Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History’ by Klaus Neumann


2015, 300 p. plus notes

There’s often a frisson of  defiance among non-Coalition voters when singing  the second verse of our national anthem, the dreadful ‘Advance Australia Fair’.  Irony of ironies, in our national anthem, we declare

For those who’ve coming across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share

knowing full well that Australia currently funds off-shore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island  that were deliberately designed to ensure that those who come across the seas do not (by ‘hook or by crook’) share in our boundless plains.

In the introduction to his book, Neumann declares his intention to make the present appear unfamiliar, by drawing attention to both radical differences in Australia’s refugee policy in the past, and at the same time, to identify continuities and parallels in past and present policies.  His account is chronological, commencing with Federation in 1901 and concluding in 1977.  Why 1977? Because it was then, he argues, that the public response to refugees to which we are now accustomed had been fully formed.  I finished reading this book, having read the obituary to Fraser govt Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar that very morning, and Neumann has convinced me that his endpoint of 1977 is an appropriate one.

Continue reading

‘We That Are Left’ by Clare Clark


2015, 450 p.

What’s not to like about this? It’s a ‘Big House’ book, set in the years following World War I, with blurbs by Hilary Mantel and Amanda Foreman.  I’m a sucker for Big House books- Brideshead Revisited, Atonement, Molly Keane novels- and I really enjoyed the post WWI setting of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. The front cover (complete with a picture of backs)  and the large font of my copy made me feel as if I was reading a Mills & Boon novel and so I nestled into this book as if it were a comfort read.

It’s probably more than that.  It is carefully researched  (perhaps a little too carefully researched in places) and it picks up on themes like the dearth of men after WWI; the rush to spiritualism by bereaved families; and the effect of rising death duties on the Big House in a twentieth century that no longer pays deference to them and their crusty families.

Nonetheless, there are some well-worn tropes here.  Oskar Grunewalk, his name anglicized to Oscar Greenwood in those anti-German days, is the young outsider boy who flits around the edges of the golden family ensconced  in the Big House, humiliated by and ill-at-ease with the favoured children of the family.  There are two sisters, each very different from the other.  Oscar is a mathematics prodigy, with an almost autistic fascination with numbers and details, and although treated as an interloper by the glamorous Melville family, he loves the old house, Ellinghurst.

The book opens with the funeral of Sir Aubrey Melville, and we know that Oscar now -somehow-  has charge of Ellinghurst.  The question of how this has come about is the narrative thread that draws you through the book, and it did it well enough to find me reading the book in snatches, furtively, wishing that it wasn’t so cliched  and yet enjoying the fact that it was.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was sitting there on the ‘New Books’ shelf.

‘Black Rock White City’ by A. S. Patrić


2015, 248 p.

“I never taught you how useless words are, did I?” says Jovan, encountering a former student, who offers her stilted condolences on the deaths of Jovan’s children in a far-off country in a far-off time.   Ah, but words are not useless to Jovan, nor to this novel, which interweaves graffiti, poetry and silence in an exploration of grief and displacement set in bayside Melbourne during the 1990s.

Jovan had been a Bosnian poet and, like his wife  Suzana, an academic  in the former Yugoslavia,  but that is in the past. Now, newly arrived in Australia,  Jovan is a hospital cleaner, while Suzana does domestic work.  They are distanced from each other, but joined by a raw, inarticulate grief over what they left behind in Sarajevo.  Jovan is sleeping around, Suzana teeters on the edge of mental illness and buries herself in literature.

At the hospital where Jovan works, an unidentified graffiti artists carves, daubs and etches cryptic messages that become increasingly violent and unhinged.  This mystery is the hook that draws you into the book, but by half-way through you realize that the story lies elsewhere.  Not that the thriller aspect is abandoned completely, because it certainly drags you by the hand in the closing pages which were quite unputdownable.  But for me the real strength of the book was in the layering of Jovan and Suzana as characters, and their tentative negotiation of a new life in a new place.

