Extinctions, Josephine Wilson

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Extinctions (2016), the 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner is an exemplar of that award’s recent preference for safe, middle-brow novels that touch all the liberal bases. Author, Josephine Wilson is a fiftyish writer and academic “who lives in Perth, Western Australia with her partner and two children” – one of whom is adopted according to her interview with the Guardian.

She has written the story of a week in the life – with lots of backstory – of a 69 year old retired Engineering professor, Frederick Lothian and his largely estranged daughter, Caroline. The point of view is mainly that of Frederick, though sometimes of Caroline and once (I think), of Jan, Frederick’s next-door neighbour in the retirement village; and so is limited by Frederick’s almost total lack of self awareness.

Frederick is a widower; his wife, Martha has died of cancer a couple of years earlier; and he also has a son, Callum. Caroline, it turns out, is adopted and Indigenous, too young to be of the Stolen Generation, but pointing in that direction, removed from a disappointingly stereotypical Indigenous druggie mother who eventually dies due to domestic violence.

This is a story that connects to me in all sorts of ways but which, in the end, mostly fails to connect. Most reviewers have seen this as Frederick’s story, but it is not. This is a woman’s story, a woman attempting to understand her father’s generation. And just as Wilson is probably a decade older than Caroline, so Frederick is clearly a decade older than his given age. I will be 68 in a couple of months, will work for at least the next five years, I get around on my bike, and, until recently, competed in long distance ocean swims. Frederick is in a retirement village, his body is failing, and he refuses ongoing academic work.

The villa was a bridge between his real life, which had ended, and death, which waited behind a wall of paperbarks on the other side of the quadrangle. He had finished accumulating experiences, and now he was shuffling around in the past, peeking inside boxes and then closing them quickly. Moving to St Sylvan’s had cemented his fate.

Wilson touches lightly on Perth, her and my home town, and I appreciate that. Later as Frederick remembers dragging his family out into the Wheatbelt to stargaze, the locations become more specific; and in the final act Caroline is in Menzies, north of Kalgoorlie, getting in touch with her indigenous family – which, as you might expect of me, is a story I believe Wilson should not have attempted – Wilson, away from home territory, makes a small mistake and has Caroline advised to watch out for kangaroos while driving at night when the real danger in that area is unfenced cattle. And, if you want my advice, don’t drive in the outback at night, at all.

The other connections? I still think of myself as an ‘engineer’, despite never getting beyond first year. It was the only profession ever considered for me during all my school years, and by the time I arrived at Melbourne I was a natural fit for its boys-own culture – 240 boys in first year and one woman who left at the end of the year to study science. And my professors might be pleased to learn, the one lesson I remember, turning moments, has been of use to me throughout my working life.

Frederick is distant and controlling, he chooses to live in Perth to put distance between himself and a bullying father in England. He meets Martha in the US and she gives up her studies and the chance of career to follow him to Australia.

When he met Martha he knew nothing of families, and very little of love. A family was something to fear, like a long, dark tunnel cutting through a mountain. Who knew if you would come out the other side alive?

Frederick reports to us what Martha has said to him, without comprehension. Milly (ex Mrs Legend) would understand that! His unit, and before that his home, is full of collectibles, which the children are NOT TO TOUCH. Been there! I hope I was less anal, though I still don’t let anything go.

I have both a daughter who was adopted out and a daughter whose biological father I helped her find. Near the end, we discover that Martha had refused to let Caroline as a teenager have her birth mother’s details, which I didn’t find consistent with all the other ways Martha opposed Frederick.

When Frederick finally gains some insight in his old age, he is too willing to forgive himself. That was my father’s position, and mine too I think.

In the retirement village, Frederick holds himself aloof, regarding the other residents with scorn. The week or so of the story begins with him watching, allowing, another resident to die; Jan, his gregarious neighbour, insists on him talking; her scorn at his self-serving answers causing him to begin coming to terms with all he has suppressed; we discover he has a son who has been in care, incommunicative for years with brain damage, Frederick unable to make himself visit, even after Martha’s death; Frederick the cause of his son’s accident, Martha and Caroline both despising him for it, though it’s clear he doesn’t realise.

