Tag Archives: Lisa Gorton

Journal Blitz 4

I subscribe to literary journals partly for pleasure and partly as an act of civic responsibility, and lately (only lately?) I’ve neglected to keep up with reading them. This is my fourth blog post in five months reporting on a catch-up read, starting this time with a journal I don’t actually subscribe to.


The Blak Women’s Brow Collective (Editors), Blak Brow (#40 of The Lifted Brow 2018)

Though I’ve heard plenty about the Melbourne-based The Listed Brow, this is the first issue of I’ve read – it came to me by way of the Book(-Swapping) Club.

When the editors of The Lifted Brow approached Paola Balla, whose bio describes her in part as a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman based at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Centre at Victoria University, she ‘saw the opportunity to work collectively and went for it’ (the quote is from the journal’s editorial). Edited by a collective of Blak women – Blak, a note on the inside cover explains, was coined by artist Destiny Deacon in 1990, and names the lived experience and identity of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – Blak Brow has a strong collective feel, and is rich with voices speaking of the lived experience of Blakness.

There are strong individual voices: ‘Fight or Flight’, a wicked short story by Melissa Lukashenko; ‘Fern Your Own Gully’, a poem by Evelyn Araluen that savages the May Gibbsian version of the bush; ‘Because of You I Can’, a pair of short essays by poet Ellen Van Neerven and her mother Maria Van Neerven-Currie; ‘The Crucial Voices of Aboriginal Women’, an account by Celeste Liddle of the struggle to be more than a token Aboriginal presence on panel presentations.

But those are exceptions: while all of the voices here are strong and clear, most of them carry a sense of representing a constituency. The powerful first speech of Lidia Thorpe, first Aboriginal woman to be elected to a lower house seat in the Parliament of Victoria, is given in full. She captures the tone of most of the writing in Blak Brow when she says: ‘I have been inundated with messages from Aboriginal people across the country. I speak today on behalf of them.’ Even intense accounts of personal experience – ‘Binak’ and ‘A Room with a View’ – are followed by brief essays explaining that they are ‘composites’, the first ‘bringing together the real experiences of young women’ who have come under youth justice supervision in Victoria; the second, written by Vicki Roach, ‘a composite of [her] own and many other women’s lived experiences of finding housing when released from gaol’.

It’s a very rich collection of poems, song lyrics, fiction, art, journalism, scholarly writing, speeches to parliament and to a Federation of Community Legal Centres symposium, memoir, reports on art projects and academic ventures, and more. Some of it, as in the WAR response to attacks on their members, is very raw. As a middle-class white man in my early seventies, I was challenged, informed, delighted, and then challenged some more.


John Kinsela (guest Editor), Australian Poetry Journal 9.1: resist (2019)

This is a brilliant collection of poetry. John Kinsela, guest editor, says in his unusually long introduction:

We have a collective responsibility to live justly, and to work for mutual justice … , understanding each other, and respecting difference. Again, poetry is one of the most effective and linguistically affecting ways of achieving this. The poem as thing in itself is … a form of ‘agora’ in so many ways. Even very disparate issues of justice can find common ground.

The poems cover a huge range of ‘issues’ in a magnificent diversity of voices and poetic forms, and a strong sense emerges of ‘common ground’. As I read, I started out turning down the corners of pages I wanted to revisit and/or mention here, but soon gave up because there were too many – this blog post would have ended up as little more than a list. I’ll restrict myself to just a couple poems – passing over some wonderful poems in silence! (Oh well, almost in silence. Let me mention Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’, which like her ‘Fern Your Own Gully’ in Blak Brow, makes very funny and very unsettling use of language from May Gibbs’s children’s books; Eileen Chong’s ‘Rot’, on violence against women; Sarah Day’s ‘Nation’, on bullying; Dan Disney’s ‘let us rejoice’ an eerie mash-up of speeches by Scott Morrison and (I think) Hitler; Lisa Gorton’s ‘EKPHRASIS I. THE NYMPH OF FONTAINEBLEAU’, which juxtaposes an art critic’s comments on a painting with narrative about the exploitation that accompanied its creation; Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Umbrage in Vault Seven’, a current adventure of George and Clare; Jaya Savige’s ‘Spork’, on racism within a family. The list could go on.) I’m pretty sure that anyone interested in poetry or social/political issues will find something here that strikes a deep chord.

