Category Archives: Book Group

The Book Group and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions (UWA Publishing 2016)

Before the meeting: Extinctions won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, and has been widely well received. I hated it.

I realised how much I was hating it when on page 16 the main character, grumpy and defensive seventyish white man Frederick Lothian, describes a piece of knitting as ‘abandoned in medias res‘: my inner pedant came out all guns blazing. That’s syntactically incorrect, it shouted: in medias res doesn’t mean ‘in the middle of things’, as Frederick (who has been studying Latin) and presumably the author think, but ‘into the middle of things’ – you can’t abandon something into something. I was being unfair: it’s a genuinely trivial matter and anyhow English usage has long since left the Latin behind. If I’d been enjoying the book, even moderately, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Out of respect for the Book Group, the Miles Franklin judges (though we shouldn’t forget The Hand That Signed the Paper), and otherwise trustworthy bloggers (see here for Whispering Gums, here for ANZ LitLovers, and here for The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), I persisted.

There are a lovely couple of sentences on page 164:

Some young lads were tossing a Frisbee, diving after it and landing heavily in the sand. They came up laughing and dusting off their legs, A thin, stringy boy with a head of dark hair and a little nub of fluff under his lip leapt sideways and missed. He met the ground not as you would meet an adversary – hardened and eager to hurt – but like a member of the family who had been gone just a little too long: a quick embrace, an easier release.

And in the final movement there’s a scene of genuine power in which a father slaps his tiny son.

I mention those moments for two reasons: first to prove that I did read on, and second to demonstrate that I wasn’t committed to hating the book. But committed or not, I did hate it. I really I don’t want to spend time spelling out why, though a number of my friends have put up with rants and readings-aloud. enough to say that it seemed to me at one stage that you could pick a passage at random and I’d hate something in the content or the expression. If you want to know more about the book, I recommend any of the blogs I’ve linked to above. They’re not written by defensive and grumpy old white men and may be more dependable than mine.

At the meeting: I arrived intending to keep my mouth shut because there’s nothing worse than having someone spraying vitriol at a book you’ve just read and loved, and I was trying to be open to the possibility that the book is actually OK, but just sparked/triggered something in me. (Another chap from the book had told me a couple of weeks before the meeting that he too had hated the book – it had made him unaccountably angry. Being morally superior to me, he reread it. I was looking forward to what he had to say at the meeting.)

We did spend an unusual amount of time discussing the food (which was excellent – everyone had bought something), the recent election result, and the rights and wrongs of a Sydney multi-millionaire sporting celebrity who broke a contractual undertaking not to speak ill of LGBTQI people and lost his job because of it. But we also had a spirited, amiable and enlightening conversation about the book.

I didn’t succeed in keeping my mouth shut for long, and my friend who had been made unaccountably angry didn’t say much more than that the book didn’t make him angry the second time. A couple of people had enjoyed it a lot (though one who had really loved it couldn’t be there, alas). No one hated it as much as I did, and I did get called a grumpy old man in a tone that suggested I identified defensively with Frederick (a charge I don’t absolutely deny).

The architects and modernist design aficionados among us enjoyed the presence of those elements, including the illustrations scattered throughout. No one could tell me what these photos added, except that they pleasantly broke up the pages of text. Clearly, though, the book had stuck a chord in some, as a number of members spoke in a heartfelt way of how adoption, old-people’s homes, work-family balance had figured in their lives. Oddly, I felt that the plot tensions were satisfactorily resolved in the final stages, whereas some people who liked the book were left dissatisfied. I was the only one who read out a passage – the one quoted above – though one chap read out a number of phrases that he considered beautifully turned (I didn’t, but there’s no point arguing about such things).

Extinctions is the twenty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a library book.

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley n Search of America (Penguin 1962)

Before the meeting: Neither of the two libraries I belong to had a copy of this, and my local bricks-and-mortar bookshop took a couple of weeks to get it in. But my impression that it was an obscure enthusiasm of this month’s Book Chooser was modified when a young woman behind the counter, seeing it in my hands, said cheerfully, ‘I’ve got a red poodle.’ I realised the Charley of the book’s title must be a dog, so I smiled, and she went on, ‘His name is Steinbeck.’

The book was published in 1962, the year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s an account of a road trip he took in late 1960, in a truck with an odd little house on its back that he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He describes the countryside he drives through and devotes very little ink to the cities. He recounts conversations and draws conclusions, but if one was looking for a coherent journalistic ‘narrative’ one would look in vain.

