I’ve written Monday Musings on autobiographies and memoirs by indigenous Australians, and I’ve reviewed biographies of Australian writers, like Mary Durack and Madeleine St John. However, I haven’t written about what we might call literary autobiographies, that is, autobiographies by authors. So, today’s the day. I have read several literary autobiographies, but few since I started blogging. Being a reader, I’m interested in writers’ autobiographies or memoirs – because I’m interested in writers, and because, rightly or wrongly, I expect a good writer to be able to write a good autobiography (however we define “good”!) There are, as I’m sure you know some famous/popular/well-regarded author autobiographies, such as Nabokov’s Speak, memory, but of course here I’m focussing on Australians.
I’m not going to get into the why and wherefores of writing autobiography or analyse how useful or relevant they might be to understanding a particular writer’s works.I’m just going to list – alphabetically by author – a few that I’ve either read, dipped into, or would like to read.
Robert Drewe’s The shark net (2000) and Montebello: A memoir (2012). I haven’t read The shark net, though it’s on my TBR. However, I did see the 2003 television miniseries. For those of you who don’t know, this is quite different to the usual writer’s growing up story. Drewe grew up in Perth in the 1950s and 1960s when the serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was creating havoc with the locals’ sense of security. “The murders immediately changed the spirit of the place”, he writes. Drewe knew this man, and knew one of his victims. He wrote this memoir “to try to make sense of this time and place”. I haven’t heard much about Montebello, but Drewe is a significant Australian writer.
David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone St (1985) is a very short book, running to just 134 pages. 12 Edmonstone Street is the address of the Brisbane house he grew up in, but this is not your typical autobiography starting with “I was born in …”. Instead, it discusses selected places in his life, starting with that childhood home. I enjoyed his description of that home, of its weatherboard construction with verandahs. His father, he writes, wanted something more modern, something permanent, like brick.
As for verandahs. Well, their evocation of the raised tent flap gives the game away completely. They are a formal confession that you are just one step up from nomads.
So of course, as soon as he could, he closed it in.
This is a thoughtful, meditative – Malouf-like – book.
Ruth Park’s A fence around the cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993) are more traditional autobiographies, but they are not ordinary. I read them both when they came out and loved them – as much as I loved Park’s books, like her Harp in the South trilogy. A fence around the cuckoo won the Age Book of the Year Non-fiction Award in 1992.
Together, the two books are great reads about life in New Zealand and Australia in the early to mid twentieth century. They also provide wonderful insight into the writer she was to become, and tell the story of one of Australia’s most famous literary couples, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland. Here she is on an early contact with Niland (when she was still in New Zealand and he in Australia). He sent, she writes
a stately and respectful letter, carefully written in the sender’s amazing handwriting, and really got up my nose. The writer seemed to think I was some powerful editorial person, capable of assisting him to sell his stories in New Zealand. … I banged off a letter on my three-decker monster, saying that I was but a lowly copyholder with no efficacy or charisma whatsoever, and if he offered to sell my stories in Australia it might be more to the point. Reading his letter now, it is a marvel that the future father of my children did not take a terminal huff and go off and father someone else’s. However, he was choked off for months, much to my relief.
Hal Porter’s The watcher on the cast-iron balcony (1963) is the first of several memoirs written by Porter. It is regarded as an Australian classic, and covers his growing up years. Porter, however, has a reputation for an interest in paedophilia, which has resulted in some different “readings” of this book. Not having read it or any of Porter’s work, I’m afraid I can’t comment.
Patrick White’s Flaws in the glass (1981) is on my TBR. I dip into it frequently when I’m thinking about White, but have not managed to find time to read it from cover to cover. I should though, because every time I dip into it, I find something well worth my dip! For example, he comments frequently on his homosexuality, reflecting particularly on what it means for him and his art. Here is one:
Indeed, ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, who are unequivocally male or female – and Professor Leonie Kramer*. I would not trade my halfway house, frail though it be, for any of the entrenchments of those who like to think themselves unequivocal.
Where I have gone wrong in life is in believing that total sincerity is compatible with human intercourse. Manoly [White’s longterm partner], I think, believes that sincerity must yield to circumstance, without necessarily becoming tainted with cynicism. His sense of reality is governed by a pureness of heart which I lack. My pursuit of that razor-bald truth has made me a slasher.
