The Orchard Thieves, Elizabeth Jolley

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

As someone whose adopted home is Western Australia I have very fond feelings for Elizabeth Jolley who emigrated from England, made WA her home, and became one of Australia’s most loved authors. I wouldn’t attempt to apply any isms to her writing, but she wrote throughout the Gen 4 period and she wrote beautifully. Kimbofo, who has also made her home in WA, has reviewed one of Jolley’s later novels.

67d05341da6fa91687faea183a380b4b Reading Matters

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely – Read on …

Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Today seems to be Janet Turner Hospital day. Whispering Gums posted a review of JTH’s short story ‘The Insider Story‘, a discussion ensued about Orpheus Lost which we had both reviewed and lo, Lisa was also working up a review of Orpheus Lost from her reading notes, so here it is,


This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love. Read on …

Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Monkey Grip (1977) is famously Helen Garner’s first novel. It comes mid-generation, marking a clear point of no return, a clean break with with Australian writing’s past. If any one novel represents AWW Gen 4, then this is it.

When I first read Monkey Grip I saw it in the tradition of the Beats – Kerouac, Burroughs, and as I read more widely and time passed, of Kathy Acker and Irvine Welsh, leading on to Australia’s brief Grunge movement in the 1990s – Ettler, Tsiolkas, McGahan. With this re-reading, I don’t resile from those connections, but I’ve also read a lot more Garner. This is more than just living poor and taking drugs, this is Garner’s deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others, and of course to autofiction.

The book it now reminds me of most closely is her fictionalised account of her friend’s treatment for late-stage cancer, The Spare Room (2008).

In December 1972 Garner, who was then 30, was fired from her job as a teacher for talking dirty to her 11-13 year old pupils: ” …the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?”

Joseph Steinberg writes in an ALS article that “the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place.” He quotes Kerryn Goldsworthy: “[male] reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (again)”.

In Monkey Grip, Nora – who stands in for Garner – is a single mother, with a five year old daughter, Gracie, living in share houses, old workers’ cottages in nineteenth century terraces around the CBD and Melbourne University (both presences which are felt but hardly ever mentioned); if I’ve got it right, first in Fitzroy, then near the Victoria Markets, and then back in Fitzroy.

It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack… But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart.

Or as Steinberg summarises: “Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’, muses Nora midway through the novel.”

Gracie is an odd presence throughout, bored witless in her first year at school, already able to read, and at home, a Jiminy Cricket, seeing everything, an independent spirit with her own opinions, her own life.

One of the most interesting things about the story telling is the complete absence of back story for any of the characters. You get to know them as they appear on the page, entirely without explanation. Anything that’s not relevant at that moment, you don’t hear about.

Kevin Brophy in another ALS essay writes about Monkey Grip‘s reception over time. Especially early on, male reviewers were unhappy with Garner’s focus on women’s issues; Garner was an author who ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’; male and female reviewers, as was always the case with works by women, shrugged it off as a love story; almost no attention was paid to the innovation in both writing and subject matter. Brophy suggests an alternative reading, one which was resisted by nearly every reviewer:

The text proposes that people can throw conventions aside and reinvent themselves and their social relations in a process of change that is self-imposed, liminal, unpredictable and spontaneous. These new possibilities involve the reader in a world where communal living and single parenting can be the norm, where children are relatively independent and have insights to offer on the behaviour of the adults around them, a world where women insist on meeting men as equals. It is a world where a woman can speak and write of sex explicitly, dispassionately, even ‘tastelessly’ in a literary work — an accomplishment long granted to male literary figures. In these and other ways Monkey Grip invites readers to recognise and reassess the conventions by which they take their ‘realist’ fiction and by which they live.

Today, forty something years later, Garner’s autofiction is still controversial. In 1977 it was just plain un-literary.

I haven’t made it clear, but we make our way through a year and a bit of inner Melbourne life; hot summer days at the Fitzroy baths; cycling through Carlton and Fitzroy’s achingly familiar plane tree lined streets; in and out of each others’ share houses; in and out of beds in all the painful permutations of ‘open’ relationships; struggling to a resolution.

One last quote from Brophy:

[T]here is a further, more socially fundamental and political perspective on addiction offered in the novel. The patriarchal value system— the ideology that socialises us from childhood—is here presented as the overwhelming addiction suffered by characters who are wanting to reinvent value systems for social relations.

Garner is a revolutionary, remaking the way we think about living, about bringing up children, about relationships; remaking the way we think about Literature. If you haven’t read Monkey Grip yet, do yourself a favour.


Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin/McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1977. 245pp.

Joseph Steinberg, Helen Garner’s Education, Australian Literary Studies, 28 Oct 2021
Kevin Brophy, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, The Construction of an Author and her Work, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 1992

Lisa/ANZLitLovers is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday Musings, and now (Sunday afternoon) I see she’s reviewed a Janet Turner Hospital short story (here) as well.

