Here I am at home, doing bugger all really for the past week or so, some reading, some writing, some business stuff. I’m due to be audited – for my accreditation as a WA transport business – on Friday, so I’d better get that organised. And yes, I’ve done the bulk of my xmas shopping, dragged Milly around Fremantle looking at book shops, rewarded myself with the second Elena Ferrante (years ago I gave a copy to Gee but never borrowed it back), and a hardback two-volume set of Frank Dalby Davidson’s The White Thorntree, one of the earliest Australian novels to tackle suburban life (strangely, from the man who wrote Man-Shy and Dusty).
For the AWWC this month I’ve reviewed Kylie Tennant’s relatively lightweight Ma Jones and the Little White Cannibals, which has been sitting on my shelves since my 70th birthday when B2 gave me a couple of first edition hardbacks which I should have read long since.
Ma Jones and the Little White Cannibals (1967) is a collection of linked stories in which three middle-age-ish women, Leonie, who is the narrator, Honoria Cheeme, and their matronly friend Ma Jones, solve “problems”. I have not read CK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories for many years, but that is what this collection puts me in mind of. Read on …
Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) “was an Australian playwright, poet and author, and a romantic feminist icon. In writing and in her life, Hewett was an experimenter. As her circumstances and beliefs changed, she progressed through different literary styles: modernism, socialist realism, expressionism and avant garde.” I liked that description from wiki, but I must say I would have had ‘Communist’ in between Australian and playwright, and I imagine she would have too.
It’s interesting how many writers of Hewett’s generation (AWW Gen 3, of course) were confirmed Communists, at least for a while, and how many since are just wishy-washy liberals.
Hewett was born in WA, on a prosperous wheat farm. Wiki doesn’t say where, but that it was “cleared by 15 year old Albert Facey” (for non-Australians, author of the hugely popular memoir A Fortunate Life) which I think puts it in the Narrogin region, south east of Perth. When she was 12 her parents moved to the city and Hewett went to PLC (Perth) and on to UWA.
In adulthood Hewett joined the CPA and with them went to the USSR, then under Stalin, and to early Communist China. The protagonist of The Toucher recalls being in a parade in Moscow, with Stalin waving from a balcony.
Hewett had a number of marriages and lived mostly in Perth – on attempting a return to education, she was expelled from Graylands Teachers College for having been married and divorced – till, when she was 50, she moved permanently to Sydney. While she was better known as a playwright and poet, she wrote three novels – Bobbin’ Up (1959) The Toucher (1993) Neap Tide (1999) and the first volume of her autobiography – Wild Card: an autobiography, 1923–1958 (1990)
In The Toucher the protagonist, Esther, like Hewett in her later years, is overweight and wheelchair bound, but she has retired to a large house on the ‘French’ River in south-west WA. This fictional location seems to be based on the Frankland River which enters the sea at Walpole, on the south coast, west of Albany (mentioned only obliquely, as “the safest harbour in Australia”).
She sat quite still in her wheelchair in the very centre of the house, the coastline spun out around her, the estuary with its great body of water sliding past to the sea. She had come back three years ago, pulling house, garden and river around her like a cocoon, imagining that one day she could emerge, remade into the outer air. But there had been no healing …
Esther had grown up in this part of the south west, in a hut in the karri (very tall eucalypts) forests where her father painted. Now she has returned, initially with a husband, but is soon a widow; finding herself and her father remembered; the same old fishing families still in their cottages; Maxie Crowe, the bad-boy love of her school days now a decrepit grandfather.
Her carers/housekeeper/handyman are (oldish) husband and wife Clarrie and Fred. Clarrie goes off to another country town to stay with her daughter, initially for the birth of a grandchild, but soon, it appears, indefinitely. Esther’s own children are variously ignoring her and living in other parts of the world.
Into the picture come, first the very young Iris, filling in for Clarrie, then Iris’s boyfriend: “‘Hello’, he said, ‘I’m Billy Crowe.’ They breed like flies, she thought.” Yes, he’s Maxie’s grandson, and just as much a bad boy, skilled at fishing and bushcraft and entirely uneducated.
