Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Marija Peričić’s Lost Pages

Marija Peričić, The Lost Pages (Allen & Unwin 2017)

lostpages.jpgThis book begins with a lie.

The imprint page includes standard disclaimer, ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental,’ but what follows purports to be an account by Max Brod (a real person, you can look him up on Wikipedia) of his relationship with Franz Kafka (ditto). Brod famously disobeyed Kafka’s deathbed instruction to burn all his papers, and so gave the world The Trial and other works that established Kafka’s eminence in 20th century literature. So we’re set up from the beginning for a historical novel about a literary friendship.

Usually, historical novels thrive in the gaps in the historical record: the facts as we have them remain fixed points, and the novelist’s imagination goes to work with people, events and dialogue that have been undocumented. In The Lost Pages, things aren’t so cut and dried. Brod’s biography of Kafka is one of the main historical sources about him. This novel is presented as a manuscript found in Kafka’s papers as preserved by Brod and now owned by two Israeli sisters (which really do exist, unexamined by scholars): so what the fictional Brod writes here can claim to override the historical Brod’s version.

And it does.

It’s a tale full of obsession, anguish, betrayal, jealousy, paranoia (well, it is a story about Kafka), hallucinatory episodes (ditto), and enormous improbabilities which are resolved by even less likely revelations. I kept forgetting that it was written by a 30-something woman living in Melbourne – I was away in the world of Prague literary celebrity a century ago, having a great time. It would be wrong to say the book is silly, but I find it hard to think of a better word for its quality that most charmed me. It’s a romp, if a romp can include social exclusion (Brod in real life and in the novel had severe spinal curvature), abject humiliation, extreme mental anguish …

The Lost Pages is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride

Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)

freedomride.jpgThis is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers, lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie finds a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.

And that is what plays out. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park when his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.

At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RsL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.

A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom ride, and links it to the 1967 referendum, the land rights campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to  informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.

First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal  characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]

And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes agains Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and are terrible cooks. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefitting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.

Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)

oysters.jpgDo Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.

When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:

[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.

In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.

The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.

One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:

The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.

As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.

The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.

Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.

These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:

It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and

when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort

Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kate Lilley’s Tilt

Kate Lilley, Tilt (Vagabond Press 2018)

tilt.jpgThis must be one of the most publicised books of poetry ever to appear in Australia. Kate Lilley and her sister Rozanna Lilley made headlines in June by talking to the press about how, when they were young teenagers, they were sexually exploited  by much older men – writers, poets, artists, etc in the orbit of the girls’ playwright mother Dorothy Hewett, and how this happened with their mother’s apparent endorsement. The articles under the clickbait headlines generally mentioned Tilt and Rozanna’s book of memoir essays and poems, Do Oysters Get Bored? As Rozanna said in an interview on the ABC’s Hub on Books, the Lilley sisters didn’t set out to make scandalous revelations or impugn their mother’s reputation, but to tell their own stories, and perhaps reconsider their experiences and their parents’ milieu in the light of the #MeToo movement. You can hear that interview at this link:

I don’t expect I’ll damage the sales of Tilt if I say readers will scan its pages in vain for prurient thrills. Poems related to Lilley’s early life make up about a third of the book, in a section entitled ‘Tilt’, and based on my limited acquaintance with her work I’d say they are uncharacteristically personal. Poems in the second section, ‘Harm’s Way’, range widely in subject matter, including Australia’s offshore detention of people seeking asylum, a scandal involving a judge in Arkansas, and a Texas psychiatric institution. These poems often feel as if they have been constructed from words and phrases found in other sources – newspaper articles, court documents, institutional records, perhaps. The third section, ‘Realia‘, is an expanded version of the Vagabond Rare Object chapbook (the link is to my blogpost): the expansion consists largely of seven pages of prose about Greta Garbo, which – for prosaic readers like me – allows for a vastly richer reading of the poems that follow, mainly ‘GG’ which comprises a list of objects from the catalogue for the auction of Greta Garbo’s estate.