Re my North America Project 2022, I’m sorry but it’s weeks since I’ve been in the truck so I have not made a start on Their Eyes Were Watching God audiobook. As I have Octavia Butler’s Kindred on my shelves, I am reading that and will put up a review on 31 Jan. Next month is still The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and March is Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (BIP, I know you suggested Salt Roads, thank you, but I decided to go with MR because it is earlier.) I’ll advise other months, including Their Eyes, when I get more organized.

AWW Gen 4: Postmodern?

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

AWW Gen 4 is (Australian women) writers who were first published in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I have written elsewhere that the changeover from Gen 3 was marked by the end, in Australia, of a white, Anglo monoculture – where our major ‘other’ was the large Irish Catholic, largely working class, minority. Gen 4, then, begins with waves of ‘Mediterranean’ immigration, from Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Lebanon; the ‘youth culture’ of the sixties; Womens Lib; Civil Rights; a release from the sexual constraints of the 1950s; much greater access to tertiary education, and indeed to late secondary education; and a widely shared prosperity which, by the end of the eighties had crashed headlong into the neo-liberalism of Regan and Thatcher (and of Keating and Howard), though it was another couple of decades before we began to recognise what we had lost.

I have a problem in that I enjoy reading Lit. Theory but very little of it sticks. There is no doubt though that at the beginning of the period, the majority of writers were still working in the Modernist tradition (see last year’s Late Modernity), and that the ideas of Postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism being explored overseas, were both poorly understood and only slowly taken up.

Clearly postmodern works like Thomas Keneally’s A Dutiful Daughter and David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, both 1971, were beacons in a sea of conventionality.

Keneally, (Bethany’s Book) and probably every other author at least once, pissfarted around with the idea of conflating the book being read and the author of the book being read with the book and author being written about (which Miles Franklin did earlier and better in My Career Goes Bung); and my feelings about Peter Carey’s taking up of the fashion of Magic Realism, beginning with Illywhacker (1985) don’t bear repeating.

Putting the author into the work always seemed to me to be a straight riposte to the ‘Death of the Author’, and pointless after it had been done once; MR was a fashion that worked when used sparingly but soon became every aspiring author’s new toy. If you want more, the ALS Journal has an interesting review of Maria Takolander’s Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (2007)*.

Other aspects under the postmodern umbrella are irony, unreliability, commercialism, pop culture. Modernism was a serious project to understand the nature of writing and of the self; without the politics of feminism and post-colonialism, postmodernism is largely a cop out, promoted by the left and taken up joyously by the right as cover for their aversion to truth telling.

The first writer in our Gen 4, in more than one sense, is Thea Astley, whose first work, Girl with a Monkey, came out in 1958. Leigh Dale says that while Astley’s fiction is post-colonial in that much of it is concerned with the consequences of the colonisation of Australia, and particularly of course, Queensland –

Astley’s novels have a tendency to reject the recuperation of resistance that has been the major task of much post-colonial literary and cultural criticism, and to emphasise both the devastation caused by colonialism on indigenous populations, and the lasting refusal of colonial regimes to recognise the causes or effects of that devastation.

This is understandable, both because she is a pioneer in the recognition of the violence done to Indigenous peoples, and because “the recuperation of resistance”, establishing that the Indigenous were more than just victims, is the task, in the first place, of Indigenous writers.

Astley was an innovator in her subject matter, but in her writing she was concerned to write in the Modernist tradition, seeking reassurance from Patrick White, and most similar probably in the denseness and precision of her writing to her contemporary Randolph Stow. Still, I noted in my recent review of Astley’s Reaching Tin River (1990) that Astley had clearly, over time, absorbed some of the tropes of postmodernism, playfulness say, allowing two characters 70 years in time apart, to be in some way aware of each other.

Two other AWW Gen 4 writers I’ve reviewed this year are Sara Dowse and Carmel Bird. Bird was the recipient of the 2016 Patrick White Award. The judges wrote: “Using elements of the Gothic, fantasy and fairy tale as easily as realism, Bird can be surreal, quirky and macabre, but also humorous, humane and warm.” I struggled with the postmodernism of The Bluebird Café (1990) but that might have been just me. I gave Milly Bird’s The Family Skeleton (2016) for xmas. How that will go I cannot say.

Dowse I’ve run into a couple of times in the newspapers. In reviews of work by Australian poet Kate Jennings, and US feminist Shiela Rowbotham, Dowse revisits her own time as an activist in the sixties and seventies. In the period covered by West Block (1975-76) Dowse is already bogged down attempting to get women’s policies past an unfriendly (Fraser/Liberal) government. But there was a time of hope before that.

[Kate Jennings’] Trouble has brought it back: the demos, the passion, the laughs, the daring. Subtitled Evolution of a Radical, the book is a selection of Jennings’s writing from 1970 to 2010. The first entry is the raw, spitting speech Jennings hurled at a 1970 Vietnam moratorium rally on the front lawn of Sydney University – the opening salvo of Women’s Liberation in Australia. Did we actually speak like that?

