The Spare Room, Helen Garner

220px-Spare_room_cover.JPG

The Spare Room is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is coincidental.” Except of course that this is an almost journalistic account of Helen Garner’s nursing of her friend, Jenya Osborne (Wiki), Nicola in this ‘novel’, who is dying of cancer.

Peter Carey, for the back cover blurb, calls this “A PERFECT NOVEL, imbued with all Garner’s usual clear-eyed grace …”. But Robert Dessaix writes in his review, “[Garner’s works] are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. ”

Let Garner have the last word, “She doesn’t want to define fiction, and the notion that it should be entirely made up is, of course, absurd.” [Interview in The Age, 29 Mar. 2008]

Garner, and her protagonist ‘Helen’, were about 60 when The Spare Room was written, living in an inner-northern Melbourne suburb within walking distance of the Broadmeadows train line, with her daughter’s family next door, when she accepted a request from an old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks while she underwent a course of ‘alternative’ therapy for her terminal cancer.

Before Nicola arrives Helen discusses her with her therapist friend, Leo:

‘You work with cancer patients,’ I said. ‘Does this sound bad?’
He shrugged. ‘Pretty bad. Stage four.’
‘How many stages are there?’
‘Four’
[…]
‘Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.’
‘What one?’
‘The one to tell her she’s going to die.’

In Sydney, Nicola, an old hippy, has a house on the northern beaches accessible only by dinghy and a long clamber up from the beach. This involves an effort which for some time she has been too weak to make and so she has been staying with her niece and the niece’s boyfriend, Iris and Gab, in their one-bedroom flat closer to the city. Unbeknownst to Nicola, Helen and Iris have been discussing her via email.

The treatment that Nicola has chosen involves injections of huge doses of Vitamin C which incapacitate her and leave her in tremendous pain, which she attempts to deal with, initially at least, with aspirin, though Helen quickly gets her to a real doctor and a prescription for proper pain killers.

Garner’s writing is spare and to the point. For three weeks she takes us through the day to day struggle of getting Nicola to appointments; of edging her back to conventional medicine; of the sleepless nights spent removing and replacing bedding soaked with night sweats; Helen’s own life and work, even her relationship with her granddaughter, on hold for the duration.

The heart of this story is not the failure of alternative therapy; not the huge workload imposed on Helen, the long nights, the hours spent ferrying Nicola to and from appointments; nor even Nicola’s refusal to give up on alternative therapy in the face of all evidence to the contrary; but of Helen dealing with her anger – her anger with the venal and incompetent alternative therapists, with Nicola’s rictus of a smile in denial of her punishing pain, but most of all, with Nicola’s refusal to face up to her impending death.

Yet through it all, Helen maintains her love for Nicola and remains committed to caring for her for the whole three weeks. I don’t think Helen is ever angry at Nicola for asking this of her and I certainly don’t think she begins to hate her, although this was the impression I retained from listening to all those Radio National discussions of The Spare Room back in 2008.

Iris and Gab come for a short stay and they encourage Helen to confront Nicola with her anger:

The last of my self-control gave way.
‘Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.’
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backwards, gaping at me. ‘Why are you so angry?’
‘This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.’
[…]
‘Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared,’ I shouted. ‘You’re angry and scared. But you won’t admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade, so you dump your shit on me. I’m sick with it. I can’t breathe.’

Nicola gets a new diagnosis which means an operation and then recuperation in Melbourne but Helen cannot face even one more day beyond the 21 requested. In a final chapter Garner fills us in on Nicola’s final weeks – she has the operation and recuperates in the Windsor Hotel (a fine old hotel and a Melbourne icon) with carers flown down from Sydney, then Helen flies to Sydney to join the women in Iris’s apartment seeing Nicola through to the end.

As seemingly with all Garner’s work, this is a story about Garner, about Garner’s reaction to the stress of having sole care of a dying, loved friend. We know this is the third time she has had to do this, first for her sister, then her mother, so perhaps its about her reaction to them dying too, despite her care for them. Garner’s utter honesty about her own reactions make The Spare Room unputdownable.