A little more detail on two moments in the collection.

The first is Toby Fitch’s ‘The Last Few Budgets in a Nutshell’. At a quick look this just looks weird. It begins:

Torquing about debt is always exshiting but
weaken nut and muscle knot becomb a carbone
cuppy of the Labna Putty.

The penny drops, and you realise that a politician’s speech (perhaps a particular one, perhaps a composite) has been tortured. There’s probably a word for this process: key words are replaced by words that sound something like them so that ‘Talking’ becomes ‘Torqueing’, ‘we cannot’ becomes ‘weaken nut’ and so on. For the reader then, there’s a double perception: we read the words on the page and hear the original. To do this and make it something more than just a bit of nonsensical clever-dickery is a challenge, and Toby Fitch pulls it off: those first lines give a whiff of the biting satire that he creates. This poem has stayed with me because its technique so beautifully captures and even generates the feeling one has when listening to political spin, and also perhaps a little because it makes me feel smart!

My second moment is call-and-response pair of poems by Kaitlen Wellington (‘It’s about time’) and Alison Whittaker (‘In response to Kaitlen Wellington’s “It’s About Time”‘) respectively. It took just a slight deviation from alphabetical order to have these poems appear consecutively (Rae White’s ‘Rainbow confetti pixels’ graciously allowed Alison Whittaker’s poem to nudge ahead of it in the queue).

‘It’s about time’ is very straightforward – the speaker goes ‘walkin old tracks’, reconnecting with traditional Indigenous knowledge, ‘lookin for some sarsparalla’:

Walkin, walkin
sticks, stones
dreamin track her, there
watch ya step.
We surrounded by the richest green,
earth's soil moist,
dry leaves scatter our path,
we are locked in our country's
secure embrace

It’s not just a bush walk, at least not what a seventy-something whitefella like thinks of as a bush walk. ‘A sea eagle is ‘lettin us know, / “It’s about time youse come walkabout here”‘. The final stanza begins:

We know what to do now:
unite, fight and teach.
Let our mob know
ain't no takin our culture away no more.

It’s a good poem. I was seduced by its idiosyncratic spelling, especially of ‘sarsparalla’, because that’s how we pronounced it in my North Queensland childhood – though we were talking about a softdrink, not a bush medicine. I could feel its seriousness, and then moved on … to Alison Whittaker’s response.

She begins with a question, ‘What does it mean to resist in this colony?’ and goes on to describe the cycle of necessary work – ‘in the courts of the public or in institutional tribunals’ – and necessary self-care. ‘I become a consistently self-optimising tool. In some ways, indistinguishable in discipline and form from that which I am resisting.’ Kaitlen Wellington’s poem brought the insight that there must be more than that cycle. She concludes: ‘What’s the point of making a nicer colony, when you can breathe sovereignty?’

This poem and this response to it offer something profound, not just for people who are the targets and survivors of colonisation and genocide, but to anyone up against any oppressive force. If you get a chance to browse this journal, do flip through to page 99 and read to the end of page 101. But don’t stop there.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 234 (Autumn 2019)

This issue of Overland is bookended by two excellent articles from the Wrights.

Alexis Wright, in Telling the untold stories, begins with the problem facing writers in today’s increasingly chaotic world:

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig ‘because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well’.

and she relates this to the survival of aboriginal stories through the catastrophe of colonisation. It’s a magnificent essay, an excerpt from her Stephen Murray-Smith talk given in December 2018 (available in full online here).

Fiona Wright (probably only a very distant relation) writes about Tinder in State your intentions. Sometimes intensely personal, sometimes confidently snarky, this is a beautifully executed mosaic picture of what it is to be young and happily(?) single today.

Of the regular columnists, Tony Birch’s On thinking is the stand-out. Writing partly as a tribute to Deborah Bird Rose (my review of one of her books here), who died at the end of 2018, he quotes her:

Any conversation we humans may wish to start up concerning the living world, our place in it and our responsibility toward it must bear the knowledge of the terrible harms we have done and continue to do.

and pits that against Tony Abbott’s famous remark, ‘Climate change is crap.’

