Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Medea’s Curse’ by Anne Buist


2015,  363 p.

In her book  This House of Grief , Helen Garner wrote of her sinking feeling on hearing of the death of the Farquarharson children on Fathers Day- “Oh Lord, let this be an accident”.  For right or wrong, hearing of the death of children at what might possibly be their father’s hand often provokes an almost immediate suspicion of his guilt- “not again”.  However a child’s death at possibly their mother’s hand evokes incredulity- “how could she?”  The young (or even older) woman who has denied her pregnancy and  has reality crashing down on her with the birth of the child- understandable.  A deliberate, extended series of deaths like Katherine Folbigg has been accused of- less so.  Ah, we all judge. None of us really knows.

Natalie King, the protagonist of Medea’s Curse knows, though. Or at least, she is required, professionally, as a forensic psychiatrist, to withhold judgment in her special expertise with mothers who have killed their children.  But she’s human, and  she can’t completely.  She clashes with Professor Wadhwa, who is convinced that a woman who has had several children die under mysterious circumstances is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities): Natalie is less sure. In a separate case, she has identified strongly – too strongly- with Amber, a woman jailed for murdering her child who, Natalie suspects, has been unjustly punished for a crime committed by her husband.  Meanwhile,  Amber’s husband is linked with another possible crime involving another child.

Then there’s Natalie herself.  She suffers from bi-polar disorder and flirts with abandoning her medication. She obviously has a complex family back-story herself that will no doubt be explored in future books in the series mooted on the back cover. She rides a motorcycle: she enjoys sex but not the mess of relationships.  And she’s being stalked: or at least, she thinks she’s being stalked.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here.  Too much? Possibly, for this reader who leans toward Dr Blake and Midsomer Murders in her crime tastes, and is often known to state “Well, I have NO IDEA what THAT was about!” at the end of a Friday night crime series on television. Nonetheless, I was able to follow the various threads, and found myself picking up the book for “just 10 minutes reading” to see what happened next.

Anne Buist, the author, is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, and is a specialist in perinatal psychiatry. She obviously knows her stuff (although she is at pains to stress that she has not used her patients in this book). At times the book was a little too technical, although having her supervision sessions with another psychiatrist, Declan, (an established feature of psychiatric practice) was a good narrative device for explaining things to the reader. As a Melburnian, I enjoyed its local setting.

So, given that this is not normally a genre that I’d read, and given my difficulty with following multiple plot lines, I enjoyed this book. It was a rather frenetic read though, and I was happy to turn to something quieter afterwards!

aww-badge-2015-200x300 I have included this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

‘Only the Animals’ by Ceridwen Dovey


245 p. 2014

This book is a series of short stories written by the souls of dead animals mentioned obliquely in literature.  Not a promising premise, I must admit. When I mentioned to my husband what this book was about, he said  (rather derisively) that it sounded like the little tsunami of books that emerged a few years ago about the overlooked wives of famous men ( Mrs Cook; Shakespeare’s Wife; Ahab’s Wife etc).  While I’m not enamoured of the comparison, I can see the similarities. Dovey is writing into and against a better-known narrative by using imagination to bounce off her historical and literary research.

The stories are arranged chronologically and range across continents.  They are set during times of war, and all of them explore human-animal interaction. In each case, there is a connection with a writer who paid homage in some way to an animal in her or his work. In the case of the parrot, Dovey pays homage to Julian Barnes who himself paid homage to Flaubert in Flaubert’s Parrot. The stories have this layer-upon-layer texture.

We start with the Camel who accompanied Henry Lawson on an inland expedition in 1892; we meet the Cat that Collette took with her to the Western Front in 1915; we meet Tolstoy’s tortoise who ends her long life in space; we encounter a dolphin trained by the US navy in 2003, and a parrot in Lebanon in 2006- and others in between.  I’m not sure, though, that the narrative voices of the different animals were different enough (unless, of course all souls sound the same), even though there were cadences and allusions referencing the authors mentioned in each chapter.

