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Posts Tagged ‘The Secret River’

SWF LogoOne of my favourite sessions at each year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is the session on book design, which typically follows the Australian Publisher Association’s Book Design Awards night. This year was no different, with some engaging presentations from award winners as well as the added perspective of design from a publisher’s point-of-view, in this instance from Helen Boyle.

Book design is such a crucial part of getting books into the hands of readers. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ might well be true of people, but it’s certainly not true of books – as Boyle noted. I think we need to put a spotlight on the tremendously creative people who create the not just the face of our books but the entire look and feel of them, cover to cover. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner - designer Allison Colpoys

The first talk was by the charming Allison Colpoys, a freelance book designer and illustrator, whose slide on the creative process was hilarious (including one section whose name I can’t repeat and another called ‘panic’. It provided a great framework for discussing the process she went through in designing Penguin’s Australian Children’s Classic series, which won the award for Best Designed Children’s Series.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay - designer Allison ColpoysShe described the limited colour palette that was chosen to give the series a vintage look and feel, and commented that the vintage look was becoming more widespread in book design. There are ten works in the Penguin series, and she showed the rules for colour, text panels, as well as icons and section break ‘dinkuses’. She showed some of the options developed for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Allison also showed two of the new additions to the series, A Fortunate Life and The Power of One.

Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth - designer Allison ColpoysAllison was also the joint winner of the award for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book for her cover for Sufficient Grace by Amy Elspeseth, with its striking shadowed trees and drips of blood. It really sets a mood for the story and wants you to pick up the book.

Things I Love by Megan Morton - by Lantern BooksOur next speaker was Daniel New from Lantern Books. He also spoke about series design, offering six categories, from brand series (such as Penguin orange classics), through figurative (think Peter Carey’s newer covers), to genre conventions, to decorative, to conceptual (such as Penguin’s blank white covers that asked readers to draw their own covers and send them into Penguin), to creative partnerships.

Evi Oetomo from Lantern won the Best Designed General illustrated Book for Things I Love. One of the elements of good one-off cover design, Daniel said, is the notion it could easily be made into a series. He offered several images of potential titles in the series that used Things I Love‘s design as the template. Very interesting.

We then heard from Helen, from Templar UK, who backed up what I’ve been hearing at these sessions for the last three years, namely that book design is increasingly important in the digital age, particularly in the thumbnail version of the cover design. She spoke about some trends in UK publishing, particularly in YA fiction, with a predominance of black covers. Ironically, she noted, the ones that have white covers stand out much more now next to their black-faced neighbours, a fact she proved with a shot of a stand of such books.

The Voyage by Murray Bail - designer WH ChongThis sense of trends in cover design was picked up by our final speaker, WH Chong, who has been working for Text Publishing for ‘twenty years’, and is responsible for many of the covers we all know, such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and all seventy(!) covers for the Text Classic series. Chong was the other joint winner of the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book, for his cover for Murray Bail’s critically acclaimed The Voyage. He was also inducted into the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame last night. That there are only seven others who have received such an honour speaks volumes for Chong’s work over many years. A hearty congratulations, Chong!

Sarah Thornhill By Kate GrenvilleChong spoke about Stephen Romei’s recent piece in The Australian on the prevalence of the backs of women in current fiction covers, and the debate over softening of books marketed toward women.

I was expecting him to go on to explore his cover for Sarah Thornhill but he went instead to other covers, exploring the question of publishers not wanting to show a face because it potentially creates an image in the mind of the reader as to what the heroine (or hero) looks like.

Stasiland by Anna Funder - designer WH ChongOne fabulously striking cover that slipped through this filtering was Stasiland by Anna Funder. Chong also mused about covers for Kate Holden, Madeleine St John, and one that we’ve all seen recently: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, throwing up some international (Canadian and Taiwanese) versions to show how the local design has been translated overseas.

The Spare Room by Helen GarnerHe also mentioned Helen Garner’s quote at the recent Stella Prize award night, where she pined for a day when book “designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman’s book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder”.

