Category Archives: Book reviews

‘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!

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski


2015, 371 pages

I wonder if some of the very positive response to this book springs from a sense of surprise that such a familiar comedian could take us to such varied and dark places.  This is not your usual celebrity memoir. Instead it is Magda Szubanski’s story of second-generation survivor guilt and  the proclamation of her homosexuality, alongside a social history of suburban Melbourne life and the comedy scene in Australia during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first.

Magda Szubanski, for those who may not know her – and indeed, most Australians DO know her- is a much-loved comedian who has starred as everyone’s “second-best friend” in Kath and Kim, and as Esme Hoggett in the 1995 move Babe.  Like most other female comedians in the country, she’s done her stint on ABC productions like ‘Big Girls Blouse’ and Working Dog productions for the ABC.  She’s smiling out at us at every supermarket in the country this month from the front of the Women’s Weekly. But the photograph on the front of this book is more tremulous- she looks resigned and on the verge of tears, even- and it’s not just a story of stardom.

Her opening pages mark out the theme by which she has shaped her story

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin….He was born in 1924. He was a boy of fifteen when Hitler invaded his homeland and the war began, and as soon as he was able he joined the fighting.  All through our growing up he would say, ‘I was judge, jury and executioner.’  And I could never imagine- cannot imagine even now- what it feels like to have that responsibility, that guilt. ..He spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with what he had done.  I grew up in the shadow of that reckoning.” (p.1-2)

If they are to be something more than a recitation of dates and events, memoirs need an overarching narrative shape to give some sense of tension or contingency to the story.The question of what her father had actually done as a teenager assassin the Polish Resistance  is the thread that draws the reader through this story, as well as a count-down to her coming-out to her family and the wider public. I must confess a shifting discomfort with the child exposing her parent like this.  I felt it with Biff Ward’s memoir, and with the recent documentary The Silences  that I’ve reviewed previously. Yes, I can understand that in understanding yourself, you search to understand the emotional influences on your life, most particularly through your parents.  Yes, I can understand the craving to put emotional meat on the bones of a family tree.  Yes, I do think that there can be a mixture of love and condemnation in such attempts. But then I think of the way that we all hold ourselves together with a mixture of pride, shame, self-delusion, elision and half-remembered, often-retold and rehearsed stories. There’s a shared dignity in the act of fashioning our construction of ourselves because we all do it. It discomfits me that children are given carte blanche to unpick it, (often as part of their own construction of themselves)  and then broadcast it to the world. Or is this just my own old-fashioned and idiosyncratic holding on to a privacy that we no longer seem to have?

Quite apart from this larger historical/biographical mystery, Szubanski draws a good picture of the tensions of the  father-daughter relationship, where the daughter feels that she’s not quite good enough. This is the relationship that defines where she feels she fits in her family, even though in many ways her sister and mother were the supports that held her up.  The book is a good depiction of suburbia and adolescence, of coming-of-age and coming-out, threaded through with family history explorations.

I enjoyed reading this book and happily took it up night after night.  I did feel less satisfied coming back to the last quarter or so of the book after a few days away, and I don’t know if it was me or the book.  That said, I think that it would have been wrong for it to have won the National Biography Award, for which it was shortlisted (the award was given to Brenda Niall’s Mannix).  Conflating memoir and biography as an awards category is a fraught exercise, and although there are commonalities between the two, there are important differences as well. Taken on its own terms, Reckoning is engagingly written, honest and human but somehow I think that those are just as much the qualities of the author, as much as of the work.

aww2016 Posted in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.



‘The Racket’ by Gideon Haigh


2008. 250 p.

I read this book several weeks ago, during the week when finally an exclusion zone was actually enforced outside the East Melbourne Fertility Control Centre. For more than 20 years, pro-life protestors had taken up their positions on the footpath outside the surgery armed with posters and brochures in a final attempt to dissuade women from entering to have abortions. It’s been going on for years, despite the fact that in Victoria abortions no longer fall under the Crimes Act (even though they still do in  New South Wales and Queensland). In reading this book, I was taken back to black-and-white images and newspaper articles that threw up for me names like Peggy Berman, Bertram Wainer, and Jack Ford: all familiar, but I couldn’t quite remember how it all fitted together.

