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Monday musings on Australian literature: Utopia, Paraguay and Australian writers

November 30, 2015
The workingman's paradise (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

The workingman’s paradise (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

Utopia, Paraguay, Australia? I’m referring, of course, as many Australians will know, to the Utopian colony, New Australia or Colonia Nueva Australia, which was established in Paraguay in 1893 by the New Australia Movement, with the support of the Paraguayan government. This movement was founded by William Lane, whose novel The workingman’s paradise I reviewed quite early in this blog. The settlement did not succeed. According to Wikipedia (linked to above), conflict started early “over prohibition of alcohol, relations with the locals and Lane’s leadership”. Colonist Tom Westwood is quoted as saying, “I can’t help feeling that the movement cannot result in success if that incompetent man Lane continues to mismanage so utterly as he has done up to the present”. Oh dear.

The settlement has been written about by historians (Gavin Souter’s A Peculiar People and Anne Whitehead’s Paradise Mislaid) and at least one novelist, Michael Wilding‘s The Paraguayan Experiment. Australian travel writer Ben Stubbs has written about his trip to talk to “remnants” of that settlement in his Ticket to paradise: A journey to find the Australian colony in Paraguay among Nazis, Mennonites and Japanese beekeepers. Several musicians have also written songs about it, according to Wikipedia.

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

So why am I mentioning all this now? Well, it has to do with those creative Griffyns and their last concert for the year, titled The Utopia Experiment, which is inspired by this settlement. I’ve known, of course, all year that it was coming up, but an article in today’s Canberra Times, which reminded me of other (contemporary) literary links besides Lane, encouraged me to write this post. The main link is Dame Mary Gilmore (née Mary Jean Cameron) who, in the first half of the twentieth century, was regarded Australia’s greatest woman poet. According to NSW’s Migration Heritage Centre website, she said of Lane’s The workingman’s paradise that:

 the whole book is true and of historical value as Lane transcribed our conversations as well as those of others.

Gilmore, in fact, became one of the 200-odd settlers, but returned after 5 years. She said in an interview over 60 years later that:

It was purely communistic. I wouldn’t say it was a success, but I certainly wouldn’t say it was a failure. The reason it had to break up, or disappear, is because William Lane would only have British people in it…

The aforementioned Anne Whitehead has written a book specifically on Gilmore’s Paraguayan story, Bluestocking in Patagonia: Mary Gilmore’s quest for love and Utopia at the world’s end, suggesting, says reviewer Sarah Macdonald, that Gilmore joined the settlers as much in search of a prospective husband as for the socialist ideal. Perhaps so, but she must have been looking for a particular type of husband to take such a trip!

A 1911 newspaper article quotes Renmark Pioneer editor, who knew Gilmore at the time, as stating that she:

joined the Cosme Colony in Paraguay, where a number of us, under the leadership of William Lane, were giving communism a trial. We were at that time a very happy family, and Mary Gilmore entered into the life whole-heartedly. She rendered good service to the colony, not only taking charge of the school (thereby releasing the former teacher, John Lane, for work in the fields), but doing much to add to the success of the social gatherings that were a marked feature in the life of our little community.

Mary Gilmore went on to live a long and highly productive life, dying in 1962 when she was 97. She was a socialist and activist, a poet and journalist, who argued for better conditions for working women, children and indigenous Australians. (Critic A.G. says in the Age in 1941 that “Her association with the early days of the Australian Labor movement has deepened and widened her social outlook … she speaks especially for the “little” people”).

Her Paraguay experience followed her for the rest of her life, as the National Library of Australia’s Trove reveals. Here is a description of her in a 1923 newspaper, Melbourne’s Advocate, when she would have been 58:

Mrs. Gilmore, who was one of the band that went to Paraguay with the late William Lane on the New Australia adventure, is a proven Irish sympathiser as well as a good Australian.

“A proven Irish sympathiser as well as a good Australian”. What I love about reading old newspapers is the insight they give into the thinking and values of the times.

