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The Bone Clocks by David MitchellSoon there will be a game called David Mitchell Bingo. Kaleidoscopic narrative with multiple interlinked stories? Check. Characters from previous novels? Check. Wit? Check. Metafictional jokes? Check. Invention? Check. Genre leaps? Check. Future dystopia chapter? Check. Intricate plotting? Check. Entertainment? Check. Our interconnectedness? Check, check, check!

Although of a slightly different ‘flavour’, The Bone Clocks is structurally of the same mould as Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It has six interlinked stories following the life of Holly Sykes, told in first person present tense by five different narrators, two by Holly herself and four by other people in her life. Each chapter is set in a different time period and setting. There’s Holly as a rebellious teen in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984; the deceitful Hugo Lamb in Cambridge University in 1991, who meets Holly in a Swiss ski village; the war-addicted reporter Ed Brubeck in 2004, childhood friend of Holly and now her husband and father to Aoife; the utterly delicious Crispin Hersey, a once successful author intent on taking revenge against his harshest critic in 2015; the Horologist Marinus in 2025 New York City, who in a previous incarnation treated Holly as a girl and now asks her for help; and finally Holly Sykes, living in the post-apocalyptic ‘Endarkenment’ in 2043 on the west coast of Ireland.

Threaded throughout is an underlying Science Fiction or Speculative Fantasy plot about a war between the immortal ‘Atemporals’, on one side the (good) ‘Horologists’, on the other: the (evil) ‘Anchorites’.  ‘Bone clocks’ is a term given to mere mortals like Holly by the Anchorites. The Horologists are pure immortals, either ‘sojourners’  or ‘returnees’, working to the ‘Script’; while the Anchorites are soul vampires, prolonging their lives by decanting the souls of children, which becomes the Dark Wine they drink every three months in the Chapel of the Dusk to stave off ageing. The Atemporals have all sorts of powers, including telepathy (‘subspeak’); ingressing into, and egressing out of, people’s bodies; freezing people through ‘hiatus’; redacting memories. The Anchorites can also summon the ‘Aperture’, a portal device. The Horologists failed in their ‘First Mission’, an attempt to destroy the Chapel of the Dusk and the Anchorites, and are preparing a second attack.

Still with me? There’s no doubting Mitchell’s storytelling ability. His narratives rollick along with three dimensional characters and intricate plotting. It’s all very entertaining. The bad boy of British letters, Crispin Hersey, with his cynical takedowns of other writers and critics at literary festivals, is an absolute scream. Living off the early success of Desiccated Embryos (Dead Babies by Martin Amis?!), he doesn’t mind referring to himself in the third person. His new novel, Echo Must Die, is ripped apart by critic Richard Cheeseman, who was once a friend in their Cambridge days. Cheeseman could be commenting on The Bone Clocks when he writes: ‘The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look’, and, ‘What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ Crispin (and Mitchell?) counters with, ‘in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre.’ These playful metafictional jokes are great fun.

There are interesting Australian influences in this location-hopping novel (the only continent we don’t go to is Antarctica). Crispin meets up with Kenny Bloke, a Noongar poet, loosely based, I suspect, on Kim Scott (whom Mitchell mentions in an interview section at the rear of the book, and whom Mitchell met at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2011). Crispin is trying to win the Brittan Prize, which sounds suspiciously like the Booker Prize because it has just been opened up to American authors. In The Bone Clocks, Nick Greek, a US author, wins! And Kenny Bloke thinks it was very well deserved. (I can’t decide whether ‘Kenny Bloke’ is a hilarious name for an Aussie author, or lazily demeaning!)

Crispin and Holly appear at the Hay Literary Festival, then run into each other at the Perth Writers’ Festival, and then again on Rottnest Island. Holly, whose spiritual memoir The Radio People became a bestseller, is able to tune into voices. And there are many voices on Rottnest Island. She tunes into the Noongar Aboriginal people, and I wondered what Kim Scott made of Mitchell writing as a Noongar ancestor being as Holly narrates:

Wadjemup, they called this island. Means the Place Across the Water. … For the Noongar, the land couldn’t be owned. No more than the seasons could be owned, or a year. What the land gave, you shared. … Whitefella ship us to Wadjemup. Chains. Cells. Coldbox. Hotbox. Years. Whips. Work. Worst thing is this: our souls can’t cross the sea. So when the prison boat takes us from Fremantle, our soul’s torn from our body. Sick joke. So when come to Wadjemup, we Noongar we die like flies. 

Not so for the immortal Anchorites, who recruit potential newcomers with this sales pitch:

What is born must one day die. So says the contract of your life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be … rewritten.

Death and immortality is one of the key themes of The Bone Clocks. It is interesting that the oldest Horologist, now known as Esther Little, otherwise known as Moombaki, is a Noongar woman, who has lived for thousands of years. And the Horologists don’t go across the ‘Last Sea’ where the souls of dead bone clocks end up. It’s a nice echo of the Noongars’ Wadjemup history, and shows Mitchell is a thoughtful writer and plotter.

