Australian Book Review

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January/February 2018

The Australian Book Review has entered its fortieth year. I’ve been a subscriber for the last ten of those – since I was getting to the end of my M.Litt and was looking for a way to stay plugged in to Australian writing – but this will be my last year. Lisa at ANZLitLovers has been telling me for ages that she feels that ABR has drifted away from Aust.Lit and out into the wider world, which is much better covered by other publications, and now at last I agree with her.

For most of those ten years and no doubt for the thirty prior the ABR has done its job. A wide range of new Australian books have been reviewed by leading writers and experts in their field – and I think here in particular of regular contributor Neil Blewett, a senior minister in the Hawke and Keating governments – there are annual poetry, short story and essay competitions, visual arts editions and so on. And of course there is a website, which I don’t usually look at.

Once upon a time I would go straight to Letters to the Editor where there would nearly always be at least one author complaining bitterly about their review and the reviewer, always given right of reply, biting back. This has been less the case over the past two or three years and in this issue there are no letters at all as far as I can see.

As for new releases, over the years I have been introduced to some marvellous novels that I would otherwise have missed but again, less so in the past couple of years, partly of course because I follow lit.bloggers who post two, three four times a week and keep us all pretty well up to date.

Let us look more closely at the Jan-Feb 2018 issue pictured above. It begins with half a dozen pages of bits and pieces, ads and self-promotion, rather like an old newspaper beginning with the classifieds. The first review, the ‘Review of the Month’ is of Alexis Wright’s Tracker – her 650pp collage/biog. of Tracker Tilmouth – by Michael Winkler. It’s a cracker and ends –

Wright’s brace of ineffable, awkward, uncanny novels (Carpentaria, The Swan Book) will be unravelled and enjoyed by readers when other contemporary fiction is forgotten. Tracker, a book performed by a folk ensemble rather than a solo virtuoso, adds to her enduring non-fiction oeuvre that captures the unique ground-level realpolitik of Aboriginal Australia.

Then we have reviews of The Cold War: A World History by a Norwegian professor at Harvard; The Pivot of Power on Australian prime ministers 1949-2016; Chris Masters on Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan (not my cup of tea!); A New Literary History of China (reviewed by Nicholas Jose); David Malouf and the Poetic; and the next highlight, although it’s not Australian, Brenda Niall on Claire Tomalin’s memoir, A Life of My Own. Our own Michelle Scott Tucker and Nathan Hobby have distinguished careers in front of them if they follow Tomalin’s path: “Tomalin was forty when she wrote her first book, a life of Mary Wollstonecraft, in which she had an almost unexplored field.” Though her subsequent biographies on “Shelley, Austen, Pepys, Hardy and Dickens” might prove a tough act to follow!

After that were reviews of (tv journalist) Mike Willesee’s memoir; something about a French restaurant in America; Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown’s diary; yet another David Attenborough; a novel about a character out of Henry James (reviewed by Brenda Niall); something, something a character out of King Lear. I’m barely even reading the headings at this point; The Best Australian Stories 2017 edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke; All My Goodbyes from Argentina; a few pages of fill – Australian publishers pick their favourite book of 2017.

By now we’re at the middle, I can see the staples, and a review of (Victorian Governor) La Trobe which makes me hopeful; but we go right back to Hilary Spurling on Anthony Powell (who?); the “Right’s stealth plan for America”; Richard Nixon: The Life !!!!; a book on philosopher Derek Parfit, edited by Peter Singer; a biography of Czeslaw Milosz; a few pages of poetry; it just goes on and on, occasional Australian novels, the story of a cricket photographer; a few pages on The Arts. The ABR is a magazine entirely without direction.

I sometimes muse while I work – truck driving is a great job for musing – about an Australian lit.mag of my own. Our own really, as the AWW Gen 1 page demonstrated, with 14 articles by nine contributors in little more than a week. Of course this is at least partly a solution looking for a problem. There isn’t a lot wrong with our current model of writing what interests us and following and interacting with bloggers with similar interests. And all though we sometimes deny it, we also tend to write and therefore read, in order to interest others, to keep our readerships happy.

I get great joy from my participation in this corner of the blogosphere, but it, so far anyway, has shortfalls in two areas:

Reading top flight Australian authors on other top flight Australian authors – which the ABR at least sometimes fills; and

Discussion of Australian literary theory – which the ABR ignores.

I could probably deal with the latter by subscribing to one or more journals, google suggests the Australian Literary Studies Journal (here). For the former there is apparently the Australian, but the Murdoch press is so virulently anti-worker that I refuse to have anything to do with it. My own local paper the West Australian which I sometimes still buy on Saturdays, reviews only page turners.

