Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

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Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003

The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

KSP writes in the preface to the 1963 edition: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story …”. The novel, her first, was published in 1915 and was a success. Nathan Hobby, whose Prichard biography is at this moment at the printers, has more to say about the book’s origins here.

She goes on: “It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.” And hence we may infer that Wirreeford stands in for Yarram.

For the benefit of foreigners, Gippsland is that part of Victoria to the east of Melbourne and south of the Victorian Alps (map, Yarram out to the east, near the coast). It is hilly, damp, fertile and green, home once to enormous eucalypts, their range now greatly restricted by clear felling for farming and timber milling. Though, as I remember from my childhood there, the sandy coastal regions feature mostly scrubby paper barks. South Gippsland is Gunai country, though Prichard doesn’t pay the original inhabitants much attention. The Gunai were dispersed by a series of massacres of which you may read more here.

The Pioneers is historical fiction covering the early days of white settlement, which began, in this area, in the 1840s. Miles Franklin claimed in the 1930s (I can’t locate a source for this statement) that she and Steele Rudd were the progenitors of a uniquely Australian school of fiction dealing with the lives of ordinary families in the Bush, which she distinguishes from the ‘mateship’/Lone Hand/ Bulletin school (Gen 2); from the urban modernism and social realism of the years between the Wars (Gen 3); and from earlier ‘upper class’ novels of bush life, such as those by Henry Kingsley and Ada Cambridge (Gen 1).

I have written before that in the 1970s, John Hirst and Judith Godden posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman/Lone Hand (“the Australian Legend”) had been ameliorated in the 1930s by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth. Miles Franklin was a big part of that, but it is clear that The Pioneers, which predates MF’s re-flowering as a writer of pioneer fiction by a couple of decades, must earn KSP at least co-progenitor status.

That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in, and some lovely descriptive prose.

The novel begins with Donald and Mary Cameron making their way inland from ‘Port Southern’ into hilly, forested country. Donald is a Scot and Mary is Welsh. Sticking closely to ethnic stereotypes, Donald is as well known for being tight-fisted and Mary tells stories about fairies. I’m not sure that without the notes we’d know where or when we are. It is clear that the couple are pioneers, squatting on uncleared land in the bush but the nearest we get to locating ourselves is the arrival of escaped convicts from Port Arthur/Hobart Town over the water (though that’s hardly specific as Mary Bryant for instance escaped by boat as far as Jakarta).

A few months later .. A one-roomed hut, built of long, rough-barked saplings, ranged one above the other, and thatched with coarse reddish-brown bark, laid on in slabs, stood on the brow of the hill not far from the dray’s first resting place.

A light under the door indicates a restless night and in the morning Donald emerges with a bundle wrapped in a shawl, his son Davey. Unlike most pioneer families, that’s it for issue and Davey remains an only child.

The convicts above are important because they arrive when Donald is away, but Mary, apparently unafraid, helps them, making of one a friend for life, who when he returns a few years later with his daughter Deidre, becomes the local schoolmaster.

Donald prospers. Davey and Deidre grow up side by side. A little township forms. A bushfire sweeps through while Donald is away (again) and Mary is saved by the Schoolmaster. The pioneer side of the story declines in importance and instead, as we concentrate on the second generation we get into Walter Scott territory with villainous publicans, rival lovers and cattle rustling.

Deidre watched Davey going out of Narrow Valley in dim starlight of the early spring morning, the mob, hustled by Teddy and the dogs, a stream of red and brown and dappled hides before him.

I’ve read a few KSP’s – Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, Haxby’s Circus that I can think of – and I’ve generally found her prose awkward, stilted. That is not the case here. Perhaps as is so often the case, her first book was her best book. The descriptions flow. The action flows. It’s a good story, well told.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, first pub. 1915. Revised edition (pictured) Rigby, 1963. Kindly loaned to me by Lisa/ANZLL.

For other KSP reviews see AWW Gen 2 page (here)

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

This, to my great surprise, is a guest post from Lou. I didn’t know he was reading Australian fiction, let alone, as he says, Bush Lit. Now all my children have contributed a post.

Lou is a teacher, currently in the Northern Territory. Over the past 15 years he has taught mainly in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne, but also in London, Kenya (where the photo below was taken), Morocco and Malawi.

A Kindness Cup (1974) is set some time in the past in a small country town in Queensland and was “loosely” based by Astley on the massacre at The Leap in 1867.

