Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Lucy Sussex

sussex

2015, 257 p. & notes,

Fergus Hume’s book The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (my earlier review here) has the dual ‘honour’ of being both the best selling detective novel of the nineteenth century and the ultimate one-hit-wonder in a career that generated over 130 novels and numerous stories and articles. Self-published in 1886, it became an instant best-seller both locally – and more importantly for an Australian book at the time- internationally.  Lucy Sussex’s book Blockbuster is a book about the book.  You don’t even have to have read The Mystery of a Hansom Cab because Sussex’s work is far more focussed on the author and his milieu, the commercial trajectory of the book and the provenance of the remaining copies, rather than the book itself.

As she points out in the introduction, Hansom Cab is a thoroughly Melbourne book, starting as it does at the thoroughly respectable corner of Russell and Collins Street outside Scots Church,  passing the thoroughly respectable streets of East Melbourne and meandering its way through the slums of Little Lonsdale Streets and shabby-genteel St Kilda.  Its author, however, was not Melbourne-born but was originally from Scotland, having emigrated to New Zealand as a child when his father took up a position as a master of a lunatic asylum, a job he had also undertaken in Scotland.  Despite a yearning for the stage – a yen that both his sisters were allowed to fulfil-  Fergus was channeled into the law by his father, until he ‘escaped’ with his sisters ‘across the ditch’ so that they could further their stage careers. Once in Melbourne and freed from paternal oversight, he tried to get his scripts accepted for theatrical performance but to no avail.  He wrote The Mystery of a Hansom Cab as a novelistic attempt to get noticed in order to further his theatrical career.  It was an unintentional best-seller that somehow failed to make him a rich man, or substantially boost his theatrical profile.

I was surprised to learn that The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is one of a trilogy of Melbourne novels (the others being Madam Midas, a Realistic and Sensational Story of Melbourne Mining Life [1888] and Miss Mephistopheles [1890]).  The retailing and licensing of the book is a tawdry tale, with Hume selling in the international copyright for only 50 pounds to promoters who certainly promoted it well and made their fortune from it.  In trying to work out the numbers of volumes actually sold, it is hard to tell what is puffery and what is fact. I found the information about the provenance of the remaining collection of editions held here in Australia fascinating.

Although Hume’s books reflect the milieu in which he circulated, there is not a large archive of personal correspondence or autobiographical writing for Sussex to draw on beyond his book When I Lived in Bohemia. She looks, therefore, for resonances of his personal life in his writing and speculates about his homosexuality from the lives of men around him.

Even though I read a lot, I am a stranger to the world of Literary Studies (with capital letters) and I found myself nonplussed at times at the wide-ranging and digressive nature of Sussex’s writing.  Sussex has written on the previously-undiscovered Australian writer Mary Fortune, and at times I found myself lost as she turned her attention to other writers and theatrical figures of the time before returning her focus to Hume.  The historical parts of the book follow the usual historical conventions of footnoting and referencing but when she interviews present-day writers, their commentary is woven into the narrative as a source that she assumes you’re familiar with. It’s almost as if the reader is overhearing a conversation among a group of people who all know what they’re talking about together, but from which the listener is rather excluded.  Certainly one can enjoy the book without having read Hansom Cab but I felt rather short-changed in the frequent references to the other two Melbourne books which I (among many many others I should imagine) have not read.

The book has a large number of short chapters, which usually I would find annoying, but in this case the short chapters maintained the forward chronological thrust of the narrative. However,  I did find the ending of the book untidy, with a postscript, followed by epitaphs of the minor characters and reviews and opinions of Hansom Cab over time. I wasn’t quite sure where the book ended.

That said, though, I did enjoy the book- a lot.  I suspect that my reservations are grounded in my unfamiliarity with Literary Studies, rather than the book itself.  It was awarded the History Publication Award in the 2015 Victorian Community History Awards.and as a historian, I very much enjoyed the way she captured the theatrical and intellectual climate of boomtime 1880s Melbourne and the economics of literary publication within the colonial book-trade.

aww2016 This review has been posted in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume

hume_cab

1886. Re-released by Text in 2012;  e-book

I decided to read this in preparation for reading another book: Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster which is next on the reading pile.  I’d seen the recent television adaption but, as is often the case when I watch crime shows on television, I am left with only fleeting impressions and no memory of detail at all.