Of course, I don’t have time to collate a magazine and anyway it wouldn’t make sense unless it somehow achieved a readership way beyond the few thousand who follow Whispering Gums and ANZLitLovers, envy-inducing as that is. I don’t know what ABR’s readership is, it doesn’t appear in Gary Morgan’s annual readership survey, but 30,000 maybe? That was the readership of Truck & Bus Magazine in its heyday. Soap World, whatever that is, has a readership of 40,000 and Readers Digest (Australia) 436,000, so if I ever retire that’s what I’ll aim for.

 


Update: Miles Franklin page

Review by Emma, Book Around the Corner of My Brilliant Career  here


Update: Australian Women Writers Gen 1 page

Reviews by Lisa, ANZLitLovers of:
Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 here
Bronwen Hickman, Mary Gaunt: Independent Colonial Woman here

Sue, Whispering Gums posted three consecutive ‘Monday Musings’ on early Australian women writers:
Literary Culture in Colonial Australia, 22 Jan 2018 here
Reading Aloud in Colonial Australia, 29 Jan 2018 here
Women Academics on Colonial Women Writers, 5 Feb 2018 here

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The Last Love Story, Rodney Hall

The Last Love Story

Rodney Hall (1935- ) is only a couple of years younger than my mum, which is to say pretty old, and he has two Miles Franklins to his name – for Just Relations in 1982 and The Grisly Wife in 1994 – and has three times been ‘nominated’ for the Booker, and yet I can’t say I have ever been aware of him. Luckily Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is not so ignorant and in googling him I came across her 2012 post ‘Meet an Aussie Author: Rodney Hall’ (here).

The Last Love Story (2004) continues a trend, in my reading, of Australian literary fiction that is slightly offset from reality, the best of them Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, but there’s all of Jane Rawson, Ellen van Neerven, and more recently Claire Coleman and Robert Edeson, who all give reality a dystopian twist to describe a near future which says a lot about our fairly unhappy present.


I’ve had an SF couple of weeks, relistening while I work to Haruki Murakami’s wonderful 1Q84 (46 hours 16 min.s!) and then to The Natural Way of Things whose polite, middle class narration by Ailsa Piper detracts from the vibrancy of the story IMO. Kate W has just reviewed Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (here) which I must read, and meanwhile I have started on The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece of anarchist SF in preparation for a tribute following her recent death.


The subtitle of this novel is A fairytale of the day after tomorrow and Hall, not always successfully, has attempted a fairytale type of story telling, reminiscent perhaps of Angela Carter. The first chapter begins:

First, there is a river. Without the river there would be no story. Like many other rivers this one has a ford for people to cross. And, wherever you find a ford, a small industry of communications tends to spring up – a cable ferry, an inn on one side, then a rival inn on the other…

And so, a city is born, “not often heard of outside its own boundaries and known simply as The City.” But with all the workers and factories north of the river, and all the offices and better off people south of the river. When the workers rise up The City breaks up:

And because there were three times more people in City North than rich people in City South, the stalemate of numbers against superior equipment soon set hard. Both divisions of the army focused their resistance along the river bank and took turns at strategically blowing up every bridge linking them except Friendship Bridge.

That’s how swiftly the Great Day happened. And that’s how swiftly the disaster got out of hand.

As the divisions solidify and rival authoritarian administrations take control, Catholics in the South, Christian Fundalmentalists in the North, one man, a working man, Paul, the man of this love story, is stranded, unable to return to his home in City North, takes a little flat and continues to find work on building sites.

The woman of the story, Judith, is an only child, treated as ‘slow’ by a domineering mother, still home at 22 in the comfortable suburbs of City South. Until she meets Paul, is picked out by Paul, at a dance, just waiting to be asked. Then there are Judith’s mother, Mrs Stott and the sadistic head of the City North border guards, The Lieutenant.

Judith is wooed by Paul, runs off with him, is betrayed, abandoned and imprisoned, then released just as he, filled with remorse, comes back to her and is imprisoned in turn and she must come back for him.

In this middle section Hall loses his already tenuous grip on his folk-tale style and descends into mawkishness:

Here on the railway line, as Paul wept with remorse, wept at the cruelty of his own will … Judith, Judith! He had taken her, that precious woman, as if she were a sexual repository, a vassal. He had taken her carelessly, so carelessly he learned nothing of her needs, nothing even of his own heart.