The book is written in present tense, which usually I bridle against. But in this case, I barely noticed.  Many of the sentences are short, and the text is disrupted by bursts of poetry. The duality of the book is reflected in the title: Black Rock (the bayside suburb) White City (the literal translation of ‘Belgrade’).

The cover carries a blurb from Christos Tsiolkas, and there are resonances here of Tsiolkas’ book Dead Europe.  However, it’s very much an Australian book, and its darkness is set against a hot dazzling Australian summer.  It’s very good- I’m detecting murmurings of ‘Miles Franklin’ and I think they’re right.  Reviewers often use the word “powerful” too often to describe a book that is either engulfing or a steamroller.  This book is powerful, but quietly powerful in terms of the depth of its observation, the handling of different genres and purposes, and the poetry of its writing.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I’d heard of it.


The Saturday Paper review

Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers

SMH review by Owen Richardson

‘The Gillard Project’ by Michael Cooney


2015,  288 p.

Near the end of this book Michael Cooney admits that its working title was “We weren’t as bad as we seemed at the time” (p253).  While the actual title is a good one, capturing as it does the slow-motion car crash that was the Gillard government, the working title was pretty apt too.  This book proudly proclaims  the fact that, despite the drama and intrigue, this was a government that passed a huge amount of  progressive legislation (especially in comparison with its successor) and that there was a definite Gillard Project of education, health, employment and disability funding.

Until I’d read Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, I hadn’t particularly considered the nature of a speech-writer’s role. I found it hard to distinguish the voice of the invisible speech-writer from the speech-giver (and still do)  in such a strangely symbiotic relationship.   Michael Cooney came to the job as Gillard’s speechwriter as a Labor man after working as policy director for Kim Beazley and Mark Latham, and as founding policy director of the progressive think-tank Per Capita during the Rudd years.  He comes from the Catholic right-wing of the party, a pedigree which I’m not particularly keen on, and which I find puzzling given that Gillard was from the left.

But there is no doubt of his admiration for Julia Gillard.  My favourite chapter of the book is an interlude titled ‘The Shy Child’, extracts of which appeared in this Fairfax article, where he emphasizes her humour and downright decency.  It comes through in the other chapters as well, as he chronologically traces through the frenetic “just do it” attitudes of the early months of the Gillard government, her performance overseas, and then the awful, drawn out ending.

The political speech today is a strange beast.  Although Parliament and politics in general are largely despised sideshows,  speeches probably have a longer lifespan now than in the past with the advent of YouTube.  But they often appear as a soundbite, or in a truncated form, and we don’t have the patience to listen to a whole speech for the overarching argument.  Gillard’s misogyny speech of course springs immediately to mind, as does her speech after her overthrow – neither speech written by Cooney.  But there are other speeches as well, and this book gives Cooney the opportunity to revisit them, as well as the speeches that he wrote but were never given.  In particular, Gillard’s speech to the Mineral Council of Australia on 30 May 2012 (the ending of which she rewrote) is powerful stuff, even if proved only transitory by subsequent events:

Now I know you’re not all in love with the language of ‘spreading the benefits of the boom’. I know everyone here works hard competes in a tough global environment; you take big risks and you earn the big rewards. You build something. Australians don’t begrudge hard work and we admire your success.

But I know this too: they work pretty hard in car factories and an panel beaters and in police stations and hospitals too. And here’s the rub: you don’t own the minerals. I don’t own the minerals. Governments only sell you the right to mine the resource. A resource we hold in trust for a sovereign people.  They own it and they deserve their share…

The facts endure. Our economy is the envy of the world. Our mining industry is the envy of the world. And there’s nowhere in the world you’d be better off investing. And there’s nowhere in the world where mining has a stronger future.  And this is Australia, and it has a Labor government. (p 191)

Cooney fesses up, as well, to the speeches that bombed, most particularly the “we are us” speech that she gave to the 2012 ALP conference, to which he devotes a whole chapter.  Because this is a book written by a speech-writer, he is able to give the draft of the speech that was not given, but he doesn’t resile from responsibility for the “we are us” phrase that was ridiculed so widely. “The speech” he admits “was by far the worst moment for the prime minister that I had real responsibility for” (p 136).

