Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan

April 1 was release day for Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy. Off I went to my local indi, who disappointingly as usual, had Wright tucked away in a corner and a (presumably) new Atwood front and centre of New Releases. One book is never enough and so I picked up Marshmallow and a new to me Octavia Butler, Fledgling. It’s an expensive hobby, not much change out of a hundred bucks there.

You’ll remember I reviewed Hannan’s debut, Kokokomo, just a few weeks ago. In Comments, Kate W said that she had read Marshmallow (I’ll find and link to her review at the end) and thought this time Hannan had spread herself a bit thin, writing from the perspective of each of the five protagonists. I on the other hand (unexpectedly) enjoyed it and thought it the right approach for a novel whose subject is the effect of a tragedy on a friendship group.

Of course friendship groups are something I only know about from watching Friends and Big Bang Theory – which I still do on Facebook, more often than I like to say. Russell and Cam and Di and so on who were my friendship group for the three years I was at or around uni were never anything like Nathan, Annie, Ev, Claire and Al in this book; and anyway, even leaving aside me getting married and going off truck driving, the others soon all went their separate ways (The following year I was meant to come back from Queensland for Cam’s wedding but YB was crook, it would have involved hitchhiking, time off work; and that was the end of that).

Once again Hannan uses the setting she seems to know best, Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, this time mostly Brunswick and North Fitzroy, along St Georges Rd. Plus a look at Toorak, Melbourne’s most expensive suburb, which Nathan comes from (and Russell too from my own friendship group – Nathan’s parent’s house seemed very familiar). The timing is just two days: from the morning of the day before, to the evening of the first anniversary of the tragedy. But of course, using recollection to circle round and round, from their first days at uni together – they’re now in their late thirties – to close in on the tragedy itself.

All five were there when the tragedy occurred, and feel some level of blame. Nathan and Annie, childhood sweethearts now married, were at the centre of it; Ev to a large extent, is the rock as the others fall to pieces around her; Al and Claire, a couple since uni, are spiralling apart, with Al routinely drunk and Claire, a high-powered lawyer, working ridiculous hours.

[Al] read the same articles with the same photo of the smiling boy. Nothing new. Nothing damning. Yet it bought him no peace, no solace. It didn’t change the fact of what had happened nearly a year ago.

He knew he should stop and look through his inbox, write a to-do list, get his shit together. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop looking, couldn’t stop venturing off his now-daily anxiety tour of the internet.

That’s from chapter One. There are 27 chapters in all, averaging eleven pages per chapter. Each chapter a close third-person perspective on one protagonist. Some start out observational and it takes a minute to work out whose chapter it is. Annie, who is closest to the tragedy, gets just one or two pages each time, and we see her mostly from the ‘outside’.

I guess the central theme is that one grief brings out another. To deal with the immediate grief you have to deal with everything. Al with a friend who died when he was a teenager; Nathan with remote and controlling parents; all of them with guilt.

‘Why did you lie to old what’s-her-chops about how they’re doing?’ Al asked.

‘Because I don’t think either of them would appreciate me telling Patti fucking Saunders that they’re not coping at all,’ Claire said. ‘That Ev’s not coping, that we’re not coping.’ Al didn’t say anything. Claire kept going. ‘Grief is a rollercoaster ride, Al. And it’s cumulative. These feelings … they can bring up stuff about others you’ve lost.

She heard Al sigh.

Like your mum. for example,’ Claire added carefully.

‘Don’t bring her into this.’

Right at the end, it all comes together a bit too neatly for my taste. Life’s just not that good, even when mummy and daddy have given you (Nathan) the money to buy a million dollar inner-suburban terrace.

As I said, I enjoyed it, but for me Marshmallow was ‘just’ Grief Lit., well written general fiction. Hannan is now at that point in her career where she must decide if she wants to go down the popular, and profitable, Liane Moriarty path or if she is to use her considerable skills as a writer and observer of Gen whateverthisis behaviour to be the next Charlotte Wood, say. (I suppose I could say the Australian Sally Rooney, but to do that she would have to do away with the prop of ‘issues’ and I’m not sure she can, or will).


Victoria Hannan, Marshmallow, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 292pp

Kate’s review in BooksareMyFavouriteandBest (here)

Kokomo, Victoria Hannan

Bodies in the sand, Tropical drink melting in your hand
We’ll be falling in love, To the rhythm of a steel drum band.
Down in Kokomo

[Beach Boys, 1988]

Not deathless prose (or verse) Not sure why Hannan’s novel has that name; neither the name nor the cover do the novel any favours. As various characters point out, Kokomo qua tropical resort is not even a place, the only real Kokomo is a middling industrial city in Indianna. Have you been there Melanie? Is there a statue to the Beach Boys?

