Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Heart Goes Last’ by Margaret Atwood


2015, 306 p.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of Margaret Atwood’s recent book The Heart Goes Last. It fits into the ‘dystopian fiction’ genre that she explored in The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake which, although set in a recognizable but off-kilter future, explored human themes as well as sociological and ecological ones as well.  The Heart Goes Last  seemed to start in a similar vein, but became almost a futuristic farce as she piled one scenario onto another until the whole edifice threatened to fall down.

It all started recognizably enough. Stan and Charmain (we never learn their surname) were living in their car, having lost their home and well-paid jobs in what we would recognize as the 2007 global financial crisis. Living in their cramped car, tired, smelly, and frightened of marauding gangs, they jump at the chance to join the Positron Project which offers them a stable job and a fully-furnished house in the town of Consilience – half of the time.  The other half of the time they are prisoners in the Positron jail, a large prison complex that is the major economic driver of Consilience. Not that Sam and Charmain are criminals, and nor are most of the people in the jail.  The real criminals had been gradually weeded out earlier. What was more important than guilt or innocence was that they were consumers of prison services, and you don’t need to be a prisoner to do that.  So that the facilities are fully utilized, their house is occupied by their ‘alternate’ couple who have signed up for the same deal, shifting in and out of the house/prison arrangement.  So far so good, as far as I am concerned: there’s whole country-town economies in Australia based around jails and detention centres.  It is when both Charmain and Stan, independently, become infatuated with their alternates, that things become more complicated.

While taking her turn in prison, Charmain’s job involves the dispatch of bound and drugged prisoners, which she does with as much gentleness as she can without thinking too deeply about what she’s doing.  Stan is charged with looking after the Positron Project poultry farms, turning a blind eye to the men who pay to have sex with the chickens.  ‘What???’ I think, as Atwood lays down one of her farce cards.  Positron runs many enterprises out of its prison complex, including the manufacture of sex-bots, made to look as authentic as possible- evoking shades of the ‘synths’ in the recent television program Humans;  or built as Elvis or Marilyn Monroe look-alikes. But Positron goes further, pioneering surgery on living women to wipe their memories and ‘imprinting’ them onto their purchasing lovers, much as baby chickens are said to be imprinted, ensuring that they are completely loyal and acquiescent lovers.  ‘What???’ I think, as Atwood lays down yet another farce card.

I guess that this was my problem with this book. I’d go along quite happily, and then Atwood would just put one more element into the scenario, tipping it over into parody. Apparently it was written as an online serial, and perhaps that accounts for the feeling I had that Atwood was just playing with the reader, escalating the implausibility and adding yet another thing. Perhaps the need to keep stacking on the shocks is one of the perils of the serial genre.  To have a faceless corporate conglomerate leveraging the prison system for profit, and it becoming an end in itself, would have been enough for me.  I didn’t need the sex-bots, the sexual imprinting and the kinky sex as well.

My ranking: 7/10

‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift


2016, 132 p.

This small novella by Graham Swift is an exemplar of the genre, written by a master.  Swift takes a small image and spins it into something tight and intricate, but with threads that could lead into something larger.  In this case, the image is a woman lying naked among the tangled sheets in a sun-filled room in an empty house.

Her lover Paul has just stood up from the bed, and he looks back at her as he dresses.  It is 1924, Mothering Sunday.  In the drab and aching days after WWI, Paul is the only remaining son of the Sheringham family, with his two older brothers killed in the war. Jane is an orphan, a housemaid in a neighbouring house. Their relationship is an illicit secret, impossible to bring into the open.

For those few gentry families still clinging to a vanishing world of big houses and servants, Mothering Sunday is always an inconvenience. Their hired help are given the whole day off to visit their own mothers, leaving their employers to make their own arrangements. But, as an orphan, Jane has no mother to visit and so she has the whole day to herself- or so she thought.  Paul has other ideas.