 

Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Robert Dessaix’s review in The Monthly (here)
Jason Steger, The Age, Melbourne, 29 Mar 2008, Interview: It’s fiction and that’s a fact, (here)

Michelle at Adventures in Biography is a Garner fan and has posts on Garner’s This House of Grief (here and here)
Sue at Whispering Gums must be a fan too. A list of her Garner posts (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here)
My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel (here)

Advertisements

An Australian Trump

Donald Trump
photo released by US Embassy, Venezuela (here)

This is, or is meant to be, a blog about representations of Australianness, so I was intrigued to see in yesterday morning’s (Mon 28 Aug. 17) Crikey roundup:

Why Germany will never have a Trump (Der Spiegel): “Who could emerge as a German Trump? There are no men like him in the German political world, nor are they prevalent in other areas of German life either. This aggressive, primitive archetype is no longer accepted here. The American masculinity myth stretches back to the cowboy, while the German equivalent is rooted in the soldier — and the latter died in World War II.”

Like the American cowboy, the Australian Legend has its roots in the myth of the Noble Frontiersman – a simple, honest man living in and conquering nature – while I guess the author is saying that the German equivalent is derived from the ideal Prussian officer. But what is the connection between “masculinity myths” and elections? And are we as equally likely as the Americans to elect a Trump?

Here is the central question of the essay: “Why does the U.S. — the political, moral and military leader of the Western world since the end of World War II — now have a dangerous laughing stock, a man who has isolated his country, as its president? Why does Germany, a former pariah, now enjoy a more positive political standing than ever before?”

The author’s thesis is that since Hitler and since the Holocaust, Germans have been frightened by what they were capable of, and have made a conscious effort to be both moral and conservative – ie. slow to change.

In the U.S., the individual may prevail, but in German politics it is the system that rules. This means that the circumstances in Washington change more starkly depending on who is in office. The governing system in Germany is more stable, uniform and enduring.

Before Trump, America and Germany both had mostly centre-right governments and were both run by competent career politicians. However, though the author doesn’t say so, Trump did have precursors in Ronald Regan and George W Bush. Regan was best known for being an actor and Dubya was a cipher. Both were fronts for competent, if seriously right wing cabinets. (It is my theory that much of the present incivility in politics arises from right wing anger at and retaliation for the general derision that Dubya attracted). The Der Spiegel essay attempts to analyse what it is about America that made Trump possible, and I will attempt to do the same for Australia.

Dreams: In Hollywood anything is possible and Regan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trump himself, best known to Americans as a reality tv star, demonstrate that there is only a low bar to crossing over into ‘real life’. Germans take themselves more seriously.

Salvation: Right back to the Mayflower Americans have believed that the One will come, to save them. Hitler makes this belief impossible for modern Germans.

Freaks: The US primaries offer aspiring politicians the chance to appeal direct to the public; an opportunity that does not exist to the same extent in the party systems of Germany and Australia.

Media: There is no German equivalent to Fox News, not even the right wing Axel Springer Group which is constrained by its constitution. Australia’s nearest equivalent is the poorly watched Sky TV and the (Murdoch owned) tabloid newspapers. This difference may decline in importance as consumers follow more targeted news sources on the internet.

Business: Germans see themselves as engineers, Americans as entrepreneurs. Trump the property speculator would not be so admired in Germany. In Australia? – I give you Alan Bond.

Change: The US four year cycle offers opportunities for radical discontinuities in policy. Germans prize continuity. The Australian system, which is much closer to the German than the US, nevertheless has the American tendency for severe directional changes, eg. from Whitlam to Fraser or from Rudd to Abbott, which implies that the difference is cultural rather than systemic.

Class: Germany does not have the enormous divide between liberal, educated, metropolitan elites and the red-necks of the mid-west and the south which characterises the US. Red necks have more opportunities to influence policy in America (and Australia) than they do in Germany. The author does not discuss the significant underclasses in both countries.

Egotism: America believes that it has a duty to lead the world. Americans react inconsistently when their leadership is challenged. Germany also has a leadership role, but its history leads it to work through consensus.

