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Archive for the ‘Australian Authors’ Category

Coal Creek by Alex MillerCoal Creek sees Alex Miller, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin Award, return to his ‘stone country’ roots. Set mostly in the aftermath of WWII, it’s the story of Bobby Blue (Blewit), told in a distinctive first person voice that is suffused with the simple yet wise lyricism of the people of the scrub country that comprises the Queensland ranges inland from Townsville.

Uneducated, innocent and warm-hearted, Bobby works as a stockman with his father until his father dies (his loving mother having died earlier), at which point Bobby, aged 20, gets a job working as a deputy offsider to Mount Hay’s new policeman, Daniel Collins.

Collins is an educated man who served in New Guinea during the war. He has moved up from the coast with his wife Esme and their two girls, Irie and Miriam. He does not understand the people of the ranges, nor its country. He has brought with him books on geology, as if they might offer a way of comprehending this unfamiliar landscape. But its secrets will not come to him that way. When Bobby is out riding with him, Bobby ‘soon seen he never knew he was being watched. I knew from that he was not the man for that country.’ Bobby thinks his father would have taken one look at Collins and walked the other way.

Daniel puts the locals offside, and Esme’s ‘high morals’ prove problematic. She has very strong ideas on how Daniel should police, and her suffocating parenting alienates her daughters (they start to go off into the unforgiving scrubs to get away from her).

Bobby’s lifelong friend is Ben, a volatile man who lives out by Coal Creek with Deeds, an Aboriginal girl in her mid-teens. Bobby and Ben grew up together, the pair of them going out with their fathers and working for the stockholders in the region. Bobby holds a strong plutonic love for Ben. And “Love is faith. It does you good to have it, but it usually has a price to it.” If it all comes down to it, Bobby knows he will be on Ben’s side.

Bobby is looking back on events and regularly foreshadows some sort of trouble to come. ‘I did not expect things to work out the way they did’, he writes, and thinks this of his dead mother’s gift of foresight thus: “… I seen that far-off knowing look in her eyes. Which she only had for me, like she sensed the terrible thing that was to happen lying out there waiting in the path of my future…” She tells him: ‘We all hang on the cross, Bobby Blue.’

Bobby had a loving and close relationship with his mother, and a deep respect of his father who could always see trouble coming and who didn’t suffer fools. Bobby suffers Daniel and Esme because of his friendship with Irie. Going on thirteen, she teaches Bobby how to read and a strong bond is formed between them, a bond that proves disastrous. He doesn’t see anything untoward in his relationship with her. He says he will wait for her to ‘come into her womanhood’. Not surprisingly, her parents think otherwise, and things spiral out of control for the lot of them as suspicions turn into mistrust and misunderstanding.

Miller evokes the landscape beautifully. It underpins every passage, and Bobby’s love of it is pervasive:

…them long rolling ridges of scrub, one after the other as far as the eye can see, going on into the haze of the day like a dream till you forget where you are. Just played-out mining and poor scrub country, that is all it is, fit only for them half-wild cattle and that was all the good it ever was. My country. I have no other.

It is tough country, a place where clouds run elsewhere. It is the country of the Old People, the local Murri Aborigines:

Them Old People knows things we whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us.

One can’t help but feel as though some of that dust has gotten under the skin of Miller too, for the landscape he so lovingly paints seems an inseparable part of him.

Coal Creek delves into the nature of friendship amidst competing loyalties; it’s about betrayal and how love endures. It shows us yet again how suspicion breeds misunderstanding. It is a wise hymn to the stone country and the Old People. Winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, it is a very satisfying read.

Miller will talk about Coal Creek at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I’ve already got my ticket.

Coal Creek by Alex Miller

2013

Text

291 pages

ISBN: 9781743316986

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

 

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Mr Wigg by Inga SimpsonConfession time… I have a thing for pears. And so while I’ve read many fabulous Aussie debut novels over Christmas, such as Graeme Simsion’s chuckle fest The Rosie Project, Hannah Kent’s finely wrought Burial Rites, and Courtney Collins’s captivating gothic work The Burial, I thought I’d skip reviewing these given the weight of press each has received, and write up some thoughts on the charming Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson. This is in part because Mr Wigg has a thing for pears too, although he also has a fancy for, let me see, just about every kind of fruiting tree you can think of, from apricots to nectarines, from persimmons to quinces. His speciality, though, is peaches.

Set in 1971, the story is split into the four seasons, starting with summer. The narrative voice has a whimsical storybook quality to it, partly because Mr Wigg is always referred to as ‘Mr Wigg’, and partly because he tells his grandchildren Lachlan and Fiona a fable about the mythical Peach King while the three of them bake, which, it has to be said, is often. I must admit, the voice took a bit of getting used to. Like its country setting, the story comes to you slowly, simply. But once I got used to the rhythm, it seemed perfect to me. It’s a bit like us city folk needing to adjust to a rural pace whenever we get out of the big smoke.

