The Mountain, Drusilla Modjeska

The Mountain is a novel set in Papua New Guinea in the years before and after Independence (from Australia) on 16 Sept., 1975. Modjeska, born in England in 1946, went to PNG with her husband (I think) in the late 1960s, briefly attending the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, before settling in Sydney in 1971. ‘In 2006 Modjeska was a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, “investigating the interplay of race, gender and the arts in post-colonial Papua New Guinea”‘ (wiki) all of which accords with the scenes and action in this book.

I started listening to an audiobook of The Mountain a couple of months ago, and found the beginning entrancing. But the cds – as is often the case with the Queensland Narrating Service – proved unlistenable and so I was prevented from finishing until I could source a paper version, which of course I now have.

There is a brief Prologue. Jericho, 36, lunching overlooking Sydney Harbour, with Martha who must be mid-50 ish. Martha remembers Jericho, then 5, being brought down the Mountain to her and Rika. Like most opening chapters, you file it away and hope subsequent chapters will make it make sense, though in this case, if you remember it at all, it has no context until much later in the book.

Martha is essentially the author character, but she often takes a back seat, and when the narration is from the point of view of her friends Rika or Laedi, who each have very different backgrounds, it is often difficult to tell them apart.

The core of the novel is that Rika, a young Dutch woman, marries Leonard, a stodgy Oxford anthropologist who accepts a position at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. There she becomes friends with Martha – a young woman from Sydney who had given up her own studies and married her boyfriend, Peter, because he had been offered a job at UPNG “too good to refuse” – and with Laedi, a young, Australian private school educated, coffee coloured ‘hapkas‘ woman, married to another white ademic, Don. And they all live in houses in the university compound, and have a duty to employ locals as servants.

By the time the I gave up on the audiobook, the three young women were engaging in long, personal discussions; were getting to know all the university staff and senior students, in standard university town fashion; and Rika whose view was taking over, was being introduced to Port Moresby and to PNG. All very much, I’m sure, in accord with Modjeska’s own life at that time.

What bothers me, and it bothers me more because Modjeska is now, has long been, a distinguished (Australian) literary academic, is that as more and more Papuan characters are introduced, she purports to write from their point of view. Which is ironic, given that many of them are academic and/or literary, but also unnecessary, patronizing. In a word, it’s appropriation. I wonder what her reasoning is. This is an otherwise excellent novel; written largely out of Modjeska’s own experience; perhaps she feels PNG needs/needed a hurry on to produce its own literature.

Leonard finds Rika, a fine photographer, a job curating old photos in the university library; Martha enrols to complete her BA in English Lit. They get to know, the novel is expanded to include, Papuan men – Jacob, an ambitious law student; Milton, an English student finding his way writing anti-colonial drama; Aaron back from studying overseas. Jacob and Milton are roomies. Aaron and Jacob, both from Fjord country, have ‘history’. Michael Somare, leader of the new Pangu Party, floats in and out of the university. Gough is still in Opposition in Canberra, but Independence is coming.

Leonard goes up ‘the Mountain’ to live there for some months and to get local life and ceremonies down on film. Don is foisted on him by the university, and causes problems. Rika stays behind, is expected to come up later, falls into a relationship with Aaron.

Bark paintings recur throughout – these two are unnamed, just “PNG bark paintings sold at auction” – created by women, given as gifts, used as wall hangings. With no great importance, but symbolizing, I think, links between women on the Mountain and women in Port Moresby.

Rika can’t bear to tell Leonard. Laedi is unhappy with Don, but gets pregnant again. Martha observes. Eventually Rika goes up the Mountain herself, makes important connections with the women there. Don takes a young local as wife, she has a child.

Rika was angry. She was angry with Leonard. She was angry at his patience when she could not let him touch her. She was angry with herself for the night she had given in to him, and to herself, and for the dark pleasure of her double betrayal as Leonard sweated above her. She was angry at the kindness of the hand Leonard rested on her back when she turned from him on their hard sleeping mats. Most of all, she was angry that he had not told her about Don.

A page later, their marriage is over. Rika goes back down the Mountain. Aaron gets a beating from the white men who have been tailing him, observing him. A warning that white women are not for Black men. Leonard eventually goes home to Oxford.