Morality: Americans are moralistic but Germans are moral, arising of course out of their guilt for the Holocaust, and demonstrated most recently in their enormous intake of refugees.

Dynamism: The Americans have a huge appetite for reinvention which the Germans lack and which the author regrets: “our nation of splendorous boredom isn’t particularly well-equipped for the future.”

This is an interesting essay. The author investigates how the way Americans and Germans see themselves influences the sort of government they choose, though without really addressing the issue of cowboys vs (ex-) soldiers. As for Australia – I would say our stolid, suburban middle classes have far more influence than any image of ourselves as independent, larrikin bushmen, and that the outliers – Latham, Abbott – thrown up from time to time by our party system are evidence of the influence of extremists within the factions, rather than of weirdness in the electorate.

So, are we as equally likely as the Americans to elect a Trump? Of course the answer is Yes. Leaving aside Pauline Hanson who is only a minor irritant despite often being mentioned in this context, and taking into account the differences in our political systems, there is no doubt that the 2013 election of a leadership team headed by Tony Abbott and containing Barnaby Joyce, Joe Hockey, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Kevin Andrews, George Brandis … contained all the elements – narcissism, clownishness and incompetence – to qualify.

images.jpg
photo Independent Australia (here)

Dirk Kurbjuweit, A Tale of Two Countries: Why there won’t be a German Trump, Der Spiegel Online, 23 Aug. 2017

The World Today, ABC, Mon. 28 Aug. 2017, contained an interview with the editor of Der Spiegel re this essay (here)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Light Between the Oceans, M.L. Stedman

1334422800000.jpg

Let’s get one thing clear right at the beginning. I found this popular novel turgid and melodramatic. Towards the end of its interminable 10 hours on audiobook I started skipping instead of listening one more time to how unhappy the two mother/protagonists were, and to all the plainly silly plot devices keeping them and the child in close proximity to one another.

Still with me? A brave soldier (officer) returned from the Great War joins the lighthouse service and is assigned to a light on remote Janus Island off the southwest corner of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, hence the title. The officer, Tom Sherbourne, meets and marries a local girl, Isobel, and takes her to live on the island. Shortly after her third miscarriage, a dinghy is cast up on the island carrying a dead man and a live baby girl, a few weeks old. Rather than report this discovery Tom is persuaded by Isobel to keep the baby and for them to raise her as their own.

Spoilers. Only after two years does it become apparent that the baby is in fact that of another local woman, Hannah. And it is another two years after that before Hannah is made aware that her daughter is still alive. Tom is arrested. The baby, now old enough to have her own opinions, is returned to Hannah, who for some reason doesn’t go and live in Perth or Sydney or London, anywhere the child might adjust to her new situation in peace, but stays on instead in the small town where she and her daughter must inevitably run into Isobel. This drags on for hours seemingly while a case is made out against Tom, who has assumed all the blame, until at last some sort of resolution is achieved.

It seems to me that maybe 40 years ago it became fashionable (in Australia) to write about the First World War as an unmitigated horror – which it was – and to discuss soldiers returned from that war as damaged, traumatised. Two books stand out in that regard, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982) which rapidly became the standard ‘text’ on war in schools, and 1915 (1979) by Roger Macdonald. In retrospect I believe these books and the many that followed, including the Light Between the Oceans, were and are code for providing a path towards acceptance for soldiers returned from the illegal and unnecessary Vietnam War, and for understanding what we now call PTSD.

Stedman employs the familiar, indeed worn-out trope of the strong, silent returned soldier unable to speak the horrors he has seen, for Tom, in contrast with Isobel’s once free spirit descending further into despair with each successive miscarriage, to provide a background for their flawed decision making. Whether this essay on moral relativism needed to be set in a work of historical fiction is a moot point. I certainly don’t think Stedman contributes anything new to our understanding of 1920s Western Australia, or to take a wider view, to our understanding of post WWI Australia.

