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‘A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work’ by Bernadette Brennan


2017, 298 p. & notes

This book is exactly what the title promises: a study of Helen Garner and her work.  It’s not, and nor does it purport to be, a full biography but is instead a ‘literary portrait’, firmly based on and in Garner’s own writings and writing practices.

The author (who, judging from her picture on the back page is much younger than I thought she would be) uses the publication sequence of Garner’s books as its organizing principle, but it seems in both the introduction and conclusion that she at one stage contemplated a different structure.

It is too simple to say that Garner’s body of work is one book, but everything she has written is interrelated. Over a period of forty years she has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters and questions. Because houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation sit at the core of all Garner’s fiction, I originally thought to structure this study around Garner’s primary spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, courtrooms and public institutions… Such readings, however, do not lend themselves to a full and coherent appreciation of Garner’s development as a writer…. In the end I decided to structure this portrait so that each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways. (p. 7)

I must confess that I forgot about this intended motif until the author returned to it in the closing pages of the book, where she alludes to Henry James’ metaphor of the house of fiction, and Garner as a ‘watcher’ through windows. I don’t find it a particularly useful structure, and as it would seem, neither did the author, as it is left largely untouched through most of the text.

Instead, the book is presented in two parts: Part 1 Letters to Axel and Part II Questions of Judgment.  ‘Axel’ was Axel Clarke, the son of  historian Manning and linguist Dymphna Clark and a close friend from university days to whom Garner wrote often and honestly. His archive of letters to and from Garner, deposited in the National Library of Australia are a significant resource for Brennan. He died in 1990, after a long friendship with Garner tinged with tension  over her ‘use’ of his illness with a brain tumour in ‘Recording Angel’, one of the stories in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), the last of the works analysed in Part I.   The ‘letters to Axel’ form a useful organizing device, although ‘1942-1992’ or ‘The First Fifty Years’ would have done just as well.  Each of the seven chapters focuses on a major work and Brennan  interweaves personal details, gleaned from Garner’s own works and interviews, and literary analysis based on the books themselves.

Part II, Questions of Judgment starts with The First Stone, the first non-fiction book that took Garner into the courtroom as the basis for her narrative, a practice that she has followed in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and most recently in her Monthly essay ‘Why She Broke‘.  The chapter on The First Stone is the longest in the book and it marks not only Garner’s shift into long-form non-fiction writing, but also her most contentious book that provoked questions among her critics about her commitment to feminism and how that feminism was defined, and her attitude towards younger women.  Readers who do not like Garner’s work often criticize her insertion of herself into both her fictional and non-fictional writing, and Brennan (among others) is critical of Garner’s personal intervention in the form of letters to Master Alan Gregory, the man accused of sexual harassment. I had not realized the legal tightrope that her publishers trod with this book, and it took its toll on her relationship with Hilary McPhee.  It is a book that still evokes controversy. Most of the books in this second part are non-fiction, which is the genre in which Garner has predominantly worked in the last decades. The exception is The Spare Room, which is the novelized retelling of a real life experience when a friend undergoing an alternative treatment for cancer stayed with her. Brennan’s book closes with Everywhere I Look, Garner’s recent collection of essays.

It is not necessary to have read Garner’s books to enjoy this literary portrait, but it certainly helps to have done so.  Critiques of short story and essay collections are always difficult to write and read because the act of describing them often eviscerates them, and  several of Garner’s publications fall into this genre. Nonetheless, Brennan gives enough of the flavour of Garner’s works to jog the memory or provide sufficient background for her analysis to make sense.

It is not an authorized biography as such, in that Garner had veto power over it. She made available to Brennan her diaries, letters and drafts that are currently embargoed at the NLA, and participated in interviews with the author. It’s a rich, textured archive.