This book very much lies within the 19-20th century detective novel genre, but what is significant here is that it predates Sherlock Holmes by a year and marks the cross-over from popular 19th century sensation fiction into what we now know as detective fiction.  Moreover, it was the first internationally-acclaimed novel set in Melbourne- a feat that has not really been replicated (I’m not sure that Kerry Greenwood’s Phrynne Fisher or Peter Temple or Shane Maloney’s novels have international standing?  I could, however, be wrong).  This is Marvellous Melbourne in all her 1880s glory here, before the 1890s depression blew its cold draught into her streets and houses.  As a Melbourne reader with more than a little affection for the town, I enjoyed reading about the Little Bourke Street slums, the somnolent stuffiness of the men-only Melbourne Club, the genteel Powlett Street surroundings of East Melbourne.

The story is typical nineteenth century detective fiction fare: mistaken identities, shameful disgrace, illegitimacy, reputation etc. with the requisite fragrant young lady love-interest, the decent but wronged young man, and the Dickensian hag who holds secrets.  I must admit that, as a historian, I found the descriptions of the slums and the cockney accents of the working-class characters the least authentic part of the book.  I know that buildings were densely packed into the lanes surrounding Collins and Bourke streets, but I felt that the descriptions and dialects owed too much to Charles Dickens’ foggy London.

[Actually, this has raised quite a question for me about the depiction and reality of working-class life in early urban Australia i.e. 1840s and 1860s. I sense that it should be different from England, given hot weather, dust and the relatively small size of towns surrounded by huge expanses of countryside even in Sydney and Melbourne.  I must look more carefully for it. Martin Sullivan looked at it in Men and Women of Port Phillip (my review here) but from memory, it was more an economic and political appraisal rather than an experiential one.]

The book commences with the quite modern touch of a newspaper report and at times combines notional non-fiction elements alongside the standard plot-driven narrative novel. The story moves along at a cracking pace, with a surprise or dangling thread at the end of most chapters.  There’s a chuckling, rather condescending omniscient humour that pervades the book, with its observations about Fate and human nature.  I enjoyed his observations of people- most especially the desiccated, crackling landlady Mrs Sampson. It’s all brought together with the written death-bed confession and everyone lives happily ever after with the truly deserving maintaining their respectability.  It is a nineteenth-century novel after all.

Sue at Whispering Gums also reviewed the book, which has been re-released recently.

‘Victoria at War 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

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2014, 221 p.

I always think it’s interesting when a writer returns after many years to something that they had created much, much earlier in their career, and takes up the topic again with the benefit of years of experience, reading, and later research.  This is the case in Michael McKernan’s book Victoria at War which was commissioned by the (then Liberal Party) Victorian Government of Victoria to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.  McKernan had written Australians at War over thirty years earlier (which I reviewed here), a book that had been reissued unchanged in 2014 albeit with the author’s own awareness of its inadequacies, but no major rewriting.

However, with this 2014 book, McKernan had the opportunity to revisit his earlier book, within the specific context of Victoria and in the wake of the deluge of World War I research that has been undertaken in recent years, especially leading up to the Gallipoli centenary.  Not only was the scope and purpose of the book different, but he himself as a historian and writer would have been influenced- as have most of us- by the trend of using smaller stories to tell larger ones and the emphasis on emotions.  I finished this book with a deep sense of what a good writer McKernan is; something that did not particularly strike me with the earlier, more utilitarian, book.

McKernan starts this history by reminding us that, at the time war was declared, Melbourne was the capital city of Australia.  The parliament sat  here; the governor lived here and the federal bureaucracy was based here.  This, perhaps combined with early twentieth century ‘liberalism’, may have contributed to  a deeper commitment to the war effort in Victoria than in other states- something McKernan hints out but does not state definitely. Certainly the school effort was strongest here, and Victoria did vote ‘yes’ at the first conscription referendum (alongside Western Australia and Tasmania) although it rejected it by a small majority in the second 1917 referendum.  Melbourne was also the home of Archbishop Mannix, the most prominent anti-conscription voice.