This book is only 132 pages in length, and it is just right.  The language is explicit and fruity, but the narrative voice wistful and melancholy.  Swift foreshadows the ending right from the start, and the tension in moving towards that ending is so painful that I wouldn’t have wanted it to go for another page longer. It was so beautifully written, however, than I wouldn’t wish for a single page less, either.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

‘Leaf Storm’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1955, (originally published as La Hojarasca)

Have I mentioned here that I am learning Spanish?  Not content with bursting my brain with learning verb conjugations (it has taken me an inordinately long time to move on from the present tense- quite a drawback for a historian!), or sitting puzzled over News in Slow Spanish (which although slow, is not slow enough for me!), I have enrolled in a Coursera course on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez which begins today.  One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favourite books and it seemed a good way to struggle with Spanish while reading something that interests me. No, I am not reading the books in Spanish: I’m having enough trouble reading the lecture notes and following the videos on the course because the ‘translate’ function doesn’t seem to be working for the subtitles.  As a result, if I get through even one week’s work in the six weeks allocated, I’ll be doing well. However, it has prompted me to plunge into a cram-reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It seems fitting, therefore, to start off with his novella Leaf Storm, which was his first published work.  It appeared in 1955 after a seven year search for a publisher. It is only short: about 90 pages although it is hard to tell on an e-reader. I kept feeling that I had read it before, which I have, because he picked up the same themes in much of his other work.  It’s as if he was trying the story on for size in novella form, which he later expanded into a whole body of work. It is set in Maconda, the fictional village to which he returns again and again.

The story starts with an epigraph from Antigone, and this short novella, like the earlier Greek story, focusess on a contested funeral. It is told from three perspectives: an unnamed small boy, his mother Isabel, and his grandfather, the Colonel.  The three people are sitting in a closed room with the body of the doctor, who had committed suicide, each with their own thoughts.  The child is preoccupied with the discomfort of his formal clothes and the wonder that he’d been kept from school to come sit with this body.  The daughter thinks about the dead doctor, and his strained relationships with the villagers, and his generally disapproved concubinage with their former servant.  The colonel gives the widest perspective of all, as he reflects on the hatred of the village for this doctor because of his refusal to treat wounded soldiers during one of the civil wars that convulsed the country after the arrival of industrialization.

It is hard now to appreciate the novelty of a multi-perspectival narrative because it is relatively common now.  However, the frequent references- even now, 66 years later,  to the 1950 film Rashamon as the prime example of a multi-perspective work, highlight the strangeness of the narrative technique that Gabriel Garcia Marquez developed at much the same time.

The novella itself is easy to read (in English!) but I must confess to not being able to easily detect the difference in voice between the Colonel and his daughter Isabel. However, as I often find with my favourite authors, Garcia Marquez is a master in being able to slip seamlessly between past and future without interrupting the narrative with asterisks or chapter headings.  The element of an eerie timelessness is here, and a sense of the teeming physicality of the village- both memorable features of his other work.

And so- onward to the next book!

Read because:  I’ve enrolled in the ‘Leer a Macondo’ Coursera course to challenge my budding Spanish.

Format: e-book The Gabriel Garcia Marquez Library: Fifteen of his best-loved books.


Vale Inga Clendinnen: Re-reading’Tiger’s Eye’


I began writing this review of Tigers Eye the other night, after re-reading it for my bookgroup. I was working on it last night, and I wondered how Inga Clendinnen was faring, knowing that she had been in poor health (but still mentally feisty) for some time.  Little did I know then that she had died that very day.  Inga Clendinnen is the historian who influenced me more than any other. I have read much of her work, all before I started writing this blog (Ambivalent Conquests;  Aztecs: an Interpretation; Reading the Holocaust;  True Stories (Boyer lectures); The History Question; Agamemnon’s Kiss and Dancing with Strangers.)  But her presence is here in my blog, in the only book of hers that I have reviewed since (In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath‘) and, more importantly, as the lodestar that has guided my perception of other histories written by other historians. I met her only once in recent years (and was so overcome that I was barely coherent!) but my respect for her is unbounded and my debt to her incalculable.  Vale, Inga Clendinnen.



2001, 289 p.


So this is what I have been doing all this time- by courtesy of a physiological malfunction, taking a journey out, beyond and around myself, and into interior territories previously closed to me.  At the end of it, battered, possibly wiser, certainly wearier and, oddly, happier, I have returned to where I began: to history, with a deepened sense of what peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper, puzzling over the past and the present doings of our species, pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers. (p. 289)

I first read Inga Clendinnen’s book Tiger’s Eye  in 2003 and it changed my life. I had been ill for about three years, able to only work part time, and after reading this beautifully written reflection on illness, memory and writing, I decided that I wanted to return to uni and my first academic love- history. I think that I could confidently say that you wouldn’t be reading this review on this blog if I had not read this book (oh dear, it all sounds a bit too Pauline Hansonish.) Before re-reading it for my bookgroup this month, I would have said that Tiger’s Eye was ‘about’  Clendinnen’s response to her illness.  Returning to it, I find it a much different book to that which I remembered, combining experiments in fiction, memoir and an exploration of the nature of memory.