That day, at that moment, I was 850 kms down the road, with the Melb Uni contingent listening to similar speeches in Treasury Gardens prior to the March – 100,000 people or more, all the length of Bourke St. What a day!

My first review for the Week will be Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977). The women’s movement for Garner’s Nora is already just a hum in the background, women living co-operatively, but still seemingly at the beck and call of men.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this period, the beginning of adulthood for many of us, appears to you. And please, let me know in Comments what you hope to read (and review!).


Leigh Dale, Colonial History and Post Colonial Fiction: The Writing of Thea Astley, Australian Literary Studies, 1 May 1999 (here)
Karen Lamb, “Yrs Patrick”, Southerly, Vol 72.1 2012
Sara Dowse, Trouble, Age, Melbourne, 23 April 2010
Sara Dowse, Days of Hope, Inside Story, 17 December 2021 (here)

“Maria Takolander’s ambitious project, Catching Butterlies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground, seeks to clear up the confusion surrounding the literary term ‘magical realism’, an oxymoron which Takolander says has become ‘a dumping ground for the convenient disposal of any fiction that deviates from or experiments with the rules of realism’ …

Takolander goes on to argue that using MR to represent the spirit lives underlying Indigenous cultures is necessarily inauthentic. The reviewer (and I) disagree:

“However, rather than suggesting that reality itself does not exist, [non-European authors] propose that there are other ways of experiencing it. Such magical realist authors recognise and expose the cultural clashes, merges and changes in postcolonial situations, and express it through magical realism. Such works are not, or not necessarily, ‘inauthentic’ because they present twentieth-century versions of indigenous cultures.

Tanja Schwalm, Review of Maria Takolander, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (2007) in Australian Literary Studies, 1 June 2009.

EOY 2021

Journal: 080

That’s christmas done. I came home without any leftovers and now after two days of Milly being visited by her sisters, there won’t be any, not even fruit probably. I should have gone down to Gee’s, they got through a whole pavlova for breakfast this morning.

Did I get any books? A voucher from one daughter for a little store in Freo (not New Editions/Crow Books with which I have long been unhappy for their lack of support for Australians in general and WA’ns in particular); Another Day in the Colony which I bought while shopping, and which I hope will be special; and the book above, thankyou Milly’s sister, the little Diva, which will hopefully reinspire me to better (and less!) eating.

I’m writing Monday in the vain hope that a job will pop up Tues or Weds and I’ll be on my way. And no, Liz, I haven’t read any late top ten contenders. Yet. Maybe tomorrow. [Weds evening. No work this week. Plenty left in Milly’s fridge, even pavlova. My sisters in law are all wonderful human beings].

I thought I had posts written in advance way into the forseeable future, I even had a posting schedule on my wall calendar, but of course that ends on 30 Dec. ‘EOY21’. I’d better buy a new one. I see now all remaining future posts are for my upcoming gig on the (former) AWWC site. I do have a couple or three in my head for AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022 but as we all know, that is not the same as having them written down.

Ok, here are my reading stats for 2021, 2020 in brackets.

Books read: 145 (164)

Gender balance: Male authors 57, Female 84 (67/97)

Author from: Australia  45 (29), UK 36 (35), USA  39 (79), Canada 7 (3) Europe 12 (10), Asia 2 (5), Africa 2 (1) Other 0 (2)

Genre: Non-fiction 12 (12),  Literature  52 (43), General 21 (39), SF  29 (18), Crime 28 (48), Short Stories 7 (4)

Year of Publication: 2021-20 27 (6), 2010-19 57 (61),  2000-9 15 (27), 1960-99 23 (36),  1900-59 12 (26), pre-1900  9 (8) – I definitely need a few Melanie/GTL pie graphs to make this all readable! Tries Table Block.


That’s made up of 103 (118) audiobooks, 39 (41) ‘real’ books, and 3 (5) e-books (all old, pdf or Proj. Gutenberg)

Fewer audiobooks is down to less time in the truck (in the second half of the year), but fewer real books? What am I doing with my free time? As for the composition of my reading, it doesn’t seem to have changed much. The big increase in current year books (2020-21) is mostly down to new general and genre fiction audiobooks at the library. Although it doesn’t show, I actually read more new release poetry than I did new release Australian Lit.Fic.

And I’m happy that the US/Crime portion of my reading has gone down. At least some of the reason for that is that I’ve been able to target my listening better by using Audible and BorrowBox.

Posts for year: 93 (90)

Made up of: Reviews 55 plus 12 Such is Lifes (63), Journals 18 (21), Other 8 (6). Though some of the Journals were also largely Reviews. Five (8) reviews were supplied by guests or were reposts – all for AWW Gen 3 Week II. Reviews seem to have split 21/35 male/female by author (13/50).