The literary links don’t end here, however, because Gilmore was very keen for that other great Australian poet-writer of the time, Henry Lawson, to join the settlers. Certainly Lawson had the appropriate socialistic leanings. In 1893, he wrote a poem, “Something better” supporting the Paraguayan vision:

Give a man all earthly treasures – give him genuine love and pelf* —
Yet at times he’ll get disgusted with the world and with himself;
And at times there comes a vision in his conscience-stricken nights,
Of a land where “Vice” is cleanly, of a land of pure delights;
And the better state of living which we sneer at as “ideal”,
Seems before him in the distance — very far, but very real.

However, he didn’t join the settlers.

I could explore these two writers more, but life is busy right now – and, you never know, I might return to the subject after the Griffyns have presented their musical version.

Paul McDermott, Fragments of the hole (Review)

November 28, 2015
"Paul McDermott DAAS" by Canley - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Paul McDermott DAAS” by Canley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

If you’re an Australian, you are sure to know who Paul McDermott is. If you are not Australian, you may not, and this book in fact would not enlighten you, because nowhere on the book is it made clear that “this” Paul McDermott is indeed “that” Paul McDermott. It doesn’t take much reading though to realise that indeed it must be. Have I intrigued you? I hope so.

Fragments of the hole is the first of the second set of fl smalls released by small independent publisher Finlay Lloyd. I mentioned them in my recent post on small books, and said then that I’d review them individually as I read them, so here I am.

I’ll start, having already mentioned him, by telling you about the author. Wikipedia describes him as “an Australian comedian, actor, writer, director, singer, artist and television host”. I knew about most of those, but I didn’t realise that his writing included more than writing scripts for his shows, or that he was an artist too. He first came to public notice as a member of the satirical musical comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars. The Doug Anthony in their name refers to the longtime leader (1971-1984) of the National Party of Australia, which will, perhaps, give you a sense of his political leanings. However, Fragments of the hole is not political satire, so let’s get onto it …

McDermottFragmentsFinlayThe jokes start pretty much on the title page when we are told that the book comprises:

a collection of previously unpublished work from various writer/artists:

Young Master Paul, The Nymbus Art Collective, The Marvellous Mr Me, The Generator, Paul McDermott, Ol’ Miss Daisy & The Caravan King.

Hmm … the way I read it they were all written and illustrated by Paul McDermott but, you know, I could be wrong! Whoever wrote them, though, they are delightful – dark, whimsical, and a little cryptic. The collection comprises one prose story, followed by five in verse form, and most read a little like fairy stories or fables. There’s usually a little point to ponder at the end, even if that point raises another question.

Take, for example, the first poem, “The Bread Girl and the Sparrow”. It is reminiscent of “The Gingerbread Man” which, Wikipedia tells me, is just one of many folktales about “runaway food”. Who’d have thought?  Anyhow, in McDermott’s story, in addition to the issue of trust, there are layers of sacrifice and loyalty between food and predator which adds quite an interesting philosophical twist.

There’s a Roald Dahl-esque edge to the stories. The humour is dark. These are not for (most) children. “Asleep/Awake”, for example, is about the sleeping (real) self meeting the dream self. The exhortation at the end, if you are suggestible, could very well bring on a nasty case of insomnia. You have been warned. I loved too “The man who thought (he was a fog)”, and McDermott’s suggestion that perhaps the initial assumption was not the right one at all. “You look for answers where you may/You find them when you can” he says, but, are you asking the right question?

If any single idea underlies the stories it is something about “self” – what is your “self”, do you protect it, how does it interact with others? Sacrifice – sometimes chosen, sometimes inadvertent – appears in a couple of the stories; the idea of alternative selves appears in others. There is also a sense of life not going to plan. It may not always be –

That evil and sorrow await the naive
At every twist and turn

– but it doesn’t hurt to always have your wits about you.

The poems are told in a fairly simple a-b-c-b rhyming pattern, but the line lengths vary at times to change the pace. McDermott, a comedian who lives by his words, is sure in his language, which is clear and unforced. The pencil drawings are delightful. You can feel the twinkle in his eye – the fun he is having – as you read the stories and look at the pictures. They made me chuckle.

And here I will end because this is a book that is best experienced rather than described or analysed. It’s a cheekily clever but also delightfully charming “little book”. It would, dare I say it, make a perfect stocking stuffer for the discerning reader on your gift list.