Kerryn Goldsworthy in the Age writes, “Writing non-comic, non-realist fiction for adults is a fiendishly difficult task; among other things, it requires plain language, and it’s here that Hall’s skills as a poet tend to get in his own way.” Though she has a more positive view of his overall success than I do.

Judith, home again and closely watched, slips out but Mrs Stott sees her:

… she set off in pursuit as fast as her elegant shoes would allow. But she was too far behind. She had simply no idea whether Judith’s mission was a repetition of the previous day, nor whether that long absence had been a mission at all, or a mere whim on the child’s part, or maybe the need to conceal some ongoing trouble. She was getting puffed. Her hat slipped over one ear. Her smartness exposed her ridiculously. Then, at the very moment of abandoning the pursuit, she caught a glimpse of Judith, in the distance, disappearing into the mainline railway station.

First Paul and Judith, and then Paul, and then Judith, and then Mrs Stott, cross the river on the decrepit train which connects the two cities, and each time one or both or all of them are held prisoner in the City North border lock-up at the mercy of the Lieutenant. Until at last it is Judith’s clearsightedness and courage that sets them free.

Hall’s metaphor is not as obvious as Charlotte Woods’ but this is definitely a fairytale for our border/internment-obsessed times.

 

Rodney Hall, The Last Love Story, Picador, Sydney, 2004

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s review in the Age  (26 June 2004) here

 

Bad to Worse, Robert Edeson

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Bad to Worse (2017) is a second novel and suffers from second novel syndrome. Which is to say that all the things which were exciting and new in the first novel are repeated in the second where they are self-evidently not new and nor are they very exciting.

Further, Bad to Worse suffers also from we’re on a roll here let’s go for a series syndrome. So we have the same mix of good guys, though in different proportions, as in The Weaver Fish (here), facing off against a new line-up of villians. As we will again in book 3 no doubt, as Worse believes firmly in permanent threat eradication, ie. killing. And just enough threads are left open at the end.

Worse, the principal good guy, is an independent, Perth-based, secret agent type, deadly in armed and unarmed combat and a supremely competent computer hacker; he has foils in philosopher detective Victor Spoiling of the WA Police, and in his friend philosopher psychiatrist Sigrid Blitt. In fact all the good guys are philosopher scientist poet mathematicians though their philosophy science poetry logic is mostly (ironically) bogus.

Worse’s love interest from The Weaver Fish, Millie Misgivington, almost makes it to Perth in time to be included in the action, but doesn’t. And the other members of the supporting cast – Walter Reckles who survives a mid-air collision, as he said he could, over the Arizona desert, and Millie’s brother Nicholas, and his team leader Paulo on Greater Ferendes play relatively minor parts; while Anna Camenes and Edvard Tøssentern, though frequently mentioned, like Millie stay out of the way in Cambridge.

The Chinese, who in The Weaver Fish were illegally clear-felling and mining the northern coastal plain of Greater Ferende, have been discarded by the author as a source of ongoing conflict/outrage after promising much and delivering little; and neither the Asiatic Condor nor the Weaver Fish is given even a walk on part, though a giant, upright, cave-dwelling crab plays a minor role in terrifying Nicholas and Paulo.

The story this time is that the enormously wealthy and dishonest Mortiss family from Chicago have an ongoing vendetta against the Worse family in Dante, Arizona arising from a shoot-out between Sheriff Thomas Worse and members of the Mortiss family in 1877. When our Worse hears that Walter Reckless has crashed and survived after a collision with a drone from the mysterious Area Pi facility outside Dante he writes and introduces himself to Sheriff Thomas Worse the sixth, and begins investigating, soon finding links to the Mortiss family.

Of course there is stuff going on in the Ferendes that also has links to the Mortiss family, and the family has a fleet of dodgy cruise liners that leads to Worse and Brigit taking an unfortunate trip where they meet Hilario, an apparently telepathic steward, who is clearly destined to play an on-going role (perhaps as chaperone for Millie, if she ever makes it to Perth).

My favourite line: “There was another loud obstructed inspiration from Haberdash” [ie. the villian was having trouble breathing] illustrates perfectly how Ederson uses scientific/medical language to both obscure and enhance meaning. And then amid all the science there is an ultimate ocker moment, billy tea in the bush:

Worse grabbed the lidless billy’s wire handle, using green forest leaves for insulation. He stood back from the fire, and began to swing the billy like a pendulum. Suddenly, from a forward under-swing, it went full circle at high speed, revolving round and round at arm’s length, the boiling tea retained by nothing but centrifugal force. He stopped the exercise by running forward as it slowed.