In 2021 I put up 15 (20) reviews to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Last year I wrote: “Theirs is a great site, I thank them, and hope they keep going for many more years” and bugger me, it comes to an end. Theresa Smith who has done a marvellous job for a number of years needed to wind down and a replacement could not be found. The result is a) the AWWC’s founder, Elizabeth Lheude, has asked Sue/Whispering Gums and me to work with her on the site to produce a weekly journal with a focus on early Australian Women Writers, commencing Feb. 2022; and b) Theresa will continue with the Facebook page “Love Reading Books by Australian Women” on which I hope you will all continue to post.

Last year I had a worst book, Miles Franklin’s Bring the Monkey. Do I have one this year? I can think of two, but let’s say Bill Green, Small Town Rising. The best, mmm … I mentioned three very good new releases last week, but for something different how about my ‘discovery’ of Australian SF/satirist Max Barry, Jennifer Government.

Now, reminder time …

AWW Gen 4 Week 16-23 Jan, 2022

The theory of AWW Gen 4 is one of the posts which is mostly in my head. The definition we are using is authors who began publishing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. There’s a (hopefully) complete list on the AWW Gen 4 page. These are the aspects of theory I am thinking about – modernist writing; feminism (second wave/women’s lib); post-colonialism; post-War society: prosperous, middle class, increasingly multi-cultural; the slow uptake of postmodernism; and what happened to the radicalism, sexual liberation and drugs of the anti-Vietnam War years?.

All the best for a Prosperous and Healthy New Year!

Recent audiobooks 

Omar El Akkad (M, Can), What Strange Paradise (2021)
Ian Rankin (M, Sco), Rather be the Devil (2016) – Crime
Hunter S Thompson (M, USA), The Rum Diary (1998)

Currently Reading:

Mihail Sebastan (M, Rom), Women (thank you Bron)
Willa Cather (F, USA), Alexander’s Bridge
Richard Brautigan (M, USA), An Unfortunate Woman
Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), The Quiet Gentleman
Helen Garner (F, Aus/Vic), Monkey Grip
Gerald Murnane (M, Aus/Vic), Tamarisk Row
Louisa Atkinson (F, Aus/NSW), Gertrude the Emigrant
Belinda Castles (ed) (Aus), Reading Like an Australian Writer (NF – Criticism)
Clare Bailey (F, USA), the clever guts diet recipe book (NF – Cooking)

Weeks & Months

AusReading Month 2021

Given that I read/listen to around four books a week, it was really no problem to fill in the 9 squares of Brona’s AusReading Bingo Card (notional this year, as far as I can see), though finding the time and energy to write 9 full reviews is another thing altogether.

I read these books to fill my bingo squares:

Western Australia

Randolph Stow, The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea (here)


Max Barry, Jennifer Government (here)

South Australia

JM Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (brief summary here) I have since read Nicholas Jose’s Essay, “A Manual for Writers: Elizabeth Costello”. I agree with Jose that Coetzee is addressing the reader throughout on the subject of writing, and I only wish I had made time to sit down with a paper copy of EC to write a fuller (or, as WG would have it, more fulsome) review. Jose makes the interesting point that while there was no female writer of that generation in Australia like EC, there were two in/from Africa, from whence Coetzee had just emigrated, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer. But it is Jose’s final para which I must applaud –

There is now a great female Australian novelist appearing on the world stage. Her name is Alexis Wright and she is real. Her heritage is Waanyi from the lower Gulf of Carpentaria. In her world humans, animals, birds, fish and spirit beings are one and she tells those stories in another reinvention of what the novel can be in extreme times … I imagine Elizabeth Costello would be surprised and pleased by this development.


Richard Flanagan, Death of a River Guide. Look, I read it a week or so ago but I won’t be writing a review. I don’t rate Flanagan as Lisa does (here) and I’ve already criticised him enough (here).

Years ago I watched a movie, Italian I think, where a man is about to be hung from a bridge. He dives into the water, escapes, has various adventures. Yet, as the movie ends we see him dangling from the noose. It was all a daydream in the last seconds of his life. And that is more or less how this novel is framed too, the recollections of a man trapped beneath the water and drowning. Flanagan has a tendency to fill out his Lit Fiction with action sequences. I don’t know why, and I think it is unnecessary.

Australian Capital Territory

Sara Dowse, West Block (here)

New South Wales

Murray Bail, Eucalyptus (brief summary here)


Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River (here)

Northern Territory

Ok. I cheated. A few months ago I won the movie Top End Wedding in a giveaway on Lisa’s ANZLitLovers. Having an unexpected weekend without work, I sat down to watch it. It’s not a Rom.Com, though I suppose that’s the genre it belongs with, so much as a series of reconciliations. Lots of fun, a few tears, and acres of amazing scenery as Lauren and Ned tear around the northern part of the Northern Territory on improbable dirt roads (there are highways!) and, sadly, not a road train to be seen.

They find Lauren’s mother, Lauren’s mother finds her mother and of course they find each other.

