Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner

On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenues their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.

I might stop my review right there. How Melbourne is Helen Garner!

I should have stopped there. The much praised Cosmo Cosmolino, as far as I was concerned, was almost completely incomprehensible. Not the individual words and sentences, not of course Garner’s always perceptive accounts of Melbourne inner suburban share-house life, but where the hell was she going with it.

My Text edition (not the one pictured – the Text edition has a boring black cover with a few stars) has an Introduction by Melbourne biologist and radio presenter Ramona Koval, which I didn’t read, two short stories – Recording Angel (25pp) and A Vigil (27pp) – and then Cosmo Cosmolino (217pp).

Recording Angel

The narrator is unnamed. Let’s call her Helen. Helen’s friend Patrick lives in Sydney with his wife and son. On a visit Patrick tells Helen he has brain cancer. Helen is devastated.

.. Patrick recited my life like a poem he had learnt by heart; and over the years of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion ..

They discuss Helen’s friend Ursula who Patrick had filed under ‘Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute’ and who threw herself under a tram after the death of her daughter. A visit or two later and Helen is at Patrick’s to support Natalie while Patrick undergoes an operation. The night before, they talk and talk. After Patrick comes out of the operation the two women gape “with shock and fear at the foot of the bed” then rush out of the hospital.

A Vigil

Kim was hanging on by a thread, taking pills, waiting endless months for her father to come down from Queensland, pay her uni fees, take her away. Raymond, living with her, or in the same house anyway, uses her

The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to avoid her breath.

Raymond stays away for four days, at his brother’s in a rooming house in another part of the city. When he comes back he passes Kim’s mother in the street, a man tagging along. Ursula. Kim is dead. He finds her, still in bed, her face flyblown, and rushes back to his brother’s, where Ursula finds him a few days later to drag him to the funeral. And then to be punished.

Cosmo Cosmolino

Janet has an old two storey terrace house that used to be a vibrant share-house. Those years are long gone. She’s been married. The stain is still on the wall from the saucepan of beetroot soup she flung at him as she told him to get out. Now she works from home with a battered typewriter, making a living knocking out short pieces for magazines, the decaying house an albatross around her neck. Over the years she had ..

retreated before chaos, closing doors as she went, leaving timber half-stripped and plaster unpainted, until only in the kitchen was any kind of order maintained.

Maxine “lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter”. For money she did cleaning, ironing, mowing. But the property she lives on is sold, and she is homeless. She ends up at Janet’s, in the shed at the end of the garden.

And there’s a guy, Ray, who is taken in the same day, down from the North where his brother, Alby, has fed him stories of communal living, half naked women, food always on the table in vast quantities. He takes Alby’s old room, upstairs at the back. Is disappointed to discover they buy their food separately, and eat at different times, hurriedly, “in a kitchen corner, or bowed over a newspaper at the white table”.

So far, so Helen Garner. But the story develops a fanastical element. Where did that come from?

Something tells Maxine that she will have a baby. Fathered by Ray.

Janet swallowed. ‘And – Ray does know about this, I suppose?’
‘Perhaps not with his conscious mind, yet,’ said Maxine. ‘That depends on the number of his incarnations.’
‘Sorry?’ said Janet.
‘Oh, everybody,’ said Maxine, ‘at some stage has to do a spell on earth.’…
‘I know it sounds strange at first’ … ‘See – angelic beings aren’t necessarily aware of their status.’

Ray, on the other hand (being a Queenslander) “knows Jesus”. Sure, Garner is making fun of them, but somewhere along the line she buys into it.

Life goes on. Maxine makes a ‘bride’ out of straw and Ray’s best shirt (a doll with magic powers) which assumes an importance I don’t understand. Ray somehow gets a job, saves money, hides a grand at the bottom of his dirty clothes basket. Maxine gets involved with a pyramid scheme for getting rich. ‘Borrows’ Ray’s grand and blows it on the scheme. Alby arrives with a truckload of worthless second-hand furniture. Maxine floats away in a cloud of jonquils.

If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel.

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Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, first pub. 1992. My edition Text, Melbourne, 2012. 283pp.

Clara Morison, Catherine Helen Spence

Every time I read an excellent book off my own shelves – and it happens surprisingly often – I wonder what took me so long to get to it. I guess, despite Lisa/ANZLL’s glowing review of Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will, I expected Clara Morison to be stodgy. Dear reader, I was wrong.