Paul McDermott
Fragments of the hole: an illustrated collection (or, Odds and ends, bibs and bobs, and little bits of nothing)
(fl smalls 6)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592958

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Sydney

November 23, 2015
Oh, it's fun driving on Pennant Hills Road!

Oh, it’s fun driving on Pennant Hills Road! (With apologies to Sydney-lovers)

My life has been rather topsy-turvy in recent weeks. My aunt died on 30 October, as regular readers here know, which has necessitated two five-day trips to Sydney, not to mention other related work in between.  Consequently, I haven’t had much time for reading or, even, for thinking about Monday Musings, but I have been thinking a little about Sydney … particularly since these trips have been to the part of Sydney in which I spent my teen and university years.

My family moved to Sydney in 1966, and it was from this time that my relationship with my aunt was really established, although I have many memories of her before that. Alison loved having two teen nieces in town to take out and show off her beloved Sydney to. And we loved having an aunt who was fun company and keen to take us out. It was she who taught us about Sydney’s history and culture. She took us to the Sydney Rocks area, long before it was cool, where she showed us old buildings like the Garrison Church. She took us to an early settlement re-enactment on historic Fort Denison (aka Pinchgut, or Mat-te-wan-ye, as it was to local Aboriginal people). And, being a beach lover, she took us frequently to Sydney’s famous beaches.

It suddenly occurred to me that one way I could honour my aunt would be to share some novels about her city, so that’s this week’s plan. I will list them in chronological order of their setting (not of when they were written). They are of course a very small selection of the books I’ve read, and an even smaller selection of those written about the place.

  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river, despite the controversy it engendered, made a significant contribution to our understanding of Sydney’s origins, because Grenville, finding a dearth of detailed evidence, tried to imagine what may have happened at an individual level between the European immigrants/settlers and the indigenous people when those settlers “took up” land in the Sydney region. (Grenville followed her exploration of early Sydney in the other books in the trilogy, The lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill). I appreciate that Grenville’s novel is not “history”, but I liked her attempt to present a possible scenario of how things may have gone, and why.
  • William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise (my review) is probably the least well-known of the books I’m listing here, but I’m including it not only because it’s one that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog, but because it’s set in the late nineteenth century, just prior to Australia’s Federation, during a time of social and political unrest when socialist ideas were being explored. It contains some gorgeous physical descriptions of Sydney in that time, as well as providing insight into contemporary intellectual debates about how to improve conditions for workers.
  • Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) captures Sydney at one of the most significant times in its life, physically speaking that is. Set in the late 1920s to early 1930s, it tells of the dispossession of working class people of their homes to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Funny, isn’t it, how so often it’s those who have the least resources who end up wearing the biggest costs of “progress”.
  • Kylie Tennant’s Tell morning this is set in Sydney during World War 2. Tennant wrote several novels about Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, but the first that I read was Tell morning this. I enjoyed it for the vivid picture Tennant paints of Sydney at a time when young women met American servicemen. She doesn’t pull any punches in her story of Rene who is jailed for living with one of these Americans, and of David who is also jailed, but for being a conscientious objector. The irony of this – of jailing those who were practising the freedoms we were apparently fighting for – may not be lost on contemporary audiences!
  • Ruth Park’s The harp in the south tells the story of a poor working class family living in Sydney’s Surry Hills in the immediate post-war era. It’s a good example of the social realist novel – the sort of novel some criticise for being “too” documentary and not imaginative enough, but which, when well done, can starkly show what life is like for the have-nots, that is, for those whose hold on employment is tenuous, and for whom, therefore, survival can be a daily struggle. Harp’s picture of Surry Hills is warm and vivid, and remains popular today. As novelist Delia Falconer wrote in The Griffith Review, it “still bludgeons us about the heart”.
  • Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review) is set in the 1950s in a Sydney department store. Its characters tend to be middle-class, but they range from conservative suburban Australians through aspirational working women to educated European immigrants. All, though, face pressures – to do with acceptance, aspiration for improvement, and/or escaping stultifying expectations. St John’s book is more a comedy of manners, than Tennant and Park’s social realist approach, but nonetheless presents a thoughtful picture of a city in flux.
  • See that little flat roof to the right? That was my little add-on Sydney bedroom when I was Josie's age.

    See that little flat roof to the right? That  bedroom was added on for me.

    Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi is a young adult novel that is fast becoming a classic. Published in the early 1990s, it is set in what had become by then a well-established multicultural Sydney. Marchetta explores the tensions experienced by the children born of immigrant parents, as they negotiate the expectations of their parents’ culture and those of the culture into which they’ve been born. Marchetta also touches on class, unrealistic expectations, and the public-private school divide.

  • Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel (my review) continues the theme of immigration, among other ideas, through the alternating stories of travel-writer Laura and Sri Lankan immigrant Ravi. De Kretser analyses from multiple angles, and for both characters, the idea that “geography is destiny”. She looks at the role of place in modern life: to what extent is it a physical construct, and what role does it play in a virtual world in which we travel by choice or necessity in order to find our lives? Sydney, Australia’s first settler city, seems a perfect place from which to base such exploration – for Kretser who has set her previous books in France, Sri Lanka and Melbourne.

These are just a few of the novels I’ve read that are set in Sydney. Other favourites include Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus, Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (my review), and Patrick White’s The solid mandala, to name a few. You can find more ideas in Wikipedia’s list of novels set in Sydney (though interestingly not all of mine are there).

Reviewing my list, I see that each book explores Sydney at a time of change – social, cultural and/or economic. Perhaps that’s a fact that differentiates cities – they never stand still?

Do you have favourite books about a city that’s been significant to you?

Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb, Watching the world (Review)

November 19, 2015

Hetherington and Webb, Watching the worldI hope it’s not condescending to suggest, at this time of year, that a book would make a good Christmas present? I know some publishers, and fair enough too, choose around now to release certain types of books deemed to be good gift material. That, however, is not the case with this book, Watching the world, as it was in fact published back in July. It’s just that I’m reviewing it now and, quite coincidentally, I think it would make a good Christmas book. This is not because it’s a light, easy summer read, as it’s not your typical beach book, but because it’s a very attractive book that is priced reasonably and that can be enjoyed in multiple ways. You can meander through it sequentially, stopping to ponder, or dip in and out, exploring what catches your fancy.

Subtitled Impressions of Canberra, Watching the world comprises poems by Paul Hetherington paired with photographs by Jen Webb. It has a rather interesting genesis, as the Introduction explains, in that it’s the “result of an extended collaboration” between the poet and the artist. Their aim was to explore Canberra as a place in which people live and work, rather than, as is usually the case, as a planned city that is also the national capital. I like that idea. Too often Canberra is used as shorthand for the federal government – as in “Canberra said today ….”. But, as we who live here know, there is far more to Canberra than that.

Hetherington and Webb’s method of working was interesting too. They worked, they say, semi-independently:

Jen took photographs, which Paul then used as springboards into poems. Paul’s poems led, in turn, to Jen taking new photographs, or editing existing ones.

They continued this “iterative process” until they found “enough poem-photo pairs” that would satisfy their intention. They suggest that in this method of working a new “reality” appeared, one that was somehow separate both from themselves as individuals and from their partnership, a reality which confronted them with ideas about “the incommensurability of world, image and word”. That makes sense to me – I think! At least, it makes sense to me that we never can completely or exactly capture in one form – say poetry – that which is in another form – in this case life in Canberra. It seems both obvious and sophisticated at the same time to make this point! And so, when you have a poem and a photograph both “commenting” on each other and on life in Canberra, then the meaning (or the “reality”) surely becomes multi-layered? Hmmm … I think I’ll leave the philosophising here, but I hope that I’m making sense and that I’ve understood what Hetherington and Webb are saying.

Now, I’ll get to more concrete stuff (a very poetic word, that), starting with the wider project. In the Introduction, again, we are told that it was initially produced as an installation for the Imagine Canberra exhibition during Canberra’s 2013 centenary celebrations. It then had a couple of other iterations – at a conference, and as a set of scholarly essays – before finding its way into this book form this year. I love that they have managed to achieve such varied mileage out of their work.