The election that made John F Kennedy president happened during the course of his travels, and is mentioned in passing, mainly to say that people generally aren’t talking about it. The Cold War is raging and there’s a pervasive anxiety about nuclear weapons. The US War in Vietnam has not yet happened. State troops haven’t killed university students. Richard Nixon hasn’t disgraced the presidency. Oral contraceptives have arrived but not so you’d notice, and the sexual revolution is over the horizon. The women’s liberation movement may be fermenting, but the news hasn’t reached Steinbeck: for the most part he converses with men, women are either relatives or monsters of one kind or another, and his version of masculinity is unreconstructed US warrior-macho. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing in the southern states, but until he reaches New Orleans in the second last section, there’s no African American voice. That section turns out to be brilliant, rising to visceral disgust and rage in its account of the Cheerleaders, the women who led the harassment of small children in the desegregation of schools in the south, and its account of his brief encounter with a young man who supported them.

Until that chapter, the book felt to me like a museum piece, its humour quaint rather than funny (Charley ceremoniously salutes a lot of trees), its charm decidedly of a bygone era. For my taste, it was a case of too late, too soon: too late to be current, too soon to be historical. The Book Chooser this month is an actor, and there’s a splendid encounter with an actor in North Dakota, one of the very few people who are accorded a reasonably rounded portrait.

Having recently read Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes, I had an eye out for embedded aphorisms. Here are a couple I noted:

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

(page 83)

Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

(page 121)

It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time comes nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry.

(page 157)

The edition I read has an Introduction by Jay Parisi and notes for further reading. What with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and other distractions, I didn’t get a chance to read them.

After the meeting: Over an excellent dinner of pea soup cooked to an Ottolenghi recipe using fresh peas and spaghetti vongole with some prawns tossed in, followed by Messina gelato, we had a terrific evening, even though two people hadn’t managed to get hold of the book.

My impression is that others enjoyed it much more than I did, and by the end of the evening I thought more highly of it than I had, Someone read out a passage about small towns becoming antique-shop strips and what had seemed laboured humour was revealed as beautifully crafted sentences foreshadowing the whole fake heritage thing that afflicts many small country towns these days. Other readers enjoyed the dog much more than I did, and his account of waste and environmental degradation had impressed. It turned out to be a book full of interesting bits that give pleasure when recalled in conversation: the description of Montana, a hilarious encounter with bureaucracy at the Canadian border, the Cheerleaders of course, and the list goes on. There was some disagreement over the personality of Steinbeck as projected in the book: a preening boaster about his masculinity or a decent, serious man? Others had read the introduction, and were able to place the book in the context of the rest of Steinbeck’s life: there’s palaver at the beginning of the book about how he felt removed from the America he was writing about and this was an attempt to reconnect, which was more serious than I ha rad it to be – contemporary critics were saying that his writing at that time of his life lacked the power of his earlier stuff, written when he was living geographically close to the people he wrote about. A number of guys had gone to visit places from last month’s book.

Someone else had loved The Chaperone, which I thought was basically a telemovie. Someone had been in New York (in this group it seems that every meeting someone has been to New York) and bought their copy of the book at the fabled Stand Bookstore in Manhattan. I seem to be the only one who had made it to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which happened about 200 metre from where we met. Excellent books and forthcoming theatre productions were promoted. We had an impassioned conversation abut Israel – Folau, not the state – and resolved the issue of hate speech, freedom of speech, workplace responsibilities and the status of Australian Rugby Union when compared to New Zealand’s.

The Book Group, Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience

Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People and Sydney’s Georges River (New South Books 2009)

Before the Meeting: I was the Designated Book Chooser this month, and seized the opportunity to read and discuss this book – Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy (1996) does a brilliant job of un-erasing the long and continuing history of Aboriginal dispossession and struggle for land in New South Wales, and a friend recommended this more localised history. I came to it with high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Nine of the book’s eleven chapters are filled with stories of Aboriginal people living, working, fighting, building families, organising – being resilient – on or in connection to the Georges River. These stories draw on early settler accounts (in the case of the Bediagal warrior Pemulwuy and the less famous, but charismatic Dharawal man Kogi), petitions to government (beginning with Kogi’s grandson Jonathon Goggey in 1857, and appearing regularly from then on), reports of governmental inquiries (beginning with the colony’s ‘Select Committee on the condition of the Aborigines’ in 1845, where a man named Mahroot told how a number of Aboriginal men and women made livings from fishing on the river, in what the authors call ‘effective cultural negotiation’), the diaries and newspaper articles of white people (including those guided, and fed, on fishing and hunting expeditions by Dharawal-speaking Biddy Giles in the 1860s; and, as transport improved, tourists), the records of the Aborigines Protection Board and other government agencies, and, as the twentieth century progresses, newsreel footage, records of the Housing Commission, Land Rights claims and interviews with Aboriginal people with living connections to the river.

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read.

The opening chapter places the stories in the context of some major ideas about ‘land, indigeneity and change, about environment and about cities’. To give you some idea of this fifteen-page section:

  • The authors reject the idea that ‘Aboriginal “traditional” cultures were unchanging and static, consisting of a closed and fully formed parcel of knowledge and stories which could be handed down intact across generations for thousands of years – and which therefore could not cope with changes’. Even on the Georges River, which flows through heavily industrialised parts of Sydney, they argue, Aboriginal cultural process have been maintained.

