All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

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Yet another woman farmer novel! Just a coincidence. Maybe. I listen to lots of indifferent fiction while I’m driving but the cover of this with its “Winner of the 2013 Encore Prize”, and “From one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists” at least looked promising, even if it gave no hint that it might also be ‘Australian’.

Here are the facts. The audiobook is read by a woman with an Australian accent. The story is of a woman sheep farmer on an island off the coast of England who we gradually come to learn has escaped a traumatic past in Western Australia. She is a strong, tall woman with terrible scars on her back. Some of the WA bits are clearly researched rather than lived. Evie Wyld was born in and lives in England, and this is her second novel.

I listened on the way home from Sydney over the weekend and on my first day off thought I would do some googling. Evie Wyld was born in 1980 in London. Her mother was/is Australian and the family spent some time on Evie’s grandparents’ property on the NSW north coast. And …

All the Birds, Singing was the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin. Who knew!

The shortlist for that year included, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Tim Winton’s Eyrie and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book – which may well be the book of the century let alone the year, what were the judges thinking! (My reviews here, here, here). Still, Wyld’s is a strong novel and a refreshing take on the Independent Woman, most reminiscent probably of Nikki Gemmell’s Alice Springs.

The story begins with Jake Whyte – an Australian woman – discovering a gutted sheep on her little farm on an isolated English island. For a long time she suspects the local kids but there is a ‘shape’ that moves in and out of the woods. The novel alternates backwards and forwards between England and Jake’s past in Western Australia. In the West she is a rouseabout in a shearing team out from Kambalda. I don’t think Wyld has ever seen shearing or been to the West, but if you haven’t either then you won’t notice. I can’t help myself saying though that Kambalda is a very ‘suburban’ mining town, built in the 1960s and doesn’t have any tin shed pubs.

Just as we are getting to know the shearers, the Australian chapters start moving backwards in time, first by hints, then by descriptions of her earlier life, held as a sex slave maybe by an old man on a remote property between Port Hedland and Marble Bar. And yes, that’s tropical cattle country, not sheep country. The boundary between cattle and sheep was always south of the Tropic of Capricorn and with the decline in the wool industry and the depredations of wild dogs has moved maybe 400 kms further south in the 20 years I’ve been back in the West. But anyway, the old man teaches her a bit about sheep farming which she uses to get her rouseabout job.

It’s too hot, but I like the way my arms feel like they’re full of warm oil, and sweat runs down them in sheets soaking the sides of my singlet. There’s an ache in the bottom of my spine from bending and lifting, but it beats lying on my bed at Otto’s waiting for the day to be over. I catch myself smiling as I throw another fleece onto the table and Denis nods to me, impressed.

It would unwind the narrative tension to say more about the situation she gets herself into with the old man, Otto, but it’s well done.

We go back further. School days in country Wyld has lived in, the NSW north coast. An Aboriginal boyfriend. A bushfire.

Back in the ‘present’, we meet the man she bought the farm off, who has retired nearby but helps her out from time to time, or provides commentary if she’s not in immediate danger; his delinquent son and the son’s girlfriend; and a well-spoken alcoholic she discovers sleeping in the barn and who never quite gets round to leaving. The ‘shadow’ keeps taking sheep. And throughout, the birds sing out or cry warnings. (Evie, there are no kookaburras in Western Australia).

A good book, very good even, but not in the same league as The Swan Book.

 

Evie Wyld,  All the Birds, Singing, 2013. Audiobook: Blackstone, Read by Cat Gould.

Sue, Whispering Gum’s review (here), but she seems also to have mentioned Wyld quite often in the context of awards and women’s writing. If you put Wyld in her search box it brings up ten or so listings. Check them out.

Lisa ANZLL has reviewed Wyld’s earlier After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (here) but All the Birds, Singing must still be on the MF TBR.