Her most recent book is The Spare Room (my review), about a cancer sufferer and her carer friend – which Chong designed. It was an interesting discussion, and Chong at times questioned himself in an admirable way, believing it was not a reflexive image, but that it might have been trying to soften the theme for the audience (he offered up some mocked alternatives of possible covers showing angst and suffering which provided a stark alternative from a marketing/aesthetic point-of-view. It’s not easy selling a book whose front image is one of suffering.

And of course selling is want authors want, what publishers want, want the marketing departments want, and what is front and centre in all design briefs given to our book designers. No pressure then!

The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleI was going to ask Chong about the different briefs he received for Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (a perfect cover in my view) and sequel Sarah Thornhill, books tied together by story and theme but receiving such different cover treatments. Alas, time was called before I had a chance to ask.

There is a huge amount of thought that goes into good book design. It is, of course, much more than just cover designs. But for a work of fiction the cover is the most important aspect of design. A successful cover is more than reflective of the book’s content or theme. It is a marketing tool, requiring careful positioning, focus groups, and the ability to turn heads. Our panel of talkers had this ability in spades. If you ever get a chance to attend this session at future SWFs then I’d highly recommend it.

Congratulations to all the book design award winners, which you can have a look at here.

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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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Sarah Thornhill By Kate GrenvilleAfter reading mixed reviews, I came to Sarah Thornhill, the sequel to Kate Grenville’s acclaimed The Secret River, with middling expectations. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised. I zipped through it, cosseted by an authentic voice and gripping story that explores how the past’s secrets shape the present, as well as the moral ambiguity of the complicity of first settler offspring in the troubled early history of New South Wales. The fact an ancestor of mine gets a mention (more on that later) probably sealed my admiration, but there are issues, some would say shortcomings, worth exploring.

In telling the story in first-person from illiterate Sarah’s point-of-view, Grenville has constructed a wonderful narrative voice. Right from the first page the voice hits perfect notes:

The Hawkesbury was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. … They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.

I love the so much washing simile. Perfect. Also, note the sly exploration of ‘new’ versus the sense of ‘past’, which continues a few lines later: ‘You heard that a lot. Never looked back.’ The notion of not looking back was common back then, with emancipists creating names and pasts to avoid the stain of the broad (convict) arrow: ‘… money had a way of blunting the hard shapes of the past. Dressing it up in different words.’ On Sunday the Thornhills attend church where Sarah hears sermons that underscore the crux of her life’s story and the drama to come:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

Thornhill, Sarah’s Pa, has made good after being transported as a convict from London with Sarah’s mother, now dead. Sarah has a new Ma, a calculating woman who knows the secrets of the past, the value of appearances and how to put people in their place. Early on we see Thornhill sitting on his verandah as he was at the end of The Secret River (TSR), looking up to the ‘line of bush along the top of the cliffs. Nothing up there, only rocks and trees and sky, but he’d sit by the hour watching, the leather worn through to the brass [on his telescope] where his hand clamped round it.’ Those of us who have read TSR suspect what Thornhill is looking for but will never find. The detail of the handle worn through to the brass is spot on, so too the clenching hand.

As a girl, when Sarah tells Pa she can count her brothers on her hand, he corrects her count of three, telling her she has four. The one she doesn’t know goes by the name of Dick Blackwood rather than Dick Thornhill, a truth that burns in Pa’s eyes. When she asks him when Dick is coming back he flies into a rage.

Thornhill employs a two ‘blacks’ to look after the horses and the stables. A native boy chops wood. Thornhill instructs his cook to give food to other local natives whenever they call. And on the day Thornhill takes Sarah out for her first horse ride, they visit a clearing to give the local mob some food; she’s all questions, wanting to know why Pa is giving them food. Was it Christian duty? His face is twisted and he speaks of a day he wants back, but doesn’t elaborate. Later he talks of an old knife with a missing tip he bought in London; he wonders where the tip is and says: ‘Nothing ever gone, just you got to know where to look.’

Being a currency lass—a child born in New South Wales—Sarah’s world is a ‘place with no grannies and no grandpas. No aunties, no uncles. No past.’ And yet the cave she likes to retreat to has sand in it that has been there since the earth began. All she has of the past are remembered snatches of a song her real mother used to sing: ‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clement’s. You owe me five farthings, say the bells of Saint Martin’s.’ But this is London, her pa’s world. The lack of belonging haunts her; it haunts Grenville too, for she has admitted to a similar lack of belonging in her native Australia.

