Her Last Words, Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly is an Australian author, who grew up in Sydney, found her first vocation as a book editor and her second as a writer of fiction. She doesn’t give us her age and I won’t bother guessing. Over the course of her writing career, she had a publisher, lost her publisher “as interest fell off”, and began self publishing. Now, in her latest (Sept 2021) newsletter she writes, “All of my independently published novels – eleven of them – have been removed from sale in Australia and New Zealand to make way for beautiful new Brio Books editions from Booktopia.”

This spurred me to check out BorrowBox and, as I write, I am up to the last chapter of Her Last Words (Kelly’s tenth, published 2020, but set a few years earlier). And to be clear, I am enjoying it very much.

What I want to discuss is how we define “middlebrow” or “general” fiction, and how we separate out Literary Fiction, which is the general concern of this corner of the blogosphere – though of course we all condescend to dip our toes from time to time in genre fiction which may or may not be Literary. And before Kim starts firing bullets at me across the continent, let me say that while I get the impression that she, maybe for financial reasons, aims at the “general” market, there is absolutely no difference in quality between Her Last Words and say, Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, let alone other authors mysteriously taken up by the literati – you knew I’d say Jane Harper, Evie Wyld, Peggy Frew and so on.

It is germane to this discussion that the great majority of reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge are for works/authors you and I don’t bother reading and which of course sell in quantities that make every literary author green with envy. So what is the distinction?

Some of it is clearly class and/or education. Let us say that General fiction is aimed at middle class women for their entertainment; and Literary fiction is aimed at upper (by education rather than wealth or birth) middle class, men and women, for their … improvement.

Literary fiction should be marked by innovation in writing and in subject matter. However, what passes for Literary fiction most of the time, as the Miles Franklin Award demonstrates year after year, is just entertainment for the slightly better educated.

Her Last Words is a Rom.Com/Police Procedural/Medical Drama. At its centre are two characters, Penny, a senior book editor, and John, an actor, friends, both thirtyish; and a Sydney suburb, Bondi, slightly shabby, famously beachside. Having Penny in the industry allows Kelly many opportunities to vent about publishing (in particular, the wankers in corner offices profiting from the labour of tireless senior book editors), and to write about writing.

There are plenty of other characters – Fizz, an aspiring writer, Penny’s best friend and John’s partner; Jane, Fizz’s flatmate and definitely The Villain; Rich, an Irishman who owns a not very successful Bondi bookshop; Viv, a (sixth generation) Chinese-Australian doctor with colourful hair and shoes; a police detective whose name I forget; a failed banker/druggie; a truck driver even, whose truck facilitates a suicide.

As in life, there are interlinking plots. John and Fizz have a falling out; John gets very ill; Penny deals with an unsatisfactory job; Jane passes off someone else’s manuscript as her own and is on the way to becoming the next big thing; there’s an unexpected death; romance blooms, but very slowly.

The characters are well drawn, we love them, or hiss the villian, appropriately. Bondi is a character in its own right. It’s a long time, 25 years maybe, since I’ve been there, and it’s probably been gentrified out of sight. But Kelly evokes it beautifully and lovingly. She doesn’t live there now but surely she must have in the past.

I had hoped to get hold of an ebook so as to write a proper review with quotes (and properly spelt names) and all, but I guess they have been temporarily lost in the transfer of rights to Brio. which is launching all Kim Kelly’s books next month.

You may remember that a couple of years ago Kim won the wadholloway award for blogpost of the year (2019) for a post about the inappropriateness of Holocaust Fiction. She was probably writing Her Last Words at the time. Penny, who puts in a great deal of unpaid and unappreciated overtime dealing with unsatisfactory manuscripts, has ongoing issues with one in particular which features a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany offering sex to a soldier in the SS, what she, appropriately, labels Holocaust Porn.