The whimsy comes in the form of the fruit trees, who talk to Mr Wigg and each other. Here’s some of the pears in action:

The pears had always been sensitive during spring, as they were not self-fertile, like the others, but required cross pollination. ‘It’s no laughing matter,’ Bon Chrétien muttered. Bickering like a long-married couple most of the year, the pears began dipping their branches at each other in early September. Beurré Bosc recited sonnets in that particular tone and Bon Chrétien responded with made up songs about the qualities of pear blossom.

Mr Wigg has his challenges. He lost his wife to cancer the previous year and is still coming to terms with the loss. His son wants him to consider moving into a old person’s home in town. And Mr Wigg is estranged from his daughter after a falling out over an inheritance. He knows he’s getting on, but he’s determined to die in his own home. He thus fights for his independence. To prove he’s not past it, in between baking sessions with the grandkids he takes on a creative project, firing up the forge in the shed with touching results that bring together Mr Wigg’s Peach King tale and his own life story. The ending is pitch-perfect.

Mr Wigg is a little gem. A story with heart. Reading it awwbadge_2014makes you want to plant an orchard, preserve some fruit, and get baking while the cricket is playing on the radio (Mr Wigg would be very proud of our Aussie boys thrashing the poms in the Ashes these past weeks!). It makes you thankful for the little things, the slow things, the moments between you and those you love. And being reminded of these things is never a bad thing.

To top it all off, I even learned a few new things about pears!

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson

2013

Hachette

292 pages

ISBN: 9780733630194

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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True Country by Kim ScottPart of the joy of discovering authors later in their career is the ability to go back and read their earliest work. In doing so you get a different perspective on the writer-to-be, what intrigues them, drives them; what tools they like to use in framing their narratives; their ethos. After greatly admiring Kim Scott’s Miles Franklin-winning That Deadman Dance (my review) I had this opportunity with his evocative debut True Country, read for Indigenous Literature Week (hosted by Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers — a list of all the reviews submitted by readers for ILW can be found here.)

Scott’s themes include Aboriginal culture, landscape, displacement, belonging, home. His tone mixes despair and hope. We see the narrative traits of later works here too, such as fragmented structuring, and shifting voices and perspectives. Though fictional, True Country is very autobiographical, as is common with many debut novels. It commences with Billy arriving into Karnama, a (fictional) remote Kimberly Aboriginal community, by airplane with his wife Liz. He’s coming to teach at the local school. He’s also searching for something in himself, though we’re not sure of what this is until near the end of the novel’s first section (at one-third distance).

This first chapter, of only two pages, is written in an intriguing second person. Here’s the opening lines:

You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly ready, nearly there.

You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling upon this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.

Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.

Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.

You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

The narrator here is the collective voice of the landscape and its people, speaking to Billy as he arrives into this place on his plane. Note the delightful duality in the words  ‘your many high places’, how they cover both the manner of his arrival and the notion that, as a man from the big smoke, he might carry an elevated view of himself, as perhaps do we, us readers who are also entering this landscape as outsiders. And there is also the lovely sense of us diving beyond our shadows on the page and into the story alongside Billy, a notion that books can change us, a forerunner of the lovely passage in That Deadman Dance that highlights the same sense of diving into a book and coming up out of it changed.

After the beautiful use of the single-word sentence ‘Enter’, we get a sense of what might happen to Billy if he does dive in, if he enters fully into the landscape. He will be subjected to elemental forces of a unique and lasting landscape, one that (‘it may be’) changes him, giving him a sense of the belonging he seeks.

Apart from the occasional use of what I’ll call the communal voice, much of the novel’s first section is told by Billy in first person. It reinforces the notion of him as an outsider, separate from the people he finds himself living amongst.

And what of this place? This, too, from the opening page:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle … every kind. Sweet mango and coconut too.  

As he lands, the chapter ends on another short sentence: ‘Welcome to you.’ What we have is an invitation, to Billy, to us as well in a way.

But although it’s a beautiful landscape, Karnama is not a perfect community, oh no. It’s not long before Billy and Liz hear and witness some of its many intractable problems, such as alcohol abuse, gambling, petrol sniffing, lack of parental care, violence (particularly against women, but also women against other women), as well as a general malaise, loss of culture and fading observance of Law. Each morning Billy has to round up the children for school.

Faced with all the problems, Billy wants to do something. Fatima, one of the older Aboriginal women, offers to tell him stories about the ‘old ways’, to record them so he can transcribe them for permanent record. He also wants to tell them to the children in class, so their culture is not lost.

Fatima was the first born on the Mission. She and another girl were later tricked by the Missionaries into getting on a boat that took them to a school far away from home. They didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to their families, and only returned as grownups. By that stage ‘we didn’t know how to speak the language. … We talk in English.’

Fatima also speaks of breakdowns in the cultural norms of the community, such as which women are allowed to be with which men.

It’s only in looking back on the events he is narrating that Billy sees how inept he was at being a listener. He and Fatima talk about the community’s history as set down by the Missionaries. In the Mission’s journals is an account of Fatima’s birth, how it was troublesome for her mother, how her mother applied some ‘old way’ care to get her through. The journal entry makes Fatima weep. She’d not heard it before.