Lead on, Lou …


I approached this text as a piece of Australian bush lit, as I approached a fresh posting in a rural town in Australia. Should I say ‘Country’? It seems a thing that might be capitalised, and asserted thus, here. A particular context of its own. It is conceptually a long way from anywhere I’ve been at home before. I am extensively familiar neither with the genre or the context. I came to both from a wary but willing second hand acquaintance. As an earnest, highminded and alien teacher, I felt prepared from the outset to take the part of protagonist, Dorahy.

In this story Dorahy, a schoolteacher, has encountered an act of racist brutality. The perpetrators of ‘the incident’ were exonerated and the teacher left town in disgust. This is prelude to a time, much later, when the leading lights of the town are inviting former denizens back to celebrate their success in making something to be proud of.

That Astley engages with race I understood entirely from theaustralianlegend. So I was surprised at how little a part the Black characters played. I recognise the impulse to shirk the challenge of characterisation- I am, as I say, much better prepared to describe the internal life of the white teacher from the city. I recognise the weight of responsibility such a task entails.

In a meeting last week I watched my team leader, a Black woman from a local mob with much the same experience and qualifications as myself, hedge around descriptions that specified race. We were discussing students with problems, or maybe problem students, and race arose as a factor for consideration (the school being 70% Aboriginal, including a mixture of local communities and displaced outsiders). Me being new, and the third teacher being very young, I expect that any particular language or opinion she wished to assert would have been accepted as her right, but she was clearly as careful and awkward as a white professor presenting a lecture on Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, white masks’.

Later in the week, the middle-aged-white-boy school principal, with long experience of working in very remote Aboriginal community schools, led us in consideration of the ‘school opinion survey’. He apologised a lot for the numbers, and launched repeatedly, unabashedly, into direct descriptions (perhaps intending wit, or displaying sympathy) of his experience of the differences between ‘middle class white boys’ and ‘our community kids’.

So Astley’s characters are not black, or brown. Indeed, their racial/cultural/language group origins are unremarked, while the Blacks are consistently identified by their ‘mob’ (conversely: my paternal grandmother, from a generation of Country similar to Astley, might not know the names of any Victorian first-nations, but she could sure as hell tell you who in whichever small town was Anglican, or Methodist, or Catholic). The characters are heartfelt and thickly outlined- the shortness of the text does not provide space for sophistry. Dorahy’s snaggly toothed middle-aged (“youngish” in his own memories) idealist is caught in classroom vignettes, while his bitter, worn-down old man is made clear mostly though his impression on those around him. One imagines Astley, like even the most sympathetic of her townsfolk, finds his long-fermented ardour for recognition a bit on the nose. Lunt, who is brutalised and mutilated in the affair, spends much of the text as a removed, saintly example of the victim. The horror of it lies in that he, too, is white.

Nor, mostly, are Astley’s characters women. It is men who have acted in the affair in question. The one female character who is drawn beyond a few words is Gracie Tilburn, a singer and former town darling. The women are barely active enough to be ‘damned whores or god’s police’, but Tilburn has the character of the former, while her considered regard (or otherwise) for the men about her signals their virtue. She likes ‘young’ Jenner (a good kid from Dorahy’s class, and a blandly successful man in the present day), but wakes up with the villain Buckminster, and derides his chubby thighs (alike to her own), and ushers him out the door with barely concealed loathing (for both self and other). Spoiler: As the text draws to a close she is asked to choose between the (“fat, shapeless, and unheroic to look at”) town hack, Boyd, who (showing “virtue.. in his face or his smile”) has been amoral, except in the end), and the unredeemed, (also unattractive) mass of the status quo (including Buckminster of the unfortunate encounter). I was engaged sufficiently at this point to hope the hack’s smile was virtuous enough to invite a happy ending.

As the arbiter of what is good, Teacher Dorahy is, I assume, an acolyte of Arnold (I’ll let theaustralianlegend check the dates [Headmaster of Rugby 1828-41] ). His mission to enlighten the savage Country-men comes with a book and a burning cane (although he is light on the cane- he shows his disdain for young Buckminster after ‘the incident’ not by whipping him harder, but by declining to whip him at all). His wisdom is punctuated with Greek and Latin (presumably from vitally important texts, “the best of all that has been thought and done by mankind [north of the Mediterranean]”, which I’ll get around to once I’ve mastered the canon of Australian bush literature). The townsfolk show their substance in a hierarchy of economic satisfaction- from the comfortably established, to unlucky (or incompetent) Lunt who can’t find a farm with water, to the poor Blacks. They show their virtue in a willingness to offer charity to those lower on this scale. The best of them do not blame the Blacks for their collectively pitiable condition, nor do they root the Black women (the topic arises several times, and is met with shame or disgust depending on circumstances).