As Sarah grows up she is drawn to Jack Langland, who sails off for months at a time to New Zealand for sealing and then whaling with her older brother Will. Jack is a half-caste—or ‘half-darkie’ as Sarah puts it—with a white father and Aboriginal mother. In turn, Jack is drawn to Sarah. Her longing for a man who goes off for so long is palpable. Their forbidden relationship will be shaped by events of the past in a way Sarah cannot conceive.

Reminiscent of the convict Margaret Catchpole in Carol Birch’s Scapegallows, Sarah is a wonderful character. Both sharp and headstrong, they eschew the side saddle for the normal saddle, and their wilfulness gets them into strife. One qualm I had is with some early unevenness. Generally quick to pick up on things, Sarah can read the intentions of the two gentlemen who come to stay at their house, but at other times she is very slow on the uptake, particularly concerning Jack, Dick and Pa, two of whom she knows far better than men she’s just met. In short, I found some of her acuity selective, but only in the early parts.

After moving up to the frontier in what is now the Cessnock area, Sarah overhears drovers boasting of a massacre of Aboriginals. It makes her start questioning things. She supposes there’s enough [land] for both black and white. But she’s not satisfied with this notion. ‘Fell asleep trying to balance things out. Blacks on the one side, us on the other. How could you make it right?’

Secrets bubble up from the past like a spring finding its way through rock. It takes time, but it gets to the surface in the end. How old secrets come to bear, how Thornhill and Sarah and Jack do things they ought not to have done and fail to do things they ought to have done, is convincing. The moral dilemma as and ambiguities are explored with a deft touch. Although other reviewers have had problems with what they see as a far-fetched resolution, I saw the plausible actions of someone who has been confronted with not just her pa’s failings but her own. She reacts with a rage and shame that drives her subsequent actions in a way that makes sense to me. Guilt does strange things to people, even more so when they’re of a good heart. Some have criticised the way the Maori welcome her into their community. However, she is the sister of a man who did find his way into the community, who was indeed, married into that community, so I didn’t have a problem with that either.

I attended a session at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) in which Grenville discussed her three colonial-era novels. It was difficult, she said, to find anything in the written record of illiterate women of the period on which to base the voice (Sarah was born in 1816). It needed to be: plain, strong, with no large words. It came to her as she was hiking up a volcano in Auckland (cue much laughter about it being a religious experience!). For once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in. She wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag. She brought it to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested session chair Ashley Hay!), after which she read those drafted lines. It was fabulous 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.

When asked about the motivation for the two Thornhill books, she said: ‘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. And to my mind at least, it was a question worth asking and one that I enjoyed discovering the answer to. She said she kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’. It wasn’t surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

Some readers have argued that the depiction of Aborigines as being meek victims paints too much of a one-sided picture of the white settler-black relations. Where are the blacks fighting back? Given the vast amount of research that Grenville had undertaken for both Thornhill novels, I don’t doubt that she knows of such things. So what’s going on? The aboriginal stable hands at Thornhill’s farm are indeed meek, yet this is plausible because their lives have been so reduced by working for Thornhill. They must know of Thornhill’s past. To work for such a man would cause a reduction of spirit that we can’t fathom.

What of the blacks fighting back against the white aggression that Sarah overhears? Being illiterate means she would not read the reports of black attacks on whites in the Sydney Gazette. And it makes sense that the men in her life who do read the Gazette don’t tell her of these attacks for fear of frightening her. It’s not Grenville being biased, it’s her characters.

The other criticism levelled at the book focusses on the resolution, which some consider too far fetched to be plausible. Without giving anything away, all I’ll say is that guilt does strange things to people. Given what she has discovered about her father and the realisation of her own shortcomings, I can believe that Sarah would go to extraordinary lengths to try and absolve herself. She has a good heart, and it is this kind of person that would react in this way. It may take a little suspension of disbelief, but for me at least Grenville had laid enough groundwork for me to indulge her.