So the name’s a distraction, doubly with its vaguely Japanese feel. This is a novel set in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Northcote or Preston, I forget now, about a thirtyish (Anglo) woman dealing with her widowed mother dealing with grief and guilt; dealing with glass ceilings (and glass walls); dealing with her unsatisfactory love life; dropping – at least temporarily – a lover and a good career in London to return home, to her mother and to the Chang’s across the road whose house she grew up in as much as her own, whose children were effectively her only brother and sisters.

I read Kokomo as an audiobiook, a freeby from Audible. I thought last trip I would listen to it again, refresh it in my mind, but more exciting options intervened, so I will have to make do with what memories looking stuff up prompt. First cab: Kate W. Surely “dealing with grief and guilt” means she’ll have a review and she does (here), from nearly two years ago.

Kate discusses Hannan beginning with a “sex scene”. In fact, the novel’s first words are : “Mina knew in that moment what love is.” The protagonist Mina (Jasmina) is about to take her lover and workmate Jack into her mouth when the phone rings. And she answers it!

Next we know, Mina is on a plane from London to Melbourne, and Jack has been left hanging (or standing). Her mother has been seen down the shops, at the chemist, having apparently gone outside her suburban home for the first time in 12 years, since the death of Mina’s father. Over the next two thirds of the novel, Mina waits, increasingly frantically, for Jack to answer her texts and emails. And I thought guys were thick.

Arrived in Melbourne, plopped down on her old bed, in her childhood bedroom, Mina finds her mother won’t talk to her, doesn’t want her there, is perfectly happy with daytime soaps and grocery deliveries to the door. Mina is forced into an aimless existence of polite small talk with her mother; hanging around the Chang’s; going out with Keira Chang, her lifelong Best Friend, whom she had left behind; running into the boyfriend she left behind; chasing up Shelley, her and Keira’s friend from university, now hopelessly lost to them in marriage, motherhood and upwardly mobile suburbia.

All this time Mina’s head is still in London. In her flat and Jack’s flat. In the advertising agency where she and relative newcomer Jack are joint department managers. Jack geeing up the troops, playing golf with the boss, screwing Mina. Mina falling in love, working back, getting presentations out on time and perfect. There’s a promotion coming up …

One day Mina sees her mother walking in the street with Arthur Chang, Keira’s father.

The voice of the novel changes from Mina’s first person to Elaine, her mother, in third person (and switches back briefly to Mina right at the end). And so Hannan slowly unravels the mystery of Elaine’s agoraphobia.

If you haven’t already read Kate’s review, do. She captures stuff that I (may have) thought about but couldn’t/didn’t commit to paper –

“Where this book really succeeds, is in how recognisable the uncertainties, introspection, and tensions are – a pause in the conversation that is a beat too long; a work colleague quietly but determinedly undermining you; the poorly disguised dismay of a friend when you drop in unannounced – in fleeting scenes, Hannan creates a gripping emotional narrative. And it culminates with the question, how do we manage the gap between what we have and what we need or want?”

And, like me, Kate loves that the author gets the feel of Melbourne just right.

Victoria Hannan is a Melbourne-based writer and photographer (website). Kokomo was her first novel. She now has a second out, Marshmallow (2022). I must read it.


Victoria Hannan, Kokomo, Hachette, 2020. Audiobook read by Liesl Pieters. 9 hrs 35 min.

A Difficult Young Man, Martin Boyd

12 Books of Boyhood. #2

The four novels of The Cardboard Crown quartet are the story of the Langtons, an idle rich Melbourne family at the turn of the Twentieth century. They are a fictionalised account of Boyd’s own family and an accurate account of the upper class, high church (and atypically pacifist) lens through which Boyd saw the world. I reviewed his memoir, Day of My Delight some years ago.

I read A Difficult Young Man, the second in the quartet, for my matric, in 1968, and for this exercise I have also read The Cardboard Crown, the first.

Martin Boyd (1893- 1972) was a good generation younger than English-born Australian writer, Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) but they shared a common background, which we Australians generally become first aware of in Jane Austen – the idle, land owning upper middle class. And before you get cranky about ‘idle’ let me say that I mean that their income was unearned, coming from rents and dividends.

Cambridge wrote in her memoir, Thirty Years in Australia, that whereas gentleman farmers and rich merchants were a level (or two) below the upper class in England, in Australia they were (and are) the upper class. Boyd goes a step further, claiming that his family, who had claims to an English title, were part of a genuine upper class in Victoria, until they were supplanted by the post-Gold Rush wealthy (This ‘upper class’ lingered well into the 1960s. There was a ‘Rupert Clarke‘ a year or so ahead of me in College whose family had claims to – I think – Australia’s only baronetcy).

The quartet is framed as Guy Langton (the Martin Boyd character) in old age, telling a young nephew his family’s story. So that Guy will sometimes pause in the telling to tell us where he is ‘now’, or what materials he is using, or to discuss his feelings about what he has told us. “I am supposed to be extremely snobbish, even in Melbourne, the most snobbish place on earth,” he says, and goes on in an attempt to show why he thinks snobbishness is rational.