Between Penny’s job, Jane’s shot at the bigtime with a stolen ms, and the Irish bookseller, there is a lot of bookish, not to say, literary, talk. Which, for me, makes this a Literary work. And there is a meta element to it, an underlying discussion of its own Rom.Com.ness, culminating in the final chapter ‘Semi Traditional Rom.Com. Denoument’. If there is a weakness, it is its length, getting on for 400pp. In the General market big is better, I’m sure, and Her Last Words sags a little around the middle in a way an experienced editor, like Kim Kelly say, might have ruthlessly excised for a different market, ie. us.

I hope Neil@Kallaroo whose tastes I largely share, reads this and gives us his opinion, I hope you all do. With different marketing Her Last Words could easily have been Australia’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, It deserves to be read.

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Kim Kelly, Her Last Words, first pub. 2020. Due out 12 Oct. 2021 from Brio/Booktopia. Available now from Audible.

The Silence, Susan Allott

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.

The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.

And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.

The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.

I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.

In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.

Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.

‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’
Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers.
Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands.
Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.

Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.

This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.

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Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.


*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.

The January Zone, Peter Corris

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

Peter Corris (1942-2018) must be our best known crime fiction writer, especially his Cliff Hardy novels of which this is one, the tenth as you can see, of 44. Looking through the list I can see that I’ve listened to a few, but this one happened to be on my shelves so I thought I would add it to Kimbofo’s month. In passing, his Wikipedia entry tells me Corris was married to AWW Gen 4 writer Jean Bedford, and that he had a PhD in History with a thesis on the South Seas Islander slave trade (into Queensland).

The Cliff Hardy novels are set in Sydney, Corris’s adopted home city (he was born and educated in Melbourne). Hardy’s home is an old terrace house in the inner-west, off Glebe Point Rd I think, which I used to know a little bit as B2 had a house there, 2 storeys, 11 ft wide and with a sandstone cliff at the end of the backyard. Although the novels are generally read independently, over the course of reading them you get some familiarity with his home life.

In The January Zone (1987) Hardy is late fortyish, so the same age as his author, divorced, alone, Helen his lover back living up the coast with her husband and daughter. He has a military background of course, in his case service with the Australian Army in Malaya; and is scruffy and anti-authoritarian and all those other cliches of modern detective fiction.

I am used to Hardy sloping around the streets of Sydney in his battered old Ford Falcon doing sleuthing stuff, but this novel jumps the shark a little – and it surprised me to find it was relatively early in the series – with Hardy acting as bodyguard (“security consultant”) to Labor politician, pacifist and Assistant Defence Minister Peter January during a trip to Washington to appear before a Senate Committee into the Russian threat in the Pacific or somesuch.

Hardy doesn’t want to be a security consultant but is persuaded when he’s present when a bomb goes off in the Minister’s office and a young intern is killed (and is barely mentioned again). And yes it pisses me off that a Federal Minister’s office is in Sydney. A constant stream of Sydney-based Prime Ministers over the past 30 years has incrementally moved the seat of government, not to mention the PM’s residence (I’d bomb Kirribilli if I could), away from Canberra in defiance of the Constitution.

January, so he fits in with every other male politician, pretends to be a lecher to divert attention from the fact that he’s actually going about with the wife of a senior Liberal. Hardy has the hots for Trudi, January’s secretary, though when his big opportunity comes he thinks of Helen and keeps his pants on (sort of).

She collapsed and I got properly onto the bed and held her. After a while she reached down and pulled the sheet up over us. “How do you feel now?” she said.
“I want you.” I was still hot and hard.
“Better we don’t,” she murmured. “This way you’ll remember … something different …”
“I’ll think of the Queen.”
She smiled and curled herself up.

A sniper takes a shot at Trudi before they leave Sydney; someone attempts to run the Minister’s car off the road on the way in from Washington airport; an assassin electrifies the microphone, killing the warm-up speaker at a January rally; January is a media sensation (the first Australian media sensation in the US since the PM’s wife wore a dress with a slit all the way up the side back in 1971). So you can see what I mean about jumping the shark.

Politicians around the world are struck by the brilliance of the junior Minister’s plan for peace in our time. Back home there’s a kidnapping, men playing merry hell with shotguns, more deaths, all the stuff you see every day in your morning newspaper. Not. The January Zone is more Action novel than Detective, very Sydney. I probably should have read a Peter Temple instead.