But, perhaps this is not sufficient to judge Astley’s morality. From a distance, the trio of Dorahy, Boyd and Lunt might represent the intelligentsia, the media and the common man. Dorahy speaks of morality, but his manifest actions are only in speaking. Boyd, while afraid to rock the boat, has actively done good (taking in the orphan of the incident), and tries to end his career (albeit with little to lose) on a moral note. Lunt is the victim, but he is also a battler clearly written for greatest sympathy. His character is clearest when, invited to take part in the mob, he declines:

“You’ll warn them?” [he is asked]

“I’ll do whatever I think proper.”

“You’ll regret this,” Buckmaster threatened.

“No. You don’t understand,” Lunt said. “You never regret obeying conscience.”

Lunt indeed suffers for his moral choices, and still manages goodwill – righteous vengeance is never his agenda. Perhaps bush lit writers, like school teachers, sit somewhere between the press and the intelligentsia, and this is an exhortation to yet another lumpen ‘other’ to be better (under our hand). Far from being the ‘common man’, Lunt is exceptional, and perhaps the most unlikely, among a slate of characters that are almost caricatures of the familiar.

Indeed, from the awkward sympathy for the subaltern, to the burning of the free press, this town seems familiar in everything but its buggies and traps. Astley captures the tension between those who would celebrate the past and those who would flay it bare. Her conclusion is a simile for the times as bitter and unleavened as anything by Orwell. Our times or hers, or those of the setting, seems to make little difference.

But to read with the righteous anger of Dorahy is only to find part of the truth. I take it as worthwhile reading, but I also see in the constituency of the Country (and I do not mean Australia, but as defined above) much to redeem it. The problems characterised by the incident are real and ongoing: manifest in my class and my colleagues today, but I meet any number of people trying expressly to find their way through. Many of them are Black. Perhaps a hundred years is just too little time.

A Kindness Cup is a passionate and valuable narrative depiction of an Anglo struggle. It is not the whole story, but a fragment. I had expected Australian bush lit to be a foray into something as distant as green Mars, and instead found myself engaged in one of the most vital discussions of our times.

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Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, first pub. 1974

see also Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

A letter from America*

Continuing on from my review of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (2008) my buddy and buddy-reader in America, Melanie/Grab the Lapels has written that she has been forced to DNF.

Hey Bill,

I’m at 27% and I LOATHE this novel. I’m learning less about the way people feel about parenting and children and more about who is sticking their erection in whom, and where. I hoped the tone was just the first character,  but Anouk is basically the same as Hector,  and Harry is no different from them. Women are either weak hippy moms or sluts. I think the author hoped to write strong women, but if you flip the genders of Anouk and her boyfriend, it’s like the author is still writing a cutting male POV with a dopey younger girlfriend. I’m tapping out; the message is aggressively toxic in an exhausting way, and I am fearful I shall hate all of Australia if I keep reading. 

Best, Melanie

So this is what she meant earlier in the week when she commented that reading The Slap made her feel like she “was being pursued by penises”.

When we made the plan to have The Slap read by today we left open what form her response would take, though I was probably inclined towards a guest post. We exchanged some more emails (and feral animal photos). She suggested a conversation. I got her permission to use her letter.

A conversation would have been interesting – it’s a form of post that she and fellow mid westerner and blogger Jackie/Death by Tsundoku occasionally use to great effect in the series #Reading Valdemar they have been buddy reading for the past 15 months – but Melanie’s initial response to The Slap was so visceral that I really wanted to use it upfront.

The following night, she expanded a little …

I was thinking this morning, one of the reasons a book so focused on a man’s relationship with his genitals is boring is because writers often give that man nothing else for personality. I read books that include lots of sex, but when they’re written by women, there are moments between her sexual experiences that give readers a more nuanced character. With Tsiolkas, if his character isn’t with his mistress, he’s with his wife, and if he’s not with his wife he’s asking his son if he thinks black women are sexy, and if he’s not making it weird with his son he’s rubbing his penis on the glass balcony while ogling teen girls. I mean, Jesus. I’m sure there are folks out there debating if only sexual prudes hate this book. But consider this: the only novel I can think of by a woman that is so focused on what the female character’s genitals are doing is Tampa by Alissa Nutting, and that novel is about a pedophile.