The Cardboard Crown (1952) is based on Guy’s grandmother’s diaries and A Difficult Young Man (1955) is the story of his older brother, Dominic.

The Langton’s estate was in the hills past Dandenong (say 70 kms east of Melbourne) in the region of Koo Wee Rup. But the wider family had houses/mansions in what are now inner beachside suburbs, East St Kilda and Brighton. Guy’s grandfather, Austin marries Alice, the heiress of a brewery fortune and subsequently inherits a title and an estate past its best days in England.

So The Cardboard Crown is the story of how Alice’s money keeps the family afloat; their restlessness as they move between Australia, England and Europe; and their related families, byblows, and their various influences, with in the background, the mad C16th Duke de Teba to whom Dominic apparently bears a striking likeness.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed The Cardboard Crown back in 2013, saying: “it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done”. But it grows on her and she enjoys it, and so did I.

Kim has now read and posted a review of A Difficult Young Man which she reads as a satire on Australian pretensions. My take is the opposite, that Boyd is deadly serious about the distinction between well-born families and the hoi polloi.

In my grandmother, Alice Langton’s diaries, which are my chief source of information about what happened before I was born, there was not much reference to Dominic. He was then overshadowed by Bobby, our eldest brother, who was all sparkling sunlight and mercurial wit […] When Bobby died at the age of nine, Dominic may have thought he was going to step into his position as the eldest son, but would also bestow, as Bobby had done, laughter, hope and joy about the family, and then he found that he had not the equipment to do this, and so was filled with resentment.

In fact Dominic mostly bestowed on his family bewilderment and despair. I remember matric English as being about fathers and sons (and daughters), but on re-reading I see Dominic’s parents were inclined to go easy on his foibles, and to attribute his extreme sense of right and wrong to the embittered maiden aunt to whom was left a great deal of his upbringing.

At the heart of A Difficult Young Man is Dominic’s love for his beautiful cousin, Helen. At all the family gatherings at grandmother’s East St Kilda mansion Dominic and Helen would always be together, until on one central occasion at the beach, when they were in their mid teens, he was discovered ‘worshipping’ her with her upper body bared and him kneeling with his face in her lap. They were of course kept separated from then on.

Boyd doesn’t appear to like women much, and in this case he ascribes no agency to Helen, or at least only views this and subsequent incidents, via a single-minded focus on Dominic.

The Langtons re-migrate back to their English estate, where Dominic falls in love with and becomes engaged to marry the daughter of a neighbouring Lord, whom Guy is sure is completely unaware of the relative poverty that lies before her. Back in Melbourne, it is announced that Helen is engaged to marry a middle class blockhead, heir to Australia’s richest wool properties.

Dominic is one of my favourite characters in literature – high minded, often ridiculous, ready to give all for love. Martin Boyd as Guy is more interested in ascribing his various faults and characteristics to this or that bloodline threaded through all the inter-married cousins. But Dominic stands out nevertheless, and so does Helen, despite Boyd’s failure (or inability) to give her a pedestal. And what also stands out on rereading is the endless summer of their adolesence – in Melbourne at the very height of its time as the world’s richest city, on the beach, on their horses in the golden green forests of those two covers above, and even on the Langton estate in England.


Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man, first pub. 1955 (my ed. Landsdowne 1967, with a purple cover, presumably a school’s edition as it was a set text for (Vic.) Matriculation English in 1968). 191pp. Cover above taken from Perry Middlemiss’ blog – Landsdowne, 1978. Cover detail from “The Milkmaid” by Julian Ashton.

Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown, first pub. 1952, revised 1954 (my ed. Landsdowne, 1974). 168pp. Cover detail from A Summer Morning’s Tiff by Tom Roberts.

Just as I finish proof-reading and generally tidying up, 6pm-ish WST, I see that Brona has also posted a review of A Difficult Young Man. I’m off to read it and you’ll find this in your inboxes in the morning (Tue). I noticed Brona wrote Helena, not Helen, so I checked, and she is right. But I have thought of Dominic and ‘Helen’ for 55 years now and I can’t bring myself to change.

Whispering Gums reviewed A Difficult Young Man back in 2010. Lisa/ANZLL reviewed When Blackbirds Sing in 2016 and includes a link to her review of Brenda Niall’s biography of the Boyd family.

I find myself constrained in this series by the books I have on hand and the time I have to read them. I had hoped to read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh for March, but it is too long, too dense and I have yet to even get it down from the shelf.

So I thought how about a John Wyndham. I seem to have neither The Kraken Wakes nor The Day of the Triffids, but I do have The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) whose story I remember not at all. Read a Wyndham, any Wyndham, and we might see (on Mar. 30) why he is everyone’s (every old person’s) first SF.

