Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters

payingguests

Whenever I open up a book by a favourite author, my anticipation is edged with anxiety that perhaps -alas- this might be the book that does the literary equivalent of jumping the shark.  I’ve loved every one of Sarah Water’s books and  her last,  The Little Stranger marked such  a departure from her earlier work that I wondered if I’d seen the last of the Sarah Waters I’ve enjoyed so much. I need not have feared.  She’s back to her plots that involve lesbian relationships, and as with all her earlier books, she combines careful but lightly- worn research with intricate plotting and multi-layered characters.  I shut the book with a very satisfied sigh and no, she hasn’t lost it one little bit.

SPOILER ALERT

The Paying Guests is set in post WWI London, in a society still raw with grief at so much loss of young life.  Frances Wray has returned to her widowed mother’s empty house,  her two brothers having died at the Front, and in their straitened circumstances, mother and daughter shift into a couple of rooms on the ground floor and let the upper rooms of the house.  The rooms are taken by Mr and Mrs  Barber, who after initial awkwardness they come to call ‘Leonard’ and ‘Lilian’. The domestic details are captured so well: the embarrassment as Leonard clatters through the kitchen to the toilet outside, the unaccustomed creaks and thumps as the Barbers move around in their upstairs room and just the change in the air of the house as new people move into it.  This is a Sarah Waters book, you’ll remember, so it’s no surprise that Frances and Lilian become close – very close.  It happens slowly, with every movement suffused with the significance of new and uncertain love, and it takes almost 200 pages.  I felt apprehensive: this isn’t going to end well… (and besides, there’s another 250 pages to go)

Abruptly the novel changes pace as two crimes take place. It’s probably a bit of a stretch to compare this book with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but as a reader, I found myself feeling  the same cover-your-eyes, sick-at-the-pit-of-my-stomach emotions. By turns nightmarish, then banal, this tension is sustained over two hundred pages as Frances  begin to doubt Lilian and the details of the crime itself.    Lilian is always a bit of a mystery, but Frances is a nuanced, grounded, character and completely believable.

Waters captures so much here: the tenderness and tentativeness of new love, the gradations and details of class difference, the leached-out greyness of 1920s London as if worn down by grief for sons, brothers and lovers who did not return and the betrayals felt by those who did.

I need not have feared.  This book is vintage Sarah Waters, and she’s just as good here as in her earlier books.

‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn

Spies_Frayn

2002, 213 p.

For Proust it was a madeleine.  For the narrator of Spies it was the cloying, heady smell of a flower in a suburban garden, and it took him back to a wartime summer, a hideout in the garden hedge, secrets, fantasies and ambivalent shame.

Stephen Wheatley was small and unpopular, with ears that stuck out. His friend Keith was unpopular too, but he lived in a big house, his toys were kept in pristine condition in their boxes, and the afternoon teas dispensed  by Keith’s mother were Blytonesque, even if she did so without ever quite acknowledging Stephen’s presence.  Stephen was drawn along in Keith’s wake and when Keith announced that his mother was a German spy, well, then- yes, perhaps she was.  After all, there was her diary with the odd crosses once a month in keeping with the phases of the moon (for night-time spying duties, of course), and she seemed to spend a lot of time going into the village posting letters (to the German authorities, of course) or pretending to shop for her sister who lived down the street.  So the boys  snooped in her writing desk and followed her, and found more than they had bargained for.

This is a beautifully told story.  It has that wistful, golden glow of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and as in those books, the narrator in Spies also sees too much and yet doesn’t know what s/he is looking at.

Frayn’s control of the story is masterful, especially in the switch between present tense and reminiscence, which can be clunky in less sure hands. This was the second time that I had read the book, but I think even the first time I quickly cottoned on to Stephen’s misconstructions – just as Frayn, I think, intended his readers to do.   The story is told with humour and humility, and the adult Stephen is affectionately kind to his younger self and withholds judgment from him.  Little details fit together so cleverly- the play on ‘privet’ for example- and the last chapter colours in much of what had only been sketchy or incomplete previously.

I really liked this book, just as much on the second reading as on the first. You’re in the hands of a master writer, and you know it.

‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout

kitteridge

2008,  270 p

Thank heavens. After reading two stodgy books that cried out for the slash of an editor’s pen, here was a collection of short stories with crystal clear writing and every bit of fat decisively cut away.  I’d starting reading a review of the recent series of Olive Kitteridge showing on television until I realized that it was Pay TV, which we do not have and will not have.  It sounded like something I thought I would enjoy, but given that I wouldn’t be seeing it any time soon, I stopped reading the review after a few sentences.