There are four pieces of short fiction – In Cassilis by Louis Klee, Buried time by Mykaela Saunder, ‘Into the valley’ by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, and ‘The melancholy new patriot’ by Corey Wakeling – introduced by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, who at the time of publication hadn’t yet been announced as due to become joint editors of Overland late this year. There are just three poems, the place-getters in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, by Julie Jedda Janson,  Joel Scott and Ross Belton.

As well as these, there are articles on Cambodia (That bird is for us by Adam Curley, which takes an episode of something called Survivor as his starting point), Kashmir (Combat breathing by Tim Robertson), burning-off as a gross and destructive distortion of Aboriginal firestick farming practices (The fire cult by Katherine Wilson), current prejudice against Chinese people (Not all yellow and white by Gabriel Ng), and an essay on swimming pools and the beach that makes an excellent companion piece to the ABC doco series The Pool (Aqua Profonda by Gavin Scott).

The cover and moody internal artwork for this issue are by photographer Hoda Afshar.


I was going to include a review of Southerly 78.2, which I’m still reading, but if you’ve read this far I think you deserve a rest, so I’ll save that for the next catch-up blitz.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

harkins.jpeg

Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)

 

 

2016 Australian Poetry Anthology 

Lisa Gorton and Toby Fitch (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Vol 5, 2016 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2017)

AP2016.jpgThis is Australian Poetry Ltd’s fifth annual anthology of members’ poems. It’s neither a ‘Best of 2016’ nor a kind of open mic in print. The foreword says the book aims ‘to recognise and mark the organisation’s vitality and range’. When it goes on to quote G K Chesterton, ‘Poets have been mysteriously silent on cheese,’ it signals unmistakably that a further aim is to give pleasure. It worked for me on both fronts.

There are sixty poems by 49 poets, award-winners cheek by jowl with people you’ve never heard of. There are neat sonnets and sprawling surreal narratives, elegy and sarcasm, poems previously seen in places as unalike as Overland and Quadrant and, the majority, poems previously unpublished.

Here are some highlights:

An opening line, from Jordie Albiston’s ‘³’ (one of three poems by her with that non alphanumeric title): ‘war is divisible only by war’.

A poem I was compelled to quote in an earlier blog post: Julie Chevalier’s ‘waiting with dignity’, which started with a reference to Anne Carson.

A piece of social commentary: ‘On average’ by PS Cottier plays devastatingly with the statistic that in Australia on average one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner.

A poem on ‘the pornography of suffering’: Ron Pretty’s ‘broken’, which looks into the abyss of humanity’s capacity for violence.

A poem that’s affecting for extraneous reasons: John Upton’s ‘On Shoes Encountered in a Museum’, a beautiful poem about ugly history that gains extra force from the fact that John Upton, author of the excellent collection Embracing the Razor, died in January.

A contrarian poem: ‘Why we shouldn’t trust birds’ by Chris Palmer begins with birds’ dinosaur ancestry and ends with parent-approved siblicide and cannibalism.

A poem I’d read elsewhere and was glad to see again: Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women’, previously published in Australian Poetry Journal November 2016, brilliantly renders the ambivalence of a relationship.

A dictionary query: From Amy Crutchfield’s ‘Egg’,

What shall the mother of the dead be called?
As widow is to wife,
what of the woman left behind?

Stand-out single line: Brett Dionysus’ ‘Bees Fleeting’ brought tears to my eyes with the line (about bees), ‘They are absconding from the planet’s giant hive’.

Unsettling single poem: Alex Skovron’s ‘Prognosis (1189 BCE)’, in which a Greek at the siege of Troy is convinced that the wooden horse ruse won’t work:

The Achaeans understand nothing of History,
they laugh, carouse, their Horse grows daily more arrogant;
some nights I weep for the fate that I know attends them.

Ekphrasis: Laura Jan Shore’s ‘A Little off the Top’, in which a group of people with dementia responding to an Edward Hopper painting.

