Category Archives: Book reviews

‘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.

‘The Happiest Refugee’ by Ahn Do


2010, 240 p.

This was a bookgroup selection, which I would never have chosen for myself.  Comedians’ autobiographies are not a must-read for me: I’ve read Judith Lucy and um…… surely Clive James is more than a comedian?  So let’s just say that I’m drawing from a very small puddle of familiarity with the genre.

Ahn Do is a young Australian comedian of Vietnamese heritage. I must confess that while I know who he is, I can’t remember actually seeing him perform, as he tends to work on commercial channels and aimed at a younger demographic than I.

The book reads like a series of stand-up routines, with very few of them extending beyond two pages (and sometimes much shorter) often with a rather inflated hook sentence to draw you in, and a soft punchline at the end.   I must say that it’s not a structure that particularly satisfied me because it left you skating across the topic without tunnelling very deep. The book was organized chronologically as Ahn Do told his story of travelling to Australia from Vietnam as a ‘boat-person’, his family’s striving for financial security, the break-up of his parents’ marriage, the progress of his own career and marriage, and his reconciliation with his estranged father.

The story was far better than the telling of it. At a time when our government has twisted the language to conflate ‘asylum’ and ‘illegal’, it was instructive to read of the fear and precariousness of their trip by sea to Australia, and their deep gratitude to the then-government for offering a new life to the family. In many ways the family acted in the ways that most evoke fear and disdain for the Australian population- the extended family living in crowded conditions in a factory, the domestic sweating of female family members, the buying up of property- but all these activities made complete sense within the cultural world-view and history of this Vietnamese family.

What shines through is Ahn Do’s love for his family, and his gratitude for his mother in particular who worked so hard when the family broke up.

There’s so much we don’t know when we sit in the back seat of a taxi, wary perhaps of the driver; when we scowl at large family groups at auctions ‘taking over’ the suburb; or when we see veiled mothers and children at shopping centres. I, at least, feel shy about asking and yet there is probably so much that I could learn, and this book is such an experience.

That said though, Ahn Do should probably stick to stand-up comedy.

‘Kin’ by Nick Brodie


2015,  365 p.

In her wide-ranging book on DNA and history, The Invisible History of the Human Race Christine Keneally spoke of the interaction of highly personalized ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ -type family history with the Big-Data digitization processes currently being undertaken by libraries and genealogical companies across the globe.  No longer limited to Births, Deaths and Marriages, both family and professional historians now browse  Trove (the Australian online newspaper library) and finding within minutes details that would have taken years of research to uncover.

It’s interesting that within the past couple of months two professional historians have released books that contextualize their own family histories into the broader Australian story: one by Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison, and the other by a young historian, Nick Brodie. I heard and very much enjoyed Nick’s paper at the recent AHA conference (in fact, I awarded it my ‘Packer’s Prize’ for the best paper). He struck me as a particularly enterprising and forthright historian and just the sort that television producers would be looking for: young, good-looking, articulate, intelligent.  (As an aside, I note that his book is marketed by SBS….)  I’m interested to see how these  two histories compare, written as they are by historians born forty years apart and at the two extremes of an academic career. Continue reading

‘The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery’ by Alexandra Roginski


2015, 79 p & notes.

Great title and a good little book.  There are, in effect, three mysteries rather than just one- and all within 79 pages, grounded in careful research and a sense of humility towards the unknown and unknowable.

The first mystery explored in Chapter One, is the identity of the skull in Museum Victoria.  Catalogued as ‘Jim Crow’ and part of the Hamilton collection that was gifted to the National Museum of Victoria in 1889,  the skull had puzzled museum curators for some time. The matter had assumed a more urgent, human significance in the wake of the international trend towards repatriation of indigenous artefacts from collecting institutions.  The label on the skull designated it as ‘Jim Crow’,  a name frequently cast on indigenous men and evocative of African-American blackness, but physical tests suggested that the skull was that of a female.  It was only with a re-reading of the ambiguity of the analysis, and a preferencing of the historical record over the skeletal one, that opened up of the possibility that the skull was male after all. Roginski makes no secret of the conditional and still uncertain nature of this classification.  It might indeed be the skull of the man known as Jim Crow, and from this suggestion the rest of the book flows.