  • They argue that the cultural practices that establish strong links to a place need not be effective only for people with a traditional affiliation to that place.

  • Since 1788 and even earlier, mobility has been ‘as much a defining characteristic of Aboriginal cultures as affiliations with meaningful bounded places’. The river has served as an ‘important corridor of mobility’.

  • Discussions of conservation emphasise native local species, treasuring them as national emblems, and paradoxically often ignoring ‘the role of Aboriginal people in the cultural and material work of actively managing, cultivating and changing the native species on the river and its banks’. The declaration of the Georges River National Park, contested among non-Aboriginal people, is even more complex for Aboriginal people.

It would do an injustice to the book to reduce it to a single argument, but there’s a thread of argument running through it: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. People from many language groups and many parts of Australia have been part of the Aboriginal communities along the Georges River. They have been allocated land, have bought land as individuals and as collectives, and been moved off it repeatedly, sometimes with promises of the right of return, promises that were invariably broken. Because for a long time the land along the river was inaccessible or useless to the colonisers, they were able to make homes and livings there. Whether or not it passes the official criteria for a Native Title claim, it’s indisputably Aboriginal land. The book ends with a quote from the Tharawal Land Council:

Each Aboriginal site has its place; every Aboriginal place has its story in the life of an Aboriginal family. Country is alive with stories.

After the meeting: We had audiovisual aids. Alec Morgan and Rose Hesp’s Australia in Colour is currently screening on SBS, and the second episode includes a colourised version of a 1933 newsreel clip that opens the book, featuring Joe Anderson (‘King Burraga’) standing in the bush near Salt Pan Creek and declaiming in a strangely plummy accent:

Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want … The black man owned Australia, and now he demands more than charity. He wants the right to live!

(You can see the whole episode here. Joe appears at 17:35.)

We opened the evening with that clip. And a group member who is a heritage conservationist who had gone walking in the Georges River National Park on the weekend shared some beautiful photos, including one of a plaque marking the site of Joe Anderson’s family’s home.

We had an animated conversation, though there was less laughter than usual. It’s a heavy subject, and the mildest-mannered of the group said he was quivering with rage at some parts. There was some discussion of what it meant that two white women had written the book: some felt that the authors were very careful not to overstep because of their outsider status – not something I was aware of.

Most of us had got hold of a copy from a library, but one chap get a print-on-demand copy from the publisher – with just a two-week wait.

Rivers and resilience is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water with the Book Group

Kenzaburō Ōe, Death by Water ( 2009, translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm 2015)

Before the meeting: In flagrant disregard for established practice, our current Designated Chooser nominated two titles, to be read for successive meetings. The first, Edward Said’s On Late Style, was not exactly a triumph (the link is to my blog post), though it has been working away in the back of my mind ever since I read it. This is his second pick.

Kogito Choko is a writer in his eighties who revisits his childhood home with the intention of writing a novel about his father’s death by drowning when he was a child. What he thinks of as ‘the drowning novel’ had been one of his earliest projects, which he had laid aside because his mother wouldn’t give him access to the red trunk that his father had with him on the fateful night. Now, ten years after his mother’s death, the chest is released to him. An experimental theatre group who are passionately interested in his work are developing a project that will involve a dramatisation of his complete works, and hope to incorporate the process of writing the long awaited drowning novel. The theatre group has a signature audience-participation process featuring soft toy dogs and vigorous disagreements.

That’s the set-up. Nothing goes to plan. At one stage a character describes Mr Choko’s recent novels as ‘serial slices of thinly veiled memoir’, and that isn’t a bad description of some aspects of this one.

Kanzburō Ōe has a lot in common with his protagonist: same age, same childhood locality, same artistic medium (though Mr Choko doesn’t seem to have won a Nobel Prize as Ōe has), several novels in his back-catalogue with the same names. According to Wikipedia, Death by Water is Ōe’s sixth novel featuring Kogito Choko and his brain-damaged son Hikari (Ōe’s own brain-damaged son is named Akari). The novel’s imagined reader probably knows all this: I’m coming in very late, so shouldn’t complain if I feel disoriented at times. Which I do.

The novel progresses in an apparently haphazard way. The drowning novel is abandoned (a development it took me many pages to accept) and Mr Choko is persuaded to help write the script for the theatre group’s new project. A different theatre production is described in great detail. His wife is hospitalised and pretty much disappears from the book. He has a terrible falling out with Hikari and the problem of how to provide for Hikari’s needs remains on the agenda until the end. Key characters turn up well after the midpoint of the novel. The final movement deals with historical and remembered rape, incest and abortion – issues that have hardly even been hinted at earlier. It feels like one damned thing after another.

