Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Beverley Farmer’s This Water

Beverley Farmer, This Water (Giramondo 2017)

5tales.jpgThis Water is Beverley Farmer’s tenth book. Her first, the novel Alone, was published in 1980. Her short story collection Milk won the Christina Stead Prise for Fiction in 1984. She was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in the 1990s, and in 2009 she received the Patrick White Award, given each year in November to an Australian writer ‘who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition’.

As Alexis Wright said in her acceptance speech for this year’s Stella Prize, ‘any book is nothing less than a monumental achievement’. To have written book after book as Beverley Farmer has done, with just enough recognition from those who bestow cultural credibility, is beyond monumental.

I haven’t read any of her earlier work, apart from an essay or perhaps two in the late lamented Heat, but I suspect that This Water represents something like a Late Style. There’s something about its five stories that signals a grand indifference to fashion or indeed to how any reader might judge them. They are:

  • ‘A Ring of Gold’, which features an old white woman living alone (though surrounded by other people) in coastal Victoria, long after the death of her husband and her only sustaining relationships being in memory and with the natural world. I thought of this as a kind of Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, only deliberately leaving out the art-making
  • ‘This Water’ and ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’, two tales in the mode of Celtic stories of princesses and curses. Unlike the magnificent tellings of such stories for young readers by the late Ruth Manning Sanders, or for that matter Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’, these – especially the second, much longer one – leave their folk origins to tell challenging adult tales (adult in the sense of grappling with difficult ideas)
  • ‘Tongue of Blood’, a monologue from a figure from Ancient Greek tragedy
  • ‘The Ice Bride’, the longest of the tales. With motifs and structural elements from fairy tales – especially “Bluebeard’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and perhaps a gender-reversed ‘The Snow Queen’ – this is a deeply creepy, dream-like fantasy. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I imagine that this is infinitely better written, but the abject dependence of the female protagonist on her ‘Lord’ made me think of that book.

None of the characters in any of the tales has a name.

I can’t say I loved the book, but it’s beautifully written, uncompromising in its commitment to exploring aspects of women’s experience, and strong enough that when ‘light year’ is referred to as a measure of time (‘Our dreams are like the stars. What we see is light years ago.’) my irritation was forgotten within a couple of pages. If you plan to read just one of the stories, I recommend ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’.

This Water is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that my copy is a gift from Giramondo.

Nos ossos

I had hoped to write about the Moving Hearts Project in London as it happened, but it turns out need recollection time to do that sort of thing, and that sort of time has been in short supply. Other kinds of blogging, including brief notes about my reading and perhaps a little translation, don’t have quite the same needs.

Today we visited the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) attached to the Church of São Francisco in Evora, Portugal. The chapel was built in the 17th century, with walls and pillars covered with thousands of human bones, including skulls. It’s beautiful in an inner-city tattoo kind of way, but very creepy, especially when you realise that the bones were dug up from cemeteries connected to the church. The makers, however unthinkingly disrespectful to the graves they robbed, had pious intentions. The chapel is meant as an over-the-top memento mori.

A poem by Padre António da Ascenção Teles, a local parish priest in the mid 19th century, is displayed in the chapel to help us tourists understand the pious intent. (I’ve also included it, in Portuguese, at the end of this post.) It’s a sonnet, so how could I resist having a bash at a version (helped of course, since I don’t speak or read Portuguese, by the literal, non-rhyming English version also on display in the chapel, which you can see here). My title is the message carved in the stone over the entrance to the chapel.

Nos ossos qui aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos /
We bones who are here are waiting for yours

Where are you rushing to, sightseer?
Stop now. Ignore the guidebook’s patter.
Nothing that’s in there can matter
more than the sight you see right here.

Billions have gone, no longer breathing,
and you’ll end pretty much the same.
Ignore this? That would be a shame.
For every life, death is a key thing.

Shopping, selfies, news with noddies,
tweets of Trump and deeds of Dutton:
who remembers we’re all bodies?

Just look. These walls, though they’re bizarre,
can reset your attention button.
Stop now. Remember what you are.

The original, by Fr. António da Ascenção Teles:

Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado?
Pára…não prossigas mais avante;
Negócio, não tens mais importante,
Do que este, à tua vista apresentado.

Recorda quantos desta vida têm passado,
Reflecte em que terás fim semelhante,
Que para meditar causa é bastante
Terem todos mais nisto parado.

Pondera, que influido d’essa sorte,
Entre negociações do mundo tantas,
Tão pouco consideras na morte;

Porém, se os olhos aqui levantas,
Pára … porque em negócio deste porte,
Quanto mais tu parares, mais adiantas.