There are slight spoilers in this paragraph so skip it if you don’t want to know: Why do the Maori welcome her? She is the aunt of their lost girl. She is the sister of the man they welcomed into their lives and community. According to wikipedia, sealers and whalers made over 170 voyages to New Zealand between 1800-1820 alone. Maori men often crewed the ships. Cross-pollination of people occurred. Perhaps the more important question is why Jack can’t perform the role Sarah is asked to perform in New Zealand. Maybe it is a woman-only role?.

WELCOME BACK… There has been some debate over the cover of the hardback edition, and I have to say, it looks very ‘feminine’. Although I’d like to say a man wouldn’t worry about such things, I’d say that many would. It’s not one I’m particularly drawn to. I have no idea whether this was done on purpose—to market the book toward readers of what is derisively termed ‘women’s fiction’ (which outsells ‘literary fiction’). The cover also strangely has what looks like a slightly larger font for the author’s name than the title. I’d love to know how much say Grenville had in the design.

Sarah Thornhill By Kate Grenville - New CoverWhy does this matter? I for one wish it didn’t, but there are market segments and publishers market books to segments accordingly. Some have suggested Sarah Thornhill was less literary than TSR. I didn’t find that at all. I do wonder, though, whether other titles for the novel were considered. Interestingly, the paperback version’s cover, positioned to the left of this paragraph, is a lot different to the hardback version I have and nowhere near as feminine. Did the reaction to the initial cover force a change? Who knows. (Perhaps we were spoilt by the sublime cover of TSR, which, like the hardback cover for ST, was designed by WH Chong, who is also responsible for the Text Classics series of covers). What’s not in doubt is that Sarah Thornhill has sold very well, and deservedly so.

You don’t need to have read The Secret River to appreciate Sarah Thornhill. The sequel stands on its own. The risk of not reading TSR beforehand is that you find out what happens in it when reading the sequel, and after reading Sarah Thornhill you may want to go back and read its forebear, just to enjoy the craft of Kate Grenville.

My ancestor’s part? After moving to the Cessnock area, smack bang in middle of what will become the renowned vineyards of the Hunter Valley, Sarah is read ‘a piece out of the Gazette, some feller called Boland thought you could grow grapes round our way and make wine.’ This feller was John Augustine Boland, my great, great grandfather. He was the son of James Boland, an Irish convict sent out in 1832. My namesake John lived until the ‘ripe’ old age of 84, a pretty good innings for any era, but especially that one. He called his vineyard ‘Garden Hill’, and his death certificate has his occupation as ‘vigneron’. There are still many Bolands in the Hunter region today.

You’ll be pleased to know that vines still grow on the same land, now the home of Adina Vineyard, near the evocatively named ‘Deadman’s Creek’ on Lovedale Road, Lovedale, which is east of Pokolbin. My father’s cousin, a keeper of our extended family history, was shown around the vineyard by the current owners. She mentioned John Augustine’s name for the land and they said they might name a future wine after it, so if you ever see ‘Garden Hill’ wine in your local bottle shop, you’ll know the history of the name and how it ties back (ever so tenuously!) to Sarah Thornhill.

Australian Women Writers 2013 badgeThis intimacy brought home for me the thrust of Sarah’s story, how I am perhaps not too far away from those same stories and secrets. Who knows, maybe there’s a tale to be told out of John Augustine’s life too. There’s definitely one in James Boland. I best get researching… with a glass of a Hunter Valley wine in hand of course!

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers wasn’t enamoured of some plot elements in Sarah Thornhill. Read her thoughts here.

This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville

2011

Text

304 pages

ISBN: 9781921758621

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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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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Another fabulous day by the harbour for Friday at the SWF.  A brief muse on today’s sessions…

I started the day by going to the very interesting session ‘Book Design: The Story from Back to Front’ which celebrated the work of the designers of the books we love, featuring Stephen Banham, Hugh Ford, Melanie Feddersen, and facilitated by Zoe Sadokierski.  I’ll just pick out a couple of short points made…

I think Melanie Feddersen is my kind of book designer.  She related the charming story of how, from an early age, when she bought a new book she would write in it what she did that day and why she had bought that particular book.  Working as a freelance designer, Feddersen talked about her experience developing the design of a YA novel she worked on, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley.  For us fiction lovers, this was particularly interesting.  She explained where she got ideas from, starting with the publisher’s brief, reading the manuscript itself, and taking visual and textual clues from every part of her life.  She showed examples of the early design of the book cover, how a searchlight shining on a girl’s face worked with the book’s mood and themes of teenage ‘searching’.  A design was approved but then she was asked to change it!  The publisher wanted something more to do with graffiti in the cover.  Back to the drawing board – and she came up with the design shown in the photo to the left here – what a fantastic design(!) – working-in the graffiti can and spraying words.  Brilliant!  She then showed international versions of Graffiti Moon’s cover – there was such a wide range if interpretations and designs it often looked like a totally different book.  It’s rare that one design is used in a different territory.

