Before the meeting: This month’s designated Book Chooser gave us two books to tide us over the summer break, a collection of memoir essays and a novel. The author of the novel makes a brief appearance in one of the essays, and it’s possible that the novel is set in a version of the locality that is the focus of many of the essays.
Vicki Hastrich, Night Fishing: Stingtrays, Goya and the Singular Life: A Memoir in Essays (Allen & Unwin 2019)
Before the Meeting: I reserved both books at each of the two libraries I belong to. Night Fishing became available within a day, though I was unable to renew my loan because seven people joined the queue while I was reading it. By contrast, there were 50 and 80 people respectively in the queues for The Weekend, but I was saved by the Emerging Artist, who bought it as a Christmas present to herself.
Night Fishing is a collection of thirteen essays that range from 4 to 34 pages in length. They don’t really amount to a memoir, as the title page claims, but they do have memoir elements. They are personal essays, most of which explore aspects of the waters near Woy Woy, where Vicky Hastrich’s family had a holiday house in her childhood and which she now visits often.
The first essay, ‘The Hole’, is filled with rich childhood memories of the place, and the excitement of rediscovering a favourite fishing spot with her brother. They go out in the author’s much-patched fibre-glass dinghy, the Squid, and are just about to pack up for the day, crowded out by half a dozen fancy, gizmo-laden boats, when she gets a bite:
The rod bent. I pulled the big, slow thing up and Rog got the net. It seesawed, it yawed, it took forever, but finally a dark shape materialised. Rog leant out and the shape nosed serenely into the net, though only its head seemed to fit; simultaneously Rog lifted and in a heavy, dripping arc in it came, landing thickly in the bottom of the boat. A huge flathead. Biggest one we’d ever seen – by a mile. Adrenaline pumping, we whooped and screamed.
Suck eggs, you plastic heaps! Go the mighty Squid,’ I hollered.
We were grown-ups.
There are many moments like this in the essays. Hastrich’s deep love of that place is infectious, and it’s the best thing about the book – in ‘The Hole’ and ‘From the Deep, It Comes’ (in which Western writer and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey makes a guest appearance). She also writes engagingly about her writing life, including an unfinished colonial gothic novel that seems to haunt her, and about the way her past as a television camera operator affects her way of seeing (both in the same brilliant essay, ‘My Life and the Frame’). There’s a wonderful essay, ‘Amateur Hour at the Broken Heart Welding Shop’, about her grandfather, who was a ‘first-class amateur’ engineer – Hastrich describes herself as an amateur writer.
Less successful for me are the essays that are in effect reports on experiments: going fishing at night with only a non-directional lantern on the dinghy (‘Night Fishing’); taking the dinghy out at low tide to The Hole with a bathyscope (‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’); filming herself as she sleeps two nights in a row and taking 112 selfies on the day in between (‘Self Portraits’). The contrived set-up of these pieces stops them from quite taking off.
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin 2019)
Three women in their seventies meet at a beach house for a weekend over Christmas, but not to celebrate the holiday. Christmas just seems to be a non-event. None of them has family to celebrate with: Wendy is a widow with alienated adult children, Jude is the long-term mistress (old-fashioned term, but accurate) of a wealthy man who spends the holiday with his family, Adele is a once-famous actress who has become increasingly unemployed, alone in the world, and on the brink of homelessness. Nor have they taken refuge with each other as Waifs and Strays. The beach house belonged to Sylvia, the fourth in their little group of friends, who has died recently. They are there to sort out her stuff and prepare the house for selling – for the benefit of Sylvia’s partner, who has left the country,
We are told that these women have been friends for forty years. We are told they are feminists. But as they arrive at the hut, separately, they barely greet each other. Each is allocated a section of the house to clean up, and they proceed to do it in isolation. No calling out from one room to another – ‘Oh my God, look what she kept!’ ‘What should we do with all these gorgeous clothes?’ ‘That’s my saucepan that she borrowed and never gave back!’ – let alone any shared whingeing about the partner who has skedaddled and left them to do what should be her work. They do think such thoughts, but there’s no commonalty in the task. No sense of solidarity in grief either. And only the sketchiest idea of who the recently deceased woman was apart from the her role in keeping the friendship group together. When the three go for a walk on the beach, no one waits for anyone else but each remains wrapped in her own thoughts.