Jim Crow’s death certificate indicates that his birthplace as Clarence Town, near Maitland.  We know little of his origins, but we do know his end: hanged for rape in 26 April 1860 at Maitland Gaol.  Jim Crow bursts into the historical record on 24 January 1860 when he visited a farmhouse near Dungong and asked for water, and then- according to Jane Delanthy’s  deposition- asked “Will you give me rape Missus?”. In Chapter 2 Roginski unpicks the case, weighing it against other rape cases involving white prisoners. Although, as she acknowledges, we will never know what really happened, she suggests that the evidence did not appear strong enough to secure a guilty verdict.

But Jim Crow – or at least, his body- was to leave a longer trace in the historical record. Three months later, the noted  showman-phrenology  Archibald Sillars Hamilton (known professionally as A. S.Hamilton) approached the sexton at the Anglican Church at East Maitland asking where the bodies of Jim Crow and another man hanged at the same time were buried.  The sexton felt uncomfortable enough about the request to report it to his superior who then reported it to the police magistrate.  Hamilton was committed to stand trial for inciting another person to exhume corpses from a burial ground.  After a widely reported trial, Hamilton was acquitted, but his purpose was achieved when ‘someone’ disinterred the bodies.  Chapter 3 deals with this case, and explains the ‘science’ of phrenology as an international and then Australian phenomenon.  A. S. Hamilton led a colourful and disreputable life, and his attitude towards indigenous people is complex.  His slipperiness as a character further complicates the identity of that skull in the museum.

Chapter 4 deals with the provenance of the Hamilton collection and how it came into the possession of the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria.  Hamilton’s third wife, Agnes, gifted them as a phrenological collection to an organization embedded within the cultural and scientific life of Melbourne. A rather rueful note in the author’s acknowledgments notes that an Overland article by Jill Dimond about Agnes Hamilton (which she cites quite a bit in this final chapter) appeared just as she submitted her thesis (and here we all experience a collective shudder of fellow-feeling).  This chapter, however, is broader than just Agnes Hamilton, as it widens out to consider the collecting policies of the Melbourne institution more generally.

This is only a small book, but it is told in an engaging voice and makes reference to many larger academic arguments without becoming bogged down in them.  The introductions and conclusions bear the hallmarks of the thesis genre, and she has been served well by Monash University Publishing which has allowed her the academic accoutrements of decent footnotes and -bliss- a separate bibliography.  It’s a rollicking good read, but weaves together important questions with rigour as well.  ‘Jim Crow’ is no longer mere artefact.

Other review: Tom Gilling’s review in The Australian

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

‘The Mothers’ by Rod Jones


2015, 334 p

Spoilers ahead.

By rights, I should have loved this book.  It’s a family saga, focussed firmly on the female characters; it’s based largely in Melbourne; it covers 1917-1990 and is rich with social history. It is written in five parts, encompassing seven separate chapters.  Each of the chapters is named for its female protagonist, followed by location and year (e.g. Alma, Footscray 1917; Anna, Cockatoo 1990.) So it is a book firmly anchored in its characters who are embedded into a particular place and time- usually a structure and concept that I enjoy. However, in this case, I found myself dissatisfied.

There are four mothers in this novel.  The book opens with Alma, who has walked out on her adulterous husband with her two children in 1917, at a time long before Supporting Mothers’ benefits and in the midst of WWI.  Homeless and without support, she is taken in by Alfred Lovett and his mother. It is  when she falls pregnant to Alfred that the relationship sours, and under pressure from his mother, Alfred pays for Alma, her two children and her new daughter Molly to shift to Seddon.  When this arrangement falls through, Alma cannot afford to support her daughter and so young Molly is sent to the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Brighton. Jones writes a nuanced account of Molly’s time at the orphanage: it is not a horror story of deprivation or cruelty, but a stripped down, anxious time. Molly does rejoin her family and marries, but does not fall pregnant.

The second mother is Anna, an unmarried, pregnant twenty-year old girl from Cockatoo who is brought to the Salvation Army ‘Haven‘ in Alfred Cres, near Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy in 1952.  But this institution was no haven: instead it was part of the twentieth-century adoption process-line so heartbreakingly detailed in the Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption Practices of 2012.   I read this section with a sinking feeling of inevitability and found it the most compelling part of the book.   It comes as no surprise, really, that the adoptive mother- the third mother in the book- is Molly who, in many ways, projects the insecurities of her orphanage experience onto her adopted child, David.