I had starting reading this book some weeks ago after picking it up from the ‘New Books’ table at the State Library while waiting for material to be delivered to the Manuscripts Reading Room.  It engaged me instantly, and so I suggested that it be purchased by my local library, which subsequently obliged. I must confess that I found it harder to get into the second time, but by half-way through I was hooked again. It’s an insider’s book, with names dropped and allusions made,  very Canberra-centric and Cooney does not make any pretense over where his loyalties lie.  We’ve had the recent, depressing airing of “The Killing Season” and it’s certainly an antidote to that, just as it’s an antidote to the Government’s announcements of its carbon reduction target and quashing of the marriage equality bill.  I doubt that it will have the longevity of Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart but it’s a good read for now.

‘Sir William a’Beckett’ by J. M. Bennett


Sir William a’Beckett J.M. Bennett, Federation Press, 2001.

This blog is called ‘The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’ as a tribute to the first resident judge, John Walpole Willis, but there were in fact four Resident Judges of Port Phillip. William a’Beckett, the fourth and final one, is an interesting man. His main claim to fame is that he was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, after having served as Resident Judge in Melbourne since 1846.

As proud Victorians, it suits us to forget that until July 1851 the area that we now know as Victoria was instead just the “Port Phillip District” of New South Wales.  La Trobe was a mere ‘Superintendent’; the Legislative Council sat in Sydney where Port Phillip affairs were an afterthought, and all administrative functions were directed from Sydney.  The court was part of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and while the Resident Judge in Melbourne had some degree of autonomy, appeals went automatically to the full Bench in Sydney.  The Resident Judge was still a member of the full court, but distance ensured that in a practical sense he was sidelined from the activities of his brother judges in Sydney.

William a’Beckett was Resident Judge when the Supreme Court of Victoria was finally established under the Supreme Court (Administration) Act 1852. This act brought to an end a rather ambiguous seven-month hiatus where it was assumed, but not definitely stated, that  a’Beckett would continue in his position until Letters Patent were issued by the Queen or colonial legislation would be passed to make him Chief Justice of the new court.  The Colonial Office made it clear that it wasn’t going to issue the Letters Patent or any new Charter, so it was up to the new Victorian legislature to pass the necessary legislation. It eventually did so, and a’Beckett was sworn in as Chief Justice on 24th January 1852, with Redmond Barry (the former Solicitor-General) as first puisne (or assistant) judge, joined by Edward Eyre Williams in July 1852. Continue reading

‘Savage or Civilized? Manners in Colonial Australia’ by Penny Russell

You may remember a number of years back when Prime Minister Paul Keating had the audacity to place his hand on Her Majesty’s back to gently steer her in a crowd.


He was quickly dubbed “The Lizard of Oz” by the English press, always quick to jump on colonial brashness with a snort of derision at ex-convict temerity (a taunt which carries little significance in Australia itself).  Historically, however, the colonial/convict trope was far more influential, as demonstrated in Penny Russell’s book Savage or Civilized? Manners in Colonial Australia.

This book is about the complicated rules and the even more complicated lived experience of colonial manners (p 5)….Manners are not only about the different observances of form and ritual that make a past (or a foreign) society seem quaintly strange.  They are also about the ways we acknowledge and respect the humanity of others, extending due consideration to their feelings, preferences, prejudices and sense of how things should be done.  The ultimate rudeness is to deny a fellow human being that degree of consideration. (p. 14)

Not everybody cared about manners, but this book concentrates on those who did.  It explores what she calls four ‘contexts’: the pastoral frontier; convict society; the domestic world and the new public space that opened up in the the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The book is not necessarily chronological, as these ‘contexts’ were continuous throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century time period, but there is nonetheless a chronological trajectory in the narrative.  She describes this as “layered” rather than chronological, and is at pains to stress that she is not discussing the rules of civility as spelled out by the imported ‘politeness’ literature that flooded the empire, but instead looks at

how manners affected the daily lives of individuals, how they played out not in principle but in practice, not in precept but in people. (p 13)

In other words, the sort of history I enjoy most.


