” or “fetishised frontier violence under the guise of critiquing it.” (p.xxxi). Stevens is only too aware that she is “a white 21st century mainland writer studying VDL history” and she is “mindful of her position on the metaphorical dance card” (p. xxxii)

This history, on which we now embark, is one constructed, wherever possible, from VDL sources. The mantra will be We do not need yet another European history of VDL people. It is the simplest way of keeping the baggage in check. ( p.xliii)

The organization of the book is basically chronological, but the VDL texts lend a thematic approach. The first two chapters set the scene, with the short Chapter 1 placing VDL within the 45,000+ years of pre-contact history, and briefly sketching the Black War of 1830 and its aftermath. Chapter 2 deals with the establishment of Wybalenna and its place within the wider humanitarian response across the empire. From this point on, the chapters become longer, focussing around the texts generated by the free inhabitants of Wybalenna.

Chapter 3 ‘The Promise of Wybalenna’ draws on hand-written newspaper The Flinders Island Chronicle, written between September 1836 and December 1837 by two teenaged boys, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune, who had received a brief education at the Orphan School outside Hobart, before returning to Wybalenna.  The forty-two editions and drafts of the Chronicle have only been partially published, and generally dismissed by historians as an obvious and clumsy attempt at Christian indoctrination and control. But, as Stevens shows

In fact, the Chronicle is much more than a mouthpiece for the Commandant. Those editions dominated by religious indoctrination actually contain a great deal of information, if effort is invested in peeling back the layers of meaning. (p. xxxvii)

We learn from these two boys, falling over each other to publish their own separate edition of the ‘weekly’ paper (which often appeared more often than weekly) that the Commandant was never really in ‘control’ of the settlement, most particularly the women. Wybalenna was part of archipelago of islands visited by sealers and whalers, and news and rumour swirled around amongst officials, convicts, traders and the free aboriginal inhabitants. We see the ‘Protector’ and Superintendent, George Augustus Robinson carefully painting house numbers on the doors of the cottages, in anticipation of a visit from Governor Franklin which turns out to be a fleeting affair. We see games being played, deaths being mourned, changes in relationships.

Chapter 4 draws on the school room examinations and written and spoken sermons generated as part of the Christianizing mission. In them, Stevens finds insights into language diversity, the persistence of ritual and the balancing of original and introduced spiritual beliefs. (p. xxxix).  She has to work harder here, as the texts are so heavily overlaid with the interpretations of Christianity that are being used as a form of control: keep your house clean, the insubordination of the women, the promise of God’s good country.  It is during this chapter that Stevens integrates the journey across Bass Strait to Melbourne in 1841 undertaken by George Augustus Robinson and the ‘family’ he took with him,  including the two former newspaper writers, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune. Two of the group are noted for being the first men hanged in Melbourne – Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  I’ve read much about them in my own work on Port Phillip, but they always seemed (and were) men out of place, a disembodied group brought into the colony and then sent away again. Through the picture that Stevens has built up of Wybalenna, we see this ‘family’ and their importance, and why Robinson chose them, in particular, to take across to Port Phillip. They become distinct people, not just the ‘VDL Blacks’.

One of the things that I like most about Steven’s approach is that Wybalenna changes, in response to the people living there and those appointed there. It’s not a passive, inert place. Events unfold, relationships form and breakdown, alliances shift. In Chapter 5, the revolving door administration since Superintendent Robinson’s departure throws up Doctor Henry Jeanneret as new Superintendent, a ‘problematic individual’ who is dismissed, challenges his dismissal back in England, then is reappointed to Wybalenna again.

It is the dissatisfaction with Jeanneret’s reappointment, and desire to shift to a different model of living, that leads the Wyballena inhabitants – most particularly through Walter George Arthur- to write again in Chapter 6. This time they adopt the petitioning and epistolary form of colonial bureaucratese, as they write to the Governor on the Tasmanian mainland, making their complaints against Jeanneret, and asking the Queen’s intervention.  The authorship and authenticity of the letters was challenged by Jeanneret at the time, leading to the appointment of a one-man commission of inquiry which itself generated its own paper trail. The way that later historians, most particularly Plomley in Weep in Silence, have dealt with these letters, reflects the ‘taking sides’ amongst the white characters that historians are wont to do.