Elegy: ‘Walking man’, a tribute to the late Martin Harrison by Brenda Saunders that begins:

He walked this country with the eye
of a newcomer, showed us how to see
close up, take in the sweep of distance
the shimmer on a paddock in drought

Those words, ‘country’, ‘newcomer’, ‘shimmer’, take on wonderful resonance when written by an Indigenous woman about an English migrant.

That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy here

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

I’d love to go to the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards again one of these years, but $60 for a cocktail event is a stretch even for people who drink alcohol, and it’s way out of my range for hors d’oeuvres, sparkling water and speeches. Maybe I’ll get a freebie one of these years as a designated blogger, but for this year, as for the last couple, here’s how the evening went as gleaned from Twitter (Noting by the way that Twitter account @NSW_PLA has been silent for five years, and the facebook page ‘NSW Premier’s Literary Awards‘ for nearly three, I put my faith, mainly, in #PremiersLitAwards).

In the lead-up, there was a flurry of good-luck messages from publishers, seven tweets from one publisher lobbying for votes in the People’s Choice Award, and at least one person wondering if the recent Australia Council cuts to literary magazines would lead to an ‘interesting’ evening.

The first tweeter of the evening, a book editor from Text Publishing, turned up about 10 to 6, and a little later the State Library account posted a moody photo of the crowd gathering upstairs at the Mitchell Library, and we were away.

CikEFsYUoAA2Ki3.jpg

Twitter was fairly tightlipped during the night – nothing about what anyone was wearing, no jokes, and little from acceptance speeches. Maybe that’s what happens when it’s a cocktail event rather than a dinner. However, here’s what I’ve got. Links are to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

Just before 7 the State Librarian officially welcomed everyone. The Welcome to Country included didgeridoo, but no one tweeted the name of the welcomer(s). Ross Grayson Bell, senior judge (I guess that’s what used to be call Chair of the Judging Panel), spoke briefly, saying that the Awards reflected the diversity of Australian writing (and so foreshadowing a major theme of the evening). Wesley Enoch delivered what Twitter said was an inspiring Address: among other things he said that when you are feeling your lowest is when you should make more art, and spoke of ‘storytelling for a nation that is in want of a memory’ (Wesley Enoch is a Murri man).

In a welcome departure from recent practice the Premier Mike Baird himself presented the awards. He spoke of J D Salinger, and said that ‘stories remind us why we’re here, what we’ve forgotten, and help us to inhabit other worlds’, echoing Wesley Enoch’s words. Jennifer Byrne took over as MC and the announcements (what she called a ‘rollcall of excellence’) began.

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) went to Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books). He gave a ‘very funny and memorable’ acceptance speech. No details.

Indigenous Writer’s Prize (a new biennial award worth $30,000). Of the shortlisted books I’d read only Inside My Mother by Ali Cobby Eckermann (Giramondo). The prize was shared between Dark Emu  by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books) and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press), which must be wonderful books.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000).  The Bleeding Tree, Angus Cerini (Currency Press in association with Griffin Theatre Company). I knew I should have subscribed to the Griffin.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000). Of the shortlist, I’ve seen only Last Cab to Darwin, and though it had many good things about it, it would have surprised me if it won. The winner was the fourth episode of Deadline Gallipoli, ‘The Letter’, written by Cate Shortland (Matchbox Pictures) and screened on Foxtel, so bad luck for us non-subscribers.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000) went to Teacup, written by Rebecca Young & illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic Australia). The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature ($30,000) was won by Alice Pung’s Laurinda (Black Inc.).

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000). Again, I’d only read one book, Joanne Burns’s brush (Giramondo). It won!

Of the shortlist for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction ($40,000) I had once again just one book under my belt, Magda Szubanski’s wonderful Reckoning: A Memoir (Text Publishing). Once again, it won. I was doing well. Mike Baird held Magda’s phone for her so her mother and brother could hear her acceptance speech. Someone tweeted at this point that a number of award winners spoke of their family histories and ‘complex journeys to Australia as displaced persons’.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (a mere $5000) went to An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian (Text Publishing). Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)went to Locust Girl, A Lovesong by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), a post-apocalyptic novel. One tweeter congratulated her for helping us ‘care across borders’. The People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels, went to The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton (Giramondo).