We learn about much of the action by way of letters to Mr Choko or conversations with him. Many words are spent describing theatrical performances and interpreting dreams and poems, though some of the dreams, we’re told, may actually be memories even though they involve a flying boy. Other characters tend to talk at Mr Choko, often offering him unflattering analyses of his personality or work, and they keep on talking in the absence of any verbal response, even one meant only for the reader. Mr Choko is asleep during the dramatic climax, and when his sister tells him (and us) what has happened she can only infer the action from what she has heard and overheard. The very final moments are Mr Choko’s imaginings of what might be going to happen.

At times it was like watching one of those Japanese movies that you can’t take your eyes off but which leaves your Western mind floundering.

My ignorance of Japanese history is part of the problem. Two historical uprisings feature strongly. The theatre group’s project is a stage play based on a film about an uprising during the Meiji Restoration, led by weeping children and warrior women. And Mr Choko’s father was involved in an ultra-nationalist plot to kill the emperor after the end of World War One. The incest-rape-abortion theme is linked to the first of these, and has a definite, though unclear to me, political meaning.

There’s also something about the tone of the writing that doesn’t travel well. For example, Masao, the artistic director of the theatre group, asks Mr Choko to reply to a questionnaire to help with the theatre project. What follows is several pages in which Masao delivers a series of monologues expounding on Mr Choko’s creative intentions and mental states at various points of his career. At the end of each monologue Mr Choko replies briefly to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ ‘That’s exactly right,’ ‘You may very well be right about that, too,’ and so on. In a movie, no matter how deadpan the performance, this would be comic. But it’s just not funny on the page. Something isn’t translating.

But I’m not blaming the translator. I was disconcerted by a number of US-isms: a mention of a character’s ‘trail of tears’, for example, had me wondering why Ōe was referring to that terrible event from US history, until I realised he probably wasn’t. But other unsettling language is most likely just as unsettling in the original. I had to return my copy to the library so can’t give examples, sorry.

Mr Choko plans to write a book in a ‘catastrophic late style’ à la Edward Said (who was a friend of his), and perhaps this is Ōe’s version of the same. Perhaps this is Ōe’s ‘drowning novel’.

Having written a first draft of this blog post, I re-read the last ten pages of the book before returning it to the library, and realised that for all the book’s opacity and apparent incoherence, it does hang together. It comes back again and again to the main image of Choko’s last contact with his father, just before the father drowned. The boy’s unresolved feelings about that moment are the novel’s engine, echoed by a young woman’s need for resolution about her experience of rape and incest: it’s a tortuous, and tortured, path for both of them, but in very different ways they each find some sort of resolution.

After the meeting: There was a terrifying moment when it seemed out host, who was also the Designated Chooser, wouldn’t be able to come to the meeting because of a family crisis. Happily – both in terms of the crisis and for the good of the group – he did turn up, and was able to deal with our general bafflement with lucidity and grace.

But first: my bafflement was generally shared. One man said that he had never experience so strongly a sense that he and a book were travelling along separate, parallel lines. His partner got exasperated with his moaning and told him to abandon it and read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles instead – advice he was happy to follow. He wasn’t the only one to jump ship.

Our host agreed that some elements of the book were mystifying, but they didn’t determine his response. For him it worked as a comedy – the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who thinks of himself as a distinguished novelist, perhaps a national treasure, but is in fact pretty much a has-been: the theatre group, which he thinks of a celebrating his legacy, is actually using his work as a springboard for something very different – devoted though they may be. He is managed by the women in his life – his mother, his sister and his wife; is useless at dealing with his son’s difficulties. And alongside this comic aspect, our host was enthralled by the way the images of forest and water are woven through the book, so that he was thrilled by the final moments (which I felt were clumsy and arbitrary).

I don’t know that he persuaded any of us to go back and reread the book, but it was a wonderful to have someone lay out a very different response to a book. One of us would say, ‘But what do you make of [blah blah]’. ‘Oh that,’ he’d say, ‘that’s something from Japanese culture.’ It’s no good argung about taste, as my Latin teacher used to say (but in Latin, De gustibus non est disputandum), but you can definitely learn a lot from talking about where different tastes take you.

The Book Group on Edward Said’s Late Style

Edward Said, On Late Style (Bloomsbury Revelations 2006)

Before the meeting: The Book Group recently changed its system for choosing books: instead of a chaotic argy-bargy at the end of each meeting, we now take turns to be the Autocratic Book Selector. I’m pretty sure On Late Style, like earlier floats of In Search of Lost Time and something by Heidegger, wouldn’t have made it through the argy-bargy system. But here we are. It’s a short book, but disproportionately demanding.