The backstory element is busy – Frederick’s relationship as a boy with his domineering father; his and his father’s involvement in the death of his younger brother; his ‘best friend’ Ralph; Martha’s increasing dissatisfaction and independence; her affair (which we learn only from Caroline); Jan’s story as she becomes more involved in Frederick’s life, becomes the catalyst for some very sudden changes.

But in the end, the novel has three weaknesses, the last of which is IMO fatal. Frederick’s agedness, already discussed; it is never clear why Martha stayed married to him; and we are meant to believe at the end that Frederick has seen the light and been redeemed. He is of course too like me (and my father) for me to find him likeable, but I did not even find him believable.

 

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by William McInnes (sounding in places very like Jack Thompson, the voice of Australia)

Other reviews:

Roslyn Jolly, Sydney Review of Books (here)
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Janine, The Resident Judge (here)

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Draganned again

Journal: 024

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It’s time to imagine Dragan in a dress.

If I thought I had been Draganned last week, it only got worse! I upset a customer, Dragan got angry. I loaded my trailers on Thursday, he held me over (in Sydney) till Friday. We argued. He harangued me about how ungrateful I was. I spent all Friday stacking freight for one customer around the freight of another customer, on another driver’s trailers, and took off for Perth the minute we were finished. An hour out … it goes on and on. In the next 24 hours I was diverted around the countryside and swapped the combination I was towing twice, as other drivers had problems. And still we’re fighting.

I’ve had my truck serviced – the oil alone costs $600 – on the basis that the company will want me to do one more trip before Christmas, but that is looking increasingly problematic. Last night I picked Milly up from her Tuesday meeting and we went for a late meal at Neho, a Korean fusion restaurant in Vic Park. Very popular. Great food. And happy to squeeze us in before they closed the kitchen. Anyway, Milly: it’s time I stopped living the Legend and spent some time in Perth doing family stuff. So one way or another, no more Dragan in 2019.

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On the way here I listened to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). I thought I had a copy at home and could write a proper review. As it turns out I have lots of Orwell, but not that one, not on the shelf where it should be anyway. What I do have is a biography, The Unknown Orwell (1974) by Peter Stansky & William Abrahams. They write:

It can be argued that of all the books he discovered while at Eton, the one that was most to affect him was Jack London’s The People of the Abyss. Years later it would have a direct influence upon the writing of the first book he was to publish, Down and Out in Paris and London. As an Etonian, [he] read of the ‘abyss’ and incorporated it into his fantasies and life. Written in 1903, the book was (and still is) a vivid,  powerful and appalling first-hand account of poverty in the East End of London in the summer of 1902 …

I was a big Jack London fan years ago, but that was one book I could never find. Orwell, born Eric Blair (1903-1950) was at Eton from 1917-21. From there he went directly into the Imperial Police in Burma, from which he resigned to become a writer in March, 1928. He began almost straight away to get essays accepted, including, in 1929, The Spike, an account of his experiences living as a tramp in England [And also the name of chapter in London’s book]. I say “living as” because it was clear he always had options available to him, to borrow or earn money, which real tramps didn’t, and his account was actually the conflation of a series of experiences separated in time. Interestingly, he says he never attempted to modify his Etonian accent, and in fact was sometimes offered, and accepted, better treatment on the basis of his obvious gentleman-ness. A ‘spike’ if you’re wondering was a dormitory for the homeless. Tramping was mandated by the law that specified a man (or woman) could only stay in a given spike once in any month. Amazingly, it was an imprisonable offence to enter a spike with more than a few pence in one’s pocket.

Although Paris precedes London in the book, he was actually in Paris after this, in the Latin Quarter, and became a scullion – my son says “dish pig”, a job he often turned to as he scraped through his seven year Bachelors degree – after having all his money stolen by a prostitute he brought back to his room. In the book, not to offend his mother’s sensibilities, he says it was a young Italian.

He put the two stories together and eventually found a publisher in Victor Gollancz, who also came up with the title. (I looked, unsuccessfully for a Gollancz cover, but don’t you love the one I did come up with). It was at this stage that he adopted the pen name George Orwell. Down and Out is journalism/memoir with the names changed, a form I think he used again in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), but I’m pretty sure Homage to Catalonia (1938) which I reviewed here, is straight memoir.