An adjunct of the mortality theme is a predacious theme, with both Anchorites and mortals eating future generations. The final story is set in the post-apocalyptic future, the so-called ‘Endarkenment’. There are electricity, food and medical shortages, ration boxes, security cordons, and the Chinese Pearl Occident Company (POC) rules everything it seems. (There have also been pandemics of ebola, a disturbingly prescient element given current events in West Africa.) When the POC removes support for the Irish ‘Lease Lands’, the jackdaws take over, with lawless chaos and an every-person-for-themselves mentality. The young look at the older generations, like Holly’s, as future eaters. It’s a bleak and terrifying future vision.

With Mitchell you’re often left feeling you’re reading several novels in one. That’s certainly true of The Bone Clocks. There are passages that add details that don’t seem necessary, in which you wonder whether he is paying attention to a minor character because he wants to use that character in a future story. More troubling, though, is the lingering question of what it all means.

After some thought, I’ve decided there is a serious point here, that of immortality gained through predation, of the rich and privileged eating the future. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks immensely, and I admire Mitchell’s writing. His legion of fans will love it. Fans of Murakami and China Mieville will love it, too.

But there are some cracks in the edifice. Mitchell burst on the literary scene with Ghostwritten, perhaps still his best, and certainly most cohesive, work.  It introduced us to his great unifying theme: interconnectedness. He talks of writing one giant ‘uber’ novel, and it’s great fun identifying the characters who have appeared in previous novels (characters from Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet appear here). The question is, if all his novels are based on this idea, will they all begin to sound alike? (I’m not hugely surprised The Bone Clocks did not make the Booker shortlist.)

Nevertheless, when the next Mitchell novel comes out, I’ll do what I did this time: run to the book store and rub my hands with glee at the expectation of the reading experience to come. I know it will be entertaining. And I’ll find out whether my David Mitchell Bingo idea has any legs or whether he surprises with something new.

There are plenty of Mitchell believers out there. Ursula Le Guin praised The Bone Clocks at the Guardian here.

Carolyn Kellogg loved it at the LA Times here.

James Wood offers a more circumspect assessment at the New Yorker here:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

2014

Sceptre

595 pages

ISBN: 9780340921616

Source: purchased

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Journey to the Stone Country by Alex MillerWhy did I wait so long to get to Alex Miller’s beautiful, Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Journey to the Stone Country? Set in the famed ‘stone country’ of the interior of far north Queensland, Miller explores themes of possession, preservation, ancestral sins, redemption, love across racial boundaries, as well as Indigenous politics and reconciliation. He does this with the tender lyricism, earthy characters and delicate plotting that are the hallmarks of his stone country works. Journey possesses a sort of mystic gravitas that is hard to pin down, but is bound up in the rugged landscape and its Jangga people. It is a landscape not for the faint-hearted, and yet entering into it with Miller as your guide you feel completely safe, free to become as spellbound to its powers as its protagonists are.

Annabelle Beck, a university lecturer in Melbourne, is the grand-daughter of cattle station owners in far north Queensland. She returns home one day to find her husband Steven, also a university lecturer, has run off with one of his attractive honours students. She retreats to Townsville where she meets Bo Rennie while doing some work for her friend Sue in the area of Aboriginal cultural assessment.

The laconic, wise, chain-smoking Bo is the grandson of Grandma Rennie, a Murri Aboriginal woman who married Iain Rennie, a white stockman, even when such a marriage was outlawed by the ludicrously named ‘Protection Act’. Bo reminds ‘Annabellebeck’ they have met before—they used to swim naked as little kids in one of the old inland waterholes. He says to her he always thought she’d come back. She is intrigued by Bo and this cryptic message. Is he saying to her he has waited for her to come back? One of the delights of the novel’s progression is the way Annabelle has to throw off the part of herself that was raised and schooled to inquire into the reasons for everything.

Together they begin a journey that takes them through landscapes of their families’ joint pasts. They navigate the fractious relationships in modern Aboriginal politics and come to learn of past brutalities that threaten their growing bond. Bo seeks to recover Verbena Station, the land Grandma Rennie inherited when Iain died, which she was swindled out of by a white relation.

Grandma Rennie was ‘one of the last to give birth to up there in that stone country’. Bo educates Annabelle about this tough scrub country, which he and Dougald Gnapun used to muster cattle through as ‘boys’. Bo describes how Grandma took him and some other children into the stone country of the Old People when he was a boy:

And when Grandma seen that we was ready she rose from the fire and led us out of the silverleafed wattle into a great wide clearing. I’ll never forget it. And there was the labyrinth of stones lying there on the bare ground, polished by the wind and gleaming in the moonlight like rows of skulls laid out in a secret pattern. And we knew we was looking on our old people. We never spoke but stood and gazed on them ancient circles and paths and patterns on the ground and we seen it was the playground of life and death and we knew them old people was little children just like we was and they had gone on before us and left us their dreams and their sweet lives. Grandma never needed to say nothing to us about having something to live for. We seen it ourselves.