But back to the direct, personal poems in ‘Tilt’. The great children’s writer Katharine Paterson said somewhere that her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins started out from the question, ‘What became of the children of  the Hippies?’ These ten poems address a similar question: ‘What of the children of sexual libertarians?’ They are not a diatribe, nor do they ask for a response of moral outrage. They are complex, poised, sometimes angry, clear-eyed accounts of troubling moments in a young life. One poem that keeps coming back to me is ‘Conversation Pit 1971’:

conversationpit.jpg

This little poem is worth sitting with for a while. The title and the first couplet conjure up a period domestic milieu – according to Wikipedia conversation pits were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe and North America, and I guess we’d add in some parts of Australia. In the second couplet Mum’s blunt, explicit question disrupts any expectation of wholesome conversation. It’s the kind of incident that could be part of a hilarity-filled session of reminiscences among the grown children. The lines giving the speaker’s reply,

Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap

would fit nicely in such a session.

Then what wasn’t revealed in the conversation pit: that the speaker also experimented with girl-girl kissing.

We thought we were so ingenious
I was 11 she was 12

Even though we’ve been told that the mother’s question relates to primary schoolchildren’s activities, it comes as a further shock that the girl being questioned was so very young. Then the poem moves on from outrageous family anecdote mode:

The question changed everything
what had seemed forward was now backward

There’s something almost clinical in this. We’re not being asked to condemn the mother, or to pity the daughter – it’s just one of the infinite variety of ways ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but that line, ‘what had seemed forward was now backward’ identifies this particular way with extraordinary simplicity and precision. And then a terrible ache is evoked in the final couplet:

I needed to speed up
at least get my period

Probably everyone has a story to tell about unhelpful parental intervention or non-intervention in their adolescence. Lilley’s poems have an extra dimension from the fact that her mother was Dorothy Hewett, whose poems, plays and prose often dealt with her own sexuality, and her father was Merv Lilley, author of the book Gatton Man, in which he argued that his father was a serial murderer. There are explicit references to the parents’ works: ‘Turn Around Is Fair Play’ amounts to a gloss on a moment in one of Dorothy’s plays, probably The Legend of Tatty Hollow; and ‘Her Bush Ballad (Bourke St Elegy)’ alludes to the subject matter of Gatton Man. But even without such references, this double handful of poems must change the way we read Hewett’s work. Elsewhere, Kate Lilley has described her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. These poems expose some of the darker implications of that description, while never letting go of an enduring sense of connection, of complex loyalty. A line from ‘Memorandum’, the final poem in the section:

I’ll never get over (not) having you as my mother

[Added later: For a very fine, beautifully articulated discussion of the book and its place in the general ‘conversation’, I recommend Ali Jane Smith’s ‘A Book Is a Good Place to Think’ in the Sydney Review of Books.]

Tilt is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems

Jennifer Maiden, Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018)

__________________________I plough my furrow
heavily and fruitfully and my seldom rage
is that of the earth like an earthquake, sudden
and efficiently gutting.
(‘The Year of the Ox’, page 205)

maidenselected.jpg

That’s one of Jennifer Maiden’s many self-descriptions in this book. It leaves out a lot, of course – the wit, the polemic eccentricity, the sensuousness, the drama, the scarily eclectic erudition and much more – but it does capture her commitment to the work of poetry and her occasional bursts of rage at, well, anything from genocidal war to ‘ethical security’ in her fellow left-wingers or sister feminists.

This is Maiden’s third Selected Poems. The 1990 Penguin Selected drew on just four books. Bloodaxe’s Intimate Geography was a kind of introduction to British readers covering 1990 to 2010. This selection covers Maiden’s whole poetic career, and is appropriately hefty.

I’ve read the book a little at a time over several months. As the poems are printed in approximate order of publication, you get to see Maiden’s subjects and poetic forms develop over the years, a little like a stop-motion movie. Her daughter, Katharine, for example, first appears in ‘The Winter Baby’ on page 61:

She feeds as firmly
as the heart mills blood,
her needs as fair as Milton’s God
and her eyes like night on water.