Recent audiobooks

Stuart Woods (M, USA), Quick and Dirty (2017)
Helen Sedgwick (F, Sco), The Comet Seekers (2016)
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (F, Fin), Last Rituals (2007)
Rio Youers (M, USA), The Forgotten Girl (2017)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel.
Frank Moorhouse, The Drover’s Wife (2017)
I’ve been carrying around Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm, but woman farmer! so will start on Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong’s Daughter for AWW Gen 2 Week.

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The Drover’s De Facto, Anne Gambling

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Mack cattle truck, triple road train
The Drover’s De Facto (1986) is from Frank Moorehouse’s collection of stories and essays inspired by the iconic Henry Lawson short story The Drover’s Wife, which I visited earlier (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer) and which, if I spend yet another day stuck in Sydney, I might finish reviewing.

BTW isn’t ‘de facto’ so 1970s. I was passionate back then about not requiring government approval for my relationship status. Though I was eventually brought to realise that spouses and children should be acknowledged in some sort of formal way, about the same time as ‘de facto’ lost its stigma and fell out of common usage.

The ‘drover’ in Gambling’s story is a cattle truck driver from a Queensland cattle/oil town – think Dalby, Roma, Moonie (map). The Mack pictured above is about the right vintage (I care, I’m not sure you do) but from Victoria River in the NT. I would have included a photo of me and the Young Bride in front of my own much more modest cattle truck in 1974 but it’s home on my desktop. YB and I started off de facto, from day one, but in 1973 I got a job driving for a neighbour of my grandfather’s and mum couldn’t stand the shame if Grandma and Granddad found out about us living in sin.

‘She’ picked him up in a singles bar in the city,

… left with him.
He took her to a classy hotel in his big Mack truck.
Called ahead on the CB to reserve the honeymoon suite while she giggled like a schoolgirl, twenty-five with a degree.

His wife has shot through with their kid. He doesn’t have much to offer, a small house in a country town. He’s away a lot.

The romance of the bush overtook her sensibilities, Paterson and Lawson combined to urge her toward a life for which she was uneducated and unprepared.
But that’s OK, she said, I’ll work on my Masters. Yeah, he said, something to do, I guess.

This is starts out as an amusingly written story, though, in the Lawson tradition, with a sad ending – I would say with a pathetic ending but there’s a word whose meaning has been taken from us – of, I estimate, about 4,000 words or a third more than the old Bulletin 3,000 word limit which taught Lawson to write with such concision. But the undertones are savage, and I begin to wonder what truckie done her wrong.

‘She’ battles with the old wood stove. Chopping wood, which I like most country kids did routinely, gives her blisters and open sores. Having a hot meal on the table when he gets home. Or when he’s ready.

And he’d arrive home at whatever time it was and want to lay her. At first she thought it romantic until it came to the physical torture of no foreplay and no satisfaction ever, for her, enduring half an hour at a time … She’d go limp in his arms and if it was dark, she’d cry. Whimpering that he took for signs of ecstasy … Then he’d finish with a thrust … Soon, he would lift his head and say I’m hungry, how would you like to cook somethin’ for me, love?

 

They start to fight. She goes into town while he’s away, drinks and dances with the engineers in from the oilfields. He hears of course, from his mates, and belts her. And that’s it, it’s over, and soon she’s on the road out of town.

It’s an interesting, if obvious, riff on The Drover’s Wife, a middle class city girl thinking through an idle daydream. Working out for herself the consequences, though she might be pleased to know we’re not all stereotypes.

 

Anne Gambling, The Drover’s De Facto, first pub. in Latitudes, 1986

Frank Moorehouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


I have to put this here in case I later lose track of it, as I inevitably do. A terrific essay in the London Review of Books (June 2003) by Marxist literary academic Terry Eagleton, whom I greatly admire, reviewing three George Orwell biographies (here).