Rika and Aaron get a house, outside the university compound, in the new suburb of Hohola. Soon, and for many years, they are surrounded by friends. Their house has a “shaded verandah where people gathered, crowding around table, or sleeping on the old bed against the wall. Aaron’s kin came from the fjords – no one was turned away. Rika sang as she cooked coconut rice and banana bread, food for many.”

And so begin the middle years, Aaron now working for Somare; Martha and Laedi also living in Hohola, Martha and Peter living largely separate lives; Laedi eventually a single mother with daughters Bili and Daisy.

In the sixth year a hapkas boy is brought down from the Mountain for his education and he effectively becomes if not Bili’s brother then her constant playmate. This is Jericho (not that I remembered the Prologue at the time), and much of the rest of the novel is his story.

For someone who in a lifetime in literature has produced only three novels, Modjeska is a very fine writer. I’m sorry that she did not find a way to tell this story just through Martha’s eyes, or even through Martha and Rika’s, because accounts of PNG life are rare, but they deserve to be told by the Miltons and Laedis and Jerichos who lived them.

And yes, despite myself, I enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it.

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Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain, Vintage, Sydney, 2012. 426pp. The map, presumably hand-drawn by Modjeska, is taken from the book.

see also my reviews of:
Modjeska’s first novel (set in England), Poppy (1990)
and, from her PhD at UNSW, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945 (1981).

Their Eyes were watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

North America Project 2022

A hurricane is ripping through the night. Three or four African-American workers are huddled in a shack in the Florida Everglades, waiting for the levees holding back the waters to give way, or the roof and the walls shielding them from the crashing rain to disappear. Hurston writes, they were not staring into the dark, “their eyes were watching God”.

I listened to this seminal American novel yesterday (as I write), driving down from Port Hedland, and now I must get my thoughts down on ‘paper’ before they disappear into the ether. Their Eyes were watching God (1937) was Hurston’s second novel. I reviewed her first, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) – a fictionalized account of her father’s life – a couple of years ago, and concluded by hoping that her next would have a female protagonist, and here we are.

I can’t tell you how the novel begins because a lot of it is dialogue and the dialogue is all dialect and it takes a while before you (I) work out what is being said, but once you do it flows. Anyway, the beginning doesn’t matter, it’s mostly just Janie and Phoebe talking, and then we get Janie’s story and Janie grows up and does life and goes away and finally comes back and sits down and talks to Phoebe and we’re back where we started.

What interested me most about the dialogue was why did Hurston choose to write that way. Maybe two thirds of the narrative is carried forward by discussions between the main characters; but more than that, secondary characters and secondary issues are also accorded great chunks of dialogue. Hurston is writing/recording talk for talk’s sake: describing the give and take during card games, or all the teasing the completely peripheral Matt suffers about the way he treats his mule.

It is clear that Hurston is saying ‘I am Black and this is what being Black sounds like’. I can’t tell from my limited American reading how close Hurston is to the beginning of Black American Literature, but she must be pretty close. And she is highly educated; an anthropologist; her chosen field is, I think, poor rural Blacks in the South; she is a poet (and playwright); and you would imagine that she is well-read, thoughtful about Modernism, about innovation in literature to more closely represent Black modes of thought and speech.

Hurston (1891-1960) grew up in the self-governed, all-Black community of Eatonville, Florida. Despite some disruptions, especially to her high school education, she made her way to Howard University, where she got her first degree at age 29, and then to Barnard College at Columbia University.

When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its zenith, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston’s short story “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African-American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Wiki

I haven’t read Langston Hughes, and I know I should. And I really haven’t read much on Hurston, except Melanie/GTL on Hurston’s collections of Southern Black folk stories. But my impression at this point in my reading is that Hurston is a thoughtful and innovative writer; not just writing about Black people, her people; but writing with all the rhythms and poetry of everyday Southern Black speech. The working poor had been making their way into Eng.Lit. over the previous century (starting with North and South?) but I wish the US had a Trove (searchable database of all Australian newspapers) and I could see how critics responded to this overthrowing of all the white, middle class values Eng.Lit. holds so dear.