Eventually, it all comes together in Arizona and the bad guys, and one very bad gal, lose.

Too often the plot is advanced by the characters writing letters to each other, which I find infuriating; there is a conceit about the author of the Worse chronicles being unknown, which you should ignore; and some unnecessary appendices which if you are going to read at all read during the course of the novel because you certainly won’t be bothered when you’ve finished.

I’ve been hard on Bad to Worse because I expected more. The writing in The Weaver Fish sparkled, there was a good balance between experimental writing, action and character development. Some of the ‘experimental’ elements remain in Bad to Worse – particularly long and sometimes amusing footnotes – but the writing is mostly bog standard SF. Long on action, short on character. What was Literature in the first novel is now just Genre.

But. Read it anyway. Teacher son enjoyed though he wished had read The Weaver Fish first. It’s still fun despite all my carping, if a bit on the bloody side, and book 3 is bound to be better. We might even get a bit of cosy, Cambridge, hand-holding romance.

 

Robert Edeson, Bad to Worse, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2017

see also my review of Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish (here)

The Weaver Fish, Robert Edeson

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The weaver fish, transparent except for its eyes, surrounds its victims in great shoals, “fish bodies tightly woven crisscross, like warp and weft, but layered, as a solid tapestry might be made” surrounding, consuming, dissolving the flesh of its victims down to the bones. There have been few confirmed sightings. In 1916 “a fisherman named Josef Ta’Salmoud, from the village of Madregalo on Greater Ferende” capsized his canoe into a shoal so thick that he was able to escape by running across it, but arrived on the beach to find all the flesh of his feet gone.

Walter Reckles, who has written a book describing how to escape from a catastrophically exploded areoplane by attaching yourself to a wing and gliding to earth, designs a new type of aerodynamic surface, giving rise to tornado-proof roofs and hats.

The rarely sighted Asiatic Condor, native to the Ferendes, has a wingspan of up to six feet and uniform iridescent black plumage. Little is known of its habitat but it is thought to nest at sea.

Norwegian-British logician, linguist and dream theorist Edvard Tøssentern goes missing while flying a Reckles designed balloon out into the South China Sea from his camp on Greater Ferende. Tøssentern’s partner Anna Camenes comes to join the search and is taken to see illegal, Chinese Army-controlled logging at the far end of the island. There they observe condors which have been disturbed attack two Chinese soldiers.

A man is brought in from the jungle, grossly swollen through septicemia, and Camenes who is amongst other things a doctor, commences the procedures which save his life. It seems he has been the victim of a condor attack. When recovered he proposes a revolutionary theory about the life-cycle of the condor which the camp, established to research the Ferendic language, reformulates itself to investigate.

And so through brief, illuminating excursions into linguistics, engineering, physics, medicine and biology and their surprising interactions, we proceed. The members of the camp disperse, to Cambridge, and one, Nicholas, to Perth where he has a consulting job with an international bank.

This excursion to Cambridge, Tøssentern and Camenes’ home base, provides a literary connection to a long tradition of English academic science based fiction, making it easy to read The Weaver Fish as a postmodern take on the SF of say, John Wyndham*.

The author, obviously a polymath, makes no concessions to our ignorance, but if you read closely, the language is not as opaque as it first seems. One professor approaches another after a public lecture:

“One of my students is modelling semantic shift in rumour diffusion within multi-lingual, theocratically oppressed populations enjoying indefinite migratory flux, identity fraud, endemic mendacity, inculturated insularity, constrictive paternalism, pre-Enlightenment censoriousness, congenital absence of humour, sporadic headless mutism, and conductive hearing impairment; it occurred to me Thortelmann’s ideas might be useful. Would you be happy to meet up with her and offer some advice?”

In Perth, where Nicholas is now missing, we meet for the first time Worse, “a weedy little nerd”, who has summarily dealt with one intruder and is about to thoroughly bamboozle another two. After which he meets an attractive young woman, and the search for Nicholas begins.

After serious fun and games in Fremantle and Margaret River (iconic locations in Western Australia) it all comes to a head in Madregalo, now a city, and capital of the Ferendes kingdom. The Weaver Fish is a play on words, on science, on literature, and is at once both thoroughly post-modern and totally enjoyable.

Late this year (2017) Edeson’s next was released, Bad to Worse, obviously a follow-up. I gave it to teacher son who promises to have it read before he goes home while I got stuck into The Weaver Fish, which I had given to his mother three years earlier. I definitely won’t be waiting three years to read Bad to Worse. If you’re wondering, in his turn teacher son gave me a hardback edition of My Career Goes Bung, with a so-so dustjacket, published by Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946.