‘I used to sit next to your grandfather in primary school. You’re a lot like him.’ ‘All us Crowes look alike. Can I borrow one of y’ books to take home, one y’ wrote y’self?’ ‘I don’t think you’d like them’ He bristled. ‘Why not?’ ‘I don’t think they’d be quite your cup of tea.’ ‘Because I’m too dumb. That’s what y’ think, isn’t it?’ ‘No, it’s not that.’ ‘Yes it is, but I’m not stupid. I can learn quick. I could find out a lot from y’ if you’d teach me.’ ‘What could I teach you?’ she said wearily. ‘Oh, I dunno, about books an’ life an’ that, but you’re too much of a snob, aren’t y’?’
She gives in, gives him some hours of work; lets him drive the Merc; employs him to type the ms of her latest novel, an autofiction of past loves and adulteries; lets him put her in the bath, as Iris watches on helplessly; and so begins a strange love affair, and eventually a murder mystery. Well written, in no style at all really, certainly no hint of the socialist realism of Bobbin’ Up, and some hints that Hewett, or her protagonist at least, is past all that.
For all you who loved Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, a wildly different look at one older woman’s desires and motivations.
Dorothy Hewett, The Toucher, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1993. 300pp
I should of course have written up my ‘namesake’ book years ago, though if you wished, if you had the fortitude, you might always have read my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, which is one of the pages above.
This book attempts to trace the historical origins and development of the Australian legend or national mystique. It argues that a specifically Australian outlook grew up first and most clearly among the bush workers in the Australian pastoral industry, and that this group has had an influence, completely disproportionate to its numerical and economic strength, on the attitudes of the whole Australian community.
The Australian Legend (1958) arose out of Ward’s PhD thesis, and it’s themes must have been ‘in the air’, as it followed Vance Palmer’s much less well argued The Legend of the Nineties (1954). It had an immediate impact, I think, crystallizing the thinking around Australia’s view of itself as a nation of knock-about, rugged, bush-savvy (white male) individualists despite the great majority of us (around 80%) living quiet suburban lives in the cities on the coastal fringes of our ’empty’ continent.
Feminist Gail Reekie wrote in 1992 that “Russell Ward’s Australian Legend has since its publication in 1958 constituted an almost irresistible magnetic pole of historical debate about the nature of Australia’s difference.” That is less true today, I think, as the multicultural (and multi-gendered) nature of modern society belatedly makes its way into our literature; but is still important, to decode the dog-whistling of right-wing politicians who use the themes of mateship, independence and (laughably) lack of respect for authority, to valorise military service; and to secure our placid acceptance of their post 9-11 incursions into our civil liberties.
I had intended this post as an ‘open letter’ to Marcie/Buried in Print, who is of course Canadian, to introduce her to Australia’s master of the short story, Henry Lawson. But that brought up so many other things – in my mind, anyway – that I decided to start from here.
Marcie, however, would recognise the foundations of the Australian Legend which begin with North America’s “Noble Frontiersmen” – fur traders, buffalo hunters, and then cowboys.
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin … he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness …
FJ Turner, The Significance of the Frontier, 1893 (Ward, p.239)
In the C19th, in Australia as in America, the proportion of native-born was very much higher in the interior than on the eastern sea-board. Following Turner, the two most important effects of the frontier were to promote nationalism and to promote democracy. The US then was already a nation. I don’t know about Canada, but in Australia the outback (the “frontier”) was where the seeds of nationalism, independence from Britain, and the labour movement all took root.
Popular culture – from ES Ellis to Zane Grey to Hollywood – glorified the ‘wild west’, and while we outsiders always associated the US and cowboys, I imagine most Americans had a more nuanced self-image. The bulk of Ward’s thesis explores why in Australia this didn’t happen. Why we stayed fixated on the ‘frontiersman’.
He suggests that the difference is Australia’s aridity. In the US homesteaders headed out into the plains for their 160 acres of land, where their values were those of the small businessman. Australia however was taken up initially by squatters on runs of tens and hundreds of square miles, which only later were partially broken up so that settlers could take up square mile (640 acre) blocks. So by the recession of the 1890s there were great bands of itinerant workers roaming the interior seeking short term work – shearing, mustering etc, – and with a common ‘enemy’, the squatter, often an absentee living in luxury in Melbourne or London. Hence our real national anthem, Waltzing Matilda.
From the 1880s onwards, the Bulletin picked up on this, actively fostering nationalism, and providing a platform for descriptions of bush life. And so we get back to Henry Lawson, whose stories in the Bulletin provide much of the basis for the ‘Lone Hand’ myth or archetype; back also to my own thesis, and to Henry’s mother Louisa Lawson – born and married into poverty in the bush, single mother, raconteur, newspaper publisher, suffragist, Independent Woman.
