A History of Dreams, Jane Rawson

The best authors in Australia today – and they are among the best in the world – are Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane and Kim Scott. I would certainly drop everything to read new books by them, but my favourite authors are Marie Munkara, Elizabeth Tan, Claire G Coleman and … Jane Rawson. So here we have Jane’s latest (and next month Claire G Coleman’s publishers release her latest, Enclave). Life is good.

We used to see Jane Rawson here blogging, I see her on Twitter, and I don’t have it in me to call her Rawson. Jane’s ‘About’ says she lives in Tasmania – for some reason I pictured her living in Williamstown (Melbourne) – and that she grew up in Canberra. Her first two novels were set in Melbourne, this and her previous novel are set in and around Port Adelaide which she seems to know quite well.

I used to know Port Adelaide quite well myself. I’ve lived and worked for trucking companies based there. Even now, or at least when I’m running Melbourne-Perth, I routinely drop into the trucking/industrial suburbs immediately east of the Port. For some reason though I’ve only rarely been to the residential suburbs, Semaphore, Largs Bay, Taperoo, Osborne, on the peninsula above the Port, where the four young women who are the protagonists of this novel grow up. (If you want to see the real Port Adelaide watch Bad Boy Bubby – warning this movie includes incest and death by cling-wrap). Ok, that’s enough wasting space, but I do like seeing geography-I-know in my fiction.

I have written as recently as last week about Australian SF set in dystopian near-futures. Well this is SF set in a dystopian near-past; a reimagined 1930s and 40s where the politics of the New Guard become dominant and Australia sides with Germany and Japan in WWII.

Jane’s particular focus here is not the War, but to explore the father knows best philosophy of that time – and of two of our three past prime ministers! – if it were to be further hardened in law so that women were unable to work, were forced into marriage and child-bearing.

A History of Dreams starts out innocently enough, with schoolgirls Margaret and her younger sister Esther being bullied by boys on the train home from Adelaide Technical High. Matt, a senior boy Margaret has looked up to (and helped with his homework) all her life, fails to step in, but the boys are eventually dispersed by Margaret’s friend Audrey, a ‘revolutionary’ whose father is a trade union leader.

Margaret was well on her way to securing her spot at the top of the class and privately Esther expected Margaret would go on from Adelaide Tech to beome the world’s most famous lady palaentologist. If not her sister, who else would discover Australia’s first dinosaur skeleton? When she did, Esther would write an opera to celebrate the discovery.

The three girls form a ‘club’. Audrey reveals that she has been trained by her maiden great aunt, the latest in a long line of spinsters, to become a witch, able to put dreams in potions which when dropped in a drink induce dreams or nightmares. A fourth girl, Phyllis, who lives in much poorer circumstances than the other three, joins their group (initially maybe just for the cakes).

Margaret’s father refuses to let her go on to uni, and finds her a job as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office until she is able to find herself a husband.

At this point I am thinking about Marie Munkara. This is an angry book, a satire on misogyny as Munkara’s are angry, satires on racism; and I am expecting a black comedy. In fact, I wonder now if that is what Jane was initially intending. But it gradually becomes something else, more dramatic, as the political situation worsens and the young women are variously raped, imprisoned, fall apart from each other, then slowly regather themselves to take their places in the resistance.

And then you cannot help but think of Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things; to think of the systemized misogyny Woods’ outback jail implies, which is here made explicit; to think of the escaped internees returning to the cities to fight back.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. That’s for the author to reveal in her own good time, but it is totally believable, and the ‘witchery’ is properly woven in as any unusual power is in good SF (or SFF).

The story is told in the third person mostly from Margaret’s POV, but sometimes from the other girls’. The resistance find Margaret a job within the Public Service. Here she meets her new boss –

‘They tell me you’re very good,’ he said. ‘Personally, I don’t see why we need to get a woman involved. Plenty of excellent fellows here, perfectly capable of understanding what women want. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing upstairs.’ He smiled thinly at her.