In my recent review of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor I made some references to Clara Morison but a better comparison would be between Catherine Helen Spence and Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell (1810-1865) was English and grew up in rural Knutsford, Cheshire (see Cranford). Her faith was Unitarian and the young women in her novels are principled and concerned with the poor. Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was born in Scotland and came with her family to Adelaide, South Australia in 1839, when she was 14 and the new colony, famously settled without convicts, was barely begun.

Spence was brought up in the Established Church of Scotland but converted to Unitarianism around 1854. She chose not to marry and while she does not seem to choose that path for her heroines, as Miles Franklin did for instance (50 years later), one of Clara Morison’s cousins, Margaret, does seem to stand in for Spence, with her outspokenness, independence and desire for ongoing education. Interestingly, in her review of Spence’s A Week in the Future (1888) the Resident Judge connects the author’s utopian views back to George Eliot. But I haven’t read/retained enough Eliot to make the connection myself.

This, as you might have guessed, is Clara’s story, told in the third person and mostly, but not always limited to her point of view. Spence is an accomplished writer and the novel whizzes along for all it’s 400 pages despite a good deal of philosophy. In that sense it’s a very C19th novel and its failure to be ranked with the similar works of Brontë and Gaskell and Eliot is all to do with our (Australian) failure as readers over the past century and a half, not any inherent weakness in the novel itself.

Clara, living in Edinburgh with her father and older sister, Susan, has been educated not so much above her station as above her gender, and has served as her father’s intellectual companion while neglecting to pursue the womanly arts. When he dies, she is left destitute. Her uncle determines that he will retain Susan as governess for his children and that Clara will be sent out to South Australia with a letter of recommendation and £10 in her purse. In Chapter II which “will probably be missed for it only describes a long voyage”, she, aged about 19, sets out from Leith in the autumn of 1850.

Over the course of the novel we get to know quite well an interesting variety of characters. Clara had been born into to that upper stratum of the middle class which is educated and has an independent income. So for her, much of the novel is to do with how she manages with little or no money. Positions as a governess are much harder to find and keep than she, or her uncle expected, and at one stage and I think for more than a year, she is employed as a general servant, by a tolerant lady willing to train her up from complete incompetence.

Of course she is in love with a good man, Mr Russell, who is both patently above her present station and who in any case has a secret fiancee of his own, living with his mother, back home. This fiancee is now 26 and waiting less than patiently for Russell to make his fortune and return. Interestingly, the right age for marriage comes up a few times and it is generally held that a woman is not on the shelf until at least 25.

The other main characters, and there are probably at least a dozen, all depend on their own efforts to maintain or improve their position in society, that is, they must work for their living, and they range from well off businessmen and farmers, and their wives and children, to the lower middle class men in her boarding house who subject her to ‘witticisms’, to the plainly destitute, including an abandoned single mother. And then there are the Elliots, 2 brothers and 3 sisters, all educated, living together just above poverty. Margaret Elliot studying law alongside her brother, not with any hope of ever being able to practice, but simply for the pleasure of the intellectual accomplishment.

The other ‘stream’ of the book is mining. One of the Elliot men and the fiance of one of the sisters work in administration at ‘the Burra’, the prosperous copper mine 100 miles north of Adelaide. But the big problem for Adelaide is that the goldrushes have begun, first at the Turon (Bathurst, NSW) then in neighbouring Victoria, at Mt Alexander (Castlemaine), Bendigo and Ballarat. All the men, the Cornish miners at Burra, the working men, the professionals, the businessmen make plans to sail to Melbourne or simply to walk the intervening and largely unsettled 400 miles.

Spence paints vivid pictures of an Adelaide peopled almost entirely by women, and via letters and conversation, of Melbourne with its wide avenues and dirty, unregulated back lanes; of the goldfields; of daily life when the mail is nearly always lost, when ships can’t sail because they’ve lost their crews; of the SA Police having to provide an escort for gold back to Adelaide to prevent the complete collapse of the South Australian economy.

Spence was later a formidable player in the political sphere, and she was clearly paying attention in the early 1850s. This is an absorbing book and highly recommended.