The Special Award (for which, if money is involved, the amount is not easily discoverable) was given to Rosie Scott, described by Susan Wyndham on Twitter as ‘admired author, supporter of young writers, asylum seekers, refugees, many social causes’.

The book of the year (again, monetary value not easily discovered) went to Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. Accepting his award, he said to the people in the room, ‘I want to hear your story, because I would be spellbound.’

Then the State Library account tweeted the hashtag #BestSpeechesEver. So those of us pressing our noses against the glass wall of Twitter know what we missed out on. It was all over bar the reading – oh, and the many pictures of underdressed young women that began appearing with the Awards hashtag during the night.

 

Lisa Gorton’s Life of Houses

Lisa Gorton, The Life of Houses (Giramondo 2015)

9781922146809Lisa Gorton is a an award-winning poet. I’m using that journalist’s phrase because I haven’t read enough of her poetry to have any real sense of it. I have read some of her criticism and been intensely grateful for the insights she shares. Her first novel, Cloudland, was for young readers. The Life of Houses is her first novel for a general readership.

The action of the novel unfolds over about a week. Anna manages a Melbourne art gallery. While her husband is visiting his family in England, she sends their teenaged daughter Kit to stay with her estranged parents in a tiny seaside town a couple of hours’ train journey away. Anna has to prepare for an exhibition opening during school holidays, but her real reason for packing Kit off is so she can spend time with a lover, who is pressing her to leave her husband.

While Anna wrestles with her ambivalence about her love life, Kit encounters the miasma of unresolved emotion in her mother’s childhood home – her grandparents’ not-really-unspoken resentment of their daughter who left them with barely a backward glance, and the small-mindedness of small-town life beyond the family.

Not a lot happens. A teenage boy has died, probably by suicide, probably because he was gay, and Scott, an artist who was Anna’s childhood friend, falls under suspicion because he had spent time with the boy. There’s something needy and a bit creepy about Scott, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we never learn anything about his sexuality, and that the suspicion is purely a symptom of small town thinking. He befriends Kit, and is the only person who has an inkling of what she is experiencing.

There’s another death, but external events are much less important in this novel than internal processes. Kit begins to think of her mother differently, and her sense of herself has grown. Anna’s attitude to her family softens, and her ambivalence about the lover deepens. Scott almost decides to leave the town. Everyone has a take on the building that is the family home: its history, its ghosts, who will inherit it, its emotional meanings and (in passing, but ominously) its market value. Absolutely nothing is neatly resolved.

Lisa Gorton and the editorial team at Giramondo aren’t afraid of hard-working adjectives or busy punctuation. For example:

The whole scene lay open before her: heat shimmering off scrub out where the road was, mile after mile of flat, low, secretive country. She found a sort of elation in it: a loneliness answering her mood. Sharp, scattering sounds drew her eyes to where the bird was lifting wing-beat by wing-beat up from the surface of the lake, its legs trailing in the water. She watched holding her breath; it seemed so unlikely the bird would rise.

That’s two colons and a semicolon in four sentences. More than once, a single sentence matches that. Here’s one from when Kit is listening in on a conversation between her aunt and Scott soon after she arrives in the town:

Their way of ignoring so much made Kit notice more: the creaking sound of some loose join in the decking; and that lasting roar: it was the wind, not the sea, she could hear.

The frequent use of sentence structures that call for this kind of punctuation has the effect of blocking the flow of the narrative. What is happening is almost always less important than the process of observing it. And often it feels as if things are there because they have been observed, even though they add nothing to the narrative or our understanding of character. Anyone reading to find out what happens next may be disappointed. The pleasures of this book lie elsewhere.

I received my review copy of the book from Giramondo.

aww-badge-2015

The Life of Houses is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve now finished the challenge – but I don’t expect I’ll stop reading relevant books.

Lisa Gorton recently gave a fascinating interview about The Life of Houses to Fiona Gruber on the ABC’s Books and Arts.