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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 Light Between Oceans by ML StedmanAn engrossing story of the choices people make when presented with (several) moral dilemmas, The Light Between Oceans will have you turning the pages well into the wee-small hours. It’s set mainly in the 1920s in both the wild and remote island known as Janus Rock off the south-west tip of Australia, with its steady lighthouse, as well as the coastal town of Point Partaguese, which provides a life-line to the occupants of the lighthouse once every three months. Talk about remote!

Tom, a WWI hero, with the medals to prove it, looks for a quiet life after the war. There were not too many men who had survived the war intact; Tom is one of the lucky ones. After serving on less-remote lighthouses along the country’s east coast, he applies for the job of keeper of Janus Rock. The name Janus, being the Roman God of transitions and beginnings, who is traditionally pictured with two faces, is perfect for the place which looks over two oceans, and for the dichotomy created between the rivals for a little girl’s parentage and love. (I wish I could include here John Olsen’s self-portrait in the guise of Janus that won the Archibald Prize here in Sydney a few years back!)

On his arrival in Point Partaguese Tom meets the direct and feisty Isabel, some years his junior, and although they spend months apart as Tom takes up his duties offshore, they begin to court or ‘walk out together’ as they did in those days. When Isabel tries to ‘make sense’ of Tom and they discuss what they want from life, she says ‘I wish for – don’t laugh – I wish for a good husband and a house full of kids. … I can’t imagine not having children one day, can you?’

Soon Isabel joins Tom on Janus as his wife. At the junction of the Indian and Southern Oceans, it’s a wild place, where storm winds blow the chooks off into the ocean. Tom is an honourable man who has difficulty understanding why he survived the war when so many others didn’t. Not being able to talk about the horrors of war places a distance between them that the upfront Isabel finds difficult to cope with. She then endures three miscarriages, frightening experiences for any woman, and more so in those days and so far from medical assistance and the comfort of family and friends.

Soon after the third loss, a boat washes up on one of the beaches of Janus. In it is a dead man and a crying baby. Tom wants to report it straight away. Isabel, convincing herself that it is clear the mother must be dead, and the baby is a gift from God, suggests to Tom they keep the baby and claim it as theirs (they still haven’t told the world of the recent miscarriage). Cue moral dilemma number one!

Their decision to keep the child they name Lucy (meaning ‘light’), and the resulting actions, set off a chain of events whose consequences they cannot foresee. Herein lies the perfection of the book’s title, for the light between oceans is not just the Janus lighthouse, it’s Lucy, the bub who finds herself in between oceans of love that push and pull at her like the Indian and the Southern Oceans do at Janus. Later Tom and Isabel find out Lucy’s mother is alive. What to do?

Stedman weaves this tale of moral choices together with aplomb. It is the perfect fodder for a book club to test everyone’s reactions to Tom and Isabel’s decisions as well as those of the wider community as the novel opens up to include characters from Point Partaguese.

The reactions to the Great War, from both Tom’s eyes and those parents on the mainland who have lost—in many cases multiple—sons, are rendered with a sensitive touch. The reason for why the boat with the dead man and baby are out to sea is harrowing, one of those small-town secrets that get wiped under the carpet so that everyone can forget.

The descriptions of Janus are wonderful, especially the light itself. When Tom is ‘introduced’ to it, he calls it a beauty as he takes ‘in the giant lens, far taller than himself, atop the rotating pedestal: a palace of prisms like a beehive made from glass.’

And this when Tom enjoys the view from atop the light for the first time:

Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerised by the drop to the ocean below. The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat.

Lovely.

The Light Between Oceans is a compelling debut about the limits of Australian Women Writers 2013 badgelove and parenthood— and forgiveness too.  No wonder it made The New York Times bestseller list. The film rights have been snapped up by Dreamworks. And it has been shortlisted for the Best Debut Fiction Award in the 2013 Australian Independent Bookseller Awards.

This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.  That makes it four already—I might have to upgrade my target!

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

2012

Vintage

362 pages

ISBN: 9781742755717

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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The Commandant by Jessica AndersonThere are many things to love about The Commandant by Jessica Anderson. Published in 1975 it echoes the themes in Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally (see my review here), in particular the harsh treatment of convicts at the hands of the elite. It also has the same tragic story elements, the Oh-no moments that have us shaking our heads, hoping it’s not to be, and turning the pages.