 

Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2014

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)


* Footnotes play an important part in this novel, giving it in places the appearance of an academic treatise, and generally covering topics far more esoteric than a brief intro to the work of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) who as John Wyndham wrote such SF classics as The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and Chocky (1968). “These tales eloquently sanction a post-trauma middle-class UK style of response to the theme of Disaster, whether caused by the forces of Nature, alien Invasions, Evolution or Man’s own nuclear warfare. Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for-disaster, or what Brian W Aldiss has called the Cosy Catastrophe, for this had reached mature form as early as 1885, with the publication of Richard Jefferies‘s retrospective After London, or Wild England“. Science Fiction Encyclopedia

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

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In her acceptance speech on winning the 2017 Stella Prize (best book by an Australian woman) for this novel Tasmanian author Heather Rose (1964- ) said, “I am sure lots of you are thinking, ‘Who on earth is Heather Rose?’”. Who indeed? There have been quite a lot of reviews of The Museum of Modern Love in this corner of the blogosphere, but it still comes as a surprise, to me, to see that Rose is an established author. Her previous (adult) novels are:

The Museum of Modern Love – Allen & Unwin, 2016
The River Wife – Allen & Unwin, 2009
The Butterfly Man – University Queensland Press, 2005
White Heart – Transworld, 1999

You can see Rose’s upward trajectory in her publishers, and also in her awards: The Butterfly Man – based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974 – was long-listed for the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award, shortlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award and won the 2006 Davitt Award for the Crime Fiction Novel of the Year written by an Australian woman. In 2007 Rose received the Eleanor Dark Fellowship and an Arts Tasmania Wilderness Residency for her novel The River Wife. And as well as the Stella, Rose won the 2017 Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the New South Wales Premier’s Prizes, and the 2017 Margaret Scott Prize  in the Tasmanian Premier’s Prizes for the best book by a Tasmanian author, was shortlisted for the Australian Literary Society medal and the Queensland Premier’s Prizes, and is currently long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award to be announced in 2018.

What I can’t see is any evidence that any of us were aware of her before The Museum of Modern Love. Feel free to contradict me! I have listed below the reviews that led me to immediately put this book on my TBR shelf, but searches of your sites have failed to bring up reviews of any of her earlier work. (Subsequently, Google brought up what a search on her site had not – my incompetence, I’m sure – Kim’s review of The Butterfly Man, and the fact that it is available as an audio book read by Humphrey Bower.)

The Museum of Modern Love is an observation of a performance, The Artist is Present, by Marina Abramović at MoMA, New York in 2010 during which the artist sat at a table, almost completely still, 8 hours a day for 75 days while members of the audience sat opposite her, observing her intently, for lengths of time of their own choosing. The fictional characters are Jane, a recently widowed Georgia school teacher; Arky Levin, a fiftyish composer; Healayas, a tall black woman, ‘raised Muslim in Paris”, a  TV art critic and singer; Brittika, a young Dutch woman of Chinese descent doing her PhD on Abramović; and an ‘I’ who makes an occasional appearance, a spirit who has followed Abramović throughout her life.

The writing is wonderful and if I wished that Jane’s late husband had been a Tasmanian orchardist rather than a Georgia cotton farmer then that is a minor quibble and to do with advertising Aust.Lit to the world rather than a criticism of this work or of Rose. The questions which Rose raises, and addresses, are of course ‘What is Art?’ but also, more surprisingly, ‘What are the duties of a husband?’.

The writing if not ‘experimental’ as I half expected, tells one story for a little while, then another, mixing in Jane at MoMA, meeting Arky, Arky at home, with the reactions of participants in the work, discussions, elements of Abramović’s back-story and so on, all the while steadily making its way through the 75 days, and still it is a very easy book to read, one of those novels where you are always eager for the next page.

A lot of the ‘fill’ is about Art, to the extent that it is quite often in the foreground, and Jane and Brittika and to some extent Healayas, are vehicles for that. The narrative tension is around Levin’s wife – or Levin’s inability to deal with the situation of his wife – Lydia, a wildly successful architect, and so an artist in her own right, who has an illness and then a stroke which has sent her into a coma, and she, who has managed every aspect of their married life, is now incommunicado in a nursing home in the Hamptons with a restraining order preventing him from a visiting her, and medical power of attorney vested in their med. student daughter Alice.

He has been a ‘good husband’ – though Lydia is clearly both provider and organiser – but lost in his music, often busy at times when Lydia and Alice are together. We men try hard to be good husbands and fathers, but we try in between doing other stuff, work and education and sport, while women rarely ever try, they just are. Wives and mothers is who they are first and foremost.