In some ways this was the book for a month ago, before the federal election. But on the other hand what is now understood by ‘everyone’, how out of touch the Prime Minister was with women, how the government, the Liberal Party, was just one long chain of white male privilege from private school to university college to political office jobs to Cabinet, was back then barely spoken of.

Jane starts out with Phyllis reading PC Wren and no, not Beau Geste, but my favourite, the book which informed my adolescence, Beau Ideal. The whole point of Beau Ideal is to do the honourable thing, whatever the cost, a lesson which was lost on me when it came to the test, but which maybe Jane wants us to think about as the four heroines push through considerable adversity.

I guess I was hoping for another quirky Formaldehyde but authors have to be allowed to grow and explore, and Jane Rawson has done that here in a big way and has come up with a powerful book for our times.


Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams, Brio Books, Sydney, 2022. 302pp.

see also my reviews of earlier Jane Rawson fiction:
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, 2013 (here)
Formaldehyde, 2015 (here)
From the Wreck, 2017 (here)

24 thoughts on “A History of Dreams, Jane Rawson

  1. Hi, Bill. I’ve been reading your blog for three or four years now, and I never fail to find your writing interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking.

    At the moment I’m on the lookout for suitable books to put on next year’s reading list for my U3A class ‘Landmarks in Australian Literature’. ‘A History of Dreams’ might be a good one, given that my students are in their 70s and 80s and will have memories of life in the 1930s and 1940s. I’m not a huge SF fan, but I like to include it occasionally.

    By the way, I told my friend Bruce Gillespie about your blog and he was very interested. Bruce is a big name in Australian SF fandom. He publishes ‘SF Commentary’, which you may have heard of.

    Also, I published one of Gerald Murnane’s books many years ago.

    Anyway, thanks for the pleasure your blog gives me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TMICP, you don’t say which Murnane it was that you published, but whichever one it was, I thank you. I love reading Murnane, I’ve read nearly everything that’s published now and will embark on rereading when I’ve read the remaining one which for some strange reason is Barley Patch. I don’t know why I didn’t read it when I bought it.
      For most of my reading life I never thought twice about publishers, but now with the wisdom of my years I have realised that it takes publishers of exceptional good taste, initiative and courage to publish authors like Murnane, James Joyce, and (*wink* not quite in the same league!) Jane Rawson and I do not take those publishers for granted any more.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well it’s nice to be appreciated! I’m sure Jane would be honoured to be a “landmark”. I’m in my 70s, and I grew up with the Depression – not really mentioned here – and WWII, in all my reading, though I imagine I only came across the New Guard and Australian Fascism when I became interested in DH Lawrence.

      Strangely, I avoid participating in the SF side of the blogosphere, having made the decision to concentrate on Australian women, but I keep reading it and find myself occasionally having to defend it – with less theoretical understanding than I would like.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Lisa! Teresa Pitt here. I published Gerald’s fourth novel, Inland, in 1988 when I was at William Heinemann Australia.

    Thanks for your appreciative words about publishers – that’s very kind of you. (I don’t think you were alone in not giving us a second thought!)

    By the way, Bruce Gillespie (mentioned in my original comment) published Gerald’s third novel, The Plains, at Norstrilia Press in 1982.

    I’m a follower of your blog too.