I must confess to feeling rather out of my depth in catching the allusions and little in-jokes that I detected, but could not understand, as I read the stories. As with any mash-up, which is I suppose what these are, there’s a blurry line between the derived and the truly original. There’s a list on Dovey’s website that references her sources, both literary and historical, and it further blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.

As a result, I found this book a rather uneasy reading experience.  As with The Girl with the Dog, I found myself discomfited by feeling as if an academic and literary game was being played over my head, or as if I was being excluded from a conversation spoken in riddles by a group determined not to let me understand. Does that matter, if you’re enjoying the story in its own right? I suppose not.  Or is it that I resent being excluded by ignorance and am chafing against how that makes me feel?

There’s enough curiosity about seeing the author perform that keeps you reading,  because this is a book of literary performance.  Any collection of short stories is arbitrary- what is included, what is left out- and I felt that way with this collection as well.  There could be an Only the Animals II, or III if she felt so inclined (and I strongly suspect and hope that she does not).  Not because the project is flawed, but because it should only be done once, and done well, as it is.

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site


‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’ by Annah Faulkner


2015, 321 p

I gave this book 120 pages before putting it aside.   I found the main character, conservation architect Christopher Bright self-absorbed, and just didn’t care enough for his existential crisis over his birth father to continue.  The book is written in present tense, with many, many flashbacks of dubious significance, and I found the handling of tense switches awkward.   Do all books have so many small editorial errors or was  it just that I wasn’t enjoying it?  Add to this the  many descriptions of food and appearance: all these things are warning signs that this book is not for me.

I find that many of the books I abandon or finish resentfully are set in recent or current-day Australia, and it’s possible that I’m rejecting current-day obsessions as much as the books themselves.  But I found that I just didn’t buy sufficiently into the secret and deceptions that lay at the heart of Christopher’s emotional pain, and there are too many other books that I want to read.  I have obviously bailed out before the title became explanatory, and I see from the acknowledgments at the end that the plot obviously moved beyond the beachhouse in Coolum and the Queensland bungalow and affluent angst. This particular reader, however, hasn’t been engaged enough to go along for the ride.

‘To Name Those Lost’ by Rohan Wilson


2014, 304 p.

Although there are a couple of convict stories set in  colonies other than Tasmania, the genre and stereotype is almost synonymous with Van Diemens Land ( For ‘other colony’ stories I’m thinking particularly of Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant and Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves,set in Queensland; and  Kate Grenville’s colonial trilogy and  Keneally’s The Playmaker  set in Sydney).  The fifty years that Van Diemens Land served as a penal colony threw a long shadow, one that is still being explored in the Founders and Survivors Project in recent years.

Rohan Wilson’s second book To Name Those Lost is set in Launceston in 1874, some twenty years after transportation to VDL ceased, but for those expired convicts, uprooted to the other side of the earth and now set adrift, it is a hard place.

Tethered  on a real-life riot in Launceston in summer 1874, Wilson’s book traces the hunt between two fictional ex-convicts Thomas Toosey and Fitheal Flynn as they pursue each other through the streets and bushland surrounding post-convict era Launceston.  Thomas Toosey is searching for his young son, cast adrift after a stroke killed his mother, while Fitheal Flynn is accompanied by a silent, hooded figure.  The town itself is heaving with dissent over a tax imposed to bail out a failed railway company: a scenario not unknown to us today.  Thomas Toosey appeared in Wilson’s earlier book The Roving Party as one of John Batman’s posse during the Black War, and here there is a hunting of a different kind.  The narrative has twists and jerks; there are surprises; there is resolution.

I particularly liked the way that Wilson captured the more-formal tone of a nineteenth century narrative.  He animates the voices of ex-convicts, brought to VDL already with their accents formed, and those of their children born in this new, co-mingled colony.  His description of Launceston was historically-informed without descending to Trove-based historical visual tourism.