This is not a biography, and yet we do learn about  Helen Garner those things she chooses to reveal about herself, either through interviews or mostly through her own writing.  We read about her difficult relationship with her father, her life in share-house Carlton that prompted Monkey Grip, her three marriages, her daughter and grandchildren.  There are things we do not learn, too, most particularly who the ‘Philip’ character who floats through her early fictional writing was based on.  I did not realize the persistence of Garner’s religious quest, thinking that she had left it behind after Cosmo Cosmolino (which I reviewed here and did not enjoy). I remember, but did not fully appreciate, the virulence of the debate about The First Stone and was unaware of the legal and literary maneuvering that preceded its publication.  In my review of Postcards from Surfers, I wondered about how a book of short stories was put together, and in Brennan’s book I saw the collaboration between editor and author in constructing a ‘work’ of short stories as a distinct entity.  Through her diaries it is clear that the naive, ‘I-know-nothing-about-the-legal-system-but…’ stance that comes through in her courtroom non-fiction is a deliberate, and somewhat disingenuous choice.

Most of all, though, I am left with a sense of the writer at work– and work it surely is. The reading, the thinking, the writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The author’s drawing together of observations from other writers and thinkers – most particularly that scholar of the art of biography, Janet Malcolm. The richness and texture of thought and reflection. The edginess and vulnerability of putting yourself out there as an author. The web of connections between people in the local intellectual and literary scene.  A life lived in the mind, but also in the everyday. A particular way of looking.  All the things that I appreciate most in Garner’s work.

My rating: 8.5

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.


A new adventure!

I’m off for a fortnight to Chile and Cuba. Think of it.  A 61 year old woman. There by herself. Very rudimentary Spanish. What could possibly go wrong?

Join my on my (mis)adventures at my other blog Land of Increasing Sunshine – or, in approximate Spanish La Tierra Más Soleada

‘Cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe para estudiantes de espanol. Nivel A1’


There’s a little test you can do of your language skill against the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). “I’ll try that with my Spanish!” I thought, only to end up thoroughly deflated at the realization that I came out at level A1 – absolute, absolute beginner. Or as Wikipedia helpfully puts it:

He is able to understand and use daily expressions of very frequent use as well as simple phrases intended to satisfy needs of immediate type. You can introduce yourself and others, ask for and give basic personal information about your home, your belongings and the people you know. You can relate in an elementary way whenever your interlocutor speaks slowly and clearly and is willing to cooperate.

Well, on second thoughts, that’s about it.  Apparently this level takes approximately 100 hours of study and that would be just about right too.  (Actually, I’ve probably spent more time than that, so I must confess to being a laggard. I’ll blame my advanced age.)

So I downloaded Cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe for the princely sum of $2.04 AUD and found that, yes, it’s exactly the right level.  I had to look up about five words in each page, which was enough to keep me on my toes, but not so much that I felt overwhelmed.  I don’t know if the stories became simpler, or whether I improved as I went along, but it seemed that the later stories were easier to read than those at the start of the book.

It helped that I can’t remember reading any Edgar Allan Poe beyond, perhaps, in short story collections at school.  There were seven stories here: The Black Cat, Berenice, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Mask of the Red Death, The Facts in the Case of Mister Valdemar and Ligeia.  The whole book was only 68 pages in length, so each of the stories was relatively short. There were lots of deserted houses, ghostly women and glittering eyes and my favourite was probably The Pit and the Pendulum.  I did double check some of the stories in Wikipedia to make sure that I had actually understood them, and yes- they were abridged, but they captured the essence of the story with enough tension and mystery to make it worthwhile.

So, if you’re an absolute beginner too- this is $2.00 very well spent.

‘The Promise’ by Tony Birch


2014, 219 p.