For subsequent months I have in mind some or all of:
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Jack London, The Iron Heel
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
there will be additions and subtractions, I’m sure.

Future Girl, Asphyxia

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

I opened AWW Gen 5-SFF Week with Melanie/Grab the Lapels’ review of this work which I had intended to pair with a review of my own, but my copy was late arriving, work intervened, and I’m only now ready to post. Future Girl (in America, The World in My Hands) is YA and SF – set in a Melbourne a couple of decades in the future, in which fuel shortages and hyperinflation have led to widespread unemployment and poverty – and is based on the author’s own experience of growing up deaf and of being introduced late to signing (Auslan) and the Deaf community.

Melanie, for those newcomers who have not yet met her in these pages, is a blogger from the American mid-west, who relies on hearing aids and is now, in her thirties, learning signing (ASL), and learning, and teaching us, about being Deaf. Her review then shows a great deal of empathy with Future Girl‘s protagonist, 16 year old Piper. So I won’t go down that path myself, which in any case, I know nothing about except what Melanie has told us over the past two or three years.

Firstly, the author. Asphyxia is a writer, artist and performer whose career so far spans twenty or so years. I had wondered, on reading Future Girl, if it were written by a 16 year old, it certainly feels like it, but no, it was written – very well – by an adult woman for 13-16 year olds, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been aiming a bit older than that.

The presentation of the book is excellent. Piper is a painter and this is ostensibly her journal (of the months June to Dec of an unspecified year) which is filled with drawings, painting, stencils and collages. The story flows too well for a journal, but the progression from day to day does give it a bit of a ‘first this happened, then that happened’ feel.

Asphyxia, though she now lives in hippy heaven on the NSW north coast, is a Melbourne person and this shows in her descriptions of inner northern Melbourne streets, centred on Northcote and Fitzroy. Piper goes to a private school two or three suburbs away, as she has to come home on the tram up Church Street.

The most horrifying aspect of Asphyxia’s imagined future is that ‘tree vandals’ have stripped Melbourne’s tree-lined streets and, it later turns out, all the exotic trees of the Botanic Gardens, cut them all back to the roots.

The story of these six months is that Piper meets a boy, Marley, 19, a CODA – child of deaf adult – who has been immersed in Deaf culture by his mother, Robbie, but who is also drawn towards living ‘normally’. Piper’s mother is a scientist with Organicore who has invented supplements which prevent cancer, obesity and [something else] to go in Organicore’s artificial food products. Marley’s mother, on the other hand, grows all her own food at home, in a walled garden (to protect her from thieves).

The major problem in this future Melbourne is that (petroleum-based) fuel is scarce and prohibitively expensive so that farmers are increasingly unable to deliver fresh food to the supermarkets, and Organicore is unable to get ‘Recon’, its artificial food to consumers. You might think that this could have been averted by increased electrification – but not in this universe anyway. Organicore, despite being a monopoly, and having installed its own stooge as Prime Minister, is going broke and Piper’s mum is let go.

Piper, increasingly unhappy with her failure to connect with her hearing fellows, drops out of school; is inspired to begin her own food garden; and is co-opted into a protest movement.

News Melbourne

McBride’s Daughter Rejects Recon in Bid to Solve Food Crisis

Piper, the sixteen-year-old Deaf daughter of former Organicore scientist Irene McBride, has turned her back on manufactured meals and is taking her chances growing wild food. In a move that’s proven popular with her neighbours, Piper’s created a thriving community garden on the nature strip down the middle of her Northcote street, which she expects will provide an abundance of vegetables, eggs and meat for the community.

The government introduces food rationing. The government-owned, Organicore-controlled messaging service “Cesspool”, which has replaced the internet, fails to transmit any messages about food growing or protesting.

Breaking News: McBride’s Garden Scheduled for Demolition:

In a heartbreaking move, as we prepare this story for the feeds, the local council has classified Piper McBride’s community garden as ‘litter’ and insists it be removed.

Piper takes her art to the streets, is arrested and jailed.

There is the usual YA angst with best friend, boyfriend and parent. All ends well.

I could rant about the failure of the author and the publisher to acknowledge their debts to a long tradition of SF, but what’s the point.


Asphyxia, Future Girl, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2020. 373pp.

A few days ago, Kim/Reading Matters posted her review for AWW Gen 5-SFF Week, The Hush by Sara Foster. All the books we have reviewed for this period are listed on the AWW Gen 5-SFF page.

Future Girl, Asphyxia

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Apparently, I recommended Future Girl to Melanie/Grab the Lapels a couple of years ago. Perhaps I bought it for my then 17 year old granddaughter. It looks familiar, and I never write down what I buy. Melanie loved it and I have no hesitation reposting her review for this week. As you’ll see, Future Girl was published in the US as The Words in my Hands.