There are differences, though. Whereas Keneally’s modernism hints of Patrick White, Anderson has the flavour of Jane Austen, particularly in the scenes involving the female characters. There are key Austen elements: the planning of good matches with the available men; human comedy; and similar character traits, such as ‘absurdity’, naivety, independent thought(!), and coming-of-age with views set against the status-quo.

But Anderson’s quiet lyricism sets her apart from Austen. Her description of the Moreton Bay landscape is fantastic:

… a few clumps of tall trees, their rough bark the colour of iron, and their foliage a dun green, stood with the junction of trunk and root shrouded by tall pale grass; … It was as if everything here inclined not to the sun’s bright spectrum, but to those of the mineral earth and the ghostly daytime moon.

The opening chapter sees Frances O’Beirne, the sister of the Commandant Patrick Logan’s wife Letty, travelling the last leg of a voyage up from Sydney to the settlement of Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to join them. There are some delightful exchanges between her and the somewhat precious (and ridiculous) Amelia Bulwer, and the witty Louisa Harbin. Travelling with them is the drunkard doctor (and wit) Henry Cowper, and Captain Clunie, whose presence provokes nervousness and rumour.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the use of dialogue to start a scene. It’s something that modern ‘how to write fiction’ books frown upon. Better to ground the reader in the scene they say. Anderson uses it repeatedly, including the start of the novel itself, and it’s a refreshing change, getting us right into the scene from the off. On the first page Amelia is dressing up the settlement to Frances. She also establishes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ nature of the story, the elite and the convicts, commenting that ‘not a one’ of ‘us’ has died since the settlement’s establishment, and ‘only one soldier’. There is no mention here of how many convicts have perished.

Amelia explains the lack of clergy at the new settlement by saying: ‘We were sent a chaplain, but he and the commandant — We all have our failings, and our good commandant is sometimes short of temper.’ Even now we begin to form a picture of what this ‘good’ commandant must be like.

We also form a picture of the seventeen-year old Frances, who is described as ‘not stupid, but … often absurd.’  She laments the way she often acts foolishly, saying ‘I am made up of hundreds of persons, and I never know which one will come out.’ A supporter of reform of the system of harsh treatment, while in Sydney she became associated with the daughters of Smith Hall, the outspoken editor of an early newspaper. He is demanding trial by jury and sentences that do not exceed the law. And he has written a story on Logan’s methods of punishment, claiming he has killed a convict by flogging. Logan himself can’t see the trouble looming, although the arrival of another captain in the form of Clunie raises his hackles.

The convicts are held at arms’ length. Frances’s first view of them reveals much:

It was their great number, perhaps, or the clumsiness of their unfettered movements that made them appear sub-human, like animals adapted to mens’ work or goblins from under the hill.

When she sees an attack of one on another she says ‘It is said they kill because they wish to hang.’

One of the benefits of hiding the violence against convicts is that for much of the book we are left wondering just how bad it is. Are the rumours of mal-treatment that have given rise to the reportage in the Sydney press accurate? Is Logan the monster the convicts claim him to be? Perhaps we should listen to Logan’s six-year old son Robert, who tells us that the scourger (flogger) ‘Gilligan lays it on! … Swoosh!’

Viewing things from the commandant’s point of view, as well as the women’s, enables Anderson to strike an unsettling note of sympathy for Logan. We then learn the truth. Toward the end, one convict says there was a worse man on the notorious Norfolk Island penal settlement, but none of the other lags can force themselves to agree with him.

Like Phelim O’Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes, Frances’s innocence will get her into strife. Her actions have unintended consequences that leave us and her horrified after Logan shows his true self. The way she discovers this is heartbreaking. What is also moving is the way Letty’s unstinting support of her husband begins to falter through the months after Frances’s arrival. She begins to see that he is more ‘hunting dog’ than ‘shining knight’.