Banham, a graphic designer / typographer, talked about the way everything is changing in design of books.  He explained the way he had approached a recent graphic design book not from the angle of the front-to-back cover design, but from the angle of how the design would appear as an ‘app’ on someone’s smart phone / tablet / web-site.  Increasingly, readers are buying electronic copies and this sense of ‘branding’ is very important, something that can translate across electronic mediums.  Font types are chosen only if they are a web font.

My second session was ‘The Sweep of Narrative’: Elliot Perlman talking about his novel The Street Sweeper, which deals with the holocaust, and race relations in America.  Perlman was very engaging, telling the story of the development of the novel, which commenced with a question that needed answering.  An oral history was recorded post-war Europe with Jewish survivors of the holocaust by psychologist David Boder.  When he had interviewed over 100, he was heard on the voice record he was making (which had a huge historical significance of its own), saying, ‘Who is going to sit in judgement over this [holocaust]?’  There was a pause and then he said, ‘Who is going to stand in judgement over my work?’  Perlman wondered why this man should have any guilt over what he was doing / had done, and knew that the answer to that question would become the subject of his work.  It took him six years to research and write, and he relayed how he hand interviewed hospital janitors, historians at Columbia University, African Americans, and students (now aged 80 or so) of Boder himself – a huge amount of work.  He also met the last living survivor of the group of Jewish prisoners who were tasked under the threat of death with the horrific task of undressing the bodies of Jews gassed in Auschwitz.  This man’s story became a character in the book.  Wonderful anecdotes of a book that has gotten rave reviews and is on my shelf as I type!

The third session of the day was ‘Classic’ – a discussion of Australian literary classics with Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, (both featured in Text Publishing’s new ‘Text Classics’ range of books), as well as Geordie Williamson and Text’s Michael Heyward.  First of all, full marks to Text Publishing for producing the Text Classic series http://textclassics.com.au/ , bringing back into print many books that should be read – one of which, Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is on my TBR.

There was a lot of discussion about how some things have changed in the Australian ‘canon’ – the fact that we have one for starters – and perhaps, how some other things might still need changing.  Keneally spoke about early Australian influences being Patrick White (Riders in the Chariot in particular), as well as poets Kenneth Slessor and Douglas Stewart.  He wanted to continue their work, joking about ‘the arrogance of young writers is breathtaking’(!).  He lamented the economic fundamentalism in publishing, how nowadays the poor editor has to not just get the book ready for publication but then get it by the corporate gatekeepers in Sales and Marketing.  As for more recent classics, he pointed to one of my favourites, Peter Carey’s Illwhacker (see my review).

For Grenville, growing up, writers were ‘dead white British males’.  Henry Lawson was as good as it got, though she also read Riders in the Chariot and although she was too young to understand it fully, she knew it was ‘something extraordinary’.  She also loved The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, another in the Text Classics series, as well as Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes – cue much communal love!  She spoke about how we are so ‘prize’ focussed when all books are part of what she likened to a forest ecosystem.  ‘There are giant oaks and there is moss and mushroom’, but every one is part of the system and need each other.

Following on from this wonderful analogy, and perhaps the best thing said in this session, was Geordie Williamson’s approach to thinking about the relationships between books, how the ‘density of the links is our culture’.  What a great summation.  He said we need to clear a cultural space around books – and gave the example of how the classic Careful He Might Hear You, by Sumner Locke Elliot, sold tens of thousands of copies in Germany, but before it won the Miles Franklin in 1963, had only sold 7 copies in Australia!  There was a lot of discussion about the role of improving education both in school and university level.  Geordie Williamson said that undergraduates and postgraduates are not obliged to read actual texts!  But all agreed that there is a real appetite for Australian writing as show in the success of someone like Tim Winton.  A good, fun session… many books added to the TBR – too many to list here!  BTW: Geordie Williamson is writing a book about the Australian canon, to be published later this year, entitled The Burning Library, so stay tuned for that.