I have written at some length in the past about both Louisa and Henry – Brian Matthews’ biography, Louisa (here) Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer (here) My Henry Lawson by (his wife) Bertha Lawson (here) Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here) All My Love, Anne Brooksbank (here) The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse ed. (here)
Henry Lawson (1867-1922) was born on the bush block in Grenfell, NSW where his father scratched out a living fossicking and droving, often away for long periods until Louisa got sick of it and moved to Sydney in the early 1880s. Henry’s education was greatly restricted by deafness, but he read widely. While working with his father as a labourer he had some poems published, notably A Song of the Republic in the Bulletin in 1887.
Meanwhile Louisa had purchased a small newspaper which in 1888 became Dawn, a newspaper for women, mixing housewifely tips with suffragism. In 1894 she published Henry’s Short Stories in Prose and Verse. I can’t see when his stories began appearing in the Bulletin, but in 1896 they brought out the collection which made his name, While the Billy Boils.
If you read Lawson closely, you can see Louisa almost as much as you can see Henry. So, The Drover’s Wife is a story Louisa recounted and embroidered on while Henry was growing up; in the Joe Wilson stories leading up to Water them Geraniums Henry redraws a young Louisa and Peter falling in love and then falling apart. Louisa has made Henry aware, in a way that adopters of the myth of the Lone Hand generally are not, that the lifestyle of the itinerant bushman is based on the subjugation of women. Henry just doesn’t know what he can do about it.
Ward concludes that “admiration for the simple virtues of the barbarian or the frontiersman is a sentiment which arises naturally in highly complex, megalopolitan societies.” Maybe. In any case, the Bulletin took Lawson’s “mates”, made them archetypal at a time when Melbourne and Sydney were still very conscious of the ‘frontier’ just over the ranges; united them with the nationalism which led to Federation in 1901; and then had them caught up and incorporated into the new myth of the brave, ruffian ANZAC, created in 1915 and which has proved ‘the last refuge of scoundrels’ ever since.
Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, first pub. 1958. OUP, Melbourne, 1981. 280pp.
The best authors in Australia today – and they are among the best in the world – are Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane and Kim Scott. I would certainly drop everything to read new books by them, but my favourite authors are Marie Munkara, Elizabeth Tan, Claire G Coleman and … Jane Rawson. So here we have Jane’s latest (and next month Claire G Coleman’s publishers release her latest, Enclave). Life is good.
We used to see Jane Rawson here blogging, I see her on Twitter, and I don’t have it in me to call her Rawson. Jane’s ‘About’ says she lives in Tasmania – for some reason I pictured her living in Williamstown (Melbourne) – and that she grew up in Canberra. Her first two novels were set in Melbourne, this and her previous novel are set in and around Port Adelaide which she seems to know quite well.
I used to know Port Adelaide quite well myself. I’ve lived and worked for trucking companies based there. Even now, or at least when I’m running Melbourne-Perth, I routinely drop into the trucking/industrial suburbs immediately east of the Port. For some reason though I’ve only rarely been to the residential suburbs, Semaphore, Largs Bay, Taperoo, Osborne, on the peninsula above the Port, where the four young women who are the protagonists of this novel grow up. (If you want to see the real Port Adelaide watch Bad Boy Bubby – warning this movie includes incest and death by cling-wrap). Ok, that’s enough wasting space, but I do like seeing geography-I-know in my fiction.
I have written as recently as last week about Australian SF set in dystopian near-futures. Well this is SF set in a dystopian near-past; a reimagined 1930s and 40s where the politics of the New Guard become dominant and Australia sides with Germany and Japan in WWII.
Jane’s particular focus here is not the War, but to explore the father knows best philosophy of that time – and of two of our three past prime ministers! – if it were to be further hardened in law so that women were unable to work, were forced into marriage and child-bearing.
A History of Dreams starts out innocently enough, with schoolgirls Margaret and her younger sister Esther being bullied by boys on the train home from Adelaide Technical High. Matt, a senior boy Margaret has looked up to (and helped with his homework) all her life, fails to step in, but the boys are eventually dispersed by Margaret’s friend Audrey, a ‘revolutionary’ whose father is a trade union leader.
Margaret was well on her way to securing her spot at the top of the class and privately Esther expected Margaret would go on from Adelaide Tech to beome the world’s most famous lady palaentologist. If not her sister, who else would discover Australia’s first dinosaur skeleton? When she did, Esther would write an opera to celebrate the discovery.