It wasn’t strictly my intention but I think that the SFF/dystopian theme has the potential to direct us towards some of the more leading edge writing of this generation (and I wish more than ever that I had included Grunge within the definition as well).

fbd8238d4fecda17e61d97c950bcafc1 Grab The Lapels

Piper is a deaf girl with hearing aids in a private high school with hearing students. Her best friend, Taylor, often serves as a hearing guide of sorts, which resonated with me. I often ask my spouse what another person said, be it the cashier, the neighbor, or our nieces and nephew. However, while my reliance often occurs when I am not wearing my hearing aids because I didn’t feel like it, Piper is relying on very little hearing and years of speech therapy because to her, deafness is a medical issue. Read on …

Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Welcome to AWW Gen 5-SFF Week! Let the discussion of Australian women’s SF, dystopian and fantasy fiction commence.

And about that ‘Week’. After being on a break, ie. unemployed since Dec. 10, I am now flat out for more or less just this week, so we’d better call it a fortnight (and even then, if all goes well, which it didn’t last time, I will be on the other side of the country looking for a load home) so I can pay some attention at least to your posts and comments.

I didn’t see Gunk Baby come out – at the beginning of 2021 – and I don’t think it was paid much attention, which is odd as Lau’s first novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2018) was short-listed for the Stella and it appears Lau’s three-book deal with Brow has been taken over by the multi-national Hachette.

Pink Mountain was a classic debut – a young woman at arts school drawing on her inner suburban adolescence for good/standard grunge autofiction. Gunk Baby is not a sequel, or not the sequel I predicted anyway – “a portrait of the young woman as an art student” – but the story of a short period in the life of 24 year old Leen (Ling) setting up a Chinese ear cleaning/massage business in a suburban shopping centre.

I have squeezed it in under the Gen 5-SFF banner not because it is fantastic or dystopian (except right at the end), but because it has the feel of being set just a few minutes into the future. Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.

Within the SF tradition, in the 1970s, a number of writers, Sladek, Sheckley, but PK Dick in particular, were able to describe then present-day suburban USA in a way that made it seem slightly unreal, and Lau has that same ability. The ability to make us picture work and living spaces as they might be built tomorrow, sparse and uncluttered, with only the latest gadgets and appliances.

Leen’s father is a “consultant” who has dragged his wife and daughter all round the world. Leen has chosen to settle in the suburb of Par Mars in, let us say, Melbourne. As in Pink Mountain the city is unnamed, but has a Melbourne-ish feel, with occasional references to “Westmeadow” and “Bell St” (an important thoroughfare running east-west across the northern suburbs). Leen’s mother is in Kowloon, and they speak often, in video calls, ‘Face Time’. The father is more distant, wherever he is currently working, but pays Leen’s bills.

Gunk Baby may be a satire on a particular type of consumerism, but it is a consumerism Leen lives with uncomplainingly.

The K.A.G. outlay, for example: so addictive. The genius behind the design of something beautiful is that it can stand alone. We live in an age where we would like things to stand alone, to be one with itself, so that we can, as its consumer, become the one to define it, the one to understand it and its purpose, and curate it alongside other things … we’ve been conditioned to need the product. And a product is rarely ever a product without its brand.

K.A.G. is the principal tenant of the Topic Heights shopping centre where Leen has her ‘Lotus Fusion Studio’. Every few weeks it adds a new product line and forces out a smaller neighbouring store to take over its space. Leen who has been couch surfing ends up sharing a house with Luis who has been made K.A.G. store manager for his total commitment to the job. Everything in the new house is new K.A.G. products being tried out.

I … roll over, pull myself up out of our bed, out of the K.A.G. Elegant Cross-Hatch Sheets in a shade of blue that comforts. The floor is always cold in the mornings. The concrete floor with our Shaggy-Mix Rug in light brown … I look in the big perfect mirror. I’m wearing my K.A.G. Insulating Fleece Pyjamas, white thin stripes and beige everything else. These are not my sexy pyjamas; they’re slightly different. If I’m not in my sexy ones, I’m not in the mood. It’s a silent language… I look at [Luis] in the mirror. I have my K.A.G. Frosted-Glass Toothbrush in my mouth …

Leen’s friends are a wide mixture of East Asians and caucasian, all known to each other, all connected in one way or another through Topic Heights, but she, I guess, compartmentalises. Luis is in one ‘box’; in another are her girlfriend Doms and Doms’ partner Vic, a chemist who has a home lab making artificial urine for faking drug tests; there’s Farah, her receptionist (and budding novelist); and in a fourth are Jean-Paul and Huy. Jean-Paul is gathering followers for ‘acts of resistance’. Leen’s role is to attend meetings where Jean Paul lectures for hours, and to drive Jean Paul and Huy round in her old Saab 9000, leaving while they apparently attack, kidnap, vandalise Topic Heights managers, returning to pick them up, not unaware of what is being done, but also not responsible.