And if you as readers want to know more about children separated from their mothers then maybe you could try Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review), or one of the many other Indigenous accounts of the Stolen Generations. Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their homes and put into institutions and then into service, and to get worked up about one imaginary white child is both an indulgence and insulting. And no, I haven’t forgotten about all the children removed from teenage single mothers right up to the 1960s.

If you’re interested in the setting, there is no Janus Island and indeed, as far as I know, no islands at all 100 miles (160 km) off the southwest coast. The coastal township of the story, Port Partageuse appears to be a composite of the town of Augusta, nearby Cape Leeuwin, which does have a lighthouse (#4 on map), and Point D’Entrecasteaux which is a bit further south.

The Light Between the Oceans has its good points. The characterisations, particularly of Tom and Isobel, are excellent and if the author had decided they should have kept the child, I would have sympathised, instead of running out of patience with them is I eventually did. The descriptions of the rugged island and later of the West Australian bush are also excellent. This is Stedman’s first novel and I would not be surprised to learn it was the product of a creative writing degree – passages of good descriptive writing around an immature plot.

 

M.L. Stedman, The Light Between the Oceans, Random House, Melbourne, 2012. Audio version: AudioGo, 2012, read by Noah Taylor (10 hrs 20 min)

For a contrasting view try Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest likes it despite its faults (here)

Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett

20621185.jpg

This is probably the only ‘poem’ I’ll ever write:

Leonards Hill
Underbool
Bonnie Doon
Inverloch
Leongatha
Murrayville
Macarthur
Blackburn South
Colac

The homes of my childhood, Victorian country towns – except for Blackie Sth, a suburb of Melbourne, now leafy, then new red brick and tile. For my father, markers of his progress through the teaching service and into the bureaucracy. For me, constant changes of school, 5 years, 3 years, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, dux of class, class captain, move, repeat, till in 1968 I matriculated with 3 first class honours, a fail in English and a bare pass in Calculus, with a pregnant girlfriend, and an insufficient grounding in mathematics, already heading for a life in trucks, away from supervision and away from people.

This is a book about sons and fathers, and it has set me off. I had a childhood like the boys in this book, church on Sundays, school on weekdays, but otherwise, from the age of six or seven, free to jump on my bike, head off to a mate’s house, or out into the paddocks, to a game of tennis or to swim in the river or at the pool. Mum home cooking, Dad sober. An idyllic childhood. And it makes me angry. I know fathers who came home drunk, fathers who beat their children, fathers whose behaviour in relation to their daughters, and sometimes their sons, was unspeakable. And still I’m angry, about the friends I didn’t keep, about the father I didn’t have, about the second-rate teaching I got at Colac High so he could be District Inspector.

Golden Boys is set in a suburban neighbourhood in an unnamed city in an unspecified year. A middle class suburb of mixed weatherboard and red brick houses. It feels like (Melbourne suburbs) North Blackburn or Clayton or Reservoir in the 1980s with cheaply constructed post-war housing and young families, but it could be anywhere. Strangely, though it’s November it’s too cold for swimming, so maybe it’s Hobart. Everywhere I lived, before heated pools, swimming started at the end of the September school holidays.

The principal actors are Freya, Declan and Sydney Kiley, aged 12, 11, 10; Colt and Bastian Jenson, aged 12 and 9; and two boys from broken or damaged families Avery and Garrick aged 11. And that’s the other problem, two problems really, I have with this story. The boys all knock around together. My brothers are 2, 5 and 7 years younger than me and I would have had to be really desperate to play with even the nearest. At different times Freya and Colt are the same age, then Declan, Syd and Colt are, then Syd and Bastian (who’s a bit of a baby), or Avery and Bastian and so on. It doesn’t ring true.

Spoilers. Which takes us to the second problem. The central focus of this novel is that Rex Jenson buys Colt and Bastian flash toys, a roomful of flash toys, and a swimming pool, in order to entice other boys into his house where he can molest them. Or at least his behaviour can be construed that way, and we are given plenty of hints that he has moved to this neighbourhood because he had to leave his previous one. The secondary focus is on Joe Kiley who comes home drunk on payday and is getting increasingly violent towards his wife and children (there are 3 or 4 more younger ones I haven’t named). Hartnett insists Golden Boys is an adult novel, not YA, but it doesn’t read that way. The POV we get is the kids’, not their parents, and even if it’s not suitable for 12 year olds, the novel appears to me best aimed at, say, 16 year olds.