Orwell, like London, was confirmed in his socialism by his experience of the actual living conditions of the underclass. But he had a strong libertarian streak which made it impossible for him to be a Party member, and which enables the Right to present him, wrongly, as on their side. He doesn’t judge his fellows, neither the fact that they have fallen so low, nor their behaviour, and is scathing of government policies which forced men willing to work to spend all their time and energy tramping between spikes and cheap lodging houses. He even suggests an alternative, accommodation with land attached which the homeless could use to grow their own vegetables. As it is, their principal sustenance was cups of tea, bread and margarine. I think that what he finds saddest is the loneliness, the impossibility of these men even meeting women, let alone being in the position to marry. He is also scathing about the cleanliness – or lack of – of French hotel kitchens, so you’ve been warned!

Orwell doesn’t mention the Depression. I have a very clear conception of the Depression years (1929-39) from Australian and American literature, but not so much from British and European lit. and perhaps anyway the bulk of his experiences predate the Wall Street Crash of September 1929 from which the Great Depression is usually dated. Stansky & Abrahams say extreme poverty (in Britain) was very similar in London’s and Orwell’s works, which are a generation apart, and no doubt right up to and beyond the War (as we see in Cotter’s England for example).

Last but not least, he relates some shockingly anti-semitic stories for no discernable reason, and I think it is more than “just the times”. Orwell is a writer I admire, and I need to follow this up.

 

George Orwell (M, Eng), Down and Out in Paris and London, first pub. Gollancz, London, 1933. Blackstone Audio, read by Frederick Davidson

Peter Stansky & William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell, Paladin, London, 1974

More Orwell: Homage to Catalonia (here). 1984 (here)

Recent audiobooks

Ken Bruen & Jason Starr (M, USA/Ire), Slide (2015)
Terry Brooks (M, USA), A Princess of Landover (2009)
Irena Gut Opdyke (F, Poland), In My Hands (1999) – Holocaust memoir
CJ Box (M, USA), The Disappeared (2018)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Alexis Wright, Tracker (2017)

 

At Parramatta, Ethel Anderson

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Ethel Campbell Louise Anderson (1883-1958) was born into the Australian squattocracy, in England to Australian-born parents, was brought up in Sydney and on her grandfather’s station, Rangamatty, near Picton, and went to school at Sydney CEGGS. Her name reminded me of Annabella Boswell (here), also a Campbell, and the Scots community she moved in half a century earlier. But “Rangamati” was a place name from Bengal and it’s likely she moved in Anglo-Indian circles. In any case she married a major in Bombay in 1904, whom she “accompanied … (usually riding)—whether he was shooting bears or marching with his battery”. (ADB)

She spent the war years in England and didn’t return to Sydney until 1924. Anderson, who retired with the rank of Brigadier, was private secretary to a number of NSW Governors, including Philip Game who dismissed Jack Lang. Ethel mixed in art circles with modernists like Grace Cossington-Smith but seems to have been decidedly old fashioned in her writing – which is why I am happy to deal with her in Gen 2. Another site (here) says “A well-travelled mural painter and writer, Ethel Anderson was considered one the most important supporters of modern art and its painters in the early part of the 20th century, thanks largely to the exhibitions she organised and the writing she did about it for numerous publications including Art in Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald.”

Anderson had short stories published in various magazines. At Parramatta appeared in the Bulletin in 1956, and is variously described as a novella and, to use a term coined by Frank Moorhouse, a collection of ‘discontinuous narratives’. The two stories from At Parramatta I review below are included in Australian Short Stories, ‘selected by Kerryn Goldsworthy’. The text itself doesn’t say when they are set but I would guess around 1880 or earlier. The coachman is a ‘murderer’, and by implication a convict. Transportation to NSW ceased in the 1840s but I don’t know for how long after that trusted convicts were let out as servants and labourers.

Miss Aminta Wirraway and the Sin of Lust

Here’s something for my fellow 60-ish bloggers to consider –

A picnic was to celebrate Miss Aminta Wirraway’s seventeenth birthday, chiefly because it was the one form of entertainment likely to be eschewed by the ‘agéd’. “Though I do not call people really old till they take their baths with the door open,” Victoria McMurthie had observed, “people begin to be elderly when they look thoughtful after eating apple dumplings – “.

Half a dozen girls go down to the beach in the vicarage buckboard, down the sandy track with its little creek crossings from Mallow’s Marsh to Lanterloo Bay.