The three girls form a ‘club’. Audrey reveals that she has been trained by her maiden great aunt, the latest in a long line of spinsters, to become a witch, able to put dreams in potions which when dropped in a drink induce dreams or nightmares. A fourth girl, Phyllis, who lives in much poorer circumstances than the other three, joins their group (initially maybe just for the cakes).
Margaret’s father refuses to let her go on to uni, and finds her a job as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office until she is able to find herself a husband.
At this point I am thinking about Marie Munkara. This is an angry book, a satire on misogyny as Munkara’s are angry, satires on racism; and I am expecting a black comedy. In fact, I wonder now if that is what Jane was initially intending. But it gradually becomes something else, more dramatic, as the political situation worsens and the young women are variously raped, imprisoned, fall apart from each other, then slowly regather themselves to take their places in the resistance.
And then you cannot help but think of Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things; to think of the systemized misogyny Woods’ outback jail implies, which is here made explicit; to think of the escaped internees returning to the cities to fight back.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. That’s for the author to reveal in her own good time, but it is totally believable, and the ‘witchery’ is properly woven in as any unusual power is in good SF (or SFF).
The story is told in the third person mostly from Margaret’s POV, but sometimes from the other girls’. The resistance find Margaret a job within the Public Service. Here she meets her new boss –
‘They tell me you’re very good,’ he said. ‘Personally, I don’t see why we need to get a woman involved. Plenty of excellent fellows here, perfectly capable of understanding what women want. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing upstairs.’ He smiled thinly at her.
In some ways this was the book for a month ago, before the federal election. But on the other hand what is now understood by ‘everyone’, how out of touch the Prime Minister was with women, how the government, the Liberal Party, was just one long chain of white male privilege from private school to university college to political office jobs to Cabinet, was back then barely spoken of.
Jane starts out with Phyllis reading PC Wren and no, not Beau Geste, but my favourite, the book which informed my adolescence, Beau Ideal. The whole point of Beau Ideal is to do the honourable thing, whatever the cost, a lesson which was lost on me when it came to the test, but which maybe Jane wants us to think about as the four heroines push through considerable adversity.
I guess I was hoping for another quirky Formaldehyde but authors have to be allowed to grow and explore, and Jane Rawson has done that here in a big way and has come up with a powerful book for our times.
Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams, Brio Books, Sydney, 2022. 302pp.
see also my reviews of earlier Jane Rawson fiction: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, 2013 (here) Formaldehyde, 2015 (here) From the Wreck, 2017 (here)
I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.
Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.
The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week
Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.
Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.
And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.
Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.
Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.
Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.
Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.
Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.
One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.
Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013
See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).
Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born in Brisbane, where she attended a Catholic girls school, got a BA at University of Queensland and studied to be a teacher. Let’s say that takes her to 1946. In 1948 she married and moved to Sydney, where she taught high school. Yet nearly all her fiction is set in coastal towns and cities north of Brisbane. Girl with a Monkey (1958), her first, is set entirely in Townsville.
I assume she, as does Elsie, her protagonist, spent a year or two teaching ‘up north’. The Oxford Companion says she “taught in schools in Queensland and NSW until 1967”, so that’s a start. It also says “Astley’s first novel appeared a decade before women writers began to make a large impact on Australian writing ..” I’m not sure where that leaves Prichard, Stead, Dark, Tennant, Cusack et al, nor for that matter Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson.
I have other reference books but they have nothing to add and none of my seven Thea Astleys contains more than the briefest bio. So let’s guess that Astley, like Elsie, taught primary school for two terms in Townsville and then spent at least the remainder of the year (1947, “today I am twenty two”) in a three teacher school south of Gympie (around 100 miles north of Brisbane).
River gasped and sucked lazily at sugar barges somewhere behind the broad street and shops, river that curled tightly in through the mangroves and on out past its artificial breakwater limbs to the warm reef waters. Cootharinga, its ugly granite escarpments sharp with sun and shadow, threatened the sprawling acolyte at its foot. From the silent and empty footpaths haze curled up under the tin awnings, lifting with it some coolness from the day …
Townsville, well into the tropics, is of course hot – ranging from pleasantly warm in winter to hot, steamy and frequently wet in summer – and Astley captures that feeling well, with a flow of words demonstrating the attention she has given to Modernism, and her mastery of it. We none of us talk much about Patrick White, but he was a big influence on Astley and she appears to have sought both friendship and mentoring from him.