I was prompted to read this book as part of Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers.  I’ve read several books by Tony Birch previously, one a novel Blood and the other, Shadowboxing a series of linked short stories. I think of him as a local, who can often be spotted around Melbourne and occasionally I’ve seen him down at our local shopping centre, oddly enough.  While his works are fictional, you sense that the author’s own lifestory hovers nearby. Birch’s indigenous heritage seems to be treated as just one aspect of his character, as it is in amongst the narrators in this series of short stories too. Class, education and a wounded masculinity are just as much markers of identity in his characters as their indigeneity,  where if it features at all, it is mentioned almost in passing. It’s not that it’s downplayed or ignored, but it’s interwoven through his characters’ other experiences and world-views.  (There’s an excellent reflection on Birch and his aboriginality in Eve Vincent’s review of ‘The Promise’ in SRB)

All of these twelve short stories are told in the first person, and although it is not the same character, it is pretty much the same voice. Several of the stories involve young boys, left pretty much to their own devices in the scrubby, abandoned frontiers of an urban landscape in the absence of parents: under freeways, along river banks, playing in the shadows of Housing Commission high-rise buildings  and in deserted bowling alleys. Where the narrator is a grown man, he is often standing on the edge of a loss of a relationship, scorched by grief and toeing the line of defeat or deciding to ‘move on’. His characters are not generally written about in literature. They are workers whose jobs are a means to an end, rather than their own enterprise or a profession. Some of them dance on the edge of criminality, alcoholism and addiction and  families are often absent or fractured.

My favourite amongst the stories is ‘The Money Shot’, about a trio of thieves about to do a ‘job’ only to find that one of their group has to literally mind the baby.  There’s a humour in this story that is not found in the others. In another story, ‘The Lovers’, a waiter in a restaurant speculates about a couple who come in every week.

Birch is good at capturing a moment, a dilemma, a decision and co-opting your sympathy as a reader, almost against your better judgement. However, in several of these stories I found myself turning the page, only to find that the story had ended. I don’t need a resolution, or for everything to be tied up neatly, but the incompleteness of some of these stories frustrated me.  This was more true of the early stories in the collection, and I don’t know if the later stories became more rounded, or whether I’d become accustomed to having the narrative yanked away so abruptly.  So, I think of these stories more as shards, sharp-edged and needing to be handled carefully (just as their main characters are), rather than rounded wholes in themselves.  I just can’t help thinking, though, that some of them are a ‘promise’ left unfulfilled.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872

The University of Newcastle has a fantastic new site showing colonial massacres on the frontier in Eastern Australia. You can access it at

The map shows the approximate location of massacres of both indigenous people and settlers in the eastern states. As the creators explain in the introduction, their criteria for a massacre is six people.  Why six? To lose six people (or 20%) from a  ‘hearth’ group of twenty people renders that group vulnerable to further attack and diminishes their ability to hunt for food, reproduce and carry out their ceremonial obligations. The data is drawn from a range of sources including newspapers, parliamentary reports, the memoirs and correspondence of settlers, missionaries and Protectors, and oral and visual Aboriginal accounts.  The reliability of the source is rated with a star system.

The site makes quite clear that it is a work in progress, and subject to change through ongoing research.  Fascinating, and sobering.

‘Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir’ by Olivera Simic


2014, 188 p

It’s not often that I open up a book and find myself thinking “Hey! I was there!” I did in this book, though, where Olivera Simic starts by describing an encounter at a law and history conference in Melbourne. [Those of you who have been with me since 2010 might vaguely remember that I was involved in the organization of the ANZLHS Law and History Conference that year. For me, any recollection of the conference is completely overwhelmed by the accompanying memory of leaving quickly after the last session to sit with my mother at her nursing home. She died the next day.]

Olivera Simic’s recollection of that conference, though, involves a quick interaction she had with the chair of the panel who asked how he should introduce her.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Yugoslavia’ she replied. ‘But that country doesn’t exist!’ he countered, finding the interchange sufficiently bewildering to share it with the audience.  Several people came up to afterwards, saying that it was very unusual to hear someone still introducing herself as Yugoslav.