The Jensons have just moved in. Colt and Declan get on ok and (father) Rex makes clear that all the boys are welcome, not just to knock around on their bikes, but to come in, use the toys, get something to eat.

Declan from early on is uneasy about Jenson’s behaviour, worried that Syd is gravitating towards the toys and more particularly the pool, where Jenson can towel him down, tuck his clothes in. Avery, a parentless boy, almost a street kid, keeps his distance and surprisingly it is the rough boy, Garrick, who is first to complain. He has to tell someone and he tells Declan and Syd:

Without looking at them he says, ‘He wasn’t naked,’ and adds swiftly, ‘Neither was I. he didn’t make me touch his toggle -’

Then he tells them the full story, of him and Avery having a swim in the Jenson’s backyard pool in the evening, with Rex looking on “Making his stupid comments”. Then Avery slips away and Garrick is caught:

‘… he grabs me and, really quick, he tucks my shirt into my jeans. He sticks his finger down the back of my jeans, stuffing my shirt in… He cops a feel of my arse, Declan!’

So Colt finds himself friendless. Again.

There’s other stuff going on. We never completely lose sight of Freya, who persuades herself she’s responsible for her parents’ failing marriage. She also develops a crush on Rex Jenson, and turns to him for help when her father’s violence gets out of control. Rex intervenes, Joe fights back by accusing him: “You’ve been touching my kids”. Rex shrugs it off and that would seem to be that.

Golden Boys is an odd book, dealing with important issues, and Hartnett, as you no doubt know and I had to look up, is an experienced and much awarded author, but I think she got the tone of this one wrong. For adults it should have been much darker, and for YAs it should have been clearer about what they could do. At the end, even if he has to move again, Rex Jenson seems to have not suffered at all.

 

Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys, Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 2014. Audio version, Bolinda Books, 2015, read by David Vatousios

Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

9781441729781-us.jpg

There are some writers I really, really dislike, and I don’t mean just Colleen McCullough whose ambition (and sales) far exceeded her talent, but writers of real ability who let me down. First of these is Clive James, a man of prodigious intellect who chose to be a clown, and if you’ve seen his old shows about Japanese ‘reality’ television, a not even very funny clown and probably a racist to boot. Next, and more relevantly is Peter Carey, a very good writer, maybe even the best Australian writer of his generation, who wanted to be a World writer and got lost. There are others, Geraldine Brooks first among them, but let’s leave it at that.*

There was a time when I was a Peter Carey fan, The Tax Inspector is a novel I still like, and not-then-ex-Mrs Legend spent a great deal of our housekeeping budget to buy me Oscar and Lucinda in hardback as soon as it came out, but Peter discovered Magic Realism, thought after the international success of O & L that he was the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moved to Manhattan to mix it with the big boys, and Booker prizes notwithstanding started to write shit pretentious nonsense.

The Carey novels which are re-hashes of old stories – Jack Maggs, Ned Kelly, and in Parrot & Olivier, Alexis de Tocqueville – are not even good (ie. accurate) history, or illustrative of current situations, just stuff he’s made up and stuck on the bare bones of someone else’s story. I think Carey struggles to come up with plots, he certainly has difficulty fleshing out his characters, in developing protagonists the reader can identify with, and his women… they are very nearly non-existent. One reviewer wrote that each sentence is perfectly crafted, which is probably true, they just don’t make up a cohesive whole.

De Tocqueville (1805-1859) survived various iterations of French Revolution, Restoration and Napoleonism and in 1835 after touring the United States ostensibly to report on penal reform for the French government, came up with Democracy in America, a seminal study of American society and the evolution of democracy. Carey uses de Tocqueville as the basis for his Olivier character – Olivier de Garmont – the spoiled child of an aristocratic family, his grandfather beheaded in the Terror, his parents remote and preoccupied.