There is a lovely truth there, but elsewhere the journals can’t be trusted. When Fatima begins to tell him another story, about the shooting of an Aborigine, he is so bound up in finding the original account in the Missionary’s journal he doesn’t listen to Fatima’s version of the story, which, troublingly, diverges from the official one. It’s only much later, when he listens back to the tape that he realises his error. He writes, ‘It’s a bad recording. They all were. There’s a loud rumbling in the background in all of them.’

This is lovely writing. The rumbling is more than a poor recording. It’s the thundering of a people wanting to be heard. All the more reason, we think, to get the true stories recorded. So they can indeed be heard. But even here, as the summer wet season’s downpours commence, Billy is struggling to find the time to transcribe the recordings. Throughout this first part of the book there are hints about Billy’s own background, with his slightly darker shade of skin, the way he can dance like the elders. Is he part Aboriginal himself, we wonder.

He tapes some of the old men too. These stories are inserted within the narrative, without introduction. Some readers might feel jolted by this, maybe even a little lost. This is a criticism of Scott’s later writing too, but one I don’t share myself. I think he shows us how in matching the narrative form to the story, a writer elevates their work, shows their craft. The elder voices want to be heard. They are thrust into the rest of the narrative and we must listen. The sense of dislocation is important.

And what great stories men like Sebastian tell Billy! About the old black magic. Of men who can fly, make themselves invisible. However, the magic has been lost. He laments, ‘Some of the young people start not believing. Then they do anything, have nothing.’

The younger generation don’t have it easy, and Scott deftly has Billy note the reaction to Sebastian’s worries from one of the younger women, Gabriella. She has been to Melbourne to attend university, and is back in the community on holidays. She is lifting herself up as we non-Indigenous might say, as she herself might say. Her jaw clenches at Sebastian’s comments. Does she have nothing? Like Billy she is now part outsider.

Poor Gabriella! She feels her displacement keenly:

…each time she came back to Karnama after a time away she was happy, because she missed the people and the country so much. But she was sad too. … it was like going backwards sometimes, and even further backwards each time she met up with old friends. The bridging courses she did at uni didn’t connect these two worlds. So it seemed. So she said. 

This is one of the pitfalls current Aborigines face. I have heard experiences of Aboriginal people who have left country communities as the first to go to university, and have been ostracised because of it. They are getting too big for their boots, is the criticism levelled at them when they return. (Of course, this problem is not confined to Aborigines.)

We hear Sebastian, but we also see Gabriella. A few pages later we see why she might clench her jaw, for she is one of the ones who does see the magic. She helps in the school, teaching painting, and talks about her love of it to Billy and Liz thus:

‘I like it… At uni too, I can do painting. It’s like this. I get sucked in, and I forget time and where I am. You know, one day I might paint me a little island, a little place for me to live in there. Fly down into it, just go off the end of my brush, and stay there, eh?’

It’s a wonderful echo of Billy’s own challenge of not seeing the community from above, of getting beyond his shadow on the page and diving into it.

And Gabriella is one of the success stories. What’s particularly troubling are the children who neither believe the old magic nor want to become educated like her. If only their inability to write their own names was the sole problem. They are sniffing petrol, wearing ‘bracelets made from the rubber sealing rings of opened fuel drums’. They are tellingly said to be not drinking, ‘yet’. They are the ones who observe their father’s violence toward his wives and say he is teaching her a good lesson. ‘Tiny children threw rocks through windows, and knives at teachers who follow them home hurling feeble reprimands.’ What hope is there for them? 

In discussing the Mission’s old journals Gabriella asks Billy why he has come to Karnama. His spluttering response tells us what we have suspected, that he is seeking to find part of his own Aboriginality, trying to discover what it means to him. (Like Scott, Billy is Noongar (spelt Nyungar in this 1993 novel)). He replies:

‘Because I wanted to. I think I wanted, I’m of… my grandmother… My great grandmother must have been Aboriginal, like you, dark. My grandmother is part … my father told me, but no one…’ … ‘So, maybe that’s a part. But I don’t feel Aboriginal, I can’t say that. I don’t understand. Does it mean you feel lost, displaced? But doesn’t everyone? And I just wanted to come to a place like this, where some things that happened a long time ago, where I come from, that I have only heard of or read of, are still happening here, maybe.’

The first section of the novel ends with Billy receiving the terrible news that his part-Aboriginal grandmother has died. There’s no chance to ask her all the questions he’d been building towards. Now all he can do is help Gabriella, who suggests they try to rediscover the old ways, ‘Put the little bits together. … there’s something there, that’s what I reckon. Should we try to put it all together and believe in it?’

The first section ends in the communal voice thus:

So Billy is doing it with us now, and Gabriella too. We might be all writing together, really.

This signals a shift. Entering the second section, we lose the first person narration and have both a third-person omniscient communal narrator and  occasional first-person elder stories. The shift is significant. We lose some things here, which I’ll come to later, but again it’s Scott marrying form to story. Billy has admitted his Aboriginal roots, and is now part of something. It’s appropriate to relinquish the first-person narration and move into a more encompassing voice. The move also allows Scott to include discussions between characters when Billy is not in present, such as when Liz talks to another white woman about the community’s problems.