So I was surprised to find that it was set in Maine, and not England, which for some reason I assumed  (from the rather stodgy name ‘Olive Kitteridge’ perhaps? It sounds English to me).  Nor was it set in the 1940s, which I also assumed.  It is a series of short stories and Olive appears in each one of them- sometimes as the main character, sometimes just as a walk-on figure in the background.  Olive is a large, acerbic, retired teacher who has lived in her small town for many years and taught mathematics to every young person in town.  She’s brusque and clumsy, and you can see why her son has distanced himself from her and why people don’t really like her very much.  Some of the stories are set in the near-present (9/11 has already occurred) and the stories skip around in time.  Nonetheless, they’ve been well compiled with a scene in the opening story matching a similar scene in the last story in the book- a pleasing sense of symmetry.

These are short stories as I really like them (yes, Whispering Gums, I LIKE them!) with connections between them, but standing alone as well. Perfect length- about twenty pages, and just enough of them.

It’s absolutely just right.

Except for the cover. What is it with women’s backs?  Stock images, no doubt. But this cover had absolutely nothing to do with any of these stories.

My rating: a resounding 10/10. Loved it.

Nothing much happened and I loathed/loved it

I was about to write two blog posts about two separate works- a book and a film- until I realized that they were in many ways very similar.  For both of them, I’d have to say that not much happened, really.  Yet I had a totally different response to them: the book I loathed with a vengeance; the film I loved and even now will probably put right up top of the films I’ll see in 2015. The loathed one first….

Mcgregor

Indelible Ink, Fiona McGregor, 2013, 464 p.

My heart sank when this book was announced with a flourish at my book group as our next read.  I have read it previously and disliked it.  After reading it a second time, (now that’s dedication)  I dislike it just as much.  I didn’t blog about it the first time, even though I was doing the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  Although my little review would not make any difference to anything, I didn’t feel right about bagging out a young novelist and so I just let it subside without trace on my blog. But it’s two years on, now; the dust has settled and I don’t have the same qualms about being critical.

I just didn’t buy the premise of this book from the start.  I don’t need to like the characters in a book (and I found them all completely unlikeable) but in the midst of a contemporary, realist book I need to be persuaded that there’s a core of plausibility in the actions of the characters.   The book has been likened favourably to The Slap and -how ’bout that- Christos Tsiolkas provided the front-cover blurb- and I can see the parallels of a family story, set in Sydney rather than Melbourne, with all the left-leaning, Radio National-type anxieties of affluent and self-absorbed inner suburban life.  All of that’s true of Indelible Ink as well, but at least The Slap moved from character to character, and there was enough variety that you’d find one person at least that you’d recognize (and probably dislike).   I think that it was the banality of the conversation that I bridled most against. Who’d want to be around these people?  I felt that the author was looming over all, pressing all the ‘luvvie’ hot-buttons, just to get a rise out of her reader.  Once again I found myself wishing that someone had ordered ‘cut! cut!’ by about 150 pages because this is a 300-page plot that doesn’t have 460 pages in it.

I know that many readers I respect have enjoyed this book- Lisa at ANZLitLovers thought highly of it; reviewers at the Australian Women Writers Challenge liked it; dammit, it even won the Age Book of the Year for 2011.  I am so outnumbered here than I was relieved to find that Marieke Hardy from the First Tuesday Book Group and I are as one on this  – thank God I’m not alone!

And so, on to what I loved….

boyhood

I’d heard this book mentioned in all the pre-Oscar hype and couldn’t quite see how you could make a film over twelve years. Well, you can – because here it is. It’s not like the 7-up series, where there are clear breaks between filming schedules.  Instead, the boy Mason grows imperceptibly older, changing before your eyes.

Nothing happens, and yet much does.  Perhaps it says something about my pessimistic, anxiety-driven nature but I kept expecting something to go wrong to impose some sort of narrative arc onto the film.  I will confess that I did find myself checking my watch a few times during the film, although that was largely because I was wondering how much longer it would go before there was a climax of some sort.  There was something rather omnipotent about looking down, watching time elapse, mistakes occur and resolve, expectations rise and subside, plans falter and opportunities arise.