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.

Parrot is about 20 years older than Olivier, working class English, his father a journeyman printer who is hanged when Parrot is 12 for his part in forging French banknotes after which Parrot ends up in New South Wales, in a token nod to Carey’s origins, from whence he is ‘rescued’ by Tilbot, a one-armed, French Baron of no fortune, who seemingly lives on his connections to the surviving aristocracy.

The story is told in alternating sections by the two men, who describe over the course of the novel, both their times together and episodes from their childhoods. They are brought together by Tilbot who is a friend of Olivier’s mother. Olivier who has studied to be a lawyer is to be sent to America to report on prison systems. Parrot is to be his secretary and Tilbot’s informant.

We learn that Parrot is living in Paris with Mathilde, a painter, and that he has left behind in New South Wales a wife and son. Parrot persuades Tilbot to allow Mathilde and her mother to accompany him on the ship to New York. Carey enjoys himself describing the familiar streets of his new home town as muddy tracks, infested with pigs, the outer suburbs just paddocks dissected by lanes. Many of the characters too are larger than life, ‘Dickensian’ in many reviews, colourfully drawn but with little insight into their characters.

On board ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the wind blowing from the arses of New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theatre Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks …

Mathilde and her painting are the focus of Parrot’s life in America, but Carey tends to describe scenes and events rather than people, and we learn little about her, though a lot about her painting. Olivier moves around New England, staying at the country homes of his various backers, marriage material for ambitious daughters eyeing a French title, until eventually he selects a bland, blonde girl and makes his awkward advances.

The strength of the novel is the tension between varying accounts of the same events by the two protagonists. The weakness of the novel, apart from its rambling plot, is that when the two are apart as they are for most of the second half, that tension is lost. Parrot & Olivier in America is not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.

 

Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America, Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2009. Audio version, Blackstone Audio, 2010, read by Humphrey Bower (17 1/2 hours)

The Guardian has a review by Ursula La Guin, so if you want a sensible, informed and literate opinion here’s the link.


*Kate W has suggested I make a list. I’m thinking about ‘Ten Writers I Really Dislike’, but I’d better offer at least partial justifications so it might take me a couple of weeks.

Like Nothing on this Earth, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

9781742589244.jpg

Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (2017) is a sizeable book, almost 600pp, covering the history of a small part of Western Australia with a current population of maybe 100,000, depending which provincial cities are included. I have already referred to it – in fact that was my reason for spending fifty bucks to buy it – in my posts on Jack Davis (here and here) and will do so again when, hopefully soon, I get to Dorothy Hewett. So this is not so much a review as an introduction.

Hughes-D’Aeth writes that when he first saw a satellite image of WA he was struck “by the sharp line that ringed Perth to the north and east, stretching roughly from Geraldton to Esperance and marking out an area most West Australians know as the wheatbelt.” This line, known as the clearing line, “follows the rabbit-proof fence which also marks (more or less) the minimum rainfall threshold, the 10-inch line … below which cropping is unsustainable.” It also nearly coincides with the outer edge of Noongar country, the home of the Indigenous peoples of the South-West.

Outside the line is semi-arid scrub and the remnants of the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest remaining temperate forest, on the in side is sandy farmland, degraded to within an inch of its life and criss-crossed with salt pans. The wheatbelt’s other boundary is a line from north of Perth south to Albany, excluding the Darling Escarpment, Perth and the high rainfall, heavily forested south-west corner. I know the wheatbelt well as I drive through it 3 or 4 times a week, I spent all my school holidays on wheat farms (in Victoria), and in earlier years I delivered farm machinery into WA and spent a season carting grain, including from Nomans Lake where Albert Facey ended up (map).

This book traces the creation of the Western Australian wheatbelt during the course of the twentieth century by considering the creative writing of those who lived in the wheatbelt at various points in their lives and then wrote about that experience.