The convicts are tempted to steal off into the bush. Some are injured by Aborigines and return, while others join up with them. There is speculation over whether the Aborigines are violent toward the settlers of their own accord, or whether they are incited by the escapees. Either way, they are resistant toward the whites in a way that other colonial-era novels, notably Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill, do not depict. The way Anderson has her characters lay at the blame at the Aborigines’ feet for the climactic scenes of the book rather than at the convicts who incite them, in order to protect the good name of the discredited commandant, is masterful. It shows the lengths people will go to in order to edit out the lines of history they would prefer others not read.

Anderson’s characterisation is faultless throughout, from the ‘first-class’ convict servants, to the fewAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge convicts we do meet, particularly the hard man Lazarus. The understated handling of rumours surrounding Logan’s debts is pitch-perfect. Every character has their faults. The wives of the soldiers are rendered with a touch that Austen would be proud of, and Henry Cowper’s struggle with the demon drink and his religious father’s good name is memorable. His fantasy letter to his clergyman father that sets out his ‘spiritual progress’ is hilarious. In it he recounts a Sunday service he gave just after the previous scourger’s drowning. It was, he writes, the only service he has given before an enthusiastic congregation. The convicts sang their hearts out, forcing the silent and red-faced commandant to storm out of the chapel!

It’s difficult to understand why this classic Australian novel was out of print until Text Publishing got it back in the hands of readers with a beautiful cover from WH Chong. It’s accompanied by a good introduction by Carmen Callil (although it, oh-dear, mistakenly refers to Frances as ‘Francis’). No matter, The Commandant itself is wonderful. Callil believes it to be Anderson’s masterpiece. I’m not about to disagree with that.

This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.

The Commandant by Jessica Anderson

1975

Text Classics

457 pages

ISBN: 9781921922138

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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All That I Am by Anna FunderWinner of the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, All that I Am is a perfect read for the holidays. It is a beautifully written and, for the most part, compelling story based on a real group of leftist and mainly Jewish German dissidents who, from both within Germany and then, later, from exile in the UK in the lead-up to WWII, fought to bring to the attention of the world the rise of tyranny under Hitler.

Told from two points-of-view (POV), it proves the old adage that survivors write history. Ruth Becker, based on Ruth Blatt, a real person who Funder knew, is a survivor. An elderly woman living in Bondi, Sydney in the ‘present day’ of 2002, she’s struggling with what appears to be Alzheimer’s. Recent memories are fading while old memories are coming to the surface. Alloyed to her physical condition is the arrival of an annotated autobiographical manuscript of Ernst Toller’s I was a German.

It is the empty-hearted yet ‘wunderkind’ playwright Toller, a WWI veteran and conscience of the German people, who provides the second POV. He is similarly looking back on past events, more out of a sense of regret at his actions, from New York in 1939. He is re-drafting I was a German, this time including the woman he loved and used to work for him, Ruth’s cousin Dora Fabian, who did so much to save Toller’s work after the Nazis rose to power. He wants ‘to see whether, at this late stage of the game, honesty is possible for me.’ At the end of his first chapter he thinks: ‘I will tell it all. I will bring Dora back, and I will make her live in this room.’

It’s a struggle for Toller. Though he had relationships with other women, he feels only half a man without Dora. In a wonderful image, he compares their love to ‘a carpenter’s spirit level, each of us holding an end up so hard, fighting to keep that trembling bubble alive.’

Dora is the fulcrum around which the other characters pivot. A strategic thinker with a sharp intellect, she’s a no-nonsense woman of incredible bravery. Some readers have suggested her character is almost too idealised. Well, pressure changes people; like a furnace, it burns some, melts some and forges others. And there is no greater pressure than that faced in an unseen war, when freedom is at stake. Dora is forged into a steely operative. Others wilt.

More naïve than Dora, Ruth is married to Hans, a crack reporter who writes scathing satirical articles about Hitler in the German press before the Nazis start to claim the freedoms that we all hold so dear. After a short prologue that sets-up the stakes of the story—retelling the events of the day Hitler is confirmed as the new Chancellor—we find Ruth visiting her doctor in Bondi Junction in 2002. Presented with the possibility of her condition eventually taking her sight, she thinks:

I had very good eyes once. Though it’s another thing to say what I saw. In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.