I own a few other NT movies, all with amazing visuals – Ylongu Boy, Ten Canoes, and Australia’s first colour movie, Jedda (on VHS so I might never see it again). I toyed briefly with the idea of doing a movie Bingo card, but that was just so I could pair SA and Bad Boy Bubby, which I think is great. And also the one movie I watch every couple of years, from WA, Dingo in which a trumpeter from the bush goes to Paris to play with the incomparable Miles Davis.


Tara June Winch, The Yield (here)

Now on to related more equally important things, Australian Women Writers Gen 4 Week. I can’t be sure I’ll be on holidays but let’s say the week from Sun 16 Jan to Sun 23 Jan, 2022.

The definition we are using for AWW Gen 4 is women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The Australian Women Writers Gen 4 page gives you a complete list of writers and their debut novels/works but think: Thea Astley, Jessica Anderson, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Shirley Hazzard, Helen Garner, Robyn Davidson, Elizabeth Jolley, Janette Turner Hospital, Sara Dowse, Kate Grenville, Ruby Langford and theorist/activists like Germaine Greer, Anne Summers, Marilyn Lake, Bobbi Sykes.

I unknowingly (unthinkingly) made a start on AWW Gen 4 with my review of Sara Dowse’s West Block, and on reflection I think there are elements of that novel which will prove typical, but I’ll try and write up a more comprehensive introductory post in the next few weeks. (Maybe – but see also Reaching Tin River).


Nicholas Jose, A Manual for Writers: Elizabeth Costello, in Belinda Castles ed., Reading Like an Australian Writer, New South Publishing, Sydney, 2021


Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley

AusReading Month 2021

Apparently I have read this before. Inside the back cover there’s a boarding pass Melbourne-Adelaide with my name on it and the date 03Jul16. Why the hell was I flying from Melbourne to Adelaide? And on the back of the pass there are notes, extracts and page no.s. Having got so close, I wish I’d gone on to write it up.

Checks back through blog… My posts for that week are Benang and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. My work diary is a little more informative. I’d been staying with mum. On Sat Jul 2 I swam 3km in the morning and had dinner with mum and B3 that evening (for B3’s upcoming 60th). Sun 3 is blank. Mon 4, Fly home. Go with Milly to see Psyche belly dancing. I give in, I must have flown home Sun night/Mon morning with a connection through Adel.

Reading now, bits are familiar, but not the overall story.

In the Comments after West Block – my ACT read for this month, as this is QLD – I finally began to get my head around the fact that AWW Gen 4 Week is coming up fast and I have given very little thought to the underlying theory. I said then that I thought Sara Dowse’s writing was based on/was an advance on the Modernism of, say, Eleanor Dark and that this would likely prove typical of Gen 4.

Reaching Tin River (1990) is a late Astley, written at the end of the Gen 4 period (1960-1990), so that the author has had the whole period, one in which Postmodernism was increasing in importance and influence, to develop her writing. It shows.

Astley’s earlier novels reflected most the Postcolonial aspect of Postmodernism, dealing with the legacy of white oppression of the Indigenous inhabitants of particularly her home state, Queensland. There are aspects of that here, but muted. The protagonist, Belle, grows up in and subsequently takes us on a journey through central Queensland. In that context she mentions the Hornet Bank Massacre* a number of times without taking it much further.

The novel is an exploration of Belle’s progress from childhood to her thirties, told in simple, almost diaryish style, in the first person. There are subsidiary themes running through – the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women); music, and in particular her dislike of the piano practice piece The Rustle of Spring; and Euclid’s rules of geometry – I get frustrated when arty people misuse maths, especially chaos theory, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s cat – Belle uses Euclid’s rules as similes for her attempts to locate her ‘centre’.

I am looking for a one-storey town
with trees
and a population of under two thousand
one of whom must be called Gaden Lockyer

Mother was a drummer in her own all-women group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile

I have decided to make a list of all the convent girls who learnt to play ‘The Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding between 1945 and 1960.

This is how the book begins, in fact it’s nearly the whole of the first page. I think I’m in for Astley in experimental mode, but she soon settles down. The plot is straightforward. Belle and her mother, Bonnie live on Bonnie’s parents’ farm ‘Perjury Plains’ near the (fictional) towns of Drenchings and Jericho Flats. Belle’s absent father, for whom she later goes looking, is a mediocre trumpet player and and US serviceman from the Korean War.

Belle on a school excursion learns of and subsequently becomes infatuated with turn of the century farmer politician Gaden Lockyer (ie. someone who is long dead).

She becomes first a teacher, then a librarian. Inexperienced sexually, she marries an older workmate given to mansplaining and is soon disillusioned.

Finally, she sets out on a road trip to discover Gaden Lockyer, to put herself in places where he has been and this crosses over (fairly successfully) into Magic Realism as he, Lockyer, becomes aware that a ghost from the future is haunting him.