The story, as distinct from the writing, is of a young rural woman, Janie, brought up by her grandmother when her mother deserts her. It stands out in the story-telling that Janie is a quiet, reserved girl, only slowly, over the space of twenty years growing into assertive, independent womanhood; and that you are not told this, but feel it in her speech as she matures.

I’m sure most of you know the story, those of you educated in America will no doubt have dissected it at length. Briefly, her grandmother, dying, worried how Janie will get on without her, marries her off to an older farmer. The farmer treats Janie as just another useful farm animal (Janie is attractive but sex is rarely even implied, let alone discussed). Janie runs off with another guy, Jody Starks.

Starks takes her to Eatonville where he is soon the store owner, property developer and mayor. Janie is expected to work in the store, which she doesn’t enjoy, but is also expected to be a cut above the townspeople when she would rather be of them.

The years pass. Starks dies leaving Janie well off. A handsome younger conman, Tea Cake, courts her and she goes off with him, happily enduring the ups and downs of his erratic life. They end up picking beans in the Everglades. There’s the hurricane, graphically described. And the novel, as I said, draws to an end with Janie returning to Eatonville.

At this point, two thirds of the way through my North American project, I am finding the First Nations/Indigenous writing flat, relatively unemotional, though the stories are important, and the African-American writing vibrant, full of life and poetry. And yes, I’m generalizing off a very small sample. Hurston, like James Baldwin, doesn’t include white characters in her story, but has them off at a distance, a malevolent other; as when, for instance, white men round up Black men to bury the dead after the hurricane, the whites in coffins and the Blacks in mass graves.

Of course, racism is the common theme of the project, the constant reality of Black and Indigenous life under settler colonialism. So while I am enjoying the writing, I am also feeling less and less certain about what I can do, as a settler, to make a difference (and Albomp embracing Shaq O’Neal to promote the Voice to Parliament doesn’t help).

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Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were watching God, first pub. 1937. Audiobook – Harper Audio, 2004, read by Ruby Dee. 6 hrs 44 min.

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa

‘Research’ indicates Yoko Ogawa (1962- ) must be one of Japan’s most accomplished writers. Until I picked this book up I hadn’t heard of her, though quite a number of you obviously had, from your comments when you saw I was reading it, no doubt from its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker.

Wikipedia says Ogawa “has published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction” only some of which have been translated into English (9 maybe). I’m most impressed by her co-writing An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, which sadly doesn’t seem to be one of the ones translated.

My first impression of The Memory Police was that it was both slow and dry, and it may have taken me till halfway to get over that. By the end I was entranced.

Is it Science Fiction? Most of the reviews say it is, and I have very little (ok, no) knowledge of the SF tradition in Japan. It is certainly SF in the way that Murakami is SF; which is to say surreal rather than sciencey. One reviewer draws parallels with 1984 and Brave New World. I guess the Memory Police of the title are a bit Brave New World-ish, but for me the dystopian element was minor.

The basis of the story is that a young woman writer living on one of Japan’s lesser islands, in a small village on the coast, a bus and train ride from the regional centre, is writing a novel about a young woman. We see excerpts from that novel, they are not labelled but are in slightly different type – Courier rather than Times, maybe, and I didn’t pick them up straight away.

The story of the novel we are reading is that things are disappearing, that most people quickly forget what it is that has disappeared, and that those who cannot forget are rounded up and interned by the Memory Police.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. … It took patience to figure out what was gone.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast … I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything.

The young woman’s father, an ornithologist, has died. Her mother, a sculptor, is one of those who don’t forget, she shows the then little girl keepsakes, relics long gone, but then she too is gone, or taken by the Police. Her old nanny dies, and so she is alone in the house, her only friend the old man, the nanny’s husband, who lives in a boat stranded on the beach. A ferryman whose ferry has disappeared.

The story of the novel being written is that a girl is in a class learning to type. Lessons are in a church with a clock tower. She becomes the lover of the young man teaching them. Her voice goes away and she can only speak to him by typing. And then the typewriter seizes up. Her lover takes her up to the room behind the clock, a room full of broken, seized typewriters …

A family, friends of the young woman writer’s parents, are rememberers. They come to her, bringing some of her mother’s sculptures, on their way into hiding.