This assessment, naturally, gives no credit whatsoever to VDL activism or agency, besides Walter Arthur. Weep in Silence is essentially a European history, about Europeans running a European settlement, with a few inconsequential VDL faces thrown in (p. 321)

Through her careful reading, Stevens embodies these “inconsequential VDL faces” into living, active, resisting people. Naming is important, and the footnotes at the bottom of the page give a small biography for each one so that Wybalenna is literally ‘peopled’. How blessed she has been as an author, too, with a publisher that respects footnotes on the page (and not squirrelled away at the back of the book), letting the historian acknowledge sources and accuracy right then and there.

This is an absolutely beautifully written book. Stevens engages and challenges other historians, but more with urgency and invitation to share, rather than oneupmanship.  The chapters are long (possibly a little too long?), but the narrative flows, capturing shift and change.  It moves, as Wybalenna moves. This is academic history written with head and heart, and with eyes and ears open.  I hope and expect to see it shortlisted for history and non-fiction prizes over the next year. Read it.

Source: Purchased from Readings

My rating: 10.

aww2017-badge I have linked this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

‘A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work’ by Bernadette Brennan

Brennan

2017, 298 p. & notes

This book is exactly what the title promises: a study of Helen Garner and her work.  It’s not, and nor does it purport to be, a full biography but is instead a ‘literary portrait’, firmly based on and in Garner’s own writings and writing practices.

The author (who, judging from her picture on the back page is much younger than I thought she would be) uses the publication sequence of Garner’s books as its organizing principle, but it seems in both the introduction and conclusion that she at one stage contemplated a different structure.

It is too simple to say that Garner’s body of work is one book, but everything she has written is interrelated. Over a period of forty years she has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters and questions. Because houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation sit at the core of all Garner’s fiction, I originally thought to structure this study around Garner’s primary spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, courtrooms and public institutions… Such readings, however, do not lend themselves to a full and coherent appreciation of Garner’s development as a writer…. In the end I decided to structure this portrait so that each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways. (p. 7)

I must confess that I forgot about this intended motif until the author returned to it in the closing pages of the book, where she alludes to Henry James’ metaphor of the house of fiction, and Garner as a ‘watcher’ through windows. I don’t find it a particularly useful structure, and as it would seem, neither did the author, as it is left largely untouched through most of the text.

Instead, the book is presented in two parts: Part 1 Letters to Axel and Part II Questions of Judgment.  ‘Axel’ was Axel Clarke, the son of  historian Manning and linguist Dymphna Clark and a close friend from university days to whom Garner wrote often and honestly. His archive of letters to and from Garner, deposited in the National Library of Australia are a significant resource for Brennan. He died in 1990, after a long friendship with Garner tinged with tension  over her ‘use’ of his illness with a brain tumour in ‘Recording Angel’, one of the stories in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), the last of the works analysed in Part I.   The ‘letters to Axel’ form a useful organizing device, although ‘1942-1992’ or ‘The First Fifty Years’ would have done just as well.  Each of the seven chapters focuses on a major work and Brennan  interweaves personal details, gleaned from Garner’s own works and interviews, and literary analysis based on the books themselves.

Part II, Questions of Judgment starts with The First Stone, the first non-fiction book that took Garner into the courtroom as the basis for her narrative, a practice that she has followed in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and most recently in her Monthly essay ‘Why She Broke‘.  The chapter on The First Stone is the longest in the book and it marks not only Garner’s shift into long-form non-fiction writing, but also her most contentious book that provoked questions among her critics about her commitment to feminism and how that feminism was defined, and her attitude towards younger women.  Readers who do not like Garner’s work often criticize her insertion of herself into both her fictional and non-fictional writing, and Brennan (among others) is critical of Garner’s personal intervention in the form of letters to Master Alan Gregory, the man accused of sexual harassment. I had not realized the legal tightrope that her publishers trod with this book, and it took its toll on her relationship with Hilary McPhee.  It is a book that still evokes controversy. Most of the books in this second part are non-fiction, which is the genre in which Garner has predominantly worked in the last decades. The exception is The Spare Room, which is the novelized retelling of a real life experience when a friend undergoing an alternative treatment for cancer stayed with her. Brennan’s book closes with Everywhere I Look, Garner’s recent collection of essays.