  3. You’ve made this sound fascinating Bill. I don’t mind the SF or alternate history angle, but I do struggle with angry. Grew up in a fairly angry household at times, and as I get older, I shy away from other people’s anger more and more.
    However, I DO like seeing parts of Australia that I know in books, although as I’m writing this, I’m realising I haven’t read much/enough Australian lit this year. Thankfully you do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Rawson and Munkara are angry about misogyny and racism but I didn’t mean to imply that they shout at you about it. A History of Dreams involves interesting characters in some quite desperate situations and the development of both the characters and the situations is done very well; especially when Margaret, thinking she is doing ‘the right thing’ estranges herself from her sister and friends and has to find her way back. I am sure this is a book you (and so I don’t have to write all that again) and Sue, would enjoy.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Brona, just wanted to say a resounding YES to the anger thing. Also now seeing why I don’t like reading about soured marriages, nothing to do with my own one, all to do with the one I grew up from. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love your confidence Bill in your opening sentence. I find it hard to make such pronouncements, which is why I could never be a judge I think, but I agree that these are all great writers to read. You have intrigued me about this latest of Rawson’s. I love how you discuss your changing expectations and assumptions as you were reading. We should probably all share our reading process more in our reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find that if I am home I will set up the review – the title, the cover picture etc – quite early, to focus my mind, and quite often will begin on the opening para.s. I don’t suppose it is surprising that my initial opinion sometimes changes/develops as I am reading. But in this case I think it is the book that changes/develops.
      Although you could also argue that Jane captures perfectly the spirit of the girls over time as they leave school, and their high hopes are dashed by the new government.


      • I sometimes do that too .. and early on will think of an intro. Sometimes that gets me stuck when more and perhaps stronger ideas come to the fore as I read on. Of course I can change it if needed but that can be hard.

        For Jane’s book though it does sound as though your approach matched the book’s trajectory, anyhow.


  5. I enjoyed this write up of Jane Rawson’s book. As you know I attended the launch that was quite light and jovial. The book sounds much more serious. I have it but yet to read it. Just too busy with other books and life in general at the moment. I did enjoy her talking about it though and also this review of it. She does a lot of writing for the land conservancy group now here in Tassie of which I also belong to.


    • Jane, and I only know her print self, has always seemed quite light hearted, and this seemed to carry through into her early fiction. I know that she is also committed to environmental causes (I gave her handbook to my Greenie daughter but didn’t actually read it myself). But I am pleased that she was able to tackle this topic – misogyny – with an unexpected fierceness. Not that the religious male-centred orthodoxy of governments from Afghanistan to the USA don’t demand it.


    • Thank you for alerting him. I hope I don’t annoy him, blundering around Twitter. Perhaps he’ll comment there if he thinks I’m making SF mistakes.And he’ll have to endure a lot of trucking and old Australian women in between!

      Liked by 1 person

      • He’s entirely a lurker on Twitter, just uses it to see reviews and articles and read the ones he’s interested in (he created his own RSS feed from Twitter into Feedly). So fret not!


  6. You know I’m your weird little horror friend when my first thought was, “You had me at killed by cling-wrap.” But anyway, I am drawn to the resilience of the characters you describe and the fact that they defend each other against a horrible world. I’m also interested in books in which characters do struggle to make the right decision. I’ve found myself coming across books with “good guys” who always do the right thing and bored people who always do the most depressing thing.


    • I have no idea how widely available Bad Boy Bubby is, but I hope you get to sit down one Friday night and watch it. We are so Americanized that I’m not able to suggest a comfort food to go with it that you don’t already eat, but maybe, seeing as it’s Friday, fish & chips (with a side serve of squid rings and potato cakes).

      The publisher of the book is Brio, an offshoot of Booktopia online book sellers, but does that mean you can get the ebook version in the US? I don’t know. Hope so, I’m sure A History of Dreams would be right up your street.


      • I Googled around and don’t see it available in the U.S. I only found the two sources you mention. I shall live vicariously through your review!

        I found Bad Boy Bubby free, though!


      • I also read vicariously through reviews, it’s the only way to stay in touch. (And I miss your small press women, whom I remember – through rose coloured glasses – as whacky and experimental).


  7. I can see why you find her work so provocative and satisfying. The way you describe your response to your work reminds me of something I said the other day about James Hannaham, it’s how he will do, whatever he does, that fascinates me. (I doubt he’s available overseas to you, any more than Rawson is over here for me–just one.)


    • Jane always seems to come up with ‘weird’ ideas for her books and then to tie them in with – here and in A Wrong Turn – with topical/pressing issues. Witchery, inducing dreams, and fighting institutionalized patriarchy don’t seem a natural fit at first glance, but she does it very well.


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