Anchor Point, Alice Robinson

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Alice Robinson is a Melbourne-based author, I can’t tell you her age but she doesn’t look very old (here), and more disappointingly I can’t tell you whether or not she grew up in the country. But this is her debut novel, impressively long-listed for the Stella, after a PhD in creative writing. I worry about novels like this, straight out of school, that the story follows a formula designed to suck me in and I am. But before my criticisms get out of hand, let me say right at the beginning that Laura, the book’s central character engaged me and I was very invested in learning more about her.

In many ways Anchor Point (2015) is a worthy newcomer to the long line of books I have been studying and writing about as I delineate the myth of the Independent Woman, particularly in the setting of the Australian Bush which has been and still is claimed for the archetypal Australian man, ‘lone hand’, larrikin soldier etc.

Although set in the 1980s and 90s – in a fictional location in the foothills of the Alps in north eastern Victoria – Laura’s story embodies in one generation the dichotomy between the pioneering settler of Australian legend on one hand and Indigenous land claims, climate change and land degradation from over clearing, on the other.

Laura herself embodies almost from the time her sister Vic is born, when she is five or six, the ‘drover’s wife’ (here) condemned to kitchen servitude and drudgery (although not, in this case, endless childbearing), to support the intrepid pioneer, her father. A servitude she adopts, in the house and out on the property, through the disappearance of her mother when she is ten, through the schooling of her sister, through to her own reluctant bid for independence as the partner of another needy, controlling man in Sydney, and finally to her return to the farm to care for her father and the property when her father falls victim to early onset alzheimers.

The book is written in the third person entirely from Laura’s POV. Her father, Bruce, himself the son of a failed farmer, has bought a couple of hundred of acres of bush which he plans to clear in order to farm sheep. Kath, Laura’s mother, is a German-born potter, who ‘neglects’ her housework and her daughters to pursue her art. Both the housework and the care of Vic increasingly fall to Laura.

Do we feel for Kath? We all felt for Katherine Mansfield last week (Who Does the Dishes?), are their situations the same? Bruce, all pioneers, all men maybe, have this expectation that women will keep house while they get on with the real work. Does Laura feel for Kath? Not really, certainly not after she gets a black eye when she drops one of her mother’s vases. Bruce and Kath spend another night arguing, there’s a storm, the creek floods, Kath disappears. Laura’s own actions are not above reproach (no spoilers!), but she picks up the slack, Bruce brings in men to clearfell the trees, Laura drops out of school and becomes a farmer alongside Bruce.

Her only friend is Joseph, an Aboriginal boy her own age, a token? No, but nearly. He may have been her romantic interest but in the end is not. In fact, this novel is like those movies of the book where a number of characters are conflated into one. Where in real life we might take up with a dozen others before coming upon our partner for life, each of the girls meets one man and that’s it. And poor old Bruce meets no-one.

It is telling that when we finally learn more about Kath it turns out her name is actually Katya, which Bruce had insisted on Australianising. Bruce stands in for all those settlers right back to 1788 who insisted on farming methods brought with them from England. You can only shudder as all the trees are removed, all the way down the hill to the creek, and he even regularly threatens to chop down the ‘canoe’ tree in the yard of their modest house.

The drought years which come increasingly often are a marker for climate change. In the end Laura makes mostly futile efforts to re-forest the ruined land, promises it to Joseph who wants it for Indigenous access, then must renege and sell-up, probably to developers for housing, as her own health declines.

In the last chapter Laura is with Vic, in Vic’s apartment on the 33rd floor, the power out, looking out on a Melbourne ringed by bushfires. Anchor Point, intended as a parable for our times, I guess is that, but works best as a character study of Laura and her relationships – to her father, to her dependent sister, to Luc, her dependent partner, and to her absent mother.

 

Alice Robinson, Anchor Point, Affirm Press, 2015. Audio version – Queensland Narrating Service, read by Ursula Wharton.

See also:

Jessica White’s review (here). And Jess did grow up on the land, in cotton country, cleared and levelled to within an inch of its life.

Lisa (ANZLL)’s author interview (here)

Who Does the Dishes?