 

China Miéville’s Scar

China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002)

scar.jpgThis was another gift from the Street Library gods. A couple of pages into it, I realised that it was set in the same world as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which I read many years ago. It’s not a sequel. As far as I recall (which I admit isn’t far) no characters have made the transition from the earlier book, but it packs a similar narrative punch and is populated by a similar range of fantastical creatures who engage in the same blend of steampunk science and magic (thaumaturgy) in the same teemingly complex universe (which I hope never gets made into a CGI-based movie).

The story involves an immense sea monster that is tamed and/or drugged into towing on huge chains a pirate city made up of hundreds of lashed-together vessels small and large. It features sentient beings known as the anophelii, whose chronically famished females attack any creature with blood in its veins and suck it dry in seconds, and whose males, whose mouths resemble anal sphincters, live lives of weirdly passive abstraction. It includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.

I read somewhere that a secret of good fantasy writing is to give the reader cool stuff now, and then cooler stuff later – that is, not to have a terrific climax preceded by a hundred pages of so-so build-up. The Scar is profligate with cool stuff.

I could go on, but I’ll finish off with a taste of Miéville’s prose (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the characters are descending in a tiny deep-sea vehicle):

After uncountable minutes, the darkness outside was momentarily broken, and the crew gasped as time returned to them like an electryc [sic] shock. Some living lamp was passing them by, some tentacular thing that inverted its body with a peristaltic wave, enveloping itself in its luminescent innards and shooting away, its austere glimmer snuffed out.
Chion ignited the lamp at the bathyscaphos’s front. It stuttered on, its phosphorous glow casting a cone of light. They could see its edges as clearly as if they were marble. There was nothing visible in the lamp’s field except a soup of minute detritus, particles that seemed to eddy upward as the Ctenophore plunged. There was nothing to see: no ocean floor, no life, nothing.That crushing emptiness they had illuminated depressed them more profoundly than the darkness. They descended unlit.

The book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it full of delights.

Rose Tremain’s Restoration

Rose Tremain, Restoration (©1989, Sceptre 1990)

Irestoration.jpg read this book – another gift from strangers by way of our little Street Library – while in London with the Moving Hearts Project, which regular readers will know involves shaping hearts from clay. It was a lovely bit of serendipity that in the first couple of pages the narrator, an anatomy student in the mid 17th century, is ‘forced to contemplate an astounding phenomenon’:

I am encircling a human heart, a living human heart with my hand. I am now, in fact, squeezing it with controlled but not negligible force.

I had been doing the same with a heart of clay just minutes before I read that.

Robert Merivel, the narrator–hero, quits medicine for the pleasures and intrigues of the court of Charles II, where he sees himself as a kind of beloved fool. His fortunes rise, and fall dramatically. He finds himself working with an austere group of Quakers in an insane asylum, and again falls from grace. Merivel is his own worst enemy: his heart is in the right place but another part of his anatomy is too often in the wrong one. The book is often very funny, with moments of tenderness and heartbreak.

I haven’t read Pepys’ journals, but I’m guessing that the book owes quite a lot of its tone and ambience to them. I’m pretty sure that Pepys himself makes a brief unnamed appearance.

I enjoyed the book hugely. It was an extra pleasure to read it in London. I regularly walked around Lambeth and Vauxhall, where Merivel rides his horse through the woods (no woods there now), or beside the Thames as Merivel does. The echoes intensified my enjoyment of both the real and the imagined London. Though it doesn’t snow in the novel as it did in my time there, and there was no plague that I knew of in 2018 London, I was particularly struck by this little moment, which also gives some idea of Merivel’s voice:

I stood still and took my first breath of the city. The scent of the air dod not seem to have been altered by the presence of the plague. What I did notice at once, however, was a strange quietness in the street and beyond it, which was like the quietness of snow. It was as if the city had fallen into a trance, or else become a place that I was not really standing it, but only saw and heard from a long way off.

I gather Merivel is the hero of a second book by Rose Tremain. If it turns up in our Street Library it will be hard to resist.

Hearts in London, 4

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Two members of Amnesty International outside Australia House in sub-zero temperatures bear witness on behalf of people opposed to the Australian government’s treatment of people seeking asylum and refugees on Manus Island ad Nauru. Neither of them is Australian.

Hearts in London (continued)
(Previous parts herehere and here)

So we pressed on, launched, with girded loins.
Days blurred as we bused clay
from N9 to SE17 at £1.50 a trip.
Fearing Oz flu we registered
with the NHS and got shots

at miraculous short notice. Our health
was no problem, but neoliberalism
and global warming were: a picket line
blocked our venue and the melting Arctic
sucked warmth from London. Numbers were down

but not out. Earworms thrived. Don’t go breaking my …
couldn’t if I tried
. / Il neigeait, il neigeait,
il neigeait.
 / Take any heart take mine, / snow
falling faintly and faintly falling, upon all the living
and the dead.
/ And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. / As snow

in Aprylle, That falleth on the flowr / melts away like
snow in May as if there were no such cold thing.