“Across the harbour Sydney begins to look like a real city, doesn’t it? There’s St. James’ spire – such an elegant candle snuffer.”

But the subject of the moment is Dr Phantom, the most eligible bachelor from Mallow’s Marsh to Hornsby Junction, who apparently wishes to stay free to “go to Burragorang or to cross the Wollondilly, or to explore the Nepean, or the Diamantina … or to the Snowy River, to fish for trout …” The girls chatter on, about the advantageous marriages made by their friends, and that they might make themselves, Aminta confesses to being in love, leaves a pagan offering on the shore, and then it’s time: “Juliet, you slip your clothes on and run and harness Ruby.”

Juliet McCree is accused of Gluttony

Dr Phantom is making his way in his dashing “Hyde Park”, ‘a canopied and curtained vehicle, its four wheels rimmed with iron, drawn by a piebald Waler, and driven by a white-gloved, personable murderer.’ It’s a fine early autumn day, he’s laden with baskets of peaches, plums, grapes and pears, and making his way to the home of his friend and partner, Dr Boisragon “(pronounced Borrygan)”.

There he finds seven children, various shades of green, holding black papier-mâché basins to whom Boisragon has administered a strong emetic in order to discover which one of them has stolen and eaten the nectarine he had been awaiting with some eagerness to achieve perfect ripeness.

Juliet is discovered – by the nectarine peel in her vomit – to be the criminal. She argues forcefully that fruit is often taken without asking, that the doctors both receive and indeed have in their possession at this moment, fruit which they neither grew nor paid for, that Dr Phantom has in his pocket a lace hanky which is not his (it’s Aminta’s!), and that she was unaware she was committing a crime. Boisragon has no mercy, and she is sent home in the care of Phantom’s murderer.

I enjoyed these stories, grew up on tales of English school children, mostly boys of course, never read Little Women or Anne of Green Gables (I can’t think of any English examples), love Tom Brown’s Schooldays, though my favourite was and remains Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age.

Researching for Gen 2 Week has left me with a surfeit of C19th school-girl stories. I’m also reading Louise Mack’s Teens (a pdf accessible from the Gen 2 page). Mack’s ADB entry says she was friends with Ethel Turner at Sydney Girls High School and that the two published rival papers. Turner is 9 years older, so that is unlikely. But it is possible Mack’s Teens (1897) was influenced by Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Hopefully one of you will review one or both of these books for AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019.

 

Ethel Anderson, At Paramatta, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1956

The cover above is from the Penguin, 1985 reprint. It looks familiar but I can’t see it anywhere amongst my unread books, or dad’s. Abe Books has 3 copies in fine condition for £6.85.

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

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The cover painting above is Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife (1945) from a trip he made the previous year and his drawing A Drover’s Camp near Deniliquin (1944). Deniliquin is in NSW, 80 km north of the Victorian border at Echuca. I have often been through that way, heading east to Conargo, Jerilderee, Wagga or north to Hay, Hillston, Bourke and on into outback Queensland, and drovers and their mobs of sheep are still a common sight. Twenty years ago, destitute, I seriously considered the merits of getting an old truck and a plywood caravan and travelling at walking pace as the sheep in my care grazed the back roads and byways of the Riverina. As it happens Milly saved me, for the time being anyway, and that’s a story for another day.

Drysdale always claimed the naming of his painting was unconnected with the title of Australia’s most famous story, but many have sought to connect the two, not least Murray Bail, who in his own The Drover’s Wife (1975) claims that the big bodied woman is his (or more strictly, his dentist narrator’s) missing wife.

In this book Frank Moorehouse brings together a whole collection of this, his own and other writers’ stories and essays – on some of which I have already written (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer, The Drover’s De Facto) – to make a fascinating whole.

Let me attempt a brief chronological overview (Moorehouse’s book is arranged thematically). The undoubted source of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (read it here) is his mother, Louisa’s early married life in the bush near Mudgee, NSW, her husband often away droving and prospecting. Louisa chucked it in in 1886 when Henry was about 19, moved to Sydney, bought a newspaper, and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She was a loud forceful woman, Henry was not, and a great story teller.