The challenge for Billy after acknowledging his roots, is that although he finds himself more and more part of things, he still is searching for the secret of what it means to be part Aboriginal. And faced with so many social problems, can he find the old magic? How can he when even the supposed accomplishment of the community in performing corroboree dances to tourists ends mostly in disarray and disaster? How can he when one of the children he teaches is murdered by a white man who escapes punishment under the white man’s law? It’s tempting to say Scott offers no solutions, but perhaps in Billy’s search for the old ways there is an answer, or an approach to try at least.

It is a measure of Scott’s even-handedness that Billy sees all the horrors but also experiences many joys, like swimming in rushing rivers with the kids, seeing manta rays leaping out of the water when fishing, and a hundred other things. There is despair here, but also great joy, great life. This is the wet season:

We’d sit inside, looking out the windows at the afternoon rain, the red mud and the intense green, the thin bodies of semi-naked children skimming and spraying through the puddles and sheets of water, their black skins glistening and their cries thin in the thunder. The coconut palms and mango trees in our yard writhed against a great sky split by lightning. And the solid rain, and the clearing of the air just before darkness. …

What perhaps is lacking somewhat is an exploration between Billy and Liz of what it all means to him, and what effect, if any, finding himself has upon them. In moving from the first person to omniscient, we lose a little of the close connection to Billy’s view of things, and the potential to explore the relationship with his wife in this way.

ANZ Litlovers Indigenous Literature WeekTrue Country is twenty years old. But it feels fresh, both in the story sense, with the disturbing lack of progress in Aboriginal health and the loss of culture and Law to mention just a couple of problems, and also in a stylistic sense, with the edgy use of various and shifting narrative voices. There’s a timelessness in the Kimberley, and the same thing is present in Scott’s voice. The ideas and themes and style that characterise his later work are there from the start. (There’s even a little hint of whaling.) Long may he speak for himself, his people, and all Australians.

True Country by Kim Scott

1993

Fremantle Press

299 pages

ISBN: 9781921361524

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

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SWF LogoI hope you’ll forgive me a little indulgence, but I want to share something special. Today I had the rare privilege of seeing Gillian Mears in discussion with Bruce Pascoe at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). I say rare because this was Mears’s first speaking event in Sydney in sixteen years. (The privilege speaks for itself.)

Introduced by Jane Palfreyman, head of Mears’s publisher Allen & Unwin, Gillian read from her critically acclaimed and much loved Foal’s Bread (my review). It was so lovely hearing her read. The tenderness in her writing was palpable in her voice and her curt laughter at our laughter as the kids played at being horses. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.

Bruce met Gillian many years ago and recounted how she was shocked by gender inequality in writing back in 1984. Mears said that growing up in Grafton, a country town in the north of New South Wales, played a big part. Grafton was her ‘fields of praise’. It was always full of horses.

Foals Bread by Gillian MearsBruce showed us a photo in an old Meanjin in which Mears was standing on the back of a horse. The horse was Bellini, ‘the last mare’ of Mears’s life. It was Bellini that diagnosed her MS first. She knew something was wrong with her before anyone else. We often hear that such-and-such a book couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Well, Foal’s Bread could not have been written by anyone else by Gillian Mears.

In the novel, Roley is struck by lightning three times. Bruce wanted to know whether this was an evocation of bad luck. Mears said that many Clarence Valley horsemen had been struck more than once and lived to tell the tale. She thought she had to use this in her story. It’s so hard for us not to equate, as I think Bruce was alluding to, the injustice of Roley’s condition and Mears’s own. The conditions they have share much in common; so too the dreadful theft of the ability to ride horses.

Pascoe brought up her eye for details, offering an example from an earlier work The Mint Lawn, in which a boy shakes spit out of a trumpet. Again referring to Grafton, Mears recounted the lovely anecdote of the moment she went to send in the manuscript, which meant going to the undertaker’s (as that’s where the photocopier was!), and dealing standing behind a desk with a man all dressed up in white shirt and bow tie who was from the waist down wearing only his ‘jocks’ because it was so hot! These details sum up Grafton, she said.

Mears worries about the state of humanity’s influence on the natural world. Aboriginal wise men have said when we begin to control the wind, that is the end of the world. She felt this acutely recently when she read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He writes such heartbreaking endings, she said. But even in the grey ending there is a sense of hope, some chink of light that Mears herself seems to reach for. And of course, McCarthy wrote of horses so well too.

The sensitivity of Mears to indigenous people is clear. She told the story of some aboriginal boys at her school (where the principal wore white shoes and a purple suit!), who got into the roof of the girls’ toilet to take a peek. It was hijinks, said Mears, but the principal had boards nailed over the roof and the boys were trapped overnight. It wouldn’t have happened to white children, she said. There is still a level of ignorance in the wider community.

When asked about the Eastern spinebill bird, Mears spoke lovingly about being enchanted by the grey butcherbirds of the Clarence River Valley. The Sydney butcherbirds, by contrast, can’t quite get their song going… it sounds more like a clattering – it must be, she said, all those jumbo jets!