Although Victoria may be more closely settled than other Australian states, with the seat of political power based in  Melbourne, McKernan places much emphasis on small Victorian towns and the impact of enlistment on the emotional and economic life of small country towns.  In particular, he looks at Casterton as a microcosm.  He brings forward the stories of specific families where several sons enlisted, or where older men left several children.  There are urban vignettes as well, but it is probably the country ones that seem most plangent. He notes the role of the local clergy who were charged with delivering the telegrams bearing bad news, and your heart sinks at the thought of families receiving two, three, four such visits.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that battalions were broadly geographically based, most particularly the 14th Battalion.  He follows Victorian volunteers to the army camps surrounding Melbourne, most particularly Broadmeadows, and across to the theatre of war. His book does trace the progress, or lack thereof, of the Victorian battalions, but most particularly in regard to how the news was received back home.

He places much emphasis on the role of the Red Cross, which was organized through Government House, and for some reason I found this description of ‘comforts’ brought me to the verge of tears:

How a man living in the barbaric conditions of the dugouts of Anzac responded when he received a parcel from one of these groups can only be imagined.  His normal food was hardtack biscuits, bully beef and tea- when there was water available.  Imagine opening a parcel from the Red Cross or the Australian Comforts Fund, to find clean, hand-knitted socks, a couple of lice-free, for the moment anyway, pairs of underpants, a fruitcake, possibly some tobacco or cigarettes, some dried fruit and ‘sweeties’, and writing paper for a letter to the folks at home.  The love and commitment that was poured into these parcels would have provided, to even the hardest lag on the Gallipoli battlefield, the whiff of home and of peacetime civilities, the gentler ways of life. (p. 121)

This is a beautifully presented book.  The idea of a coffee-table WWI book seems a bit glib, but the beautiful layout of the book and the large, crystal clear photographs that adorn nearly every page are a form of tribute in themselves.   The end of each chapter is marked by a khaki-coloured,stand-alone reflection on an individual or a specific theme.  Most of all, this book is marked by its respect for individuals, some of whom we have encountered several times in various places throughout McKernan’s narrative.  Their sacrifice is noted with humility and a sense of shared humanity, but not ‘celebrated’ with chest-beating or overt sentimentality.  It is a mature, thoughtful, appropriate response.

 

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

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2015, 313 p.

As it happened, I was exactly half-way through Charlotte Wood’s book The Natural Way of Things when I learned that it had won the Stella Prize.  I was already engrossed in it: staying up way past my bedtime to read just a few pages more. After it won the Stella I felt that the noble thing to do was to stay up until 1.00 a.m. this morning finishing it so that I can return it to the library for others to enjoy.

Although is ‘enjoy’ the right word? Probably not, because this is a bleak book set in outback Australia where young women who have been publicly shamed through the media and corporate power networks have been incarcerated and ‘removed’ from society’s gaze and conscience.  Real-life parallels spring to mind: Monica Lewinsky, the St Kilda School Girl, women on reality TV.  In its depiction of the paradox of bleak openness and yet claustrophobia, it reminded me a little of Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster ( a book that I felt didn’t receive sufficient recognition) and of course has resonances with Lord of the Flies and other such books.

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing?…Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said that they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. (p. 176)

The book is divided into three parts, tracing the progress of the year Summer, Autumn and Winter, and the book is so grueling in places that it felt as if the action took place over a much longer period. There are no numbered chapters as such, and the sections vary between present and past tense.  The book opens from the drugged, disoriented point of view of one of the captives and this confusion takes some time to clear for the reader as well, as the reason for their incarceration emerges.  There is throughout the sense of suspended menace- not enough to make the book unbearable, but sufficient to compel you to keep reading in horrified fascination.  It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that it’s this horrified fascination that we often feel when watching a public shaming occurring throughout media.

In awarding the Stella Prize, the Stella Prize judges described it as ‘a novel of – and for – our times’ and ‘a riveting and necessary act of critique.’  I’m mindful that this book has been awarded in a climate of heightened awareness of domestic violence and misogyny, but I don’t think that topicality is its only virtue. I’ve found myself thinking about the book all day, and I think that its bleakness and power will make it memorable and uncomfortable in the future, much as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does in a different genre.