Not a lot happens in the first two thirds of the book apart from reports on the internal monologues of each of the women, and descriptions of the undignified deterioration of Wendy’s deaf, arthritic, incontinent dog. Towards the end, each of the three is delivered a devastating blow, they stumble into a Christmas midnight mass, and they find some solace and forgiveness with each other, but though there’s a terrific evocation of a storm as the blows are delivered, by then I was past caring.
I was so looking forward to this book, because I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (my blog post here). It can’t just be the subject matter that led me not to like it – I’ve been known to be very interested in women aged 70 or thereabouts, and I was enthralled by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (blog post here). I think it’s something to do with the way the narrative generally works. To take a passage pretty much at random, here’s Jude after she’s realised that Adele has claimed the best bedroom without any discussion:
She didn’t care about the bedroom at all – she wasn’t fussed by trivia like that – but still, a fleck of disdain formed itself: how had Adele not, in all these years, developed a shred of restraint, of self-discipline? It was how and why she was an actress, Jude supposed. They were all children, the men too, as far as she could tell. She could see the appeal, when you were young, the liberation of it. But what did it mean when you were old? What were you left with, still a child at seventy-two?(page 75)
This is the kind of writing I meant by ‘we are told’ in the earlier paragraph. It’s shaped as if it’s giving us Jude’s internal monologue. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that no one thinks like that. Take the generalisation about actors. It’s mean and judgmental, and absurd, but that’s not my problem with it: why shouldn’t Jude be meanly, absurdly judgemental? My problem is that the omniscient narrator is giving us a rundown, an abstract, as if the writer has figured out what Jude’s character is, and is giving us little snippets to illustrate it. We’re not inside Jude’s head, which is where we need to be if we’re to get lost in the story. Sadly, this is pretty much how the narrator’s voice works for most of the book. It feels as if these characters created no surprises for their creator. This reader remained generally disengaged.
Many people have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably the same book but seen through very different lenses from mine. I’m glad, because I don’t want any book to be unloved – well, hardly any book. I’m sorry this one isn’t loved by me.
After the meeting: We met in the carport of our host’s newly purchased and not yet completely habitable house in Balmain with a spectacular view of the Sydney skyline, and had pizza. Once we’d got over the splendour of the setting, and tales of cricket from this summer and summers long past, and one or two fabulous tales of adventure in the city involving weddings and mistaken identity (though not in the same tale), we had an animated discussion of the books.
My sense is that no one was as negative about The Weekend as I am. Where I missed the casual back and forth of old friends, the book’s main proponent said he had read that sort of thing as understood but not part of the book’s focus: that the narrative was interested in the characters’ internal lives. another chap said that the main thing the book did for him was to have him reflect on decades-old relationships that are full of obligation but not much else; in particular, there are people who are nominally his friends but are really his wife’s friends, and if she were to disappear he wold gladly never see them again. He wasn’t saying that the three women in this book were like that, but he certainly read their lack of mutual warmth as having a similar source: Sylvia was the glue that held the group together, and no one was sure it could continue to exist without her. Yet another said he wasn’t fazed by the lack of communal grieving: that had already happened, as he read it, and now each character was withdrawn into her own individual grief.
It’s interesting that my main misgivings – which I’m not sure I even articulated – were addressed from so many fronts.
Night Fishing provoked some interesting discussion. Notably, towards the end of the evening, one chap said he was embarrassed to realise that this was the first thing he’s ever read about a woman fishing. His embarrassment was widely shared, and led to some interesting surmise about fishing and gender: men often fish in order to indulge in reverie, that is to say, be alone and do nothing. Is it the same for women? Or does it tend to be a more practical task for women. Today someone sent us a link to Lyla Foggia’s 1997 book Reel Women: the world of women who fish (link here).
On a more general readerly level, while the word ‘patchy’ evoked some head-nodding, we liked the book. A couple of passages were read out to general approval. One of our younger members said the book tapped into a vein of nostalgia. He didn’t get to enlarge on that thought, and I didn’t get to reply, but I think it’s not exactly nostalgia in these essays: the author revisits a place she loved as a child and explores it in a number of ways as an adult, deepening and enriching her understanding of it, and so of herself.