On 25 September 2003, Edward Said, best known for his books  Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, and for his advocacy of the Palestinian people, announced over breakfast that the next major project he would concentrate on was Late Style, and that it would be finished in December. He died that morning, and what we have is compiled from what his widow Miriam Said describes in her Foreword as ‘a tremendous amount of material’ he had already written – essays, articles, lecture notes. It’s almost certainly not the book Said himself would have submitted to the publisher, but Edward Wood, who did the main work of ‘putting it all together without losing Edward’s voice’, to quote Miriam Said again, assures us in his Introduction that the ‘words are all Said’s own’.

If you’ve read any of Said’s work you won’t be surprised to hear that his notion of ‘late style’ is complex. Deriving in some way from Theodor Adorno‘s writings about Beethoven’s late works, it doesn’t mean simply a style someone has in their work when they are old and/or near death. It includes that, but there is also a lack of resolution, of coherence. Adorno’s term is ‘catastrophic’. Shakespeare didn’t have a late style in this sense: in his late plays major conflicts and dilemmas are resolved or magically transcended. But I’d say Leonard Cohen did in his final album, You want It Darker, and Bob Dylan too, in choosing to perform Sinatra classics.

Said doesn’t discuss Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. His examples are the late Beethoven, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavelier, Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, Lampedusa’s novel and Visconti’s movie The Leopard, Thomas Mann’s novella and Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, a clutch of 20th century operas that use 18th century settings and conventions, Jean Genet, and pianist Glen Gould, with brief discussions of Cavafy and Euripides.  I’ve been to maybe three operas in my life, Cosí not among them; I have a CD of Glen Gould but I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to it. That is, musically  I’m close to illiterate. I have read the Mann novella and some of Cavafy’s poems; and I’ve seen Visconti’s The Leopard, and also his Death in Venice  (which doesn’t rate a mention here). But none of that helped much.

For me, reading the book was like listening in on a conversation among very clever people about something I know almost nothing about. The main conversationalists are Edward Said himself and Adorno. Said wrestles to interpret Adorno’s dense and opaque prose, and then argues with him. A score of other critics turn up as well, always treated with courtesy, sometimes as authorities, but more often to be politely rebutted. For example, after quoting film critic Pauline Kael on Burt Lancaster’s performance in The Leopard, Said writes:

I think we can feel her enthusiasm for Lancaster’s quite noble performance without really accepting any of this at all.

I did read the whole book, and found a lot to enjoy. His discussion of Così Fan Tutte is fascinating, his comparisons of the different versions of The Leopard and Death in Venice likewise. His personal anecdotes about Genet are wonderful, and his reflections on Genet’s non-Orientalist love for the Palestinians are very rich. There are sentences worth lingering over to let their implications settle in, like these:

Identity is what we impose on ourselves through our lives as social, political, and even spiritual beings. The logic of culture and of families doubles the strength of identity, which to someone like Genet – who was a victim of the identity forced on him by his delinquency, his isolation, and his transgressive talents and delights – is something to be resolutely opposed.

In the end, though, I can’t say I followed Said’s argument. The closest I could find to a summary is this, and it’s worth quoting at some length, both for what it says about the artists and for what it implies about possibilities for ageing in general:

Each of the figures I have discussed here makes of lateness or untimeliness, and a vulnerable maturity, a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity, at the same time that each … has a lifetime of technical effort and preparation. Adorno, Strauss, Lampedusa and Visconti – like Glenn Gould and Jean Genet – play off the great totalising codes of twentieth-century culture and cultural diffusion: the music business, publishing, film, journalism. The one thing that is difficult to find in their work is embarrassment, even though they are egregiously self-confident and supreme technicians. It is as if having achieved age, they want none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability or official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines and strangely elevates their uses of language and the aesthetic.

The meeting: A couple of days before the meeting, interspersed among arrangements for food, were some comments on the book: 

First Chap: I’m an apology on Wednesday night. The company I will miss, discussion of the book I won’t. I found it very difficult to be reminded of how much I don’t know (again). 

Second Chap: I am not very far into the book as yet (hoping for time tonight)  but understand your sentiments … I thought I was very knowledgable about Beethoven … but apparently not.

Third Chap: I’ll bring a late style potato bake

Fourth Chap: I am intrigued to see that. Is it the sort of dish you make for people when you don’t give a f#@k anymore? 

We met over a barbecue and exchanged gift-wrapped books. We spent quite a lot of time on On Late Style, even though it faced stiff competition as a topic of conversation: big news about a guilty verdict that the media couldn’t tell us about, but one of us knew someone who knew someone who had been in the courtroom; one member was absent because his daughter was being honoured for a  remarkable achievement; another had very recently become a grandfather; and of course there was food, and Christmas.

Only a couple of us made it all the way through the book. At least one of the non-finishers was actually angry with it – it’s as if it promised to shed light and provoke thought on the stage of life and career that many of us in the group are entering, that is, the late stage, but then failed to deliver anything coherent. None of us know enough about music, in particular opera, to engage with Said’s arguments. He would like someone else, say Alain de Bouton, to write a version the book Said might have written using this material if he had lived to do it.