And it grew warm again. In St James’s Park
seagulls were on thin ice and fat grey squirrels
froze like water dragons. And all the while

(To be continued)

Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others’ Black Panther

Roxane Gay, Ta Nehisi-Coates, Yona Harvey and Rembert Browne (writers), Alitha E Martinez and Roberto Poggio (main artists) and others, Black Panther: World of Wakanda (Marvel 2017)
Ta-Nehisi Coates & Yona Harvey (writers), Scott Hanna (main pencils), Dan Brown (main colorist) and others, Black Panther & the Crew (Marvel 2017)

My resolve not to read any more superhero comics weakened when, soon after seeing Ryan Coogler’s fabulous Black Panther movie, I spotted these books written by, among others, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, and Roxane Gay, who was a fabulous guest at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. I bought them as a gift for the son who generally gives me comics – and read them first.

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I’ve been lured to superhero comics by big name writers before, and been disappointed. Josh Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 left me cold. Alas, so did these two.

World of Wakanda comprises three origin stories of characters who I assume feature in the Black Panther series proper. There’s a permeating sense that the main action is happening between episodes of these stories or is yet to come. Occasional footnotes refer the reader to other comics. Oddly, even some of the key moments in Roxane Gay’s story, which is the longest and most interesting, happen off the page.

Without the in-house Marvel elements, Gay’s story is of a kind that’s banned from my (mostly Lesbian) Book Club: a Lesbian story in which the Lesbianism is not incidental to the plot. I’m guessing that for Marvel cult members the story will work as thrilling feminist subversion of the prevailing indiviualistic male domination. I can applaud that at a notional level, but meh, I’m not part of the target readership. bp&C

Black Panther and the Crew is another origin story. Again, as evidence that I’m not the target readership, I found the superhero elements a fairly repugnant intrusion into a story about African American politics. I was with Brecht’s Galileo: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’ I also found it hard to follow at times, possibly because unlike proper Marvel readers I don’t recognise the superheroes who make up ‘the Crew’ (and before them ‘the Crusaders’) and almost certainly because my grasp of Marvel’s visual language is patchy.

Both books include advertisements for the three volumes of Black Panther: The World Beneath Our Feet, the main Black Panther story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even if I don’t read those myself, I’ll keep an eye out so I can include them in my gift to my son.

Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire (Straus and Giroux 2015)

flood.jpgWhen we set up a street library out the front of our house, we intended it as a way to send books from our shelves to good homes. We hadn’t thought about the reverse traffic: this book is like a gift from the benevolent Street Library deity. I loved the first two books in the Ibis trilogy when I read them for the book group some time back. When this third book urned up on our front fence I  snuffled it gleefully.

I started reading it on the plane from Sydney to Singapore and finished it after a little more than a week in London, where I’m staying in culturally diverse Walworth (or SE17, to use the locals’ preferred term). That’s an eminently appropriate way to have read it.

The flood of the title is the firepower unleashed on China by the British in what is now known as the First Opium War in the mid nineteenth century, and the vivid account of that assault, including the brutal use made of Indian sepoys, is a salutary reminder of the blood-soaked foundations of England’s prosperity. By happy coincidence I just found this in my twitter feed:

That – or at least the similar events a couple of decades earlier – is the big historical event that provides the context and is front and centre for quite a lot of the narrative, but on the way we follow the adventures of a handful of characters who sailed on the Ibis in the first book, and whose paths continue to cross in unexpected ways. There’s comedy, melodrama, romantic tragedy, a sustained bawdy episode, and always a dizzying interplay of cultures.

I love the way Amitav Ghosh incorporates his research into the narrative. To give just one small instance, after an encounter in which the Chinese forces were routed:

There were corpses everywhere, many of them with black scorch-marks on their tunics. On some, the clothes were still burning: looking more closely, Kesri saw that the fires were caused by a fault in the defenders’ equipment. The powder for their guns was carried not in cartridges, as was the case with the British troops, but in rolled-up paper tubes. These tubes were kept in a powder-pouch that was strapped across the chest. In the course of the fighting the flaps of these pouches would fly open, spilling powder over the soldiers’ tunics; the powder was then set alight by the wicks and flints of their matchlocks.

I don’t suspect for a moment that Ghosh has made this up. Along with the horror, you can sense the novelist’s exhilaration in finding such telling details. I suppose you might read it as an info-dump that distracts from the story, but from my point of view it’s an info-dump that enriches the story with a sense of historical truth.