So who is Inga Clendinnen? After commencing her academic career at the University of Melbourne, Inga Clendinnen was a history lecturer at ‘my’ university, La Trobe, between 1969 and 1989.  I had forgotten completely, until reminded by a friend, that she was the lecturer on the Mexican Revolution in Revolutions IA, the first history subject I did as an undergraduate in 1974. Along with Greg Dening, Donna Merwick and Rhys Isaac she became known as part of a group of historians dubbed the ‘Melbourne school’ by anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  Common to this group of historians is the practice of thick description, reflexivity, a deep reading of events and individuals’ responses, and a celebration of the act of writing. It is the type of history I admire and enjoy most. Clendinnen’s specialization was Mesoamerican studies, most particularly Aztec culture, but she is probably best known  in Australia for her works Reading the Holocaust and most recently Dancing with Strangers.

“Illness made me a writer” she says at the end of this book (p. 288). I think that she’s underselling her own earlier writing, but certainly Tiger’s Eye is an exploration of writing outside the history genre, while still drawing on the historian’s skills.  Ill in hospital, feeling trapped, helpless and under surveillance, she remembered a childhood story about a wizard who looked through the eyes of various animals- wolves, jaguars, ants- to see the world from their perspective.  On hearing the rumble of a tiger from the nearby Melbourne Zoo, she adopted the tiger’s eye as her motif:

… I too was in a cage, with feeding times and washing times and bars at the sides of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod, but the kaleidoscope of the horror of helplessness ceased to turn because I withdrew my consent from it.  Thereafter, whenever I felt the threat of the violation of self, I would invoke the vision of the tiger and the freedom that vision gave me, to be at once the superb gaze, and the object of the gaze: an incident in a tiger landscape. (p. 21)

She directs her gaze towards herself as patient, telling the story of the progression of her illness, observing her fellow patients and recounting the steps towards the liver transplant that halted her decline. She spends a considerable time ( perhaps a little too much time?)  recounting the hallucinations that electrified her befuddled post-surgical consciousness.  Once their vividness had abated, she realized that the hallucinations wove together memory and sensation from her own childhood and experience.  Much of the book is devoted to unpicking these experiences, testing the robustness of memory as a factual as distinct from emotional construct, and knitting her experiences up again into fictional experiments.

More of the book than I remembered is turned over to exploring – or as she puts it- ‘reading’ her parents.  Here I find myself conflicted.  I’ve commented on several occasions recently in this blog about my discomfort with children ploughing their parents’ lives, wanting to uncover the ‘real’ man or woman inhabiting the carapace of the parent figure. Clendinnen certainly does this, particularly with her mother, and her judgment is harsh. She directly links her curiosity over her mother, in particular, with her later career as historian:

… I can see that my pursuit of her has been a lifetime activity; that my early fascination with her impenetrability, and my pleasure in that impenetrability, has a great deal to do with my long happy life as a historian spent in pursuit of other more distant,less impervious impenetrabilities. … Now, when I am not many years younger than she was when she died, I am still sifting my handfuls of sand, still trying to make them stand and hold a shape I could call ‘my mother’. And still, for all my gatherings and pattings, she continues to fall apart like a sand lady.  If she is on the beach at all she is a mirage, an eye-baffling dazzle fleeing before me, receding faster than I can run. (p. 237, 238)

I was also surprised to find, on re-reading this book, how seriously she grappled with the issue of fiction-writing versus history writing.  This was, of course, the juxtaposition that roared into life in her argument with Kate Grenville over the writing of The Secret River, and which Clendinnen explored in more detail in her Quarterly Essay The History Question. But it’s here in this book too, five years earlier, as Clendinnen experiments with the two genres, finally admitting an element of defeat:

After years of doing it I think I am beginning to understand the work of writing history- the how of it, the why of it- but I still don’t understand the work of writing fiction.  There is a Spanish saying of which I am unreasonably fond: ‘No hay reglas,.’ ‘There are no rules here.’  That is the way fiction seems to me.  If there are rules, I don’t know them.