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Peter Corris, The January Zone, Unwin Paperbacks, Sydney, 1987. 205pp

The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

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

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

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


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

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

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

So why did I struggle with the story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Morning This, Kylie Tennant

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

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was an important chronicler of the lives of Sydney’s underclass, perhaps not so popular as Ruth Park, but with a grittier style and a better understanding (Park and Tennant were both of the middle class, but Park’s depictions of the people of Sydney’s inner suburbs tended towards patronising, whereas Tennant’s were genuinely sympathetic and tempered by her early association with the Communism).

Tell Morning This (1967) is a rambunctious, entertaining novel of the seamier side of life in and around Kings Cross during the latter stage of WWII. This is more or less the same period/locale as that covered by Cusack & James’ Come in Spinner and interestingly they seem to have had similar publication histories. Although the winner of a major prize in 1948, Come in Spinner had to be abridged to get past the censors and a full version was not published until 1987. Tennant writes of Tell Morning This

A brief version of this book appeared in those years when paper was hard to come by and censors unduly sensitive. The choice was to cut by at least a third or to lay the manuscript aside … the remnant, The Joyful Condemned [1953], looked much the same.

Author’s note

From Tell Morning This (Tennant), Say Not to Death (Cusack) and The Drums go Bang (Park) you get a pretty good idea of the housing shortage, and resulting squalid, crowded rooming houses in inner Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. I wish we had the same insight into Melbourne, but as I wrote elsewhere, for a while ‘they’ had all the good writers.

The central characters of Tell Morning This are Rene (short for Irene), a fifteen year old prostitute and David, a medical student and conscientious objector to the War – interesting, because despite my own background in the anti-war movement as a draft-resister, I commented recently that I thought that the Japanese threat was so imminent that if I had been born a quarter century earlier I would have joined up.

Rene was a hefty chunk of a girl with a nose flat across the bridge, good teeth, and hair that was temporarily blonde and curled nearly as high as the storm’s. Its original colour had been a nasty red.

Rene, whose only family is “a bunch of files in the Department”, has been brought up by the McGarty’s, a complicated family of sly groggers and petty thieves you need a spreadsheet to keep up with. David is a quiet, thoughtful good-looking boy whose mother had died in childbirth and his father, a judge, had been shot dead about 15 years earlier. A woman, Terry Lago, got life for the murder but is widely believed to be covering for her career criminal husband who has disappeared.

Imprisonment is the novel’s central theme. Rene and her friends, whose only source of income (and amusement) is to be picked up off the streets by US servicemen, are routinely rounded up for ‘being in moral danger’ and put into youth detention, the pinnacle of which is the infamous Parramatta Girls Training School (which Tennant gives the alias Petworth); David’s cousin Henrietta runs a model detention centre, until she is promoted to Petworth and fails; David spends six months in gaol during the course of the novel, and will have further spells of six months until the War ends (or his spirit breaks); a vindictive doctor, as Terry Lago is approaching release, commits her to indefinite detention in a mental home.

Tennant famously biffed a cop in order to research this novel from the inside, and she seems to have done a pretty thorough job (of the research. I’m sure the biffing was quite gentle). There’s a lot about the power structures, formal and informal, in the men’s, women’s and girls’ institutions; and about different reactions to incarceration. There’s even an evil smelling prison tram which runs between Long Bay and the central courts – the men all chained together must shuffle around in a circle if one of them needs to use the can.

David in gaol refuses to work, in the belief that the work is to assist the army, and so is put into solitary, not the dreaded dark cells, the black peter, but the yards, only half roofed

They shut him, by his own fault, in this narrow cocoon, and from a mild white grub of a boy he was hatching into something that very closely resembled a human hornet. His hatred of the governor, when every morning, the man said: “The magistrate has been delayed. He will be here tomorrow”, was the greater in that he detected real pleasure, malicious pleasure in this delay.