It’s good, and it deserves the acclaim it’s receiving.

aww2016

I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston

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(1937), 1987 reprint, 286p.

One of my resolutions this year is to read more of the books I already have on my shelf (I even committed to the TBR challenge!). So far, I have failed miserably because this is, I think, the first book I’ve read from the groaning shelves.  I must have bought it secondhand at some stage because I’d heard of Zora Neale Hurston, although I was under the mistaken impression that she was a historian in the 1960s.

So the first surprise was  that Their Eyes Were Watching God was a novel. The second surprise was that it was written in 1937 and not in the 1960s as I had supposed.  The third surprise- and the one that discomfited me most- was the use of dialect in the dialogue. Let me give you an example, drawn at random:

“Ah often wonder how dat lil wife uh hisn makes out wid him, ’cause he’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him”

“You know man’s de time Ah done thought about dat mahself. He gits on her ever now and then when she makes mistakes round de store.”

“Whut make her keep her head tied up lak some ole ‘oman round de store? Nobody couldn’t git me tuh tie no rag on mah head if Ah had hair lak dat.” (p.79)

The book is very dialogue heavy, and it’s all like this. How, at a time when ‘black-face’ is now unacceptable, should a modern reader react to this? Actually, not just a modern reader: many African-American activists at the time found it confronting too.  Here’s Richard Wright reviewing her in 1937:

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and hill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears…In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.  She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint”, the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race.  (http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam358/wrightrev.html)

 

However, Hurston, as an anthropologist, rejected this characterization of her work. She was intent on documenting and celebrating black culture through its language, humour and speech patterns, and some thirty years after its publication,  it is this aspect of the book that has inspired feminist and Afro-American women writers in particular. For myself, I found that I could let go of my misgivings about the way the dialogue was depicted once I ‘heard’ it in my head like a film soundtrack, rather than reading the words on the page.

Janie, the main character of the novel, has three husbands. She was encouraged to marry the much-older Logan Killicks by her grandmother, who as a former slave feared for a grand-daughter unprotected by a man. In a flush of infatuation, she leaves him for Jody Starks, a pushy entrepreneur, intent on developing a black community under his own leadership as mayor. But when Jody belittles her, she leaves him too for Tea Cakes, a younger man who she sees as the love of her life and soulmate, although he draws her into a peripatetic life far below that she had enjoyed as the mayor’s wife. Over time, though, this relationship also becomes an emotional rollercoaster, but she does not waver in her love for him.

I can see why writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou have been influenced by Hurston’s writing, because Janie is a full-realized, nuanced female character, far beyond the stereotype that the dialogue evokes in my mind.  The book is strong in its structure, with a frame story within which the plot moves confidently.  It is a book entirely within a black and female consciousness, with hints of magical realism.  No wonder it has been designated a ‘modern classic’ and well worth taking off the bookshelf.

‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’ by Seketu Mehta

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2004, 497 p.

Good grief.  What on earth was my son thinking when he suggested that I (a middle-aged, inexperienced world traveller) read this book before visiting Mumbai?

The author Sekutu Mehta was born in Calcutta, and moved to Bombay where he lived for nine years. He left Bombay to move with his parents to America in 1977 at the age of fourteen. In the intervening twenty one years, he lived in New York, Paris, London, Iowa City, New Brunswick and New Jersey.  He  returned in 1998 with his wife and two young children to find that he was viewed as American rather than Indian. After struggling to find accommodation and to have services connected and after an altercation with his neighbours over his parking space he explodes:

This f*cking city. The sea should rush in over these islands in one great tidal wave and obliterate it, cover it under water…Every morning I get angry. It is the only way to get anything done; people here respond to anger, are afraid of it…Any nostalgia I felt about my childhood has been erased.  Given the chance to live again in the territory of childhood, I am coming to detest it. Why do I put myself through this? I was comfortable and happy and praised in New York… I have given all that up for this fool’s errand, looking for silhouettes in the mist of the ghost time. Now I can’t wait to go back, to the place I once longed to get away from: New York…I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other.  I am an exile, citizen of the country of longing.  (p. 28-9)