Of course, MS was never far from everyone’s thoughts today. Mears has searched high and low for a cure. She spoke of the freedom of paddocks that you could put a horse in to recover from a condition. She went in search of that paddock, both figuratively and literally. What she found were so many gates in the landscape. It took her a long time to find the large paddocks. She spoke of camping in the northern coast of NSW, out in these paddocks. After a time she would be ‘moved on’ by the locals. It gave her the mere but painful inkling of how Aboriginals must have felt to be ‘moved on’ from their land in years gone by.

Returning to Foal’s Bread, she said she was given a foal’s bread by her sister, which dried into the shape of a heart, like the one in her novel. She had been gathering fragments of story for years as her body began to crumble, finally summoning the supreme effort to pull all these fragments together to form the novel.

She recounted writing out in the wilds, at a mobile desk she would set up, how on one occasion she spotted a red-bellied black snake slithering along the ground nearby. It looked as though it was headed off, but when she looked down again it was beneath her chair. To much laughter, Bruce asked: How did the writing go? It was a challenge to stay still, she replied!

Aside from encounters with deadly snakes, writing outdoors wasn’t very practical. And yet, how she misses the wilderness. She spoke of how cold river water used to be an ‘elixir’ for her legs. She once had the unique experience of swimming in such a river, and being joined by a mother platypus and its young. The image is a soaring one, isn’t it? She admitted how she so misses that contact with the wild world, like that one, like grey thrush visits.

Bruce asked her about Noah’s baby and the butterbox, a harrowing event in Foals’ Bread’s opening. She said Noah had no choice, that the act of the butterbox was one of mercy in a way, more merciful at least than other options that would have achieved the same outcome. It was a ‘lamentation for her life’. Given Mears’s change of heart over euthanasia it’s hard not to sense Mears’s own life in those same hands.

I am glad I ran out of ink at the session’s end; the audience had gone to a place where words couldn’t hold our collective emotions together, and I suspect any words I’d have written would have run on the page. Our ovation was heartfelt and long-lasting. Mears was and is heroic. She has moved all of us with her words and stories; today she moved us because of who she is.

I’ll leave the last word to her. After paying tribute to her sisters toward the end of the session, she described herself as a sheoak. Like the tree, she is best after rain, she said, when reaching for the light.

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A House is Built by M Barnard EldershawIt’s apt that in the week of the Sydney Writers’ Festival I’m musing about A house is built, the story of the Hyde family’s rise to wealth in mid-1800s Sydney. Published in 1929, it was the first novel written by collaborators Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw under the pseudonym M. Barnard Eldershaw.

The authors met at Sydney University and together wrote five novels, three histories, a radio play, a collection of short stories and several collections of critical essays. Both were very active in the literary scene in the 30s and 40s, and were early feminists. They were instrumental in the development of a supporting structure for writers in Australia, through the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

The story commences in 1837, with the irrepressible ‘Quartermaster’ James Hyde arriving into Sydney, a port wryly described as ‘thick with pubs’. He is struck by ‘the finest harbour in the world’ and the sense of possibility. He says to a friend, ‘Any man with energy could get on.’ Two years later he returns with his life’s savings and a bellyful of vitality. He finds a spot to set up a wharf and store (a little around from the finger wharves where the writers’ festival is held).

He also brings with him his daughters Fanny and Maud, and drags his taciturn son William behind them. William is aghast at the prospect of living in this uncivilised town, and pines for his love Adela, who is still in England, being at that stage too young to come out and marry him. The Quartermaster has to convince William to stay, to see the opportunities beckoning in this prosperous New World.

William stays, applies the brake to the quartermaster’s schemes, and over time the two become successful business partners. As soon as she is old enough Adela is sent for. She arrives but finds herself in a passionless union, for William has changed in their time apart.

Their first son James, named after the quartermaster, is seen as the golden child, the heir to the family business. He is a Hyde, and in a way Adela feels as if her firstborn has been stolen from her. She never really loves him in the way she does her second, and weaker, son Lionel. The differences in treatment of James and Lionel are stark, and serve to create a difficult relationship between them. But it’s only in the story’s second half that the strained relationships in the family are maximised by the authors.

Having been made a fool of in her first encounter with love, Fanny lets her pride stifle all her relations. She is a capable woman who, having withdrawn from society, has no outlet for her talents. She longs to help the Quartermaster in the store but he refuses her on account of it not being the proper place for a woman. It would be a poor image for a respectable family in those prim and proper days. (Although true of the mid-1800s, some of the earliest entrepreneurs in New South Wales in the late eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries were in fact women.) The question of a woman’s role forms one of the threads of the narrative, and is a marker of Barnard Eldershaw’s collective feminist ethos.

The risk with family sagas is a lack of central driving action, and to some extent that’s the case here. The plot is episodic, flitting from one character to another, though always around the central fulcrum of the driven Quartermaster. There are parts of the story that worked better than others, that were more ‘involving’. I found some of the early sections of the novel uneven, at times ‘cold’, and wanted to give up more than once, but I’m glad I persevered. Although there’s a strong flavour of the development of Sydney during the mid-1800s in the first third, it wasn’t until the middle—and the chapter on the Gold Rush in particular—that the story came alive for me.