The New York Times Book Review is quoted on my back cover saying that it is “as absorbing an autobiography as has been written by a novelist this century”. Oh dear, I really should read it. Wish I could emulate Stefanie of So Many Books who consistently has five, six or more books simultaneously on the go.
* An Australian academic whom White disdained and called “Killer Kramer”. This singling out of her here is typical of White’s bite.
Do you have favourite literary autobiographies?
I love it when the book I’m reading picks up ideas explored in my previous book. Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor point is, in reality, far removed from Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono (my review), but the first line of Henshaw’s book – “There are times in your life when something happens after which you are never the same” – could have been Robinson’s first line. Her focus is more personal than Henshaw’s audacious broad sweep, but the point is still made with punch.
Another aspect of this novel that popped out for me is its rural focus. Rural romance is becoming popular here, but not much of our literary fiction focuses on the rural – on farm life, specifically, I mean, not the bush or outback. In this regard, it reminded me a little of Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review), though they are different books in terms of what drives them.
Have I intrigued you? I hope so, but it would probably help if I now told you a bit about it, rather than the books it reminded me of! The novel starts with a small family on a farm – ten-year-old Laura, five-year-old Vik, their artist-potter mother Kath, and farmer father Bruce. It’s clear there are tensions between the parents, and early in the novel Kath disappears. Interestingly, White’s novel also has a disappearance. Anyhow, young Laura, in a state of anger and shock, makes, as the book’s promos say, “an impulsive decision that will haunt her for decades”. Nonetheless, she fills the gap left – she mothers Vik, takes on the domestic duties, and helps her father on the farm. Robinson conveys beautifully the impact of on her – her pride in helping out, her exhaustion and loneliness, and her realisation of what she is missing. Her childhood, like that of a character in Henshaw’s The snow kimono, was “wrenched” from her. Late in the novel Laura reflects on “what she had lost, what she had cost herself”.
The novel is told third person, in a linear structure. It is divided into parts identified by dates: 1984, 1997, 2008 and 2018. Such a span could suggest saga, but this is a quieter work. It has its dramas, but the tone is not dramatic, which conveys a sense that this is life. Life, in other words, comes with highs and lows, and you just have to get on with it. So we follow the family as Vik grows up and leaves home for university, and as Laura eventually leaves too, at the suggestion of her father. There is always, though, the pull of the farm for Laura – and she does return.
Besides the family drama and the resulting narrative arc to do with Kath’s disappearance, the book is also concerned with farming and the land. Bruce and Laura struggle against drought, bushfires and land degradation to keep the farm going. Climate change hangs over this novel. By 2018 Laura has given up the struggle to regenerate the farm: “the climate had long stopped being something she understood”. This little jump into the future is surely a message from the author, and gives the book a foot in the cli-fi genre.
The other important land issue for farmers – indigenous people and their relationship with the land – is also a thread, introduced early on via Laura’s school friend, the indigenous boy Joseph. This issue is not laboured but bubbles along underneath, coming to the surface in 2018 when Joseph reappears as a man asking for occasional access to the farm for his people. Laura is taken aback:
The land belonged to her and Vik. She thought how mixed up they all were. There was what they believed and what they did, the stories they told. So many truths contained in skin, concentric rings. Laura imagined herself a log, sawn open. How many layers.
She remembers Joseph’s help in the past, and recollects the canoe tree on the property. “‘Course'”, she says, “You can use the place any time you like”.
Like White, for whom this issue is more central, Robinson offers no longterm resolution, but it’s positive to see non-indigenous authors addressing it. (As an aside, I can’t help but think Robinson’s naming one of the farms in the area, the Jolley farm, is a little tribute to Elizabeth Jolley.)
Robinson introduces another contemporary concern, Alzheimer’s. It works well as a plot device, but she does push it a little far. Not unbelievably so, but enough to weigh the novel down a little with issues. On the other hand, it could also work as a metaphor for the way we “forget” what we’ve done and are doing to indigenous people, and to the land.
I enjoyed Robinson’s prose. Here for example is a description of time passing:
The months broke across the year in alternating tasks: clearing, fencing, cutting wood.
And here is a description of the house, when Laura returns after a time away:
The house looked long abandoned, falling into the dry earth. Paint worn away by weather. Verandah sagging. Foundations shifted like rheumatic joints, as though it hurt the wooden skeleton to stay still.
The language, as you can see, is generally spare – sentences tend to be short, and not a lot of time is wasted in long descriptions, just as Laura herself has little time for anything but work.