But I do. I am a Yugoslav without Yugoslavia. I identify with the country I was born in; I am homesick for the place that exists only in my distant memory: the beautiful old towns, rivers and mountains, and the part of the Adriatic coast that was Yugoslavia. I speak a language that was declared dead when the war broke out in 1992. I was fortunate not to lose a close family member, but like many Yugoslav people, I lost so much.  The beginning of the war meant the end of my physical belonging to the country I was born and grew up in, the country I loved, the country I left and soon abandoned.  I tried to move on, to forget destruction and war, to run away from it all… The further I was from home, the closer home was to me, to my heart, to my mind.  The connection to my homeland was not severable to distance but, as many migrants will know, on the country, was made stronger by it. The smell, the sound, the sky and the sun of my home haunt me. They are always with me. (p.10)

We hear and read of people surviving war, but less often surviving peace. Simic was born in 1973 and spent her childhood in Banja Luka, the second-largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Her parents are Orthodox Serbs and were members of the Community Party before the 1990s in what she regarded as “a heterogenous multicultural, multilingual and multireligious community.” (p11) When war broke out in 1992, her parents sent her as a nineteen-year-old to neighbouring Serbia, her mother’s home country, where she was granted refugee status and enrolled in law school. She lived in Serbia, with occasional dangerous trips home to see her parents, from 1992 through to the 1999 NATO bombing during which, for 78 days,  she along with her fellow residents, lived in a permanent state of fear and anxiety. She was –  and still is – angry at the world for allowing this to happen, and after September 11, the emotional and existential burden of this experience devastated her in the form of PTSD.  At the end of the war, she was no longer ‘Yugoslavian’  but, on the basis of her surname, was designated to be Serbian – “a specific, but somehow alien ethnic identity”  that it had never occurred to her to apply to herself previously (p.21). Her mother-tongue, Serbo-Croation ceased to exist, replaced by other languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian).

Our labels of ethnicity have overridden our very being and make it impossible for us to be recognized first as people, and only then as an ‘ethnicity’. (p.25)

In 2001 she started work with Human Rights Watch in Washington DC. She completed an M.A. in Gender and Peacebuilding in Costa Rica. Since 2006 she has lived in Australia, and after gaining her PhD., worked as an academic writing on genocide and war crimes, most particularly (but not only) those committed by Serbs, and on trauma more generally. It’s an academic path that her parents and neighbours back in BiH try to dissuade her from, seeing her as a traitor to their concept of the Serbs as both victims and heroes.  She is aware that she is part of the ‘industry’ of postwar recovery and reconciliation, organizing seminars and workshops, receiving grants to carry out research on armed conflicts.

One of the paradoxes of experiencing violence first hand is that it can give unconditional power and authority to one’s voice, and people who have not had these experiences might feel as if they cannot say anything worthwhile (P 102)

She is aware, when faced with representatives of Srebrenica (where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by members of the Serbian forces) that she, like other academics, could be seen “as ‘conference tourists’, building our careers on the misery of survivors.” (p. 104) It doesn’t sit well with her.

I have summarized her story as a continuous, chronological narrative, which is not the way she has structured this book. There is a timeline of Yugoslavia’s disintegration as an appendix, but it acts more as an organizing device after reading her memoir, rather than during it.  Instead, her chapters are titled as paradoxes and opposites:  Journeying through War and Peace; Traitor or Truth Seeker? Moving from War to Peace; The Past Is Present; Victims and Survivors; Between Remembering and Forgetting.  There is no narrative tension of wondering if she will survive or not: no tales of want or deprivation.

Instead, this is a memoir of the intellect. She refers often to other writers and theorists and her bibliography is rich with academic references.  I was puzzled by her subtitle ‘a political memoir’ because this is so much a memoir of the head AND heart, until I remembered that old feminist touchstone ‘the personal is political’.  The blurbs on the back cover clearly place it within a feminist tradition, and in her preface she explains:

In feminist research women are considered to be experts regarding their own lives who communicate and reveal the narratives about the events that took place in their lives, their feelings about those events, and their interpretation of them (Foss and Foss, 1994 . 39) … Although mine is an individual story, I believe that on many levels it is also universal . My experiences of war and survival are similar to those of other war survivors…This is…why I have been motivated to embark on this emotional journey which sometimes links intimate experiences with existing scholarship. (p. 2, 3)

