Category Archives: Australian Women’s Writing

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

bishop

2015, 279 p

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘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

 

 

 

 

‘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

‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska

mountain

2012, 426 p.

There are spoilers in this review.

Why would an acclaimed non-fiction author ‘go over’ to fiction?  Perhaps there’s something about the personal meaning of the material for the author that makes it easier to deal with fictionally. Perhaps there are ethical challenges in grappling with it, where the story is based on real-life, still-living people? Perhaps there’s squeamishness about ownership of the story: whether the story is the author’s to tell.

The Mountain  is Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction, although none of her work fits neatly into defined categories. Her non-fiction has always straddled the genres of non-fiction, memoir and imagination.  In this book, too, I sense that it is not ‘straight’ fiction and I felt almost deceived when reading her acknowledgements at the back of the book that elide the fact that she, herself, was the young wife of an anthropologist in New Guinea in the 1970s. She has made no secret of the fact in her interviews after the writing of the book, and even before, and yet there is this strange distancing of herself from the narrative in her acknowledgements in the book itself.

The book opens with a prologue set in 2005.  Although called a prologue, it is actually at the chronological fulcrum between Part I, set in 1968-73 and Part II set in 2006.  As such, it was largely incomprehensible at first, although I found myself flipping back to it several times while reading the book as the characters became (somewhat) more settled in my own mind.  The book closes with an epilogue in 2006 that largely mirrors the opening prologue.

Part I, told in the past tense, focuses on Rika, a young Dutch woman who accompanies her older husband, Leonard, an Australian ethnographic film-maker to New Guinea.  Set in 1968, she is absorbed easily into a mixed-race, expatriate social milieu gathered around the university.  Her husband Leonard goes ‘up the mountain’ to film villages and their inhabitants, and in his absence she falls in love with Aaron, who has come ‘down the mountain’ and is acclaimed as a future leader when Papua New Guinea achieves  the independence which is on the horizon.  Rika, racked with guilt but also determined in her love for Aaron, travels ‘up the mountain’ to tell Leonard personally of her decision and returns to take up her life with Aaron leaving Leonard heart-broken.  However, as time passes and Aaron becomes increasingly caught up in the politics of independence, Rika does not fall pregnant and  is thus unable to be fully accepted as Aaron’s wife by the villagers.  When five-year-old  Jericho is sent down the mountain, Rika realizes that Jericho is actually Leonard’s son by a village woman up the mountain.  She adopts him and he too becomes part of this large, mixed-race expatriate community, viewing Rika and her friend Martha as his two mothers.  I was engaged by the love story between Rika and Aaron, but found myself bewildered by what seemed like an endless succession of men with biblical names coming ‘up’ and ‘down’ the mountain and their wives.

My bewilderment and confusion carried over into Part II when Jericho, now a grown man, returns to PNG in 2006. There had obviously been a rupture: he had been brought up in Oxford where Leonard still lived; he was still in contact with Rika who was now a famous photographer but alienated completely from all contact with PNG and those who still lived there, and Aaron was dead.  The hopes and optimism of independence had soured, and the threats of palm oil plantations, mining leases and ecological exploitation were ever-present.  I actually managed to read about 50 pages into Part II before realizing that I had confused Aaron and Jacob (there’s those biblical names there) and had to go back to re-read once I realized my error.  Inattentive reading on my part, to be sure, but obviously the characters weren’t etched sufficiently into my own reading to survive the time-gap of thirty years between the two sections.  Part II is told in the present-tense and it largely revolves around solving the mystery of the rupture between Rika and the expatriate and village communities she had been trying  so hard to join.  At this level, the book is essentially a story of relationships against a wider political and ethical backdrop.

Although the book is fiction and centred on fictional characters, it is very much a book of ideas and it’s the ideas that I take away from the book.  There are poetic word-pictures of the beauty of the jungle and the garishness and incongruity of modern development.   Betrayal and alienation and being ‘hafkas’ (half-caste), and the multi-layered issues of colonialism and independence, exploitation, superstition and development are all explored with intelligence and nuance.  The focus on art and representation evokes Modjeska’s work in Stravinsky’s Lunch, and there are layers upon layers of thought  in the book that speak to the influences that Modjeska makes reference to in her Acknowledgements.   The book has been short-listed for many awards, including the Miles Franklin, and despite the Miles Franklin’s (sometimes disregarded) restriction to Australian works ‘in all their….’, this is very much a book about Australian colonialism as well.

I’m not sure, though, that I was completely satisfied by the book.  I recognize its depth and the importance of the ideas it carries but I don’t know if fictionalizing was a solution to the problem of how to represent them.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it has been shortlisted for several awards, and as a review for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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‘My Hundred Lovers’ by Susan Johnson

myhundredlovers

2012, 262 p.