In short, this one is strictly for the Said fans.

Emma and the Book Group

Jane Austen, Emma (1815)

emma

Before the meeting:
I’m not much of a rereader, so reading Emma for the second time for the Book Group is a bit of an event. Please indulge me in some autobiographical reflection.

I first read Jane Austen novels, including Emma (but shamefully not Pride and Prejudice), as part of my exhilarating six years at Sydney University – 1967–1972 –  when the Englit canon swept me away like a giant rip. Not just Englit: there was also Auslit and Amlit, as well as French, Italian and Latin lit. And movies. And even some visual art.

There was a problematic side to this exhilaration. The notion, which I think came from Thomas Arnold in the 19th century and received a big boost from F R Leavis in the twentieth, was that we should study ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’, but in practice that meant what had been thought and said by white people in Europe, mainly England, and, in some electives, the USA. A lot was said about universal human truths, but that was for values of universal that excluded people of colour, colonised peoples, and settler peoples, among others. Not a terribly satisfactory education by today’s standards.

As a white boy from tropical North Queensland I was enough outside the magic circle of people who were purportedly capable of ‘the best’ that I had it confirmed that my life experience, my actual social and physical environment, was not the kind of thing great art could be made of, that I could see myself in ‘the best’ writing only at several removes, and conversely that any art that did talk about people and places I recognised was ipso facto not among the best. (It was a thrilling exception to see Paul Morel’s miner father disrupt a ladies’ afternoon tea in Sons and Lovers in just the way my cane-farmer father disrupted at least one of my mother’s gatherings, though without my father’s sense of fun.)

Emma was part of that centre-to-periphery invalidation. Mind you, that didn’t stop me from loving it with a passion.

I read differently now. I’m more aware of what I believe is called my positionality as a white, middle-class member of settler society, beneficiary of colonialism. Among other things, I’ve read Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which includes a chapter on Austen’s Mansfield Park, and does a stunning job of explicating how West Indian slavery figures in that book.

Coming back to Emma now, the main thing I have to say is that I love it again. It’s full of marvellous sentences, often wreathed in irony. There’s a constant sense that Austen is laughing her head off with a straight face, that she loves her characters, especially Emma herself, with an indulgent love, and at the same time has a clear-eyed sense of their failings and limitations.

My Said-influenced antennae were alert for any unobtrusive reference to the big political issues of Austen’s day. But the one explicit reference to politics is a moment when the men are talking about politics so Emma has to find something else to talk about. And as Emma turns away from ‘serious’ talk, so does Austen. Mr Knightley might be describing her when he says of Emma’s friend Harriet:

She will give you all the minute particulars, which only women’s language can make interesting. – In our communications we deal only in the great.

His ‘we’ is, of course, men. But you know, the book does give us the minute particulars of women’s lives, in language that makes them interesting – and in doing so challenges the assumption that women’s concerns are trivial. I confess that in my twenties I almost missed Emma’s big moment, when she insults Miss Bates. Now, that moment carries a huge emotional charge. Austen makes sure we know how irritating Miss Bates is, by giving us pages of her inane nattering, but she also makes us see her dreadful lot in life, unmarried, carer to her aged mother and almost completely dependent on other people’s kindness, yet completely without malice. When Emma, with all her privilege, insults her so rudely, it’s devastating. The other character who highlights the lot of women is Jane Fairfax – and there’s a breathtaking moment when Jane draws an analogy between her having to farm herself out as  a governess and that of people who are enslaved: ‘the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect’.

Emma was a revelation to me. On first reading it was part of the Great Tradition, which I as a boy from the canefields was meant to be in awe of (and I was). Now I read it as an assault on the canon of its time: cunningly, ironically, genially (in both sense of the word) it makes a space for what at least some women think and say. And a lot of her barbs still strike home.

After the meeting: We had a vey animated discussion. There were many points of view, many different levels of engagement with the book. One man had done extra reading – A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen – and shared snippets. A number of us had rewatched Clueless – one said he needed it to find his bearings amid the 200-year-old wordiness. Another, actually one of our most astute readers – said he just couldn’t find a way into it – though he said the group’s conversation opened the book up for him. One just couldn’t stand the narrow class content. Another was surprised at how funny he found it, that he laughed out loud a number of times. And so on. We challenged each other, disagreed a little, and had a great time, spending most of the evening on the book.

Unusually, a number of us read out favourite sentences. I had counting on this, which is why I didn’t go hunting for examples in my Before the Meeting section. Here are some that got read out, for my readers’ pleasure.

From Chapter 9, when Emma has an idle moment:

Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole’s carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

From Chapter 7, one of the bits that some read as irritatingly snobbish, others as mocking the snobbery, but I think all agreed to be marvellously deft:

The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people – friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel.