In his early years White was not much regarded. His third and fourth novels, An Aunt’s Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) were acclaimed in the US and UK but it was not until Voss (1957) that he was widely noticed at home. Presumably by then Astley was well into Girl with a Monkey whose origins most likely begin in her 1947 or 48 writing journal. I wonder if there is a literary biography.
To me, despite the location, it doesn’t feel a lot like Astley’s later works, but then I haven’t read them all. In fact the book it most reminds me of is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). There is the rush of words, the same focus on one young person over one short period; but third person rather than first, and without the slanginess, in fact Elsie is superficially at least, rather proper; but a similar commitment to understanding the ambivalent feelings both Holden and Elsie have about sex.
What the novel does is take us through Elsie’s last day in Townsville, from waking in her hotel room – a passage really with doors at either end against which she has stacked her luggage, chairs to keep out inquisitive men in the night – through breakfast; a walk down to the railway station to buy a ticket on the late train south; visits in the suburbs to say goodbye, pickup her things; to her old school for her books; lunch with an ex boyfriend, Jon; an unwelcome encounter with her current boyfriend, Harry, who knows in his angry heart he too is ex; tea with a school teacher friend; a last minute rush to catch the train; to unsuccessfully evade Harry.
That’s it, just a novella, but full of thought and description; little jumps back to other significant days; mysteries that remain mysteries, her distance from ‘home’, a birthday telegram torn into scraps; her catholicism, fervent at school, now fading, but present still in her virginity, in her assessment of men, boyfriends only as potential husbands.
Jon admits “tearfully” to having once visited the brothel, but drunk and against his will. Elsie is bitter not at his visit but at his weakness, wishing –
That I could see you striding strongly to your damnation in the tiny cottages at Rising Sun. That you should have no one and nothing to blame for your sin. That you could achieve sin and contrition and penance entirely on your own. She felt, as all women do even in the earliest years of puberty, a cold and fully developed maturity that frightened her.
Harry is stronger, but rough, a ditch digger, with nevertheless the implication that there is more to him – maybe like many working class men he never got the education he deserved. All the summaries start ‘Elsie was lonely …’ but that’s not right, she takes up with Harry because there’s no pretence, because she has held herself on a tight rein for years – you suspect she spent her university years living at home and going to Mass. As with Miles Franklin’s heroines before her, you can feel Elsie holding herself out then pulling back.
Harry’s strength of purpose, his potential for violence frightens her. In fact the suitcases against her hotel door are symbolic of her belief that the potential for violence in all men – perhaps not without reason – frightens her, but she is nevertheless determined to remain in control.
An excellent, thoughtful novel, both in its writing and in its probing of the author’s inner life as she, for a year or two anyway, begins to experience independent womanhood.
Thea Astley, Girl with a Monkey, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958. 144pp.
Thank you to Sue (WG) for sending me her copy, hard to get now, but available from Allen & Unwin’s A&U House of Books print on demand division. I found the print quality perfectly readable, not too small (and at the other extreme, I dislike books with ‘YA’ typefaces) and if the margins were minimal then I’m not a marginalia-ist in any case.
Canadian writer and blogger Marcie McCauley knows that I am a fan of the Australian literature theorist and feminist, Dale Spender, and so she has contributed a piece on her own love for and reading of Spender over many years. Just to get a plug in, I don’t think Marcie has got hold of the book pictured, which was central to my own reading, so my review is (here) but don’t read it until you have read Marcie’s.
Buried in Print
Bill would want me to state her spec’s clearly, I’m sure. (It’s probably a little late to please him: I’m walking a fine line.) Dale Spender was born September 22nd, 1943 in Newcastle, New South Wales although she would later be associated with Brisbane. (I wish I had a photograph here: Bill would.) Her aunt was Jean Spender, who wrote Australian mysteries (some of them were racy, according to Wikipedia!) and her uncle was a politician, Percy Spender. Read on …
Apparently I have read this before. Inside the back cover there’s a boarding pass Melbourne-Adelaide with my name on it and the date 03Jul16. Why the hell was I flying from Melbourne to Adelaide? And on the back of the pass there are notes, extracts and page no.s. Having got so close, I wish I’d gone on to write it up.