Journal: 022

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Katherine Mansfield

Following on from my last, I got out of Sydney ok on Wednesday morning and dropped my trailers at Tolls, Perth late Friday, hopefully to be unloaded overnight. I’ve been asked to turn straight around, which I’ve agreed to, Milly’s away working on site till some time next week, but as I write, on Saturday morning, I’m yet to hear from work. Still, I can take today as a 24 hour break and leave this evening.

Despite what I wrote, I did pick up Mothers of the Novel for a while. The next authors after Aphra Benn are Delarivière Manley (1663-1724) and Eliza Haywood (1693-1756). Spender is furious that Manley worked with Jonathon Swift on the Examiner and succeeded him as editor, yet Swift is a celebrated satirist and Manley a forgotten ‘gossip-monger’. Alexander Pope describes her “as one of those shameless scribblers who, in libellous memoirs and novels reveal the faults and misfortunes of both sexes, to the ruin of public fame or disturbance of private happiness.” High, if unintended,  praise! Spender writes:

The entry I would like to see for Delarivière Manley in the history of letters would be as follows: A prolific and innovative writer who helped to develop the genre of fiction by her use of the epistolary form and her introduction of political satire.

I have Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) which I had better not read until next year, until I have some Australian reading out of the way. So I will put off dealing with Haywood until then. But Spender, in lamenting that Manley and Haywood had family duties which made it difficult for them to earn an income from writing, includes by way of illustration this extract from a letter from Katherine Mansfield in 1913 to her lover, John Middleton Murry.

… the house seems to take up so much time if it isn’t looked after with some sort f method. I mean … when I have to clear up twice over or wash up unnecessary things I get frightfully impatient and want to be working. So often this week, I’ve heard you and Gordon talking while I washed dishes. Well, someone’s got to wash dishes and get food, otherwise – ‘There’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat”. Yes, I hate, hate, hate doing these things that you accept just as all men accept of their women. I can only play the servant with a very bad grace indeed. It’s all very well for females who have nothing else to do … and then you say I am a tyrant, and wonder because I get tired at night! The trouble with women like me is – they can’t keep their nerves out of the job in hand – and Monday after you and Gordon and Lesley have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘Will there be enough to go round?’ …. and you calling (whatever I am doing) ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock’ as though I were a dilatory housemaid.

I loathe myself today. I detest this woman who ‘superintends’ you and rushes about, slamming doors and slopping water – all untidy with her blouse out and her nails grimed. I am disgusted and repelled by the creature who shouts at you. ‘You might at least empty the pail and wash out the tea leaves!’ Yes, no wonder you ‘come over silent’.

Well that all sounds very familiar. I didn’t go down the pub, or gamble, and I cared for and cooked for the kids when Milly was at her (part-time, manual) work. But I had satisfying full-time employment and on-going education, doing degrees part-time throughout our marriage, and Milly had neither, and I made no effort to back off, or take over housework, to give her space to do either of those things. Milly is not one who “rushes about, slamming doors” but she did try to talk and I couldn’t or wouldn’t hear.

Nine am. Still haven’t heard. My washing’s done, I’d better pay some bills, I’d better go and check my PO box! There’s not much left to do except the library for more audiobooks. Food I can get at IGAs along the way, got some very sweet mandarines from a roadside stand a couple of days ago near Mildura.

Spender has made some remarks about the influence of the middle classes on eighteenth century writing, and when I have time that is what I will be following up next.

 

 

Recent audiobooks

Jeff Abbott (M, USA), Panic (2005)
Gillian Flynn (F,USA), Dark Places (2009)
Camille di Maio (F, USA), The Memory of Us (2016)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel. 

Dragan’s back

Journal: 021

Beechworth mudmap2

Last trip – I’m doing one trip a fortnight out of Perth to the east coast – Mum and my cousin Kay were in Toowoomba visiting Mum’s sister, I got two trailers to Toowoomba, unloaded, took a 24 hour break, got a room in their motel, had a pleasant time. This trip I had deliveries in Wodonga and Canberra. Great, I’d finally get to meet Sue, the famous Whispering Gums.