That’s enough about the story, which in any case, as Brona points out, is more than adequately covered elsewhere. So, what is Art? Don’t answer Art is Beauty as so many do, because then I will ask you is Romeo and Juliet Art? Of course, you will say, it is beautiful. And what about Romeo and Juliet if it was written by that roomful of monkeys with typewriters. Or if all Shakespeare was in fact electrical appliance instruction manuals written by Martians. Or I might ask is this Rembrandt Art? And what about this clever fake which looks exactly the same? Is it Art? The point is that Art is about Intention. It is the artist’s response to a discussion which has been going on for as long as we got up off all fours. Mind you Abramović has a performance titled Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful so maybe she disagrees.

So is The Artist is Present Art? As Rose illustrates in some detail, it is both a step forward in Abramović’s own artistic output and a statement in that branch of the discussion featuring, for example, Christo and Tracey Emin. The performance both tells us things about human nature which we hadn’t thought about in that way before, and is a new way of telling it.

In posts and comments we sometimes discuss portrayals of the Holocaust, and if indeed new imaginings should even be attempted (I mostly think not). Rose has this to say, talking about Abramović who was born in the former Yugoslavia and her piece Balkan Baroque (1997):

It was her own form of outrage and lament and possibly farewell to a country she had loved.

‘I am only interested in art which can change the ideology of society,’ Marina said at the ceremony to award her the Golden Lion.

Francesca understood some of that. She was German. It was enough to simply say that. She was German and nothing could take away the things that statement had come to mean since Hitler.

Rose here demonstrates, Abramović demonstrates, 800,000 visitors over 75 days demonstrate that art is important. Meanwhile Arky thinks that with his daughter away at uni his job as father is done. He will find, as do we all, that it never is. What a marvellous book!

 

Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2016

see also, other reviews:
Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Sue at Whispering Gums (here)
Kim at Reading Matters (here), The Butterfly Man (here)
Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Brona at Brona’s Books (here) – also an excellent review of the artworks in TMoML

Heather Rose’s speech: “Some men are intimidated when women step into their magnificence”. Guardian 19 Apr 2017 (here)

Taboo, Kim Scott

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The biggest issues we face today are the flat-lining of the Australian and most western economies after decades of neo-liberal pro-market, anti-worker policies; and the refusal of right-wing politicians to allow even the possibility of a consensus for dealing with global warming.

Yet the biggest, the dominant issue in Australian Lit. is clearly what it means to be an Australian – Anglo, Indigenous, or otherwise – in this land we whites stole from its Indigenous inhabitants, the oldest continuing civilization on Earth. And which by the way, we continue to steal by all the artificial constraints State and Federal governments put around Native Title determinations when the graceful thing to do after the Mabo judgement would have been to declare all Crown land Indigenous and to negotiate with the traditional owners using that as the starting point.

This blog was started to investigate notions of Australianness, so I would say that, but look at who is prominent in Aust.Lit today and what books are receiving the most attention. None is about the failure of the welfare state or the casualization of work or the disappearance of free education or the obscene wealth of the very rich, and very few are about climate change. It is a subject for another post, the question of which writers at the height of their powers today, clearly stand head and shoulders above their fellows, but I would suggest three names, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright and Chris Tsialkos, and two of those are Indigenous and the third, Tsialkos is concerned to investigate Australianness from his own non-Anglo, non-straight background.

Taboo (2017) is both personal for Kim Scott and political. Personal in that it is a continuation of his exploration of his roots as a Wirlomin Noongar man, a sequel to the story he began telling in Benang (1999), and political in that he uses the return of the Wirlomin to the site of the Cocanarup Massacre and the reaction of the current (fictionalised) owners of Kocanarup Station as a metaphor for how whites of good intentions everywhere struggle to recognise the depth of the ongoing harm that they are party to.


Noongar: those Indigenous people whose country is all the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance).

Wirlomin: the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Noongar. Their country is centred on the present-day towns of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

For maps of Australian Indigenous language groups see the ‘Aboriginal Australia’ page above (or here). The AIATSIS map labels the Wirlomin region as ‘Minang’.


And finally, that cover. I have no religion, nor any thoughts about spiritualism or life after death, and I hope that when I am dead my body is rendered into compost. But that doesn’t mean that I think images of dead people should be used as decorations on book covers. And given the enormous efforts of Indigenous people over a long period to have the bones of their ancestors returned from museums and given a proper burial, I think it is doubly inappropriate that a skull should be used in this way an the cover of this book.