It is not necessary to have read Garner’s books to enjoy this literary portrait, but it certainly helps to have done so.  Critiques of short story and essay collections are always difficult to write and read because the act of describing them often eviscerates them, and  several of Garner’s publications fall into this genre. Nonetheless, Brennan gives enough of the flavour of Garner’s works to jog the memory or provide sufficient background for her analysis to make sense.

It is not an authorized biography as such, in that Garner had veto power over it. She made available to Brennan her diaries, letters and drafts that are currently embargoed at the NLA, and participated in interviews with the author. It’s a rich, textured archive.

This is not a biography, and yet we do learn about  Helen Garner those things she chooses to reveal about herself, either through interviews or mostly through her own writing.  We read about her difficult relationship with her father, her life in share-house Carlton that prompted Monkey Grip, her three marriages, her daughter and grandchildren.  There are things we do not learn, too, most particularly who the ‘Philip’ character who floats through her early fictional writing was based on.  I did not realize the persistence of Garner’s religious quest, thinking that she had left it behind after Cosmo Cosmolino (which I reviewed here and did not enjoy). I remember, but did not fully appreciate, the virulence of the debate about The First Stone and was unaware of the legal and literary maneuvering that preceded its publication.  In my review of Postcards from Surfers, I wondered about how a book of short stories was put together, and in Brennan’s book I saw the collaboration between editor and author in constructing a ‘work’ of short stories as a distinct entity.  Through her diaries it is clear that the naive, ‘I-know-nothing-about-the-legal-system-but…’ stance that comes through in her courtroom non-fiction is a deliberate, and somewhat disingenuous choice.

Most of all, though, I am left with a sense of the writer at work– and work it surely is. The reading, the thinking, the writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The author’s drawing together of observations from other writers and thinkers – most particularly that scholar of the art of biography, Janet Malcolm. The richness and texture of thought and reflection. The edginess and vulnerability of putting yourself out there as an author. The web of connections between people in the local intellectual and literary scene.  A life lived in the mind, but also in the everyday. A particular way of looking.  All the things that I appreciate most in Garner’s work.

My rating: 8.5

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

 

‘A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson’ by Kerrie Davies

wifes_heart

2017, 225p

David Marr, the celebrated biographer, has proclaimed for himself the rule that “biographers should stay out of sight”. I suspect that he would be ‘tut-tutting’ the whole way through this book, because the biographer/author Kerrie Davies is very much on-stage, using her own early 21st century experience as a lens through which to examine and reflect on the marriage and separation of Bertha and Henry Lawson.  The book both starts and finishes with Davies’ own reflections on single parenthood and she shuttles back and forth between her own memoir and a biographical examination of Bertha and Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson, as most (I hope!) Australian readers would know, is one of Australia’s best known writers, with his short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’  forming one of the staples of school anthologies in the last century.  He wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s at a time when ‘Australianness’ was being explored in writing through the pages of The Bulletin and through the works of the Australian impressionists – Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton et al. He is a much-biographied subject, as Davies found, with biographers falling into two camps: those who blamed his wife Bertha for pursuing child support payments and hounding him to imprisonment, and those who saw Bertha as the long-suffering, separated wife bringing up her children alone.

Davies falls very much into the second category. She, too, has brought her daughter up alone when her marriage to her musician husband fell apart through his incessant travelling, and this sense of identification with Bertha permeates the book. I’m not sure that it makes good biography, but I don’t know if a ‘pure’ biography was ever her intention. Certainly she draws on primary documents, including court files, letters, memoirs, secondary sources and Henry’s own writings, reproducing important paragraphs in the text itself, and footnoting the sources at the rear of the book.  In this way she has certainly given Bertha an identity and agency. She has carefully researched the legislation governing divorce at the turn of the twentieth century, and beautifully integrates Henry, in particular, into the bohemian and literary milieu of the day.  However, as a journalist, she makes no claim to be a historian, and in describing the Darlinghurst gaol in which Henry was imprisoned, she turns us over directly to the hands of the archivist at the gaol, Deborah Beck, in a manner reminiscent of meeting-the-historian in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. In fact, that same sense of anachronistic identification that permeates ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ is evident in this book as well, and it means that as reader, you’re taken along for the story in the present just as much for the history.