This is a big book, 446pp, with a cast to match. David’s family of do-gooder aunts, the Aumbrys, who live in a fine old house on the North Shore; the McGartys – Grandma bedridden, who brought up Rene till she became too much to manage; her daughter who runs Grandma’s house in the Cross as a rooming house and who has banned Rene; a nephew who runs a pub nearby and another who drives for Sydney’s Mr Big; the Cobbetts who have a shop out in a semi-rural outer suburb and who are connected to Mr Big and to Terry Largo. And then there’s Mr Big’s daughter Margot who wants to join the Aumbrys in do-gooding and who is keen on David.

Of course there are Americans, who in between missions, spend time and lavish money on Rene and all her underage friends, all generally in a state of undress, even when out, and ready to jump into bed. And there’s Marie, a minor character really, who has a baby which Rene loves; who is given a home by the Aumbrys to save her from the Department but which she hates for its boredom, until at last she runs away to Melbourne, is bored there too and comes back to have another baby which she is relieved to discover is white.

Rene and David bump into each other from time time, and each feels sorry for the other. We follow their separate paths, Rene to slowly become aware who her mother is, and David who shot his father; neither looking, but with everyone around them knowing, knowing becomes inevitable.

What a marvellous book. What took me so long to get to it.

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Kylie Tennant, Tell Morning This, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1967. 446pp.

And so begins another ‘Gen’ Week. Brona has already posted on one of my favourite authors, Eve Langley and much more is promised.

Say No to Death, Dymphna Cusack

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

sayno.jpg

My first edition hardback of Say No to Death (1951) doesn’t have a dust jacket but I imagine that is it above. I was going to write first and probably only edition, until I saw some paperbacks in Images – publishers Allen&Unwin, Seven Seas and Great Books, which implies that it’s out of copyright – and a cover, in English, on a Russian site, pictured below along with an intriguing book I hadn’t previously heard of – Dymphna by Norman Freehill with Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 81).

I didn’t have Cusack down as a Communist, of whom there were a number in Gen 3, but from Images I could see she was obviously published in Eastern Europe and so looked further.

Late in 1948 Cusack consolidated a long-term if intermittent relationship with Norman Randolph Freehill, then chief-of-staff of the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Tribune… In 1949 Cusack, and later Freehill, sailed for Europe. When health permitted, she worked on the manuscripts that she had taken to London, including Say No to Death

A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate. She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an `écrivain engagé’—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era.

ADB, Marilla North

If you’re interested in that sort of stuff, ADB also says the play Comets Soon Pass (1943) “was her personal catharsis and artistic reprisal for the defection of her former lover, the novelist Xavier Herbert”.

Before I go on I should clarify what I’m attempting to achieve by looking again next month at Australian Women Writers Gen 3, which covers the period from immediately after the Great War to the end of the fifties. In our first go we looked at the transition away from the blokey Bulletin era of ‘the nineties’, to the new movements of Modernism and Social Realism, and for Communists, Socialist Realism (I won’t question you on the difference, though it’s important), and the rise of a family-based Pioneer legend as a counter to the Bulletin’s misogynist ‘Lone Hand’.

Please, by all means look some more at the pre-War (WWII) period, but I also need to be clear in my own mind about the transition to Gen 4 which occurred after the War. I was born in rural Victoria in 1951 so this is personal. Australia’s eastern seaboard, where 80% of us live, was White. White, white, white. And not just white, but totally, homogeneously Brit. “Home” was England and the only ethnic diversity came from Irish Catholics. Victoria’s remnant Aboriginal population was hidden away at Lake Tyers and it was the same, to a large extent, in the other eastern states until you got into the outback. The writing of the 1940s and 50s represented that and continued on the stories of white middle-class privilege, and of working class hardship and housing shortage ongoing from the Depression years, almost without a break.

Even before the War, migration had commenced with Eastern European Jews, then came assisted migrants in their thousands from the UK, Italy and Greece, so by the 1960s we were a totally different place. Add in the sexual revolution which arose out of/coincided with the Pill, the popular music revolution, the baby boom, the anti-war movement, and you can see why this must be my transition point from Gen 3 to Gen 4.