Someone said that they felt that Night Fishing was written by a person, and The Weekend was written by a writer. Obviously Wood and Hastrich are both writers, but there’s something to what he said. Hastrich describes herself as an amateur, which is a different thing from a dabbler or a learner – it points to the elements of vulnerability and lack of subterfuge that make her writing so attractive. The Weekend is Wood’s sixth novel, and even though I was disappointed in it, I didn’t ever want to give up on it.
One last thing: Charlotte Wood has put up on her podcast The Writer’s Room a wonderful interview with Vikki Hastrich that provides fabulous insights into the kind of beast Night Fishing is. Here’s a link.
Night Fishing and The Weekend are the first two books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Yes, I see exactly what you’re getting at, about the narration of what’s inside the characters’ heads. but it worked ok for me. You’ve made a very good point about their lack of connectedness, I had put it down to grief, but it makes sense also for it to be because this is just one of these old friendship groups that isn’t really held together by much at all. Your friend who talked about obligation is spot on, I think, (and *chuckle* I hope he doesn’t get into strife if some of those friends read this!!)
Many of us of course discover this phenomenon when there is a marriage breakup, and along with other conflicting emotions, take some solace in being shot of spousal friends that we don’t like. I’ll never forget my friend who, when I was bereft, turned up on the doorstep with a bottle of champagne, declaring as she hugged me, ‘Oh good, I never liked him anyway!)
I’m glad I haven’t picked a fight, Lisa. I guess there are some things that work for some readers and not for others. I’m generally careful abut the ‘cone of silence’ principle – ‘What happens in Book Group stays in Book Group’. But that comment about friends and obligation was too spot-on to consign to the confidentiality bin, and I hope I’ve introduced enough disidentiifying detail not to cause trouble. (Only half joking.)
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Enjoyed your report on these two books and the reading group discussion Jonathan. I’d love to discuss your various criticisms of The Weekend, because I have answers (that is, my own readings or points of view!) for most of your comments. Thanks for the link, by the way. You may remember that I started my post by wondering – a bit along your thought processes – about how these women could consider themselves dearest friends, but when I voiced this initial concern (one I had resolved myself by then) at my my reading group, they howled me down, arguing that this is exactly how women’s friendships are. In some ways they’re right, though I think it’s exaggerated here, which of course fiction often does. Anyhow, my reading group was split roughly 50/50 over this book, but the interesting thing is that they all thought she got the women right.
I didn’t quite understand your point about that Jude quote. I thought we WERE inside her head? I read it very much as a multiple point of view novel with our slipping from head to head in that third person subjective/limited way. I’d love you to explain a little more about your sense of the voice? I loved your chaps’ different opinions. The chap who said it made him reflect on decades’ old relationships was a bit similar to one in my group who wondered whether people who were long-standing friends now – that is who had been friends 30+ years having been met at a different stage in our lives – would become the same sort of good friends if met for the first time now. Interesting.
Anyhow, I also enjoyed your comments on Night fishing. I bought a copy of this for my mum to give a mutual Sydney friend for Christmas. It was a bit off the cuff, but it looked interesting because of the setting and the author’s background. I think the friend liked it.
I apologise for this LONG comment, but finally, regarding women fishing, the review I hope to post tonight if I don’t keep getting sidetracked like now, has quite a bit about women fishing, though I’m not really going to focus on that in my review. The main character goes fishing quite a bit, and the author herself I believe knows of what she speaks. The book is Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami.
Thanks for the long comment, Sue. The slipping from head to head appealed strongly to at least one person in our group. He fund it much more attractive than the common approach these days of having alternate chapters to different characters, which he described as clunky. (Not how I see it, generally.)
I don’t know how I can say any more clearly what I want to say abut that Jude quote. I just didn’t feel that I was actually inside the characters’ heads so much as being given a slightly distanced account of what they were thinking. Not as crudely abstract as naming an emotion such as fear rather than describing the particular manifestation of the fear such as feeling an almost irresistible urge to hide under the table. But along those lines – although we’re kind of inside the characters’ heads, we’re always aware of the narrator showing us around. But clearly not everyone responds that way.
The Group met on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning I was out waking and saw a number of women fishing in Kogarah Bay. Now I’ll read your post on Red Can Origami!
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