Engagement with professional history imposes rules.  One of those rules is that we must represent our chosen people as justly and completely as we are able.  We must try to understand them, and for that we need a supple imagination, but that is imagination’s only role.  With history I am bound like Gulliver by a thousand gossamers: epistemologically to the deceitful, accidental record, morally to the dead men and women I have chosen to re-present, and to the living men and women I want to read my words and to trust them. (p.244)

Finally, in re-reading Tiger’s Eye I was stopped again and again by the sheer beauty and power of her writing.  Here’s her description of visiting her aunt’s outhouse at night:

I liked the outhouse best on moonlit nights, because then the moonlight would come slicing through the slim black gumleaves like hard silver rain. (p.59)

Here, in one of her fictional pieces, is a mother putting on lipstick to visit her sister:

…she would draw her stumpy lipstick straight across her stretched lips and rub them hard together, so that when they showed again they were red with little spikes of deeper red running out along the wrinkles…(p96)

And in the same story, an unnerving description of an aunt’s ‘little game’ that mixes sensuality, intimacy and transgression.  The mother and her daughter visited Aunt Lall, who was bed-bound:

…sooner or later my mother would say she would die without a cup of tea and she would whisk out…and while she was out of the room Auntie Lall and I would do our secret thing.  She’d give me a little nod and a wink, and I’d climb up onto the bed, carefully, so I wouldn’t joggle her legs, and she’d take my hands into her warm soft ones and lace her fingers tightly with mine so our palms pressed together and I’d feel the hard bands of her rings…Then she’d slide the rings off, the ones that could still come off, and spin them on my fingers, and give the tip of each of my fingers a little kiss.  They were marvellous rings, heavy ones, old, all of them gold, with rubies and diamonds studded all round them. She’d stack them on my thumbs, raise her pencilled eyebrows and laugh silently, and I’d trace the pencilled line along the line of bone to the puckered skin and the harsh orange-red hair at her temple, and she would lift my limp hair away from my forehead as if it were precious.  As if it were beautiful.

We would do all these things silently, listening to my mother banging about in the kitchen.  Then the kettle would scream and the boiling water would crash into the teapot and I’d slide back into my chair just as my mother came in and banged down the tray so that the milk flew out of the jug and the teaspoons trembled… Carnal knowledge.  Whenever I come across that phrase now I think of Auntie Lall, because carnal knowledge was what she taught me: that there is a special love which sleeps in the flesh, and that special fingertips can waken it. (p. 104)

And so, on re-reading Tiger’s Eye, I find it a different book to what I remembered.  I’m perhaps more critical of the ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ section which takes up a large part of the book, now that I, too, have read Mr Robinson.  I can see the emergent shape of the Kate Grenville dispute, and I am surprised that so much of this book is fictional writing. But most of all, I celebrate Clendinnen’s artistry as a writer, thinker and historian: one of the best ones I know.


I have included this book towards my tally on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016




Don Watson ‘QE63 Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’


2016,  63p.

It might seem strange to Americans that  Australia’s premier long-essay journal devotes a whole issue to Donald Trump (and I can’t see the interest being reciprocated in reverse) but as in other countries across the world, many Australians – and particularly those of Quarterly Essay persuasion- are horrified at the idea of President Trump.  So, too, is Don Watson, as he makes clear in this essay.

Don Watson wrote American Journeys eight years ago (see my review here) and he repeats, on a smaller scale, the methodology he used in that earlier book.  However, instead of criss-crossing America to explore its political and cultural paradoxes, Watson limits himself in this essay to the state of  Wisconsin.  However, his findings are similar on a smaller scale: that within the one state there can exist multiple Americas, and that American politics reflect this splintered reality.

Within the state of Wisconsin, there is Milwaukee, hollowed out by the collapse of American industrialisation. White Americans now number 37% of the population (half of what it was in the 1950s); Latinos a four-fold increase to 17% and African Americans making up 40%. Milwaukee votes Democrat, but the white-flight suburbs surrounding it are a staunch Republican voting block, fired up by prosperity evangelism. They are the support base  of  the current governor Scott Walker, who believes that God has chosen him to cut taxes and stop killing babies.