This, as always, leaves two important writers on the cusp, Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020) and Thea Astley (1925-2004) who published their first novels in respectively 1957 and 1958. I’m going to make a captain’s call and put Harrower in Gen 3 and Astley in Gen 4. My reasoning is that Harrower wrote mostly in the 1950s, she was a modernist, after Eleanor Dark and Patrick White say, and her subject was the monocultural middle class suburbs of Sydney. Astley on the other hand, wrote prolifically throughout the second half of the C20th and her theme was much more the clash of cultures.

So, back to Say No to Death. I have reviewed Cusack’s first, Jungfrau (1936), should have reviewed her second, the spoof Pioneers on Parade (1939) written with Miles Franklin, have reviewed her third, Come in Spinner (1951) co-written with Florence James and also Caddie (1953) for which Cusack wrote the Introduction and which is a memoir written by her and James’ housekeeper when they were living together in the Blue Mountains writing Come in Spinner.

Say No to Death was her fourth, not counting five or six plays which Cusack thought might be her real vocation. It wasn’t one I had planned to read, but was getting – am still – bogged down in Christina Stead’s Little Hotel, and so grabbed the nearest to hand off the shelf of possibles for this Gen3/II introduction. It’s a shame to tell you any of the story at all, as it is much better if the developments come up in their proper place, but yes, I’m going to.

The setting is Sydney, 1947, starting in the crowded suburbs around the Cross, described elsewhere with much more feeling and detail by Ruth Park who had arrived there to live in shambolic rooming houses three or four years earlier with her new husband D’Arcy Niland and his brother. There Jan and her sister Doreen share a one room flat.

The novel begins with Bart Templeton, a soldier who had fought in New Guinea before re-enlisting, returning from a year or so with the Occupation forces in Japan. Jan is at the wharf to meet him, at the back of the welcome-home crowd, ready to walk away if he doesn’t acknowledge her.

He’d behaved pretty lousily to Jan, he was willing to admit. But what else was a cove to do? He’d been her first man – he’d take an oath on that. She was in love with him; there was no doubt about that either, and they’d had a hell of a lot of fun together. And when he’d gone away without saying a word about marrying her she hadn’t reproached him nor even shown what she felt …

He does acknowledge her, taking up where he’d left off and soon they’re on ten days vacation in a shack on a lake somewhere up the Northern Beaches. Towards the end she coughs blood, a bone in her throat maybe, but we know what’s coming and soon it’s clear Jan has TB.

I still find Cusack’s writing style awkward, but the story itself is good. Bart and Jan have their ups and downs. The public system for isolating men and women with TB is a disgrace, crowded ex-WWI army barracks with a 3 – 6 months waiting list, men sleeping on verandahs, working people dying from want of treatment. I can remember my father being terrified of us kids touching stuff in the street or eating with dirty hands and this is why. Maybe every generation has its Covid-19.

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Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death, Heinemann, London, 1951. 324pp

see also Sue (Whispering Gums):
Dymphna Cusack, A Window in the Dark, memoir (here)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (here)
Delicious Descriptions: Dymphna Cusack’s Sydney (here)

The Place on Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta

Talk about getting what you wished for! I wrote a few weeks ago, in comments after Saving Francesca that “I’d be interested to read a Melina Marchetta that covered the next few years, 17,18 through to mid twenties like say Normal People, though perhaps her style would be too gentle.” The Place on Dalhousie is Marchetta’s latest and here is a quote from p.4.

And that’s all it takes. A couple of drinks and she’s back in some strange guy’s room, upstairs at the pub. His calloused fingers find their way between her legs and she realises she’s going to spend another night of her life screwing a guy she doesn’t know. Makes her feel as if she can’t climb out of the bat cave, and the bleakness is smothering.

‘She’ is Rosie, 19 year old daughter of Sicilian immigrants, passing through a central Queensland town (probably based on Theodore, 560 km NW of Brisbane). Her life is a mess. Her mother has died of cancer. Her father who spent years rebuilding the old house ‘on Dalhousie’ in inner western Sydney, has remarried, to Martha, the daughter of German immigrants, and then been killed in a traffic accident. The guy she doesn’t know is Jimmy. They spend the next week or so helping residents deal with a major flood, then go their separate ways.