The style of writing is largely emotionless, you have to make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of what is happening. The end when it comes is inevitable, but still startling. Lau is a fine talent, not mainstream, but well worth following.


Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby, Hachette, Sydney, 2021. 345pp

see also:
Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (review)
Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this? (review)

Near Believing, Alan Wearne

Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 is a selection of Wearne’s poetry from over his whole career. I bought a copy when I saw it in my local indie bookshop last year, but apparently the official release is a John Hawke “In Conversation With…” at Readings Carlton, 6.30 pm, Wed. 15 February ’23 (here).

I think it would be fair to say that Wearne’s specialty is the verse narrative – novels and long monologues – and that he has developed a particular and recognisable vernacular voice. Here we have selections from each of his novels – Out Here, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – from other collections and, he says, some new stuff, presumably the last section, under the heading ‘Metropolitan Poems and other poems’, plus an Introduction by Michelle Borzi.

Borzi writes: “The groundnote of Wearne’s vernacular is the audibility of his words and phrases as a movement of conversational sounds and gestures. A kernel of that narrative voice first appeared in two breakthrough poems in his first book Public Relations (1972): ‘Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete” (written in 1967, when he was eighteen [his first year out of high school]) and ‘Warburton 1910’ (written in 1972). He went on to develop that voice in ‘Out Here’ and it has carried forward into all corners of his subsequent work.”

This too was a feat: running for a month
(as rumour had it).
Sprinting in the temple
was nothing less than perfect. Tables knocked,
whips raised and money lost.
He charged them twice

Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete

Borzi, and Martin Duwell, both of whom I have linked to below, quote Wearne as saying his influences are narrative poets from Chaucer to the Victorians, and especially Browning. I assume they mean Robert, and not Elizabeth. Robert Browning’s wikipedia entry says he “was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax.” Very Wearne-ish.

Australian vernacular is difficult to get down on paper without descending into parody, and I would like to add, if not as an influence, then at least as a predecessor, CJ Dennis. It is difficult to tell with both Wearne and Dennis whether the slightly forced nature of their expression comes from finding the right phrase in speech that is not naturally theirs, or from the discipline imposed by their respective poetic structures.

Yeh live, yeh love, yeh learn; an’ when yeh come
To square the ledger in some thortful hour,
The everlastin’ answer to the sum
Must allus be, “Where’s the sense in gittin’ sour?”

CJ Dennis: The Mooch o’ Life

Dennis uses shorter words and has a predictable, staccato rhythm. In all his “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” he is attempting a slum/working class argot for the entertainment of a middle class audience. Wearne is often slangy, but it is middle class, suburban slang. And his words are longer, often fitting only awkwardly into his poetic structures, which vary, I’m sure not haphazardly, but let’s say, unpredictably.

Dennis and Wearne are alike in that (in their long pieces) the protagonist speaks directly to the reader. But Wearne fills out his narrative by having more than one speaker, so that we, in the verse novels, see the story from multiple points of view. There is some argument as to whether Wearne’s protagonists have different voices or just different stories to tell. Wearne’s own voice is so strong and so unique that I probably tend towards the latter view.

Alan grew up in Blackburn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, in the 1950s and 60s, all apple orchards at the end of the War, then weatherboard housing estates, shading quickly to brick and tile, becoming prosperous as all the middle manager fathers rose through the ranks. He went to uni at Monash, an island in the southeastern suburban sea, but seems mostly to have lived in the then student/bohemian inner suburbs of Fitzroy, St Kilda, Carlton. And these locations are at the centre of all his poetry.

The poems and excerpts in this collection are undated, so it is difficult to tell whether his themes have changed over time, or if, as seems more likely, he returns over and over to this heartland of his teens and early adulthood.

But on this afternoon, in a new year
at a new school, whose tiresome Latin motto
you’d like to think might be interpreted as
Making Do With What We’ve Got (which isn’t much)

some things you’re hoping to commence will commence.
And if outside, starting at Holland Road …

A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers

So, in what is presented as a later poem, here we are back again at Blackie South High (in Holland Rd), in the 1960’s – “if only they’d let us wear slacks!” Which brings up another point: that Wearne is just as likely to take the teachers’ point of view. This is evident too in ‘Out Here’, which he says is based on a story told to him by a teacher who had come to Blackburn South from another high school. You get the impression that by the end of his school years he was already being taken seriously as an adult writer.

Let me end with one other longish (25pp) narrative – because that is what I am more comfortable with – ‘Operation Hendrickson’ in which the protagonist Henn is busted for sex with a minor (Henn seems to be 20 and the girl 15). “… And here’s the real equation/their real equation: either she’s sixteen or isn’t./Sure wasn’t./But moral danger? Behind me she held on and/(anyone thought I might look after her?)/just ride and talk.”