In one of their first joint work efforts, assessing country that a company wants to mine for coal, Annabelle finds a ‘cylcon’, a ‘cylindro-conical stone artefact of unknown purpose’, which she takes with her, but when she shows it to Dougald he almost recoils from it; he doesn’t know its original purpose or whether he should even be looking at it. Annabelle’s faux-pas stings her, makes her reassess her sense of the need to preserve artefacts. Indeed, one of many wonderful things in Journey is the way Annabelle realises there are some things in Indigenous culture she should not know.

When Bo invites her to go with him to the Stone Country of the Old People, she is wary. I love the way Miller handles this, both Bo’s invite, the way it meant he was offering her everything without declaring it overtly; the way she receives it with a ‘yes’ that sounded like a no. The subtlety is lovely.

Bo and Annabelle are shadowed by one of the most interesting secondary characters I’ve come across: Arner, Douglad’s son, who is almost Buddha-like, contemplative, someone with ‘the gift’ of being able to talk to the ‘Old People’. And yet he and his sister Trace often stay inside his ute, playing modern dance music with throbbing base at high volume, as if they don’t want any part of the landscape that is theirs by rights. He provides a wonderful counterpoint to Annabelle’s yearning for connection. (Trace provides a lovely counterpoint of her own as she finds an interesting and unexpected love match on their journey.)

I recall Kim Scott’s masterful Miles Franklin-winning novel That Deadman Dance (my review here) being described as a ‘post-reconciliation’ work, one that showed the terrible things of the past while offering an olive branch, a way forward. Of Noongar descent, Scott writes from a place of authority on the vexed issue of reconciliation. Miller is not Indigenous, and yet he too writes from a place of authority. He knows these people. In a way he is these people.

There are lovely touches throughout, such as the meta-fictional title for Annabelle’s husband’s conference paper – ‘Biography as Fiction’ – biography being the basis of much of Miller’s fiction.

And consider this for a sentence, Bo talking to one family of recent settlers about the old scrubber bulls eating poisonous zamia nuts and dying out in the scrub:

They laughed uneasily and reached for their tea, sipping from their mugs, picturing the doomed bull trapped among the tumbled rocks, the dingoes eating into his quivering flesh while he yet lived and suffered; a transformation scarcely to be imagined, a brutality that must surely leave its ghostly impress on this country, an imprint for them to encounter in their quest to live among these stony ridges and ravines of the escarpment, the history they must adopt if they were to prevail in this place.

There is a dual use of ‘zamia’: both poisonous nuts and the name of the street on which Annabelle’s parents’ house stands in Townsville. It’s a nice echo, and underpins the sort of poisonous thinking from one Indigenous elder Bo and Annabelle must overcome. Some relics, such as the stone cylcon deserve to be left to past times and past landscapes. Other things, such as the love Grandma Rennie shared with her husband Iain, should be resurrected.

Lovers of Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country must read its ‘cousin’, Landscape of Farewell, which also features Dougald Gnapun, this time in a central role. It is a fine work, covering similar themes from a slightly different angle, as is Miller’s more recent return to stone country territory in Coal Creek (my review here). Many things tie these novels together: mystical landscape, laconic characters and beautiful, thoughtful writing from one of our best. Journey to the Stone Country was worth the wait and then some.

Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller

2002

Allen & Unwin

364 pages

ISBN: 978174141467

Source: 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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A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

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Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…

There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming).  Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories.  Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.

Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review).  She asked Kate about landscape in her works.  Grenville said that imagination can work from very little.  The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences.  One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand.  But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard!  But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes.  In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer.  Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been.  Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees.  She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing.  (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!)  But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).

Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading!  So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill.  Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words.  She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in.  The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag.  She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines.  It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being.  Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.

The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed.  ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations.  These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on.  What happens when the secret comes out?  That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill.  She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’.  Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white.  Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another.  There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant.  When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction.  She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today.  Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review).  (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’.  Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories.  How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance?  But I digress…)

So why historical fiction?  Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present.  But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation.  ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.

She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are.  In this way books become very personal things.

She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre.  I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance.  Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA?  Why was it marketed thus?  Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat.  It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?

One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing.  Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot.  She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her.  What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong.  Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story.  Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others.  There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection.  Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.

Finally, the common thread that runs through her work?  ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.

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There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

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Congratulations to Kim Scott for winning the Miles Franklin Award for That Deadman Dance.  See my review here.  It is an important novel, one that should be well and widely read. 

The D!

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