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Catherine Helen Spence, Clara Morison, first pub. 1854. My edition Seal, 1971 (not the one pictured). 408pp.

see also:
Catherine Helen Spence (ADB)
CHS, A Week in the Future (my review) (the Resident Judge)
CHS, Mr Hogarth’s Will (ANZLL)
S.Magery ed., Ever Yours, C.H. Spence (ANZLL) (ANZLL) (the Resident Judge)

Such is Life (02), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)

One of my intentions in doing this slow read is to make the argument that Such is Life is the first major modernist text in Australian and one of the first in World Literature. As seminal in Australian Lit as Ulysses was later to be in English.

The predominant view of Such is Life would have it as Bush Realism, showing us real Aussie bush workmen from the late C19th. Of course it does no such thing – there are not many working men then or now able to converse at length on world affairs, philosophy and literature, in English and in Latin. Furphy’s project in fact was to disrupt the tropes of bush life, the Bulletin version of what it is to be Australian, AND to disrupt the tropes of writing about Australian life.

To further my argument, today I am reading a 2003 essay by Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life . Cowden argues that the 1890s saw the end of Victorian certainties; the rise of Socialism and Feminism (Suffragism); and saw too for the first time the working classes and rural battlers being written about by writers of their own class, writers like Furphy, Henry Lawson and Miles Franklin.

So, when we left Tom he had caught up with some bullocky mates, one of whom was his old schoolmate Steve Thompson. They are discussing where to camp for the night. The Riverina has just returned to drought and the only grass and water has been fenced off by the local landowners who tend to regard bullockies as the enemy rather than as their partners in getting wool to market. The feeling is reciprocated – this is very much a novel of class struggle (see quotes from Cowden below).

It is also a novel of digressions, and most of the plot, such as it is, is carried forward in the yarns the men tell each other, so that characters and episodes rise and fall in importance and often without forewarning.

In this context, some men roll up heading the other way, and of course stop to talk. One of them is Warrigal Alf who is later important (and not to be confused with Nosey Alf), then comes along McNab, a fencing contractor, who talks Tom into trading horses with him. An exchange in which Tom for once comes out on top. The new horse is misleadingly named Cleopatra (hint: it’s not a mare) which “will necessarily play a certain part in these memoirs”.

There is one more point I need to make before we let the teams move on to their camp for the night and that is that most Australians swear almost constantly and Furphy has great fun with this without ever writing an actual swearword. So …

“You got Nosey Alf, an’ Warrigal Alf, an’ (sheol) knows how many other Alfs.”
“I ain’t (adj.) fool enough to believe in curses.”
“Well,” said Price emphatically, and qualifying every word that would bear qualification ..

The Palmers’ abridgement (see below) made the mistake of removing much of the ‘swearing’ and thus much of the humour.

The men break down the fence to the ‘home’ paddock and after a long and philosophical discussion about what makes a gentleman – Willoughby, travelling with them, is an English gentleman entirely without funds (or saleable skills), but a nice bloke – fall asleep under the wagons while the bullocks help themselves to feed and water. In the morning they are roused by a worker from the property and scramble to get their cattle out before the arrival of the foreman; Tom finds Cleopatra likes to buck; a bullock has to be dragged out of the dam; they hitch up and head off; one wagon becomes bogged, is towed out; and then another …

Thirty-six picked bullocks planted their feet and prised, and a hundred and seventy feet of bar chain stretched tense and rigid from the leaders’ yoke to the pole-cap. The wagon crept forward. A low grumble, more a growl than a bellow, passed from beast to beast along the team – sure indication that the wagon wouldn’t stop again if it could be taken through. The off front wheel rose slowly on the harder ground; the off hind wheel rose in its turn; both near wheels ploughed deeper beneath the top-heavy weight of thirty-eight bales –
“She’s over!” thundered Cooper …

The wagon slowly settles on its side and the wool – which goes about six bales to the ton – must be laboriously reloaded by hand. And so we reach the end of Chapter 1, 50pp supported by 36 pages of annotations, so I still have some reading to do!


Such is Life was first published by the new books division of the Bulletin magazine in 1903. It was immediately recognised for the masterpiece it is but gained no great readership. A second edition (using sheets left over from the first) was brought out by Furphy’s literary executor, Kate Baker in 1917 with an Introduction by Vance Palmer. In 1937 Jonathon Cape of London published an abridged version with Vance Palmer named as the ‘editor’ although the actual abridging was done mainly by Nettie Palmer and daughter Aileen (Such is Life, Abridged!). Angus & Robertson then brought out an unabridged version (pictured above) in 1944 and only then was the novel’s future assured. The most recent version apparently is from Text, 2013 (here).