The fourth mother of the book is Cathy, David’s girlfriend in 1975. Cathy, too, is pregnant but it’s a completely different scenario in Whitlam’s Australia than the one faced by David’s unknown biological grandmother Alma when she fell pregnant in post WWI Footscray.  David, the father of Cathy’s child, is prickly and restless, reluctant to engage with the bourgeois conceit of marriage.  He is aware that he had been adopted but unwilling at that stage to follow it up any further.  It is not until the 1990s, in the final chapter of the book, that there is a coming together – an awkward, tentative and inconclusive coming together- of his birth and adoptive mothers.

So, why didn’t I fall in love with this book?  Part of it, for me, was its rather self-conscious attempt to be historically grounded.  Much as I love Trove,( and I truly do), I wonder sometimes if it’s not strangling Australian historical fiction by enticing writers to indulge in a form of literary product placement.  There were too many details that Jones seemed unable to omit, and rather than adding authenticity, I felt as if I were being conducted around a movie set.

This was compounded by the very simple writing style that Jones uses.  I found myself craving something that was meatier- although not in an emotional sense because he did manage to get inside his characters’ consciousness, and equally well for both his male and female characters.  But this was achieved through a succession of many short sentences, and I felt as if I was being written-down-to. This is  a book about hard things, and I wanted the language to match it.

In an article written by Jane Sullivan about an interview with the author, we learn that Rod Jones was adopted and that this very much is his story.  Perhaps we need to read it as fictionalized memoir, and acknowledge the pain that seeps through it.  But it’s much more than the “penitential exercise, however worthy” that Peter Pierce denigated it as in his review in the Australian, and it has an emotional integrity that shines through.  I just felt that it was smothered by the period detail and short-changed by the writing.

‘The Girl with the Dogs’ by Anna Funder


2014,  57 p.

This book is published as a Penguin Special, a series that is spruiked as

“concise, original and affordable… short enough to be read in a single setting- when you’re stuck on a train; in your lunch hour; between dinner and bedtime.”

Looking through the other titles in the series at the back of the book, they’ve engaged some good writers, mainly but not exclusively fiction.  I see that this novella was originally published as “Everything Precious” by Paspayley.  Paspayley? Publishers?  It’s only now, as I write this blog entry that I’ve remembered reading about this: Anna Funder (winner of the Miles Franklin back in 2012) was funded to write a short story aimed at a young female demographic by Paspayley Pearls.  The company had come in for some adverse publicity through a Four Corners episode in 2012 investigating the death of one of its pearl divers, and the company contracted Special Group advertising agency to produce a campaign aimed at a market that had not, until then, seen pearls as a fashion item.   A chapter of the book was released online each day, accompanied by a video clip featuring an actress wearing Paspayley pearls.  At the end of the week-long campaign, the whole book was available for download as a free e-book and in hard copy.  Of course, if I’d read the back cover, I would have known that it had been published online under a different title.

Learning all this changes the direction of my thinking about this book. I wonder how Penguin came to publish it, when it’s available online anyway? Is that why they changed the name?   I think I’d feel a little cross if I shelled out the $9.99 to buy it, only to find that I’d downloaded it for free six months earlier under another title.

In fact, I’d been thinking about the pricing of this book, even before I learned of its digital incarnation.  I read it in 45 minutes, and $9.99 seems rather expensive for less than an hour’s reading.  Then I remembered Weight Watchers (of all things). They consciously price their sessions to be the same price as a cinema ticket- enough to twinge, but a price comparable to a fairly common entertainment activity.  I suppose that movies go for about 100 minutes at $20.00 for a full-price ticket at Hoyts, so I guess that an hour’s reading (I’m a fairly fast reader) at $10.00 makes the book and a movie  somewhat comparable.  This all seems rather grubby and mercenary, but I must confess to feeling emboldened to pursue the idea now, knowing that the book was funded as a commercial venture in the first place.  Although all books are, I suppose: the difference lies in the fact that instead of a publisher funding it, a jeweller did.