The editor, R, who is working with her on her novel, also remembers. The old man proposes that they hide him, that she hides him, in a space below her study floor. R comes, leaving behind a wife and baby. Every night she brings him food and pages from her writing. They discuss what has disappeared. Her tries to convince her of the importance of remembering even a small part of what has been lost. Of course she is all he sees and they become close.

Then novels disappear. She gives R her manuscript, which already has no meaning for her, and some books selected almost at random. The townsfolk gather to burn books in great bonfires which burn all night. The library itself is torched.

I followed the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air – and suddenly I realized that long ago, I had stood at this same window with my father and looked out at a similar sight… “A bird.” I remembered. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving nothing behind but the burning night.

Now she cannot write. But R persuades her to keep trying, to write a word, a line, a sentence.

Disappearances continue. Her novel comes to an end. This novel comes to an end.

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Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, first pub. 1994. Translated from the original Japanese, Stephen Snyder, Vintage, London, 2019. 274pp

A Mere Chance, Ada Cambridge

Here I am, doing a second Perth – Mt Isa, unloaded last night. Luckily, I wrote this review for my AWWC gig before I left. Right now I’m negotiating for a load home, which may or may not involve me in running to Townsville over the weekend. Meanwhile I can sit in the (mild – 26C) tropical sun and read and write.

You might see that I had last week’s Australian Legend post on my mind as I wrote this one.


It’s a tragedy that Australia’s early women writers were denied their place in the canon by the rabid misogyny of the turn of the (C20th) century Bulletin, and by its fellow travellers Colin Roderick and Vance Palmer who dominated what we were allowed to know about Australian literature right up to the 1960s. With the consequence that important writers like Catherine Helen Spence, Catherine Martin, Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge were dismissed as romance writers and remained out of print for up to a century.

Read on …

Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.

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James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

Out Here, Alan Wearne

I know, the top half of the cover photo is warped. Blame my phone. But to the best of my memory, that house, just around the corner from Mum’s retirement village, is the one the Wearne’s lived in when I was at school in Blackburn South (Melbourne) and where I would occasionally deliver the newspaper when I worked at Pentland’s newsagency in Canterbury Rd, putting the rounds together for the paperboys at 5.00 in the morning.

Alan was a couple of years ahead of me, in his little arty clique, but I was good friends with his brother, so knew him to say hello to, saw him occasionally later on as we made our separate ways through uni.

Out Here (1976) is Alan Wearne’s first verse novel. The Nightmarkets followed 10 years later (when Out Here was reissued and I’m guessing, revised) and after that The Lovemakers (2001,4). He has other titles, collections of verse, I think, some of which I own. I recently saw a new title, Near Believing (2022) in the bookshop, and bought it, but it’s just a best-of of old stuff, so I thought why not go back to the source.

Out Here is one story from multiple points of view. Brett Viney, 17, has stabbed himself in the stomach in the school toilets and nine people around him have a say. The first is Lucy Martinson, deputy principal [From memory, our headmaster at Blackie South was Mr Martindale, and his deputy, whose name I don’t remember, was a woman at of around 70]: “I viewed the eddies of the Viney maelstrom.”

Some small crisis; at once
with bandages, the ambulance completed,
I rang adults: Brett’s mother and father, home
and, as they say, ranting.

In the staff room a teacher tells her “Viney seemed attached to/young Tracey Izzard. Tell her?/Before rumours, it would be best,/you know how women …”

Brett’s parents, Marian and Russell, have just broken up. Alan is quite clever, both at giving them different voices, and in showing through their inner monologues, and that’s what each section is, how Brett is only one of, and probably not even their main concern. First Marian: “I held to Russ,/had kids not opinions”

O Brett, son, we were, are crazy for
playthings, and pocket money, but
your father and I, until recently, held,
we tried. Try and care Brett. Care.

So, to my son’s Tracey: she has a long
pale neck, slight ginger hair and
this unnerving abundance, poise.