I must admit that the whole Fifty Shades  phenomenon and its innumerable offshoots leaves me cold.   So it was with some trepidation that I borrowed My Hundred Lovers, hoping that a writer that I’ve enjoyed in the past would not betray me with a fleeting and warped assertion of empowerment through a string of  hot-breathed, moist, look-away sex scenes. I need not have feared. This is a beautifully written book, expanding love and sexuality to encompass the whole of life and being human.

It is written as one hundred chapters, each very short consisting rarely of more than four pages, and sometimes as little as a paragraph.  The hundred lovers here (such a daunting number!) are the spark between sensuousness and embodiment (in the sense of being in the body) and the whole range of a woman’s experiences.  There is  much for the fifty-year old reader to reflect and identify with here: the ambiguity of father/daughter physicality; the childhood sex play that I find myself looking back on and wondering about;  explorations of changing adolescent bodies; self-exploration;  sex for all the wrong reasons; sheer experimentation.  But sensuousness and being in the body is more than genitals and crevices: it’s also luxuriating in water, sand, heat; buttery croissants; it’s buildings and houses and landscapes; it’s friendship and companionship.

Unlike the sweaty, fervent erotic fiction that its title evokes, this book champions an older, wiser, more lived-in view of love.  It’s a view of love that  a fifty-year old reader does not feel disqualified from- if anything, it affirms and confirms what it sometimes takes fifty years to learn:

Love arrived smaller and more humble than advertised.  Love turned out to be plain, quotidian… She preferred herself now, less succulent and more loving, humbled, loved. (p.261)

This book is more than a list, it’s a life-story with relationships, losses, pain and confession, all measured out against the beat of passing time.  In fact, counting and taking measure is prominent here.  As she tells us in the opening sentence, romance between the average couple dies two years, six months and twenty-five days into marriage.   Most of us will live for a thousand months.  There are one hundred experiences in this book, numbered off in a countdown, and given that the book could have finished anywhere really, I found myself counting too…98, 99, 100.  Biography (including fictional biography as in this case) relies on the countdown of years and the elapse of time for its shape; unlike memoir which is an intellectual construction where time can be squeezed, stretched and compressed like clay.  This book combines the two- it is basically chronological in its structure, but events and reflection are intertwined and the whole  “100” framework is a literary and arbitrary construction.

The writing is crystal-sharp: quite an achievement in a genre that even has its own award for failure and mis-steps in the Bad Sex Awards– a dubious ‘honour’ that must surely shrivel up the juices of any writer.  Although it is completely self-contained in its own right, the author’s highly-acclaimed earlier work The Broken Book, a fictionalized biography of Charmian Clift, sits alongside it as a close companion.   They are both beautifully written, intelligent books.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because:  I’d heard of it and very much enjoyed the author’s earlier works.  And I’ll backtrack a little and  count it for the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge 2013

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‘Red Dirt Talking’ by Jacqueline Wright

wright_reddirttalking

346 p. 2012

I’m nearly always disconcerted by film footage of aboriginal settlements- the dust, the rubbish, the band of kids clustering around.  Yet I sense, despite the many deficiencies that can be picked out so easily, that there’s another way of living there with priorities and resiliences that I can’t see.  Alexis Wright gave us a glimpse of it in Carpentaria, as did Maria Munkara in Every Secret Thing.

Red Dirt Talking is a whitefella perspective on this landscape.  The small town of Ransom is in outback Western Australia; eight kilometres  out  is the ex-mission station  Eight Mile Creek, smaller still; and 370 kilometres further out again  the Aboriginal communities of Yindi and Breakaway.  Here are all the set pieces of what we understand of outback life today-  the smelter and its fly-in, fly-out workers that distorts the economy of small towns; the art centre co-op that teeters uneasily on the line between exploitation and entrepreneurship; the whitefella managers; the Toyota trucks; the Flying Doctor Service.

The book opens with the first-person narrative voice of Maggot the Garbo whose job takes him round the camps and pubs, the haunts of hard-bitten men and women, hoarders and crazies.   An eight year old Aboriginal girl, Kuj, has disappeared.  He doesn’t know what’s happened to her- no one does- but they all have their theories and suspicions.  The second narrative, told in the third-person voice,  is set some months earlier, focussing on Annie, a 40 year old anthropology postgraduate who arrives at Ransom, tape-recorder in hand and thesis in sight, hoping to collect some quick oral history interviews about a massacre some decades earlier.  Of course, such earnest whitefella briskness is completely the wrong approach.  Annie finds herself drawn into a diffident but increasingly complex relationship with the laconic Mick Hooper, one of the white project officers, and is gradually forced to let go of all the objectives, timelines and academic protocols that the university is trying to impose on her research.  Kuj is one of the constellation of children who swarm around the community, and as time elapses, the narrative takes us up to her disappearance but this time through the web of relationships- marriages, deaths, breakdowns, fosterings- that blur the boundaries between long-term black and white inhabitants of Yindi. Finally, there are the transcripts and contextualizing introductions to her interviews, printed in a different font on coloured paper: white-fella academia that stands apart both visually and as knowledge, from the rest of the book.  The book is called Red Dirt Talking, but it’s even more about silences and listening.