Henn has come from a Kildonan (Presbyterian) home to a foster home in Blackburn, and has been in a youth group with the author

Whilst Wearney you needn’t believe because
he’s just making it up for Proper Gander,
his rag: ‘Hey Wearney, write my memoirs
then put them into your Proper Gander!’
In our concert he plays the butler,
who sees it (and I mean it) all.

Over the course of the poem Henn looks back on his mates – just the one speaker, but a different register for each mate – from the perspective of his thirties: the one that went to nearby Burwood Tech, the one that did nasho, what Wearney knows and doesn’t know, circles back to true love, Kim behind him on the bike, the cop

Here though was a plan: she was going to climb
on my machine and we, the Kim ‘n’ Henn Show
would leave it, all of it: dole, debts, cops, folks
and end where we would end. (That’s what I told him,
Wearney, one evening just across the road.)
Then within a month a week,
a jack is telling me: ‘… think you’re something, son?’

‘Wearney’ writes “this warmish winter day in mid-July,/here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road”, two streets down from my Mum’s retirement unit; or “walking north where Punt Road overpasses/Dandenong Road at St Kilda Junction” where I’d eat my lunch when I was on office boy in Prahran, watching the trucks pass underneath; or “Bowater-Scott’s four-to-midnight shift” whose lane off Middleborough Rd I park my truck in when I stay at Mum’s; and so on and so on. Alan Wearne is writing my life, and his life, and the lives of all us boomers who grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

I wish I’d made it clearer: Wearne writes men and women equally, though not in ‘Operation Hendrickson’ and the generation before ours, our mothers particularly. Read him. He’s one of a kind, telling the story of his and our time.


Alan Wearne, Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021, Puncher & Wattman, Newcastle NSW, 2022. 252pp

Cover: detail from Untitled (girl in the mirror), 1985 by Jenny Watson

Other Alan Wearne works reviewed:
Out Here, 1986 (here)
The Nightmarkets, 1986 (here)

See also (reviews much more informed than mine!):
Martin Duwell, Near Believing, Australian Poetry Review, 1 Oct 2022 (here)
Michelle Borzi, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, Southerly (here)

Cut, Susan White

Carla di Pietta is a thirty-something surgeon at a major Melbourne hospital, called here Prince Charles (PCH) which I guess from it’s location is based on Royal Melbourne. Her lover is also her main rival for the next consultant position. PCH is notoriously old school tie, old boys club and Carla struggles to keep her place at the front of the pack, while even junior (male) registrars get to play golf with the senior surgeons.

Cut is a 2022 release which I listened to last week. I enjoyed it, especially all the Melbourne stuff, though I remember absolutely none of the names. You would imagine from all the detail that White is an actual surgeon – and also an actual Italian Australian – but it doesn’t say so, or anything about her at all, on the cover.

Research time: “Susan is a doctor who writes fiction for adults and young adults.” She’s a clinical geneticist and Honorary Clinical Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne (just across the road from Royal Melbourne). Her first novel was the YA Take the Shot (2019), this is her second.

Carla lives in her grandparent’s old terrace house in (the northern end of) Rathdowne St, Carlton and walks to work via the zoo and Royal Park, 3 – 4 kms probably (Google Maps concurs). This has nothing to do with the plot, I just enjoy visualising it.

We begin with Carla having adventurous sex with lover boy and confident of her ability to stay ahead in what is basically an all-guy working environment. Except for the experienced and dedicated matron of course who must take orders from inexperienced boy registrars. But then her boss, ‘the Prof’, asks her to fill in for him on a mastectomy with lover boy assisting – did I say lover boy wants to keep their relationship secret? Lover boy doesn’t do his homework and is too intent on getting Carla into the ‘quiet room’ and into her knickers (before the operation) to respond to urgent calls on his pager, and inevitably the operation goes wrong.

The patient doesn’t die, but nearly does, and the patient’s lawyer girlfriend gets worked up at being continually fobbed off with excuses. At an open meeting of all surgeons to discuss what went wrong, lover boy’s excuses are accepted and Carla effectively cops the blame.

It took me a while to notice that chapters are being headed ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’. The ‘During’ appears to be a work event where Carla gets drunk and then something goes awfully wrong. Each time a ‘During’ comes up we learn a little more.

Meanwhile, Carla comes clean to the mastectomy patient and her partner and becomes friends with them. A very attractive female registrar – ie. a newish doctor who is junior to Carla – begins organizing a women doctor’s support group. Carla is surprised to find that the fearsome matron is also on her side (I know, they aren’t called matrons any more. Why not? And what are they called?). Carla twists lover boy’s arm until he takes her home to meet his parents, well his mother and sister, she knows his father already as he is head of plastic surgery.

True love of course does not run smooth. Another guy enters the picture. A creepy older consultant progresses from stealing kisses from all his women colleagues, to touching breasts, to putting his hands in Carla’s pants while “tucking in” her scrubs. The Prof thinks it would be better for her chances of promotion if a complaint was not pursued. All the usual stuff.