Checks back through blog… My posts for that week are Benang and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. My work diary is a little more informative. I’d been staying with mum. On Sat Jul 2 I swam 3km in the morning and had dinner with mum and B3 that evening (for B3’s upcoming 60th). Sun 3 is blank. Mon 4, Fly home. Go with Milly to see Psyche belly dancing. I give in, I must have flown home Sun night/Mon morning with a connection through Adel.
Reading now, bits are familiar, but not the overall story.
In the Comments after West Block – my ACT read for this month, as this is QLD – I finally began to get my head around the fact that AWW Gen 4 Week is coming up fast and I have given very little thought to the underlying theory. I said then that I thought Sara Dowse’s writing was based on/was an advance on the Modernism of, say, Eleanor Dark and that this would likely prove typical of Gen 4.
Reaching Tin River (1990) is a late Astley, written at the end of the Gen 4 period (1960-1990), so that the author has had the whole period, one in which Postmodernism was increasing in importance and influence, to develop her writing. It shows.
Astley’s earlier novels reflected most the Postcolonial aspect of Postmodernism, dealing with the legacy of white oppression of the Indigenous inhabitants of particularly her home state, Queensland. There are aspects of that here, but muted. The protagonist, Belle, grows up in and subsequently takes us on a journey through central Queensland. In that context she mentions the Hornet Bank Massacre* a number of times without taking it much further.
The novel is an exploration of Belle’s progress from childhood to her thirties, told in simple, almost diaryish style, in the first person. There are subsidiary themes running through – the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women); music, and in particular her dislike of the piano practice piece The Rustle of Spring; and Euclid’s rules of geometry – I get frustrated when arty people misuse maths, especially chaos theory, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s cat – Belle uses Euclid’s rules as similes for her attempts to locate her ‘centre’.
I am looking for a one-storey town with trees river hills and a population of under two thousand one of whom must be called Gaden Lockyer
Or Mother was a drummer in her own all-women group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile
Or I have decided to make a list of all the convent girls who learnt to play ‘The Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding between 1945 and 1960.
This is how the book begins, in fact it’s nearly the whole of the first page. I think I’m in for Astley in experimental mode, but she soon settles down. The plot is straightforward. Belle and her mother, Bonnie live on Bonnie’s parents’ farm ‘Perjury Plains’ near the (fictional) towns of Drenchings and Jericho Flats. Belle’s absent father, for whom she later goes looking, is a mediocre trumpet player and and US serviceman from the Korean War.
Belle on a school excursion learns of and subsequently becomes infatuated with turn of the century farmer politician Gaden Lockyer (ie. someone who is long dead).
She becomes first a teacher, then a librarian. Inexperienced sexually, she marries an older workmate given to mansplaining and is soon disillusioned.
Finally, she sets out on a road trip to discover Gaden Lockyer, to put herself in places where he has been and this crosses over (fairly successfully) into Magic Realism as he, Lockyer, becomes aware that a ghost from the future is haunting him.
There’s lots of other stuff and other characters. Bonnie, who was never an attentive mother, becomes more hippyish as she gets older. We learn pretty quickly to dislike Sebastian, the mansplaining husband. Belle’s father and Bonnie are never divorced but stay in remote contact on opposite sides of the world. We get to stay in some pretty shabby boarding houses – in fact I’m not sure Belle and I don’t walk to work together in the early 1970s when we both lived in New Farm boarding houses and walked across the Valley to the Courier Mail building – and end up in one that was once the nursing home where Lockyer saw out his final years.
An enjoyable book. Yet another Astley swipe at provincial Queensland (ie. all of it). And an interesting text for the influence of Postmodernism on Australian writing.
Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River, Minerva, Melbourne, 1990. 222pp (cover painting by Faye Maxwell)
All our Thea Astley reviews are listed on Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)
*Hornet Bank Massacre: In October 1857 Rosa Praed was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one Black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior [Praed’s father] was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.
Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering Black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of [Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land] – extract from my review.
Hornet Bank is in the vicinity of Taroom, Qld about 470 km north-west of Brisbane (good cattle grazing country, though now subject to extensive fracking)
A recap of the Massacre story in The Queenslander, 15 Sep 1906 (here)
West Block (1983) has been on my shelves for years, but at last this year it is my ACT square for Brona’s AusReading Month. By accident – the accident of forgetting which month it was – I read it a month ago, but I can assure you Bron it was genuinely written up in November, in the last couple of days.
As it happens, the novel has recently been re-released – see Sue/Whispering Gums’ review and discussion (here and here).