Overall Anchor point is a tight, well conceived novel. The title, meaning “a safe place”, can be read in multiple ways. Laura does find some “safety” or redemption, but it’s not a simple or easy one for her, and the land itself is far from safe. In the end, it’s all about choices, and, as Laura learns, our choices can create ripples that last long after they’re made. Best, really, to make good choices first off. I’m not sure we’ve learnt that lesson yet.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the novel.
(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)
I wasn’t far into Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono before I started to sense some similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro. I was consequently tickled when, about halfway through, up popped a secondary character named Mr Ishiguro. Coincidental? I can’t help thinking it’s not – but I haven’t investigated whether Henshaw has said anything about this. I’m not at all suggesting, however, that The snow kimono is derivative. It’s certainly not. It’s very much its own book, one that manages to somehow marry an Ishiguro-like “floating”, and rather melancholic, pace with a page-turning one. On the surface it’s a mystery story, but in reality is something far more complex. Interested? Read on …
Before I discuss the novel, though, I do want to say a little about the author who is not well known. The snow kimono is Henshaw’s second novel. His first, Out of the line of fire, was published in 1988, and was well-received critically, garnering a couple of awards. The snow kimono won this year’s New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. Henshaw has worked as a translator, but retired in 2012 as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which is where I attended the launch of this book late last year. (PS I lied a bit about this being Henshaw’s second novel. He has also written two collaborative crime fiction novels, under the name J M Calder, with another local writer, John Clanchy, whose Six I’ve reviewed here)
And now, back to The snow kimono. It is set in Paris and Japan, with a brief foray to Algeria, and spans the late 1950s to the late 1980s. It concerns the lives of a Frenchman, the retired Inspector Jovert, and two Japanese men, a former Professor of Law, Tadashi Omura, and his old schoolfriend, the writer Katsuo Ikeda. The novel has a complex structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, and between the two main storytellers, Jovert and Omura.
The story commences in Paris, 1989, with the recently retired Jovert receiving a letter from a woman claiming to be a daughter he didn’t know he had (from a relationship in Algeria some thirty years previously). Coincidentally – or is it? – he is confronted by Omura, who has his own tortuous daughter-who-is-not-really-my-daughter story. The novel comprises the stories told by these two men: Omura of his life in Osaka and friendship with the narcissistic Katsuo, and Jovert of his experience in Algeria as a French “interrogator” and of his wife and son. Early on we discover that Omura is the guardian of Katsuo’s daughter because Katsuo is in gaol for an undisclosed (until much later) crime. Complex “truths” about parents and children, and about about who is really whom, underpin the plot’s narrative. There are lies galore …
“the future changes everything”
This novel is a captivating read – for its language, story and ideas – but it demands concentration. There are many characters, and relationships can be obscure or seemingly convoluted. However, as the two men talk, we realise that, while on the surface a plot is slowly being unravelled, Henshaw’s real interests are deeper. How do you live with the lies you have kept, or told yourself? What is memory, and how does it relate to truth? How meaningful is truth at any one time when “the future changes everything”. What does this mean?
Two-thirds though the novel, Jovert reflects
that he had spent most of his life listening to people, sifting through what they said, weighing, assessing. Trying to fit things together. But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together. And sometimes not even then.
This is a clue to the paradoxical nature of this novel, and to one of the reasons why it reminds me of Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s books, like Henshaw’s novel, tend to be about memory, its reliability and what it does or doesn’t tell us about who we are. Of course, memory is not an unusual theme for novelists, but it’s the tone, the use of foreshadowing, and the ground-shifting, the pulling of the rug from under us one way and then another, that connected these two authors for me.
So, in The snow kimono, it’s not only Omura and Katsuo who have been living on secrets and lies, but also Jovert. Confronted by the letter and by Omura’s challenge to him that he should meet his daughter, he starts the process of forcing “his memory to surrender what he has spent decades trying to forget”. He had seen memory as a “sanctuary” that can bind people together, but he now sees this is “an illusion”. Memories can in fact “change, be destroyed, be rewritten”, they can be “shuffled, reshuffled”. And so, the man who, during the Algerian War of Independence, had coldly and brutally encouraged others “to recall things they might have otherwise forgotten. Or said they had” now has to confront the “truth”.
