Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Eighties’ by Frank Bongiorno


The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia

2015, 368 p.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write this review earlier- or if I did, I can’t find it. I must confess to a sense of deja vu with every sentence I write, so perhaps my computer has eaten it. I read this book some weeks ago and have since returned it to the library, so I’m having to write from memory. I suppose if my review lacks detail, it does at least sketch out the lasting impressions I gained from the book.

It’s rather challenging to read a ‘history’ of a time that you remember well, especially when it’s written by someone who is younger than you.  I suppose that people older than I encounter this phenomenon all the time.  Bongiorno is playful enough to put his own photograph of himself in 1983 on the inside rear dustjacket- a free-faced young lad, aged perhaps 14.  I was in my thirties during the ’80s, caught up in the whirl of parenthood with young babies, living in suburban Bundoora, on parental leave from teaching but inching back to work on a casual basis in TAFE.  I was not as politically aware then as I am now- no doubt a reflection of the person I was then, and the stage of life that I was at. But without the deluge of information, opinion and so-called news on the internet, perhaps we were all less politically fevered then.

When a historian is writing a chronology, there is always the issue of periodization: when do you start and when do you finish?  It has become acceptable to fiddle with the boundaries of decades and centuries (the long 18th century; the long 19th century), and indeed part of the intellectual challenge in a narrative chronology is to identify the themes that give a period or phenomenon its unity beyond the mere elapse of time.  Bongiorno starts his 1980s in 1983, with the Ash Wednesday fires swirling around Victoria and South Australia, while in Sydney Bob Hawke was giving an address at the Sydney Opera House as Opposition Leader and basking in the adulation and anticipation of an election victory just weeks away.  He finishes his 1980s in 1991 when Paul Keating replaced Hawke as Prime Minister.

The most memorable impression that the book conveys is the sheer brashness, crassness, and odiousness of the politics of the decade with a seemingly-neverending succession of shysters and spivs.  Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Brian Burke, WA Inc, the white shoe brigade- all larger than life and breathtaking in their audacity and shamelessness. Bongiorno’s perspective is largely Political (with a capital P) and economic as he examines the Accord and the disruption of what Paul Kelly calls ‘The Australian Settlement’ that followed in its wake. There’s the excess in consumption, the excess in nationalist mawkishness (think Hawkie and the Americas Cup celebrations) and the excess of pain in exorbitant interest rates and the ‘recession we had to have’.

It is also a very male-dominated book. It comes as a surprise to realize that Susan Ryan was only the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, and not Minister for Women in her own right. (Wikipedia has an interesting table showing the shifts in title for this role over the past 40 years- who would have thought that Judy Moylan would be the first Minister for the Status of Women, appointed by Howard? or that Turnbull appointed the first Minister for Women outright with no mention of ‘issues’ or ‘status’?)  Bongiorno paints on a broad canvas, examining both high and low culture, although I found myself remembering events and thinking ‘Ah, so that’s what that was about!’, rather than recognizing my own suburban experience in the narrative he provides.

In his final chapter, he becomes more personal as he steps out from the wings in what has seemed, until now, something like a television documentary.  He is more reflective and analytic in this chapter, admitting to his own reservations about the decade and the overall value of the changes it wrought.  But perhaps it’s too soon to do this? When the overwhelming response is embarrassment- as in this book- at the music, the clothes (Princess Di’s wedding dress, for instance), the behaviour, the Multi-Function Polis, the sheer bizarreness, perhaps there’s not enough distance to judge yet.  It’s often been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, and I feel as if, despite the footnotes and the access to cabinet documents, that this book teeters on the cusp between the two.   Nonetheless, it’s an engaging read, told briskly and with humour.

‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan


2002, (released in translation 2015),498 P.  Translator: Annie Tucker

Publisher’s site:

Well, the opening sentence gives you a pretty good sense of how this book is going to go:

One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rolse from her grave after being dead for twenty one years.

I have not been the only reader to recognize the resonances with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude,  and just as when I read that book for the first of what turned out to be many, many times, I just didn’t want to leave this magical world.  I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just loved it.

Dewi Aya was descended from Dutch Indonesian stock. That side of her heritage was not particularly important to her, and when the colonists left after WWII, she stayed on working as a prostitute, by choice this time, after being forced into prostitution by the occupying Japanese soldiers. She gave birth to four daughters, all with different and unknown fathers: Alamanda, Adinda, Maya Dewi and Beauty.  The first three daughters were beautiful, but their beauty entangled them into strained and strange relationships with powerful men.  When Dewi Aya fell pregnant for the final time, she wished for an ugly child, and her wish was fulfilled.  This, then, is the story of these four daughters and the men who love them, within the small fictional village of Halimunda. At the same time, it is a bawdy and funny satirical critique of colonialism and repression.