I must admit to becoming rather jaded at all the historian-as-protagonist stories that I seem to have read this year.  There’s a whole string of them- Candice Bruce’s The Longing; Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory; Anne Summers’ The Lost Mother and Eliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper.  What’s going on? Is it the influence of all these creative writing courses in universities, so that ‘writing what you know’ starts and ends with an academic?  Is the academic hunt an upmarket version of the ‘journey’ narrative that we all seem to be on these days?  With the increase in tertiary education levels, are we all academics and historians these days? Or am I hyper-aware of this  because my own thesis-clock is ticking away in the background?  I suppose that it’s a common framing device, but it’s wearing a bit thin for me at the moment- and so, I put A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale back onto the shelf until I can read it with fresher eyes.

Red Dirt Talking was written as part of a creative arts doctorate, it won the T. A. G Hungerford award for an unpublished debut West Australian manuscript, and the author Jacqueline Wright has worked as a teacher and linguist in outback Aboriginal communities.  I think that you can detect all three influences in the text.  As a debut book, it is probably fifty pages too long and it has far too many characters to remember.  She has acutely depicted the politics and protocols of academia, and I suspect that she has observed other Annies, ( if, indeed, she was not an Annie herself when first arriving in the outback).  I found it hard to keep track of who was black and who was white (in fact, I don’t think that Wright did identify in terms of black/white anyway)- which is probably a good thing; her descriptions of landscape are evocative, and she captures dialogue particularly well.

But most importantly, she cuts through the visual imagery of outback life- the mess, the flies, the rubbish strewn yards, and the people gathered under trees- and picks up on the humour, the complexities of relationships and histories, and the uneasy coexistence of wariness and generosity in a community where she is an outsider.  I found myself perfectly happy to pick up the book to keep reading, and I was drawn along by wanting to know what happened to Kuj.

My rating: 8/10 maybe 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read becauseLisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it, and I read a good review of it somewhere (although I can’t remember where!)

‘The Factory’ by Paddy O’Reilly

2005, 258 p

Ah, synchronicity!  Within days of reading Lisa’s review of this book at ANZLitLovers, why there it was sitting on my library shelf.  It’s out of print, she tells us, and very good she says, so off to the borrowing machine I go!

You’re drawn in from the opening paragraph:

They took away all my research papers when I was arrested on the mountain in Japan.  As the four policemen crowded into my cubicle, neatly piling up my reams of handwritten notes and packing my computer into its travelling case, I sat on the bed and started to tremble….

…Later, during my interrogation, an interpreter with a twittery voice read out some badly translated excerpts of my notes.  Did I write that? I wondered.  Did he say that?  I may never have those notes returned, so now I can only write from memory.  Some events are hazy, others I remember so clearly that my eyes ache from the pain of those days living in the sharp light reflected off the sea around the peninsula.

Hilda Moore is an Australian PhD student, researching the establishment and collapse of  Koba, a Japanese community dedicated to rescuing traditional folk-arts and performing them for new audiences during the 1970s, based at The Factory on a Japanese island.  It combined radicalism with tradition, artistic high-mindedness with more human jealousy, manipulation and power-trips. There were certainly cultish aspects to the group, which revolved around the master Yasuda sensei, and it collapsed after the death of one of its members, only to be revived again twenty years later.  This is Hilda’s opportunity- she agrees to act as record-keeper for this second manifestation of the group, while interviewing the original members for her research, some of whom have rejoined; others who eschew any contact with it.

The book has a complicated structure: the stories she pieces together of the original Koba, the interviews from her informants who each give their own conflicting perspectives on Koba and its collapse, and her own experience as she and another Western girl, Eloise, join the second-generation Koba as it re-establishes itself at its original home at the Factory. Suspended throughout  are the present-tense episodes from the quiet, sterile, lonely and controlled jail.  We do not know why she is there, and it seems to exist completely outside time and place.

It was mainly this jail narrative that kept me going through the book, and at the risk of spoiling I will just say that I was rather disappointed by the ending.  The ending is beautifully written and open-ended, but I didn’t think that it was strong enough for what had come before.

Unless I didn’t ‘get’ the ending. That’s a distinct possibility.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Lisa spoke so highly of it.