In fact, despite my great age and years of long-distance truck driving, I have not only never seen a dead person, I avoid seeing people killed on film or television (I certainly don’t find it entertaining!), and have never been the first or even an early attender at a traffic accident, except of course the ones I’ve been in myself. Which is by way of a lead in to the first (and last) scene in the book: a truck loaded with grain loses its brakes at the top of the short steep hill at the eastern end of Ravensthorpe’s main street, gathers speed, missing pedestrians and cars, looks headed towards the roadhouse at the bottom of the hill before veering to the right, towards the creek where, “slowed at last by deep, coarse sand”, it falls slowly onto its side. And as grain pours from the beached tipper trailer, there appears gradually … “Something like a skeleton, but not of bone. At least, not only bone. The limbs are timber. The skull is timber too, dark and burnished, and ivory dentures …”

Except here Ravensthorpe is called Kepalup (in Benang it was Gebalup), Hopetoun 30 km south on the coast is Hopetown and Albany, the main regional centre, 300 km west along the WA south coast, is King George Town (as it was in That Deadman Dance). Other nearby towns, Esperance and Lake Grace for example, keep their names and Perth is just the City. Kocanarup is now owned by the overtly Christian Hortons – Dan, a widower and his brother Malcolm. In the 1880s, at the time of the massacre, it was owned by the Dunns (Dones in Benang).

Dan Horton’s late wife Janet had been a prime mover in the establishment of a ‘Peace Park’ at Kepalup (which may stand in for the Kukenarup Memorial which overlooks Cocanarup Station, 15 km west of Ravensthorpe). A party of Wirlomin, mostly elderly, mostly from King George Town, camp at the Hopetown caravan park by the sea for a retreat, for some of them to dry out, to prepare for the official opening of the Peace Park.

Tilly, the central character is a student at a private girls school in Perth, on scholarship. She is the daughter of a white mother and a Wirlomin father, Jim who has recently died in jail where he had been leading the revival of Wirlomin language and culture. As a baby, till reclaimed by her mother, she was the foster daughter of Dan and Janet Horton.

Tilly comes down on the bus to Lake Grace where she is met by her father’s cousins, twins Gerald and Gerrard Coolman – descendants of the Coolamons of Benang – one who had been in jail with her father and is now dry and a leader of the Wirlomin revival and one who is not, and they continue on to Kokanarup, to meet Dan Horton and to walk around the vaguely defined sites of the massacre up till now treated as taboo. After a night as guests at the Station they go on down to Hopetown and meet up with the others for the retreat.

All the people are carefully, lovingly even described and we get to know them as they tentatively reclaim the language that was forbidden to them when the older ones were sent away “to the mission” as children, and nearly lost, and as they slowly reclaim the springs and creeks and hills and stones of the massacre site. And so Tilly, by upbringing and education a stranger but still a loved family member, learns the words and sites of her people as Scott must have done too when he began the long journey whose beginning is described in Kayang and Me.

For a while, the middle section of the book, we go back. Tilly starts seeing her father, dying in jail, runs away from her mother, gets in harm’s way, is rescued. A malign presence, a large white man, is in her life, in her nightmares, in the lives of many of the people. And in the third, final section he’s in Kepalup.

Benang, in particular, was a poetic work. Taboo is much more plainly written, but that is also its power.

 

Kim Scott, Taboo, Picador, Sydney, 2017

see also:
The Cocanarup Massacre, my post based on Kim Scott’s source material (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review of Taboo (here)
My reviews of Kim Scott’s earlier works –
True Country, 1993 (here)
Benang, 1999 (here)
Kayang and Me, 2005 (here)
That Deadman Dance, 2010 (here)

Drawing Sybylla,Odette Kelada

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Odette Kelada is a lecturer in creative writing, with a PhD in literature researching the lives of Australian women writers. Drawing Sybylla, winner of the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, quite obviously draws on Kelada’s background teaching post-modern writing and on her researches.

‘Sybylla’ of course references the heroines of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, two young women with the same name, one the author of a mock autobiography of the other, each mistaken for the other and for Miles; but Sybylla is also from the “Greek Σιβυλλα (Sibylla), meaning prophetess, sibyl. In Greek and Roman legend the sibyls were ten female prophets who practiced at different holy sites in the ancient world.”

Sibyl Jones stands on stage reading from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) a short story in which the writer, forced to remain in her bedroom, descends into psychosis and imagines herself and other women to be trapped inside the patterns of the wallpaper. The I of Drawing Sybylla is seated on the stage behind Sibyl Jones, drawing:

I pick up my pen and dribble ink onto the page. Flowers grow either side of the red margin. Monstrous petals with goblin faces leer from the middle of them.