However I did, I must confess, have difficulty with imagining Launceston in summer, having only visited it in winter, even though I know that it does get hot there too. The descriptions of Launceston kept evoking for me images of small-town America, and I found it hard to stop imagining  Toosey and Finn as cowboys. Many readers have likened Wilson to Cormac McCarthy as a writer, and I can see why.  Wilson takes pains to underline the Australianness of his landscape, and the British (rather than American) nature of his characters, yet the Americanism keeps soaking through and I don’t know what- if anything- Wilson could do to prevent this.

In an appearance at the Adelaide Festival Writers Week in 2015, Wilson spoke of the research that went into this book, and the effect of reading about the Launceston riot as a trigger for the setting of the book.  He almost underplays the historical understanding that the book displays of the generational effect of convictism and historical change in Tasmania, but it is certainly there.  This book is, surprisingly, about love between parent and child, and  the bequest of opportunity between generations in this most unlikely of settings and among the most unlikely of founding fathers:

The chiefly gift of parent to child is this, to bed down the land with their ash and make a place where fire will breathe and be warm, and the debt is told in beads of white smoke, the furrowing heat.  And the sound of love is to name those lost who lived for others. (p. 295)

I enjoyed this book very much, and there is much to admire in Wilson as an attentive, talented new writer.

An aside: Rohan Wilson’s PhD related to his writing can be found at:

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie 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.

‘The Way Home’ by Rose Tremain


2007, 384 P.

It took me some time to realize the cleverness of the title of this book, which seems far more a journey away from home, rather than towards it.  Lev is an unemployed lumberworker and what we’d call today an  ‘economic migrant’ from an unnamed Eastern European country who travels to England from his economically-hollowed out town to make enough money to carve out a better life for his family back home.  He is not, as he emphasizes, “illegal” under the then-current Worker Registration Scheme that made it possible for workers from the central Europeans and Baltic A8 states  to work in the UK, but he quickly moves towards that eddy of marginal casualized workers that underpin the hospitality and agricultural sectors of the UK economy.

Lev is a widower, with a young daughter after his wife Maria died with cancer a few years earlier.  The daughter has been left behind with her grandmother. On the bus that bears him across Europe towards England he is fortunate to be seated beside Lydia, a teacher with similar dreams of economic advancement, whose English is much better than his. As Lev moves through a succession of poorly paid jobs, Lydia finds a job as a translator to a world famous musician and shifts into a different social and cultural milieu.  But she continues to come to Lev’s assistance, even though he does not, in truth, treat her well.

His other piece of good fortune was to find lodgings with Christy, an Irishman reeling from the breakdown of his marriage and the loss of his daughter.  Lev sleeps in a bunk in the daughter’s bedroom, surrounded by the pink plastic detritus of children’s toys.  He and Christy drink too much, but they are good for each other.

Lev is a complex character.  In many ways, he is a good man, but he is also proud, jealous and inclined to violence.  He is also hard-working and quick, and when he gains a job as a dishwasher at the upmarket restaurant G K Ashe, he uses the opportunity to watch and learn.  He becomes involved with Sophie, one of the other cooks, but when their relationship becomes too messy, it is Lev who is sacked.  Sophie, like Lydia, is drawn into the celebrity culture of London when she becomes involves with the pretentious artist Howie Preece, but Lev continues to visit the aged care house where Sophie volunteered even after she had flitted into a new life.  He works hard and gradually an idea coalesces for a new life back home, with his friend Rudi, his mother and daughter.  It is at this point that I realized that this exile was all part of the way home- hence the title.