2010, 362 p.

In Part One, she starts on the frontier, that site of colonial theatricality so well explored in Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers.  Handshakes, in particular, are the focus of attention (as they are also in Tiffany Shellam’s Shaking Hands on the Fringe). In each section, she presents a small number of characters to exemplify the arguments she is making, almost as if she is bringing them onto the stage for us.  Robert Dawson was an employee of the Australian Agricultural Society who was viewed as a “good man” and the author of The Present State of Australia in 1830 where he sought to rescue the reputation of Indigenous people at Port Stephen. It was, however, a respect overlaid by paternalism, praising docility, tractability and goodwill- and in the final analysis, he took their land. Neil Black, on the other hand, felt adrift within the moral wilderness of settler society, rejecting the commonly-held premise that a young gentleman could break out of the expectations of his class and status and then take them up again at will.

Part Two, “High Society”makes the point that British manners were themselves evolving at the beginning of the 19th century. Although there was still a belief in a social pyramid, this view was challenged by the rising bourgeoisie and evangelical domesticity which placed great store on reputation, good name, and ‘credit’.  The networks between the colonies ensured that this strategically reimagined ‘England’ was a common reference point as the colonies erected their own strictly-policed social boundaries to mirror what they conceived to be the situation at ‘home’.  Government House in the colony served as a microcosm of these relationships , as Russell demonstrates with the example of the much-studied Lady Jane Franklin in Tasmania (a theme she also explored in her book This Errant Lady which I viewed here.)  When Sir John Franklin fell out with his private secretary Alexander Maconochie, it not only caused a split in society, but also leached into the personal relationships within the domestic sphere, as the two families lived in close proximity.  Professionalism was another arena of conflict, as she shows with her example of two doctors: Dr Farquahar McCrae (the brother-in-law of Georgiana McCrae in Port Phillip) and Dr William Bland, an emancipist who had been transported to the colonies for a duel.  When the two doctors disagreed about the appropriate treatment for a patient, the dispute was played out through the newspaper columns of the Sydney Herald, spilling into a meeting of the Benevolent Asylum Society, one of those philanthropic organizations through which middle-class men underscored their respectability.

Part Three examines ‘Domestic Worlds’, and while I found this an emotionally engaging section, I did find myself wondering whether enough was made of the effect of colonialism on domestic relationships.  This was not so much with the dissatisfied governess Margaret Youngman, who reminded me of Sybilla in My Brilliant Career, which was itself an Australian working of the governess story.  It was more with the the story of Mary Ann Tankard who was deserted by her older, often-absent husband, and the wife of the Reverend Andrew Ramsay who was left behind to ‘keep up appearances’ while her husband sailed back to Scotland to deal with church business. Both these stories of desertion could have easily been mirrored by deserted women in England.

The final section moves more into the second half of the nineteenth century and the burgeoning of a public and  political sphere where women and aspiring working men  became more visible.  Transport and urbanization brought the courtesies of meeting strangers to the forefront of public discourse, especially for ‘girls’ during the 1890s.  The fiesty Annie Britton, who was arrested for parading in the volunteer uniform of Captain Gilbee, brought the captain’s family into the public arena, while the arrival of the Duke of Edinburgh brought colonial manners under the censure of the ‘home’ reading public- or at least, it was imagined that it would-just as Paul Keating was to do 130-odd years later. In the midst of the celebrations Henry Parkes, chair of the organizing committee, stepped forward to shake the Duke’s hand.  Parkes was himself of dubious background and doubtful morality given the indecent haste with which he married his mistress after his first wife’s death, and the new Governor the Earl of Jersey and his wife later ensured that the new Lady Parkes was excluded from Government House.