It is, then, her story but analyzed from an academic perspective, and interwoven with literature, history, genocide studies, trauma studies, human rights and peace studies.  It’s not the sort of memoir that will make you cry, but it will make you think.  I watch television and those streams of Syrians, carrying children and one or two plastic bags (what do you pack?); I hear predictions that partition might be the only solution for Syria and I think of Simic’s resistance against having an ethnic identity forced upon her by war.  I think of Simic’s need to weave her own experience into a larger philosophical and intellectual web – to make it mean something more.  It reminds us that the victims of war need to become survivors of peace, as well.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘The Mysterious Mr Jacob’ by John Zubrzycki


2007, 262 p & notes

Transit Lounge

In 1912 it was said that when the real story of Alexander Malcolm Jacob was written, it would be invested with more wonder and mystery than “even in our strangest dreams we never imagined it could possess.”(p.247)

Well, it took a hundred years, but in this book John Zubrzycki has probably got as close to the “real” story as anyone else is likely to do. Mr Jacob – diamond merchant, magician and spy – was happy to embroider and dissemble about his actual origins, but for the civil servants of the British Raj who escaped to the Indian hills of Simla to escape the summer heat, Mr Jacob was a celebrity. His shop was full of  gems, curiosities and wonders, he lived in a opulent mansion ‘Belvedere’ and he was sought out for his magic and mystical skills and political contacts. He appeared in multiple newspaper articles, essays, books and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim  (albeit, not under his own name but as Lurgan Sahib).  He dealt with Indian princes and maneuvered the shadow world of British spies operating in the Far East, and yet he ended up largely impoverished, living on a rather miserly pension before his death in 1921 aged 71.

Many rumours spread about his origins –  Jewish? Greek? Polish? Italian? – but Zubrzycki has tracked his birthplace down to a small town in Turkey, near the Syrian border. He was actually Catholic, but in a world obsessed with spiritualism, he attracted Theosophists and the adherents of Madame Blavatsky. He arrived in Bombay in 1865 penniless, and within 12 years had achieved celebrity status. His greatest, and as it turned out, most damaging challenge was to sell the Imperial diamond, the largest brilliant-cut diamond in the world, to Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad in 1891.  Fabulously wealthy and opium-addicted, the Nizam liked gems, and Jacob undertook to bring him the diamond from Europe on approval, hoping to make a hefty profit for his efforts. But the sale ended up in court and here, if perhaps anywhere, Zubryzycki got closest to discovering what may be the truth about Alexander Jacob.

The book is framed as the author’s search for the ‘real’ Mr Jacob, and the author strolls onto the page quite frequently as he hunts for locations, searches for documents and seeks an elusive photograph of him. It certainly seems as if Mr Jacob is reaching out from the grave, sometimes thwarting some of his efforts (as in when he finally tracked down Mr Jacob’s grave only to find that it had just been destroyed), and permitting “just in time” discoveries at other times (as when he found the decrepit Belvedere mansion, just before its demolition).  In this case, Australian readers benefit from the six year lag between the book’s publication in 2011 and its recent release through Transit Press in Australia, as in the meantime he found the much-sought-after photo to add a physical presence to such an elusive subject. The author has an engaging style, whipping up interest at the start of each chapter, and if he digresses it’s because they’re such interesting alleyways into which he is being drawn.

We are taken on a fascinating journey into an India of  the scarcely-imaginable wealth of its Indian Princes and the rather disdainful manipulation of British colonial politics. There is a fluidity in Mr Jacob’s life as he defies national definitions and flits in the shadows of spies and diplomats.  There’s little attempt- and I dare say, little scope- for any exploration of Mr Jacob’s personal life, and in this he is just as slippery and elusive as in his professional life. It’s a rattling good yarn, as Mr Jacob knew himself in his various retellings and embellishments, and you can’t help but be imbued with Zubryzycki’s passion for such an enigmatic character.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: review copy from Transit Lounge Publishing.