I let her know I was on my way (as a comment on one of her posts, I think).

Sue: Just a quick response. Meeting you somewhere for a cuppa Monday early, mid or even late afternoon should be easy …

Nothing is easy with Dragan. On Friday, I’d left Thursday, he books me to load out of Tolls, Sydney on Monday night, never mind that I’m due one 24 hour break a week. Tolls collect freight all day, we drop our trailers in the streets nearby, and during the night they tow them inside and load them. Then phone us after midnight to say they’re ready.

I update Sue.

Sue: I’m guessing the DRAGON’S (haha) change in plans for you mean we are not going to catch up this time?

I get to Wodonga midday Sunday, to the BP truckstop 15 km south. My paperwork is addressed to “name to be supplied”, 245 Beechworth Rd, Wodonga. Dana, Dragan’s sister, has sent me a text with the mud map above. I can’t read it, on my phone or on my laptop. I get Dragan to come into work. After a dozen phone calls we establish (a) he should have warned the client of my ETA on Friday; (b) it looks like the delivery address is back to front, should read Wodonga Rd, Beechworth (map). I finally get on to the client direct and he tells me to come before it gets dark and he’ll try and get a tractor with forklift attachments. Doesn’t that sound promising!

Beechworth’s not far away but it’s in the Great Divide. So, into the mountains we go, picturesque and exciting! I pull up on the edge of town and Darryl comes out in his ute to guide me. I follow him a short way, he jumps out, gesturing to a narrow gateway into a bush block on the far side of a drain. I swerve around the end of the drain, between the gateposts, drop more than a metre at 45 degrees, find a space to park between the trees (yellow and grey box he tells me). If it rains I’ll need a bulldozer to tow me out. We pull back the curtains but it’s too late to unload.

Up at 5am next (Mon) morning, get all the straps off, the gates stacked under the trailer etc. Eventually an old guy turns up with a tractor with hay bale tines. My load is fireproof sandwich panels that by the end of this week will have been assembled into a house. The old guy makes a meal of getting them off. The tractor has to drive up onto home workshop ramps to reach the highest packs, and of course he drops one that isn’t balanced properly. No harm done. Job done. I find a way to back up and turn around, make a very limited run at the jump-up out the gate, and I’m away. Hook up my front trailer again, head north up the Hume.

Me: ‘Wodonga’ turned out to be a bush block in the mountains near Beechworth, I’ve been having “interesting ” times. Still hours from Canberra, no hope of making Sydney in time to load, but that doesn’t mean Dragan won’t make me try.

Sue: That’s OK … I assume we’ll hear about Beechworth/Wodonga in a Journal post??

‘Canberra’ of course means Queanbeyan. Between Google maps, a real map and advice from the (next) client I find my way around Canberra (map) and get my delivery done. It’s now after 5.00 pm.
I text Dragan in hope, but apparently Tolls is still on. I give up on the “Alternative Heavy Vehicle Route” out for a simpler route through Canberra.
Me: On my way. Dragan still has plans. Heading out via Ipswich St, Monaro hwy.

Sue: Such a shame … Fyshwick would be very doable for me. Good luck.

Three hours later I pull up outside Tolls, Eastern Creek, drop my trailers in the street as requested, go round to the truckstop. But wait, there’s more …

Me: Dropped trailers Tolls 8.30. Went round to BP for shower and was just having a quiet browse before going to sleep when Dragan messaged to say (a) load was off till tomorrow; and (b) another driver would be doing it anyway. So all that rushing for nothing, as usual … Might be easier if your next trip, after the Mallee, is to Perth.

I see Sue has just responded to a comment, so I guess she is still up. She replies, wishing me well.