We move on a couple of years. Martha, forty-ish, is dealing with a stressful job, with being a widow, with a girl upstairs with a screaming baby, with a girl upstairs who won’t talk to her but insists that the house is hers. Her best friend gets her to join a netball team with some of their old class mates, most of whom she has spent the last twenty years avoiding. Marchetta it seems, is big on the bonds formed at school.

Jimmy responds 15 months late to the text informing him he is a father. He is now working on the mines up north, week on, week off. Rosie is not impressed but Jimmy hangs around, couch surfing when he can get down to Sydney, with his own old schoolmates from inner-western Sydney. At some stage my goldfish brain finally catches on – twenty-something Jimmy and Frankie and Tara and so on are the 17 year-olds from Saving Francesca.

Poor Jimmy has to work very hard to convince Rosie he’s worth bothering with.

She holds out the crying kid for Jimmy to take, but he doesn’t.
‘When he gets used to me, maybe,’ he says.
Rosie cradles the sobbing baby, but it doesn’t seem to help. And that’s it for the day. No more talking, just a lot of standing around and soaking in the mess.

Martha has a love interest. She has sex with a football hero/older brother of one of her classmates in the back seat of his (presumably dual cab) ute after a funeral, and two or three times after. Yes, they do have homes, they just seem to have a thing about reliving their, twenty years previous, school days.

The football hero guy is also their netball coach, so that makes one plot line. The ups and downs of Jimmy and Rosie being parents and learning to talk to each other, makes another. Then, we get bits and pieces of the lives of the Saving Francesca crowd (whom I read were also in another novel, The Piper’s Son), and of the Sydney inner-west Italian community to which both Frankie (Francesca) and Rosie belong, so there’s plenty going on.

Rosie joins a new mothers group for support from which she and another couple of misfits (ie. non-Anglos) are shunted, and as they get over their prickliness they form a support group of their own. She starts working in an old people’s home and of course that’s the home where football guy, whom she doesn’t know at that stage, places his father. There’s ongoing background hum about a lost Monaro which eventually stretches concidence even further. But mostly it’s just an easygoing story of people and their lives, intertwined in ways that I as a constant moving-onner find both interesting and a bit unbelievable.

No, it’s not literary fiction – I may finally get a mention in the AWCC General fiction round-up (I think I missed out with Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty) – but nevertheless an interesting step up from the schoolgirls of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

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Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie, Penguin Random House, Melbourne, 2019. 277pp.

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

.

Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003

Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

notmeetingmrright.jpg

Anita Heiss (1968- ) is a Wiradjuri woman, an academic and an author. I have previously reviewed her Dhuuluu-yala: To Talk Straight (here) on who should write Aboriginal stories, and plan hope to review her Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia towards the end of this Week.

As well as her academic work, Heiss has published a number of novels in the genre she likes to call Choc.Lit, ie. Chick.Lit with strong Black women protagonists. From the reviews I have looked at these are all as didactic as they are romantic. Not Meeting Mr Right (2007) was her first.

My younger daughter has been telling me off about using the expression Chick.Lit but I will leave her and Dr Heiss to fight that out between them. To be fair, I think that Gee’s concern was that men were too liable to characterise women’s writing as Chick.Lit. instead of engaging with their valid concerns about personal development and relationships.

Heiss’s mother is a Wiradjuri woman from Cowra in central NSW and her father was born in Austria. Heiss was born in Sydney and went to an eastern suburbs Catholic girls school. Alice, Heiss’s heroine, lives in the eastern suburbs, has an Aboriginal mother and an Austrian father, and teaches history at a Catholic girls school. That is not to say that Not Meeting Mr Right is autobiographical, but rather that it draws on her lived experience. At the time of publication Heiss, “who lives in Sydney, believes in love at first sight and enjoys being single!”, was going on 40. Alice, who lives in a flat overlooking Bondi beach, is 28 and determined to be married before she’s 30.