One of my young in-laws from one of my marriages was gay, and very noisy about it. One time he introduced his latest lover to us with, “He’s the bitch. I’m on top”. This apparently was important to him and something that he felt his mother and I should know. Melanie’s remarks about Tsiolkas remind me of this. And remind me also that Hector is a paedophile and that in the end an issue – his coming on to his wife’s 17 year old employee – which should surely have meant the end of his marriage, is glossed over.

Is Tsiolkas a sexual writer or an aggressively sexual writer? I’ve read Loaded, Dead Europe and The Slap and now I’m tending towards the latter. Does this maybe result from him being both gay and Greek/Australian?

“I’m a man I say in a deep drawl. And I take it up the arse.” “Of course you do”, she answers, “you’re Greek, we all take it up the arse.”

[From Loaded, and I know, used by me just a few weeks ago.]

So probably ‘yes’. And there you have it. Two views of The Slap, both adverse, from opposite sides of the globe. I won’t stop reading Tsiolkas, just as not liking him doesn’t stop me reading Peter Carey. They are important parts of the Australian literary conversation, with which I struggle to keep up. Or, if you prefer, up with which I struggle ….

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Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008. The US version of the tv series (pictured above) was first shown on NBC, Feb-Apr, 2015.

See Also:
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (review)
Australian Grunge (here)


*Apologies to Alastair Cooke

The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas (1965 – ) might have started out all rebellious, inner suburban and edgy, but The Slap (2008) has him situated with all he pretends to despise in middle class middlebrow Australian/Melbournian leafy suburban life and writing. The Slap is a waste, a waste of my limited reading time, a waste of his talent.

I will say the worst thing I can about The Slap. It was not written to be read, it was written to be marketed, to generate argument, to generate sales. It is not a novel, just a list of issues wrapped around a thin story. I could say good luck to him. Perhaps he looked at Liane Moriarty’s sales and felt envious. But I expected more.

What are the issues? Corporal punishment, of course, by a person not the child’s parent or teacher; paedophilia; domestic violence; multi-ethnic relationships; homosexuality; abortion; adultery; suburban tedium; they all get a run. Some of them I have opinions about, well all of them really, but not in the context of this review. Interestingly, in light of Loaded, drugs are not an ‘issue’, everyone just takes them.

The story starts with a backyard bbq hosted by Hector and his wife Aisha. Hector is a Greek-Australian public servant, boring as batshit; Aisha, despite her Muslim name, is an Anglo-Indian with her own veterinary practice. Both are fortyish. They live in Northcote, a gentrified northern suburb of Melbourne, not inner and trendy like the adjacent Fitzroy, but more than ok. In fact the only joy of this book is that Tsiolkas knows Melbourne and gets all the suburbs just right.

It was a tacky pokies pub in the middle of nowhere, boganville. Every street looked the same, every house looked the same, everybody looked the same. It was where you came to die. Zombies lived here. He could hear them monotonously tapping away at the machines.

Richie: And as he subsequently ends up at a flat in Whitehorse Rd, he’s presumably talking about the Blackburn Hotel.

At the party are Hector’s cousin Harry a successful mechanic/garage owner who lives in an expensive bayside MacMansion (think Shane Warne); Hector’s parents; Aisha’s brother (who plays no part in the story); Aisha’s besties, Rosie and Anouk, from her schooldays in Perth’s Scarborough Beach; various wives, husbands and children; and two teenagers who are in year 12 together – Connie who works part-time in Aisha’s surgery, and Richie whose mother does likewise. I seem to have left out the token Indigenous guy who with his wife has converted to Islam, they pop up occasionally playing bit-parts.

Rosie and her alcoholic husband have a three year old boy, Hugo, who is still breast-fed and who is totally unrestrained. Hugo when given out at cricket lifts a bat at Harry’s older and larger son Rocco. Harry instinctively smacks him on the bum. The party breaks up in outrage and disbelief. Rosie goes to the police, who lay charges.

The story, being told initially by Hector, is carried forward in turns by most of the people named above, which leads to a lot of unnecessary digression.

Anouk for instance is a screen-writer for what is obviously Neighbours – Tsiolkas even has her driving out to Channel Ten’s outer eastern suburban studios, just across the paddocks from my parents’ first Melbourne house, in Blackburn South – with a younger lover who is an actor in the series.

And so while Hector (40) lech’s over Connie (17); Harry restrains his violence with a mistress in the (working class) western suburbs; Anouk gets pregnant, has an abortion, starts work on the Great Australian Novel; Richie deals with his gayness; Connie chooses a boyfriend and becomes, with Richie, Hugo’s babysitter; Hector’s father deals with being retired and being Greek; Aisha attends a conference in Thailand, gets laid and discovers that apart from still being extremely good looking Hector doesn’t have much going for him; they all take sides, with all the Greeks on Harry’s side and everyone else on Rosie’s. There’s the court case. There’s lots of subsidiary drama, yes I know, all straight out of the Neighbours playbook; and after the best part of a year everyone seems to be no further ahead than they were.