Then Russell, on the road to stay with his “has-been brother: ex-league-star and slob” [‘league’=NSW, so he’s heading interstate]: “Could say: ‘You did a fool thing,/call him mate, the stock/ ageing man response to/ sonny Brett”; but then goes back to thinking about his girlfriend Cheryl, and good times past with Marian.

Segue to Cheryl: “Calls me Chezz, too often now/ and I join his his school at times/ knowing they want to touch me up,/men, ten, fifteen years older, wishing/and hoping”. She’s told about Brett, but Russell leaving his wife is her big chance, her only thought to grab it with both hands. “You know, I’ve many men/Miss Cheryl Browne’s had many men,/but this is the, what, first starring role.”

We go on to Marian’s father, a millionaire house builder living in an expensive bayside suburb, and then Marian’s ‘commo’ younger sister; all of the voices reflecting not so much on why Brett may have harmed himself but on their own relationships and interrelationships.

Nothing halts, when Brett took out
the blade, lives continued, parents
kept their spar and interchange
boiling: the rest, I, his
sister and brother, you Tracey, stood
not knowing.

Tracey and then Brett follow, and I am still not clear what Brett was upset about – his parents, Tracey, life? Is that deliberate, or is it just me? Tracey suggests that Brett was depressed, “the Viney gloom”, and that she had had to take a week off during term, which may have led to: “I suppose pregnancy rumours/ have flung my name and Brett’s/ around the school.”

She turns to her father:

You know what I like, liked the best
apart from being with Brett, you know?
Dad’s greenhouse, Saturday morning.
Where we’ve talked about Brett
and Mum, her delicate problems ..

Brett speaks from some time in the future, from another suburb: “My childhood terminated hunched up/ in Martinson’s office, bleeding,/ it seems so long ago and/ such a mess.” He remembers his family visiting him in hospital – “no never ‘how could you do this to us etc’/never that, rather a wallow/ that they enjoyed their blame.”

And finally Mr Izzard, Tracey’s father: “I may be asked to, as were, round off/ though don’t expect some he did this,/she said that, happy ever after slice.” Though, perhaps he does: “O Tracey, it’s all right/ everything is going to be, all right.”

My feeling, having read and reread and written this far is that Out Here is not a novel (or novella), so much as a suite of voices telling a story, no not even a story, and certainly not Brett’s story which is largely lost in the voices washing over it, but a feeling for parenting in 1970s suburbia. Which is interesting, as Alan grew up in 1950s and 60s suburbia, matriculating in 1966. And The Nightmarkets which he wrote next, is definitely the story of his, my, generation, the boys made to go to war – or jail – in 1968,69,70.

I read Alan Wearne because he, his subjects are familiar. But I like his poetry too, that slightly awkward mixture of poetic rhythm and vernacular is both unique and reminiscent of CJ Dennis and AB Paterson – but without the galloping ryhmes!

The last lines of Miss Martinson’s, section, the ‘Miss’ is mine, but none of our teachers was ever ‘Lucy’, are perfect:

‘But why Brett (isn’t it?) why?’
Oh his shrug and oh just, just
mucking around with a knife.

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Alan Wearne, Out Here, first pub. 1976. This edition, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle NSW, 1986. 50pp

see also my reviews:
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets (here)
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (here)

Shikasta, Doris Lessing

Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.

Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.

Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.

That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).

Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.

The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.

One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –

Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.

It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.

The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.

Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.

Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece

All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…

The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .

The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.

This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.

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Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda (2013) is not a novel about swimming, as seems to be everyone’s first impression, so much as a novel where swimming, being a swimmer, is a way in to discussing Melbourne’s secret shame – class.

However, swimming, getting to world class, takes up a fair amount of space, which is interesting as I have seen nothing to indicate Tsiolkas was a competitive swimmer. Tsiolkas (1965- ) was a student at Blackburn High (in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) where two of my kids went (I went to Blackburn South High) and if he swam would have been a member of my old club, Nunawading and maybe have been coached by my former teammate and coach, Leigh Nugent.

In fact some of the things Tsiolkas says about swimming – ‘touching the wall’, losing track of the line on the bottom of the pool, thinking (my head did almost nothing but count laps (and complain about oxygen deprivation) when I swam) – make me wonder if he just “imagined himself” into his protagonist, Danny.