Sue, of course, lives in Canberra and gets that warm glow of reading a novel set in a place you know well. I have only ever been a passer through, though for a very long time, as my father’s father was a Commonwealth public servant and we would holiday there off and on through the 1950s and 60s (back when Lake Burley Griffen was just paddocks). Since, I have visited occasionally as a truck driver, a tourist, on the way from Sydney to the snowfields, and for one week, as a competitor in the 1997 Masters Games.
Sara Dowse (1938- ) wrote West Block from her experience as a senior public servant, inaugural head of the first women’s unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, under Prime Ministers Whitlam and Fraser, until the unit was downgraded by Fraser in 1977 and she resigned. (For non-Australians: the Conservative Fraser conspired with the Governor General, representing the Queen, and no doubt with ASIO and the CIA, to depose the reformist Government of Gough Whitlam, in November 1975).
[Harland] had looked suspect enough to the new Prime Minister. Not that he had been associated too much with the old one. That, ironically, was the trouble. Not even Labor had wanted him, or so the thinking would go… He had been passed over. There must have been good reason. So he was passed over again. Harland burned in the relentless logic of it all.
I remember my father saying the same thing about the new Labor government in Victoria, a few years later. All the senior people in the Education Dept, where he was, were tarred by their association with the previous Liberal government, although apparently a number of them, not him!, were Labor by inclination.
This is one of those books where each chapter is devoted to one character and we only slowly come to understand the interactions between them. Harland is a deputy in PMC, we meet his subordinates, his wife, his daughter. By the end of the first chapter the Head of the Department has died and Harland is the new boss, despite his fears. (The actual Secretary of the Department from 1976-78 was Alan Carmody, whom I don’t remember).
The next chapter follows another man from the Department, Beeker, following the PM around Europe spruiking uranium sales. We slip back a few years, Catherine is working in Immigration, helping to place refugees from Vietnam.
At night, alone in her bed, the radio beside her tuned in to ‘Music till Midnight’ …
God, that takes me back. My introduction to jazz, to the wonderful Blossom Dearie, years of listening for half an hour before I went to sleep.
Catherine likes to move around the West Block, to take her afternoon tea with Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch, but although Cassie is at the heart of the novel we stay with Catherine, her friendship with a Vietnamese family, her promotion into PMC, going to Vietnam before/during the fall of Saigon to oversee orphans being adopted by Australians.
Jonathon, another public servant (of course) finds that his on-off girlfriend Bronwyn is going to have their baby, whether he’s involved or not. He starts seeing a therapist.
Cassie lives with her son and daughter, and her mother (her partner, a truckie, has disappeared up north). She keeps an exercise book writing journal, so we get excerpts from that too. And all the ins and outs of an underfunded, shabbily housed, disregarded and demoralized branch.
They had been part of it, early in the decade. That passionate groundswell among women who’d had their fill. They met in houses and halls, marched in streets, leaned on each other to defend themselves against ridicule. This new generation that had rescued feminism… But now they were left with this bitterness.
The branch is being ‘reviewed’. It all comes to a head.
West Block is an interesting work, a first novel by a woman in her forties, who has clearly done a lot, read a lot, has thought about how to advance ‘the novel’ beyond the modernism of say, Eleanor Dark, though without going so far as post-modernism. As we look at more Gen 4 novels, I think this will prove typical. We almost have to construct the story ourselves, from the fragments we are offered. Did I like it? I think so. As a constant consumer of politics it all felt very familiar. I was disappointed by the ending, but Dowse was there, and obviously that’s how she saw it.
Sara Dowse, West Block, Penguin, Melbourne, 1983. 290pp.
Nikki Gemmell (1966- ) is an author I really admire. If I had more time (and energy) I would have made her my feature author for a year as I did with David Ireland a couple of years ago. I have written about her previously so if you want to know more start with my review of After (2017), Gemmell’s memoir of dealing with the death of her mother by her own hand, pre-Assisted Dying laws.
An author I admire, but the rest of the world, not so much. She gets “International Bestselling Author” for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) but where’s the hype for this, her first novel in eight years, or for that matter, for After, which was a really powerful work, but which attracted just one commenter, as did my previous Gemmell review (thank you, respectively, Sue and Lisa).
I picked up The Ripping Tree as an MP3 CD at my latest library, which means I listened to it a week ago, took no notes and there is almost no textual material online to provide me with reminders.