The Gold Rush passage is a standout. We see the influx of people into Sydney from abroad due to the hype, the exodus of everyone out to the goldfields of Bathurst and beyond, the fact few realised how hard the work was, and so on. Most importantly, we get to see the Quartermaster’s drive and business acumen at work.

The Rush provides other opportunities. With the shortage of skilled workers to fill positions in the store, Fanny grabs her chance and again offers her services to her father, who cannot refuse her. Once she learns the ropes she proves herself the equal of William. However, although she works there for seven years, she is eventually pushed back out. One feels her defeat as acutely as she does.

As a Sydney-sider I found the history of the development of Hunter’s Hill, where the Hyde family move once they have made their pile, interesting. The descriptions of the grand house named Firenze are wonderful, as are the pointed (and accurate) digs at those well-to-dos who compete with their neighbours through, in this case, more ornate and elaborate fountains for their gardens!

In their well-regarded Essays on Australian Fiction (1938) Barnard Eldershaw wrote critical essays on several contemporary authors, such as Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark and Henry Handel Richardson. I get the sense they must have admired Maurice Guest by HHR (see my review). When Lionel is being tutored at a neighbour’s house in Hunter’s Hill he hears Margaret, one of the daughters, playing piano in another room, and the descriptions of the music and the effect it has on Lionel are beautiful. Lionel is said to ‘read English poetry by the light of Beethoven, and history according to Bach’.

Lionel subsequently asks Adela if he might learn piano, which leads to this predictable and painfully funny response: “‘He’s not musical is he?’ asked the Quartermaster in alarm. ‘Or artistic, or anything like that?’” Oh dear! He’s a very different boy from his brother James.

The second half has a great number of compelling elements, including an almost Shakespearean entanglement between two lovers from rival households, treachery, and drama upon drama. As with most fictional stories that trace the building of wealth and success, there is a disaster looming, and the way it’s brought to the Hydes’ doorstep is ingenious.

A house is built is very much of its time. There’s a lot of ‘telling’ over ‘showing’ from our omniscient narrator. There are also moments where the narrator ‘breaks frame’. Modern readers might find these moments annoying. One such instance is where the narrator breaks out of describing part of Sydney’s ‘Domain’ as where the Art Gallery of New South Wales ‘now stands’.

One interesting historical aspect is seeing the words borrowed from other languages that were new to English at the time of writing. Grammatical practice dictates such words are italicised until they become widely accepted, after which they appear in roman typeface. I unfortunately didn’t keep track of the words, but they included dénouement, papier-mâché and bric-a-brac. Châtelaine is another, less well-known word (a woman who owns or controls a large house).

The unevenness kept me wondering how the two authors combined toAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge write it, who was writing which part. There are many reasons most novels are written by one person, but not many to recommend a combinatorial approach. (Still, we could look at the story as an achievement given there were two writers at work, and maybe the first half’s lack of drive was just two authors find a way to work together on their first novel.)

A house is built is imperfect, and not in the same league as Maurice Guest. That said, latter parts of it deserve the title of classic, and it is, I think, an important early Sydney work. And its authors deserve praise for their work in developing Australian literature.

I didn’t set out to write so much, but it seems A house is built demanded it. And another AWW2013 read. I wonder if it should count as two?! 🙂

A House is Built by M Barnard Eldershaw

1929

Lloyd O’Neil

359 pages

ISBN: 0855503289

Source: the local municipal library

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Mateship with Birds by Carrie TiffanyWinner of the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013, Carrie Tiffany’s tender and sensual Mateship with Birds is the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living. Set in Cohuna, rural Victoria, in the 1950s, the story focuses on the gentle-souled Harry, a dairy farmer with a love of birds (and a relish for sex), and Betty, his lonely and lovelorn neighbour, who has escaped the city with her two children, Little Hazel and Michael.

Harry comes over to help them about the house; and visits for Sunday ‘tea’, but feels awkward and leaves directly after because he’s unsure of what should happen next. He ‘knows everything about birds’, which given his unresolved desire for Betty, has a nice note of irony to it. Helping him about the dairy farm on occasion is Michael, who is coming into adolescence and beginning to wonder about girls.

Harry takes it upon himself to teach the lad all he knows about women. Like most men, and certainly most men in the ‘50s, Harry finds talking about such delicate matters difficult. So he writes a diary in verse about the family of kookaburras on his farm, and a much more explicit and direct treatise on sexual matters in a series of letters he gives to Michael—unbeknownst to Betty.

There is much to admire about Tiffany’s craft. I loved the emphasis the first line of dialogue places on the theme of the story. Tellingly, I think, we have to wait until page four for it. Harry is speaking to Betty about his motorbike, and says, ‘It’s a constant labour of love’. The wry Betty replies, ‘It’s just a constant labour, if you ask me.’ It points to the way Tiffany approaches the sexual tension between Harry and Betty: in layers. The lack of dialogue is a feature of the story. There’s a lot that remains unsaid here!