Similarly, I relish Ghosh’s seemingly endless play with language. I’d call this inventive if it didn’t seem to be the result of arduous research into the many englishes of South, Eastern and South-east Asia. This play is everywhere, but nowhere more joyful than in the pages where a sternly moralistic mem sah’b demonstrates her vast repertoire of synonyms for male masturbation. There a re many sentences elsewhere that, if taken out of context, would be mystifying. I defy you to guess the meaning of, ‘It isn’t decent for a girl to talk to mysteries.’

I had one discontent as I read. Neeti, the character who was in some ways the warm heart of the first book, is no longer a presence. We left her on Mauritius in the second book, and this one is set entirely in India, China and places nearby. But Ghosh is no idiot. My discontent was surprisingly and satisfactorily dealt with in the very last page.

Hearts in London, 3

Hearts in London continued
(Previous parts here and here)

hearts

became a fluttering message wall. Let me
digress to tell my own hearts story.
I’ve been a close observer, played a small part
from the start, fetching and
carrying, listening, responding, trying and

erring, donning the apron and making and
wrapping and unwrapping hearts. Always
seeing the tapestry from behind, all hanging
threads and tangles. I’ve seen people’s tender
reverence with hearts that they

or others have made. I’ve seen
amid what seemed idle chatter, the moment
when someone takes a stylus to write
words straight from heart to clay:
‘heavy’, ‘shame’, ‘humanity’, ‘sacred’.

I walked the spiral in December. Such
a long way in. My chosen parcel
hard, rough, fragile. Its maker had written
‘Hope’. The walk out of the spiral
seemed endless. So many tiny clay effigies,

so many lives laid waste, so many
of us so ineffective. Those hundreds of little things,
cluttering my life for months, suddenly grabbed
me by the throat. And here we are in London.
When Penny finished speaking, she invited

people to inscribe the hearts we’d made that day,
and they did: ‘No walls,’ ‘No borders,’
‘The human race is one.’ Outside
was winter and night. But at the launch
something glimmered.

(To be continued)

Hearts in London, 2

IMG_3850

Part of the installation of Hearts at Circular Quay in December 2016

Hearts in London continued
Part 1 here.

On the Tube from Arsenal to Elephant
and Castle, a boy frowns over buttons,
dials and switches on a tiny cube. A woman
flashes me a warning smile, ‘He’s my son, and
I see you looking.’ So I ask him what it is. ‘A thing

for people who have restless hands.’
His father adds with what may be
a Dutch accent, ‘It’s called a Fidget Cube.’
We’ve spent the afternoon with Sue and David
wedging clay (like kneading dough, but thumpier)

at Clay Time in N5 where Jawad our host
told migration stories to rival the worst
of Australia’s (well, not quite up
to Manus and Nauru standards, but bad),
and Brexit as a vicious assault on so many.

That’s Thursday. Friday we meet again to shape
clay into hearts – with aorta, vena cava and
sundry pipes – in six easy steps, in a windowless
room in labyrinthine King’s College London:
forty-three hearts in a tray by half past four,

then on to the launch of a new iteration
of Penny’s Connecting Hearts Project
which is, after all, why we’re here.
Nibbles and drinks and meet-and-greet chat
in a room that till 4 had been a student caff,

then Anna Professor and Jim Academic
and Emily from the Museum of Migration
spoke of the project’s UK context, and
conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
(don’t worry about the Latin, it’s just a little joke):

Penny spoke. Two years ago, as she tells it,
she woke from a dream of a heart being ripped
and stabbed and, not knowing why, she began
to shape in clay what she hoped was a humanish
heart. And the clay gave her hands an idea.

By the end of the year, more than four hundred people
had learned to shape humanish hearts
in clay, and had made one for each person
who’d come to Australia for refuge and been detained
with small hope of release on Manus Island or Nauru.

Among the early heartmakers were Rohingya
women who first drew barbed wire in the clay
and then wrote words: ‘I want my husband
in Manus.’ Long-ago refugees from Croatia
sang old songs and shed big tears.

Immigrants, children of immigrants, refugees,
activists, people of faith, artists,
even ceramicists sat at her tables and sweated
their DNA into the clay as they shaped it,
took up a stylus and made their marks.

Weirdly contorted, like arthritic hands
or slaughtered wild creatures, no two the same,
each one an oddity, they grew to an army
inanimate, cool, waiting for the breath
of life. She filmed them in a field like

casualties of war. She laid them in a circle
wrapped in muslin, and invited people
to unwrap them, to write on the cloth
(‘I’m sorry’ ‘I am ashamed’ ‘I will not
forget that you are there’). In December

a vast spiral (‘So many lives in limbo’)
at Circular Quay: a thousand passersby
entered, walked the meditative shape,
took a moment from the endless noise
and let it sink in (‘So many lives’). A fence

became a fluttering message wall.

(More to come)