“The opening page of [Such is Life] is thus one which suggests an openness to an exploration of the ‘relation between reading, interpretation and writing’ (Devlin-Glass et.al, 315), which, as other commentators have noted, anticipates the high modernist literature of writers like James Joyce.” Cowden p. 152

“Socialists argued that unemployment, poverty and criminality, were not failings of individual ‘character’, but were a product of the immiseration created by capitalism. In its day this link offered a profound and fundamental challenge to ideas about ‘character’ which were cornerstones of Victorian morality.” ibid p.153

“Furphy clearly saw these acts of sabotage [thefts from landowners] as a form of working class resistance, and hence the newness of his perspective is both literary and political; in a political sense he is trying to work out on an intuitive basis how a different form of morality might operate. In a literary sense he is trying to work out a new way of telling a story that will reflect this” ibid. p.156

50:32 belahs. Bilaar is a Wiradhuri word used for several [types of] trees. Here is it probabably a sheoak (casuarina). There are annotations for everything! I give this one as an example because I have written quite often in the past that there are no Indigenous people in SIL, so one of my tasks over this year is to see how correct that assertion is. I can’t believe there weren’t Indigenous communities along all the rivers. There are now and there were in the 1950s when I was a boy. I must also mention that the rider on Cleopatra when Tom obtained it was an Indigenous man working for McNab.

McNab. The edition I am reading renders this M’Nab, but as with Miles Franklin I am certain this comes from older printing presses not having a raised lower case ‘c’ (and nor does WordPress).

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, first pub. 1903.

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

Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life, Kunapipi, Vol 25 (2003) (here)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy (here)
theaustralianlegend, Such is Life, Abridged! (here)

Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

Parable of the Talents (1998) is the ‘science fiction’ story of what it is now clear that millions of Americans are working towards, relentlessly and ruthlessly, an evangelical theocracy. Not a story at all, SF or otherwise, but a clear warning from 22 years ago of what is on the way, as inevitably as death.

Butler posits an ending that is more positive than I think present facts deserve, but my own prediction from the safety of this other side of the world is that the evangelicals chosen weapon, Trumpism, and the futile efforts of liberals to deal sensibly and honestly with opponents entirely devoid of both, will cause the break-up of the United States: into three parts probably – North East, Mid-West and South, and West Coast.

Butler’s central thesis, which was near enough to the truth, was for economic and ecological disasters, caused by decades of greed and misrule, leading to the formation of a vast underclass, and a hollowed-out middle class which in desperation would vote in a President intent on ‘re-establishing’ the United States as a ‘Christian’ patriarchy. Luckily, ‘real life’ hasn’t yet followed her theocracy in uniting the country by going to war with Canada and break-away Alaska.

I have read that … “the Apocalypse” or … “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030 … This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment …

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises … I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

Like a lot of good science fiction this novel suffers from a surfeit of ideas. Sometimes there is just so much that Butler, or Lauren whose story it is, has to tell us. There is character development, but it is secondary to a plot which is concerned as much with expounding Butler’s ideas about the future of the USA as it is with the main characters’ ongoing survival. And the structure itself intrudes. Each chapter begins with a section looking back from the future to the time of the story, and usually the person looking back is Lauren’s child, a daughter, we discover eventually; and then in the next paragraph the story is being told in the ‘present’ (around 2030) by Lauren, ostensibly through her journals though the stories are too free-flowing to maintain that illusion.

At the end of Parable of the Sower Lauren and Bankole are establishing a small community on farm land Bankole owns in northern California. Lauren is intent on establishing Earthseed as a religion whose ultimate aim is to spread humanity ‘to the stars’. So Parable of the Talents begins with the community, Acorn, prospering and growing. Lauren finally falls pregnant, gives birth to a daughter. Bankole is unhappy, feels exposed, there are still gangs marauding around the countryside, and wishes to practice as a doctor in a nearby town where he thinks they can have a ‘normal’ life. Lauren insists on staying.