The fragmented narration lends the story another layer of tension. Interspersed within the ongoing developments are snippets of Harry’s verse and letters, Betty’s records of the children’s illnesses and mishaps (the final entry for Michael is “boys’ troubles”, Little Hazel’s bird report for school, as well as memories about past lives and loves. Harry recalls his failed marriage (his wife, rather ironically runs off with another bird watcher, indeed: none other than the President of the Birds Observers’ Club of Victoria!), as well as his own uncertain experiences with sex, including his first lesson: which came in the form of a lecture from a vicar.

It might be fragmented structurally, but each section plays its part and links with other parts. The result is a story dripping with sex, from Freudian dreams, to first experiences, fantasies, masturbation, the milking of cows (yes, it too is related to sex), and perversions (on a neighbouring farm). It’s even present in the birds Harry observes—he describes the skin beneath a particular bird’s feathers as ‘penile’. It’s ‘mateship’ in every sense of the word, and adds a lovely piquancy to the title, which is borrowed from Alec Chisholm’s 1922 naturalist book of the same name.

There is love, too, though. The way Harry tricks up Little Hazel’s sleeping quarters with kapok to make it look like fake snow is touching, as is the way he guides Michael. He cares for them, and they for him, making him lovely presents. Underlining things are several references to wedding dresses.

Harry is a very keen observer of birds; his kookaburras study is very poetic:

A high branch is chosen for hunting.

The kookaburra sits,

watching the ground,

waiting for something to move across its eye.

Then it drops through all that air;

silent, lead-beaked,

like an anchor through seawater.

Tiffany, an agricultural journalist ‘by trade’ (we all know she’s really an author), writes with an authenticity about dairy farming that rivals the way Gillian Mears writes about horses, and even gives Melville a run for his whaling. The same can be said for the way she writes about the human body—it’s laced with visceral immediacy and honesty. The characters’ bodies, particularly Harry and Betty’s, are real. This gives the underlying desire a potent physicality. So when Betty ‘thinks’ the following we feel the thoughts permeating her every fibre: ‘What if she stood up now and just started walking? What if she walked across the paddock and climbed through the fence and walked right up to his door?’

Of course, this being a love story, soon thereafter a spanner is thrown in the works, with Betty finding the explicit letters Harry is writing for Michael’s sex ed. She is none too pleased with them.

Mateship with Birds is a fine exploration of sexual desire within the Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeframework of the natural world. It’s a perfect length, and a worthy winner of the Stella Prize. As a mark of Tiffany the person, she split off a chunk of her Stella winnings and divided it with the other nominees. Kudos to her; it’s a lovely touch.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of judges for the Stella, has thoughtfully summarised the winner here.

Lisa @ ANZ Litlovers liked it too.

Another AWW2013 read. What a wonderful year of reading I’m having!

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

2012

Picador

208 pages

ISBN: 9781742610764

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

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The Spare Room by Helen GarnerThe Spare Room is a slim volume with a weighty theme. Our first person narrator Helen lives in Melbourne, and the very ill Nicola has flown down from Sydney for a three week stay to undergo alternative cancer treatment at the dubious Theodore Clinic. Helen prepares the spare room for Nicola, knowing she has cancer but not expecting the whirlwind that is about to come blowing through her house and life.

Nicola has stage-four bowel cancer but is in denial, placing faith in positive intentions to overcome the Big C. She believes the Theodore’s shonky vitamin C, cupping and sauna treatments (and coffee enemas) will have the illness on the run within weeks. (As a measure of how left-field vitamin C is as a treatment, I thought they were at first using it as a euphemism for Chemo, as in Vitamin Chemo.)

Helen is the pragmatist, the one who sees through all the ‘bullshit’. She wants to tell Nicola to face facts but she feels uncomfortable stealing the last vestiges of hope from her, to be the one who tells her she is going to die.

Nicola won’t take proper pain medication, something that puts Helen under a lot of strain, feeling that to try to deny death ‘drives madness into the soul’, a fact that is borne out by the way she and Nicola’s other friends take on Nicola’s anger, as if she gives it off like ‘static electricity’. With the countless nightly bedding changes because of Nicola’s night-sweats, the cooking, cleaning, shopping and escorting, as well as the anger at the mountebank Professor Theodore, it’s no wonder Helen becomes increasingly frustrated.

The whole story is moving, but the heart-rending confrontation when it comes is particularly so. In between there are moments of warmth and levity, with the company of grandchildren enjoyed and jokes shared (including a hilarious debate about the quality of coffee used for those enemas – organic or instant?!)

Part of Garner’s appeal is her sparse prose, which gives the story addedAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge authority. Garner draws on her experience of caring for friend Jenya Osbourne when Osbourne was dying, a fact that shows through on every page. The Spare Room reads more like memoir than fiction. Whatever the label we might put on it, though, it has an authenticity that speaks to all of us.

It’s Garner at her best, but then, when is she not?

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

2008

Text

195 pages

ISBN: 9781921520280

Source: the local municipal library

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The Great Fire by Shirley HazzardSet in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the whole world was in a state of flux, and opening up like a flower from the heart of Asia to encompass England, Italy, Germany and New Zealand, The Great Fire is a sublimely crafted work of fiction. The story centres around honourable British war-hero Aldred Leith, thirty-three years old, who, after walking across China arrives in Japan to continue his study of ‘the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society’.