That’s it for Day 2.  FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.

Join the SWF discussion on twitter @: #SWF2012.

Bring on Saturday!

D.

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After being wowed by Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (see my review here), I thought it would be interesting to revisit another celebrated colonial-era ‘first-contact’ novel: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  It is the story of poverty-stricken Thames waterman William Thornhill, convicted to hang for the theft of Brazil wood, and his wife, Sal.  Thornhill escapes hanging only to be transported to New South Wales and after being assigned to his wife and making some progress in the ‘Camp’ that would become Sydney, builds a successful shipping business ferrying goods and produce to and from the farms on the Hawkesbury River, north ofSydney.  This is the ‘secret river’ of the novel’s title: [p100]:

Thornhill strained to find that secret river.  In every direction, the reaches of Broken Bayseemed to end in yet another wall of rock and forest.  A man could sail for days and never find his way into the Hawkesbury.    

(As an aside, this is not only lyrical writing, but also historically accurate: when the first explorers set off from Sydney to explore Broken Bay they completely missed the main river so hidden was its course.)

It is on his first trip up the river, helping an older lighterman, Thomas Blackwood, that Thornhill spies a plot of land which he calls Thornhill’s Point, and a yearning for it is kindled, a longing to own a piece of land that would be beyond him in London.  All he had to do was pitch up and take it – oh, and convince his Missus that it was a good idea.  There were a lot of stories inSydneyabout troubles with the aboriginals on the Hawkesbury so she is quite nervous about moving there.  So too is Thornhill.

Right from the start Grenville has Thornhill facing up to the aboriginals, even if it is old ‘Scabby Bill’, an old native who dances for a sup of rum in Sydney.  There is a sense that things will not work out well.  Thornhill thinks, [p5]: “There were worse things than dying: life had taught him that.  Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.”

Grenville’s writing is evocative; her sense of place is exacting.  Thornhill grows up in grinding, stomach-aching poverty inLondon, where the [p9] “light struggled in through small panes of cracked glass and the soot from the smoking fireplace veiled the walls.”  Have a look at those word choices(!): struggled, small, cracked, soot, veiled: his life reeks of cold, hunger, and want.

He admires Sal and enjoys being in her house, [p17]:  “It was easy to wish to belong to this house … He could imagine how he would grow into himself in the warmth of such a home.  It … was the feeling of having a place.”

This theme of having a home, something of his own, feeds his desire to set up on the secret river.  There, Thornhill and Sal – as well as their burgeoning brood of children – come into the realm of a hardy bunch of white-settler neighbours, although the closest is an hour away.  Some of these are intent on eradication of the natives, people like Smasher Sullivan and Sagitty Birtles.  Others, like Blackwood, are more than sympathetic to the natives.  Blackwood has had a daughter to an aboriginal woman.  Tensions are already high between these various factions, and whenever they get together talk quickly turns to the question of the latest ‘depredations’ of the natives.

One of the great plot elements here is Sal’s great reluctance to leaveSydneyand take up land on the Hawkesbury.  They come to an agreement: she would give him five years and then they would return toLondon.  The deal sets up great tension.  We know he wants to stay and she wants to leave.  What will give?

Thornhill plants corn on his land, in part to say to all-comers, ‘this is my land.’  In the process he rips out the yam daisies that are a staple for the local aboriginals.  This theft of food supply is an oft-repeated early flashpoint in colonial settlements around Australia, and is thus very realistic.