The ‘whimsical huge pleasure’ of Maiden’s maternal love gives rise from the beginning to complex, wide-ranging poetry. Incidentally, one of the pleasures of this book is that when a poem refers to one that Maiden wrote decades earlier, it’s often possible to flip back to the earlier poem: ‘Night on Water’, more than a hundred pages and nearly a decade later, refers to the ‘The Winter Baby’. The appearance of the Winter Baby ushers in Maiden’s characteristic use of dialogue. In ‘Chakola’ (page 71) Maiden and her now three-year-old daughter visit an old school in the Monaro (emphasis from the original publication, not reproduced in this book):

She says ‘You used to teach here.’ I say ‘No:
your great grandfather did, and your father
played here.’ But you say ‘You mean
grandfather.’ And yes, that’s where the sense
of self slips up of course – in history.
Maybe we’re all an ‘I’ as we confront
the past, the broken ford, the Numeralla
gleaming with sunlit absence.

(I initially read the third line as the little girl correcting the speaker, but on typing it out realised that it’s actually the person the poem is addressed to who corrects her, a more interesting progression, of a kind that isn’t unusual in Maiden’s work.)

Maiden’s engagement with politics and especially violence is there from the start: among the very early poems are ‘Princip in the City’, about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, and ‘The Problem of Evil’ a long narrative set in an unnamed war that reads as the US-Vietnam war. Her acute observaations of political figures as seen on TV, from George W Bush’s mouth (‘George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin’) to Julia Gillard’s eyes (‘Poor Petal’), begin on page 73 (about 1990) with ‘Mandela in New York’:

_____the first loss is not time or health,
so much as forever the freedom
to escape to the purposeless self,
He walks slowly, precisely, and smiles.

And it’s fun to see Maiden’s signature ‘So-and-so woke up’ poems coming into being. In a long prose passage (on pages 153 to 159) ‘George Jeffreys: Introduction’, first published in Friendly Fire, 2005):

The part of my brain that provides new things was often inaccessible about September 11. Then driving along the Monaro and watching the tumbling circus of clouds one day, I thought: what are George and Clare thinking? George and Clare are characters from my second novel, Play with Knives, and my later notoriously unpublished novel Complicity, or The Blood Judge. George Jeffreys is a Probation Officer turned Human Rights investigator … Clare is his former Probation client and sometime lover … who as a nine-year-old child murdered her three younger siblings. The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak.

And so George Jeffreys and Clare Collins wake up from wherever fictional characters go when their novel s are finished, and usher in the George and Clare poems, thirty of them so far, come into being, as George and Clare visit horrors, from Manus Island to the pirate coast of Somalia, talking non-stop to each other and personages as disparate as Donald Trump  and Confucius.

There’s much more. The book is full of joys, even as it confronts many of the terrible elements of our world.

I don’t usually comment on book design and production, but it’s probably important to do so here. My impression is that Quemar Press operates on a shoestring. But I wish they had employed a professional book designer, and a professional proofreader. The margins of this books are painfully narrow – top, bottom, left and right. And there are no blank pages. It feels as if as the poems have crammed into the available space, an impression that is reinforced when occasionally the final line of a poem drifts to the top of the next page, where it sits a lonely widow above the title of the following poem. This isn’t just an aesthetic matter: I found it physically hard to read more than a couple of pages at a time. If you’re new to Jennifer Maiden’s poetry, you might find one of the smaller volumes more reader friendly.

But the mild pain was worth it for the intense pleasure to be found on almost every page.

Selected Poems 1967–2018 is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages

Eunice Andrada, Flood Damages (Giramondo 2018)

damages.jpg

There’s a lot of pain in these poems: the pain of migration and living in diaspora, of miscarriage and sickness, of  domestic violence, racism and internalised racism, and – shockingly topical just now – of family separation at the hands of officaldom. There are also poems that celebrate the body and family relationships, especially of a young woman with her grandmother.

There’s a wonderful variety in the forms of the poems. There are ‘novenas’, which echo the cadences of the Catholicism of Andrada’s native Philippines. There are prose poems – such as the one that would be a straightforward account of an allergy test except that the doctor is Ferdinand Marcos. There’s ‘photo album’, made up of captions to photographs, some of which probably actually exist. There’s a narrative element: no dates, times and places, but a cast of characters that we come to recognise, and when in ‘alibi’ the speaker refers to ‘the muscle memory of dancing / to the gospel / of my father’s temper’ the reader knows what she is talking about.  There are elusive epigrams, of which the best example is ‘forms’:

It is no sacrifice
when he collapses over his own altar
then asks for your body.

Eunice Andrada is also a Spoken Word practitioner – a poet of the stage as well as the page. She recently appeared at the fabulous Bankstown Poetry Slam. Here, for my readers who might hesitate to read an actual book of poetry, is a video of her performing her climate change poem ‘Pacific Salt’ at Sydney’s 2015 Youth Eco Summit, preceded by a short and charmingly awkward interview:

Flood Damages is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna, Kim and Stephen’s Monsters

Anna Fienberg (writer), Kim Gamble and Stephen Axelsen (illustrators), Monsters (Allen & Unwin 2018)

monsters.jpgThis is the final collaboration between Anna Fienberg and Kim Gamble, the creators of the wildly popular Tashi books. They began it when they both knew Kim didn’t have long to live. When Kim became too ill to continue he bequeathed the job of finishing the illustrations to his close friend Stephen Axelsen. In the  published book it’s all but impossible to tell where Kim’s work finishes and Stephen’s starts. So the book is a testament to love and friendship, a cairn of lyrical words and luminous images.

It’s also a funny, scary picture book about a little girl, Tildy, who is terrified of monsters in the night and finds a way to overcome her fear through her friendship with Hendrik. There’s plenty of room to play spot-the-monster (and an occasional thieving magpie), and plenty of the visual and verbal wit and warmth that has made Anna and Kim (and, until now separately, Stephen) such beloved giants of Australian children’s literature.

Monsters is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Maryam Azam’s Hijab Files

Maryam Azam, The Hijab Files (Giramondo 2018)

img_2516.jpgIn ‘Hotel Golf’ in the current issue of The Monthly, Erik Jensen writes that Helen Garner doubts if many people who attend church actually believe – she thinks that’s a myth maintained by non-religious people.

As a non-believer, I understand how Garner herself can participate in religious services without subscribing to the underpinning beliefs, but surely it’s just a failure of imagination to project that lack of belief onto the other participants. To put that another way, Helen Garner doesn’t seem to have met ‘many people’ like my Catholic  mother, or me in my teenage years, or – to get to the point – Maryam Azam, the author of The Hijab Files.

The 29 poems in this small book aren’t religious poems, but they are infused with a religious understanding of the world. Many of them focus on the hijab, and it’s hugely refreshing to hear a clear, nuanced, non-Orientalist voice on the subject, sometimes cheerfully practical (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, ‘Places I’ve Prayed’), sometimes satirical from an unexpected viewpoint (‘Modestique’), sometimes touching on friendly or hostile reactions from non-Muslims (‘The Hobbling Bogan’, ‘Praying at School’), sometimes addressing difficulties with other Muslims (‘Fashion Police’).

To single out one poem, here’s ‘Fajr Inertia’ (the Arabic fajr is explained in the epigraph):

Come to prayer! Come to success! Prayer is better than sleep!
FROM THE FAJR ADHAN (DAWN CALL TO PRAYER)

I lie in the knowledge of my failure
the way I lie through my chance at success,
hip sunk into the mattress
blanket over my chin
staring at a yellow flower clock
with a missing plastic cover
that reads six minutes past seven;
twenty-five minutes too late.
The broken gas canister of sleep
slowly clears from my head.
I hide under the covers from
the light invading my room
but I can’t hide the fact
I’ll have to live today outside
of Allah’s protection.

You don’t have to be a devout Muslim to understand this: the emotion isn’t a million miles from how I feel when I missed my pre-breakfast visit to the swimming pool, and realise I’ll have to live the day without that half hour of self-care. Who hasn’t woken up befuddled by a ‘broken gas canister of sleep’? With a gorgeous lack of portentousness, the poem places Allah’s protection in the middle of this commonplace experience.

Helen Garner’s scepticism about other people’s religious belief is probably typical of non-believers in these secular times. The Hijab Files speak back quietly but definitely to challenge that scepticism.

If you’re interested in getting more of a sense of this poet, you could have a look at a short, 5-question interview with her on Liminal magazine, here.

The Hijab Files is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.

Suneeta Peres da Costa’s Saudade

Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018)

saudade.jpg

I recently spent a wonderful couple of weeks in Portugal, visiting countless galleries and museums, walking the Caminho Portuguès, being blown away by the neolithic sits at Evora. It’s a great place to visit. One cause for unease, though, was that at least in touristy circles conversation about Portugal’s past generally glossed over or completely ignored unsavoury topics: we heard quite a lot about the Age of Discovery, and very little about colonisation and slavery.

Saudade, a novella in Giramondo’s Shorts series (whose previous titles include Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man and Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The Tribe), offers a welcome counterpoint to that silence and evasion. It is set in Angola, beginning in 1961, the year the Angolan War of Liberation began, and ending with the declaration of Angolan independence in 1975. It’s not a fictionalised account of the struggle of those years, but the coming of age story whose protagonist-narrator Maria-Cristina, born in Angola to Goanese parent, is three years old in 1961. The war and the process of decolonisation are rarely foregrounded: they affects the characters’ lives profoundly but remain in the background.

For the benefit of readers who know as little about Portuguese culture as I did three months ago, saudade is a pretty much untranslatable term described by Wikipedia as ‘a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.’ Wikipedia continues, ‘Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.’ It’s an emotion that looms large in Portuguese culture dating back, we were told on a walking tour of Lisbon, to the collective feeling of mourning and messianic hopes following the death of King Sebastian in a sixteenth century battle in northern Africa.

In this novella, it hovers over everything: it could refer to the yearning for independence (our protagonist earns the wrath of a ‘teacher from Coimbra’* when she repeats what she has heard on the radio and calls Bartolomeu Dias ‘the invader’); the general sense of dislocation (Portuguese is the official language, but the parents sometimes speak their mother tongue of Konkani, while African characters speak Creole or Kimbundu, which the protagonist doesn’t understand); a sense of not having a place in the world (which is explicit in the case of the young man who is Maria-Cristina’s first real sexual partner); and perhaps in a more diffuse way in a general sense that Maria-Cristina is telling her story as a way of reaching for some understanding of her past, some grounding.

Christos Tsiolkas said on radio recently that when he was young he read for pleasure, but came to understand that sometimes one could read to be challenged. I think of Saudade as a challenging book. Each of its eleven chapters is printed without paragraph breaks, and only sometimes do ellipses indicate where a paragraph would be in a conventionally laid out narrative. We learn Maria-Cristina’s name in Chapter 8. The elements of Angolan geography and history are not glossed. Chapter 2 begins:

The Brazilian mutineers from the Santa Maria did not get to the harbour of Luanda. Captain Galvâo did not start a revolution. None of the prisoners that escaped from the Sâo Paulo penitentiary tapped on our door, entreating us to harbour him as a fugitive. Yet in the days after the revolt at Baixa de Cassanje, there was a telex to say that a client of Papá’s, a German cotton-farm owner, had been killed in a northern reprisal.

That’s surely an invitation and a challenge to readers who (like me) don’t know anything about Angolan history to do a bit of research. I now know that three separate events in January and February 1961 marked the beginning of the Angolan War of Liberation.

Responding to invitations like this (and there are many throughout the book) seems to be a necessary part of reading the book: they ground the narrative in a particular time. At times they more questions than they answer. For example Maria-Cristina has an unsettling sexual encounter with a soldier in a movie theatre, and names the film they are watching. It’s La chinoise. Well, that’s a movie made by Jean-Luc Godard in 1967. If you allow a couple of years for dubbing and shipping, Maria-Cristina is probably about 11 years old, and by doing this calculation we realise that it’s a story of child sex abuse. That’s not how Maria-Cristina narrates it, though. The question I couldn’t shake, though, was: what self-respecting Angolan soldier would go to see a French movie about a house full of students arguing about Maoist politics? I’m not saying this was a mistake. It’s clearly deliberate, and it’s part of the generally unsettling nature of the book. Nothing is simple, nothing is straightforward in a complex world the colonised are fighting back and searching for solid ground.

Saudade is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.


• A city in Portugal