The problem is that:
Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time’s throat. It concertinas life’s slow unfolding into time-less event, sifting the significant from the insignificant in a heartless, hurried way. It unlinks the chain. But how did you know what counted unless you let time pass?
Memory is not absolute. It’s mutable, shifting with time, with perspective, with maturity.
I found The snow kimono a deeply satisfying book for this very reason. It suggests that nothing is fixed and that, moreover, as Katsuo cynically says to Omura, there is no “completion”. What does all this say, though, about how we are to live, because surely, this is what the book is about.
The novel’s opening paragraph states that “there is no going back”. This idea is repeated in the narrative: Jovert states after a brutal time in Algeria that “truth can’t be undone”, and Katsuo says after other brutality that “you can’t undo what you’ve done”. However, Jovert does come to believe that “perhaps it was not too late to atone”. What do you think?
There is so much more to this book that I might be driven to write another post …
The snow kimono
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
National Science Week, which inspired last week’s post, finished yesterday, but I decided to extend it a day by writing a post on Australian non-fiction on science subjects. I’ll focus of course on works created for general readers, not academic works. Unlike last week’s list, I haven’t read all the books I list here. Given the surge in general science publishing in the last decade or so, I bet you all have favourites – including of course non-Australian books. I look forward to hearing about them.
Science is a rather broad church, and I’m interpreting it broadly, so this is an eclectic list. As last week, the books are listed in order of publication
Margaret Wertheim’s Pythagoras’ trousers: God, physics and the gender wars (1995) is a book I read with my reading group, though my memory tells me I didn’t finish it! My excuse, as I recollect, is that it was a busy time. Wertheim is an Australian science writer who has lived for some time now, I believe, in the USA. In this book she argues that physics has, traditionally/historically been associated with God. Stephen Hawking and Einstein, she says, both invoke God in their writing. She develops this argument further to suggest that “the priestly culture of physics” has worked as a barrier to women entering the field. This book is now 20 years old. If she was right then, is she still now? I’m not sure about the religion aspect, but gender imbalance is still an issue in many sciences (though not, interestingly, in medicine!)
Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: The history and future impact of climate change (2005) is a book I should have read, particularly as I have it in my TBR pile. It won a New South Wales Premier’s Literary Prize for Critical Writing. Flannery is probably Australia’s best known and most prolific scientist-writer. Trained as a palaeontologist, he now uses his science to support his role these days as an environmentalist and climate change activist. For a list of his writing, which includes his quarterly essay on extinction that I have reviewed, check out his Wikipedia page.
Mohammed Khadra’s Making the Cut: A Surgeon’s Stories Of Life On The Edge (2009) is the memoir of a urologist. I read it just before I started blogging. Like many science-based books for a general market, this book is not so much about the science of medicine as about ethics and politics. It provides a fascinating insight into the tough life of medical students. I loved Khadra’s discussion of how he arrived at his choice of speciality. Khadra believes that surgeons must understand humankind and that one of best ways to teach this is through poetry! Every chapter in the book starts with a poem, just as his surgical tutorials, when he was Professor of Surgery, ended with poetry.
Bianca Nogrady’s The end: The human experience of death (2013) (my review) looks at death from every conceivable angle – medical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, legal and ethical. One of the most intriguing discussions – from a medical and ethical review – in the book concerns defining death. It’s not as easy as it might first appear! Nogrady is an Australian science journalist, and in this book she treads a fine line between expert opinion and anecdote, not letting either run away with the book to the detriment of the other. The anecdotes breathe life into the book, while the experts bring us back to earth!
Fred Watson’s Star-craving mad (2013) was described by the Sun Herald reviewer as “a lighthearted romp through the cosmos … [which] tackles the big questions about our place in the universe without ever being pompous, condescending, boring or baffling”. I haven’t read this book, but I included it because I have heard Watson, live, most recently at this weekend’s Griffyn Solo concert focussing on Urmas Sisask’s astronomy-inspired music. Watson is an astronomer who is well recognised as a communicator, winning, in 2006, the Australian Government’s Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science.
Christine Kenneally’s The invisible history of the human race (2014) was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. Kenneally, a science journalist, draws on scientific research into genetics and DNA to explore who we are, where we’ve come from and where we might be going. Little questions like that. I haven’t read it, but some bloggers I respect (Resident Judge and Adventures in Biography) have, and loved it for its lucid presentation of complex ideas. I really should read it.