Then, in the same state, there is Madison – and how many books have I footnoted ‘University of Wisconsin- Madison’?- a university-dominated town with art galleries, museums, and the Capitol building.  Madison was the seat of Robert La Follette who took on the elites, the railroad trusts, the lumber bosses, the corporations and stood for an expanded democracy, guarantees of civil liberties, the right to form unions and against “any discrimination between races, classes and creeds”. (p. 28) It is this strain of American politics that responded to Bernie Sanders for whom, I suspect, Don Watson would vote  if he had the chance.

There are now, Watson claims, two red parties and two blue parties, and “the whole country has come to resemble a battleground, albeit one, like the Somme for long periods, in stalemate.” (p 3) The underlying truth is that “the United States is a concatenation of sulky tribes, provincial, ignorant and seething with ambition, frustration and resentment”. (p 4)

While not discounting the possibility of a Trump victory completely, Watson abhors the thought.

Clinton just has to win. If she loses, not only does the world get Donald Trump (and the US Supreme Court his appointments): the Democrats will have to live forever with their decision to make their nominee the most qualified presidential candidate in history, but also the person most disliked by the American public and possibly the only one that Trump could beat. (p. 66)

Clinton is, Watson says “a fully fledged, and some would say dangerous, foreign policy hawk with no demonstrated ability to think beyond the doctrine of exceptionalism to which she subscribes as a matter of faith” (p.62) But she has also, through Sanders’ presence, been pushed towards the progressive side with promises to invest in cities to lift people out of poverty, invest in infrastructure, create jobs, revive manufacturing and raise the minimum wage, with immigration reform, an end to student debt and paid family leave. (p 64).  And this, perhaps, is cause for cautious optimism.

Reawakening the old grassroots reformer deep inside could not only heap manifold blessings of the nation and consolidate a liberal Democratic ascendancy; it is surely alsO the best antidote to the dark forces now feeding on the country’s malaise. (p. 67)

This Quarterly Essay probably does not add much that is new to the commentary that Paul McGeogh has been providing in the Fairfax papers, or Guy Rundle in Crikey. It is good, however, to read an extended-length reflection on the American elections, even if it feeds into our despair over a decision that will affect us all, and upon which we can have no influence whatever.



‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor


375 p & notes, 2016

On the first page of the introduction to this book, there is a picture of a young aboriginal woman, staring directly at the camera.  It comes from a book by Alice Duncan-Kemp called Where Strange Paths Go Down, published in 1964 and written in the tradition of Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Daisy Bates or Mary Durack.   Liz Conor, the author of Skin Deep does not know who the young girl is, despite searching for almost a decade for clues to her identity in order to repatriate the woman in the image to her descendants and to seek their permission and cultural clearance.  Conor uses her image nonetheless, and in this- as in much of the material in this book- she is conscious that in historicizing and interrogating the use of settler impressions of aboriginal women, she is also resuscitating tropes and assertions that might best be forgotten. As she says:

Focusing at times on unnamed women, that is, women already subjected to this very appropriation, creates a dilemma: should such images be left outside the historical account, when they have played a significant role in shaping ongoing imaginings of Aboriginal women? (p35)

She decides to proceed, however, after consulting with women in several communities in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The book does not concentrate on photographs alone: there are lithographs, cartoons and prose descriptions as well, often twisted with racism and misogyny and deeply offensive.  She warns readers that the material will be found repugnant, and it is.

The book starts with the earliest descriptions and depictions of Aboriginal women by the first European explorers who, deeply imbued with Enlightenment thinking, categorized Aboriginal people as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘native belles’. Images were engraved, reproduced and co-opted again and again through the new print medium. This chapter lays the basis for the central argument of the book:

…that colonial racism and gender relations hinge in particular ways and depended on the facility of print to reiterate and thereby entrench meaning as truth. (p. 38)

The second chapter reiterates this argument in a different way through the ‘bride capture’ trope, whereby white men could conveniently overlook their own sexual atrocities to deplore what they described as the kidnapping and enslavement of aboriginal women by aboriginal men.  Just as with the lithographs described in Chapter One, these assertions were repeated again and again by explorers, protectors and anthropologists. It took some time for a degree of nuance to emerge, whereby the women could be seen as not just victims but participants in a tightly regulated pre-elopement  marriage ritualized performance. What was left largely unsaid was the perilous position of Aboriginal women on the white/black frontier where white men accused of violence towards Aboriginal women were exonerated, or able to deflect blame onto the native police.