But within months of the birth of her daughter, Christian militia encouraged by the new President, Jarret, invade the farm, turning it into a semi-legal internment camp for vagrants and non-Christians. All the children on the farm are turned over to Christian welfare organisations for adoption, and the adults are used as forced labour, subjected to Bible Study, and of course the women are raped.

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened, in spite of all the chaos that had gone before. Things were healing… Yet Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide and bully people, first into electing him president, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers

Somewhere along the way Lauren has rescued from (sex) slavery her brother, Marcus, left for dead in the previous novel but now a fierce adherent of President Jarret’s church, Christian America. He goes off before Acorn is overrun, to become a preacher, but Lauren later chases him up, hoping for a reconciliation, and he eventually plays an important part in Lauren’s relationship with her long-lost daughter.

In the end this is an optimistic novel, far more optimistic I think than the facts warranted, when it was written or now when a great deal of what Butler imagined has played out, if less extremely than she pictures here. Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Would I recommend it to my mostly non-SF reading readership? No. Your responses to previous SF reviews have convinced me that ‘hard’ SF has its own conventions of which SF readers and writers are barely aware but which render much of what is being written about difficult for non SF readers.

But hey, be careful all the Literary ‘dystopian’ novels around now don’t take you there anyway, down the slippery path to spacemen firing laser guns Pew, Pew at each other (Claire G Coleman’s The Old Lie for instance).

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Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents, first pub. 1998. This edition (pictured), Headline, London. 390pp.

see also, Melanie/GTL’s reviews:
Parable of the Sower (here)
Parable of the Talents (here)

Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe (2018) deserves all the accolades that have been heaped on it. It’s a well written work, though not without its flaws, the story of a boy growing up surrounded by drugs and alcoholism and poverty in the working class outer suburbs of Brisbane; a fictionalising of his own life according to the author.

The style of the work is grunge, which I like, though the atmosphere is an uneasy mix of YA, druggy life and action adventure, with a very small amount of unlikely romance as icing on the cake.

In an interview a couple of years ago, Dalton said that he has been a journalist, for News Ltd – Murdoch owns all the newspapers in Brisbane – for 17 years, so maybe he was born in the early 1980s (Wiki doesn’t say). Eli, his protagonist, remembers as a twelve year old watching Dean Jones on TV in a (cricket) match against Pakistan, so that would be the One Day International series of 1992-3. By Pakistan’s visit for the 1995-96 Test series the NSW mafia had Dean Jones out of the side. So what do we make of the sentence (on p.4) which begins “Thirty-two years ago, in February 1953 ..”? That would put Eli’s birth year back a whole decade.

It certainly feels more like a 1980s story than a 1990s story, though I’m not up on the history of heroin in Australia, nor of Vietnamese involvement in its trade. Either way Dalton is too young to remember the end of the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland in 1987, the jailing of the Police Commissioner, and the rank and file police sabotaging any attempts at reform – well, he’d remember the last because they’re still at it. Though there is passing mention of police patronising illegal brothels, which is very 1980s.

Boy Swallows Universe is a novel unsure of its genre. Eli is 12 at the beginning, just starting high school, and at the end he’s 19 and employed at the Courier Mail (Brisbane’s only daily newspaper) as a cadet journalist. So that makes it a bildungsroman right? But the years in between barely exist and to be honest Eli at 19 and Eli at 12 don’t seem that different. They are both hard-swearing boys who cry in a crisis (and maybe wet themselves). And they both want the same woman, the twenty-something crime journalist Caitlyn Spies.

The writing is at times sublime – lyrical, hard, tough. Australian grunge.

I can see my brother, August, through the crack in the windscreen. He sits on our brown brick fence writing his life story in fluid cursive with his right forefinger, etching words into thin air.
Boy writes on air.
Boy writes on air the way my old neighbour Gene Crimmins says Mozart played piano. like every word was meant to arrive, parcel packed and shipped from a place beyond his own busy mind.

August, a year older, chooses not to speak. A silence dating from years before when their father, Robert, drove his car into a dam and left August and Eli to drown. August talks to Eli with ‘looks’, perfectly understood, and his moving finger.