As Russell notes in concluding her book, hers is not a discussion of ‘real’ Australian values and nationalism- not then, and not by historians later. Instead, these carefully and sensitively drawn people and their dilemmas and social and domestic dramas

…were telling representations of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who moved into, and sometimes out of, the Australian continent; tiny atoms in the sprawling world of settler colonialism, but constituent atoms nonetheless.  At the end of the nineteenth century, as much as at its beginning, many if not most colonists understood themselves a privileged members of the Anglo world, and yearned to blend unnoticed with a cosmopolitan community upon terms of cultural and social equality, not to be marked out an uncouth barbarians or brash colonials. (p. 259)

aww-badge-2015-200x300My review is linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

It’s also 1/20 of my TBR20 Reading Challenge- my vow to read twenty of the books I already have on my shelves.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan


2014, 480 p.

There are spoilers in this review

I haven’t been writing this blog long enough for it to capture my deep admiration for Richard Flanagan. Only his recent book Wanting has made it into this blog.  Over the last twenty years I’ve read all his books, with the exception of The Unknown Terrorist, which I have on my shelves and which may surface as part of my #TBR20 challenge (once I start it!). For me,  Gould’s Book of Fish is right up near the top of my list of best Australian novels.  So I was delighted that Flanagan won the Booker Prize for this book, although I must admit that my praise of it is not completely unalloyed.

The main character in The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Dorrigo Evans, met in the opening pages as an elderly, famous doctor, lionized for his role in tending to the men on the Burma Railway.  He is uncomfortable about the acclaim that has attached to him but not enough to eschew it completely.He enjoys women and has had a series of extramarital affairs throughout his life. He doesn’t really like himself very much.  One’s mind turns immediately to  ‘Weary’ Dunlop – the iconic war-hero doctor of the Thai-Burma railway-  although I’m in no position to know how closely the fictional book parallels the real-life.

We follow Evans from his childhood in Tasmania, his move from humble beginnings  into ‘society’ as the handsome young medical student and then his sudden encounter in a bookshop with Amy- a young woman who, he later learns, is his uncle’s wife. Interwoven with this love story is the muddy, oppressive heat and downpours of the Burma jungle as Evans,  now a Prisoner of War, is placed in an unsought leadership position because of his medical skills.  He holds the power to order men to stay in the rudimentary camp hospital, but he is forced into a nightmarish bargaining ritual with their Japanese captors who demand men to work on the railway.

Flanagan is a writer of images, and in all his books (and particularly in this one) he luxuriates in the visual and the visceral.  We can envisage the gnarled gums that the young Dorrigo sees above him as he lies back in a horse-drawn dray, jolting through the bush as he joins his older brother in a bush camp.  We see the golden dust-motes swirling in the still air of a first-floor bookshop when he first sees Amy; we hear the sigh of the waves outside the beachside pub that Amy manages with her husband.  We can see – and our imagination flinches away from –  the mud, pus and shit of the Burmese camp.  Parts of the book are disturbingly violent: so much so that I found myself unable to sleep after reading some sections of it.

The book is consciously literary, with small extracts of Japanese verse separating the different parts of the book. The Japanese guards are monsters: the Japanese guards are also cultured men.  It is this paradox that he explores in the latter part of the book, as the war ends and somehow these men- both Australian and Japanese- are somehow meant to rejoin life again.  Memory smooths and distorts; men on both sides grapple with questions of goodness and evil.

I mentioned that my praise is somewhat tempered in this book.  There are too many coincidences, and too much squeezed into the last quarter of the book. Flanagan himself in interviews said that he had started with the scenario of two people who had been lovers long ago catching sight of each other in a crowd, and I felt as if this scenario, which appears near the end of the book,  was a writing exercise in its own right.  So, too, the bushfire scenes near the end felt like a self-contained piece of descriptive writing, undertaken as a set piece and not particularly germane to the narrative. I found that the ending was messy- almost as if Flanagan wanted to tie everything up and yet couldn’t quite bring himself to bring the book to a close either.

That said, these are just qualms and not at all the demolition job that Michael Hofman unleashed in the London Review of Books.   No-  I was overwhelmed by the bigness of the book and its themes.  The love scenes were tender, physical, and finely crafted, and so too, paradoxically,  were the war scenes: both part of being human.  In interviews, Richard Flanagan seems to think of this as the book he’s been driven to write, all along throughout his writing career. I think he might be right.