This is a lovely double foreshadowing of what’s to come. Dora and the group do see what’s happening with Hitler, whereas the rest of the world, at least on the surface, doesn’t sense what’s to come. But there is a more personal failing that Ruth’s referring to, a betrayal of their group by one of its members that she didn’t see coming, even when Dora began to voice her suspicions.

We see the ‘emergency’ of the Reichstag fire, arranged by the Nazis, which enabled Hitler to claim totalitarian powers. In its wake is the persecution that ‘sent fifty-five thousand Germans into exile – some two thousand writers and artists among them.’ This exodus predates ‘the mass of Jews [that] came later’, those lucky ones who got out before the extermination camps began to take their heavy toll. Ruth and Hans, Dora and Toller, as well as others are among those who get out, but they leave behind others, including family and friends.

The stakes are gradually raised. Dora continues to receive accurate information from German contacts on the accumulation of arms, components for fighter planes and proof that Hitler is circumventing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which restricts the number of men the German army is allowed. Hitler makes the exiles stateless and poor by decree then begins to send hit-squads after them. There is a cracking scene in which two Nazi operatives come into Dora and Ruth’s flat posing as Scotland Yard detectives replete with a warrant to search their home. Their presentation, accents and documentation make Ruth believe their story. Dora sees through them, asking to see the search warrant, and she sees the one clue that gives them away, something that a true Brit would not have written. It’s spellbinding stuff.

Toller is friends with the renowned poet WH Auden. There is a lovely scene between them in Toller’s New York hotel room. Toller is a bound to bouts of severe depression. He says to Auden: ‘It’s a strange pathology, don’t you think, … to want to be something other than what you are?’ Auden replies, ‘It’s the same old thing, isn’t it? … All that we are not stares back at all that we are.’

This sense of identity underpins everyone’s actions. Forced into exile in London, they find themselves in a different landscape altogether: that of the refugee whose visas are predicated on the provision that they do not continue their political activities, the very thing that defines them, the very thing that is increasingly necessary as Hitler builds his armed forces for the war that will come.

They now have two overt enemies: first, the growing reach of the gestapo, unafraid to execute resistance members wherever they may be; and second, Scotland Yard as representatives of the British who in the early 1930s are unwilling to rock the boat with ‘Mr’ Hitler. Moreover, there is a covert enemy that begins to germinate: the one that lies within, the one that personifies Auden’s battle between what a person is not and what they are.

In this sense All that I Am is more than a story of the courage, allegiances and betrayals that espionage entails. It’s a story of how love blinds; and a story of loss, of trying to rediscover that part of you that makes you all that you are when external events and then time threaten to lever truths from your grasp. It’s a powerful story with much wisdom that works on many levels, from the slow-burn psychological thriller to the investigation of the human condition in the most pressurised circumstances.

Questions have been raised about whether the story would work better as non-fiction. Most characters were real people, while others were based on real people. I haven’t read Funder’s acclaimed Stasiland, a work of non-fiction that explores similar themes of the individual versus tyrannical power, which received praise for its narrative inventiveness. Some of those who heaped this kind of praise now complain about a work of fiction not being creative enough! Having not read Stasiland, I was free to approach All that I Am on its own terms. To me, it’s a superb re-imagining of past events that speaks to peoples of all persuasions, nationalities and times. I can’t say whether it would have worked better as non-fiction, but it certainly works as fiction.

Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeThe more interesting issue to my mind is it winning the Miles Franklin Award. The judges have taken an expansive view of the prize’s requirement that the winner ‘present Australian life in any of its phases’, that pesky clause that has seen past works with loose connections to Australia ruled out of contention. Ruth narrates from the prism of modern Bondi, and so it deals with a phase of Australian life. But it does so in a limited manner; the overwhelming majority of the story occurs in Europe. I don’t have a problem with the expansionist stance, though I wonder whether the judges were under pressure to be more inclusive. It beat some strong competition, that’s for sure, with the judges split between Funder and Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light. For once, the woman won!

My only qualms come with some minor pacing issues in the middle, and the final chapter. I won’t spoil things for those of you yet to read it, and it is a minor thing quickly forgotten, but there is a POV switch there that is very awkward and could have been avoided.

Otherwise, All that I Am is enthralling.

This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

All that I Am by Anna Funder

2011

Penguin

363 pages

ISBN: 9780143567516

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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