There is a fairy tale quality to this book, where women marry dogs, men can meditate themselves into atoms, and the dead live on as both ghosts and physical presences.  One story unfolds into another, and there is an Arabian Nights quality that runs throughout.  In interviews the author, Eka Kurniawan has noted the influence of Indonesian puppet-play and folk tales, and it’s detectable in its ‘once upon a time’ quality,  and the picaresque good-and-evil dilemmas and retributions that play through the lives of the main characters.

At the same time, there’s a very clear historical narrative that underpins the story as the Dutch, Japanese, Communists and anti-Communists pass through. The massacre of the communists drenches the middle part of the book, and there is mention of the Indonesian military involvement in East Timor.  There are few dates, and I’m certain that the historical commentary and allusions to actual characters would be far more meaningful to someone with a good understanding of Indonesian history (and to my shame, that’s not me).  In fact, that was one of the strongest feelings that I came away with: my embarrassment that I had never read an Indonesian book before, or known of an Indonesian author in this huge, populous country to our north. Apparently the translator received a PEN grant for the translation, and it highlighted for me that translation is so important in stretching our literary imaginations.  It’s a good translation too, with a light lyricism and humour that seemed part of the work itself.

I had to quell my uneasiness that I was missing the metaphors and allusions that would be woven into this book for its Indonesian audience. Even in my ignorance, I was drawn into the stories of each of the daughters, delighted in the unpredictability of a magical world, and felt satisfied by the the ending which came full circle and drew it all together.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library


‘Hello Beautiful! Scenes from a Life’ by Hannie Rayson


2015, 255p.

“Why on earth did they choose THAT cover?  Or that name? It’s awful!” said my son.  I looked at it more closely.  Even though the title whispers ‘self-help’ book for women of a certain age, that picture was too honest. What I saw was a confident, clearly middle-aged woman, actually getting her hair wet, swimming at the beach.  I can hardly bear to think of what my son saw: it obviously didn’t attract a thirty-one year old male reader. Never mind- this book clearly isn’t aimed at that demographic.  The book and its cover are directly aimed at another demographic: that of the middle-aged, Australian, RN-listening female reader who would constitute, I should imagine, a fairly healthy slice of the book-buying public.  The author, playwright Hannie Rayson admits as much:

I just have to imagine you, tucked up in bed, wanting something companionable and consoling. Irish Murdoch said literature should never console. I think that’s bollocks.

My women friends have big jobs. They have families. At night when they climb into bed they read two pages of the novel on the bedside table and fall asleep. The next night they have to reread those two pages. They creep forwards slowly, page by page, until Saturday. Then, because they are optimists, they buy another novel.

An idea began to take shape.  I could write those two pages. Three would be manageable. But once I started, I found I had more to say.

Some of these stories began their lives as articles in the Age or HQ magazine.  All of them have been reworked with a simple rule: everything has to be true. More or less. (p. 2)

And that’s pretty much it. As promised, the chapters are short and all have the ring of authenticity. It’s just the sort of book you want to read when you can’t handle anything too heavy before you fall asleep, or when you’re stretched out in the shade on a summer’s day.  Like Crabbe/Sales’ podcast Chat10Looks3, it’s a bit like sitting alongside friends who are full of gossip.  In this case, it’s writerly, arts world gossip with her husband Michael Cathcart (or MC as she often calls him) in a droll walk-in, walk-off role, and snippets of Helen Garner and Carrie Tiffany- a world that her readership peers through the window at, somewhat enviously.

The chapters are arranged more or less chronologically, starting with her childhood in a rented house in East Brighton (and hence, not the other Brightons) in the 1960s, with her real-estate agent father and home duties mother.  She kept an adolescent diary, and while cringing at the person she finds in its pages, she uses it to good effect.  She attends the Victorian College of the Arts and discovers that she’s not an actress and finds herself as a playwright instead.  She walks straight into a full-time acting job with TheatreWorks, a community theatre company with a mandate “to create theatre for the people of the eastern suburbs”. So there she is, driving with her colleagues to the outer reaches of Burwood from centre-of-the-universe Fitzroy; playing Storming Mont Albert by Tram, a piece of location theatre on the Number 42 tram.  There are large, unexplained gaps and jumps in the chronology taken as a whole, but each chapter is neatly self-contained, and there is a refreshing humility and down-to-earthness about success that could have turned into pretension and name-dropping in other hands.  We leapfrog from first marriage, to childbirth, to amicable breakup, to repartnering, to waving off an adult child as he heads of overseas, to settling into mature professionalism- all with humour and humanity.