I won’t tell you any more. The events of ‘During’ are both traumatic and believable. The good-looking registrar leads a revolution of sorts. Carla, her Italian family, her friends and lovers, and above all Melbourne – well the leafy inner suburbs of Parkville and Carlton anyway – are all engaging characters. Lots of graphically described surgery. Various believable resolutions are achieved. Not Literature maybe, but well worth the read.


Susan White, Cut, Affirm Press, Melbourne, 2022. 336 pp. Audiobook from Wave Sound, read by Jacqui Duncan. 10 hours

[The top line of my editor has changed. There are fewer icons and now there’s no button to push to see how many words I’ve written – not many today, I know, but it’s not a wordy sort of book.]

Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Thirty Years in Australia (1903) is Ada Cambridge’s memoir of … well you can tell what it’s of. I have read it for my contribution this month to the AWWC site, which I hope you read! Over there I am concentrating on her life and times and writing. Here, I thought I would write a little extra about her travels.

“Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was born on 21 November 1844 at St Germans, Norfolk, England, daughter of Henry Cambridge, gentleman farmer, and his wife Thomasina, née Emmerson, a doctor’s daughter. She grew up in Downham, Norfolk, a perceptive and cherished child, learning little from a succession of governesses but reading widely and delighting in the fen country of her birth… On 25 April 1870 at Holy Trinity, Ely, she married George Frederick Cross, a curate committed to colonial service.” (Jill Roe, ADB)

For a month they honeymooned in a rectory just a few miles from their homes, from a sister who would walk over each morning to visit, then it was down to London for a few days, then the train from Paddington to Plymouth where they boarded a sailing ship on her maiden voyage, the Hampshire, at a time when steamships must already have been taking over (years ago I read an account of the last commercial sailing ship from Australia to England, a clipper laden with wheat which arrived after the commencement of WWII).

At other times we lay becalmed, and I had my chance to dress myself and enjoy the evening dance or concert, or whatever was going on. But at the worst of times—even in the tremendous storms, when the ship lay poop-rail under, all but flat on her beam ends (drowning the fowls and pigs on that side), or plunged and wallowed under swamping cross-seas that pounded down through smashed skylights upon us tumbling about helplessly in the dark—even in these crises of known danger and physical misery there was something exhilarating and uplifting—a sense of finely-lived if not heroic life, that may come to the coddled steamer passenger when the machinery breaks down, but which I cannot associate with him and his “floating hotel” under any circumstances short of impending shipwreck.

They arrived in Melbourne on 19 Aug. 1870, after a voyage of 77 days. Melbourne, at the height of its post-goldrush glory, was impressive, with wide paved streets, fine buildings. They were taken to “the Fitzroy Gardens—saw the same fern gully, the same plaster statues, that still adorn it; and to the Botanical Gardens, already furnished with their lakes and swans, and rustic bridges, and all the rest of it. And how beautiful we thought it all!”

Soon however they were in the bush. George’s first position was a curacy in Wangaratta (Cambridge only ever gives the town initial, but the positions are listed online and other towns may be deduced). The Sydney road was so wet and muddy – “Bridges and culverts had been washed away, and the coach-road was reported impassable for ladies” – that they took the train, a “railway which ended at the Murray” (Echuca).

The railway to Echuca was established in 1863. The Sydney line further to the east, was commenced in 1870 and the house they lived in in Wangaratta was a couple of years later demolished to make way for the station.

From Echuca they took a little paddle steamer, intending I think to sail upriver to Wodonga and thence get a coach back to Wangaratta. But the winding of the river is so tortuous (remember Tom Collins?) and the journey so slow that they disembarked “level with W____”, probably near Yarrawonga, and got a lift in a farm cart.

the steamer passed on and vanished round the next bend of the river, which was all bends, leaving us on the bank—in the real Bush for the first time, and delighted with the situation. The man with the cart had guaranteed to get us home before nightfall.

Nothing is ever that simple. They spend a great deal of time bogged and for the first of many times she and George experience the unstinting hospitality of the Australian Bush. “I came in, an utter stranger, out of the dark night and that wet and boggy wilderness, weary and without a dry stitch on me, to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes.”

And so their Australian life begins. Read on …


Ada Cambridge, Thirty Years in Australia, Methuen, London, 1903. Serialized in The Empire Review 1901-2. Available from Project Gutenberg.

Conversations with Grandma: Genealogical Journeys in Wangaratta has a great deal more, over nine parts!
Ada Cambridge and the Wangaratta Story, Part 1 (here).
The author, Jenny Coates, does not provide links from one post to the next so I will leave it to you to search on ‘Ada Cambridge’ and find the others for yourself.

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)

AWWC: extract from Chapter X, Our Fourth Home (Ballan) (here)

Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.


Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).