The eleven authors covered, who get a chapter each, are:

Albert Facey (1894-1982)

Cyril E. Goode (1907-83)

James Pollard (1900-71)

John Keith Ewers (1904-78)

Peter Cowan (1914-2002)

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002)

Jack Davis (1917-2000)

Barbara York Main (1929- )

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007)

Tom Flood (1955- )

John Kinsella (1963- )

Of these I have read Facey, famous of course for his ‘primitive’ memoir, A Fortunate Life, bits of Hewett, Davis, and Jolley and I really must get to Kinsella. Notable by his absence is Kim Scott, whose home country (see Kayang and Me), around Ravensthorpe, west of Esperance, was opened up to cropping after WWII, though the author mentions him briefly in the Introduction. The others I not only haven’t read, I haven’t heard of, so I have some reading to do.

The author does however discuss at some length two other important authors he has excluded: Randolph Stow (1935-2010) grew up on farms around Geraldton, but in his writing focussed on larger properties, ‘stations’. “Crops are a distant background , and one sees no evidence of the ideology of wheat.” KS Prichard (1883-1969) is more difficult again. Hugo Throssell had taken up land at Cowcowing before the war, and on returning home he married Prichard and took her there for two years before she could stand it no longer. She does not mention this in her autobiography or in any of her novels. Only in the short story “Christmas Tree”, included in the collection Potch and Colour (1944) does she tell the story of a woman “looking over her farm for the last time, as the bank has called in their mortgage”. (Nathan Hobby’s review here. In looking this up I see that Hughes-d’Aeth is Nathan’s PhD supervisor.)

Elizabeth Jolley did not in fact live in the wheatbelt, though The Well is set on a wheat farm near York or Brookton, just over the Ranges from Perth, the location also, a century earlier when land clearing had just started, for The Boy in the Bush by DH Lawrence and Mollie Skinner. Two other well-known books not included are The Fringe Dwellers, Nene Gare, which is not about farming, but Mr Comeaway’s work on the Geraldton wharves would have been mostly lumping bagged wheat; and Xavier Herbert’s  memoir of growing up in the wheatbelt, Disturbing Element.

In his Preface Hughes-d’Aeth says that the ‘event’ of the creation of the wheatbelt was also the destruction of “a vast territory of native wilderness with a bio-diversity almost without equal on the planet.” Total land cleared up to 1970 was 200,000 square kilometres (by comparison, the landmass of Britain is only 230,000 square kilometres). He then says something that I have often thought and even sometimes argued (here for instance):

I have gradually come to realise the particular value of creative writing as a document of record.

Hughes-d’Aeth touches on another subject I have discussed elsewhere, the contrast between farming and the outback pursuits of the mythical Australian. In the poems and stories of the 1890s “we find bushrangers and drovers, boundary riders and billabongs, shearers and prospectors. We do not find many stories or songs about people farming grain.” These are the rival ‘legends’, of the independent bushman on one hand and the pioneer, stay-at-home man with his wife and kids, on the other, working to scratch a living out of a bit of dirt.

Though as wheat farming grew in importance, Banjo Paterson at least changed his tune:

We have sung the song of the droving days,
Of the march of the travelling sheep –
How by silent stages and lonely ways
Thin, white battalions creep.
But the man who now by the soil would thrive
Must his spurs to a ploughshare beat:
And the bush bard, changing his tune, may strive
To sing the song of the Wheat!
(Song of the Wheat, 1914)

In his Epilogue: The Wheatbelt in Deep Time, Hughes-d’Aeth sets out the arguments justifying his methodology and adds, “There is no exact precedent in this country for what I have done in studying creative writing and the Western Australian wheatbelt, though I am by no means the first to draw a relationship between Australian literature and place.”

There are many, maybe 120, illustrations, although being included in the text they are of only photocopy quality, good endnotes (yes, I’m getting used to them) and a useful Index. While in places the writing has an academic feel, perhaps that is just Hughes-d’Aeth not treating us general readers as idiots.

Overall this book represents a fascinating approach to an area that is at once Western Australia’s economic heartland, outside of the mines at least, and a potential ecological tragedy. I am looking forward to reading and maybe even reporting on the individual chapters.