Pitching up in Kure, near Hiroshima, Aldred meets the two erudite and very close Australian teen siblings, Benedict (Ben) and Helen, offspring of the hideous Brigadier Driscoll and his inane wife. Poor Ben is dying of a debilitating and incurable illness. Helen is sixteen years Aldred’s junior but, despite his misgivings about the age gap, a love develops between them…

Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, [Aldred] had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with [Helen].

Needless to say the Brigadier and Mrs Driscoll are not impressed. It is a forbidden love, one that will be tested in a great fire of its own before Helen and Aldred know whether it has turned to ash or steel.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Peter Exley, another learned Australian and good friend of Aldred, is interviewing survivors of war camps as part of his investigation into war crimes. Aldred saved Exley’s life in the war and feels, as per a Chinese proverb, somewhat responsible for him. He visits Exley in HK for a time. We learn about Exley’s backstory and circumstances in much detail, a point to which I’ll return later. Aldred tells Exley about Helen. Exley approves.

From there the inevitable separations occur. Exley promises to follow Aldred back to Japan at some point, partly in order to meet Helen, but is laid low by illness. Then in an act of cruelty that is heart-rending for us readers, the Driscolls send Ben off to the US alone for treatment. They then take Helen to New Zealand while Aldred is called back to the UK after the death of his distant author father. They are at the opposite ends of the world.

The writing is, in a word, glorious. Told in what has become an unfashionable omniscient narrator, the prose has a timeless quality to it, heightened perhaps by the lack of urgency until the final third or so. The reader is invited into a world of shifting colonial sands, experiences the lives of people exiting a terrible epoch and entering a new, uncertain one, all of them fearing another world war.

How often we question longlists and shortlists of literary prizes, and even their winners. Not this time. Judges on both sides of the Pacific fell for The Great Fire. It won the 2003 National Book Award in the USA and the 2004 Miles Franklin Award in Australia. The prose is lucid and exacting. There are so many wonderful images, descriptions and wordplays it feels wrong to highlight any. (The word dilettante is used, which alone must be worth the Miles Franklin!)

Still, I’ll give you a flavour, a sentence or two picked (almost) at random. A humble old mirror, whose quicksilver had been ‘got at’ by damp, is described as being ‘like the draped pelt of some desiccated leopard.’ A perfect image.

Characters descriptions receive the same care. A girl is described as having a ‘jostle’ of teeth. Right down to each word choice, Hazzard hits the right note.

How about the word play in this sentence describing part of Hong Kong harbour:

The … junks with tan sails boned like fans and the tan-coloured bony man at the stern working the yuloh;

And there is Aldred’s arrival in Kure, where he is picked up from the train in a jeep. As he travels along:

You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands.

The style could be called ‘lyrical simplicity’, which might sound paradoxical, but I’m sticking with it. This last quote is part of the first chapter, which in many ways is a microcosm of the book. It opens with Aldred leaving the ‘charred suburbs’ of Tokyo on a train for Kure, contemplating a picture of his distant father on the back of one of his novels. Here we have the sense of travelling that is so much a part of the story to come, a rickety journey away from the horrors of war toward something brighter.

In Kure he seeks out a westerner called Ginger, who is suffering from radiation sickness after ‘being through the fire’ of Hiroshima. Aldred wants to ask him about the war and its aftermath, and although Ginger does tell him a little about the Driscoll’s compound where Aldred will be staying while in Kure, the two of them end up in intimate discussion about past loves. Even in the throes of Ginger’s death, which ends the chapter, the business of war is put to one side because of this more vital thing—love.

There is, though, this sinister layering of death following Aldred wherever he goes, forming a dark backdrop to the love that grows between him and Helen. We are always wondering which of these forces will win out: love or death? The lingering doubt builds through the final third of the story. The tension in the constant tilting of the impending fates is masterfully managed.  I’m not giving anything away by saying the ending is utterly fabulous.

If there are faults with the novel they lie with Peter Exley, who is given perhaps too much attention for a secondary character. For a time it felt as though the story might be about both Aldred and Peter, but it then really zeroes in on Aldred and Helen’s relationship and the question of whether they will get together. As such, the time spent in Peter’s point of view in Hong Kong when Aldred isn’t there is a strange indulgence, forgivable only because the writing is so damned good.

After reading Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson, a story Australian Women Writers 2013 badgebased on HHR’s own studying at the Leipzig Conservatorium, here we have another novel that uses the author’s experience as fuel for the fire: Helen’s life parallels that of the younger Hazzard, who grew up in Sydney, moved with her diplomatic parents to Hiroshima in 1947, then Hong Kong and New Zealand. She later spent a year in Italy and now resides between New York and Capri. (Having been to Capri, I can’t say I blame her!) It’s no wonder The Great Fire, years in the making, embraces so many territories. And not just the geographical and geopolitical, but the most complex terrain of all: the human heart.

A modern classic.

(And another Australian Women’s Writers book! It’s been all Australian women authors for me so far this year. Can I keep it going till the end of the year?)

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

2003

Virago

314 pages

ISBN: 1884081397

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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