As Haigh points out, abortions had always been available in Australia through sharp instruments, potions and purgatives. These solutions were more within the purview of midwives than doctors, who were more often called upon to conduct a D&C after the abortion had been induced at home. Some operators worked with remarkable impunity, but it was also difficult to collect evidence and women often kept silent, partly from fear of charges and also from a sense of solidarity.  Doctors became more involved after World War II and through vigorous defence in the courts remained generally untouchable, but they remained interwoven with the remaining midwives and unqualified operators, often receiving commissions for referrals.  Increasingly, they became involved with corrupt police as well, in what formed a self-sustained ‘racket’, where everyone had their hand out for their share. Central to all this money changing hands was Peggy Berman, who went to an abortionist for an abortion herself, came out employed as his secretary, had an affair with the Homicide chief Jack Ford who was on the take, and became the main collector and enforcer of bribes and payments. When she felt betrayed by Ford, she began to talk, exposing the whole tacky, crooked racket.

I found myself angered by the casual profiteering that took place over the bodies of these women and girls, and the callousness of the exposure of women, their mothers and boyfriends when the police broke down the doors and the resultant cases ended up in court.  Take, for example, the Windsor Court raid on 25 May 1965. Police staked out the back and front entrances, then fanned out through the surgery, upending everything they did not confiscate, rummaging through the patient information cards. Upstairs they found three groggy women recovering from surgery, who they questioned on the spot. The women were spirited away to the Royal Women’s Hospital for internal vaginal examination, with a police photographer hovering beside the trolley taking pictures that, hugely magnified, would be part of the prosecution brief in court.  One girl, distressed, asked them to stop but her request was rebutted. When she asked for her mother, she learned that her mother had been taken into custody. (p. 87)

Then there were the court cases themselves.

Very seldom, in fact, do the transcripts read as though the abortionists themselves are on trial.  Because the witnesses are largely younger women, and the judges, barristers, solicitors, police and jurors almost exclusively older men, they often read like moral tribunals- and while men in an adversarial systems are apt to check one another, there are moments that smack of male prurience and mental cruelty, even a certain sadism. (p. 140)

Gideon Haigh is a journalist and this is very much a journalists’ book.  You can get the flavour of it in Haigh’s essay from the Monthly in 2007.  It rattles along, and every interview, every anecdote, gives the names of protagonists and informants just as a newspaper article would do.  I found it overwhelming.  I’d often find myself thinking “Do I know this person?” and would have to resort to the (thankfully) exhaustive index at the rear, which is dominated by surnames. I wished that at times Haigh would step back from the story, and sketch out the broad contours of the story, rather than the details.

That said, writing recent history is a special challenge, even if that is not necessarily what Haigh would claim to be doing here.  It’s well researched, thorough and perceptive.  But I must confess to feeling a bit voyeuristic and grubby. I’m aware that the young girls he reports on here are now grandmothers, and I wonder how they and their children feel now, reading about this terribly-public exposure of their distress on the front page of old ‘Truth’ newspapers and now reheated in Haigh’s book. Sometimes I am surprised at the use of pseudonyms in stories that seem quite innocuous, but I found myself wishing that perhaps Haigh had used them here.  I know that  full names and photographs were splashed all over the more prurient publications, and that these young women entered the public record through the court cases they were dragged through.  But I think I’d feel more comfortable as a reader, in this case, if I knew that I wasn’t perpetuating the shame and exposure that, wrongly, was attached to women exercising their right to control their own bodies.

‘Fractured Families’ by Tanya Evans


Tanya Evans Fractured Families: Life on the Margins of Colonial New South Wales,

2015, 252 p & notes

When I picture a ‘Benevolent Asylum’, I have a mental picture of  greyness, thick walls, lancet windows and forbidding ecclesiastical air. It came as surprise, then, when I found this image (below) from the 1840-1850s which did not appear quite as funereal as the name of the institution suggests.


