Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

#aww2020 Challenge Completed

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

The challenge was established in 2012 to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing. I signed up in 2013, and it’s probably fair to say that my reading habits have been transformed and my mind enriched. This year, I read a total of 24 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. Here they are, with links to my blog posts:

4 books for children

6 books of poetry

5 novels for adults

8 memoir/biography/history/essay/creative non-fiction

2 manuals/self-help books

Five of the books were written by First Nations women. The list doesn’t include journals or anthologies.

Now I’ve signing up for another year, at the Franklin level, which means I aim to read and review 10 books by Australian women in 2021.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year. Counting comics, but not journals, anthologies or picture books (apart from Tohby Riddle’s sublime The Astronaut’s Cat), I read:

  • 31 by women
  • 32 by men

I read 7 books in translation (one each from Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, French, Swedish and German), and 3 in their original French. In addition to the five books by First Nations women I read one by a First Nations man.

I’ll do a separate post where teh Emerging Artist and I pick our favourite books and movies of the year.

Katharine Murphy’s end of certainty

Katharine Murphy, The End of Certainty: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 79, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 80

One of the chaps on the Book Group told us that he was a year behind Scott Morrison at school – I think it was Sydney Boys High. We all fell silent, expecting a revealing anecdote, but all he could come up with was a story about a football team to which both he and the current Prime Minister of Australia belonged being left to fend for themselves in the wilds of Bondi Junction, having illegally partaken of alcohol. The worst my friend could say about Scott Morrison was that he was there.

The derisory nickname Scotty from Marketing didn’t come from nowhere: almost everything we know about the Prime Minister has been generated by his personal publicity machine, including his self-bestowed nickname ScoMo and photos of him at prayer, building a cubby for his daughters or working from home in jacket, shorts and thongs. So even more than for other prominent politicians it was a good idea for Black Ink to commission a Quarterly Essay profile. And who better than Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia and a member of the Canberra press gallery for more than 20 years?

Murphy does deliver. But intervening events meant that the account of Morrison’s personality and political modus operandi had to shrink to make room for a detailed narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia and federal and state governments’ responses to it. As a political journalist, Katharine understands in her bones that a week is a long time, and the essay feels as if it is catching the moment by the tail, getting an account down on paper (or screen) even as the moment becomes something else. It makes for fascinating reading, especially from the vantage of several months into the essay’s future, which is when I’ve read it. Even the correspondence in November’s QE 80 was out-of-date before it left the presses (as in a fair bit of conjecture about the findings of the inquiry into Victorian hotel quarantine – none of it, incidentally, to be proved way off course by the actual findings).

So, what does Murphy make of Morrison? She has more access than most of us, and he did grant her an interview even in the midst of the pandemic. She acknowledges that he’s a master of controlling the narrative, in particular the narrative that concerns himself (going on what she calls ‘yes mate’ outings on talkback radio rather than granting interviews), and so she has to dig hard for her own independent observations.

Sadly, my post-it-festooned copy of the essay has disappeared along with the backpack I was carrying it about in, so I can’t quote from the essay with any confidence. One of the telling anecdotes that I recall came from Nick Xenophon, who had worked with Morrison to get some piece of legislation through the parliament. Once the thing was done, Xenophon suggested that they meet to have a cup of coffee or similar social interaction. Morrison rejected the invitation, saying something like, ‘I’m purely transactional, mate.’ Murphy argues that since becoming prime minister he has been learning to be a little more relational – that his disastrous handling of the bushfire disasters a year ago may have been a learning experience for him. Tentatively, she holds out the possibility that the man who forced bushfire survivors to shake his hand may do better next time. He’s a manager, a fixer, rather than an ideologue, and that has been Australia’s good luck, as he was able to cooperate with his ideological enemies in responding to the pandemic. The question, back in August, and again in November when the correspondence was written, was how far could that pragmatic non-ideological approach work before everything snapped back to the old battle lines.

The correspondents in QE 80 include other journalists: David Marr and Philip Coorey basically applaud the essay as necessary and well done; David Kelly is much less optimistic about Morrison’s lack of ideology. There are scholars: Damien Freeman of the Australian Catholic University categorises Murphy as a progressive commentator and says she just doesn’t understand ‘the conservative approach to public life’. Social researcher Hugh Mackay engages elegantly rather than argumentatively, suggesting that Murphy’s passing references to her own sense of local community deepening in small ways during the pandemic might usefully have been given greater prominence, as his research indicates that this has been a more general phenomenon. Celeste Liddle, self-described as ‘an Arrente woman living in Melbourne’, ‘a union organiser, social commentator and activist’, is refreshingly blunt, and complex, in her discussion of the Victorian lockdown, and the relationship between Scott Morrison and Premier Dan Andrews.

In her Reply to Correspondents, Katharine Murphy says that it was her first Quarterly Essay, and she found it ‘desperately hard’, but, she says:

the times are important, and I reported honestly, and shared what I saw. I hope the record stands the test of time.

The essay is a reminder of the crucial role played by serious. responsible journalism. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. If you found the backpack with my copy in it, feel free to read the essay before you bring it back to me.


The End of Certainty is the 22nd and last book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Guides through grief, torture and trauma

Edwina Shaw, A Guide Through Grief: First aid for your heart and soul (Red Backed Wren 2020)
Margaret Bennett & Jennifer Maiden, Workbook Questions: Writing of Torture, Trauma Experience (Quemar Press 2019)

I’m not the intended audience for either of these books, but they’re both written, or co-written, by writers whose work I love. One of the writers is my niece. Each of the books is related to its author’s other job: Edwina is a yoga teacher when she’s not writing, and Jennifer Maiden has been employed as Writer in Residence at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors).


Edwina’s book has a further subtitle on the title page: ‘Practical tools, creative activities and yoga exercises to help you cope with the loss of someone you love’. It announces itself as a self-help book. OK, I’m deeply suspicious of self-help books so, as blood’s not thicker than prejudice, I approached A Guide through Grief with my defences up.

It turns out that, yes, there are plenty of practical tools etcetera. At the end of each chapter there are several suggested activities: journalling and other writing tasks, affirmations à la Louise Hay, rituals with a New Age feel, the promised yoga exercises, and some recipes. Some or all of these may hit just the right note for some readers, and I’ve got nothing against a good recipe for chicken soup, but if that’s all there was to the book my heart would have hardened against it. (Luckily, an introductory ‘How to use this book’ explicitly invites readers to turn up their noses at some exercises, depending on taste.)

But the book is also a memoir. Edwina’s reflections on grief and loss, the need to weep and to stay connected, the importance of facing the reality rather than taking refuge in work or destructive activity of one kind or another, the passage of time – all these are entwined with accounts of personal experience. The book is rooted in her own bereavements: her father died of cancer when she was 14, her younger brother killed himself not long after, her grandmother died a peaceful death in old age, and then, devastatingly, decades later, a baby son died soon after birth. The self-help advice and suggestions have been tested in the laboratory of the writer’s own life, and she shows at least some of her workings.

I had tears in my eyes in many places. Partly this is because three of its four main deaths affected me deeply at the time. (I was ridiculously pleased to read in the paragraph about the impersonal remoteness of her brother’s funeral on page 110: ‘Only my uncle’s speech reflected the true essence of Matty’s personality.’ At least I’d been part of bucking the trend.) It’s also because Edwina can write. I happen to have read this book as I’m making my way, three pages a day, through Proust’s account of bereavement in the sixth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. I’m not suggesting that Edwina Shaw and Marcel Proust are in any way similar writers, but Proust’s description of humans as ‘amphibious creatures who are immersed simultaneously in the past and in present-time reality’, which I read this morning, resonates through Edwina’s accounts of the role of memory in grieving.

The book does an elegant two-step: it evokes one person’s experience of loss and her grieving work, and gives practical suggestions on how the reader can do their own work. I skipped the yoga and I skim-read the affirmations; you might ignore the writing exercises – which I might actually try. I doubt if I’ll ever practise a ‘visualisation’ in which I sit naked on the lap of a mother goddess, but I’ll remember Edwina’s wise aunt who said that ‘for every death there is one hundred hours’ worth of crying’. I love her argument for wrenching funerals from the control of religious institutions and for-profit enterprises. Edwina says in her introduction that this is the book she wishes someone had given her when she was 14. I hope I’d have the moral fibre to give it to someone in that situation: it could save lives.


Workbook Questions is what it says on the lid: 47 pages of carefully-devised questions intended as prompts in writing exercises for ‘Torture and Related Trauma Survivors and for Survivors of Camps and Incarceration’. So the main intended audience is limited – though an opening section of ‘General Questions’ is designed to make the book useful to anyone addressing trauma of any sort, not just torture and incarceration, which is a much broader readership/user base. It turns out that the list of questions is preceded by a 30-page ‘Conversation’ between the authors: Margaret Bennett, former Executive Director of STARTTS with a background in group therapy and counselling, and Jennifer Maiden, poet.

A more conventional presentation might have spelled out a carefully referenced rationale for the questions, probably with each question numbered for easy cross-reference: ‘The reasons for starting out with neutral questions about parents are as follows,’ etcetera.

Although such explanations are covered in the ‘conversation’, it is much more interesting and readable than that. Two women who have worked with each other and know each other well discuss the circumstances that led to this set of questions, the insights they bring from their different experiences and expertise, what they found worked in the groups, the value of writing as opposed to speaking as a way of integrating traumatic experiences, and autobiographical anecdotes.

Maiden and Bennett take turns in speaking/writing, and each turn is printed as a single paragraph. As these paragraphs can run for several pages and cover a range of topics, the reader has to do work that would be done by an editor in a more conventionally presented work, but the work pays off. I imagine that this conversation will be very useful, not only to people working with survivors of torture, trauma and incarceration, but also to to scholars interested in Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, in which these themes appear frequently.


A Guide through Grief and Workbook Questions are the 20th and 21st books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

November Verse 2 & Judith Brett’s Coal Curse

November verse 2: 
First a paddock, now a quarry.
Ride on sheepback, ride in coal-cart
all the way to– Well I'm sorry,
who knows where? It takes a cold heart
not to quake when science gives notice
not to quail when Trump is POTUS,
not to dump Adani's deal,
not to see shit just got real.
Impervious to rhyme and reason,
evidence and sound advice,
our governments have, for a price –
praise be, and Kyrie eleison –
bent the knee to fossil fuels
like autogenocidal tools.

Which is a response to:


Judith Brett, The Coal Curse: Resources, climate and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay Nº 78, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 79

Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse is in part an update of Guy Pearse’s Quarterly Essay Nº 33, Quarry Vision (here’s a link to my recently-retrieved blog post about that). Much has changed in the decade between the two essays: the climate emergency has become more obviously pressing, community and business support for renewable energy has increased hugely, there’s much more scepticism about the future role of coal and gas in Australia’s economy in business circles (except, of course in the coal and gas industry). Dispiritingly, little has changed in the federal government’s hand in glove relationship with the fossil fuel industry, and the issue has become even more politicised, more enmeshed in culture wars.

This essay, Judith Brett writes in the introductory section, ‘is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences’:

Economic history is unfashionable nowadays. Economists focus on the modelling and management of the present and historians are more interested in stories and experience, and in uncovering diversity and neglected voices. Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.

(Page 8)

I didn’t find this essay dry at all. Judith Brett writes with wonderful clarity. Every now and then she throws in a wry aside, an amusing factoid or a startling anecdote, but you’re never at risk of getting lost in a welter of detail or a barrage of polemic.

Here’s her argument in brief:

  1. Australia is a trading nation. We have a small population, so exporting enables our companies to grow by reaching larger markets.
  2. There has always been a divide between the export of commodities – wool until the 1950s, minerals since then – and manufactured goods. The first makes a lot more profit but employs many fewer people.
  3. Because minerals export, especially coal and gas recently, is so profitable, it draws resources away from other exports and manufacturing.
  4. With the minerals boom, our manufacturing sector has pretty much collapsed.
  5. World markets for coal are decreasing dramatically as the rest of the world addresses climate change. Australian governments have been successfully captured by the fossil fuels lobby, and have not responded to the challenges of reality, as opposed to many in business and overwhelming public opinion.
  6. Paraphrasing wildly now, if something doesn’t change dramatically soon, we’d better kiss our backsides goodbye.

Actually, Brett isn’t as pessimistic as that. But when she quotes an LNP Senator from Queensland saying what an honour it has been ‘to represent the Australian mining sector’ (page 62), she leaves the reader in no doubt that some politicians forget that they are, as she puts it, ‘our risk managers of last resort’.


As we expect in the Quarterly Essay, the correspondence on The Coal Curse in QE 79 is civil, nuanced and challenging. Andy Lloyd, who worked for Rio Tinto for 23 years, offers the equivalent of a ‘not all men’ argument, which blurs some of the edges of Judith Brett’s argument but makes no substantial difference. The other correspondents tend to emphasise the hopeful elements of the essay, pointing to promising activist strategies, actual developments in the business sector that indicate fossil fuels are heading for oblivion and the Australian government are likely to be left floundering behind the main game.

Stephen Bell, professor of political economy at the University of Queensland, articulates a key question that always lurks behind discussions of this sort:

Who reads this kind of history? Mostly, people already agree that coal is causing environmental devastation and the coal lobby is far too powerful. And almost certainly not those who have drunk the Coal-Aid, unless their aim is to lampoon it and its author, as the Murdoch stable is wont to do. This is the crisis of Australia’s intellectual life: the apparent impossibility of generating a constructive rational dialogue about anything in general, and about coal in particular.

(QE 79 page 128)

Martin Luther King Junior said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We’d better hope the arc isn’t too long.


The Coal Curse is the 19th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jenny Blackford’s Girl in the Mirror

Jenny Blackford, The Girl in the Mirror (illustrated by Fiona McDonald, Eagle Books 2019)

In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.

It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.

It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.

With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.

All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..


The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence

Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books 2020)

Before the Meeting: Generally, if I read a book about a marginalised group I try to read one by someone from that group soon after. Even though both Truganini (the Book Group’s last title) and The Colony (which I read just before Truganini) are committed to telling colonial history with First Nations perspectives to the fore, they are both written by white/settler women. So I was happy when this book by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, was chosen for the Book Group.

Julie Janson has described the novel as ‘a First Nations response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville’:

[The Secret River] is a wonderful book, but I was challenged by the ending where all the Burruberongal Darug people died in a massacre except for one old man. I asked myself the question: if all the Darug died, who were we?

I had researched my (Aboriginal) family history along the Hawkesbury River, and the Darug interpretation of those early days of colonial invasion is entirely different.

(Link to Booktopia interview here)

Benevolence (the title is deeply ironic) tells the story of Muraging, a Burruberongal woman whose parents give her up to a missionary-run school in 1816 when she is very young, in the hope that she will gain resources there to survive in the colonised world. Renamed Mary, she learns to read, write and play the violin, and resists attempts to make her give up on her culture, language and people. She runs away with a handsome young Aboriginal man, and what follows is a picaresque account of her travels, moving back and forth between the two cultures – now living with a group of women who have lost their men to the frontier wars, now a servant to a clergyman with whom she has a consensual sexual relationship that eventually goes very sour, now wandering with her small daughter, a servant again, a disregarded listener to callous conversations about massacre and rape, a speaker of truth to power. She finds occasional kindness and mostly avoids threats of violence and sexual assault. She spends time in prison, is often hungry, loses her daughter, has a second child after having sex with a French man in return for a bag of flour. She never gives up the search for her family and a place where she can live among her people.

It’s a story of navigating the harsh conditions of colonisation. The Aboriginal people and communities that Mary encounters are not pathetic victims, and aren’t romanticised as automatically safe and nurturing, but at the end of the novel, she finds a home in a community of survivors – precarious, under threat, but solid.

Each chapter has a year in its heading title, and most begin with a brief note on what is happening in the colony: in 1826 Darling becomes Governor of the colony; in 1832 Kings School opens in Parramatta; in 1835 Governor Bourke proclaims terra nullius; also in 1835 King William IV recognises the continued rights to land for Aboriginal people in South Australia. These landmarks serve to anchor the narrative in settler history, but most bear little direct relation to Mary’s struggles.

There are many painful scenes with settlers: the unashamedly white supremacist Reverend Masters, the weak Reverend Smythe (her first child’s father), Smythe’s insufferably prim and nasty wife Susan, a military man who forces her to guide him on a punitive expedition that culminates in massacre, and others. These characters are pretty much universally portrayed as weirdly irrational, inconsistent, bullying or pusillanimous, so that their scenes – dinner parties, domestic rows, meetings with Aboriginal warriors – read like hellish phantasmagoria. I haven’t seen any of Julie Janson’s plays, but many of the scenes involving settler characters read like scripts for rough-theatre, agitprop pieces.

To give you a taste, here’s part of the scene where Susan Smythe has caught her husband Henry having sex with Mary, after Susan has set fire to their cornfield and blamed Mary, after Mary has saved Susan’s life, after Henry has told Mary many times that she must leave. Mary is listening from behind a screen:

‘Get rid of her!’ Susan is speaking with a clear high voice. Henry twitches and ruffles his black hair with nervous fingers. He sits by his writing desk and taps his quill. He laughs like men do when confronted by a wronged woman.

‘Must we discuss this now? I am penning a sonnet and working on my native language book,’ says Henry. He dips the quill in ink and examines the tip.

“Sonnet? Are you insane? I shall call the doctor to bleed and purge these dark humours,’ rages Susan.

‘We must buy more quills – make a list … She is just a black servant. Don’t be silly, Susan dearest,’ says Henry.

‘You must choose between rich cream cake and soda bread,’ says Susan.

Mary leans forward to hear his answer. She holds her breath.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dearest. It was a mistake such as many better man than me have also on occasion made. You must forgive me. I command you to find forgiveness. I am only human,’ says Henry.

‘I have heard about such servants! The other colonial wives have spoken of these creatures!’ says Susan. ‘You are shaming me and have no respect for the sacred promise of our marriage. You are a colonial joke. Everyone is laughing at you – behind your back – at your lack of Christian fidelity or conscience as you preach your pious sermons on the Sabbath. Look at you now, damaged by a violent savage and yet you dare to defy me and you let her stay.’

(Pages 178–179)

Clearly both these people are unhinged. Yet they have life-and-death power over Mary and her daughter.

It’s exhilarating to have stories of early settlement told from a strong, unapologetic Aboriginal point of view that makes no attempt to humanise the invaders.

This is an unsettling book, not only because of its content. Very unsettling for me as a white, middle-class man who has worked for decades as a copy-editor, is a kind of knockabout quality to the text, something that I took at first to be poor proofreading but which is so pervasive that it has become a feature rather than a bug. In these sad times when publishing companies don’t generally have in-house copy-editors, it’s a rare book that has no typos, but this is at a whole other level.

There are moments, like this from page 110, that are impossible to visualise:

Mary sips the tea and smiles with her hands pressed between her thighs.

There are malapropisms – some Aboriginal people are to be punished for their ‘trepidations against settler families’. A tribe in the north-east of Sydney is called the ‘Awakabal’, twice, which is surely a misspelling of ‘Awabakal’. A character is described as Bungaree’s grand-daughter and on the same page as the sister of Bungaree’s son.

I don’t think these errors are deliberate, but whether they survive to the published text through lack of resource or failure of editorial attention they amount to a kind of nose-thumbing. I think of that Audre Lorde quote: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Benevolence uses the colonisers’ tool, the novel, to respond to a ‘wonderful book’ that has erased a people’s survival. There’s a kind of rough justice in that tool being treated with disrespect.


After the meeting: We met in person for the first time in months. At least seven of us were there in person – even making a little physical contact. An eighth had been about to leave his home when a friend and recent contact called to say she was feeling sick, so he did the ‘abundance of caution’ thing and joined us on a screen for as much as he could stand.

It was good to eat together. It was so good to be in a room with other bodies, where cross-currents of conversation were allowed to flow (though that was hard on the virtual participant). Somehow, I think, being physically together made it easier to talk about this book – about the roughness of much of the writing, and the shameful sense most of us shared of having light shone on our ignorance about the realities of colonisation.

Others were – of course – less disturbed than I had been by the typos etcetera. I had hoped someone might have seen Julie Janson’s plays at Belvoir Street, but no one had. Someone mentioned Kim Scott’s books, That Deadman Dance and Taboo (links to my blog posts) as covering similar territory, brilliantly. More than one of us had gone in search of historical information, and reminded us that Samuel Marsden, presumably the inspiration of the novel’s Reverend Masters, was on record as perpetrating some hideous atrocities. We generally acknowledged the heartbreaking difficulty of the task Julie Janson had taken on: to draw on scholarly historical works and stories passed down by generations of survivors, to imagine herself into the life of one person in those terrible times. The general sense was that, for all its flaws, we were glad to have read the book. The Chooser, who was absent because of a non-Covid infection, was thanked in his absence.

And of course, we shared our responses to whatever the President of the United States had done (it was last night and he’s said so much since then!), to the Premier of New South Wales’s self-inflicted damage, to some recondite celebrity gossip (did you know about Bug Beats, a children’s show on Netflix, that has permission to use a whole slew of Beatles songs), to the adventures of some of our offspring, etc. We took a moment to honour the achievement of Victorians in bringing the infection numbers down. The potatoes that our host had out in the oven some time before we all arrived were ready to eat soon after we all left. He sent us a photo on WhatsApp.


Benevolence is the 17th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden, George and Clare, the Malachite and the DIamonds

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse (Quemar Press 2018)

George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first met in the 1980s when he was a probation officer in Western Sydney and she was a young woman nearing the end of her prison sentence for murdering three smaller children when she was nine years old. They have since featured in four novels before this one, and in more than 30 poems, going on to become lovers, work together for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience, and most recently have a baby together.*

In this book they set off to Russia to bring home the daughter of a friend who is in thrall to a murderous international operative. The young woman is an arms dealer in her own right, and it’s not at all clear that she wants to be rescued, although she knows her life is in danger.

The book has all the ingredients of a thriller: exotic locations, hacking, deep-state conspiracy, silicon-impregnated diamonds, helicopter rides, glamorous women, worldweary men, and an urgent sense of jeopardy both for the characters and for the whole world of the novel, which is recognisably ours, as conflict rages in Syria, Julian Assange is not yet extracted from the Ecuadorian embassy, and there are wars and the prospect of war from Russia, the Ukraine, the USA, China … There’s quite a bit of sexual tension and actual sex, lots of violence, and a satisfying twist at the end, with bonus explosion.

But if you picked the novel up expecting a straightforward political thriller, you’d be disconcerted. For a start, every second chapter is in verse – verse whose long lines and conversational rhythms may at first be mistaken for prose with unexpected turns of phrase and odd line breaks, but whose precision and visual qualities are anything but prosaic.

Then there are the characters. In their previous adventures, George and Clare have accumulated relationships. We rarely see them without their months-old baby Corbyn, and many of their scenes, even the most violent, are shared with some or all of their entourage: eight-year-old Florence whom they rescued from death in Paris, Florence’s mother Sophie, George’s hacker grandson Idris, a young Russian cop named Kirill and a Saudi agent, Samir. They frequently converse with Clare’s and Quentin’s mothers back in Mt Druitt, as well as a Darug woman, Ruth, behind whom lurks the shady but benign Lithgow Coven. A dog and a cat that were rescued from far-flung places in earlier books still need to be catered for. The memory of the children Clare killed is never far from her mind. Unsurprisingly, every now and then there is a roll call: ‘Present were Clare, Corbyn and I, Idris, Sophie, Florence and Ninel’ (page 30), ‘In a cafe near 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street, I was sitting with Idris, Sophie, Florence, Ninel, Kirill and a Saudi agent called Samir’ (page 106). This is not a tale of a solitary individual hero; none of the characters needs to be told that humans are social animals.

Nor is the book populated by strong, silent types. There’s constant chatter – political gossip, poetry recitals, reminiscences about adventures in previous books, snippets of interesting history, commentary on world affairs, cultural analysis, meditation on moral and ethical issues. Thrillers are often impregnated with right-wing ideology. Not the George and Clare books. I confess that reading the book three years after publication, I’m mystified by many of its contemporary references – but maybe I would have been at the time. George and Clare are extraordinarily well informed, and have inside knowledge of many points of global conflict, thanks in part to their membership of Prisoners of Conscience, and in part to their creator’s extraordinary insight into international politics.

I often feel the impulse to read the start of a novel when I’ve reached the last page. Here’s the start of George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds:

Clare was standing at the window in the saffron orchid, orange orchard light of the Mt Druitt December. She was in a smock-like translucent azure kaftan, and still a bit rounded by her recent pregnancy. She looked as innocent and preoccupied as a Vermeer wife, and was holding a letter to Silkie Roberts from Silkie’s daughter Quentin. This included a new photo of Schmidt and Quentin. Clare showed it to me. Schmidt was thinner since the recent stabbing-attack on him and was grasping Quentin’s shoulder with sharp, skinny, greedy fingers.

Does that make you want to read on? It did me. And it was a fun read.


* You can read my summary of George and Clare’s appearances up to 2016 here.


George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds is the 16th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Denise O’Hagan’s Beating Heart

Denise O’Hagan, The Beating Heart (Ginninderra Press 2020)

The last line of Andrew Huntley’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ comes to mind as I gather my thoughts about The Beating Heart’: ‘Poem can be way to make a friend.’ (You can read Andrew’s poem in full at this link.)

Anne Casey’s introduction to this slim volume speaks of the poet’s ‘keen powers of observation’, of ‘an elegant interplay of evocative forays between [the poet’s] internal and external worlds’, of conjured enchantment. All this is true, but my overwhelming response to these poems wasn’t to be enchanted or impressed, but something much closer to home: it was the pleasure of meeting someone new. There’s art here, and technique, but it’s art that conceals art and feels like a natural voice speaking directly, warmly and openly.

The back cover tells us:

Born and raised in Rome, Denise O’Hagan lived in London before emigrating to Sydney, where she lives with her husband and sons. She has a background in commercial book publishing, [and] works as an editor with independent authors.

Many of the poems put flesh on the bones on that biographical note. To an extent, in fact, the book could be subtitled ‘Scenes from an Autobiography’: family holiday visit to Switzerland in ‘And the nuns wore lipstick’; a child’s perspective on the Brigate Rosse‘s kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in ‘Fifty-five days’; Proustian, unbidden memories in ‘A stain in the shape of Italy’:

That these milestones of our lives
(Laboriously recounted, photographed,
Or documented in countless other forms)
Are glued together by such details
We scarcely realise until later
When they emerge with doubled force
From the backrooms of our memory 

There’s adolescent anguish (‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’), young adulthood in London (‘Bedsitter’, ‘Lost in Transition’ – the titles tell you a lot), a wonderful series of poems about early motherhood and her son’s hospitalisation for a rare condition, the death of parents, and then – a progression I recognise from my own experience – the discovery of a grandparent’s story. ‘The quiet assimilators’ canvasses the ambivalence of an assimilated immigrant. There’s even a poem about being an editor, which I love:

For we editors are tailors
(Seamstresses of old
Working in the back rooms of history
Heads bowed, diligently, invisibly),
We cut and paste and nip and tuck,
Sewing it all together
Until the point is clear

There’s much more than these autobiographical glimpses, but they lay a solid ground so the reader can recognise the voice in the other poems.

Rather than discuss one of the poems in detail, which is my usual practice, I’ve been prompted to write one of my own in response. I started with the quote from Andrew Huntley above and then went where the lines took me. I can justify the opening words of Dante’s Inferno because Denise quotes them in an epigraph to one of her poems, but the rest – sadly – couldn’t be further from Denise O’Hagan’s loose, informal, uncontrived openness.


Responding to Denise O'Hagan's The Beating Heart
'A poem can be way to making
friend,' my friend wrote years ago,
not something only for painstaking
exegesis, judgement – no, 
instead an open invitation:
read, let's have a conversation –
silences, yours and mine,
word by word, line by line,
meet, we listen to each other.
When lost nel mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita, each has seen
a thing or two. Dear sister, brother,
semblable or not, you write, I read,
together smile, together bleed.

The Beating Heart is the 15th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from the author.

The Book Group and Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini

Cassandra Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the meeting: It was my turn to choose the book. I was tossing up between Truganini, about which I’d heard a terrific podcast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival (here’s a link to my blog post), and See what You Made Me Do, the Stella Prize winner. When I put it to the group there was an overwhelming preference for Truganini’s journey through the apocalypse over Jess Hill’s exploration of abusive men. If we thought this would be less gruelling we were probably wrong.

Truganini is known to non-Indigenous Australian popular history as ‘the last Tasmanian’. That’s rubbish of course. There are still many Indigenous Tasmanians alive and kicking. But Truganini’s life is better documented than any of the survivors of genocide in Tasmania, and she has become, as Cassandra Pybus says in her Preface, ‘an international icon for extinction’. The mythologising began almost as soon as she died, and she has been seen ‘through the prism of colonial imperative: a rueful backward glance at the last tragic victim of an inexorable historical process’. In this book, Pybus sets out ‘to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth’.

Pybus’s main historical source is the writings of George Augustus Robinson. To quote the Preface again, ‘Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described’. I’m grateful that Cassandra Pybus did the hard yakka of extracting a story line from such sources, reading them so we don’t have to.

In the 1820s, the Aboriginal clans of south-east Tasmania (Van Diemens Land as it then was) were all but wiped out by massacre and disease. Truganini belonged to the Nuenonne clan, whose country included Bruny Island. When George Augustus Robinson, fired by missionary fervour and ambition to be seen as a man of significance, set out to rescue the surviving First Nations people from the violence of the colony, Truganini, her father and some friends accepted his protection and became his guides and later his agents in persuading people from other clans to come under his protection.

For five years the band trudged through forests, over mountains, across streams. Truganini had terribly swollen legs, possibly as a result of syphilis she had contracted from sealers who had abducted her early in life, but she was an adept diver for seafood, and she and the other women in the group were the only ones who could swim, so were often called on to pull rafts across icy rivers. For the most part, Pybus tells the story straight without commenting, for instance, on the moral dilemmas involved in persuading resisting warriors to surrender to Robinson rather than face deadly violence elsewhere, as at the hands of John Batman, who emerges from these pages as a ruthless, brutal slaver.

The result of all these rounding-up missions is that, whatever promises Robinson might have made, people were sent to virtual island prisons, mainly on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where the death toll were horrifying. what started out as a ‘friendly mission’ became the coup de grâce of a genocidal program.

After being taken to Port Phillip on the mainland where Robinson hoped they might again play an intermediary role, Truganini and her companions were conclusively dumped by Robinson. He simply turned away from them and never mentioned them in his journals again.

Truganini and her companionos, including a husband and a close woman friend, were settled in Oyster Cover on the east coast of Tasmania, from where they would go on hunting excursions to Bruny Island and elsewhere. One by one, her companions died. With extraordinary restraint, Pybus simply tells us that their deaths were unrecorded. She doesn’t have to spell out the callous disregard of the colonial establishment. Truganini, the sole survivor, spent her last years in the care of John Dandridge and his wife (unnamed) in Hobart. Dandridge would take her across to Bruny Island, so that she could still walk in her own country. To the end, she cared for country, and slept on the floor rather than the coloniser’s bed.

For all the horrors that were inflicted on this extraordinary woman and her people, the one that comes across with most poignancy in this narrative comes right at the end. As people die, the scientific establishment waits like vultures for their skeletons. Graves are dug up, newly dead bodies are decapitated, collections of skulls are sent to England. Truganini herself expressed her terror at having this done to her own remains, and asked Dandridge to scatter her ashes in the channel between Bruny Island and the main island of Tasmania. But he died before her, and her body was buried, dug up and later exhibited in the Tasmanian Museum – until 1947! After a long legal battle by Tasmanian Aborigines, the Museum allowed the skeleton to be cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes on 30 April 1976, a few days short of the centenary of her death.

And then there are the illustrations. Truganini, her warrior husband Wooredy, the great leader Mannalargenna and others challenge our gaze in portraits painted by Thomas Bock in 1835. There are photographs too, perhaps taken with ethnographic intentions, but when Truganini looks at you from a photo taken by Charles Woolley in 1866 (here’s a link), she isn’t offering herself as an object. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jakelin Troy said, referring to the fact that Truganini walked about Bruny Island in old age:

I’m sure she was making the point that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.

It’s hard to look at Truganini in these portraits and not feel that she’s making a similar point: she is still herself, and even if the photographer, the curators, the scientists, the colonial historians don’t think deeply about the fact, she challenges us to acknowledge that she is a human being. As she tells us in a final chapter, Cassandra Pybus has reasons to take that challenge personally: her ancestor received a grant to part of Truganini’s country, and in her childhood she heard stories of the old Aboriginal woman who walked about the family’s property. This book is a powerful, humble and devastating response to the challenge.

After the meeting: We’re still meeting on zoom, probably not for the last time. This book generated a very interesting discussion among us white middle-aged and older men. Some were less enthusiastic about it than others. The negatives first.

One man had studied George Augustus Robinson on the 1980s, particularly the collection of his papers published in 1966, The Friendly Mission. He had approached this book with high hopes, but found that it didn’t add much by way of new perspectives or insights – despite its intention of focusing on Truganini, it largely stayed with Robinson.

Another, who read this just after Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (my blog post here), was disappointed that neither Truganini nor Robinson, or really any of the other characters, emerged as fully rounded characters. There was precious little exploration of motivations or emotional responses. Maybe, he said, you can’t expect that of history: this might be excellent history but it’s not much chop as literature.

Someone who agreed with that latter point said that the question for him was, if that is so, then how come the book held his attention the whole time, when he usually gave up on history books after 15 pages? Someone said that the subject commands our attention, as this is a story that cuts through to our souls as settler Australians. I think that’s true, but I also think the book is well written, and the failure to flesh out the characters is a strength: Pybus doesn’t speculate or invent, but largely leaves us to join the dots. As someone said, it’s fairly clear that for Truganini and her companions, Robinson’s offer of protection was their best bet for survival.

Challenging the notion that the writing was generally flat and factual, someone read a short passage about Truganini’s father, Manganerer who had encountered convict mutineers:

These men abducted his wife and sailed away with her to New Zealand, then on to Japan and China. Hastily constructing a sturdy ocean-going canoe, Manganerer had attempted to follow them but had been blown far out into the Southern Ocean. His son had died and he himself was half dead from dehydration when he was found by a whaling ship.

The tragedy was almost too much for this proud man to bear. He had endured the murder of his first wife and the abduction of his two older daughters by the intruders, and now they had taken his second wife. His only son was dead and his remaining daughter had abandoned him for the whaling station. His distress was compounded when he discovered that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the people visiting from Port Davey, who were under his protection.

There was a moment’s silence on the zoom space. With such a litany of horrors – and this is early in the book, the worst devastation comes towards the end – there’s not a lot of need for further authorial commentary.

One man took up the cudgels on Robinson’s behalf. He said he felt protective of him. Yes, he took on the role of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ out of a kind of opportunism, and yes, his ventures finished off the ‘extirpation’ that the notorious Black Line failed to achieve. But he had a huge inner struggle. At some level he recognised and respected the humanity and the cultural strength of the people in his care (there are scenes n the book where he eats and sings and dances with them). But he was blinded by his belief system and could only at rare moments acknowledge what he was actually doing. And – I think I’m quoting correctly – isn’t that blindness something that we all have?

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration that the book had us staring into the abyss of our nation’s foundation story. Today, someone is offering to send us all bumper stickers in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


Truganini is the 14th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Grace Karskens’ Colony

Grace Karskens, The Colony: A history of early Sydney (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The Colony won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2010. You can read the judges’ comments at this link.

The book is nothing less than a rewriting of the origin story of New South Wales.

It’s been on my TBR shelf ever since I read Tom Griffiths’ account of it in The Art of Time Travel (my review here) four years ago. The delay is probably due to the sense instilled by my primary-school education that Australian history is either boring or hard to face, but if a similar whiff hangs around Australian history for you, I encourage you to plunge through it. The book is a marvel and a delicious treat for the mind. It will probably speak most directly to Sydney dwellers, as it bring to life the rich history of Warrane / Port Jackson / Sydney and the hinterland, but the tale it tells of colonisation and the wars of resistance is a powerful rewriting of received versions that will resonate much more widely.

The book engages with other infuential writers about the beginning of the Sydney colony. In his hugely popular The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes failed to recognise that many of his sources were written as polemic, exaggerating and inventing for political purposes, and took them at face value. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers downplays the figure of an armed soldier standing amid the early scenes of apparently friendly dancing. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River cherry picks incidents from different times and places and as a result distorts the historical reality. Keith Windschuttle: well, anyone who accepts official records as the only source of information about the past just isn’t a historian.

A number of the basic, emblematic ‘facts’ of my early education disappear here like a magician’s coins. For example, everyone now knows that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth (remembered by the mnemonic LBW) weren’t the first to cross the Blue Mountains as we were taught. They followed the tracks made by First Nations people. But it turns out they weren’t even the first settlers to do it. That honour actually belongs to an ‘extraordinary convict explorer’, John Wilson/Bunboee, who lived with Aboriginal people for a couple of years, underwent ritual scarifying, and later – but 14 years before the LBW team – went on a journey over the mountains and reported back in detail to Governor Hunter. The orgy on the arrival of the second fleet just didn’t happen. The holey dollar, which we loved as nine-year-olds, barely rates a mention; instead, there’s a brief discussion of the consequences of an early decision to have no money in the colony. The Rum Rebellion likewise fades into the background. James Ruse, touted as the colony’s first farmer, is demoted to a minor opportunist. Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie emerge as effective self-promoters, and so on. Instead, we have a portrait of a town where naked First Peoples know everyone’s business and actively negotiate the terms of co-existence; where nowie, the tiny fishing craft of Eora women, dot the harbour for decades after the First fleet’s arrival; where what is now Hyde Park is the site of frequent ‘contests’ among Aboriginal men, probably payback sessions, treated as a spectator sport by settlers; where convicts live in neat cottages from which many ply a trade or conduct a business.

The big difference from the history I was taught is in the account of the First Nations people. Their dispossession and resistance replaces the ‘savage yoke’ borne by the convicts at the centre of the story. Like Inga Clendinnen, Karskens reads settler documents with an eye to what can be divined of Aboriginal perspectives. Her account of the violence and bloodshed on the Cumberland Plain doesn’t shy away from the word war, and she quotes contemporary documents using that word. This book leaves its readers in no doubt that at its heart the settlement of New South Wales was a genocidal project, acknowledged as such at the time in all but the actual word.

A number of Aboriginal men and women emerge from the pages as individuals, not least visually, in portraits that sit in counterpoint to the images meant to meet the needs of the curiosity-seekers back in England. Partly because I had a small hand in a children’s graphic novel in which he played a part (link here), I was struck by the representation of Bungaree. In the block of colour prints between pages 338 and 339, there’s Augustus Earle’s famous portrait showing him dressed in borrowed military gear, doffing his cap as he welcomes new arrivals to the settlement – an assertion of custodianship of the land that was tolerated because it was seen as vaguely comic (and Bungaree was by many accounts an accomplished comedian and mimic):

Augustus Earle, ‘Portrait of Bungaree, a native of Australia’ (National Library of Australia)

This is often paired with a later painting of him in a similar pose, but surrounded by evidence of his descent into alcoholism and misery. Instead of that painting, Grace Karskens gives us this, painted by a visitor who had less vested interest in the British colonisers’ point of view:

Russian visitor Pavel N Mikhailov’s portrait of Bungaree (Russian State Museum)

This is not a man who can be treated as an ethnographic curio. If he came onto your ship, even barefoot and wearing military cast-offs, and said, as he did regularly, ‘This is my shore,’ it would carry weight.

My copy of the book is bristling with Post-its, but I’ll leave it at that. If you live in Sydney, read it. It will change your sense of the place. I’ll give Grace Karskens the last word. This is from her Acknowledgements:

I hope this book will also be a gateway to the wider world of Sydney writing: it is in part a tribute, a celebration of the restless, exciting spirit of inquiry, the tireless work that Sydney scholars of all stripes and inclinations do, and the joys of discovery and of telling new stories as well as old ones.


The Colony is the 13th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.