There’s lots of other stuff and other characters. Bonnie, who was never an attentive mother, becomes more hippyish as she gets older. We learn pretty quickly to dislike Sebastian, the mansplaining husband. Belle’s father and Bonnie are never divorced but stay in remote contact on opposite sides of the world. We get to stay in some pretty shabby boarding houses – in fact I’m not sure Belle and I don’t walk to work together in the early 1970s when we both lived in New Farm boarding houses and walked across the Valley to the Courier Mail building – and end up in one that was once the nursing home where Lockyer saw out his final years.

An enjoyable book. Yet another Astley swipe at provincial Queensland (ie. all of it). And an interesting text for the influence of Postmodernism on Australian writing.


Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River, Minerva, Melbourne, 1990. 222pp (cover painting by Faye Maxwell)

All our Thea Astley reviews are listed on Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

*Hornet Bank Massacre: In October 1857 Rosa Praed was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one Black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior [Praed’s father] was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.

Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering Black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of [Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land] – extract from my review.

Hornet Bank is in the vicinity of Taroom, Qld about 470 km north-west of Brisbane (good cattle grazing country, though now subject to extensive fracking)

A recap of the Massacre story in The Queenslander, 15 Sep 1906 (here)

West Block, Sara Dowse

AusReading Month 2021

West Block (1983) has been on my shelves for years, but at last this year it is my ACT square for Brona’s AusReading Month. By accident – the accident of forgetting which month it was – I read it a month ago, but I can assure you Bron it was genuinely written up in November, in the last couple of days.

As it happens, the novel has recently been re-released – see Sue/Whispering Gums’ review and discussion (here and here).

Sue, of course, lives in Canberra and gets that warm glow of reading a novel set in a place you know well. I have only ever been a passer through, though for a very long time, as my father’s father was a Commonwealth public servant and we would holiday there off and on through the 1950s and 60s (back when Lake Burley Griffen was just paddocks). Since, I have visited occasionally as a truck driver, a tourist, on the way from Sydney to the snowfields, and for one week, as a competitor in the 1997 Masters Games.

Sara Dowse (1938- ) wrote West Block from her experience as a senior public servant, inaugural head of the first women’s unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, under Prime Ministers Whitlam and Fraser, until the unit was downgraded by Fraser in 1977 and she resigned. (For non-Australians: the Conservative Fraser conspired with the Governor General, representing the Queen, and no doubt with ASIO and the CIA, to depose the reformist Government of Gough Whitlam, in November 1975).

[Harland] had looked suspect enough to the new Prime Minister. Not that he had been associated too much with the old one. That, ironically, was the trouble. Not even Labor had wanted him, or so the thinking would go… He had been passed over. There must have been good reason. So he was passed over again. Harland burned in the relentless logic of it all.

I remember my father saying the same thing about the new Labor government in Victoria, a few years later. All the senior people in the Education Dept, where he was, were tarred by their association with the previous Liberal government, although apparently a number of them, not him!, were Labor by inclination.

This is one of those books where each chapter is devoted to one character and we only slowly come to understand the interactions between them. Harland is a deputy in PMC, we meet his subordinates, his wife, his daughter. By the end of the first chapter the Head of the Department has died and Harland is the new boss, despite his fears. (The actual Secretary of the Department from 1976-78 was Alan Carmody, whom I don’t remember).

The next chapter follows another man from the Department, Beeker, following the PM around Europe spruiking uranium sales. We slip back a few years, Catherine is working in Immigration, helping to place refugees from Vietnam.

At night, alone in her bed, the radio beside her tuned in to ‘Music till Midnight’ …

God, that takes me back. My introduction to jazz, to the wonderful Blossom Dearie, years of listening for half an hour before I went to sleep.

Catherine likes to move around the West Block, to take her afternoon tea with Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch, but although Cassie is at the heart of the novel we stay with Catherine, her friendship with a Vietnamese family, her promotion into PMC, going to Vietnam before/during the fall of Saigon to oversee orphans being adopted by Australians.

Jonathon, another public servant (of course) finds that his on-off girlfriend Bronwyn is going to have their baby, whether he’s involved or not. He starts seeing a therapist.

Cassie lives with her son and daughter, and her mother (her partner, a truckie, has disappeared up north). She keeps an exercise book writing journal, so we get excerpts from that too. And all the ins and outs of an underfunded, shabbily housed, disregarded and demoralized branch.

They had been part of it, early in the decade. That passionate groundswell among women who’d had their fill. They met in houses and halls, marched in streets, leaned on each other to defend themselves against ridicule. This new generation that had rescued feminism…
But now they were left with this bitterness.

The branch is being ‘reviewed’. It all comes to a head.

West Block is an interesting work, a first novel by a woman in her forties, who has clearly done a lot, read a lot, has thought about how to advance ‘the novel’ beyond the modernism of say, Eleanor Dark, though without going so far as post-modernism. As we look at more Gen 4 novels, I think this will prove typical. We almost have to construct the story ourselves, from the fragments we are offered. Did I like it? I think so. As a constant consumer of politics it all felt very familiar. I was disappointed by the ending, but Dowse was there, and obviously that’s how she saw it.