Grunge is hard to define, but it involves don’t you think a life lived on the edge of society, drugs and poverty, described with the rhythms of Beat poetry or Rock’n’Roll. Eli’s mother and her partner, Lyle, in Lyle’s dead Polish immigrant parents’ house in Brisbane’s outer western industrial suburbs, deal and do drugs, heroin, sourced through local Vietnamese families. Eli is involved. Involved because he’s found their stash, “a five-hundred-gram brick of Golden Triangle heroin stowed in the mower catcher in our backyard shed”, involved because he thinks Lyle is not doing a good enough job and forces Lyle to take him with him, involved because he is desperate to rescue his mother, involved because he knows the Vietnamese, goes to school with their son.

But Eli is above. He’s a hero, not a grunge anti-hero. A lot of this novel is straight YA. Lyle is disappeared. The mother is jailed and falls into depression, something else to rescue her from. Eli and August must go to their father in another shabby house on the diagonally opposite side of Brisbane. And he must be rescued from alcoholism. And the ending is all Matthew Reilly (don’t ever read Matthew Reilly) unrealistic action adventure stunts as Eli and Caitlyn rescue Brisbane from a mass murderer.

And Caitlyn points her faulty camera at Iwan Krol’s face and clicks a blinding flash. The predator turns his head, momentarily stunned, still recalibrating his eyesight as the axe that is now in my hands takes an achingly long arcing journey towards his body.

Trent Dalton can write. Perhaps his next book, which I see is all over booksellers’ shelves, is not so bursting with all the ideas he bottled up while writing crap for Rupert Murdoch. I’m not sure I’ll buy it but I hope someone tries it, doesn’t like it, then passes it on again, which is how I got this one.

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Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2018. 471pp.

see also:
Kate W/booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s very enthusiastic review (here) and she has #2, All Our Shimmering Skies very near the top of her TBR.

Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.

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Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.


*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

The Timeless Land.... eleanor dark ..1960

It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.


Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.

The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!

The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.

So why did I struggle with the story?

I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.

I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:

“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”

Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:

“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”

And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?

So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.

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Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960

see also reviews of:
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here)
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here)
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here)
James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)

The Little Hotel, Christina Stead

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

Christina Stead (1902-1983) is the greatest or second greatest Australian writer (depending how you rank Patrick White) of the inter-War and immediate post-War years. She was born in Sydney, went to London after school and one or two years of uni, and lived and wrote, often in poverty, in England, Europe and the USA, ignored and sometimes positively shunned in Australia , until the death of her husband, the Communist economist William Blake in 1968. She returned briefly to Australia then, on a fellowship to ANU, and permanently in 1974. (See my review of Chris Williams’ Christina Stead: A Life of Letters).

The Little Hotel (1973) is the stories of the proprietors and semi-permanent residents of a down-market hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the late 1940s. As many of the residents are English it is relevant that England’s post-War Attlee Labour government had instituted a Socialist programme, with very high taxes on the well-off, austerity following the enormous expenditure on the War, and many important industries being nationalised. (The English/Australian novelist Neville Shute was just one of many who chose not to live there).

By the end of the War, Stead and Blake had been living in the USA for 9 or ten years, which proved the peak years for Stead as a novelist. But the rise of McCarthyism made it increasingly difficult for them to obtain script-writing jobs and at the end of 1946 they returned to Europe. Briefly to Belgium where Blake had hoped to get work, then London, back to Belgium, then in Oct. 1947 to –

Montreux at the Hôtel de Londres, a Swiss haven that became their home for a couple of years … she loved its charm, its quiet and its scenery, but not the English tourists whom she characterized so well in the novel, The Little Hotel.

Williams, 1989. (p. 172)

Knowing the way that Stead worked, with mss for a number of novels on the go at one time, it is probable that she began working on The Little Hotel in Montreux, while getting the last of her American books – A Little Tea, A Little Chat and The People with Dogs – ready for publication (I don’t think she began researching Cotters’ England until 1949). And then it finally surfaced when she needed a book, or felt the time was right. She had been making approaches to Australia for some time and maybe this book was gentle enough not to offend the delicate sensibilities of publishers Angus & Robertson, who had knocked her back repeatedly in the past.

I found The Little Hotel similar in its almost jaunty style and lack of theme to Stead’s first novel The Salzburg Tales, and nothing like my favourite Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, with its flood of words, which just preceded it by date of setting, nor the gritty Cotters’ England, which followed. The narrator, ostensibly is Mme Bonnard who with her husband Roger, runs the hotel, but in fact the POV which starts out first person, more and more slips over seamlessly to third person when Mme Bonnard is not in the room.

