The best authors in Australia today – and they are among the best in the world – are Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane and Kim Scott. I would certainly drop everything to read new books by them, but my favourite authors are Marie Munkara, Elizabeth Tan, Claire G Coleman and … Jane Rawson. So here we have Jane’s latest (and next month Claire G Coleman’s publishers release her latest, Enclave). Life is good.
We used to see Jane Rawson here blogging, I see her on Twitter, and I don’t have it in me to call her Rawson. Jane’s ‘About’ says she lives in Tasmania – for some reason I pictured her living in Williamstown (Melbourne) – and that she grew up in Canberra. Her first two novels were set in Melbourne, this and her previous novel are set in and around Port Adelaide which she seems to know quite well.
I used to know Port Adelaide quite well myself. I’ve lived and worked for trucking companies based there. Even now, or at least when I’m running Melbourne-Perth, I routinely drop into the trucking/industrial suburbs immediately east of the Port. For some reason though I’ve only rarely been to the residential suburbs, Semaphore, Largs Bay, Taperoo, Osborne, on the peninsula above the Port, where the four young women who are the protagonists of this novel grow up. (If you want to see the real Port Adelaide watch Bad Boy Bubby – warning this movie includes incest and death by cling-wrap). Ok, that’s enough wasting space, but I do like seeing geography-I-know in my fiction.
I have written as recently as last week about Australian SF set in dystopian near-futures. Well this is SF set in a dystopian near-past; a reimagined 1930s and 40s where the politics of the New Guard become dominant and Australia sides with Germany and Japan in WWII.
Jane’s particular focus here is not the War, but to explore the father knows best philosophy of that time – and of two of our three past prime ministers! – if it were to be further hardened in law so that women were unable to work, were forced into marriage and child-bearing.
A History of Dreams starts out innocently enough, with schoolgirls Margaret and her younger sister Esther being bullied by boys on the train home from Adelaide Technical High. Matt, a senior boy Margaret has looked up to (and helped with his homework) all her life, fails to step in, but the boys are eventually dispersed by Margaret’s friend Audrey, a ‘revolutionary’ whose father is a trade union leader.
Margaret was well on her way to securing her spot at the top of the class and privately Esther expected Margaret would go on from Adelaide Tech to beome the world’s most famous lady palaentologist. If not her sister, who else would discover Australia’s first dinosaur skeleton? When she did, Esther would write an opera to celebrate the discovery.
The three girls form a ‘club’. Audrey reveals that she has been trained by her maiden great aunt, the latest in a long line of spinsters, to become a witch, able to put dreams in potions which when dropped in a drink induce dreams or nightmares. A fourth girl, Phyllis, who lives in much poorer circumstances than the other three, joins their group (initially maybe just for the cakes).
Margaret’s father refuses to let her go on to uni, and finds her a job as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office until she is able to find herself a husband.
At this point I am thinking about Marie Munkara. This is an angry book, a satire on misogyny as Munkara’s are angry, satires on racism; and I am expecting a black comedy. In fact, I wonder now if that is what Jane was initially intending. But it gradually becomes something else, more dramatic, as the political situation worsens and the young women are variously raped, imprisoned, fall apart from each other, then slowly regather themselves to take their places in the resistance.
And then you cannot help but think of Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things; to think of the systemized misogyny Woods’ outback jail implies, which is here made explicit; to think of the escaped internees returning to the cities to fight back.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. That’s for the author to reveal in her own good time, but it is totally believable, and the ‘witchery’ is properly woven in as any unusual power is in good SF (or SFF).
The story is told in the third person mostly from Margaret’s POV, but sometimes from the other girls’. The resistance find Margaret a job within the Public Service. Here she meets her new boss –
‘They tell me you’re very good,’ he said. ‘Personally, I don’t see why we need to get a woman involved. Plenty of excellent fellows here, perfectly capable of understanding what women want. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing upstairs.’ He smiled thinly at her.
In some ways this was the book for a month ago, before the federal election. But on the other hand what is now understood by ‘everyone’, how out of touch the Prime Minister was with women, how the government, the Liberal Party, was just one long chain of white male privilege from private school to university college to political office jobs to Cabinet, was back then barely spoken of.
Jane starts out with Phyllis reading PC Wren and no, not Beau Geste, but my favourite, the book which informed my adolescence, Beau Ideal. The whole point of Beau Ideal is to do the honourable thing, whatever the cost, a lesson which was lost on me when it came to the test, but which maybe Jane wants us to think about as the four heroines push through considerable adversity.
I guess I was hoping for another quirky Formaldehyde but authors have to be allowed to grow and explore, and Jane Rawson has done that here in a big way and has come up with a powerful book for our times.
Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams, Brio Books, Sydney, 2022. 302pp.