As for the book itself: it is very much a modern story.  Tess is the mother of three children and the daughter of a widowed Judge now in an aged care facility; she has a career as a legal editor that takes her to international conferences; she has been married for seventeen years to Dan, an academic.  It’s a life of school-runs, mobile phones and i-pads. All this technology both suffocates and liberates, and it is through technology that she can find a man she knew and loved long ago.

Despite its modernity, the story is told in a detached, rather interior fashion, and to my shame, it was only when I read the Saturday Paper review of Funder’s book that I realized that it’s a Chekhovian voice that I’m hearing.  The story is a riff on Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog (available online here), and realizing this, I have even more respect for what Funder has done with it. I shouldn’t imagine, though, that there will be many readers who will make the connection with the Chekhov story- I certainly didn’t.

This story is strong enough to stand as a novella in its own right, and I think that it would be stifled by being in a collection of short stories.   Tess is a nuanced character and her lifestyle and thoughts completely plausible, even for someone a good fifteen years older than she.  In my 45 minutes of reading, I experienced a full range of emotions: fear for her, a gooey warmth at the romance of it, an ending that satisfied.  In all this, the book is thoroughly self-sufficient. Nonetheless,  I can still imagine that Paspayley would have been delighted that she’d encapsulated their target market (Western, educated, wealthy, approaching middle aged without admitting it, female) so well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Anchoress’ by Robyn Cadwallader


2015, 320 p

If writing were diving, then this book would be a reverse 4.5 somersault tuck (degree of difficulty 4.5).  After all, the main character is a seventeen year old anchoress nun, walled up in a small cell beside a church in 1255 England.  Where on earth does a writer go with that?  And just to escalate the degree of difficulty to a reverse 4.5 somersault pike (degree of difficulty 4.8), the author of this book has a  PhD in medieval studies, focussing on St Margaret and attitudes towards women.  Where another author might be tempted to spice it up with an illicit affair and a daring escape, we would rightly expect that Robyn Cadwallader would be sensitive to the spirituality that would draw a young woman to such a drastic, and to us unfathomable, spiritual choice.

I first came across the concept of immurement in the book The Nun of Monza where ‘walling up’ was used as a form of punishment.  Sister Sarah’s election to become an anchoress is, however, an act of relative free choice.  Nor is she completely isolated.  As Mary Laven showed in her book The Virgins of Venice, set four centuries later, when women were financially supported by wealthy men to devote their lives to prayer for the souls of their sponsors, this transaction often ensured that bonds of obligation survived.  Sister Sarah’s cell was attached to the shaded side of the village church, nine paces by seven, within earshot of the life continuing outside, with curtained windows through which she could receive food, talk to her two servants and give counsel to women who came to her for spiritual encouragement.  She was visited regularly by Ranaulf, a young monk usually employed in the scriptorium of the local monastery, who reluctantly took the place of an older spiritual guide charged with the care of the anchoress women.

The story is told from alternating viewpoints: the first person voice of Sister Sarah interwoven with the third-person perspective of Ranaulf.

The real strength of this book takes place within the four walls of Sister Sarah’s cell.  The door is nailed shut; the bones of an earlier anchoress lie in the dirt at her feet.  In the flickering candlelight, she refuses food and in the lightheaded melting of reality, self-flagellation and erotic fantasies about the physicality of love for Christ unhinge her.  We learn of her grief for the death of her sister in childbirth, and gradually piece together her reasons for making the choice to become an anchoress.  Ironically, although seclusion was supposed to quash the senses, it instead heightened them.

I was less convinced by the outside world, though.  Sir Thomas, the landlord’s son, is a two-dimensional villain, and I found the conversation with Eleanor, a small child who attaches herself to any passerby for companionship, unconvincing.  Perhaps it was the abbreviation of the name (‘Ellie’), but the Eleanor character seemed far too much a twenty-first century invention.

Those qualms aside, Cadwallader remains faithful to the religious impulse that drove Sister Sarah to make the choice she did, and to the power and authority relationships that supported the whole conceit of an anchoress.  It is a strange book to us, because it is a strange situation, and Cadwallader’s quiet, dignified tone – in itself somewhat strange to us- carries it well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge