Category Archives: Book Group

My Brilliant Friend at the Book Group

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions 2012)
Elena Ferrante, L’amica geniale (e-book, Edizioni e/o 2011)

Before the Book Group meeting: This month’s Chooser nominated My Brilliant Friend in response to an interest in translation expressed at our last meeting (about Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, blog post here). Given the years of buzz about Elena Ferrante and her series The Neapolitan Novels, it’s amazing that none of us had read this until now. This was a chance to find out what the fuss was about.

As I imagine everyone knows, this is the story of the friendship between two girls in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, starting when they are both in the first year of primary school and ending at the marriage of one of them. Though there is a kind of resolution at the end, this is clearly the first instalment of a long story, and a brief prologue in which the sixty-something narrator speaks to the forty-year-old son of her friend offers tantalising hints about where the narrative will go.

The narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter. Her friend is Lila Cerullo, whose father is a shoe repairer. From the beginning, Lila is unpredictable, moody, a little dangerous, and, well, brilliant. Elena is more conventional, is in awe of Lila, and is also, in a more socially-approved way, brilliant. They both do well at school, until Lila drops out because she is needed at home, but then it turns out that Lila is keeping up with what Elena is learning by borrowing books from a library: she gives Elena hints about how to translate from Greek that help her excel in the classroom.

Elena is constantly in competition with Lila, now happy to know she is ahead of her (in schoolwork, in having her periods), now wretched when Lila excels (in her grasp of school subjects she is learning from books, in her attractiveness to men). It’s a striking rendition of a friendship that includes intense affection, resentment, irritation, envy and devotion.

The social environment of post-war Naples is graphically realised. Though the city is on the coast, the little girls have never seen the sea, and when they decide to go there the adventure comes to nothing. There’s a marvellous scene when a group of teenagers decide to visit a posh part of town, and it’s like being on another planet. In the coming of age process, Elena gradually learns about history – about Fascism, the war and war profiteering. At the very end of the novel, she’s sixteen years old and realises that if she starts to read newspapers and journals, beyond the novels that are all she has read until then, she will learn about how the world works.

I enjoyed the novel, but am successfully quelling any urge to get hold of the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name / Storia del nuovo cognome.

I bought a digital copy in the original Italian, so as to put at least some attention to the translation.

My high school Latin teacher once wrote ‘Good attempt’ on a translation of mine, and then was at pains to explain that this was high praise. All anyone can do is attempt to translate: it’s impossible to find an exact equivalent in one language for something written in another. ‘Traduttore traditore,’ he said, ‘Translator, traitor.’ I can’t comment on the accuracy of Ann Goldstein’s translation. I can see that her frequent run-on sentences are faithful to the original, for example, but I have no idea whether they are as irritating in Italian as they are in English.

One thing that snagged my attention is the title. In Italian it’s L’amica geniale, literally The brilliant friend. Why the change from the to my, I wondered, especially as the only time the phrase occurs in the book it’s used by Lila to describe the narrator. The Italian title leaves room for either of the friends to be the brilliant one. The English, sadly in my opinion, removes any ambiguity.

The other thing that struck me is a kind of clunkiness in the English –adverbs in an unusual order, and other places where the language doesn’t feel like that of a native English speaker. I was surprised to discover not only that Ann Goldstein is an English speaker, but that she learned Italian as an adult and works for The New Yorker, which is notoriously sticklerish for correct American English usage.

Look at this, the death of Don Achille, who was a kind of Godfather figure to the neighbourhood:

He was in the kitchen, and had just opened the window to let in the rain-freshened air. He had got up from bed to do so, interrupting his nap. He had on worn blue pajamas, and on his feet only socks of a yellowish color, blackened at the heels. As soon as he opened the window a gust of rain struck his face and someone plunged a knife into the right side of his neck, halfway between the jaw and the clavicle.

(Page 83)

Something about that last sentence felt awkward and anticlimactic on first reading. I read on, of course, but some corner of my mind marked the place. Just now, I looked up the Italian:

Era in cucina, aveva appena aperto la finestra per far entrare l’aria fresca della poggia. S’era alzato dal letto apposta, interrompendo la controra. Indossava un pigiama celeste molto usurato, ai piedi aveva solo calzini d’un colore gialliccio annerito ai calcagni. Appena aprì la finestra gli arrivò in faccia uno sbuffo di poggia e sul late destro del collo, proprio a mezza strada tra la mandibola e la clavicola, un colpo di coltello.

The first two sentences are straightforward (though ‘had on worn blue pyjamas’ is clumsy – why not ‘was wearing threadbare pyjamas’?). They establish a mundane domestic setting for the shock that is to come. But then the translation makes three choices in the final sentence that diminish that shock. First, why translate clavicola with the technical ‘clavicle’ rather than the everyday ‘collarbone’, especially when, thankfully, mandibola becomes ‘jaw’ rather than ‘mandible’? Second, the Italian language’s flexibility with word order allows the action to become apparent only in the last three words of the sentence (colpo di cotello = ‘knife-blow’), an effect lost in translation. Third, while the structure of the Italian sentence pairs the knife-blow with the gust of rain – so two things came at Don Achille through the window, one mundane and the other deadly – the English introduces ‘someone’ and ruins the parallel. Something like this would be truer to the original:

As soon as he opened the window, there came a gust of rain to his face, and to the right side of his neck, halfway between jaw and collarbone, a knife-blow.

My impression is that a lot of the translation is like that: sometimes keeping too close to the Italian rather than using a more natural English equivalent, sometimes departing too far from the Italian and losing rhetorical or dramatic effects.

I’m starting to sound like Brother Gerard, my Latin and French teacher from nearly 60 years ago. So, even though I cherish his memory, I guess that means it’s time to stop.

After the meeting: There was a brief online debate about whether we should meet in person or on screens, Screens won out, for now.

My NBN connection isn’t robust enough for zoom meeting in the evening, and I ended up joining the meeting on my phone. Next time I’ll do it on the computer using the phone’s hotspot to connect, but this time that didn’t want to work either, so I spent the two hours squinting at four faces at a time out of the eleven participants, and I expect my hand-held image wobbled annoyingly. But I won’t complain about zoom: it brought us the lovely moment when one chap said he had a son and a daughter, and a young face joined his on the screen, saying ‘I’m the daughter!’

Most of the chaps, many sporting scrappy Corona beards, loved the book. My complaints about clunkiness and quibbles about the translation were mostly received without sympathy. The simple solution to discontent with translation from Italian, I was told, was not to know Italian.

I was the second least enthusiastic. The least enthusiastic remained silent for a long time, and then, when prompted, said he had only kept reading out of love for the rest of us. He also said that as he listened to the discussion, he could see why he should have enjoyed the book, which is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed it, but I never got invested in it. Others got really involved: remembering the politics of their own childhood communities, reflecting on male violence, recalling their own visits to Naples, being swept along by the story and experiencing shocks of recognition, even – at least one chap said – falling in love with Lila.

More than one had started reading the second book, and next meeting’s Chooser said he’ll be nominating the fourth book. I’m hoping it was a joke-threat.

The Book Group zooming with Hwang Sok-yong At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong, At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe 2018)

Before the meeting: One of the many things I love about my Book Group is that a couple of chaps can be counted on, when it’s their turn to choose our book, to send us Somewhere Else. We’ve read challenging books from Indonesia, India, Japan, Poland, Russia .. the list could go on. This month, we’re in South Korea.

Like many novels these days, this one tells two separate stories in alternating chapters, and the links between the stories become apparent only towards the end. The reader is quietly tantalised by hints at the connection, and there are red herrings.

The protagonist of the first narrative strand, Park Minwoo, is a successful male architect nearing retirement age, who has been part of ruthless slum clearance projects and aesthetically hideous urban development. My reading was partly informed and enriched by knowing that I was in the virtual company of architects, a builder and a heritage consultant in the Group, but the ethical issues didn’t need that kind of help. Minwoo has our sympathy: the bulk of his story is taken up with his childhood in the slums, and his escape to a more affluent life through study and patronage; and with the way his childhood friends and, especially, sweetheart remained behind, mostly forgotten by him – until, in the opening paragraph of the book, a young woman hands him a slip of paper with a name and a phone number and the past comes back.

The other story, told in the first person, features Jung Woohee, a young woman who is scraping a living working the graveyard shift in a convenience store in order to pursue her ambition to become a playwright. She is befriended by a man slightly older than her, named Kim Minwoo. I was struggling with the Korean personal names and place names, and at about the time that we learned his name I went back to the start to draw up a list of characters and places: yes, there are two Minwoos, but the mother of Kim Winmoo laughs at the idea of any connection between the son of a poor single mother and a famous architect.

I know next to nothing about South Korean history and culture. Duck Duck Go was my friend, especially in Minwoo’s story, which includes passing references to a coup, martial law and a massacre – all background to his rising fortunes. And I recognised motifs from of Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite – I don’t think there’s any influence or borrowing in either direction, just that the movie and the book are about the same world: Woohee lives in a basement apartment like that of the poor family in that film; and like the daughter of the poor family, Minwoo earns some cash by tutoring the initially unresponsive son of a wealthy family.

The thematic relationship between the two narratives is powerful, particularly as embodied in the two Minwoos. One has become successful through projects that have destroyed communities but has been able to turn his back on the human suffering; the other has been led by poverty and need to be part of an eviction squad on just that kind of project. It’s an amazing achievement of the novel that we continue to see these characters as human and deserving our compassion, even while we see the horror of their actions. We take no joy from the fact that things don’t end well for either of them.

I think I’m missing something in the way the two narratives connect at the end. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that it felt like a twist that lacked any pay-off at all. Possibly something is being said about generational cultural shift, or the role of the artist (is Woohee a representative of the novelist?), and maybe there’s something about gender, but it sailed past me. I’m looking forward to talking about it to a lot of little faces on my computer screen.

A word about the translation: Sora Kim-Russell manages to give us a very readable text in natural, flowing English, while at the same time not pretending that this is anything but a Korean story. Take this little passage from Minwoo’s childhood visit to the home of his poorer friend Jaemyung:

Their mother ladled up bowls of sujebi that she’d cooked in a large pot, while Myosoon carried the bowls from the kitchen to the table. Once Myosoon and their mother were seated at the end of the table, dinner began. Instead of the usual firm dough torn by hand, their sujebi was made with a runny dough that was scraped with a pair of chopsticks into a pot of boiling water; as you ate it, the dough flakes turned soggy and loose until you were basically eating flour porridge. The flour must have been of poor quality to begin with, as it was yellowish in colour, and the broth wasn’t made from beef or anchovy stock but was just plain water with a little soy sauce and sliced squash. It barely qualified as sujebi.

(page 56-57)

There’s a lot of explanation embedded in that passage that – I’m guessing – wouldn’t be necessary for a Korean reader, but the ignorant reader (such as me) is neither patronised nor mystified. Sujebi isn’t translated for us, nor is it italicised to mark it as ‘foreign’; but we are told what the yellowish hue of the dough signifies about the flour. I just looked Sora Kim-Russell and see that she’s won awards. I concur with the judges.

After the meeting: I felt our last meeting, our first on zoom, was like an EngLit seminar, by which I think I meant less convivial as well as less chaotic than our Book Group meetings usually are. If Wednesday’s meeting was seminarish, it was only to the good, because we had a wonderfully rich, and enriching, conversation about the book. This may have been helped by the unobtrusive labour of one group member who earns his living largely as a facilitator. In the past he has been mocked for his pleas that we have one conversation at a time. This week, no one mocked, and I think we all silently appreciated the way he made sure everyone had a fair bite of the conversational apple. So, apart from the chap who was called away because his daughter cut her hand badly (she’s OK now), it was a smooth and unchaotic event.

My hope that the architects etc would shed extra light on the book was dashed. Pretty much with one voice they said that the architecture was there as a metaphor (or metonym, maybe: the subject was the modernisation of Korea, and architecture was a way of talking about that.

One chap had read the book twice, and a number of us thought that was a smart move. It’s a short book, but there are many layers: the portrait of Korea, the romance, the interplay of the two narrative strands, and so on. Someone had given the book to a friend to read because he wanted to discuss it before we met. The friend described it as unsentimentally elegiac, a phrase that struck a chord in the group: Author Hwang does tell of a lost past, without romanticising it.

There was an interesting discussion of the ending, which I won’t even attempt to summarise here, partly because that would be spoileristic.

And as well as that, the important business of the evening: hearing about how we are all faring in these Covid–19 times. Some are busier than ever with their jobs, some suddenly out of work, some missing contact with their family, some living in uncustomary closeness with theirs, one man needing advice on a barber for a much-needed haircut, and so on. Have I =said I love my book group? Then I’ll say it again. (Also, someone mentioned my blog, so I have to be nice about them in case they turn up to read it!)

The Book Group and Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Before the meeting: This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, most obviously because it happened online, with participants spread from Bondi to Balmain, and less obviously because it’s the first time a book has been chosen that I’ve already read.

So for my pre-meeting take on the book, I’ll just point you to this link, and limit myself to saying that I enjoyed the book, and risked a visit to the supermarket to buy a bottle of sarsaparilla to flourish at the zoom screen.

After the meeting: As you would expect, we spent time checking how we were all going in our separate households. One of us reported the death of a friend in England. One made only a brief appearance because he is a health worker and exhausted, as well as putting himself at risk as an essential worker. Another has been working very long hours as his business adjusts to having most people working from home and he spends many hours every day in online meetings, which, he says, may actually be more productive than in-person meetings, but are exhausting. Several of us, me included, reported intergenerational tensions as people variously worried that others weren’t taking enough care or were annoyed by other people’s worry. A number spoke of the odd sense of having a relaxing time to do gardening and sit about and read, while outside – where you’re not allowed to go – terrible things are happening. I got the impression that many of us are addicted to Covid-19 news. There were no jokes.

We did get to the book. Without food to share or the possibility of fragmenting into small incidental conversations the whole thing was a lot less fun than we’re used to. It felt almost like an Eng Lit seminar – not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. Most of us enjoyed the book. One chap said that generally if a book hasn’t grabbed him by page 72 he gives up on it; this book took until page 272, but then he decided to go with it and really had a good time. Some didn’t care much for the longish expository opening. (I think they were referring to the evocation of Brisbane suburbs, which I loved.) Another felt that the magic realism elements were the least successful, and I think we can look forward to an excellent film.

Vicki Hastrich, Charlotte Wood, Night Fishing on the Weekend with the Book Group

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.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know at the Book Group, plus November Verse 6

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Penguin Random House 2018)

Before the meeting: I was going to say that this book does what it says on the tin – that is, it tells about the three fathers of famous Protestant Irish writers named in the subtitle. But it doesn’t come good on the implication of the main title – which is a slight variation on a phrase used to describe the poet Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, and which has been used as a title for a number of works since, including a play about Byron by Australian Ron Blair. Neither Byron nor Byronic heroics are to be found in these pages. Nor, really, are any of the three men all that mad, all that bad, or all that dangerous.

Three of the book’s four chapters were given as lectures at a university in Atlanta Georgia in November 2017. I imagine the lectures were riveting. I don’t know this for sure, but it looks to me as if Colm Tóibín has added an introduction and padded out the lectures in a bit of a rush job.

So: there’s plenty of interesting information about the three men and their roles in their sons’ lives and works.

The chapter on William Wilde is framed by Tóibín’s account of a five-hour reading he gave of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in the Reading Gaol prison cell where Wilde wrote it. A striking thing about De Profundis, he writes, is that while it honours Wilde’s mother it barely mentions his father. Nonetheless, Tóibín argues, William Wilde was a big influence on Oscar. And a striking picture of the man emerges, gleaned from contemporary accounts and biographies. My takeaway from this chapter, however, is the desire to see Paul Capsis reading from De Profundis in Woolloomooloo – seven of us from the group are planning to do so.

John B Yeats didn’t get on with his famous son. The elder Yeats was a failed artist – he had trouble finishing paintings, and even his masterpiece, a self-portrait he spent years on, remained incomplete at his death. He was an amazing letter-writer, which we know because his correspondents kept his letters, and many of them have been published, and republished. Among the letters he wrote to William, there’s one that Tóibín quotes advising him to turn away from the mystical path he was taking. In his later years, and this is where the chapter comes fully alive, he wrote frank, passionate love letters from New York to Rosa Butts in Ireland, a woman he may or may not have ever had physical intimacy with. She and he had agreed to burn their letters once they had read them: he kept his part of the agreement, but she did us a favour and reneged.

John Stanislaus Joyce had the dubious honour of being written about by two of his sons, Stanislaus and James. Stanislaus’s books, My Brother’s Keeper and The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, make it clear that he was a terrible husband and father: drunk, improvident, at times cruel. The main thrust of his chapter is an exploration of how Joyce in his fiction managed to combine ‘the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fulness, and indeed its pain and misery’. If ever I reread Ulysses my reading will be richer thanks to this chapter.

A key question about a book like this is whether it engages the interest of a reader who doesn’t have a prior commitment to the subject. I’m moderately interested in all three of these writers: not the Wilde of De Profundis so much as the one who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, who doesn’t really get a look in; the Yeats who wrote ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’; and the Joyce who, as my eldest brother told my father when he was 19 and I was 10, wrote a ‘dirty dirty‘ book called Ulysses. I enjoyed a lot of it, but there’s a lot that I found dull. In particular, the Introduction, which might have offered some basis for general interest, takes the reader on a stroll, pedestrian in both senses, through Dublin streets, telling us how the Wildes, the Yeatses and the Joyces were sometimes neighbours, or not, how their lives intersected (‘Yeats’s grandparents and his father knew Oscar Wilde’s parents’), and how other poets and writers since have lived in or near those places.

I’ve no doubt that Colm Toíbín has a deeply felt interest in these three men. Not a Protestant himself as far as I know, perhaps he is fascinated by the eminence of these Protestant writers and their fathers in mostly-Catholic Ireland. But the book fails to communicate to me why I should be interested. In particular, it may be that Toíbin’s heart just wasn’t in the process of expanding his three lectures to a 205 page book. The lectures were published in the London Review of Books (and are available online here, here and here). I expect they make excellent reading.


After the meeting:

I was nearly two hours late for our meeting. Ice creams were being eaten when I made my entrance. Though there was a feeble attempt to convince me that everyone else had completely loved the book it didn’t take long to elicit an elegant summary of the discussion so far: the book was mostly dull and unengaging with some excellent bits. Most of the discussion had been about people’s relationships with their own fathers and, where possible, sons. I was very sorry to have missed that conversation, though the remnants of it that followed my arrival were terrific: an extraordinary tall traveller’s tale about one chap’s father shouting him and his brother to dubious treats in Bangkok; unspectacular but treasured moments of play; how different generations express affection among males.

About the book: about half of us studied literature in some way at university a long time ago. If the book was marginally interesting to us, it was substantially less so to the others, and fewer than usual bothered to read to the end. One man, who is deeply cultured in other respects, didn’t know the circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, knowledge that Tóibín assumes in his readers; and I’m pretty sure someone said they’d never heard of W B Yeats (though he’s now tempted to seek out Yeats Senior’s letters).


And because it’s November, here are 14 rhyming lines. I went searching on my bookshelves for anything on the fathers of famous Australian writers, and found this little anecdote in Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass (Jonathan Cape 1981, page 5).

November Verse 6: 
Patrick White, when just a laddy,
felt his penis growing hard.
There's something odd, he told his daddy.
Daddy reddened, hummed and haaed,
and said, 'Step out' – the passing glimmer
of a smile told the young swimmer
all was well. At that same age
a first poet stepped onto the stage
of Paddy's life. Face like a wrinkled,
sooty lemon, driest kind
of gent, the Banjo paid no mind
to Patrick. But those first notes tinkled:
first ripples on great passion's tide
delivered at his father's side.

The Book Group with A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016, Windmill 2017)

Before the meeting: This is a fabulous book to read after The Disappearing Earth. Both are by USians looking to Russia, but where Julia Phillips’s novel is a contemporary thriller (kind of) set in remote Siberia, and features Indigenous people, Amor Towles’s novel is a comedy of manners (kind of) whose action takes place almost entirely within the walls of the luxurious Hotel Metropol in post-revolution Moscow. It’s probably not stretching things too far to say that, for all their difference, they are both reactions against mainstream US’s Russophobia, while neither goes so far as to assert any sympathy with Communism. They seem to confirm that the Book Group has a recurring interest in Russia and the former Soviet Bloc, coming as they do after Anna Karenina (discussed in August 2009), Chekhov’s short stories (September 2012), China Miéville’s October (September 2017), and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (November 2017).

Count Rostov is a Former Person, that is to say a member of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy, whose life is spared because of a poem filled with pre-revolutionary zeal, and who is sentenced to live the rest of his life under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol. Rostov, whose aristocratic virtues include extraordinary social adeptness, courtesy, wit and generosity, has been a favourite guest at the hotel. When he is moved by decree from his luxurious quarters to a tiny room on the top floor, his relationships with members of the staff remain affectionate. He is befriended by a young girl (who initiates the friendship by asking him what has happened to his spectacular moustaches – which have been peremptorily scissored by a brutish apparatchik) and some decades later takes on the guardianship of her daughter, who becomes the emotional centre of his life. He is employed as head waiter in the hotel’s prestigious dining room, where his aristocratic training in tact and diplomacy serves him well. Over the decades of his house arrest, his gift for friendship wins him unexpected allies, even while his undaunted aristocratic bearing makes an enemy or two.

All this plays out against the history of Stalinism, the Second World War, the coming of Kruschev, forced collectivisation, purges, straitjacketing and worse of artists, writers and performers, the gulags, millions dying of famine, increasing wealth and eventual opening up to the West, samizdat. The Count leaves the hotel only once before the final pages; history comes to visit him, and friends fall foul of the iron hand of Stalinism. He is described as the luckiest man in Russia.

Beneath this charming fantasy, there’s a joyful assertion of the value of decency, a celebration of resilient humane virtues. I enjoyed it a lot, and laughed out loud more than once. But …

… although at no stage did I feel the urge to stand up and sing ‘The Internationale’ (to quote Mark Kermode reviewing Downton Abbey), I was uneasy about the possibility that the book plays into a quietistic approach to life, as in, ‘I can be decent, even generous, with people within my small sphere, but what can I possibly do about big issues like climate change when my sphere is so limited?’ I don’t know. Maybe this is a question for the Group – that is, if we can resist the pull to rip into Scott Morrison dealings with Trump.

At the meeting: I was surprised that this book was substantial enough to hold our attention for long, yet it provoked very interesting, wide-ranging, inclusive and at times robust conversation.

One man had read it twice, the second time when he had a visitor staying with his family to whom he read a page or so on a number of nights, which he and his audience enjoyed immensely. This man actually stayed at the Hotel Metropol some decades ago, a disclosure he managed to withhold until well into the evening, winning a round of applause for his restraint. He also challenged the idea that may have been floating in the room and/or the book that civility and grace were somehow aristocratic virtues – two of the most gracious people he had ever met were working class unionists Jack Mundey and Jack Ferguson.

I got to put my question, or call it my unease, and wasn’t dismissed out of hand. One man immediately wondered aloud if that unease wasn’t the actual intentional subject of the book. One chap described the book as a Western liberal response to the Russian Communist experiment, in which liberalism comes out as superior. Another (a recovering Trot, I think) saw it as asserting that attempts at major social change were doomed to fail because the old order just reproduces itself in new forms. Someone else heard me as using the rhetorical device of ‘What about …?’ – that is, asking how we could be giving attention to this froth and bubble when Climate Change. (I think I defended myself successfully against that charge.) If Rostov doesn’t engage with the social change activism, perhaps it’s because he’s under house arrest, and perhaps (this was a quick aside from someone) we all tend to feel we’re under house arrest.

We managed to talk about any number of subjects without leaving the book: Boris Johnson and the Etonian old boys currently running the UK (aristocratic virtues, anyone?), The Good Place (addresses the question of what it means to be good!), Poldark (which not many of have watched, but evidently it addresses contemporary issues through a story set in the past), being fathers of girls.

I love my Book Group.

The Book Group disagrees about Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner 2019)

Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.

The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.

The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.

As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.

This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.

Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.

After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:

  • I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
  • One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
  • Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
  • One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.

We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.

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-fifth 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 eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.