From her random scribblings and leaking pen Sybil’s face emerges – “Now the figure I have drawn peers out from the ropes of vines” – names herself Sybylla, takes us on a journey through time. “I have landed in a red country, red dirt, the land of girt by sea, a great island between Asia and the Arctic (sic). Gold rays of a hot sun burns the eyes.”

Lucy, 1901. We become a young woman with a strict mother, brighter than her brothers but not permitted to share their tutor, scribbling at night on scraps of paper, contemptuous of women romance writers, “I’m going to write about my own country for a start … I’m going to write about the bush like Lawson and Joseph Furphy.”

[Lucy is a Miles Franklin figure, although younger, and this is, deliberately of course, set in the year of the publication of My Brilliant Career, but Kelada is wrong to go along with the characterisation of C19th Australian women writers as ‘Anglo-Australians’ and writers of mere romance.]

Sybylla leads us on:

‘Did you like Lucy? In walking through the gaps between the words of The Yellow Wallpaper, we have crept behind the pattern. Lucy is only the first of the women we must meet who have been lost inside it.’

Vera 1929. A young woman, a poet in Sydney Bohemia, in a cafe on the night of the Artists’ Ball shows Jack a poem she has written. Jack asks, “Are you going to be topless, Vera?”.

[I don’t recognise ‘Vera’, apparently the daughter of poet and alcoholic Christopher Brennan. I have read that women could only enter the Sydney art scene at this time by offering their bodies to the men. Jack “down from Brisbane” is probably Jack Lindsay (son of Norman).]

Layers upon layers. Sybil on stage reading The Yellow Wallpaper. Sybylla her ‘shadow’ leading us behind the wallpaper. We travel with her through land and sea. Peer into the water for the stories of women writers.

Stella 1932. A history teacher in her mid thirties is given cause to reflect on Captain Cook’s reception when he raised the Union Jack at Botany Bay. She asks the school’s indigenous charwoman who of course does not know. At home she must care for her aged parents, Father home from the Great War, only able to write late at night, and getting letters from ‘Nettie’.

[‘Stella’ refers to Miles Franklin, but also to Marjorie Barnard who I think also had the care of her parents. To confuse us, Kelada brings in Flora [Eldershaw] as a sister. Dates are all over the place, so: Miles was 53 in 1932 (Barnard was 35) and ‘Father’ would have to have been over 40 in 1914. And so on. Jack Lindsay, above, was in London in 1929. But the author is having fun with these constructs, while making her case about the difficulties facing women writers.]

We move on. “We are passing through a dark time. The Depression is over but the war has started. Nothing can touch us here. It is beyond the horizon.”

Eve 1954. A caricature of (American) middle class life, dinner parties and martinis, incongruous in Australia. A wife and mother whose ‘scribblings’ interfere with her wifely duties, whose husband controls her drinking, but still she is led astray by ‘Judith’, her muse.

[I have no idea who this might be, though I think Kelada has seen too much American TV. Australian middle class life in the 1950s was much poorer, even for doctors’ wives].

Sybylla pushes a little girl on a swing, high into the sky. When we see her again she is …

Susanne 1979. Susanne is a good Catholic girl who goes up to uni with a bursary to study teaching, moves to Arts, falls into the women’s movement, has unhappy experiences with men, takes a woman lover, goes down to Melbourne to stage a play at La Mama.

[Susanne is everywoman. All the men she meets are 1950s stereotypes. I know when I started this blog I wrote I am not a feminist, but that’s only because I believe socialism means equality for everyone. After the 60s guys were trying as hard as their girlfriends to do sex right. Any woman who thought she should “lie back and think of England” wasn’t being fair to herself or to her partner.]

The journey has been hazardous to say the least. I hope they are out, those women – Lucy, Vera, Stella, Ruby, Eve … Susie. I hope they feel the fresh air on their skin and breathe in their freedom.

I have a theory about lecturers in Creative Writing who write novels, and that is that they try too hard to be  post modern, stories within stories predictably leaking into each other. But Kelada has a lighter touch, is playful as well as purposeful.  And if at times I felt I was the dart board in a game of darts, still it was a book I enjoyed reading (and decoding).

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Wikipedia

Odette Kelada, Drawing Sybylla, UWAP, Perth, 2017

See also: Theresa Smith, whose review (here) led me to this book, and her interview with the author (here) which as you will see in the comments, I had overlooked.