A working journalist, he is drawn to the Muslim/Hindu riots of 1992-3 that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, leading to over 2000 deaths, 900 of which occurred during the gang-led Bombay riots.It is this event, and the networks of power that spread web-like from it, that are explored in the first two-thirds of this lengthy book. In  Part I, ‘Power’, he talks with both members of Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu political party, and with members of D-Company led by gangmaster Dawood Ibrahim, who orchestrated a series of  retaliatory bombings on March 21 1993.  He interviews Ayay Lal, the policeman charged with solving the 1993 bombings who walks (and perhaps falls over) a very fine line between justice and criminality himself.  This is nasty, violent stuff that made me ashamed to feel compelled to keep reading. In Part II, ‘Pleasure’ he explores the world of bar-girls and Bollywood, transvestism and prostitution.  It, too, is a nasty,  violent, squalid world.  It is only in Part III ‘Passages’ where he focuses on individuals who skirt these worlds without being swallowed into them, that I felt somewhat less voyeuristic and complicit.

This is a very long book of nearly 500 pages. Its journalistic structure means that it could, theoretically, be any length by adding or culling yet another interview.  Despite its three parts and 500-odd pages, I found it hard to find any particular argument in it, except perhaps the rather limp view that

A city is only as thriving or sickly as your place in it. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay. (p. 493)

For a good 2/3 of the book, I felt annoyed by the book’s bagginess and self-indulgence. I resented the time it was taking to read it, but I couldn’t stop doing so either. Yet while in Mumbai I found myself constantly citing this book and small things that I had learned through it. My travelling companion Jesse must have inwardly sighed as I started “In that book I was reading…” because I did so, often.

But I didn’t want to see the Mumbai (Bombay- his choice of ‘Bombay’ in the title is significant) described in this book. It frightened me.  To use a bland local example, it was like advising a visitor to Melbourne to watch the full series of Underbelly.  Yes, you would learn quite a bit about the Melbourne criminal culture, but you might view the Victoria Market, St Kilda and the Western Suburbs quite differently.  I doubt if it would add to your enjoyment of Melbourne.

So my recommendation? Yes, read Maximum City but do it long before you go there, or soon after- but just don’t read it while you’re there!

‘Nice Work’ by David Lodge

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1988, 277 p.

I often find that my response to a book is largely influenced by the book that I read immediately before.  For example, I found myself quite unable to pick up another fiction book for some time after reading War and Peace, and sometimes I want to get my teeth into something really meaty after reading some self-indulgent fluff.  In this case, I came to David Lodge’s Nice Work as a face-to-face bookgroup read after just finishing the challenging (on all levels) A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.  I must confess that much of the joy in reading this book was Lodge’s masterful, urbane and instantly comprehensible prose.  In comparison with the book that I read immediately preceding it, this one just flew off the page.

David Lodge, as a former Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, is well placed to turn his wry, satirical eye to red-brick university life in his ‘Campus Trilogy’ comprising Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), Small World: An Academic Romance (1984), and this book  Nice Work (1988).  In this book, flame-haired feminist academic Robyn Penrose, trying hard to get a tenured position at the University of Rummidge (a thinly disguised Birmingham), agrees to be involved in a job-shadowing scheme as part of improving links between the university and the workplace.  She is allocated to Vic Wilcox, the manager of an engineering firm. I think that you can guess what happens….

And it does, and to a certain extent there’s a reassuring predictability about the plot. What I really enjoyed about this book, though, is Lodge’s satirical but penetrating analysis of his characters.  He’s not kind about either of them, but he does not lack affection for them either.  Robyn is immured in the postmodernist sludge served up by Derrida and Kristeva that makes me shrivel up inside, while Vic Wilcox is one of those buttoned-up, slightly pathetic middle-aged men who might be driving his small company car next to you at the traffic lights at 8.00 a.m.

Not content with mere waspishness, Lodge has literary fun in the book as well. The epigraphs that separate the multiple parts of this book are sprinkled with quotes from 19th English novels, most particularly Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and there’s quite a bit of North and South in this book as well.  It’s enjoyable without knowing any of this, but for those in on the joke, it adds another layer as well.