There is one other issue to be dealt with before I go on. And that is is that I sometimes find fiction by Australian Indigenous writers awkward to read, the most recent example being Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. That is, that the flow of the words doesn’t feel right. In one of the many teaching moments spread through this book, Heiss addresses this:

I’d always thought the written and spoken word were very different in the white world. It’s so obvious in their literature. Aboriginal writing is closely aligned to the spoken word. We write like we speak, and reality is, that’s how our people read too.

What she leaves unsaid is that spoken Aboriginal English has significant differences, in its rhythms as well as vocabulary, from what we might call received English. I feel this sometimes just within ‘white’ English, moving from city to country and from lit.blogging to truck driving.

Two months after her twenty-eighth birthday Alice attends a ten-year school reunion

I’d been a self-conscious teenager who never really fit in – me being a Blackfella from La Perouse and the rest of the girls whitefellas from Vaucluse and Rose Bay. A triangular peg in a round hole, I used to say.

These days, Alice, probably shapelier and prettier than her former schoolmates, doing well as a senior teacher, is made to feel inadequate in another way. All the others are flashing engagement and wedding rings, the talk is all weddings and babies (It doesn’t help that Alice’s mother is applying the same pressure). Of course Alice “loves being single”, but by the end of the night she has decided that she will find and marry Mr Right before she turns 30.

She calls a meeting of her friendship group and they come around immediately to begin strategising – Dannie, happily married with children; Peta, a serial dater, who does something high-powered in Indigenous Education policy; and Liz a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service. The upshot is that she will do what it takes – blind dates, classified ads, attend professional gatherings … to get a man who is ‘single, straight and wanting to be in a relationship’, financially secure, shows affection in public etc, etc. but she will not ‘put out on the first date’, date friends’ exes, or get picked up in a pub. There’s also stuff about star signs, which I ignored.

There follows, over the course of 20 months, a series of meetings with men who might fit the bill. Her friends line her up, her mother wishes to line her up with her best friend’s gay son, her garbo turns out to have a degree in something and to be an altogether nice guy; she dates white guys, Indigenous guys, a Samoan guy – who is just getting into bed when she mentions Wedding Island on the horizon and he disappears in a cloud of dust; she dates a lilywhite guy who is sure he is black – if by dating you mean drinking till you black out and waking up on the floor of a strange flat beside a man you’ve never seen before; early on she dates a friend of Dannie’s who might be perfect but rejects him because his face is pockmarked with chickenpox scars. Yes, Alice is a lookist.

The teaching moments deal with how to introduce your Black girlfriend; ‘significant moments for women in Australian history’ (interestingly she has Cathy Freeman’s gold medal at the Sydney Olympics but not Evonne Goolagong’s 14 Grand Slams); other stuff I forgot to write down; not reading Murdoch newspapers (duh!).

A couple of guys are nearly ok. An awful lot of makeup is applied and gin drunk to not much effect. More desperation comedy than romantic comedy. But enjoyable.

 

Anita Heiss, Not Meeting Mr Right, Bantam/Random House, Sydney, 2007

The Cockatoos, Patrick White

Text Publishing — The Cockatoos: Text Classics, book by ...

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an unlikely candidate for the title of Australia’s best writer. Born into a firmly upper class life, he lived as a child in Sydney and on his family’s properties in the Hunter Valley (NSW), he and his sister were brought up by a nanny, and at age 12 he was sent to boarding school in England. He left school early and jackarooed for a couple of years on an uncle’s 28 square mile station in the Snowy Mountains (similar country to and maybe 100 kms SE of Miles Franklin’s families’ properties) before returning to England to study French and German Literature at Cambridge.

When his father died in 1937 White was independently wealthy, living and writing in London and for a while in the US. His first novel, Happy Valley, which he had commenced while jackarooing, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece during which time he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer, who became his life partner.

White lived with Lascaris for six years in Cairo before, in 1948, bringing him to live in Australia where they had a hobby farm at Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. Their life as ‘farmers’ formed the background for one of White’s most admired novels (not by me!), his fourth, and the first written in Australia, The Tree of Man (1955). To be clear, Patrick White lived as an Englishman, rather than an Australian, until he was 36.