Danny is the oldest son of working class parents – Scottish-Australian interstate truck driver father and Greek-Australian mother – living in Reservoir, a northern suburb of working class Anglos and new migrants; streets of small, identical three bedroom brick and tile houses put up by the Housing Commission in the 1950s and 60s.

The guts of the novel is that, based on his swimming, he wins a scholarship to attend one of the big Private boys schools, probably based on Scotch College going by the coloured blazer and the location on the river.

The first piece of advice the Coach ever gave Danny was not about swimming, not about his strokes, not about his breathing, not about how he could improve his dive or his turns. All of that would come later. He would never forget that first piece of advice.

The squad had just finished training and Danny was standing shivering off to one side. The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs, when their fathers had entered their names on the list to attend Cunts College.

First week of term, February 1994

The advice? “You are not friends, you are competitors.” Don’t take shit from them. Give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.

At school he is teased and ostracized, but over the years makes his way in to the in-crowd via his victories in swimming and his ‘psycho’ response to being provoked. Scotch is the school rich Presbyterians send their sons to. Fathers are judges, politicians, leaders in business and medicine. Mothers are society ladies, big on committees and entertaining.

Most middle Australians live in a fantasy “classless” society, unaware of the 10% above them pulling all the levers, keeping apart, speaking in mock British accents (and yes, I had one for a while, at Trinity); dismissive of ‘bogans’, tradespeople who work harder and often earn more than they do; and completely blind to the plight of the underclass of generationally welfare dependent.

Danny finds himself in a school for boys training to be bosses, whose parents are the bosses the rest of us work for, where arrogance is a given and self-doubt is rare. Of course Australians cut sporting heroes a lot of slack, and so there is a path for him to achieve acceptance.

The storyline chops about, beginning with Danny, 30ish, ex-swimmer, ex-con it turns out, in Glasgow, his relationship with his lover coming to an end; and making its way through all the episodes in his life that brought him to this point. It works well.

We see Danny, as a swimmer, quickly the best swimmer in his squad, rise through states, nationals, Pan-Pacs; we see him floundering in the social side of school life, with his mates, his mates’ mothers and sisters; a scholarship boy in the upper class suburbs of Toorak and Portsea; But more interesting are the family dynamics, his ongoing friendship with Demet, a Turkish-Australian girl from his old life, his sense of entitlement at home, his father’s resentment, his mother’s conciliating.

This is a big book, over 500 pages, and although Melbourne and class, and I guess competitive swimming are the glue which hold it together, it is the relationships which make it compelling – with Martin, at different times his biggest tormentor and best friend; with Demet; with Luke, his unlikely swottish schoolfriend; with his brother and sister; his parents of course (his father seems to get rather more days at home than the one day a week allowed most long distance drivers); with his mother’s Adelaide-based family, introduced late in the book; with his lovers.

Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief, and for once the protagonist is anti-recreational drugs. As you might expect of me, I find it odd that he has written a coming-of-age for a protagonist who is in no way himself – no, I’m sure there’s bits of him in there – but he knows his Melbourne, someone had to write about class sooner or later, and he does it well, and of course his father is a (mostly convincing) truck driver running Melbourne – Perth, so I think I liked it.

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Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013. 513pp

see also other Tsiolkas posts:
Australian Grunge (here)
Merciless Gods (here)
The Slap (here)
A Letter from America – Melanie’s take on The Slap (here)

My Career Goes Bung, Miles Franklin

April’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge reprises a post I wrote years ago and which only Melanie read. Until years later anyway when I was admonished by ‘Azzurosky’ for claiming Sybylla’s older admirer, ‘Goring Hardy’ was based on Banjo Paterson, but on reflection that is a claim by which I stand.

This week I have been on holiday in Bendigo for mum’s 90th birthday – which went very well, thank you – and now I am in Melbourne loading for home. I must say holidaying with family doesn’t seem to leave any more time for blogging, than does working.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

Making the case that My Career Goes Bung, far from being a ‘sequel’, is the ‘frame’ through which Franklin wishes us to re-view her adolescent masterpiece My Brilliant Career. Read on … (my apologies to the early birds who got this far and discovered I’d forgotten to provide the link).