My enjoyment of this film was confirmed the next day when I heard friends talking about their little grandson, who is determined to be one of the first kids at school each day.  I thought back to the young Mason, and his little ways, and found myself washed over with affection both for the film character and for this little boy I’ve never met who wants to get to school early.  I’ve thought of the film many times, as if I’ve lived someone else’s life.  Quite apart from the hook of the twelve-year span, it was an intimate epic- big and small at the same time- and right up there as one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

‘The Character of Credit’ by Margot C. Finn

characterofcredit

The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture 1740-1914 2003 364 p

I noticed a few weeks back as part of the discussion about childcare funding that the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has suggested that instead of big business being asked to pay a 1.5% levy, workers could be offered a HECS-style loan for childcare.  Not only do we put ourselves into HECS debt for the training to get a job, it seems, but we wade even further into ‘HECS-style’ debt for childcare to ensure that we can keep working to pay off that original HECS debt.   In a home-owner society like middle-Australia, it’s almost taken for granted that there will be a mortgage, but it’s becoming the new normal for rising generations to have an extra debt as well- that little ol’ HECS debt, bubbling away in the background.

I realized after reading Margot Finn’s book The Character of Credit, however, that the universality of indebtedness might not be a recent thing. Instead, as she demonstrates so ably,  debt was interwoven into the networks and relationships in British society from top to bottom.  They weren’t borrowing from banks: they were borrowing from each other, and the relationship was personal. In deciding if someone’s personal worth,  you’d check out his or her clothes, marital relations, spending patterns and perceived social status- and the people who were lending to you would be doing the same thing.

The book has three parts.  In the first, Finn begins by examining the treatment of debt in the 19th century novel and as you might imagine, Dickens and Trollope get a good airing, but many others as well- in fact, once you’re alert to it, you see these relationships of debt and obligation everywhere.  She explores a wide array of exchange activities: instrumental gift giving, customary retail sociability (where people of means would intentionally only pay their accounts once a year, often impoverishing the humble shoptrader in the process),  reliance on unwritten debt agreements and  purchasing by people (i.e. women) who did not have legal agency. She then moves onto autobiographical accounts and diaries, which largely support the view put forward by the novelists that the webs of overlapping indebtedness ran right throughout society from top to bottom.

In Part Two, she turns to institutional and governmental records to examine the changing history of imprisonment for debt.   Indebtedness was seen as misfortune, not a moral failing, and the debtors’ prison was not so much a punishment as a place of asylum for the debtor from the duress being placed on him by his creditors.  Many of the people there were of relatively high status: it wasn’t worth pursuing a debtor who had nothing.  Just as Dickens showed us with the Marshalsea in Little Dorritt, there was a flow of people and goods in and out of the prison which was, indeed, a sanctuary.  The prisoners there literally ran the prison, taking responsibility for conditions and behaviours- and get this! they even levied fines on people who left the toilet seat up in the water closet!!!

In Part Three she traces the change in attitude in the 1840s as debt came to be seen as fraud, not misfortune, and the implications for punishment.  The summary small-claims courts were established to support this changed conception, and were marked out from the other courts in that married women were allowed to appear and give evidence.  In this chapter she draws on legal cases and records from tradesmen’s protection associations.

The book covers 1740-1914, and so much of the material in this last chapter took me beyond my own period of interest (i.e. up to 1845). It was this ‘modern’ view of debt from 1842 onwards that my own judge, Judge Willis, was wanting to adopt, and it very much fitted in with his campaign of ‘sifting to the bottom’ of financial impropriety.  I’d read in several places where he expressed a wish for the English system, and now I understand why.

There’s a very detailed, informed and nuanced review of the book here which takes some issue with the arguments raised.  I lack the knowledge to give anything other than an impressionistic review. I admire the way that this beautifully written book combines a close reading of the novels she has chosen in the first section, with a confident use of legal documentation in the second and third sections.  There would be few writers, I suspect, who could combine the literary and the legal so well.

‘In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia Through God, Charity and Empire 1825-1855′ by Jessie Mitchell

mitchell_ingoodfaith

2011, 197 p & notes

Available for download (free) at http://epress.anu.edu.au/good_faith_citation.html

1825 to 1855- just thirty years. Thirty years to start off with a timorous hope that perhaps it might be possible to spread Civilization among the Aborigines and lead them to the Christian Religion, only to end with an acknowledgement that it hadn’t worked, and that the whole situation had to be turned over to God’s mercy and his wondrous ways.  In 1825 L. E. Threlkeld established a mission at Lake Macquarie in NSW; in 1855 John Smithies closed his Methodist mission in Western Australia.  These two events form the bookends for this analysis of Australia’s first missions and protectorate stations.