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Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008


Melanie/Grab the Lapels and I read this as a buddy read. She doesn’t review men writers on GTL but she has written to me with her responses and I will put them up in a couple of days (just as soon as I get home). Meanwhile, I have turned off Comments and I hope you will save them up till you have read us both.


See Also:
Bill curates: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, (Whispering Gums)
Melanie’s response: A letter from America (here)

A Curious Intimacy, Jessica White

Jess White is an Australian writer, aged 29 when this, her first novel came out in 2007. I hesitate to assign her to a state. She’s now Brisbane, Qld based, was born and raised in rural NSW, and has spent a fair amount of time in WA, where this book is set, researching Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843).

We know Jess well in this corner of the blogosphere from her work with the Australian Women Writers Challenge where she was disability editor (she’s deaf); she and I have been irregular correspondents for a few years though we are yet to be in the same place at the same time for coffee; she has contributed guest posts here (listed below); and I reviewed her most recent work, Hearing Maud, last year.

I didn’t know I had A Curious Intimacy or I would have read it ages ago, but came upon it last week looking for something else in the shelves in the lounge room which mostly house books I’ve had for years, 40 or 50 mostly, plus some of my father’s and even a few of my grandfathers’. It’s inscribed on the flyleaf to my most recent ex-wife for her birthday in 2007. She must have left it behind. The previous year I gave her Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net which described people and situations she knew or knew of, so it was a big success. This one maybe not so much so.

The novel is set in the 1870s apparently, though I’m not sure that is clear from the text, on a partially cleared property near Busselton, 220 km south of Perth, WA. The English took possession of WA in 1829 and the Busselton region, on the south west coast, which is hilly, well watered and heavily forested with giant jarrah, tuart and marri trees, was occupied by white setllers, including the Molloys, in 1832, though European settlement in WA didn’t really take off until the Kalgoorlie/Coolgardie goldrushes in the 1890s.

Ingrid, thirtyish, the narrator, is on a one-woman expedition to collect and illustrate flowers from WA’s south west for a book her father is writing back in Adelaide, SA. She has disembarked at Albany on the south coast and is slowly making her way north with her horse, Thistle. This is the country of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance whose Indigenous hero, Bobby, Ingrid may have bumped into in his old age. In fact Ingrid briefly mentions collecting wildflowers at Esperance, 600 km east of Albany, though I’m guessing she only disembarked there during a stopover rather than riding between the two settlements, which would have been an expedition on its own that might have given her the opportunity of meeting Kim Scott’s (and Claire G. Coleman’s) great grandmother, Benang on the way.

However, the local Indigenous people, the Nyungar, are only lightly touched on in this story, some are servants, and there are still some moving around the bush who call in occasionally for rations, which is I think an accurate representation of how things were at that time (the 1901 census counted just 1,500 Indigenous people in the whole of the South-West (here)).

The scenery, and the flowers particularly, are lovingly and accurately described, so Jess must already have commenced her Georgiana Molloy project which should finally result in an eco-biography next year (2021).

The evening before I’d redrawn my rough illustrations of a lemon-scented Darwinia I’d found on granite outcrop near Albany. It was an odd plant, with a bell-shaped flower head surrounded by red bracts and cupped by sharp leaves. Four long styles extended from the bell like yellow needles.

In the first few pages Ingrid is attacked, escapes, abandons her pack horse, and makes her way to a farm seeking refuge. There she finds a woman of her own age and class, Ellyn, whose husband has been forced by drought to go cattle droving up north, while the farm manager left behind has taken off with all their money, her money really, given on her marriage by her wealthy father back in England. And there she stays.

I thought the writing started out awkwardly, but the author soon hits her stride as Ingrid and Ellyn feel each other out. Ellyn has had a baby which has died, is severely depressed and has behaved irrationally, leading to her being (or feeling) ostracized by her fellows.

Slowly, Ingrid brings Ellyn out of herself and we become familiar with her neighbours, who are all, mostly, understanding and forgiving. Slowly also, we become aware of Ingrid’s backstory. She has come on this adventure to get over the loss (to marriage) of her friend Helena

“Please hold me, Miss Markham”, she [Ellyn] begged. “No one has touched me since Amy died! Oh, how I miss her!” I crawled under the covers and gathered her to me. Her breath blew against my neck and soon I felt awkward; the last person I had held like this had been Helena.

Their relationship grows. Their closest friends in the town help them suppress rumours. The husband returns. Ingrid flees back to Adelaide where she finds Helena has returned from her honeymoon in Europe. Ingrid mixes once more in Adelaide society. I was hoping she would run into if not Catherine Martin who might have been a bit young then at least Catherine Helen Spence and her companion Jeannie Lewis, but that’s not the story Jess is telling (Hey Jess, In all those books that Ingrid and Ellyn shared you might at least have included CHS’s Clara Morrison (1854)).

This is a contemplative, sometimes erotic novel and I greatly enjoyed it.

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Jessica White, A Curious Intimacy, Viking, Melbourne, 2007. 300pp.

See Also:
“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”: The Single Noongar Claim History (here)
Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here)
Jessica White, Georgiana Molloy: Collector of Seeds and Words (here)
Sister Sorrow, Rosa Praed (Jess White’s review)
The Mysterious Box, Dorothy Cottrell (Jess White’s review)
Hearing Maud, Jessica White (review)


I did all this using the block editor and ok, it wasn’t too bad. The wildflowers, which are photos I’ve taken over the years, from country north of Perth to which Ingrid makes an excursion before leaving WA, I put in just to try out image size, alignment and flowing text. The middle one’s a xmas tree, which comes up in the story.

You can probably see I used quote blocks which aren’t perfect but they’ll do.

The only way I could NOT have text around the cover was to not align it (apparently then it gets no HTML). Once you’ve aligned it you can’t go back – I had to delete one draft and start again.

I struggled to make the cover the ‘featured image’, I selected it 3 or 4 times before it finally appeared in the sidebar.

These last para.s I used a classic block just so I could have a horizontal line above them. I don’t see that line anywhere else.

Sorry for all the whingeing!

The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Ivan Čapovski

That is an odd painting, on the cover, based on a well-known photograph of Miles Franklin in nurses uniform, in Macedonia during WWI, but then this is an odd book. And shockingly for me, it is the book I said the other day that I had begun to write. My first lines (for the nonce) go:

In 2020 I am an old man and Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is of my great grand parents’ generation, separated from now by gulfs of time, gender and geography. Yet this is me telling her story, imperfectly of course, but if you know my defects perhaps you will recognise the defects in my story telling, will maybe make a clearer picture of Stella/Miles, because of course we all think of her as Miles, than my own words, unmediated can convey.

What are my defects? Well first of all and maybe last, I am as I say an old man, an old white Australian man, and what do old men know of young women, very little. Very little when they were young men, and just as little when they’re old. Though daughters help, and wives and girlfriends. When they’re not grimacing, turning away. Listen to them. You’ll be surprised. I was. And what do old men know of old women? Nothing at all, they’re too busy thinking of young women. Old women pass them by.

As I read, I realise that I know more about MF than does the author, but that he, a Macedonian is of course much better placed to situate Franklin – whom he calls Miles throughout and not Stella as she was almost certainly known – in the complex, indeed Byzantine, geopolitics of Macedonia where she for six months, between July 1917 and Feb. 1918, served as a volunteer with Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Ostrovo.

Čapovski (b. 1936) has Franklin as a nurse, almost at the frontlines of the war, where a bewildering array of Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians are blood enemies from deep in their shared histories. But in fact the SWH unit, under the command of Australian Dr Mary De Garis, was well back from the conflict behind Serbian lines, and Franklin was an orderly, in Stores and assisting the matron (probably because she could type).

Franklin wrote about this period in the extended essay Ne Mari Ništa (It Matters Nothing): Six Months with the Serbs which I am yet to locate, and I wrote about her in Miles Franklin’s War for Anzac Day 2016. What Čapovski has read I can’t be sure. My concern in writing this fiction was how much research it would take. Čapovski seems to have a good if occasionally mistaken general knowledge of Franklin – and total familiarity with Macedonia’s geography and history – and has taken it from there.

You of course want to know how I reconcile my oft stated dislike of Historical Fiction, of WWI Hist.Fic in particular, and of authors with protagonists of the opposite gender, with my intention of writing just such a work. I make no excuses. My model was to have been Brian Matthews’ marvellous Louisa with all my defects, biases and failures of research out in the open for you all to see.

You might also ask how I can bear the errors in Čapovski’s account of Franklin’s life. The answer, I think, is that this Miles Franklin is a fiction just as the Sybylla’s were; just as Justine is in Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (both cases in which the authors gave up writing because they were so often conflated with their protagonists). Čapovski imagines a life for this 38 year old Australian single woman, and the things he gets ‘wrong’ – Franklin’s home being Talbingo, Linda (MF’s sister) dying before MF leaves for America, Franklin working on My Career Goes Bung (in fact the ms was lost until well after the War), and on Up the Country (not started until 1927) – these things don’t impinge on the story. Even Franklin being a frontline nurse instead of a behind the lines orderly is not particularly important. There were a number of Australian women in different roles at Ostrovo and any one of them could have been the protagonist. I’m just pleased that Macedonia remembers that ‘we’ were there.

The author discusses his decision to build his novel around Miles Franklin in an Afterword which I have chosen not to read until after this review is posted.

So what’s the story? In fact, is this a story, or just a cross-section of lives briefly intersecting near the end of the War? More the latter. Franklin arrives at the camp, makes friends with Lina a local girl whose fiancee has been conscripted not once but twice by the various powers vying to incorporate Macedonia. Two men, a poet and a photographer*, once friends, find themselves attached to opposing armies, save each other from death, move on, run into each other again, talk, shoot, end up in adjacent hospital beds. Macedonian villagers are enslaved by the Bulgarians in 1916, by the French and the Serbs in 1917. One young man kills a French officer in a futile attempt to protect his wife and baby, runs, hides, seeks refuge in the hospital at Ostrovo. The War goes on. In the Balkans the war is always going on. MF rests in the summer sun

What did poet EJ Brady who was in love with her, say to her back in 1904? To write about love .. To write about love. Love is like the snake: both conceal venom… She has never had anything against men. She has simply questioned their dominance.

I might have written an interesting novel about Miles Franklin aged 20-40 as I intended, but Čapovski does MF in Macedonia better than I could ever have hoped, because Macedonia and its history is his home territory. Don’t read this novel to learn more about Miles Franklin, but gloss over the minor errors in her back story, and read a fascinating account of a woman writer from the other side of the world observing, swept up in, one more iteration of the ancient conflicts which men have inflicted on each other in these mountains since before recorded history.

 

Ivan Čapovski, The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Cadmus Press, Melbourne, 2020. 280pp. Published in Macedonia, 2004. Translated by Paul Filev. Cover art by Aleksandar Stankoski. (website).

Further reading:
Miles Franklin page (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Dianne Bell, Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter (here)
Australians Working with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Debbie Robson
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Australians talk, Debbie Robson


*The photographer, Jasen Krstanov, says that he is inspired by the Australian writer and war correspondent AG Hales (1860-1936)

Grace, Karenlee Thompson

This is me practicing block editing on Karenlee, whose Grace has just been shortlisted for The Scottish Arts Trust Short Story Award 2020 (as notified by Lisa) – Do you like the pop-up menu when you highlight text? Very Word for Windows, but it WON’T GO AWAY.

First I DuckDuckGo “Grace Karenlee Thomson” and select Images. There’s no cover of course so here’s Karenlee booksigning at Stanthorpe. I like my images all the same size – longest dimension 420 – but there’s no sidebar for the dimensions to appear in so I am left guessing. The image sits in the centre of the draft but in the preview is left aligned. Why!

Further searching uncovers that the book being signed is her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe (Lisa’s review) in 2011.

So, Grace. Grace is a clever short story built around the old children’s rhyme

Monday's child is fair of face
Tuesday's child is full of grace
Wednesday's child is full of woe
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Yes, I used a verse block (thankyou Melanie) but if there’s a way of indenting it – always in the top menu in the classic editor – then it’s beyond me. (Though I see that it is automatically indented one character). I preview, and the text for the poem is large typewriter. Can I HTML? Yes. I try deleting part of the code and lose the block. I copy the text into Word (from Wiki), convert it to Calibri and copy it in. As you see, no change.

Press on. Karenlee starts with Wednesday’s child Marika, who works hard at three jobs and dreams of living in the Greek Islands from whence came her family. Thursday’s child is Billy, a vego. Friday, Derek, a father. Each day a new ‘child’, a dozen lines.

Just when you are thinking this is an interesting conceit but is it going anywhere, it does. Tuesday’s child – Grace of course – pulls it all together. Delightful. Read it here (pressing Read More downloads a pdf).

. (what I really want is a blank block to give the appearance of double spacing)

Grace, Karenlee Thompson, 2020

And now Categories and Tags. The left side of the editor is taken up by block options. Go Away! I click the coggy thing, upper right. Blocks go away and now I have a menu on the right. Click Post. Ok, there we are.

There is a GAN, revisited

Voss

I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

Drylands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

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Thea Astley (1925-2004) was one of Australia’s finest and fiercest writers. We can argue at another time whether she belongs in AWW Gen 3 (1919-1960) or Gen 4 (probably the latter). A Queenslander, her concerns were Queensland’s shocking history of Aboriginal oppression and murders, and women’s rights – in this book, the antediluvian attitude of rural Queensland men to their wives.

Astley never actually lived in central Queensland though she seems to know it pretty well. She grew up in Brisabane, lived for a while in the far north, and she surely knows that long train ride up and down the Queensland coast which appears in this and some other of her books.

Drylands, the small dying town hours west of Rockhampton, which is her nominal subject here, is based on Springsure, an hour south of Emerald (which she calls Red Plains). Years ago when I was road training Melbourne – Townsville, I would cross the NSW-Qld border from Bourke and run up through Roma, Injune, Carnarvon Gorge, Rolleston, Springsure, Emerald and on to Charters Towers (map). Good country, heavily treed through the Carnarvon Gorge, but achingly dry as Astley describes it.

I was through there again last year and I’m not sure that Springsure is as small or as near death as the fictional Drylands, but that’s poetic licence. To make sure we know where she’s talking about she mentions the Madonna on the mount (Virgin Rock) – which, like shapes in clouds, is a bit hard to pick out – and the proximity to Carnarvon Gorge.

No more geography. Drylands (1999) was Astley’s last novel and the fourth of her Miles Franklin winners. For the first couple of chapters I thought she was struggling. She starts with the fictional writer writing this work, the go-to cliche of tired postmodernism,

Thinks: I could begin onceupona or manyyearsago or inadistantcountry. It’s been done. I don’t like it. Or a spot of Calvino clutter – no matter how meticulously brilliant – as if some gabmouth has found a defenceless alienist and vacant couch and is determined, the nerd, to fill the poor bastard in on every nuance of landscape, movement, his reactions thereto …

then more or less flings random words at the page before finally settling into some sort of rhythm. The novel proceeds as a series of interconnected stories featuring Janet typing away upstairs from her dying newsagency; not-Franzi Massig, a whistleblower from the south, forced to adopt another man’s name, who squats in a shack by the creek on the land of failing farmer …; Jim Randler who, memories vivid of his one trip to the coast as a boy, decides to build himself a yacht he can live in; Clem and Joss who own the pub, the Legless Lizard, failing despite determined drinkers fed a constant diet of beer and sports; Paddy Locke, the one woman intellectual centre of the town, and sole occupant of the ladies lounge; Benny Shoforth her determinedly peaceful neighbour who has his house resumed by the mayor …; Howie Briceland whose father had taken the opportunity of his wife’s taking the kids for a holiday to rape the 12 year old Aboriginal maid, before packing her off to a reservation where she had and was promptly separated from her baby  … Benny. And so it goes round and round.

There are other women who appear for just one chapter and are harassed and assaulted by men. Eve, contracted by the government to take writing classes to women in the bush, attracts a stalker; Ro, one of the four women in the class, whose farmer husband regards getting his own lunch out of the fridge as a threat to his manhood, and belts Ro in front of the other women to make his point; Lannie, saddled with a husband who needs his ‘quiet time’ and six footballer sons, who walks out, gets committed, and quite enjoys the peace; Joss, co-owner of the pub, who gets chased out of town by two men, who pursue her to the coast when she finds work there.

Drylands is a severely dysfunctional and dying town. I’m sure Astley intends it as a microcosm of all that is wrong with rural Queensland (although she fails to mention widespread illegal land clearing and water theft). What I suspect is that it is also a ‘microcosm’ of a bigger book. That she was too ambitious in what, at 70 years of age, she set out to do. And so we are left with an unsatisfactory framing device; characters who flit in and out with very little meat on their bones; a minimal plot – people get old, or tired, or worn down, and leave or die, Queensland men are bastards, the town dies.

Shabbiness defeated her. The shop. The Town. The empty street outside in the brightening late morning. And in addition the meaningless quality of her years. The victory would be in leaving.

Astley is a better writer than this. Perhaps her MF in this year was a consolation for her missing out three years earlier with The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. I check what else was shortlisted and see that Drylands was in fact equal winner with Kim Scott’s Benang. I am gobsmacked. The MF judges’ capacity for timid decisions knows no bounds.

 

Thea Astley, Drylands, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999