If you’re Australian, did you take part in any Science Week activities, like perhaps the Stargazing World Record event? And, if you’re not (or even if you are), do you have any non-fiction books about scientific matters that you’d like to recommend?
Rather coincidentally, the story’s title “Adventure” is similar to the last Library of America piece I read, Helen Keller’s “I go adventuring”. Each, however, uses the notion of “adventure” rather differently. Keller talks about physical adventuring, that is, travelling in New York as a deafblind person, though she also talks about what this adventuring means to her emotionally or spiritually. For one, it provides her with “the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and that I myself am not a dream”. Regarding Anderson’s use of the word though, LOA’s notes quote scholar Ray Lewis White, who says that “adventure” means ““the one brief moment, the one epiphany, the one telling instant, that captures and communicates the essence of that character’s personality, leaving nothing more to be said or learned about him or her.” The story which is specifically titled “Adventure” is apparently placed slap bang in the middle of the collection – and, yes, there is an epiphany.
It tells the story of Alice, who is twenty-seven years old. Although on the surface she is “very quiet”, “beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on”. This ferment has its origins in a love affair with a town journalist when she was sixteen. She loses her virginity, after sincere promises from the man, Ned, that he would come back for her. He says, “Now we will have to stick to each other, whatever happens we will have to do that”. But of course, as happens with these things, Ned’s life doesn’t go quite as he planned. After a year, he has met other girls and stops writing to Alice. However, she, “the girl who had been loved”, continues to believe and hope that Ned will return.
By her early twenties, she is still waiting. She does not blame Ned for her loss of virginity. Indeed she’d offered to go away with him, unmarried, back then when she was sixteen, but she also feels unable to marry another man because “the thought of giving to another what she still felt could belong only to Ned seemed monstrous”. Alice, then, is not your “typical” shrinking small town girl done wrong. She’d offered to go away with him, but she’s also a product of her time’s attitudes regarding sex being a gift to the one you love and, of course, of her continuing love for this man:
“I am his wife and shall remain his wife whether he comes back or not”, she whispered to herself, and for all of her willingness to support herself could not have understood the growing modern idea of a woman’s owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life.
I’m not an expert in early post-World War One America, and I haven’t read the whole book, but I can’t help thinking that Anderson reflects here, in a story published in 1919, the modernist concern with conformist society. He certainly presents a fairly bleak view of what is possible for humans in constricting social environments, as did the “names” of the modernist movement.
Alice – I wonder if there’s an ironic reference in use of this name – continues to hope, she saves money for her future life with Ned for a few years until, one day
With a shiver of dread, she realized that for her the beauty and freshness of youth had passed. For the first time she felt that she had been cheated. She did not blame Ned Currie and did not know what to blame. Sadness swept over her. Dropping to her knees, she tried to pray, but instead of prayers words of protest came to her lips. “It is not going to come to me. I will never find happiness. Why do I tell myself lies?” she cried, and an odd sense of relief came with this, her first bold attempt to face the fear that had become a part of her everyday life.
And so, she continues on, trying “to get a new hold upon life”. She spends companionable time for a while with a much older man, realising she doesn’t want him but is avoiding being alone, because “if I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people”. And then comes the adventure … in which Alice’s bravery and desire to live life to the full results in a moment of abandon that paradoxically forces her to confront the reality of her situation. It’s a devastating (though not tragic in the usual meaning of the word) conclusion. Read it, and see what I mean.
I really liked this story. I liked the way Anderson presents Alice’s self-awareness, and her little attempts to break free, while at the same time recognising the reality for women like her at that time.
First published: In Winesburg, Ohio: A group of tales of Ohio small town life, 1919.
Available: Online at the Library of America
It’s National Science Week (15-23 August) here down under and, while science is not my area of expertise, my mind is always opened by the breadth of events and discussions that take place. I don’t, I admit, get to many events, but I do enjoy the increased focus on science on my favourite radio station, ABC Radio National. For example, a program this weekend on the art of (scientific) taxonomy fascinated my librarian-archivist mind!
And then it occurred to me that I could do my own little “program” here – a post on novels featuring scientists. I’m going to mostly avoid the obvious – science fiction, where scientists often abound – and suss out more general fiction. It’s not easy and this is necessarily a selection of course. I’d love to hear of any novels you love about scientists. As always, although my focus here is, by definition, Australian, you can spread your thoughts as widely as you like!
I’m listing the books in the order they were published. I have read them all, but many before I started blogging.
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of wonders (2001) is set in a village in England in the 17th century during the time of the plague. Its main character, a widow and housemaid, learns how to use herbs for medical purposes, after previous owners of the herb garden had been murdered for practising witchcraft. Science, it’s clear, has not always been respected! Another Brooks’ novel, The people of the book, 2008, has as its main character a museum paper conservator, a job which relies heavily on scientific knowledge and principles.
Sue Woolfe’s The secret cure (2003) is set in a hospital science lab. The main character is a cleaning lady, secretly, searching for a cure for her autistic daughter. She, during the course of the book, has to deal with researchers and other scientific professionals, who don’t always show science and scientists in the most positive light as they grapple for fame and recognition. The novel is partly narrated by another worker in the hospital – a repair and maintenance man who, himself, seems to suffer from a form of autism. The novel explores, broadly, what being human means, and is one of the first novels I read about autism/Asperger Syndrome.
Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living (2006) was inspired by Victoria’s Better Farming Train, which, between the Great Depression and the Second World War, traveled through small country towns to provide practical advice of all sorts to farming people. The train’s staff, in the novel, included a nurse and seamstress, a chicken expert, and the scientist Robert Pettigrew, a soil expert with indefatigable faith in value of superphosphates. It was a time when science was seen as the answer to all challenges, but … well, if you haven’t read this, I recommend it to you. It’s a little treasure.
Eva Horning’s Dog boy (2009) (my review) is about a young boy who, after the disappearance of his parents, is taken in by a pack of dogs. It’s a feral child story, and the first part focuses on his experience as a “dog”. He is eventually reintroduced to the human world and becomes a subject of interest for husband-and-wife scientists, psychiatrist Dimitry and paediatrician Natalya, who start to wonder whether, for all that humans “know”, the boy may have been better off with his dog family.
Toni Jordan’s Fall girl (2010) (my review) is a comic novel about Ella Canfield, an evolutionary biologist who seeks funding to prove that the extinct Tasmanian Tiger still exists – except that Dr Canfield is not who she appears. She is in fact a con-artist, trying to snare Daniel Metcalfe, or at least his money! Things don’t though, go as she expected, and various tables, as you might expect, are turned as Jordan spoofs scientific research and grant seeking, among other targets.
Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (2013) (my review) is a romantic comedy about genetics professor Don Tilman and his search for a wife. Genetics plays a role when he puts his “wife project” on hold to help bartender-turned-student Rosie with her “father project”.
Annabel Smith’s The ark (2014) (my review) is a dystopian novel in the relatively new genre of cli-fi. “The Ark” is a seed bank aimed at preserving seeds for the future. Built into a remote mountain-side, it is populated by people selected for their skills, which include of course scientists and technologists. Most of the novel takes place between 2041 an 2043 in a post peak oil crisis world, and explores explores the tensions that develop as power undermines trust in a small community where co-operation is critical to survival. In this case, while science could be seen to be both the cause of and solution to the situation the world has found itself in, for this group science turns out to be the least of their problems, because once again, as in Dog boy, humans find themselves facing some uncomfortable truths about, yes, humans.
Have you noticed that several of these “scientists” are not quite what you’d expect? We have a cleaning lady seeking a cure for her daughter, a housemaid becoming a herbalist during the plague, a con artist pretending to be a scientist to lure a wealthy donor … I will avoid, however, drawing simplistic conclusions from this, and simply ask if you would like to recommend any novels featuring scientists!
A little over halfway through Wendy Scarfe’s novel, Hunger town, one character says to another that “kindness needs to be a political way of life”. It sounds a little naive I suppose, but in recent months the idea of kindness, in the political as much as the personal arena, has been playing on my mind. How different would Australia be (I’m being parochial here), if our leaders espoused kindness, tolerance and acceptance in their sound-bites, and if, heaven forbid, they placed a value on kindness in their policy-making?
Kindness is not exactly the main theme of this Great Depression era novel but politics certainly is. Set mostly in South Australia’s Port Adelaide River district from the mid 1920s to late 1934, Hunger town tells the story of the struggles of wharf labourers to survive as unemployment and hunger took hold. It explores the ensuing political unrest and the growing attraction of leftist political ideologies like communism and anarchism, alongside unionism, in such a volatile environment.
The novel is told first person in the voice of Judith Larsen, who, at the beginning of the novel, lives on a hulk with her Norwegian-born coal lumper father and homemaker-then-soup-kitchen-volunteer mother. Judith (Jude), intelligent, strong-willed and attuned to social justice issues from an early age, develops her drawing skill to become a cartoonist. Early in the novel she meets her well-to-do friend Winnie’s cousin, Harry, who is not so well-to-do, and a relationship develops. However, while their love story runs through the novel, it is not, as in most “genre” historical fiction, the main narrative arc. They marry, with little romantic build up, part-way through the novel. No, the main narrative focuses on the travails of the workers, and on Jude and Harry’s involvement in the politics of their times, Jude through her satirical cartoons, and Harry through the Communist Party.
The question that always comes to mind with historical fiction is why? Why choose to write about a particular time and place – besides, of course, intrinsic interest in certain times? Some readers love to escape to what they see as a more exciting, adventurous or romantic period. But for me, the book has to be more than “just” history. It has to throw light on “the human condition” and, preferably, encourage reflections on the present. What does the history tell us about who we are, how we got here, I want to know, and (yes, I admit it) can we learn any lessons from it?
Scarfe’s book achieves this for me. Not only does it offer a vivid portrayal of the richness and variety of life on the Port Adelaide wharves, but it encourages us to think about the relationship between the political and the personal, and about how governments do or don’t support some of its most vulnerable people, the working poor. It teases out the differences between theory, idealism and realism. It considers the role of violence. And, along the way, it raises issues like freedom of speech, and the role of the artist. All very topical, n’est-ce pas?
You have probably realised by now that this is a “big” book. Scarfe tells her story in 5 parts through a well-defined set of characters. Although relatively long, around 450 pages, the novel is tightly structured. Seemingly unimportant points made early in the novel reappear with significance later. An example is Harry’s “Judith, you are a card”. Once said, it appears as a refrain throughout, and plays a role in the conclusion. Characters are foils for each other – such as the warm idealistic Harry versus the unemotional, theoretical Communist Party organiser, Nathan; or the pretty, emotional, seemingly superficial Winnie versus the no-nonsense, practical, more socially aware Judith. We can also see Harry, who “really did envisage and believe in a socialist utopia” as a foil for Judith, whose cartoons are grounded “in a more savage awareness of what I saw as the gap between dream and reality”.
Scarfe’s writing is clear and direct, but peppered with lovely turns of phrase. The fog lifts, “not all at once but as if the sun took fistfuls and shook it apart”. Miss Marie, arriving at the women’s march
stepped down from her taxi and made her regal path through the crowd like dawn breaking through a mass of sooty clouds. She was a gasp of radiant colour …
There were times, though, when I wondered whether the first-person voice was the best choice for the novel. Judith is an interesting character, with a strong mind and a good heart. She’s also rather opinionated, occasionally taking sets against people with little (initial, anyhow) provocation. It’s probably just me, but I sometimes yearned for a wise third person omniscient narrator to rub off her edges! That said, Judith, who is described by her art teacher, mentor and friend, Miss Marie, as “an instinctive radical but an individual thinker” guides us engagingly through her world.
As the novel progresses and things worsen on the wharves with scab labour brought in to replace the striking workers, Harry heads off to Spain with Nathan, at the time of the Asturian Miners Strike, to see communism in action. Without giving too much away, this results in, a few months later, Judith and Miss Marie setting off in pursuit. Scarfe’s descriptions of France and particularly Spain in the early 1930s are vivid and believable, and tension builds as our two women, posing as the artists they really are, navigate borders and gun-toting guards to move deep into Franco’s territory. After witnessing a brutal event, Jude produces a cartoon, but Miss Marie demurs about sending it off. Jude, the artist, insists, despite the risks:
To not protest would leave a wound on my soul that might never heal.
The novel concludes with a resolution of sorts to the plot line, but leaves the main questions unanswered. This is as it should be, because these questions – how to balance the political with the personal, and what sort of politics will create a better, fairer society – have no simple answer.
I started by referring to the issue of kindness. I’m going to close on another issue that is close to my heart, that of moderation. Early in the novel, Judith meets librarian Joe Pulham who introduces her to the Aristotelian idea of living moderately. It’s an idea she returns to frequently though, as Miss Marie says, “moderation is not easy. It involves compromise, and to compromise, what do we give up?” Darned if I know, but it seems to me that negotiating that compromise is the best way forward?
Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers also liked this book.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)