In this book, based on her PhD. thesis, Jessie Mitchell writes:

My work has been guided by key themes of governance, subjecthood and rights, and the need to understand these ideas as developing through complex exchanges between imperial centres and mission outposts…and to consider how they were shaped by charity, religious beliefs, personal relationships and commitments to empire  (p.5)

Her work concentrates on Protestant missionaries working both on Church-based missions and government-sponsored Protectorate Stations.  Although there was a  high degree of cross-over, the distinction is important (and perhaps could have been emphasized even more strongly). The interconnection between the church-directed missions and government-directed model was there from the start, when the idea of government-funded Protectorates was first recommended by a Select Committee with a strong representation of Evangelical Christians, several of whom had been involved in anti-slavery campaigns in the past.

But the Port Phillip Protectorate was established and funded by government – not the churches. Protectors were expected to attach themselves to the tribes in the district and attend them until they could be induced to assume more settled habits; watch over the rights and interests of the natives and protect them from encroachment on their property and acts of injustice;  instruct them in cultivation should they settle in one place; educate and instruct the children; learn their language; be accountable for provisions and clothing and obtain accurate numerical information about them.  They were also were expected to instruct  in ‘elements’ of the Christian religion, with the expectation that other specialized teachers would take over instruction in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. (Note 1)   It was this emphasis on religion that distinguished church-based and government-based models, because in many other regards they were very similar.   But of the Protector and his four assistants who were appointed, all but one were Evangelical Christians, and their own religious fundamentalist beliefs very much influenced their perception of their task and the Indigenous people under their charge.   When the Protectorate all went pear-shaped, several of these Protectors sheeted home the blame partially to the secular nature of the government scheme.

Mitchell has consciously decided not to use the term ‘humanitarian’, which was not coined until 1844 and has since been overlaid with many latter-day connotations, especially in the last half-century.  Instead, she conceptualizes the impetus as ‘philanthropy’, with all its nineteenth-century connotations of benevolence, gratitude, control and religion.  Nonetheless, I was surprised to note that the Aborigines Protection Society itself in its 1840 Annual Report spoke of ‘rights':

the rights of a common humanity, the rights of citizens, the right to possess and retain their own, the rights of protection and security to life and property, and the rights of unfettered liberty of mind, of free action and self disposal. (Third Annual Report 23 June 1840 cited on p 41)

The book explores the many tensions that are implicit in this declaration of ‘rights’, so to speak, and the aspirations for a God-centric, settled, institutionalized mission.  Philanthropists were aware of the cruel dispossession of indigenous peoples, but they were not necessarily opposed to colonialization itself.   In their attempts to foster agricultural labour on their own reserves amongst the people in their charge, missionaries themselves encouraged them to move away from traditional land use- something that became of crucial importance in late 20th century court cases (Mabo and Wik).  Those missionaries and protectors who expressed the strongest support for Indigenous land rights were those who were most opposed to an Indigenous presence in the cities.

In her introduction,  Jessie Mitchell mentions that she herself has worked in the community sector where

tensions between rights and charity and questions about the supposed (in)gratitude of vulnerable people towards state and benevolent agencies continue to have a strong relevance. (p.1)

Her analysis of ‘charity’ is insightful. Missionaries and protectors saw the distribution of food, blankets and clothing as a form of recompense for the loss of land and livelihood, but it was conditional on the Aborigines remaining on the mission.  The ‘settling’ of Indigenous peoples on a mission was seen by the government as a sign of success, but if it was done through the distribution of food, then the missionaries and protectors were accused of profligate generosity.  The missionaries’ dilemma goes on today: there were many echoes of the current government’s attempts to break the concept of ‘sit-down’ money and achieve school attendance through punishing the parents.

Perhaps the ultimate tension was in the religious missionary task itself.  We are now more attuned to the deep significance of the afterlife for Indigenous people, and are aware of the sensitivity about the names and images of people who have died.  For the missionaries, however, the afterlife and death was the major ‘hook’ to evangelize to their charges.  Mitchell emphasizes what we would now call the ‘born-again’ aspect of these missionaries’ religion: the whole  penitence, conversion, personal-relationship-with-God thing still being preached in evangelical super-churches today.  They wanted Indigenous people to have the individualistic, personal conversion experience, but they also wanted their church pews to be full with people streaming into church each Sunday, even if they didn’t yet believe.  They wanted individualism, but institutionalization as well.

And so, Mitchell suggests, we need to read the missionaries’ declarations of failure and disappointment carefully.  As born-again Evangelicals themselves, they were much given to self-examination and confession of weakness, and this was a trope that played out well in the metropolitan churches and missionary societies as well.   The Colonial Office, ever keen to reduce expenditure, took up these expressions of failure with alacrity, arguing that the whole project was futile and best ended.