Interestingly, there is no mention of Indigenous people on the Beechworth tourism sites nor in their wikipedia entry. I have found a detailed post (here) Where were Aboriginal people during the Beechworth gold rush? (decimated by settlers as you might expect – Giving more weight to my belief that it was unforgiveable of Peter Carey to exclude local Aboriginals from his True History of the Kelly Gang). The same blog in a different post (here) names the locals as the Yeddonba. The map I used for Joseph Hawson’s Journal gave the language name Waveroo to this area, more research needed!

 

Recent audiobooks

Edna O’Brien (F, Ire), The Country Girls (1960)
Margaret Atwood (F,Can), Alias Grace (1996)
Linwood Barclay (M, USA), A Noise Downstairs (2018)
Leena Lehtolainen (F, Fin), Before I Go (2000)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel. No I’m not but I have it with me, and half a dozen others, notably Eleanor Dark’s Waterway .

Stuff on the Internet

Mrs B’s Book Reviews has reviewed Seven Little Australians (here). A reminder, to me as well as you, that my AWW Gen2 week (13-19 Jan, 2019) is fast approaching.

And the latest issue of Australian Literary Studies (here):

“Helena Kadmos’ essay, ‘Re-Imagining Indigenous Australia through the Short Story:  Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven’, presents a welcome discussion of van Neerven’s acclaimed collection.

Jonathan Dunk examines the use of the short story form by Henry Lawson and John Kinsella.

In addition, reviews of the edited collection Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature (by Dougal McNeill) and David Game’s D. H. Lawrence’s Australia (by Barbara Holloway – no relation).

 

Beloved, Toni Morrison

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I’m late to the Toni Morrison party – she is obviously, and deservedly, well known to feminists and to all readers not so determinedly nationalistic as I am. At this point I check Wikipedia and discover Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am really late to the party! Morrison (1931- ) was “the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family.  She grew up in Ohio, did her BA at Howard in Washington DC and worked as a lecturer and in publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye came out in 1970. Beloved (1987) was her fifth and was subsequently developed into a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). As with many of my posts, I’m learning as I write, so forgive me for including stuff you already know.

My reason for reading Morrison was that I’m interested in the portrayal of race relations in other countries and in thinking about how that reflects on race relations in Australia; and that I had seen Morrison mentioned a few times by Melanie in Grab The Lapels. In her review of Sula (here) Melanie writes: “If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can.” My reason for reading Morrison in the future will be her wonderful command of language.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, and her daughters ‘Beloved’ and Denver. I write ‘Beloved’ because that is the single word on the headstone of Sethe’s daughter who died as Denver was being born. The novel begins:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old …

Baby Suggs was Sethe’s mother in law. They had been slaves on a farm down south, Sweet Home, along with six men, one of them Baby Suggs’ son Halle. The novel drifts backwards and forwards over the years (approx.) 1855 – 1875 slowly building up the story as to how the women’s home, 124 became haunted and then un-haunted. Does this make it magic realism? I’m not sure, for Morrison’s characters Beloved’s spirit is just another facet of life.

The timeline which underlies Beloved includes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which mandates that slaves escaping to the North must be returned to their owners in the South), the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the Emancipation Proclamations of 1863-65, but only the War comes up in the text and even then, only tangentially.

Briefly, the owners of Sweet Home allow Halle to earn money in his free time, to buy his mother out of slavery. She moves to Ohio, to the white house on Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati which becomes known as 124. After Mr Garner, the farm owner dies, Mrs Garner brings in ‘the schoolteacher’ to manage the farm and the slaves lose all the freedoms they had previously been allowed. There’s a revolt. Sethe sends her boys on ahead, becomes separated from Halle, and must make her way alone, pregnant and with an infant daughter, to Baby Suggs.

Halle, we don’t see again, but in 1873 another of the six men from Sweet Home, Paul D, turns up, exorcises the ghost, the spirit of the dead baby daughter, and eventually Sethe takes him as her partner. A young woman, seemingly dumb but beautiful, giving herself the name Beloved, moves in with them. Then one day, Paul D learns the secret of the dead baby’s murder, and the three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved are alone, isolated from the community of which Baby Suggs was once the centre.