Although a very different sort of endeavour, this book evoked for me Jennifer Gall’s Looking for Rose Paterson. There’s a symmetry in that both researchers are drawing an otherwise unseen woman (a mother, a wife) out from the background of these two writers – A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson- who are together synonymous with colonial nationalistic turn-of-the-century writing.  But Bertha Lawson was not unseen: she wrote her own memoir, her correspondence is found amongst Henry’s works, people knew her and she looms large in his lifestory as the force that he resisted and railed against, and which eventually- in the eyes of his champions- brought him undone.  The subtitle of the book is “The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson”, and Davies has succeeded in telling this untold story.  “No one is more pleased to see you yourself again than I am” Bertha wrote to Henry (p 185) during one of his recurrent phases of sobriety before lapsing into alcoholism again. In seeing Bertha, and the cycles of alcoholism and cruelty, unsuccessful reconciliations, legal maneuverings, emotional bargaining, justifications and accusation, we see  Henry ‘himself’ also.

The author’s paper to the 2015 Australasian Association of Writing Programs conference discussing her writing decisions can be found here.  (What a fantastic site! they have all the papers from decades of conferences).

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

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

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

maguire

2016, 243 p

The reviewing cycle for a much-talked-about book seems to move so quickly that, after a few months, everything seems to have been already said and people are moving onto the next new much-talked-about book. So I come- at last-  to ‘An Isolated Incident’, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, longlisted for the Miles Franklin and commended for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

It all makes me feel rather outgunned when I say that my response is rather lukewarm.

You probably already know that it’s about a murder of a young woman, Bella Michaels, an aged-care worker in the small country town of Strathdee.  Despite being described by the publishers as a ‘psychological thriller’, this book doesn’t really fill that description at all. Instead, it is the description of grief and the surrounding media manipulation of a murder report.  We, as readers, know as much or as little about the murder as the police do.

It is narrated from the alternating viewpoints of the murdered girl’s sister Chris, a barmaid at the local pub in Strathdee, and May, the journalist dispatched from the city to report on the crime.  The book is arranged chronologically, starting with daily entries on the 6th April, then becoming less frequent as media interest in the case wanes. Chris’s sections are written in the first person, using a conversational tone and capturing the cadences of a fairly rough, indifferently educated country woman. May’s narrative is written in the third person, interspersed with the trashy interviews and articles that she has written over this time.

For much of it,  I felt as if I were reading an article at the supermarket checkout or watching Sixty Minutes. I know that this was probably intentional on the part of the author, drawing readers into the voyeurism of crime-watching and armchair speculation.  This is just one of the things that the book does well. It also captures well the lazy, casual misogyny of everyday life, magnified further in a small town, and the juxtaposition of an active, consensual  female sexuality alongside non-consensual sexual creepiness.  Sexuality was used to manipulate by both men and women in this book.  She also puts her finger on – although does not explore further – the connections between offences that are portrayed as only “isolated incidents”

This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [another woman murdered in Strathdee] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.

None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it. It felt to May, that there was a thread connecting it all, and if she could find it she could follow it back, see where it began. Rip it out and examine its source. p.343

“Rip it out and examine its source”: a noble aim, but not one achieved in this book.  Sometimes I feel as if I’ve read a book that has been consciously written for a book-group discussion or to air “an issue”.  I couldn’t quite shake this feeling when reading this book.  Don’t get me wrong- I am a member of a bookgroup myself, and know that I would happily participate in the discussions that this book is likely to generate for the next couple of years.  However, I don’t like feeling that I’ve been targeted as a market.

There’s the enjoyment that a reader has during reading, as distinct from the discussion and contemplation afterwards. I found that the book dragged and it was really only in the last 1/3 that I found myself becoming more engaged.  Until then, I was underwhelmed by the vacuity of both women, and irked by the supernatural angle that was introduced halfway through. Just as the case ambled along, with little progress, so too did this book.   Perhaps this is one of those books where its strength lies after reading it, rather than while reading it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

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I’ve added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter

tranter

2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.