Sydney Benevolent Asylum Artist disputed c. 1840-1850, State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Benevolent Asylum was Australia’s first (and oldest surviving) charity, founded in 1813, with the avowed intention NOT to operate like the Poor Laws back in England.  The Poor Laws in 1813 were still based on the old parish system, where the indigent and needy were shuttled back to their parish of origin, to be supported grudgingly by the parish. There were workhouses, but the truly punitive workhouses of our Dickens-tinged consciousness arose out of the Poor Law Reform of 1834, some twenty years after the establishment of the Sydney institution. Unlike in England, there was an acceptance that the State “was responsible for moulding the structural circumstances of the poor in early New South Wales” and without a tradition of elite obligation to the poor, it could be said that New South Wales was ‘born modern’.

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‘The High Places’ by Fiona McFarlane


2015, 275 p.

And so here I am again, having finished a book of short stories, and quite at a loss to know how to review them.  It’s certainly a very accomplished selection and there wasn’t a single story where I turned the page only to wonder ‘what was THAT all about?’ when the story had unexpectedly ended. These are all well-shaped stories, with a sense of wholeness in the small slice-of-life that is their focus.  Several of them have a rather old-fashioned,  parable-like, ‘once-upon-a-time’  narrative tone which I liked.

My favourite ones? The opening story ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ is excellent, jumping between a young vet’s treatment of an animal in her care, and an excruciating present-time car-crash and giving comfort to an injured man.  I very much enjoyed ‘Unnecessary Gifts’ which had a similar slow-motion disaster as two brothers go missing in a deserted shopping centre at Chrismas time, and ‘The Movie People’ where a township is changed by the experience of having a movie set move in, and then move on.  ‘Violet, Violet’ reminded me of O. Henry.  In fact, there’s not a single weak story here, and as I flip through I think – “oh yes, that one was good too..and that one…and that one.”

And this is only McFarlane’s first book of short stories? And she has only had one (very well-received) novel?  What pleasures await us….

I have posted this review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘The Arsonist’ by Sue Miller


2014, 304 p.

Sue Miller and Anne Tyler are my comfort food reads.  I must confess to occasionally confusing the two authors and their works, but I happily grab either of their new books when I see them on the shelves at the library. (Having said that, I realize that I haven’t read Anne Tyler’s Spool of Blue Thread which has probably received the most ‘literary’ recognition of any of her recent books in terms of its recent Booker Prize shortlisting).

Even though Sue Miller has a couple of years on me, I feel as if I have ‘grown up’ with her, right from the first book of hers that I read, The Good Mother (long before I started this blog). I’ve followed her characters through marriage separations, repartnerings, and more recently through her autobiographical book on watching a much-loved parent subsiding into dementia.  I like her domesticity, the leaving and returning to home, the regrets and anxieties and the lived-in-ness of her books.  Yes, there is a similarity between them all, set as they usually are, on the east coast of America amongst educated, progressive-leaning middle-class people who seem familiar.

This book follows the pattern. Set in 1998,  Frankie, a forty-ish aid worker has recently returned from Kenya (ah! snap! another synchronicity!  She’s obviously been to Lamu, as I have, too!). After yet another failed romance and rather jaded by the whole humanitarian aid phenomenon, she’s not quite sure what her next career move is to be, so she takes a few months at her parents’ home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have retired full-time to Pomeroy to what had been the family holiday home, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Alfie is sliding into a type of dementia. Meanwhile Frankie finds herself gradually drawn into the small Pomeroy community as it becomes increasingly edgy and brittle after a series of fires are lit in the empty, or darkened, homes.  She is attracted to Bud, another recent arrival to Pomeroy who has come to take over the ailing local newspaper, and her feelings are reciprocated.

I concede that many readers would find this soporific and banal (and a little part of me feels this at times). As with other Sue Miller books, these characters live very much in their heads. But perhaps this is why I enjoy her books so much: reassurance that other people have their own internal dialogues as well!  The question of the arsonist’s identity serves as a who-dun-it device to tie the book together, but really- I just enjoyed observing and vicariously living through the characters who seem familiar enough to be friends, but different enough to be interesting in a domestic, voyeuristic way.