No, dear son, that picture on the front of the book is just right.  It’s self-assured with a healthy tinge of anxiety and a dollop of self-depredation. This is a book that knows what it’s doing and who it’s doing it for, and it does it well.



I’ve posted this review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘Certain Admissions’ by Gideon Haigh


2015, 293 p.

Spoiler alert.

Mass journalism and crime have gone together, ever since those lurid, shrieking sensation newspapers of nineteenth-century England.  Certain crimes draw attention, especially those involving children and beautiful young women and  the whole case, from arrest through courtroom to punishment, becomes a media sensation in itself.  Journalists and writers are drawn to such cases: think, for instance of Helen Garner turning up in court day after day for her book on Robert Farquarhson House of Grief (link), or John Bryson’s book Evil Angels on Lindy Chamberlain which ended up a feature-length film (and one which bestowed on us Meryl Streep’s classic “a dingo took my boi-boi”).  Gideon Haigh is a prolific journalist with thirty books to his credit. Many of these relate to his great love, cricket, but several examine corporate business life as well, with books on BHP, Bankers Trust and James Hardie. With this book Certain Admissions: A Beach, a Body and a Lifetime of Secrets, he turns to the true crime genre, in a book that echoes Garners’ work, and also that of Senior Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi and biographer Suzanne Falkiner with their books on Eugenia Falleni .


I hadn’t heard of John Bryan Kerr or the murder of Beth Williams on Albert Park Beach in December 1949.  Apparently though, the case is well-known amongst the legal profession and police and it became a trope of popular culture- Graham Kennedy, for instance, joked about it many decades later in a reference that obviously went over my head.  Twenty-four year old John Bryan Kerr- handsome, with a mellifluous voice and confident bearing- was accused of murdering the twenty-year old typist, whom he had met under the Flinders Street clocks and whose body was found dragged into the shallows of Albert Park Beach. A confession was tendered by the police, but refuted by Kerr; the case went to the courts three times; Kerr continued to maintain his innocence throughout his imprisonment where he became a poster-boy for rehabilitation, and he was dogged by notoriety for the rest of his life.

Haigh starts  his narrative on the steps of Flinders Street Station, the quintessential Melbourne meeting place.  Witness statements are able to reconstruct Beth Williams’ interactions with various people as she stood there waiting, but from that point there are two different narratives.  The first is the one produced after questioning by two old-school coppers, Bluey Adams and Cyril Cutter.  It was a  remarkably short confession statement, considering the time that it took to elicit it, and Kerr disclaimed any involvement with it from the start.  The second narrative was the one that he gave the court, three times, with barely a deviation, and the one that he maintained in the many newspaper articles and letters that were written after his release from jail.

The pictures in the middle of the book reinforced the sensational nature of the trial and its aftermath.  People crowded to get into the courthouse and newspapers ran long series publishing his letters to his parents.  Even in jail, where usually the identity of prisoners is suppressed in any publicity, he featured in stories about rehabilitation programs being introduced into the prison system.  Always handsome, he photographed well.

The story is told chronologically over fifty years, but like all good journalists, Haigh teases out complications and counter-narratives.  He looks at the accused and the victim, but also at the police and the milieu in which they operated, and the legal counsel and judges who were involved in all three cases.  As a reader you lean one way and then another (and I suspect, Haigh as an author did the same thing).  There are no footnotes- that would have made it a different sort of story- although he does give his sources at the back of the book, many of which reside at the Public Record Office.

This is very good non-fiction, but it’s not history, nor is it the cutting, reflective, literary rumination of a Helen Garner (see here her July 2015 essay on darkness and crime).  The links between sources and his assertions are not specific enough for history and the narrative rambles off into digressions and asides before returning to the main story.  He offers observations and raises broader questions about the nature of confession and celebrity, but these are not mounted into an overarching argument. Frustratingly, the book lacks the index that would mark out the bare bones of his search, and a ‘search’ is very much the way the story is framed. Increasingly as the narrative nears recent decades, he inserts himself into the story, and it comes as a jolt to recognize familiar names -Ron Iddles, Barry Beach- as the story is brought forward into the spotlight of more recent crimes, most particularly that of Jill Meagher. These are not criticisms: instead, they are the hallmarks of the journalistic approach that Haigh employs so skillfully.