First up, it’s Historical Fiction. How do I deal with that? It’s not a re-telling of an historical event, but rather an imagined story set in maybe the 1840s on an island or coastal community on the east coast of Australia. I read it as a sermon using an alternative reality to posit a world where a powerless young woman, bereft of everything, down to her own clothing, nevertheless stood up to power both for herself and for the local Aborigines whom the settlers were massacring.
Australian history must be re-written to include the Indigenous massacres, oppression and deaths in custody which from 1788 till today, and no doubt well into the future, enable us to live on this land. Gemmell no doubt is an advocate of this re-writing. But I think that by doing it through Historical Fiction she runs into the old #NotAllMen problem, or in this case #NotAllWhites.
No doubt there were ‘good’ Germans, and there are ‘good’ men, but the Germans have shown that the way forward for them is to accept responsibility for the Holocaust; the South Africans that Truth precedes Reconciliation; women are asking all men to acknowledge their privilege; I am saying ALL non-Indigenous Australians must acknowledge that our prosperity derives from theft and murder. The problem with this book is that it will leave readers with the option of saying ‘well, we weren’t all bad’ when the truth is that right up to today we either participated or looked the other way.
[Does the sensible thing, rings the library, goes and picks up a paper copy].
The novel is framed as a story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren who have been up the coast to visit the ‘stately home’ Willowbrae. “The turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms, the circular flower beds”. But that is just two or three pages, of no consequence.
The novel otherwise, is divided into seven consecutive days and the days into chapters of just a few pages. On day one Thomasina Trelora, 16 years old, from Knockleby, Dorset wakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a girl’s bedroom.
Her father has died. Her half brother has sold the estate to pay his own debts and has brought Thomasina to his home in Australia where she is to marry a clergyman sight unseen. But their ship has missed the harbour entrance in a storm, has smashed on the rocks, and she, the only survivor has washed up onshore, barely conscious, has been rescued by an Aboriginal man
Black. I took the hand in mine and turned it over, held the rescuing fingers close. The hand was darker at the knuckles and ghostly pale underneath, as if the sun had never reached into it, or use had rubbed it light, and there was a paleness under the nails and near them and, no, actually, the skin wasn’t uniformly black at all: the fingernails were yellowed and ridged and strongly thick as if from something else. The ocean perhaps, shells or sea creatures …
who deposits her in the night on the steps of Willowbrae. She determines to keep her name to herself, to avoid the unwanted marriage, and the youngest son of the house, Mouse, names her Poss, for the “opossum that comes in the night and scrambles things up and is really cheeky with lovely big eyes”.
The family in whose house she finds herself, the Craws, consist of mother, father, two adult sons, Tobyn and Virgil, a dead sister in whose bed she is lying, and young Mouse. The two elements of the story are Poss’s refusal to be tied down to a proper feminine role, let alone take the place of the dead sister; and her discovery of a dead Aboriginal mother and baby – and subsequently the dead woman’s young English-speaking daughter – and her determination to have the death investigated, when it’s clear that a) it’s part of a wider policy of ‘dispersing the natives’, and b) that the baby was Virgil’s. The second element is made worse by her further discovery that Mr Craw is sending Aboriginal bones back to England for ‘research’.
A strange Vicar is introduced into the story, a shy, awkward man who offers Poss friendship. But the local townspeople want her gone, and by day seven Poss is facing the very real possibility of life-long incarceration in an institution for unmanageable women.
Mr Craw’s fists smash upon the desk. ‘You’re mad, child. Seeing things. It’s a sign of hysteria – and that ridiculous insistence on men’s clothes was only the start. There’s no “black man” here or anywhere near Willowbrae. You had a blow to the head and need medical help.’ Is he right? No, surely. ‘You need a doctor. Immediately.’
Gemmell is a fine writer and this is a powerful story, full of tension, about an imagined past in which heroic young women fought back against the murder of the original inhabitants. Despite my reservations I enjoyed it. I hope you read it for yourselves.
Nikki Gemmell, The Ripping Tree, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2001. 340pp. (sorry, I returned the CD without noting the reader. I imagine the running time was about 9 hours).
The ‘ripping tree’ is a tree from which the bark may be ripped in sheets. Gemmell says paperbark but (IMO) they are a relatively small tree and the bark comes off in flakes. Perhaps it’s different on the NSW north coast (I’m wrong, see Lisa’s comment below)