I am very firm. It is the only way to manage these disorderly people. They are just like spoiled children. It’s funny, isn’t it? Here I am, only twenty-six, and I am running men and women of forty, fifty, sixty and seventy, like schoolchildren. The secret is simple. You must have your own rules. We have another simple secret. Our hotel, the Swiss-Touring, which is near the station and near the esplanade, is the cheapest in town for visitors … No one ever mentions this fact, among our guests; but it is the thing that keeps them from boiling over.

The English, all of them retired or semi-retired, are living cheaply In Switzerland while they work out where to go next, and how to get their capital out of England (I think currency movements were severely restricted to prevent a run on the Pound). But there are also European and American guests. The big worry, for all of them, is the Russians who might overrun Switzerland at any time and steal all the gold hidden in the mountains on which the Swiss Franc depended to maintain its value.

Guests and staff are relatively constant, though of course with some turnover, and we get to know a great many of them. At the centre was –

Mrs Trollope and her cousin Mr Wilkins, English people from the East, who had been with us for over a year and who occupied two adjoining rooms. .. next to Mrs Trollope was Madame Blaise, who had been with us the whole winter. Next to her was the large corner room… which Dr Blaise occupied every second weekend when he came over from Basel.

Mrs Trollope’s mother was Javanese, which doesn’t seem to matter in the hotel, but does in wider society, particularly in England. Her marriage settlement with her previous husband has left her independently wealthy. As Mr Wilkins gets more and more control over Mrs Trollope’s fortune he pays her less and less attention. And it is the unveiling and resolution of their relationship which holds the book together.

Madame Blaise is also the wealthy one in that relationship, and it becomes apparent that Dr Blaise’s hold over her is drugs. One guest is starving herself to death, another, with plenty of money, declares himself to be the Mayor of Brussels and is eventually locked up after wandering around the town naked. It’s not a long book, and there is enough going on to maintain interest (isn’t that faint praise!).

In case you’re wondering, after I have forced a lot of theory on you in discussions on Gen 3, Christina Stead was one of the great Modernists, she clearly studied James Joyce and would have met him and many other writers at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co in Paris in the 1930s. She was a communist, though not formally a member of the Party; she could not possibly have stood the restrictions of Socialist Realism. Perhaps the closest she got to Social Realism was Cotter’s England in the 1950s, just as that period was coming to an end (It’s a long time since I read Seven Poor Men of Sydney).

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Christina Stead, The Little Hotel, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973. 191pp

see also:
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
My review of Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here)
ANZLitLovers’ Christina Stead page (here) which contains links to all our reviews.

Eleanor Dark, 2 novels

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Eleanor Dark with typescript of Storm of Time at 'Varuna ...

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) is best known for her Timeless Land trilogy, but she was also an important modernist writer, and one of the earliest. Luckily for us, two contributors to this Week, Buried in Print from Canada and Emma of Book Around the Corner from France, have chosen to review Eleanor Dark novels.


bip-colourBuried in Print

Writers in Novels: Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company (1945) #AWW

It’s a time of “political and intellectual crisis” in The Little Company. Sound familiar?

Drusilla Modjeska’s introduction situates readers in Dark’s depiction of ordinary life in Sydney and Katoomba, in this time of “recession, nuclear threat and more failed expectations” in Australia.

Read on …


https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/22c6cba66f07d4f48c5befac11b9f492Book Around the Corner

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.

Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.

In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.

Read on …

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Photo: Eleanor Dark at Varuna with typescript for Storm of Time, Dec. 1947. Blue Mountains City Library

The Pea Pickers, Eve Langley

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Brona of Brona’s Books has set herself an ambitious schedule for AWW Gen 3 Week for which I am extremely grateful. First up she has written about one of my favourite authors, Eve Langley, and her first and most famous novel.


178d3c9b3c81ff378159e63c4ba1500a Brona’s Books

My first illness was that one most common to the children of the poor…a bad education and, like the bite of a goanna, it was incurable and ran for years.

Ethel Jane (Eve) Langley was born in Forbes on the 1st September 1904. After her father, Arthur died in 1915, her mother, Myra moved her small family back to Victoria…

In 1924, Eve and her sister June … travelled and worked around the Gippsland countryside as farm labourers and pickers for the next four years. She kept a diary during this whole time of her doings, her thoughts, poems and stories. Read on …