Sara Dowse, West Block, Penguin, Melbourne, 1983. 290pp.

The Bluebird Café, Carmel Bird

I see Carmel Bird around from time to time, commenting on Whispering Gums or ANZLitLovers. I imagine her as Tasmanian, which is where she was born and, I think, grew up. According to her bio in the short story collection The Babe is Wise (1987) “Carmel Bird was born in Tasmania in 1940 … [she] now lives in Melbourne and is working on a novel The Bluebird Café.” And here we are.

The copy I have, which of course I picked up second hand somewhere unrecorded, for $2, was published in New York. The copyright material mentions a Canadian edition (Penguin) but no prior publication in Australia or England. I hope it was at least distributed here.

Being cautious, I check Bird’s bio on-line (she’s still with us) and see she received The Patrick White Award in 2016. A mixed blessing. No one minds $25,000, but the award of course is for writers who have been insufficiently recognised over the course of their careers. And she’s still working. The Bluebird Café was her second novel and her eleventh, Field of Poppies, was published just two years ago.

The Bluebird Café is set in Tasmania, probably in some sort of whimsical alternative reality, I haven’t been there. There are two locations – Copperfield Historic Museum Village, a hugely successful theme park, owned by the Best family, which has replaced the suburb of Trevallyn on the cliffs above Cataract Gorge …

Copperfield is on top of Cataract Hill which overlooks the Gorge where the South Esk meets the North Esk to form the Tamar River at the city of Launceston in northern Tasmania…

The Historic Museum Village of Copperfield was inspired by the original town of Copperfield on the Welcome River in the far north-west of Tasmania at Cape Grim [map].

… and the original Copperfield, which by 1985 “had become a ghost town where only one person lived. This was a woman called Bedrock Mean”. Bedrock Mean lives in the Bluebird Café started by her grandfather, Philosopher Mean. She waits there for her daughter Lovelygod who disappeared 20 years earlier at age ten, “one of those mysterious and tragic Australian children who vanish, leaving no trace”, while her (Bedrock’s) twin brother Carillo travels the world, searching.

Among the wax figures of miners and Aborigines in the Historic Museum Village is one of Lovelygod, just two feet tall, with the sign “Lovelygod Mean, midget, born 1960, disappeared 1970. The mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved.” Visitors are invited to write down their theories.

The next character introduced is Virginia O’Day, who in the 1980s is commissioned to write a play celebrating Launceston’s new tourist mecca. Virginia grew up in Launceston and at age 18 had holidayed in Copperfield where she wrote the play The Bluebird Café Murders which “enjoyed considerable success in the West End and on Broadway”. The previous year, 1950, Bedrock and Carillo then aged 10 had holidayed at the O’Days. Virginia would not eat. She had got her weight down from 8 stone to 6 1/2 and was aiming at 6. When Bedrock and Carillo went home to Copperfield, Virginia went with them, her parents hoping a change of scenery might help. They travel by train. Of course I have to check. Current maps show rail lines along the north coast, and Bedrock remembers “the little railway in from the coast that has not run for many years”.

Copperfield – there is a minor Charles Dickens theme running through the novel – and its little railway are, I assume, made up. I’m not aware of any mining up there in the north west corner. Queenstown is further south.

The Best family, who own everything in northern Tasmania, and in particular Nancy Best, are mentioned more often than I have indicated here and may be a satirical reference to Edmund Rouse, who was for decades Tasmania’s leading businessman and owner of the Launceston Examiner, until in 1989 he was sentenced to three years gaol for attempting to bribe a politician (instead of following the more usual path of Australian businesses of offering him a high-paying sinecure).

Virginia is writing both a novel and a journal. Part two of the book, consists of her journals for that year in Copperfield; part three is the transcripts of interviews she does in the ‘present’;

Virginia: [speaking of her novel] … giving away the plot won’t stop people reading it. Everybody knows all the plots, don’t they?
Interviewer: If everybody knows all the plots, why do you think people keep reading books?
Virginia: Perhaps it’s very reassuring to keep being told the same things in different ways. And every storyteller puts the story together in a different way. It’s nice to see how it’s done each time. You can arrange plenty of surprises for the reader.

.. part four is a short interview with Virginia’s sister Rosie; part five, an even shorter piece from the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 1989 under the heading ‘Waiting for Lovelygod’; and part six is an essay by a Japanese student speculating on the causes of Lovelygod’s disapperance. These are followed by a 22 page Readers’ Guide with an alphabetic listing of terms and names used and their meanings.

I can only imagine Bird got lost in post-modern theory and somehow found a publisher who was willing to inflict it on us.