A similar process of repetition attached to the trope of infanticide and infant cannibalism explored in Chapter 3, although this is a more complex area. Unlike the bride capture assertion, which was spelled out in lurid detail, claims of infanticide and infant cannibalism were not actually witnessed by white writers, but drawn from Aboriginal testimony.  Weight does have to be given to some  writers on infanticide and cannibalism who had ongoing and generally trusted contact with their Aboriginal informants. However, it is very possible that in the midst of complex inter-tribal indigenous politics, informants to a trusted white settler or ethnographer were disparaging other tribes by accusing them of cannibalism, to distinguish them from their own tribe (which did not indulge in such practices). At the same time, too, white mothers were sometimes charged with committing infanticide, and it is possible that the  atrocity of cannibalism was  added to differentiate white and aboriginal female criminality.

These initial three chapters reinforce the power of repetition in embedding a particular impression of Aboriginal women into the settler and metropolitan consciousness, even when there was little or conflicting evidence. Print culture in particular facilitated this easy re-use and reproduction.  However, as a reader, while I know that the whole point that she is emphasizing is that repetition was a powerful tool, the chapters felt rather repetitious themselves. There is a chronological progress through the reports and depictions that she describes, but because they themselves were derivative and recursive, it felt as if you were reading the same thing again and again, without little new knowledge or insight being gained.  Her research is exhaustive here (and indeed, at the end of the book she exclaims that there are reams of such material), but it is exhausting reading as well.

So it was with some relief that from Chapter 4 onwards, she takes up a slightly different approach by following through the depictions of Aboriginal womanhood from domestic servant to sexual partner to old woman.  Chapter 4 ‘Footfall over Thresholds’ explores the descriptions of Aboriginal women’s gait, either as a sashaying, silent, dignified ‘native belle’ or as a  ‘felt-footed house lubra’ (p.261).  Certainly, Conor has been able to identify and reproduce many pictures of thresholds, with the white woman on one side of the doorstep, and the disheveled or sneaky  black woman on the other, and her point about the depiction of large flat feet is well-made with several derogatory cartoons found in twentieth-century ‘humorous’ publications like the Bulletin or Aussie.

In Chapter 5 she takes as an illustrative episode the moral panic that was provoked in 1936 over the prostitution of Aboriginal women and girls to Japanese pearlers, with accusations that they were being pimped by Aboriginal men.  This was a double outrage: not only did it reference the ‘bride capture’ trope of Chapter 2 but these were Japanese pearlers (i.e. non-white; increasingly suspect) who were pillaging Australia’s fisheries and natural resources in the leadup to World War II. Again, indigenous women were seen to be passive against the power of their men, without agency. It was only with the contribution of Aboriginal men to the defence of the Australian coastline during the war that they were reinstated as defenders, rather than purveyors, of their women.  Within the deluge of newsprint prompted by the prostitution scandal,the suggestive term ‘black velvet’ (a reference to Aboriginal women’s genitalia) was never used to describe the attraction of Aboriginal women to the Japanese.  Instead it was a coded phrase for white man/aboriginal women sexual relations. I was rather startled to learn that ‘Black Velvet’ was the original name for Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

However, there is nothing titillating or alluring about Chapter 6 ”Absolute frights’: appearance and elders.’  It was as if newcomers felt compelled to record and publish their disgust at the appearance of elderly, emaciated Aboriginal women, and they did- with derision and at length. This chapter really is offensive, and is well placed at the end of the book, after the reader has already been exposed to less offensive (but no less corrosive) nineteenth and early twentieth century commentary.

This book has been written for an academic audience and UWA publishing have not stinted on scholarly conventions and tools.  There are lengthy footnotes, a full bibliography and a good index which includes references to historians.  What luxury it is to be able to look up a historian’s name in the bibliography instead of having to track back through footnotes to find the original reference!  The book does draw heavily on theoretical work, and I really appreciated that Conor was not forced (in the cause of ‘attracting a general readership’) to strip out all references to other historians with the vague term “some historians say….” but was able to name the historian, and quote directly from her/him.  It’s a form of academic sociability: because Conor has been able to quote and summarize the key findings of other historians, you know the argument that she is embedding her work within. You’ve read that work too, or if you haven’t then it distills the argument so that you can see how Conor has integrated it into her own work. It’s an academic pleasure that is so often being withheld from us in the cross-over between academic and ‘popular’ history.