What gets me. Over and Over. Is how hard Toni Morrison is on Whites. The “hard” we have to absorb before we can even begin to understand. The ten minutes of sex Sethe pays to have the headstone inscribed; slaves wearing headpieces with bits forcing their mouths into unnatural smiles; Sethe’s feet beaten to stop her walking off the farm, and yet she does; Black women valued more highly than men because they were mares who could throw off foals for resale; and

… That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

And yet, the novel ends on a note of hope. Retracing Paul D’s story as the War comes to an end, he finds himself in the North, walking unremarked amongst whitefolks, being paid for work: “That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone.” Which is more or less where we started.

A scarifying work, written in the most wonderful prose. Read it and weep for all the wrongs that we have done, that we go on doing.

 

Toni Morrison, Beloved, first pub. 1987. My copy Picador (as pictured), London, 1987.

 

 

Childhood

Journal: 020

 

William Inverloch 1955

Coming out of Caiguna on the way home, listening to G&S’s The Gondoliers (Youtube), the USB stick I dug up to save Project Gutenberg audiobooks on turning out to contain my long lost ‘classical’ music selections, I started planning a post on childhood memories. A few rousing songs in – I’d listened all the way through earlier, and was this time just seeking a musical interlude between books, not that I couldn’t listen to endless G&S, Pinafore is my favourite, though The Mikado is probably their best – I started my next book, coincidentally The Night Child (2018) by Anna Quinn, a story of one woman’s repressed memories and her consequent PTSD, which has had the effect of colouring how this post is written. An hour and a half later I came to a bend and realised I’d travelled the length of the Ninety Mile Straight without noticing. You may conclude I’m not an attentive driver, it took me ages when I first started crossing the Nullarbor to even work out where the Straight was.

I had an idyllic childhood. I often said so once, but not so much as I got older. Perhaps now I’ve written My Father was Busy and I’m still Angry I might feel easier about saying so again. I grew up in country towns all round Victoria, a life of sunshine and freedom: visiting my grandfather’s, my uncles’, my friends’ farms; exploring the countryside on my bike; school, at which I excelled and which I always enjoyed; camping, in the Mallee, in the Grampians, down the beach at Yambuk or in the bush at Mt Eccles, with scouts and youth groups; swimming, playing football, tennis, cricket, hockey; going to country dances, “50:50s”, from the time I started high school, back when all ages danced to the same music.

Writers write about childhood because they can? Who knows. But we read writers writing about their childhoods because we love their writing, because we want to know their childhood influences. I don’t think childhoods are intrinsically interesting, well, except for my own and my children’s. Out on the Nullarbor I could only think of two, Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella, and Sartre’s Words. I will review the Franklin one day when I’ve run out of other stuff but it’s a terrible book. I pulled down Sartre when I got home, it’s years since I read it, the front cover proclaims “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it.” Of course I soon thought of others, Gerald Murnane’s fictionalised in Landscape with Landscape, Ann Frank, The Children’s House of Belsen, Norman Lindsay’s Redheap trilogy, The Getting of Wisdom, there must be hundreds of others, The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony, MF’s two Career books and Cockatoos.  Fellow blogger Nathan Hobby’s The Furan SF bildungsroman which I imagine draws heavily on his boyhood in WA’s southwest. Funnily enough Alien Son, the earlier parts anyway, is the one that feels closest to home.