As time goes on, people ail and die; the case splutters back to life with media attention then fades again; there is in the end no definitive answer.  A lesser writer would have seen this as defeat, but Haigh takes this in his stride.  The consummate journalist, he is thorough and clear and  he admits to his limitations, making you feel as a reader that you are in the hands of a professional.  It’s a very good book.

‘In My Mother’s Hands’ by Biff Ward


2014, 288p.

Look carefully at that front cover. A well-dressed, attractive woman stands in front of a suburban house, her hair permed, in a stylish dress with white gloves.  Those gloves are important: they encase the gouged, ravaged hands of Biff Ward’s mother Margaret.  Despite the nostalgia-infused image of Margaret Ward on the cover, this is the story of a troubled and desperate woman and mother, told by her daughter.

Biff ( a childhood rendering of ‘Elizabeth’) Ward is the daughter of Russel Ward, the noted Australian historian who wrote The Australian Legend. This book was a hugely influential study of the Australian Character (the question that keeps on giving), published more than fifty years ago. Although perhaps not so well known today, The Australian Legend and its author were examined anew at a symposium in 2007 (proceedings found in the Journal of Australian Colonial History 10.2 (2008) with a summary here) and re-addressed each year through the Russel Ward Annual Lecture  (see Babette Smith’s lecture here)

Although Biff’s memoir focusses on her mother, it is just as much a study of her father and of the family dynamics that operated when dealing with mental illness, shame and fear in the context of  the 1950s and 1960s. Biff and her brother Mark had always known of the existence of an earlier child, Alison, who had died at the age of four months,but the conditions surrounding Alison’s death were murky. What was clear, though, was that their mother Margaret was a deeply disturbed woman.  Those gloved hands, torn and rubbed raw by Margaret herself, also throttled Biff as Margaret crept to her younger daughter’s bedside one night, and it was when Margaret threatened the lives of her two remaining children while her husband was absent at a conference, that Russel Ward finally had her committed. Although Biff felt that they were dealing with the nightmare of their mother’s illness in secrecy,  many people were aware of it, as Biff herself recognizes later.  In reading a short story ‘Friends in Perspective’ published by Gwen Kelly in a Meanjin article  in 1990 (available for Victorian readers through SLV), Biff realizes that  both Russel and Margaret were the topic of gossip and judgment throughout the small academic communities at ANU in Canberra and UNE in New England.  She has the maturity and grace to recognize that the academic wives may well have been reaching out to her mother as well, instead of just gossiping about her.

She captures small university-town life well, and places her father within the academic milieu of the  communist-phobic 1950s and 1960s.  She draws on Russel Ward’s own letters to his parents and sisters that documented Margaret’s progress, and to a lesser degree on Ward’s own autobiography which largely elides Alison’s death and Margaret’s illness. I found it interesting to read about the smallness of the Australian History fraternity at the time, and the intellectual isolation of local academics in a  world where international conferences and networks were luxuries.

Biff did not write this memoir until both her parents had died. She is well aware that she is exposing her mother, and perhaps from a sense of moral even-handedness, she exposes her father’s sexual addiction as well. Even writing as an adult, as Biff does, it is impossible to tease out cause and effect in this addiction, but it does raise the issue of omission in memoir. Is there more? or less? of an imperative to reveal the flaws of a public figure, as distinct from someone unknown? (I’m reminded here of journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of politican Cheryl Kernot’s extramarital affair when she omitted it in her own autobiography).  Although Ward’s revelations about both parents are startling, the tone is wistful rather than vindictive, and while she censures both parents at times, her compassion shines through.

There’s a fairly lengthy extract from the book here, which will give you a taste of the easy  narrative that, at the same time, reveals so much darkness and pain. You’ll spend quite some time turning to that image on the front cover.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums and Jonathan at Me Fail? I Fly! have written sensitive reviews of this book

aww2016 I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book . Read in one sitting on an international flight!


‘The Convent’ by Maureen McCarthy


2012, 418

You know, the tourism industry should fall to its knees sometimes and thank local activists who save significant buildings and places from being privatized and subdivided into exclusive housing that most Melburnians will never set foot in.  Then somehow it becomes a tourist precinct, and money can be made from it, and people forget and wonder that it was ever under threat.

Abbotsford Convent is such a place. On a bend of the Yarra River, the land was valued by the Wurundjeri people who frequently met nearby where the Yarra River and Merri Creeks merged.  John Orr built Abbotsford House there and Edward Curr (who was a prominent opponent to Judge Willis) lived at the nearby St Heliers property  between 1842-1850.  By 1863 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had consolidated their purchases of Abbotsford House and St Heliers and established a convent there.  In 1900 it was the largest charitable institution in the Southern Hemisphere, housing up to 1000 residents. For a century it provided accommodation, schooling and work for female orphans, wards of the state and girls considered to be in “moral danger”, financing its activities through farming, its industrial school and the Magdalen laundry service.  It was a place of dedication for the nuns who lived there, but many of its residents- particularly those in the laundry- had sad and bitter stories to tell.  In 1975 it was sold and used for the following 20 years by different education providers.  In 1997 it was onsold to developers, who planned to build 289 apartments on the site.  The Abbotsford Convent Coalition fought hard against this plan, and in 2004 it was gifted to the public by the State Government.  It now houses studios, office spaces and cafes and is the site for a lively program of performances and markets.

The Abbotsford Convent is the setting for Maureen McCarthy’s book named, appropriately enough, The Convent.  Based on her own family history, the book covers four generations of women whose lives intersected with the convent and the nuns who lived there.  Nineteen-year old Peach takes up a summer job at the convent when she receives a letter from her birth-grandmother, Ellen.  Peach has always known that she was adopted, and has until now felt no real curiosity about her birth-mother.  We learn that her grandmother Ellen had been raised at Abbotsford Convent after her mother Sadie had been declared an unfit mother in WWI Melbourne.  Ellen’s daughter Cecilia had been a nun at the the same convent.  The book shifts from one character to another, and between time periods spanning the early decades of the twentieth to the twenty-first century.

Books that rotate their focus between characters  call on a certain amount of goodwill on the part of the reader.  I found myself far more engaged by the stories of Cecilia and Sadie, and almost resented being brought back to the rather quotidian life of  19 year old Peach (and is it too trite to complain that I really disliked the name ‘Peach’ even though I know why it was used?) I felt that Cecilia, the nun, was sensitively drawn and McCarthy’s research into cloistered life, although somewhat heavy-handed, made Cecilia a rounded and nuanced character.

McCarthy is best known as a Young Adult writer.  The subject matter of the book transcends that genre, but the book was weighed down for an adult reader by the rather too obvious narrative scaffolding that supported the dialogue, and the rather laboured descriptions.  It reminded me very much of Rod Jones’ The Mothers (which I reviewed here) and it’s interesting that I found both these books, so similar in their content, to be too simply told.  Could it be that because both these stories had their origins in their author’s own family history, the overriding concern was to treat the story with respect, and that this affected the telling?  I have no idea, but with the exception of Cecilia’s chapters, I couldn’t shake my awareness that this book was written for a much younger audience than I.

There’s an interview with the author at:

aww2016 I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

‘You’ll be sorry when I’m dead’ by Marieke Hardy


2011, 295 p.

Celebrity is a trade-off.   The celebrity figure gaily trumpets “look at me!”, and accrues public recognition, freebies, attention and the aura of self-possession. In return s/he is subjected to the audience’s misplaced sense of identification and friendship, or conversely, approbation and smug censoriousness. And so I sit watching ABC’s Book Club (until a few years ago the First Tuesday Book Club, a handy reminder to tune in) alternately tut-tutting at Marieke Hardy’s fey girlishness with those plaits and tats one minute, and wishing a moment later that I was so winsome and witty myself. It was probably this ambivalence that led me to pick up her book You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead. Having read it, I’m still ambivalent, although probably with a more affectionate glow than previously.

As you might expect, it’s well-written and funny. Its chapters are similar to long-form pieces that you might read in a Saturday newspaper magazine  and indeed several of them have been published in that format previously. She’s self-deprecating and self-assured; she delights in being wicked and revels in her exhibitionism. She tells of her obsession with prostitution, her fumbling attempts at swinging, and her mortification at travelling with her parents at the age of thirty-five. Many of her stories are Melbourne-centred, as in her tribute to VFL footy ‘Maroon and Blue’, one of my favourite stories. She flits around the edge of showbusiness through  her family pedigree and her own child-actor CV and laughs at her own adolescent pursuit of one of the ‘stars’ of Young Talent Time. Some stories have more depth: her story ‘Forevz’ reminded me of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room – in fact, there were quite a few stories here which evoked Helen Garner for me, for some reason. The placement of the stories seems quite random, as does the insertion of testimonials from some of the people she has written about (an affectation I could have done without, really).

Like the celebrity persona she projects, there’s a mixture of show-off and razor-sharp penetration. I found myself laughing out loud in places, tearful at times, and rolling my eyes in other places. It’s a good dip-into book, and just as in ABC Book Club, you don’t really know what she’s going to come out with next.