This book was my choice for my face-to-face bookgroup, chosen largely because I’ve enjoyed Rose Tremain’s work before and because I was aware that it had been awarded the Orange Prize in 2008.  Such responsibility! (no-one likes to hear the words “Who chose this book?”)  I feared that “the ladies” might think it too slow moving and at times I wondered where the book was going.  I must confess to fearing with each page that something tragic or dreadful was about to happen, but instead Lev’s progress was slow and prosaic.  But, along with my bookgroup ladies, I found the ending far more emotionally satisfying than I thought it would.

I’ve read critiques of the book where reviewers criticize the lack of specificity of Lev’s origins (thereby suggesting that all Eastern European countries were the same), or the political neatness of sending Lev ‘back home’ .  Neither of these things bothered me. I remember being disturbed by the open prejudice voiced against Eastern European migrants in England when I visited in 2007 – precisely the time that this book was published-  and the images we now see of young African economic migrants waiting at the Calais tunnel are challenging.  I found that Tremain’s book put a human back into the images and stereotypes.  She held back in the right places: there was no fairytale ending, but not did the whole thing descend into squalor or outright degradation.

And yes, the bookgroup ladies enjoyed it too.

‘The Boyds: a family biography’ by Brenda Niall


2002, 387p.

In this book we are in the hands of a master biographer.  Not many biographers would have the courage to take on a whole family as a unit, but Brenda Niall does here. The sprawling, artistic Boyd family has representatives in nearly every branch of the arts (literature, painting, architecture, sculpture) and its family tree is studded with seemingly endless iterations of ‘Boyd’ and ‘a’Beckett’ in their names.   Only an experienced biographer would even attempt such a complex group biography across five generations and nearly two centuries,  and she   handles it with consummate ease.

She owes much of her success to the very careful structuring that she has used to organize this unwieldy and voluminous information. She starts with four men: the emancipist-entrepreneur brewer John Mills; the wealthy pastoralist Robert Martin (of ‘Viewbank’ and ‘Banyule’ fame); William a’Beckett the Chief Justice of Victoria; and Captain Thomas Boyd, career militarist and settler. Even though the first section of the book is called ‘The Matriarch’ (referring to Emma Mills, later a’Beckett), Niall firmly embeds these four patriarchs as the founding fathers, so to speak, of the Boyd dynasty.  She takes forty pages to do so in her opening chapter, and she returns to them as touchstones throughout the book. The tainted convict source of the money that Emma a Beckett (nee Mills) brought to the family was a secret, but it  bestowed on its members the time and space to explore their artistic passions across multiple generations.

The second thematic device she uses is that of the house.  Houses were important to the Boyds. Emma’s husband W. A. C. Beckett had the ‘a Beckett coat of arms emblazoned on two houses: the first was The Grange in Berwick (since demolished for a quarry), the second was the lost manor Penleigh House in Wiltshire, England (later sold out of the family). Above the front door of the Grange he placed a stained glass window with the motto “Immemor Sepulchri Struis Domo” (Forgetful of the Tomb, You Build Houses).  Niall uses the house as an organizing device for her narrative, but it was one suggested through the family’s actions rather than the biographer’s imagination.  It works well, both as a means of organizing such an unruly venture, but also in highlighting the paradox that the Boyd family, so embedded and synonymous within Australian cultural life, were also drawn ‘home’ to an earlier ancestral myth of gentry glory. There is a string of Boyd Houses: the light-filled Grange so beautifully captured in Emma Minnie Boyd’s paintings,  the tatty, faded grand Penleigh in UK, Tralee in Sandringham, the architect’s home in Walsh St South Yarra; Open Country in Murrumbeena and Bundanong in Nowra NSW.

The focus is firmly on the Boyds, but it is just as much an exploration of Australian, and especially Melbourne, cultural life as well.  There are connections with other artists and their colonies, architectural commissions for major cultural figures, and networks branching across Melbourne society. At the same time, there is that siren call of “overseas”. Women are certainly present, even if they sometimes subjugated their role as muse behind that of wife and mother.

This is a marvellously complex but disciplined biography. This is how a group biography is done!

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