It sometimes happens that the argument of a book becomes known by a sort of  short-hand reference.  For example, you only have to say ‘Blainey’ and you think either ‘distance’ or ‘black-arm band’; you say ‘Reynolds’ and you think ‘frontier’. I think that Conor’s work here will spring to mind as a short-hand reference to the abhorrent and self-perpetuating use of imagery, especially in relation to indigenous women.

I finished reading this book in a week when Bill Leak published a cartoon in the Australian not too far removed from the late19th-mid 20th century cartoons reproduced in these books. ( In The Conversation, there’s a good article about the cartoon, which I will not dignify with reproducing or linking in this blog). In the face of Leak’s repetition of past injustices (and not-so past, in view of the Don Dale video) the last paragraph of Conor’s book, which encapsulates her argument, comes to life:

Construing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations.  The recursion of these effacing yet exposed constructs of Aboriginal women was advanced through print and its syndications on a global scale.  Once aware of how such racial distortions become entrenched, a renewed impetus to resist them at every iteration ought to become part of a nationwide apology and commitment to recognizing the dignity of Aboriginal women.  By extension, whenever and wherever we hear a misrepresentation advanced in public about a people that contrives to mark them off with exaggerated disparity or disregard, we need to call it out then and there. (p. 370)




I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writer’s site.


Further reading: You might be interested in this article that Liz Conor wrote in New Matilda that draws on the book.  The article, as with the book itself, warns of the offensive content.


‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra


2015, 318.  (How odd- there’s hundreds of images of this front cover online, but none of the front cover that sits on the desk behind me, which shos a leopard and a cossack. I think mine’s the UK version)

I just loved this book.  It is marketed as ‘Stories’, but they are all interconnected through recurring characters and objects. This interconnection is more integrated than, say, Olive Kitteridge, where Olive has a walk-in, walk-off role in some of the stories.  Instead, this is more like a jigsaw when you realize with a satisfying ‘click’ that you’ve placed another piece in the puzzle; or like a family history search when all of a sudden a connection comes clear.

Each story is self-contained and yet cumulative.  The settings span Leningrad in 1937 , a labour camp in Kirovsk at the same time and Kirovsk sixty years later, Grozny in in 2003, in the midst of the Chechen Wars and St Petersburg in 2001, 2011 and 2013.  Of these settings, two in particular are memorable. The first is the heavily polluted northern industrial city of Kirovsk where every second person dies of lung cancer, the lake is full of mercury, the twelve smokestacks that belch out filth are dubbed ‘The Twelve Apostles’ and an artificial forest of metal trees has been created because nothing will grow there.  The second is in the Chechen Highlands, most particularly whitewashed cottage nestled against a hillside with a vegetable patch beyond.  This cottage has been captured in a painting, which is changed by later artists and curators, just as the picture of a ballerina’s hand is the only thing left after a Party censor has been charged with expunging the now-disfavoured ballerina. But people and things are not just removed from paintings, but can be inserted into them as well.  Anguished by guilt at his brother’s arrest, the Party censor inserts his brother’s face into paintings as well, as a haunting act of insubordination.

We meet the Party Censor, Roman Osipovich Martin, in 1937 and we will find him sixty years later as the subject of a retrospective exhibition.  Galina the ballerina marries the 13th richest man in the former Soviet Union before she is disgraced. Lydia marries a piano-tuner as a mail-order bride before returning to Kirovsk to live with her impoverished mother. Kolya is captured and held hostage near the whitewashed cottage beside the hill: his brother is the creator of the mix-tape.

The book is structured in three parts: Side 1, Intermission, and Side 2- an allusion to the cassette tape containing a mix-tape of techno music made by a younger brother for his older brother bound for Checyna in the Russian army. The Intermission section is the longest, and it is this story that helps put the chronology into some order.   I enjoyed each story, and soon learned not to be disappointed at the end of one story, because the next one would be just as good too.  With the exception, perhaps, of the last story which just seemed silly, although in a book using this narrative structure, there has to be some way of definitively finishing it, I suppose.

And so, a great whacking five out of five for me.  I only wish that I could have the pleasure of reading it again for the first time!