His fifth and greatest novel, Voss (1957) draws on the life (and death) of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt and also on White’s own time in the outback at another family property near Walgett, NSW. White wrote 13 novels all up and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The Cockatoos, his second collection of short stories was published in 1974.

I always knew I should read White and attempted, unsuccessfully, The Aunt’s Story (1948) while I was at uni. Some time later I read and enjoyed Voss, and also the David Marr biography, and I read, and wrote about, The Aunt’s Story and The Twyborn Affair (1979) during my (very) mature age M.Litt. I have vague memories of starting others – I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986) and I thought I owned the memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981) but maybe not.

I look up ‘Cockatoos’ in Marr. “So dry were the early months of 1973 that flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew in from the bush to plunder city gardens”. White is correcting proofs of The Eye of the Storm and putting together some stories written over the previous six years. “The latest story is called “The Cockatoos”, [White wrote], and that would be the title of the collection.” He submitted the stories in July and moved on to A Fringe of Leaves which had been lying ten years in a drawer waiting for Mrs Fraser “to recover from the mauling of librettists and composers” (see also: Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt).

Here are the stories and their lengths in pages:
A Woman’s Hand 104
The Full Belly 30
The Night the Prowler 58
Five-Twenty 34
Sicilian Vespers 86
The Cockatoos 59
so you can see why the collection is subtitled ‘Shorter novels and stories’.

Gail Jones in her 10 page introductory essay begins at the same place as I have, Marr’s “So dry were the early months of 1973 …”. She describes White’s work as “the singular project of someone for whom art offered questions, not answers, and an anguishing search for resolution in the irresolute business of being.” After waxing lyrical about The Tree of Man, she writes:

So what of The Cockatoos? Wonderfully broad in setting – the stories take place in Sicily, Greece, Egypt and Australia – they are also typical of White’s fiction in their combination of social comedy, inner quest and revelations of deep wounding. All engage modernist effects and concern melancholy and suffering.

I have read, struggled through, these stories. White’s work has layer on layer of meaning and intertextuality. They are mostly about older couples making do together, and White expresses his usual disgust with women’s bodies and with middle class Australians with deliberately ridiculous names like the Fazackerleys (A Woman’s Hand). The Full Belly is a short re-imagining of Greek life under German occupation, a period White was familiar with from his life with Manoly and the years he spent living in the Greek community in Egypt. The Night the Prowler Jones says strikes a false note. A couple attempt to come to terms with their daughter being raped, the daughter attempts to come to terms with being raped by becoming a sexual predator. This was made into a movie which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at the final story, The Cockatoos. It’s a story of neighbours, people, middle aged couples mostly, living in the same suburban street, knowing each others’ names but hardly neighbourly. Mr Goodenough wears shorts at the weekend, showing his varicose veins. He and Mrs Goodenough have an only child, Tim, almost nine, who avoids other children, wanders streets and parks on his own. White makes fun of himself:

It bothered the father: what if the boy turned out a nut? or worse, a poof – or artist?

Mrs Davoren and her husband Mick, an Irish airman during the war, live amicably enough in the same house but avoid meeting, communicate through notes. Miss Le Cornu lives alone in the house left her by her parents. Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu both cook tea for Mick who puts on his hat and walks up the street to eat his overcooked steak and bed Miss Le Cornu before wandering home again while Mrs Davoren scrapes the teas she cooks into the bin.

Cockatoos settle on the Davoren’s lawn, are offered food and water until they briefly accept a better offer from Miss Le Cornu. The Davorens bump into each other in a dark corner and briefly reconcile. Figgis, the neighbour everyone dislikes, brings his shotgun into the street, fires at the birds. Mick Davoren wrestles him for the gun, is shot, dies in the arms of Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu, who afterwards sometimes speak. Tim spends a night in the park and beats a crippled cockatoo to death with a branch.

All very Patrick White. I’m sure it all means something.

 

Patrick White, The Cockatoos, first pub. 1973, this ed. Text Classics, 2019, Introduction by Gail Jones