Carmel Bird, The Bluebird Café, New Directions, New York, 1990. 180 pp

More Gen 4 Stuff

Journal: 065

Just three trips so far this year and here I am in iso again – my 14 days will be up on the 13th – Milly’s come round a couple of times to sit on the balcony, luckily for me she had stuff she wanted to talk about. Milly rarely makes her point directly but it’s clear she wants me to spend more time in Western Australia, and she doesn’t mean in iso where I’m no good to anybody. I’m the senior gut in our family – that’s probably the most Freudian typo I’ve ever made – and I’m needed. I’ve written this before. Long distance truck driving as escapism – there’s a thought two of my ex-wives would heartily endorse and now it seems a third (the second actually) is joining them.

I’m not going any further down that line. My excuses for running east-west are that I have regular, good-paying work and I see Mum (sometimes) who has exactly zero family left living in Melbourne. No doubt it will be discussed more in these next three weeks with two of my brothers coming over, and Gee’s wedding, and me being FREE to go out! My birthday lifts me up a category and I should get my first vaccine shot in the last week of the month. I was tested yesterday, negative again, I suppose there’ll be a few more before this is finally over.

And to go back one Journal, I’m walking (a bit) more and I’m feeling better for it, though not any lighter.

On to more AWW Gen 4 stuff. The picture above is from Sue Rhodes’ Now You’ll Think I’m Awful, from the days when young men went out with ‘nice’ girls but only married good girls. I was going to ask you if you could identify the illustrator, whose style looks familiar. I eventually found it but I’ll put it down the bottom in case you want to guess.

I think I have Melanie/GTL persuaded to do a review for next year which led me to think about what are the most important authors/works during the first part of the period. Numero uno would have to be Thea Astley whose early works are –
Girl with a Monkey
A Descant for Gossips (1960)
The Well Dressed Explorer (1962)
The Slow Natives (1965)
A Boat Load of Home Folk (1968)
The Acolyte (1972)
A Kindness Cup (1974)
We have two reviews of A Kindness Cup just on this blog, but I hope I can get reviews of all the others as well.

Astley is important for her writing and for her willingness to deal with the big issues in Queensland – corruption and racism. Bobbi Sykes and Faith Bandler who both grew up Black in Queensland, are important because they deal with those issues first hand. I have Sykes’ Snake Cradle and I think I’ll make that one of my reviews for AWW Gen 4 Week, though I would also like to get hold of Bandler’s Wacvie, for Lisa/ANZLL’s Indigenous Lit.Week in July.

Of the other novelists, Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse, and Nene Gare, The Fringe Dwellers, are interesting but look back to the Social Realism of the previous generation; Nancy Cato, Elizabeth Kata and others are popular (no reason not to review them!); which leaves Jessica Anderson and Shirley Hazzard; poets Bobbi Sykes and Oodgeroo Noonuccal; and of course the seminal non-fiction works of Germaine Greer and Anne Summers (and the less seminal Sue Rhodes).

Please don’t feel I’m being prescriptive. If the books on your shelves, or which catch your fancy, are from authors I haven’t named, or from the latter half of the period, then go for it, especially the late 70s which includes Monkey Grip and Puberty Blues. And more poetry, the only poetry review I can think of so far was from Brona: Dorothy Hewett’s In Midland When the Trains Go By. Apart from the two above, my list has Glen Tommasetti and Lee Cataldi, and I am sure there are others.

Hopefully, at some stage before we begin writing for Gen 4 Part II, we will have a handle on the principal themes and underlying literary theory for this generation. Lots of homework needed!

Heading for home. Sunrise, Yalata SA, Feb. 2021

Recent audiobooks 

Peter Turnbull (M, Eng), A Dreadful Past (2016) – Crime
Laura Marshall (F, Eng), Friend Request (2017) – Crime
Rob Hart (M, USA), South Village (2016) – Crime
Eric Barnes (M, USA), The City Where We Once Lived (2018) – SF/Dystopian
Elizabeth Gilbert (F, USA), City of Girls (2019) – 1940s Hist.Fic. and good despite that
Sebastian Barry (M, Ire), The Secret Scripture (2008)– DNF. Shortlisted for the Booker, but the reader, Wanda McCaddon’s strong accent as an old Irishwoman was unlisten-to-able

Currently reading

Charlotte Bronte (F, Eng), The Professor
Charlotte Bronte (F, Eng), Jane Eyre
Catherine Helen Spence (F, Aust/SA), Clara Morison
Helen Garner (F, Aust/Vic), Cosmo Cosmolino
Bill Green (M, Aust/Vic), Small Town Rising
Fergus Hume (M, Aust/Vic), Madame Midas
Joseph Furphy (M, Aust/Vic), Such is Life
ETA Hoffman (M, Ger), Mr Flea
Carmen Laforet (F, Esp), Nada

Ans. Illustrator: John Endean. (The chapter heading is “Cheez, Love, Yer a grouse-lookin’ shiela”, a line I may or may not have used myself)