From Chapter 14, something that he who read it to us said he had experienced many times:

Some change of countenance was necessary for each gentleman as they walked into Mrs Weston’s drawing-room; – Mr Elton must compose his joyous looks, and Mr John Knightley disperse his ill-humour. Mr Elton must smile less, and Mr John Knightley more, to fit them for the place.—Emma only might be as nature prompted, and shew herself just as happy as she was.

And this from Chapter 4, a single sentence:

The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience: the story told well; he had not thrown himself away – he had gained a woman of 10,000 £ or thereabouts; and he had gained her with such delightful rapidity – the first hour of introduction had been so very soon followed by distinguishing notice; the history which he had to give Mrs Cole of the rise and progress of the affair was so glorious – the steps so quick, from the accidental rencontre, to the dinner at Mr Green’s, and the party at Mrs Brown’s – smiles and blushes rising in importance – with consciousness and agitation richly scattered – the lady had been so easily impressed – so sweetly disposed – had in short, to use a most intelligible phrase, been so very ready to have him, that vanity and prudence were equally contented.

 

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and the Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (©2007, Translated Jennifer Crofts 2017, Text Publishing 2017)

flights.jpgBefore the meeting: If I hadn’t been reading this for the Book Group, I would have stopped reading at about page 80. As it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, it seems that wiser heads see it differently, but to my mind it consisted of fragments of story interspersed with short, mostly banal reflections on aspects of travel. It was like reading excerpts from a notebook, some of them expanded to a degree.

I did keep going, from a sense of duty to the Group and in the hope that some of the fragmentary narratives might be continued later.

On page 83, it turns out, the narrator is in an airport and encounters a lecture being given on Travel Psychology. A quick Duck-Duck-Go search shows that travel psychology is a real thing, but the discipline by that name in this lecture seems to be Olga Tokarczuk’s invention, and the lecture has every appearance of telling the reader how the book works, that is to say, the lecturer is the character some film critics would call Basil Exposition. The foundational idea of travel psychology, he says, is constellationality:

in life […] it is impossible to build a consistent cause-and-effect course of argument or a narrative with events that succeed each other casuistically and follow from each other. … Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth. […] Human life is comprised of situations. There is, of course, a certain inclination towards the repetition of behaviours. This repetition does not, however, mean that we should succumb in our imaginations to the appearance of any sort of consistent whole.

That is, abandon hope of finding a consistent whole, all ye who enter here.

Some of the stories that follow do allow for development and even resolution, particularly one about seventeenth century anatomists, and another about a woman who steps out of her life to become homeless in Moscow for a time. The most frustratingly curtailed story from early in the book does continue to a resolved state in the last section. But in general, though there’s a salient theme to do with the preservation of human bodies for display purposes, the book fulfils that warning not to expect ‘the appearance of any sort of consistent whole’. I’ve got nothing against constellations or constellationality, but I guess I do like a bit of a consistent whole. I did enjoy some moments, but over all, I’m a long way from being a fan of this book. Sorry!

[A pedantic note: As a lazy blogger, I looked online to see if someone else had quoted from that Travel Psychology lecture, planning to cut and paste. As a recovering proofreader I was interested to see how what I found in the Chicago Review of Books differs from the text in my copy of the book, which is what I’ve quoted from above: the review follows US spelling conventions, omits the word ‘Human’, and has ‘made up of’ rather than the incorrect ‘comprised of’. It looks as if the US editors were more rigorous than the ones responsible for the Text Publishing edition. If I was even more obsessive than I am, I’d hunt out a US edition to see if, for instance, it too misspells ‘minuscule’ or if its translation of ‘quaestio oritur‘ [‘the question arises’]  sticks to the correct literal translation or gives the common but erroneous ‘begs the question’ as in my copy.]

After the meeting: We had a good conversation over spaghetti bolognese, just seven of us. Mostly people enjoyed the book more than I did, but I think I’m right in saying that no one absolutely loved it – I had been hoping it would find an unabashed champion who would make me see what I had missed, but it was not to be. One man in particular found a thematic glue to do with the unpredictability of life, but mostly there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. What did emerge in the course of the conversation was the range of stories: none of us could remember one of the episodes singled out for mention on the back cover, but we reminded each other of many moments we had enjoyed.

Given that in one way or another, most of the reflections and narratives in Flights are to do with travel, it was appropriate that the conversation moved on to our own travellers’ tales: two of us had independently visited the bogs of Estonia and a festival in Riga, one had seen wonders in Texas and California, and one had had a transformative experience in Arnhem Land.

The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpg

Before the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980, Virago 2004 … 2014)

transit.jpgBefore the meeting: Serendipitously, I heard that this book had been chosen for the Book Group’s June meeting just after visiting the wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library, which features the actual transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769. I enjoyed the exhibition much more than the book.