Moorhouse includes an essay by Louisa, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889), see above, which discusses many of the elements of hardship and isolation which Henry includes in his story. Henry’s The Drover’s Wife first appeared in the Bulletin in 1892. Two years later Louisa used her presses to publish “a poorly printed collection” of Henry’s stories entitled Short Stories in Prose and Verse. Then in 1896 Angus & Robertson brought out a more comprehensive collection, While the Billy Boils.

Academic Ryan O’Neill demonstrates how the Bulletin‘s house style moulded Lawson into one of world’s great short story writers. He argues that the influence of the Bulletin‘s and Lawson’s “Bush Realism” was to be hugely influential in Australian short fiction into the 1960s. Moorhouse looks at iterations in the text to interrogate Lawson’s attitude to race. So, the B in Blacks is capitalised for the first time in the version the Lawson’s printed, but is subsequently discarded, while the comic King Billy intercedes between the drover’s wife and the Black midwife, Mary only in later versions and, according to Moorhouse, only after Lawson got feedback from his cronies down the pub. In a separate essay Matthews argues that Lawson was gay.

Lawson’s genius was to both write within the Bulletin format and to rise above it, subtly – and not so subtly in The Drover’s Wife – spreading his mother’s first wave feminism, while all the time being upheld by men as the messiah of mateship. Men sought to emulate his laconic style, from Vance Palmer to Roger McDonald, but he was also influential with women, not least Miles Franklin and Eve Langley.

In lieu of interrogating this influence Moorhouse has included ten or so short stories which reference Lawson’s story. I have already reviewed The Drover’s De Facto; others include The Drover’s Wife’s Dog by SF writer Damien Broderick; a long story of a young woman’s coming of age, Afraid of Waking It by Madeleine Watts, good but barely relevant; Murray Bail’s story about the woman in the painting; and Moorhouse’s own mock account of an Italian student’s misreading of the Lawson and Bail stories and Drysdale’s painting, which allocates to Australians the extreme affection for sheep usually ascribed to Kiwis.

There are some excellent photos of Drover’s Wifes paintings, images from stage works, notably Leah Purcell’s play (and also stage notes), and a wonderful pair of images titled the Drover’s Wife, Urisino Bore (1958) of drover Ronald Kerr and his sixteen year old wife Mavis, married 39 weeks pregnant (by Jeff Carter (1928-2010)), and again in 2011 after more than 50 years together (and quite often apart, as is the case for all drovers’ wives).

Sue/Whispering Gums has recently re-brought Barabara Jefferis (1917-2004) to our attention and her The Drover’s Wife (1980) is a fitting story to end this review.

It ought to be set straight. All very well for them to spin yarns and make jokes but nobody has written any sense about me. nobody has even given me a name except one and he got it wrong and said I was called Hazel. The drover’s wife, the doctor’s wife, the butcher’s wife. You wouldn’t think of all the countries the one where women are the fewest would be the one where they don’t exist, where men’ll say ‘the missus’ sooner than give a name.

In a chronology I couldn’t quite keep up with Jeffris’ DW is first a kid from the backclocks of NSW who runs off with a dentist [the Murray Bail story]; runs into Henry Lawson – “so I told him a lot. Talked too much – must’ve – because some of it he took and turned into that story about the snake …”, and the story about Mary, the Aboriginal midwife, and the story about the baby she lost – “That was the story I told Mr Lawson a long time afterwards, or at least the parts of it that were alright to tell a man.” Meets and is painted by Mr Drysdale, and then there was Murray Bail “who must have known the dentist”.

What I meant was to tell not so much about me and the drover and the dentist and the rest of them but about how women have a history, too, and about how the Bushman’s Bible and the other papers only tell how half the world lives… We’re not sheep or shadows, or silly saints the way Mr Lawson would have. There’s more to us. More to me than any of them have written, if it comes to that.

But she still doesn’t tell us her name.

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


AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019

I’ve put up the first iteration of the AWW Gen 2 page (here) with links to reviews and posts by me, Lisa/ANZLL, Sue/Whispering Gums, Kim/Reading Matters and Brona’s Books – check them out and see what else I can add – and links also to stories and novels readable as pdfs or downloadable to e-readers.


see also:

Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)

Nancy Elin’s review of Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife (here)

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Recent audiobooks

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

Currently reading

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

The Drover’s De Facto, Anne Gambling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

Anchor Point, Alice Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

See also:

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

Lisa (ANZLL)’s author interview (here)