While it is wonderful that this book is available as an e-book, I found myself wishing that it had a few more book-like features.   I read it in hard copy, and I missed an index in particular, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, I found the absence of chapter numbers frustrating.  It is not difficult to read, but you’re still aware that the thesis is not far distant.  I liked the way that the chapters started off with an anecdote or episode, and the logic of the argument was clearly laid out in the chapter structure.  Conceptually, it’s a complete, well-managed project. As a narrative, the thirty-year time span gives a coherence and almost elegiac quality to this humanitarian experiment that was tried and found wanting.

Note 1: Glenelg to Gipps 31 January 1838

aww-badge-2015-200x300My first posting to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015

‘The Colthurst Journal’ by John Bowen Colthurst

barbados

John Bowen Colthurst (1779-1848) was appointed to  Barbados as a Special Magistrate in 1835, and this is his diary, annotated by W.K. Marshall, Professor of History at the University of the West Indies.

After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, the British government instituted a period of ‘apprenticeship’ when ex-slaves continued to work on their former masters’ plantations for 45 hours a week, in exchange for food, clothing and housing.  They were no longer owned by their master, and he no longer had the power to punish them.  Instead, Special Magistrates were appointed to hear complaints about the apprentices from their masters and vice versa. Much of the time he mediated between them, but he alone had the power to order punishment.  It was intended originally that field (or praedial) slaves would be bound to work for six years as apprentices, while domestic (or non-praedial) slaves would be bound for four, on account of the longer working hours they undertook in the house.   However, the Apprenticeship system was abandoned in 1838, largely because of the unworkability of having some Apprentices freed and others not, and because public agitation in England was ramping up again against continued involvement in slavery or its other manifestations.

John Bowen Colthurst was of a good Anglo-Irish family, with strong network connections. He had had a military career during the Napoleonic Wars (although he didn’t see active service) and had withdrawn on half-pay after the war to his farm in Ireland.  The farm, however, had accrued many debts and so, like many others, he began petitioning the Colonial Office for a position, drawing on the strings of patronage at his disposal.  He had been a JP in Ireland for many years and it was this combination of legal administrative experience and his military training that led to his appointment as a Special Magistrate in Barbados, and later St Vincent.  In this regard he was unusual: many Special Magistrates had the military background but very few had acted as magistrates before.  His family did not accompany him, and his wife and daughter stayed with her cousin. Despite his attempts to retrieve the financial situation for his family, they lost the farm soon after his return to Ireland.

Colthurst proclaimed himself to be an abolitionist, but he was able to reconcile this philosophy with his role as one of the functionaries of the Apprenticeship system. He seems to have seen the Apprenticeship as a temporary measure that needed to work as a preparation for freedom on both sides- both planter and apprentice-  and believed that it would stand as a good example for other nations contemplating the abolition of slavery.  He was certainly critical of many of the plantation managers and their treatment of Apprentices, although this seemed to stem largely from his dislike of ‘low-bred’ creoles (ie. Europeans born in the West Indies). Nonetheless,  he continued to argue that a period of adjustment was beneficial and indeed necessary to induce plantation-owners to relinquish their slave property.

In 1837, agitation against the Apprenticeship system was ramping up in England, and the radical abolitionist Joseph Sturge released a critique of the Apprenticeship system, which received a great deal of publicity amongst abolitionsts in London. Over in the West Indies,  Colthurst found himself springing to the defence of Special Magistrates and their role, and decrying Sturge’s information-gathering techniques and one-sided report.

Colthurst was probably one of the better Special Magistrates.  He was  well-informed about agriculture and police administration, and took an interest in the religious and educational provision of the apprentices.  He was careful not to become too embroiled socially with the planters, preferring to maintain his contacts with the governors instead.  Of course, this shapes his narrative as well.

On his return to Britain, he realized that there was a market for literature about the West Indies – for example, Mrs Carmichael’s work that I reviewed here and the eyewitness reports submitted home by abolitionists and planters as part of the public discourse about abolition.   Through (and despite?) his involvement in the Apprenticeship system at the time, he became increasingly involved in abolition movements on his return, most particularly those agitating against the continuation of American slavery.  He rewrote his memoirs into the form they are found in this book, in five separate volumes and forwarded them to leading abolitionists in the hope that they might be published.  They were, but not as a stand-alone publication, being extracted for newspaper publication instead.  Only four of these volumes exist today in the Boston Public Library, and the fifth volume has been reconstructed by the editor from columns that were republished in abolition newspapers.

Marshall’s introductory chapters to the journal are informative, and his annotations throughout the book are useful and insightful, providing information that Colthurst could not have known at the time, and challenging some of Colthurst’s observations.  Colthurst’s writing is of its time, but he certainly provides a wealth of information about the role of the special magistrate in a short-lived experiment of policy.