Sadly, though I’m in awe of The Transit of Venus for its passion and complexity and astonishingly subtle prose, I just couldn’t like it. I feel mean saying so, because it feels like a very personal book – Shirley Hazzard and her protagonist Caroline Bell have a lot of history on common. At the same time, it’s the way the author injects herself constantly into the narrative that alienated me. Though she never actually addresses the reader, as in ‘Reader, I had an adulterous affair with him,’ she regularly winks at us over the characters’ heads – informing us of one’s eventual fate, giving us just the beginnings of sentences whose cliché endings she expects us to know, or commenting with Patrick White–like snobbishness on someone’s snobbery. The prose is studded with literary allusions, not all of them convincingly attributed to the characters, of which I recognised enough to know that I was mostly being cast as an outsider.

Two young Australian women whose parents died in a marine accident are in the care of their martyrish older half-sister, who brings them to England a little after World War Two. The younger sister, Grace, makes a boring marriage and the novel focuses on the complex relationships of Caro/Caroline, the older sister. Caro is loved by a young scientist of working class origins, Edmund Tice, but she falls for a sophisticated playwright, Paul Ivory, who is engaged and then married to a nasty piece of aristocratic work named Tertia. Caro eventually frees herself of Paul’s charms and finds happiness with a wealthy US social justice activist, Adam Vail. Vail’s death years later introduces the final act, in which both Grace and her husband are separately tempted to adultery (it would be a spoiler to tell if either or both succumb), and circumstances bring Caro back to her youthful love triangle, where there are as many revelations as you’d find at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, delivered pretty much in an extended monologue by one of the characters. Then there’s a final scene that, like the ending of The Sopranos, is illusorily inconclusive.

It’s not as soapy as that summary makes it sound, but that’s the bare bones. Here’s a sample of the writing, picked pretty much at random. Caro and Paul are visiting a megalithic site, and Caro is in awe. Then:

Some stones were rounded, some columnar. That was their natural state, unhewn, untooled. Paul Ivory said, ‘Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.’
The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete. Aware of this advantage, Paul awaited the moment when Caro’s silence would be transferred back, intensified, from the place to himself. He was calm, with controlled desire and with the curiosity that is itself an aspect of desire. As yet he and she had merely guessed at each other’s essence, and her show of self-sufficiency had given her some small degree of power over him – power that could only be reversed by an act of possession.
Preliminary uncertainty might be a stimulus, if the outcome was assured.
Caro had a wonderful danger to her, too, that derived not only from the circumstances, but also from her refusal to manipulate them. The danger and the attraction were the same. There was, in addition, her strong, resilient body, strong arms and throat, and her aversion to physical contact. Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity.

The quote from Genesis is the kind of thing most characters in the book come out with, except that the Bible crops up less than Yeats or eighteenth century London gossip. I’ve recently visited a megalithic site a little like the one in the book (mine was near Évora in Portugal), and while I completely get Caro’s awe, I simply don’t believe in her need for ‘salvation’ or her resulting vulnerability to Paul’s seductive intentions. And all that stuff about essence, power,  possession, uncertainty and violation … well, to me it’s very high-level hooptedoodle. If it’s to your taste or sheds light on the human condition for you, you’ll enjoy this novel a lot more than I did.

But don’t let my comments put you off. When I’d finished the book I read an excellent article about it circulated by a member of the Book Group, ‘Across the Face of the Sun’ by Charlotte Wood in the Sydney Review of Books. It’s an excellent article, though not something you should read before reading the book. She writes:

It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

Well, there you have it. I’ve read it for the first time.

After the meeting: It was a small meeting, just five of us, of whom four had read the whole book – though one of the completers confessed to skipping slabs of it.

It turned out we’d all responded to the same elements in the writing, but our responses were vastly different. Two of us, neither of whom usually does this, had marked a number of short sentences that had delighted them, and when they read them aloud it turned out that some of them were exactly the kind of thing that had increasingly turned me off the book. Someone said he had laughed out loud at parts that I registered as annoying smart-arsery.

I had read the book as permeated with a kind of expatriate contempt for mid 20th century Australia. Others read it very differently, as challenging English assumptions of cultural inferiority. One chap spoke of visiting Britain as a young man and being surprised to discover that there were people there who had a mental hierarchy of cultural worth, in which he had been given a low place as an Australian. There are a number of moments in The Transit of Venus that challenge that ranking: snobbish Christian Thrale observes silently that the two young women don’t seem to realise that they are just a couple of Australian girls living in rented accommodation.

We made the non-completer leave the room at one stage so we could discuss the ending, something everyone who read the book for the first time needs to do.

Everyone had enjoyed the book more than I had, and though I don’t think anyone thought it was a truly great book, we were unanimous in our awe of it. I certainly had to rethink my own response. Maybe I’ll get to a revelatory second reading some time.

The Transit of Venus is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.