 

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2017

The Swan Book, Alexis Wright

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

18247932

Waanyi, Gulf of Carpentaria woman Alexis Wright (1950 – ) is older than I am, which is to say retirement age, but The Swan Book (2014) is only her third novel. Her second, Carpentaria (2006) won the Miles Franklin. I listened to it a few years ago, but didn’t like it, found it an uncomfortable combination of standard outback story-telling and magic realism. I commented on this after a Whispering Gums post and she, Sue got me started on Indigenous Lit, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance first-up, until now I have a much better idea of how Indig.Lit works – and the crossovers between spiritualism and magic realism in non-Western Lit generally – and anyway I think now I probably confused Wright with white Australian author Alex Miller, and that shaped my expectations.

The Swan Book is a great, swirling confusion of words that gradually coalesces into the story of Oblivia, an Aboriginal girl, mute after being raped, living in a coastal swamp in northern Australia, some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars.

Through this cyclone of words drift scraps of the local, Waanyi language, lines of old songs, phrases from books and poems about swans, sly digs at the language of Indigenous Affairs – ‘Intervention’, ‘Closing the Gap’.

Here are the elements from which we may construct a story: Oblivia’s people are the caretakers of country which includes a vast lake; the armed forces tow a flotilla of old and wrecked ships into the lake and abandon them there, to be used for target practice by the airforce; great dust storms close the channel to the sea and turn the lake to a swamp; Oblivia sleeps for decades in the bowels of an old eucalypt until she is rescued, still a young girl, by Bella Donna, an old refugee woman from Europe, and taken to live in a hulk in the middle of the lake; the army fence the lake, turn it into an internment camp, the better to protect the children.

An elder, a healer for the country arrives, a wululuku, “an Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage … a half caste, yellow fella, or mixed blood urban Aboriginal … Someone with special healing powers who travelled anywhere he was needed, just by thinking himself into a sick person’s mind”, the Harbour Master.

Bella Donna in her travels has seen all the types of swans, was led to safety by a white swan, swaps swan stories with the Harbour Master, carries books of swan stories which she reads to Oblivia. Black swans come up from the south and settle on the shores of the swamp.

The old man and woman daydreamed themselves into every swan image on earth, and off they went again. There they go – la, la, la, the wild girl Oblivia whinged under her breath, excluded from entering their world of knowledge.

The drought ends, the sand is blown away, the Harbour Master departs, Bella Donna dies, Oblivia lives on in the hulk. In a neighbouring community, the Brolga Nation, golden boy Warren Finch is being trained for leadership.

Twenty years later Warren is a modern Moses,  a saviour, deputy President of Australia, solving problems around the world:

He was the lost key. He was post-racial. Possibly even post-Indigenous. His sophistication had been far-flung and heaven sent. Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.

He comes to the swamp to claim Oblivia as his promised bride. They make a journey through the desert, escorted by bodyguards who are natural scientists, cataloguing wildlife – owls and snakes living on a plague of rodents. Warren in constant contact with the world through his mobile phone, until at last they leave behind their vehicle, leave behind the bodyguards, take a small plane from a remote outpost to a crumbling city on the coast.

Oblivia is dressed in borrowed finery – “The girl looked into an oval mirror and saw herself like golden syrup in a cream dress with the same colour arum lilies of the land of the owls” – nods in the right places, is declared married, stands off to one side at the reception as Warren circles through his hordes of admirers and benefactors, is led by Warren through filthy streets to a flat on the upper floor of an apartment block, where he leaves her.

The Harbour Master joins her. Food is left at her door. Over the years they see Warren, now President, on TV, accompanied by her, the promised bride. The swans find her again though many are injured swooping between the buildings, and she rescues them, keeps them safe in her flat.  I’ve already told you a lot, elements of story gleaned from torrents of words. I won’t tell you the ending, though it’s not a great shock.

As we have been with paintings, we are blessed to have been given this gift of literature derived from 50,000 years of oral tradition. Treasure Indigenous Lit. Treasure Alexis Wright, she is a great, great talent and we have had too little from her. I’m going back to re-read Carpentaria.

 

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Sydney, 2013

see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here)