Elsewhere, historical accuracy has been questioned.  Much has been made of the climax of the book as well as how believable it is for Smasher to get away with his constant acts of depravity against the natives.  Aboriginal Law works on a ‘payback’ system.  Whilst aboriginals had a collective system of guilt in which the perpetrator’s family members could be substituted for ritual payback, aboriginals picked out the guilty where they could.  Watkin Tench, a first fleet lieutenant, told the death of the governor’s game keeper, who it seems, was speared for payback for his presumed killings of aboriginals.  It stretches credulity, say critics, that Smasher was not subject to payback by the local aboriginals, particularly as he lives by himself.  Such are the dangers of historical fiction!  It seems that, for some, it is not good enough writing a gripping ‘story’, a work of historical fiction must be believable in every sense of the history of the time.  I’m in two minds about this.  Stories should ‘ring true’ but at the end of the day they are fiction.  Grenville was at pains to point out that The Secret River was a work of fiction and not history.  Smasher is an evil man but a good fictional character, just as Blackwood is a good character.  They each serve their purpose in building the conflict that drives the story.

What Grenville does brilliantly is make us sympathise with a character who will end up doing something unspeakable.  Some point to the unusual novelistic end where Thornhill goes unpunished for his deeds.  Yet Thornhill is punished: one of his sons, Dan, who grew up on the river and swam with black children and learned some of their ways, like how to make fire, deserts Thornhill and goes to live with the broken Blackwood.  This estrangement pains Thornhill.  But what pains him even more is his searching of the ridge-tops at the end with his looking glass, trying to spot an aboriginal still living in the wilds.  One gets the feeling that had he his time again he would have made another choice.  It’s not the punishment society should meter out to him, but it is a never-ending suffering all the same.

Thornhill and Sal are left altered by the events: [p324-5]:

They were loving to each other still.  She smiled at him with that sweet mouth.  He took her hand to feel its narrowness in his own and she did not resist.  Whatever the shadow was that lived with them, it did not belong to just him, but to her as well: it was a space they both inhabited.  But it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent space.  Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock. 

Also eloquent are the many descriptive passages of the Australian environment, from the bush aroundSydneyto the river landscape of the Hawkesbury.   Thornhill’s first night inSydneyis spent listening: [p3]:

Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile. 

A month or two back I read Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, her memoir of the process of writing the book.  (I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants to ‘see behind the curtain’ so-to-speak; for anyone else, it might break the spell.)  One of the interesting sections in that book was a chapter on how hard she had to work to get the dialogue right.  She ended up taking advice from Annie Proulx who talked about the rhythm of the dialogue, how altering word order and using the odd old word changes the ‘sound’.  Grenville writes in Searching:

… I decided that my job as a novelist wasn’t to reconstruct the authentic … eighteenth-century vernacular.  My job was to produce something that sounded authentic.

She sourced dialogue from Old Bailey Court Sessions which are now online.  The dialogue comes in short bursts, in italics, subsumed within paragraphs.  Characters often talk around things rather than in a direct manner.  It’s a very interesting re-creation of 18th century dialogue.  Mostly I found it convincing, (although the repeated ‘Damn your eyes’ became a little tiresome!)

It is interesting that Grenville refers to her protagonist throughout the book as ‘Thornhill’ rather than ‘William’, something she repeated for her character Rooke in her wonderful follow-up novel The Lieutenant (see my review).  I wonder why this is?  Is it because she didn’t want us to get too close to Thornhill, or is it simply a choice based on the way people were known in 1800?  If you have any insight, let me know.

When I first read The Secret River I thought theLondon section a little long.  This time round I thought the pacing was excellent.  (It’s funny how we change our minds on some things with a second reading.)

The Secret River has elements of similarity with That Deadman Dance – the dwindling sources of food, the blundering settlers, the clash of cultures, the demise of the natives – but Scott’s novel is elegiac and offers a sense of possibility and hope.  The Secret River is a very different animal.  Both are excellent.  Let’s hope that we can build not as William Thornhill does – covering the fish carved by the aboriginals in the rock with his stone-walled home – but as Bobby Wabalanginy would have us do, with a sense of togetherness.

The Secret River won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize (won by Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (see my review here); for mine, The Secret River is the better book).

There’s an interesting discussion of the book on the Guardian’s Book Club website, including an interview with Kate Grenville: see here.

There’s also a lively discussion on The Secret River on the ABC First Tuesday Book Club’s website.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Text Publishing

2005

ISBN:9781921520341

334 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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What a breath of fresh air this story was after slogging through Moby-DickThe Lieutenant is the second of three historical novels set in colonial times in Sydney that Grenville has (or is) writing, the first of which was the much acclaimed The Secret River, and the third of which is due out later in 2011.