Wm, Underbool 1952

My earliest memory is of crawling up the stairs into the rear of the one room school building where my father was teaching, at Underbool in 1953 probably, or maybe Bonnie Doon in ’54. Our house was in the school grounds and the little girls would play mothers and fathers with me as baby. I can remember in the ordinary, patchy way most of my life from about 1955 on. The rooming house above the fish and chip shop we lived in in Inverloch when dad got Leongatha but no house; the subsequent 3 BR housing commission weatherboard, one of five in a row down a dead-end gravel street, facing out onto paddocks of cows and blackberries; hiding in an abandoned car with the girl next door (one year older!) and taking down our pants for mutual inspections; a party for my sixth birthday – I said to Gee yesterday that it was the only party of my childhood, my next was a joint 20th with my housemate, Russell, and the next after that was my fortieth, and she said that we had only given her one too, her eleventh, though I reminded her that Milly and I had gone out for her fifteenth, which she wasn’t game to for our granddaughter’s fifteenth last month, and come home late to a garden full of bottles – at which I got a cowboy belt and holster and a new 24″ bike, blue, which mum pushed round and round the clothesline, giving all us boys a ride, and it occurs to me only now that she was then, aged 24, 20 odd weeks pregnant with B4; the next two years I would ride everywhere through Leongatha and then, when we moved to Murrayville in the Mallee at the beginning of grade four, for miles out into the bush or along the highway.

Television came that year, which for nearly all my growing up I would see, especially the commercial stations, I Love Lucy, The Man from UNCLE, Laugh-In, only at the homes of other children.

For the move from Leongatha to Murrayville, dad and I left mum and the boys at grandma’s and came back to supervise the movers. Dad’s grade six, the big kids!, had performed Pinafore at speech night and as we set off back to Sea Lake, 300 miles, in the FJ, dad sang the whole thing from beginning to end.

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Milly and I had superficially similar childhoods, hers in working class Hammy Hill, mine in the Bush, those seemingly innocent, long passed 1950s and early 60s, a contradictory mix of books and all day out of doors, but problems at home truncated her schooling, left her with stuff she talked about quite freely in those first weeks I first came west and stayed with her and Xenia, (and Psyche, and Rivervale girls constantly in and out) but didn’t start dealing with really until everything else fell on her, me leaving, Psyche leaving, Psyche getting us all into family therapy.

She says she chose me for my ‘stability’, an illusion I fostered through equal measures of ignorance and confidence. An ignorance compounded by my all-boy childhood in no way alleviated by adolescent fumblings, and an almost total lack of empathy. I think I was 40 before I even began to understand that listening involves a lot more than just listening.

The thirty something woman protagonist of The Night Child has some pretty vicious childhood stuff to deal with when it all starts coming back, and if her acceptance of her repressed memories, her ‘voluntary’ hospitalisation, and the subsequent resolution through therapy, all feel a bit pat, then others, and women in particular, may feel differently, I’m not in any position to judge. Either way, it’s a well written and dramatic story. And set in Seattle which seems to this outsider to invoke more genuine affection in its residents than any other US town.

The Man Who Loved Children with it’s controlling father I should also have remembered. Christina Stead, somewhere, told an interviewer that every word of it was from life, from her own childhood in Watsons Bay, Sydney.

 

Recent audiobooks

Anna Quinn (F, USA), The Night Child (2018) Read by Cassandra Campbell
Jane Austen (F,Eng), Pride & Prejudice (1811) Audiogo, Read by Lindsay Duncan
George Orwell (M, Eng), 1984 (1949) Blackstone, read by Simon Prebble
Ruth Rendell (F, Eng), The Babes in the Wood (2004)
Heather Graham (F, USA), A Dangerous Game (2017)
Ian Rankin (M, Sco), Mortal Causes (1994)
Gaston Leroux (M, Fra), The Phantom of the Opera (1910)
Herman Koch (M, Neth), Summer House with Swimming Pool (2011)
Wendy Wax (F, USA), The Accidental Best Seller (2009)
John Le Carre (M,Eng), The Spy who came in from the Cold (1963)
Ann Patchett (F, USA), Commonwealth (2016)
Emile Zola (M, Fra), Thérèse Raquin (1867) – a seven hour sermon on the sin of Adultery contained within the metaphor of Murder. Lisa at ANZLL gives it a more favourable review here.

Currently reading

Toni Morrison, Beloved
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel