Her Last Words, Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly is an Australian author, who grew up in Sydney, found her first vocation as a book editor and her second as a writer of fiction. She doesn’t give us her age and I won’t bother guessing. Over the course of her writing career, she had a publisher, lost her publisher “as interest fell off”, and began self publishing. Now, in her latest (Sept 2021) newsletter she writes, “All of my independently published novels – eleven of them – have been removed from sale in Australia and New Zealand to make way for beautiful new Brio Books editions from Booktopia.”

This spurred me to check out BorrowBox and, as I write, I am up to the last chapter of Her Last Words (Kelly’s tenth, published 2020, but set a few years earlier). And to be clear, I am enjoying it very much.

What I want to discuss is how we define “middlebrow” or “general” fiction, and how we separate out Literary Fiction, which is the general concern of this corner of the blogosphere – though of course we all condescend to dip our toes from time to time in genre fiction which may or may not be Literary. And before Kim starts firing bullets at me across the continent, let me say that while I get the impression that she, maybe for financial reasons, aims at the “general” market, there is absolutely no difference in quality between Her Last Words and say, Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, let alone other authors mysteriously taken up by the literati – you knew I’d say Jane Harper, Evie Wyld, Peggy Frew and so on.

It is germane to this discussion that the great majority of reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge are for works/authors you and I don’t bother reading and which of course sell in quantities that make every literary author green with envy. So what is the distinction?

Some of it is clearly class and/or education. Let us say that General fiction is aimed at middle class women for their entertainment; and Literary fiction is aimed at upper (by education rather than wealth or birth) middle class, men and women, for their … improvement.

Literary fiction should be marked by innovation in writing and in subject matter. However, what passes for Literary fiction most of the time, as the Miles Franklin Award demonstrates year after year, is just entertainment for the slightly better educated.

Her Last Words is a Rom.Com/Police Procedural/Medical Drama. At its centre are two characters, Penny, a senior book editor, and John, an actor, friends, both thirtyish; and a Sydney suburb, Bondi, slightly shabby, famously beachside. Having Penny in the industry allows Kelly many opportunities to vent about publishing (in particular, the wankers in corner offices profiting from the labour of tireless senior book editors), and to write about writing.

There are plenty of other characters – Fizz, an aspiring writer, Penny’s best friend and John’s partner; Jane, Fizz’s flatmate and definitely The Villain; Rich, an Irishman who owns a not very successful Bondi bookshop; Viv, a (sixth generation) Chinese-Australian doctor with colourful hair and shoes; a police detective whose name I forget; a failed banker/druggie; a truck driver even, whose truck facilitates a suicide.

As in life, there are interlinking plots. John and Fizz have a falling out; John gets very ill; Penny deals with an unsatisfactory job; Jane passes off someone else’s manuscript as her own and is on the way to becoming the next big thing; there’s an unexpected death; romance blooms, but very slowly.

The characters are well drawn, we love them, or hiss the villian, appropriately. Bondi is a character in its own right. It’s a long time, 25 years maybe, since I’ve been there, and it’s probably been gentrified out of sight. But Kelly evokes it beautifully and lovingly. She doesn’t live there now but surely she must have in the past.

I had hoped to get hold of an ebook so as to write a proper review with quotes (and properly spelt names) and all, but I guess they have been temporarily lost in the transfer of rights to Brio. which is launching all Kim Kelly’s books next month.

You may remember that a couple of years ago Kim won the wadholloway award for blogpost of the year (2019) for a post about the inappropriateness of Holocaust Fiction. She was probably writing Her Last Words at the time. Penny, who puts in a great deal of unpaid and unappreciated overtime dealing with unsatisfactory manuscripts, has ongoing issues with one in particular which features a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany offering sex to a soldier in the SS, what she, appropriately, labels Holocaust Porn.

Between Penny’s job, Jane’s shot at the bigtime with a stolen ms, and the Irish bookseller, there is a lot of bookish, not to say, literary, talk. Which, for me, makes this a Literary work. And there is a meta element to it, an underlying discussion of its own Rom.Com.ness, culminating in the final chapter ‘Semi Traditional Rom.Com. Denoument’. If there is a weakness, it is its length, getting on for 400pp. In the General market big is better, I’m sure, and Her Last Words sags a little around the middle in a way an experienced editor, like Kim Kelly say, might have ruthlessly excised for a different market, ie. us.

I hope Neil@Kallaroo whose tastes I largely share, reads this and gives us his opinion, I hope you all do. With different marketing Her Last Words could easily have been Australia’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, It deserves to be read.

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Kim Kelly, Her Last Words, first pub. 2020. Due out 12 Oct. 2021 from Brio/Booktopia. Available now from Audible.

The Road to Turee Creek

Journal: 074

Turee Creek is where Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote Coonardoo in 1927. We won’t really take the road 130 kms of dirt track there, but I had to check my load anyway so thought I would pull up and take the photo just to give you an idea of what this country’s like. That signpost on the Great Northern Hwy is itself nearly 100 kms from the nearest town (Newman), which didn’t exist in KSP’s time, and 300 north of the next, Meekatharra, so Turee Creek is pretty remote.

This is all Martu country, the northern and western-most of the Western Desert peoples whose country extends east and south from here all the way to Ceduna on the south coast, on the other side of the Nullarbor in South Australia

If you remember back a couple more posts before the KSP autobiography, Daisy Bates‘ station at Ethel Creek (100 km NE of Newman) was in the heart of Martu country. She must have begun her studies of Aboriginal languages there, as when she arrived, a decade later, at Ooldea, west of Ceduna and 3,000 km from Ethel Creek, she found the people speaking a similar language. She (and husband Jack) came this way by buggy, 500 kms or so, in 1900, to get to the coast at Carnarvon, so she could catch a boat to Perth.

As did the Martu children, Mollie and Daisy, walking north thirty years later, 1,200 kms, to get home after being kidnapped by police working for the ‘Chief Protector’ (They probably hitched a lift with a camel train around here, but they’d already walked through hundreds of kilometres of this country, making about 20 km a day.)

I wrote more about the confluence of notable women in this remote area, years ago, in Ventured North by Train and Truck, and mentioned another, my favourite trekker/writer Robyn Davidson who, in crossing half the country by camel, from Alice Springs to Shark Bay in the 1970s, passed through just two communities, Docker River on the WA/NT border and Wiluna, crossing the Great Northern Hwy somewhere between this turnoff and Meekatharra.

As it happens, my next trip after taking the Turee Ck photo, last weekend, was up the coast to Karratha (see map below). And I had on my CD player Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (1965) which is a fictionalisation of his childhood on family properties in and around Geraldton. I’m sure I have a copy somewhere, so I’ll review it later (“soon”), but it is a stunning evocation of place and time (roughly 1935-55) and of course I passed through a lot of the places he describes, from the river flats at Greenough, south of Geraldton, with its horizontal trees to the Murchison River crossing 100 km north where the family picnicked waiting for the flooded river to carry away the old timber bridge (it’s higher now, and concrete).

This is Yamaji country (see ‘We were not here first‘), home to poet Charmaine Papertalk Green, John Kinsella, the location of Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers), and where Alice Nannup whose biography I reviewed ended up, in state housing controlled by Gare’s husband. Stow, at the squattocracy end of Geraldton society, grows up not quite oblivious of the Comeaways and Nannups, but warned by his mother to stay clear of them, and his language is clearly reflective of how the adults around him spoke. Right at the end, he refers for the first time to ‘the Yamaji’, indicative maybe of a growing awareness.

The last book on this literary tour is Ernestine Hill‘s The Great Australian Loneliness (1940) which I still haven’t reviewed, and must. The journey which Hill chronicles begins at Shark Bay, and heads north. At Cossack (a port town since replaced by Karratha and Dampier) she discusses Aboriginal slavery in the pearling industry – a claim studiously ignored, despite the popularity of the book – then moves on up the coast, cadging a lift with Mary and Elizabeth Durack’s father up near the NT border. At one stage, hearing of the Rabbitproof Fence girls, maybe at the Marble Bar pub, she comes south to Jigalong to speak to them before resuming her journey.

My delivery was to the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) which contains 40,000 years of art history and which we, of course, use as an industrial site for the natural gas industry. I took a great photo at dawn with the methane flaming off in the background, but I pressed video and it’s beyond me to extract one frame. I was still unloading when a load came up, roadworking machinery from a few hundred kms south, on the road into Exmouth. I had that on in the afternoon and the following evening, Tues., I was home (and up to chapter 61 of Roots which I’m reading with Liz Dexter and Buried in Print).

I should mention one other book which I listened to somewhere in there, if only to see if Melanie/GTL will add it to her recommended bys. That is Faking It by Jennifer Crusie (sic). It’s a fun Rom-Com about an artist, Tilda, who has been brought up in a family of art forgers (and is plump and attractive). She teams up with Davy, a reformed con man, to steal back paintings her late father had her paint under an assumed name. There’s lots of complications as you might expect, but the most interesting is that she likes Davy but doesn’t like sex. Davy’s sense of entitlement is a bit wearing, but how she works through that provides a bit of meat to what is otherwise the usual substanceless nonsense.

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Recent audiobooks 

Nikki Gemmell (F, Aus/NSW), The Book of Rapture (2009)
Erica Jong (F, USA), Fear of Flying (1973)
Alex Haley (M, USA), Roots (1976)
Jennifer Crusie (F, USA), Faking It (2002) – Rom.Com.
Randolph Stow (M, Aust/WA), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (1965)
Olivia Campbell (F, USA), Women in White Coats (2021) – NF
Jo Nesbo (M, Nor), The Snowman (2007) – Crime
Jennifer Crusie (F, USA), Faking It (2002) – Rom.Com.
Peter Temple (M, Aust/Vic), The Broken Shore (2005)
Philip K Dick (M, USA), Counter-Clock World (1967) – SF
Kate Grenville (F, Aust/NSW), The Idea of Perfection (2002)

Currently reading

Mudrooroo (M, Aus/WA), Tripping with Jenny

Such is Life (09), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)
Such is Life (08)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

Ok. Spoilers. You would have to be made of stone for the central part of Chapter V not to bring a tear to your eye. We are on Mondunbarra station, and a large number of bullockies, tank sinkers, and other similar contractors, and of course Tom, have settled for the evening in two camps on a rare, well-grassed paddock.

It’s a warm moonlit night and the men begin listlessly swapping stories about the hardships they have encountered and the wrongs done to them by station owners. Gradually it comes round to Tom’s mate, Steve Thompson’s turn.

Thompson told a story well. I verily believe he used to practise the accomplishment mentally, as he sauntered along beside his team. He knew his own superiority here; his acquaintances knew it too, and they also knew that he knew it. Hence they were reluctant to minister occasion to his egotism…

[some filler, Thompson is on Kulkaroo, yarning, when the station manager rushes up]

“‘Child lost in the scrub on Goolumbulla. Dan O’Connell’s little girl – five or six years old. Anybody know where there’s any blackfellows?’ Nobody knew. ‘Well raise your horses wherever you can, and clear at once,’ says he.”

By ‘Dan O’Connell’ they are referring to the Irish shepherd Rory O’Halloran, father of Mary, whom we met in Such is Life (04). Steve goes with the Kulkaroo men and gives a blow by blow description of the search. Which is heart breaking. The search goes on for days, one stockman following Mary’s footprints over soft ground and hard, others following and casting around, finding her discarded boots, finding where she slept, stopping to sleep themselves.

It is not clear why Steve hadn’t told Tom straight away, or for that matter how Tom had not been told the day before up at the homestead. But although it is a central part of the novel, Tom glosses over it, and the men around the fire go on to tell their own tales of children lost in the bush – an enduring theme of Australian storytelling.

One tells of a boy crawling into a hollow log to escape the searchers, bogey men as he thought, calling his name; and another of his young brother missing, never found. “It seems to me the most likely thing … was to get jammed in a log like that other little chap. Then after five years, or ten years, or twenty years, the log gets burned, and nobody notices a few little bones, crumbled among the ashes.”

The other subject this chapter brought up was the presence, or otherwise, of Aborigines. Aborigines on farm country were quite early on herded into reservations. This is not farm country but semi-desert grazing country. In northern Australia graziers seem to have tolerated ‘traditional’ life in camps away from the homesteads as long as the men could be relied on for mustering cattle – and of course as soon as they were obliged to pay them, in the 1970s, the pastoral companies forced all Indigenous people off their stations and into town.

The situation in the southern half of the outback seems to have been different. Those properties all ran sheep, and maybe had not the same need for men. Shepherds, who lived in huts on the outer portions of each property, were by Tom’s account mostly married white men, probably attracted to Australia by the goldrushes of the 1850s. In earlier days shepherds were mostly convicts. How the Aborigines were dispersed I don’t know, but it seems to have happened quite early.

Speaking of the search for Mary O’Halloran, Steve Thompson says

Did anybody know where to find a blackfellow, now that he was wanted?

Seems there had been about a dozen of them camped near the tank in the cattle-paddock for a month past, but they were just gone, nobody knew where. And there had been an old lubra and a young one camped within a mile of the station, and an old fellow and his lubra near one of the boundary men’s places; but they all happen to have shifted …

Eventually it is the old woman who is brought up and completes the search.


Mondunbarra. Except for Chapter IV which Tom spends naked on the banks of the Murray, the action has mostly been situated on a few stations along the Lachlan River, west of Hillston, NSW. Hillston was established in 1863, so 20-25 years before the events described here, but I don’t recall Tom mentioning it, though it would be closer than Ivanhoe, Hay and Deniliquin which he does mention.

Dan O’Connell. ‘The Liberator’. Politician and fighter for Irish Catholic rights in early-mid 1800s. (here)

Lubra. Australian pidgin word for an Aboriginal woman, possibly Tasmanian in origin. First documented by GA Robinson Protector of Aborigines in Tas. and then Vic. “sometimes derogatory and inherently sexist, since there was no equivalent term for an Aboriginal male.”

Aborigines. Frances Devlin-Glass in the paper I was referencing last month, “Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, devotes a section to Aborigines. She says that in the first decade of white settlement in Victoria the Aboriginal population declined from15,000 to less than 3,000. By their relative absence (in the 1880s) you would imagine the decline in the Riverina was similar. In Furphy’s The Buln Buln and The Brolga, basically short stories excised from the original Such is Life ms, Bob expresses the opinion: “Fact, most tribes is dyin’ out o’ their own accord, even where they ain’t interfered with”.

Furphy generally seems to hold the view of liberal conservatives today, that the Indigenous population should be honoured for it’s skills, that their time is past, and it’s not his fault. “While one finds in [his work] a refusal to objectify the other, there is also an unquestioned ethnocentrism, a fantasy of the progressive Australian (of European origin).”

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903

FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

By month 9 I’m stretching for new covers. I couldn’t (at first) identify who produced the cover above though Penguin used the same image for an anthology of Australian bush writing. The painting is ‘The Selector’s Hut (Whelan on the log)’ by Arthur Streeton in 1890 (see NGA here). Searches more, finds it on ebay, publisher CreateSpace, more searching, on-demand publisher owned by Amazon.

The Remake, Clive James

This is a remake of an essay I wrote 17 years ago, which I’m putting it up now not because I like Clive James, I don’t, but because it is my one essay which directly addresses postmodernism which, theoretically anyway, forms the underpinning of the novels of AWW Gen 4 (and maybe because I’m working and haven’t prepared anything else).

If I’d found it on my inadequately alphabeticised shelves I might have re-read it, but I remember it well enough. Briefly, the protagonist Joel is a ‘brilliant’ fortyish astronomer who gets kicked out by his wife, goes to stay with his friend Chance who has a fashionable apartment in the Barbican (London), and when Chance goes to Rio on a filming assignment, finds himself sharing the apartment with a clever and attractive 18 year old (female) student called Mole.

James’ writing is made ridiculous by his injokes and this may well be the first – all Australians are quite clear about what it means to call a woman a Moll (or Mole. When I was a kid that o was always long).

Clive James (1939-2019) was a well-known London-resident Australian who wrote memoir, criticism, poetry and some fiction and who prostituted his considerable talents on popular television. The Remake (1987), the second of his four novels, was intended as a satire on the postmodern noveau roman.

My essay originally began: It is central to the Post-Structuralist theory which gives Postmodernism at least a veneer of intellectual rigour that the work belongs to the reader not to the author. “It is a very familiar thesis that the task of criticism is not to bring out the work’s relationship with the author, nor to reconstruct through the text a thought or experience, but rather, to analyze the work through its structure, its architecture, its intrinsic form, and the play of its internal relationships.” (Foucalt, 1969)

But it is my thesis that the fact that The Remake is written by Clive James is central to any reading of it.

The relation between James and Joel, between author and protagonist, becomes part of what must be dealt with by the reader, or at least by any reader in the milieu of 1980’s English/Australian popular culture. We initially pick up the book because we are familiar with James; he then pops up as a subsidiary character “… an old drinking pal of Chance’s who had evidently been kept on out of pity … a flaky writer of some kind called Clive James.”; and Joel, the protagonist, looks like James (middle aged, fat, know-it-all, TV presenter). 

Clive James, the author, is conscious that we know him all too well, but he also needs us to acknowledge that he could have been a Writer – so his opening sentence is necessarily polished in its first-sentence-ness, “Lauren was within her rights, but letting me do it to her on the night she threw me out was one below the belt”. And throughout the book we continue to feel him pushing himself at us, crying “look at me, look at me”, Kath & Kim style, dissing the Post-Structuralists, displaying his famous intellect, chatting directly to the reader in an intrusive style that takes ages to develop any narrative flow, but not without slipping in “God save me from any novel in which the author gets a mention.”

The novel is clearly intended to be read ironically, as a novel written in the postmodern style to show up postmodernism; although that ignores that the principal aim of all James’ writing is to establish James’ overwhelming cleverness: “My [IQ] score should have gone off the clock ..”; “In childhood I had put in my years as a flute prodigy”; “I employed my trick memory for a devastating quotation”; reads Le Monde, Die Zeit; and so on.

David Lodge writes “No book .. has any meaning on its own, in a vacuum. The meaning of a book is in large part a product of its differences from and similarities to other books.” (1981) and it is just such “similarities to other books” – intrusion of the author, placing doubt on the author’s version of the narrative, etc. – which place The Remake firmly within the conventions of the late twentieth century (literary) novel.

Remake as Mid-life Crisis?

Structurally, The Remake is quite conservative. Joel gets kicked out by his wife, goes up to London to stay with his friend Chance, meets girl, falls in love, persuades girl to sleep with him, and after a suitable interval, gets taken back by his wife; but the twist in the ending reveals that we have not been reading Joel’s diary after all, but rather Joel’s diary rewritten (remade) by Chance to conceal inter alia Joel’s and Chance’s ‘real’ identities.

More, we discover both Joel and Chance have ‘remade’ themselves to suit the dominant, anglo ethnicity of Australian society, Joel changing his surname from Korth to Court and Chance from “Janilowitz or something like that” to Jenolan, but as cute names predominate throughout, this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot.

The usage of ‘remake’ which implies mid-life crisis is difficult to sustain despite the author’s claim that “my crise a quarante ans became a story”. James makes no attempt to gild the lily and describes Joel as he would himself, TV presenter – fat, balding, middle-aged and verbose. That a slender, beautiful, bi-sexual 18 yo girl would be attracted to Joel, even on the limited terms he describes, is unbelievable and his pursuit of her verges on paedophilia.

In the end Joel returns to his wife without making any attempt to understand why she dumped him in the first place. He has the crisis but it fails to ‘remake’ him.

Conventions of fiction-story-telling

James makes some genuflections in the direction of postmodern theory, or at least in the direction of some of the conventions of 1980s literary fiction. The Author intrudes, then his authorship is cast into doubt; he decries “well-researched novels” then parades his research; decries the use of letters, “novels with a lot of letters in them are a real cop-out” (p.41), but Chance’s letters to Mole which Joel surreptitiously reads are vital to the progression of the plot, for example the letter written from Rio (p.75) describing the Copocabana beach is necessary to an understanding of the problematic nature of Chance’s final disappearance.

The Remake is most authentically postmodern in that is in some ways a work of meta-fiction. That is, its major theme apart from Joel’s ‘progress’ is itself, the modern novel. Mole reports to Joel that her classmate Amanda struggles with Alain Robbe-Grillet with the implication The Remake is a (mock) nouveau roman.

On the other hand, “Her bottles and boxes and sprays, which would be named in detail if this were any American novella influenced by Franny and Zooey” (p.28) has no seeming purpose at all. Salinger’s loving, closely detailed descriptions of his family are not referred to again, not by emulation nor by any intentional omissions. Unless this connects up with Lodge’s description of ” … the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose immensely detailed, scientifically exact and metaphor-free descriptions of objects actually prevent us from visualizing them. By presenting the reader with more data than he can synthesize, the discourse affirms the resistance of the world to interpretation.”

In one place, during a discussion with, or as she sees it, a lecture to, Mole, Joel puts a cogent case for his main theme that postmodernist theory lacks intellectual rigour (pp. 58-63), ending with “the real reason  why any form of structural approach, up to and including deconstruction … is not and can’t be science is that you can’t go wrong [because] nothing anyone says, using those methods, can be disproved.” Perhaps, in the end, James wrote The Remake because it was less effort than writing a closely argued essay, and less subject to critical scrutiny.

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Clive James, The Remake, Jonathon Cape, London, 1987. 225pp (free to read here)

I don’t know what edition that cover is from, but it is apparently another from Perry Middlemiss’s Matilda blog.

Child of the Hurricane, KS Prichard

There are no covers of this book on the web, that I could find, so I had to photograph my own, which as you can see has plastic over the dustjacket, courtesy of my father I guess who gave it to me 10 years ago. First edition, very good condition, I hope the kids look after it.

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) was born in Levuka, Fiji during a tropical storm. ‘..natives gazed in awe at the baby the hurricane had left in its wake, “Na Luve ni Cava,” they exclaimed. “She is a child of the hurricane.”‘ This sets the tone for this autobiography, which for all that KSP is a competent writer, reads like a journalistic colour piece.

Thirty years earlier, Prichard’s father’s family had migrated to Australia on the same ship, the Eldorado, as her mother’s family, the Frasers. My mum’s family, the Nixons, came to Melbourne the same year, 1852, on the Castle Eden (Out of Plymouth. The Eldorado sailed from Liverpool). Both the Prichards and the Frasers stayed in Melbourne (the Nixons went up to the gold fields at Maldon) and began inter-marrying.

KSP never asked her father about his young years. He said that he was “apprenticed to a saddler and ran away when the job didn’t suit him.” In any case he read widely and began writing. Around 1868 – and Prichard is infuriating in not dating much of what happens in this book – Tom “went adventuring to the South Seas, and returned to Melbourne after many years”, perhaps 15, during which time he had owned and wrecked a schooner and “become a person of some importance” on Fiji as editor of the Fiji Times.

KSP’s mother, Edith Isabel Fraser was born in Melbourne and was brought up in the Fraser family home, a rambling. colonial style house in ‘North Road’ (probably East Brighton). She would have been in her teens, maybe 15, when Tom left and approaching 30 when he returned to marry her. They lived on Fiji for another three or four years, during which time Edith bore three children, Katharine, Alan and Nigel, and then returned to Melbourne, initially to the welcoming Fraser house, and had more kid(s).

I’m not interested in all the cute things young Kat did as a child, just the influences that made her a writer, and her father’s restlessness which spoiled her education. In the late 1880s (I’m guessing) Tom Prichard was editor and feature writer for the Sun, the family lived near grandmother’s, and KSP began school. Tom’s next job was in Launceston, Tasmania. The family lived well, and happily – illustrated by excerpts from The Wild Oats of Han (1928), clearly the story of her childhood, and I think, her first novel, though not the first published. When that job failed, the Prichards were sold up and returned to Melbourne, again, to live on the charity of the family, until eventually Tom found work again.

KSP’s first short story had already “appeared in the children’s page of a Melbourne newspaper” and on her return to Melbourne, another, That Brown Boy, won a prize.

Although Father did not take my efforts at story writing at all seriously, Mother began to give me books to read which, no doubt, she thought would develop any literary talent I might have.

She gave me Tennyson’s Idylly’s of the King, Keat’s Endymion and other poems, Longfellow’s Evangeline, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, some of Scott’s and Dicken’s novels, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

There is no mention of her reading let alone being influenced by the generation of Australian women writers who preceded her, although by the 1890s Tasma for instance was very well known with Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889); Ada Cambridge was also writing in Melbourne; as were Catherine Martin and Mary Gaunt; Rosa Praed was well known, at least in England; and you’d think the wonderful Clara Morrison (1854) by Catherine Helen Spence was still around.

And with the turn of the century we have Barbara Baynton and Miles Franklin. But only minor novelist and poet Mary Fullerton gets a mention, later on, when they meet in connection with the suffrage movement.

After a spell at home helping Mother with a new baby (Bee/Beatrice) KSP wins a scholarship to South Melbourne College, for two or three years up to matriculation (Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling). She was happy at school and did well, editing the school magazine in her final year (following on from ‘Elsie Cole‘ whom I had to look up). The following year, instead of preparing for university, she again stayed home, with her mother who was ill, and then at age 19 “I went off … to be governess to a doctor’s children in South Gippsland [at Yarram, east of Melbourne]. It was an adventure into life, away from books.” This was to be the location for her first published novel, The Pioneers (1915).

My next governessing took me to a station in the back country of New South Wales. The story of this was told in Letters from the back of Beyond, written on the station … the New Idea paid £20 for them. A fabulous sum it seemed in those days…

The Letters are nothing if not a revelation of how young and foolish I was. They even referred to the aborigines* as “niggers”, unforgivable to my way of thinking later, and showed no understanding of the rights of working people, merely reflecting a station-owner’s attitude towards strikers..

You get the impression that KSP, much as did Nathan Hobby half a century later, thought her ‘life’ was worth three volumes, and so we make our way easily through becoming a journalist, travelling, working in London, the onset of the War, meeting Hugo Throssell VC and then, all of a sudden, the second and third volumes, marriage, Perth, novels, communism, Hugo’s death, must be be packed into a final chapter.

An entertaining read, informative about her early years in a chatty way but which left me wishing she’d at least written the second volume, about her middle years and the literary and political theory which informed her writing.


I know you all want to know. I checked in with Nathan Hobby and he wrote back: “The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard due out April [2022]. Currently in proofs, takes many months to print a hardcover .. I must have read CotH more times than any other book in my life”

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, Child of the Hurricane, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1964. 266pp.

see also:
Nathan Hobby’s review (here)
Other KSP reviews, AWW Gen 3 page (here)
That Brown Boy (here). The Federalist, Launceston, Sat 15 April 1899, by ‘Katharine Tudor’


*Aborigines – should be capitalized. See Blak, Black, Blackfulla, Jack Latimore, the Age, 30 Aug, 2021

Lovesong, Elizabeth Jolley

The edition I actually read was not the paperback pictured above but a Viking hardback with the most luxurious-feeling semi gloss paper and a little woven bookmark. Which means I couldn’t cart it around with me, for fear of damage, but I’ve had some time off and so got it finished.

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) as we all know, was born in Birmingham, England where she worked as a nurse, had a complicated married life, came to Western Australia, where she bought a little farm in the hills outside Perth, and quite late, began to teach creative writing and publish novels. This is important to keep in mind because it usually forms the basis of what she writes about. But not this time.

Lovesong (1997), one of her later works, is a difficult work to come to grips with, set in an unnamed (Australian) city with a male protagonist who appears to have been released into the community from an institution for the criminally insane (that is, for people who commit a crime and plead mental illness, or sometimes for people who are at risk of committing a crime, usually sexual). I found it very slow to get into, though I gradually became engrossed, and I think Jolley may have been concentrating on imagining/reproducing the thought processes of someone who was a bit bewildered to find himself where he was. That is, the problem she set herself was not ‘how do I tell this story?’, but ‘how can I best write what/how this man is thinking?’.

I still haven’t read Brian Dibble’s biography of Jolley, Doing Life, but I thought I should at least look up what he has to say about Lovesong. Jolley said, in an interview with Ramona Koval, “she was inspired to write the book by work she had done with women inmates at Perth’s Bandyup Prison and male prisoners in Fremantles’s maximum security jail; she was moved when she thought of the loneliness such men faced when they returned to the community.”

Dibble writes: “While some readers might regard Jolley’s last three books [Lovesong, An Accommodating Spouse, An Innocent Gentleman] as chaotic, lacking structure and control and more, what is remarkable about them is how they recapitulate Jolley’s entire oeuvre from three different points of view, the first focusing on the sexual outsider and the other two on the family.”

Dalton Foster, still lingering in his doorway, straightens his tie and wondering why his mother and aunt Dalton should come, all at once, into his mind, goes downstairs in search of the dining room and breakfast. He has not thought of his mother or aunt Dalton for some time. Perhaps the memories are a part of the experience of coming back into the community after working meticulously for half his life through a sentence and a cure in various special institutions.

This is not quite the beginning of the book. We have already spent some time, half a dozen pages, in Foster’s mind as he idly considers music, his mother and his aunt, and his new lodgings. And this is how we continue – we meet Mrs Porter, the landlady, and her lodgers; we meet another family, do-gooders who take in Foster one night a week; a young girl, in rags, in the park where he walks, who Foster follows -yes, that’s as creepy as it sounds – dreaming of befriending, helping. But all along Foster’s mind returns to his childhood, his ineffectual father, his mother, his father’s sister, aunt Dalton, who form a strange menage mostly ganged up on Foster senior; and to his years in Cambridge, studying, singing; circling round to/lightly touching on the choirboy whose approach seemingly leads to his imprisonment.

It bugs me that the novel has no definite location. It could be Perth – the lodging house backing on to the rail line in the relatively poor inner suburb of North Perth; his walks through parks and to the consul’s house in a better suburb, maybe Subiaco; the homeless sleeping under the bridges where a major roadway crosses from the north bank, to an island and then to the south bank of the river, which sounds like the Swan and Herrison Island. But Jolley doesn’t say, and she has “mile long” grain trains thundering behind the house, which is nice image but the suburban Fremantle line has probably not been used by freight trains for more than 50 years*.

Foster’s father was a consul for trade – his wife and sister, who formed a couple, with Foster’s father a distant third, were very contemptuous of “trade” – so they moved constantly, though never apparently to the most interesting European cities, and for a while were in Australia, in this city, and living in the same house as the do-gooder family, not that he tells them, or barely anything else either. Just sits quietly in the company of the teenage children, staying over sometimes on a bed made up on a sofa.

There is no plot, just a short chain of events – the two men in the room next to his introduce themselves, and may follow him when he walks in the park in the dark; Mrs Porter attempts to set him up with the ever hopeful Miss Vale; he makes a number of attempts to follow the little girl, eventually successfully, which leads to him being beaten up by the homeless community under the bridge; the teenage boy of the do-gooder family stands before him naked, apparently in invitation, and he flees; things come to a head with Miss Vale.

He is deeply sorry now. Sorry for Miss Vales because he is silently irritated with her the whole time. He is sorry that he has no qualities fit for a bridegroom. His dealings with women have always been mainly by accident.

Elizabeth Jolley is a stunning writer, and she slowly immerses us in the mind of this unlikeable person who nevertheless engages our interest and sometimes our sympathy. Your heart is constantly in your mouth in fear that he will do something grotesque, which thank goodness, he eventually does not.

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Elizabeth Jolley, Lovesong, Viking/Penguin, Melbourne, 1997. 240pp. ex libris J. Terry

see also:
All our E. Jolley reviews at ANZLitLovers’ Elizabeth Jolley page (here)


*Railway stuff: A dual gauge rail line for freight was constructed through Perth’s outer southern suburbs in the 1960s to connect the ports at Fremantle and Kwinana (south-west of the city), via the freight terminal at Kewdale, to Midland Junction (east of the city) for all the narrow gauge wheatbelt lines, and on to Kalgoorlie to meet the standard gauge Trans Australia line. It is possible that prior to that, freight from the country came to the wharves at Fremantle via the city. I can think of a couple of earlier literary mentions of Perth’s rail system. One in Xavier Herbert’s memoir Disturbing Element when their furniture was brought from a country town to Fremantle by train (Herbert’s father worked on the railways); and when DH Lawrence travelled up from Fremantle to the city in a wood-fired steam train). And of course there’s the Dorothy Hewett poem In Midland Where the Trains go by.

Cosmo Cosmolino revisited

Journal: 073

Helen Garner by Jenny Sage, National Portrait Gallery

Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino left me bemused when I read and reviewed it (here) six months ago, and we had quite a discussion afterwards about what Garner was trying to achieve/how the book should be read. I now have a better idea. You will have noticed that I had a big birthday recently. One of my gifts was a book voucher from my brother in law and his family to be spent at my local indie. Which I did yesterday. This is what I bought –

Larissa Behrendt, After Story
Belinda Castles ed., Reading Like an Australian Writer
Martha Wells, Network Effect (A Murderbot novel, SF)
Minae Mizumura, An I-Novel

Making my choices was surprisingly hard. In the shop, Crow Books, voucher burning a hole in my pocket, I stood for some time paralysed before New Releases. Some of them I knew of, like Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth, some were Australian, some not. None seemed to have that ‘zing’ that was going to grab me. Eventually I decided the Behrendt was the most promising, so that was No.1. Further along was a space epic, nearly No.2 but the Wells nearby seemed less I dunno, traditional, so I went with it. When in doubt, go round to the A-Z and pick up a Murakami. Always works, he has such interesting neighbours. For No. 3 I considered The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but, sorry Haruki, Mizumura won out (Sayaka Murata, Earthlings last time, but before that was Wild Sheep Chase).

And finally, the Castles, which was down next to ‘Classics’ with books/periodicals like the Griffith Review. Why it caught my eye I do not know, but I’m glad it did. It’s a compendium of essays by twenty five Australian writers writing about reading and writing.

Today we’ll be looking at “A Big Sunny Shack: Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner” by Tegan Bennett Daylight; but expect to see references in the future to “Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas” by Nigel Featherstone; “Everywhen in Everything: Reading Carpentaria like an Aboriginal Writer”, Mykaela Saunders; “Postcards to Charlotte Wood: Revisiting The Natural Way of Things by Ashley Hay; and many, many more.

Nothing to do with Garner, but this is what Bennett Daylight (let’s go with TBD) has to say about teaching writing

Many writers will find themselves teaching creative writing at some point in their careers, because few of us can earn our living simply from our writing. We all grow our methods from our own practice … less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.

She always gets her students started, she says, by reading them the first two and a half pages of the story Cosmo Cosmolino in the novel Cosmo Cosmolino, “Helen Garner’s least loved, least praised novel”.

“Notice how active it is,” she says to them, “see all the Garneresque verbs: striking, spewing, bounding, slinging, slapping, laughing, blossoming. Severing, scorning, plugging on, singing, editing, chiaking.”

The first problem with Cosmo Cosmolino, which consists of two short stories and a long story, is is it even a novel. Apparently, for a long time prior to publication, it actually consisted of not three, but seven stories. My response is always if the author says its a novel then we must consider the stories connected, consider their relation to each other. TBD has a more classic response. She quote’s Tim Winton’s description, “a big sunny shack with all the windows and doors open”, and continues CC “is a book the reader can move around in. Its shape invites readerly freedom.”

Peter Corris, Robert Dessaix declare that none of Garner’s works are novels, just “transcribed diaries”. Novels, Dessaix declares, have an architectural (‘architectonic’) quality that Garner’s works lack.

Here’s what I [TBD] think: what makes a novel a novel is metaphor. Metaphor, central metaphor, when deployed in a novel, is as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it… the novel is a collection of words shadowed by a larger meaning. Metaphor, just like faith or belief, is the sense of something larger underneath.

Tim Winton, says TBD, believes that ‘shadow’ in Cosmo Cosmolino is The Holy Spirit. Which says a lot about Winton and at least a little about my unease with Garner’s direction here.

Is it possible that in God, in belief or faith, Garner found the kind of metaphor her previous books had lacked? [.. big gap ..] We don’t condemn Toni Morrison or Marilynne Robinson or even Herman Melville for their use of biblical metaphor. Could we perhaps banish the sneering and cynical laughter for long enough to read this book as it deserves to be read?

TBD doesn’t address the ‘problem’ of the two ancillary stories other then to say that they were outbuildings which she personally would have knocked down while adding more ‘rooms’ to the big sunny shack. But she is firm that Cosmo Cosmolino is a novel and not just more Garner reportage (she is less firm, where I am not, about The Spare Room for instance). “I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo Cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.”

Yet another class I wish I could sit in on. Though interestingly she says most of her students – she is currently at CSU – don’t know Garner.

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Currently reading

Belinda Castles ed. (F, Aus), Reading Like an Australian Writer
Elizabeth Jolley (F, Aus/WA), Lovesong
Martha Wells (F, USA), Network Effect (SF)

Such is Life (08), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

We’re up to Chapter V, nominally January 9th, 1884, but more accurately, Jan 8-10. It’s dry, mid-summer of course, feed is short and Tom’s two horses are skin and bones. Ch. V contains a significant moment in the overall novel – when some of the men we have met before are sitting round a campfire swapping yarns – so what I plan to do is discuss the men gathering, and then dispersing the following morning, this month, and then the campfire and the yarns next month. So this may be the last month without spoilers.

Tom in his peregrinations has returned to Mondunbarra, the station Warrigal Alf was camped on in the last chapter. Alf has presumably gone off with the squatter Stewart. Tom has business with the managing partner, Smythe, who is “away in Melbourne”, so he leaves the paperwork with Smythe’s younger brother, Bert and makes preparations to depart. Bert directs him to camp in a paddock which Tom finds in the morning is completely devoid of grass.

I found myself slowly approached by a Chinaman on a roan horse. And though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf’s bullocks. Moreover he was riding the same horse.

The Chinese boundary rider, who has adopted the name Paul because he is a Christian, declines to drink tea with Tom but tells him of a well grassed paddock some miles off, and thence Tom makes his way. He has barely settled down and lit his pipe when he is accosted by a familiar voice, and is joined by his old mate Steve Thompson.

Daylight had now melted into soft, shadowless moonlight; and the place was no longer solitary. Dozens of cattle were scattered round, harvesting the fine crop of grass; and Thompson with his two confederates joined me … Before the first match was struck, a sound of subdued voices behind us notified the coming of two more interlopers.

And later they are joined by another – “Seems like as if people couldn’t fine a bit o’ grass without the whole (adj) country jumpin’ it”.

They wake to find they have all been the victims of a carefully executed sting. Smythe, not in Melbourne at all, has had his stockmen lure the bullockies into camping on his land; all of their cattle and horses, “254 head of overworked and underfed beasts”, have been rounded up before dawn and been driven back to the station yards and impounded. Working out who owns, and owes, what takes all morning, till at last there are only 10 bullocks left. “How many bullocks are you working?” Smythe asks Bob, his last ‘customer’. “Well, I’m workin’ ten, but …”. “No buts … Take your ten and GO!” So Bob takes his eight and the two Mondunbarra bullocks that have got in amongst them, and the score is counted, by everyone in the know, as even.


The annotations don’t have a lot to tell us this chapter but I have a paper about Furphy and racism from the Australian Literary Studies Journal by Frances Devlin-Glass, one of the annotators, titled “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”.

“Furphy’s positions on the Aboriginal and Chinese questions were a debating point within the editorial group and we were aware the we were disturbed by them. In the brief space afforded by the convention of annotations, we had argued that, though he certainly subscribed to the social Darwinist and left-leaning socialist views of his time in his attitudes to Chinese, he was by contrast with many of his contemporaries, a moderate.” She claims that Furphy’s ‘anxiety’ on the subject of race frequently manifests as humour and irony.

While Furphy’s work may be read as a “call to nationhood, to one (white and assimilationist) nation,”…”to stress this hegemonic aspect of the work is to overlook the relish Furphy clearly took in nationally and ethnically marked diversity and ethnology. This is most obviously apparent in the care with which he represents dialects and accents.”

Devlin-Glass says that “Furphy anticipated the modernist .. preoccupations with irony, point of view and unreliable narrators” which makes it difficult to apply to him all the opinions expressed by Tom, especially as the most frequent subject of his (Tom’s) “sardonic wit and satiric reduction” is his own countrymen.

It is important, both with the novel a a whole, and in relation to this issue, that what Tom says and what is actually happening are often quite different. Tom says in the quote above that he doesn’t recognise the ‘Chow’, but one of the ‘mysteries’ threaded through the novel comes about because there is also a European he repeatedly fails to recognise. Further, when Tom speaks pidgin to “Paul” Sam Young – which I don’t quote – the Chinese man is happy to insult him straight back; and later they have an exchange in which Tom acknowledges the cleverness of the sting and Paul accepts that he will one day be stung in turn.

What Devlin-Glass is saying, and I agree, is that while there is some racism, there is no racial animosity. Furphy, she says, engages in “an ironic dismantling of racial prejudice”; his work demonstrating, whatever Tom says, that it is the class system, squatter vs worker, which is the real concern of European and Chinese workers alike. 

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903

FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

Frances Devlin-Glass, “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 November 2000.

This month’s cover is from Perry Middlemiss’s Australian Literature blog. He implies it is from the Angus & Robertson 1956 edition (I have previously used the cover of A&R’s ‘original’ 1944 edition). Middlemiss discusses Such is Life here. I disagree that Tom Collins is Furphy’s pen name, it’s the name of the fictional biography’s protagonist. Though that’s probably just a quibble and Furphy did use Collins as a pen name for some of his Bulletin short stories.

Middlemiss, whom I haven’t come across before, describes his Aust.Lit. project here. He also reviews classic SF. How good is that!

The Sentimental Bloke, CJ Dennis

Brona’s Books: August is Poetry Month

CJ Dennis (1876-1938) was born in rural South Australia to Irish Catholic parents. His father was a publican in the Clare Valley north east of Adelaide. His mother died when he was young and he was brought up by aunts. He had various jobs in pubs and newspapers until late in 1907 he moved to Victoria, to Toolangi in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne where he camped, lived with friends and later, married, built a house.

The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke [his second book of verse] was published in October 1915; twelve of the fourteen poems had appeared in the Bulletin since 1909. It was an immediate success, requiring three editions in 1915, nine in 1916, and three in 1917″ (ADB) These of course were War years and many of the copies were sold to men serving overseas who knew Dennis from his famous anthem, The Austral-aise.

Fellers of Australier,
Blokes an’ coves an’ coots,
Shift yer — carcases,
Move yer — boots
Gird yer — loins up,
Get yer — gun,
Set the — enermy
An’ watch the — run

I would say most Australians know The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by reputation anyway, except it’s hard to know what ‘most Australians’ know these days, bugger all probably. The most famous section, The Play, begins –

“Wot’s in a name?” she sez . . . An’ then she sighs
An’ clasps ‘er little ‘ands, an’ rolls ‘er eyes.
“A rose,” she sez, “be any other name
Would smell the same.”

Recognize it? Of course you do. The setting for this cycle of poems, and therefore presumably the language, is from the backstreets of inner Melbourne, not Dennis’s native territory. Whether, as an outsider, he captures it perfectly I of course can’t tell. But he certainly captures the way we (used to) like to think ‘we’ spoke. Well, except for the upper classes, who spoke like a cross between the Queen and BBC radio announcers.

The story begins with The Kid (Bill, or as his future mother in law calls him, to his disgust, Willy) down in the dumps, willing to give up both the push (his gang) and drinking if he could only get a girl. “if this dilly feelin’ doesn’t stop/I’ll lose me block an’ stoush some flamin’ cop!”

He sees around the place a better class of girl than he’s used to, and finally scores an introduction

‘Twas on a Saturdee, in Colluns Street,
An’ – quite by accident, o’course – we meet.
Me pal ‘e trots up an’ does the toff –
‘E allus was a bloke for showin’ off.
“This ‘ere’s Doreen,” ‘e sez. “This ‘ere’s the Kid.”
I dips me lid.

and he’s a new man. “‘Er name’s Doreen . . . An’ me – that thort I knoo/The ways uv tarts, an’ all that smoogin’ game!/An’ so I ort; fer ain’t I known a few?/Yet some’ow . . . I dunno. It ain’t the same.”

Time passes. “So goes each day, like some celeschil mill,/E’er since I met that shyin’ little peach.” At the beach he declares himself. “I wish’t yeh meant it, Bill.” But this is the real thing.

That bosker feelin’ that come o’er a bloke,
An’ makes ‘im melt;
Makes ‘im all hot to maul ‘er, an’ to shove
‘Is arms about ‘er . . . Bli’me? but it’s love!

They go to see The Play. But then, is she interested in someone else? A coot in a stror ‘at? But no. He’s done her wrong. “She sung a song; an’ orl them bitter things/That chewin’ over lovers’ quarrels brings/Guv place to thorts of of sorrer an’ remorse.” And so he gets taken to meet her Mar. On the way home reality bites (but only for a moment) “An’ as I’m moochin’ ‘omeward frum the car/A sudden notion stops me wiv a jar -/Wot if Doreen, I thinks, should grow to be,/A fat ole weepin’ willer like ‘er Mar!”

We make our way through the wedding; getting looked after after coming home drunk; a visit from an Uncle who offers them the opportunity to become farmers (orchardists); and finally, a kid.

But in that stillness, as the day grows dim,
‘An I am sittin’ there wiv ‘er an’ ‘im –
My wife, my son! an’ strength in me to strive,
I only know – it’s good to be alive!

I have, from my father’s collection, the book with the cover above and thought for one moment he may have left me a first edition. But no, it’s a second edition, also 1915, inscribed by the author “CJ Dennis March 23/16”. A card has been pasted into the flyleaf to “Mr Holloway” thanking him for a gift. Not my grandfather who was then still at school but maybe my great grandfather, Edwin Holloway (1851-1923).

For the original editions Henry Lawson was induced to write a Foreword. ‘My young friend Dennis has honoured me with a request to write a preface to his book… The “Sentimental Bloke“, while running through the Bulletin, brightened up many dark days for me. He is more perfect than any alleged “larrikin” or Bottle-O character I ever attempted to sketch …’. I also have a much later edition (1992) with an Introduction by Barry Humphries who laments the loss of the Melbourne of his youth, before the homogenizing effect of ‘skylineitis’.

The illustrations, including the cover, are by cartoonist Hal Gye (1887-1967). Throughout The Sentimental Bloke the characters are rendered as naked (sexless) cherubs, shades of Norman Lindsay! But I couldn’t find any examples online to reproduce here.

I also had recourse to Alec H Chisholm’s The Making of a Sentimental Bloke (1946) a first (and no doubt only) edition hardback with dust jacket intact that I got some years ago in a job lot at $2 a pop. Dennis’ “larrikin” poetry was a bit of a shock to the locals of Auburn and Gladstone in rural SA who knew him as a small, quiet boy often over-dressed in eton collars and so on by his maiden aunts.

On leaving home he never really settled down and by the time he was 40 and this book came out he had been living in poverty for some years, with the assistance of friends. Within a year or so The Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick which followed it had sold over 100,000 copies. Dennis became if not famous, then well known in England, Canada and the US, and spent the rest of his life in relative prosperity, with increasingly conservative opinions to match.

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CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1915. 130pp including Glossary
Alec H Chisholm, The Making of a Sentimental Bloke, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946. 138pp.

see also Whispering Gums’ reviews of –
Philip Butterss, An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis (here)
CJ Dennis, The Moods of Ginger Mick (here)
and
Brona’s tribute to her uncle and his favourite poet, CJ Dennis, (here)

The Ripping Tree, Nikki Gemmell

Nikki Gemmell (1966- ) is an author I really admire. If I had more time (and energy) I would have made her my feature author for a year as I did with David Ireland a couple of years ago. I have written about her previously so if you want to know more start with my review of After (2017), Gemmell’s memoir of dealing with the death of her mother by her own hand, pre-Assisted Dying laws.

An author I admire, but the rest of the world, not so much. She gets “International Bestselling Author” for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) but where’s the hype for this, her first novel in eight years, or for that matter, for After, which was a really powerful work, but which attracted just one commenter, as did my previous Gemmell review (thank you, respectively, Sue and Lisa).

I picked up The Ripping Tree as an MP3 CD at my latest library, which means I listened to it a week ago, took no notes and there is almost no textual material online to provide me with reminders.

First up, it’s Historical Fiction. How do I deal with that? It’s not a re-telling of an historical event, but rather an imagined story set in maybe the 1840s on an island or coastal community on the east coast of Australia. I read it as a sermon using an alternative reality to posit a world where a powerless young woman, bereft of everything, down to her own clothing, nevertheless stood up to power both for herself and for the local Aborigines whom the settlers were massacring.

Australian history must be re-written to include the Indigenous massacres, oppression and deaths in custody which from 1788 till today, and no doubt well into the future, enable us to live on this land. Gemmell no doubt is an advocate of this re-writing. But I think that by doing it through Historical Fiction she runs into the old #NotAllMen problem, or in this case #NotAllWhites.

No doubt there were ‘good’ Germans, and there are ‘good’ men, but the Germans have shown that the way forward for them is to accept responsibility for the Holocaust; the South Africans that Truth precedes Reconciliation; women are asking all men to acknowledge their privilege; I am saying ALL non-Indigenous Australians must acknowledge that our prosperity derives from theft and murder. The problem with this book is that it will leave readers with the option of saying ‘well, we weren’t all bad’ when the truth is that right up to today we either participated or looked the other way.

[Does the sensible thing, rings the library, goes and picks up a paper copy].

The novel is framed as a story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren who have been up the coast to visit the ‘stately home’ Willowbrae. “The turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms, the circular flower beds”. But that is just two or three pages, of no consequence.

The novel otherwise, is divided into seven consecutive days and the days into chapters of just a few pages. On day one Thomasina Trelora, 16 years old, from Knockleby, Dorset wakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a girl’s bedroom.

Her father has died. Her half brother has sold the estate to pay his own debts and has brought Thomasina to his home in Australia where she is to marry a clergyman sight unseen. But their ship has missed the harbour entrance in a storm, has smashed on the rocks, and she, the only survivor has washed up onshore, barely conscious, has been rescued by an Aboriginal man

Black. I took the hand in mine and turned it over, held the rescuing fingers close. The hand was darker at the knuckles and ghostly pale underneath, as if the sun had never reached into it, or use had rubbed it light, and there was a paleness under the nails and near them and, no, actually, the skin wasn’t uniformly black at all: the fingernails were yellowed and ridged and strongly thick as if from something else. The ocean perhaps, shells or sea creatures …

who deposits her in the night on the steps of Willowbrae. She determines to keep her name to herself, to avoid the unwanted marriage, and the youngest son of the house, Mouse, names her Poss, for the “opossum that comes in the night and scrambles things up and is really cheeky with lovely big eyes”.

The family in whose house she finds herself, the Craws, consist of mother, father, two adult sons, Tobyn and Virgil, a dead sister in whose bed she is lying, and young Mouse. The two elements of the story are Poss’s refusal to be tied down to a proper feminine role, let alone take the place of the dead sister; and her discovery of a dead Aboriginal mother and baby – and subsequently the dead woman’s young English-speaking daughter – and her determination to have the death investigated, when it’s clear that a) it’s part of a wider policy of ‘dispersing the natives’, and b) that the baby was Virgil’s. The second element is made worse by her further discovery that Mr Craw is sending Aboriginal bones back to England for ‘research’.

A strange Vicar is introduced into the story, a shy, awkward man who offers Poss friendship. But the local townspeople want her gone, and by day seven Poss is facing the very real possibility of life-long incarceration in an institution for unmanageable women.

Mr Craw’s fists smash upon the desk. ‘You’re mad, child. Seeing things. It’s a sign of hysteria – and that ridiculous insistence on men’s clothes was only the start. There’s no “black man” here or anywhere near Willowbrae. You had a blow to the head and need medical help.’ Is he right? No, surely. ‘You need a doctor. Immediately.’

Gemmell is a fine writer and this is a powerful story, full of tension, about an imagined past in which heroic young women fought back against the murder of the original inhabitants. Despite my reservations I enjoyed it. I hope you read it for yourselves.

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Nikki Gemmell, The Ripping Tree, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2001. 340pp. (sorry, I returned the CD without noting the reader. I imagine the running time was about 9 hours).

Nikki Gemmell website (here)

The ‘ripping tree’ is a tree from which the bark may be ripped in sheets. Gemmell says paperbark but (IMO) they are a relatively small tree and the bark comes off in flakes. Perhaps it’s different on the NSW north coast (I’m wrong, see Lisa’s comment below)