The Lieutenant is based on the life of William Dawes, who sailed to New South Wales on the first fleet and set up Sydney’s first observatory on the point which now bears his name, though in Grenville’s fictionalised version of history, his name has been changed to Daniel Rooke.  Others have had their names and character fictionalised too, including Commodore Arthur Phillip, Watkin Tench, Phillip’s ‘game keeper’ McIntyre, and all the aboriginal characters.

As a young boy, Daniel Rooke is drawn to mathematics.  He particularly likes prime numbers, [p4]: “Like him, they were solitaries.”  To Rooke, mathematics is a language, as is all science.  Yet Rooke is also a gifted linguist, learning to speak five languages, including Greek and Latin.  It is his mathematics and love for stars which the Observer Royal identifies and which gains him a berth on the first fleet as the colony’s observer.  A comet is due to appear in southern skies soon after the settlement is founded and Rooke is sent to observe it.  After arriving in the very different world of Sydney Cove, Rooke requests permission to set up his observatory with telescope and other measuring equipment on the point on the western side of Sydney Cove – above what would become known as the Rocks.  This suits him perfectly.  He is a loner, and prefers to escape all the duties of serving in His Majesty’s marines.

Whilst his ambitious friend, Silk, begins to write an account of the settlement to be published in London, and tries to get some of the first words of the native language when they finally are persuaded into the camp, Rooke begins to build a relationship with Tagaran, sharing not only words, but the structure of language and a burgeoning friendship.  It is these encounters which show Grenville at her best.  They are moving and wonderfully capture what the first encounters might have been like, and the motivations of those on each side.

Grenville’s wonderful opening chapters create a solid foundation for Rooke’s character.  His fellow student’s boast [p9] that the British Empire and his own ‘illustrious family’ would ‘collapse if slavery were abolished’ get short shrift in Rooke’s logical mind.  (Dawes would, after his time in NSW, go to the West Indies and campaign for the abolition of slavery).  To Rooke [p10], “Euclid seemed an old friend. … it was as if [Rooke] had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.”  At the Naval Academy, Rooke is shown to have perfect pitch and loves fugues most of all, because [p13], “A fugue was not singular, as a melody was, but plural.  It was a conversation.”  Stars are the capstone to his characterisation, for in them, Rooke sees “the unity of all things.  To injure any was to damage all.”

These skills, interests and moral compass serve Rooke well when he meets Tagaran and begins his quest to understand the natives’ language.  And though he understands much about it – “It was a language whose very cadence sounded like forgiveness” [p254] – it is Tagaran who learns more about what this white man, this Berewalgal, and the extent of his friendship that astonishes and amazes.

Other formative experiences are explored, such as a fellow lieutenant’s refusal to obey a command, but only enough to establish the platform for the dilemma that Rooke faces when the clash of black and white begin.  He even asks himself [p112] as he sees the lieutenant hang whether he himself has ever been faced with such a decision, and what he might do if he is.

The story is written with such economy and grace that it is hard to comprehend how such weighty issues and their resolution are so wonderfully defined.  There is no flaring drama here, but rather smouldering sharing, promises, realisations, awareness of shared humanity.  The language scenes, using quotes of Cadigal language from Dawes original notebooks, could have become quite dry and staid, but Grenville deftly co-opts them into her purpose and themes.  They are beautifully handled.  Rooke slowly becomes aware that the cold and strict rigour of scientific enquiry can only take his understanding of the world and the people in it so far.  The rest is organic, inexact, shifty.

The ending, in Antigua, works well and made me think a little of Jacob in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.  Both Jacob and Rooke find themselves on the far side of the world thinking back to the most important days and person of their life and what they both mean to them.

I really enjoyed The Lieutenant and am looking forward to reading Grenville’s third historical novel when realised later this year.  If it’s anything like The Secret River and The Lieutenant, then we are in for another treat.  Having read a few books on the early colony of Sydney myself in the last few months, there are plenty of stories to be told – and plenty of myths to be expunged!

Lisa over at ANZ Lit Lovers also liked The Lieutenant.  Her (more extensive) review can be read here.

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Text Publishing

2008

ISBN: 9781921656767

302 pages

Source: local municipal library

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