And finally, the book itself. The poem-photo pairs are divided into three sections – Where we live, Memory places, and Paddocks and perambulations. They are, as you’d expect from the process described, idiosyncratic, although there is logic too to the groupings. The first poem-pair is titled “Waltz” and captures the physical sense of Canberra. I was amused by the poem’s opening:

Like algebra, these straight-drawn streets,
curves, crescents and rounding circles

Starting with the “straight-drawn streets” must surely be a little provocative gesture to the popular cry from tourists that they get lost in Canberra’s circles! We do, I’m sure, have far more traditionally designed streets than circular ones. It’s just that the circular pattern is a feature of the inner, early Canberra where tourists focus. The accompanying image is a low aerial shot of a warm, cosy looking Canberra suburb in autumn. The poem suggests that there is magic in Canberra, that for all the apparent “algebra” in its straight lines and curves, there is much here that cannot be easily defined or narrowed down to simple formulae.

The poems vary in tone. There is, for example, a subdued reference to indigenous inhabitants in “Ainslie”, whimsical self-deprecation in the simply titled “Canberra”, and wry or defiant humour in “Letter”. At least, it made me laugh: a woman hands her letter to someone, perhaps a husband she is leaving:

‘I know it’s not done
to be so formal
but just this once
I’d like the last word’

The accompanying image shows the back of a blue car driving away in light rain.

Sometimes the meanings of the poems and the connections with the photography are clear and unambiguous, more literal perhaps. Other times they are more tenuous, or abstract, as in “Handkerchief” with its accompanying leaf-litter image, encouraging the reader-viewer to delve further. I enjoy these challenges. It would be interesting to see whether different combinations challenge different readers.

The images are, of course, important, though being primarily a verbal/textual person, my focus tends to be the words. However, there are some gorgeous images here. I’ve mentioned a couple already. I also like the mystical tone of the poem-photo pair titled “Boundaries”, the sense of coming into and out of our different spiritual and physical selves, our individual and our social selves, and so on. A simple image and a two-line poem. Perfect.

Some of the pieces are universal, that is, they could apply to a lot of places in which people live, but many draw on signs and symbols familiar to Canberrans – the circles, the balloons, and Black Mountain Tower, for a start. We are a bush capital, and along with our trees come the birds. I enjoyed the cheekiness of the poem titled “Birds” (and the accompanying image setting movement against stillness) which suggests that for all the planning, life in the city might have other ideas. If you are now intrigued, have a look at the sample provided online by Blemish Books. That will probably speak louder than my 1000 words!

Watching the world is a quietly subversive work that looks at Canberra from an insider’s point of view – with a lot of affection but a willingness to cast an acerbic or questioning eye at times too. And remember, it’s Christmas soon!

Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb
Watching the world: Impressions of Canberra
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780994250827

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

Monday musings on Australian literature: More on small books

November 16, 2015

Why is it that when we humans see change, we tend to prognosticate doom? I’m thinking how it was argued that TV would be the end of radio, and videos the end of cinema. It hasn’t happened has it? These older industries may have had to rearranged themselves a little but they have survived. Then a few years ago, with the advent of e-books, it happened again with commentators forecasting the end of the printed book. That hasn’t happened – yet, anyhow, and I really don’t think it will happen anytime soon. What drives all this? Fear I suppose. Enough of that, though, as my aim here is not to philosophise about change. Rather, I want to talk about the small book …

Yes, I know that I wrote about them only a couple of weeks ago, but since then I’ve come across more discussion of them, and more initiatives. Short books, it seems, are gaining in popularity – or at least a number of publishers seem willing to give them a go, and not just for publishing cheap classics which they can expect to have an audience. No, as I wrote in my previous post on the topic, some are publishing contemporary material, sometimes specifically commissioning or putting a call out for contributions or even holding competitions.

Giramondo, an independent Australian publisher, started their Shorts program back around 2012. Giramondo Shorts is, they say:

a new series of short form, short print run books, designed to take account of the new technologies of digital printing, and to appeal to a community of literary readers. The series carries a quote from Les Murray’s poem ‘The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’: ‘it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts.’

There are now 8 books in the series, and the books have an unusual square format. At $19.95 each, they are priced a little higher than many small books, but the fact that they are continuing suggests some level of success. It seems like digital printing technologies are enabling Giramondo to produce their books more efficiently.

One of the reasons that I decided to write this follow-up post was because in my role as Literary and Classics coordinator for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I came across Jonathan Shaw’s review (for his blog Me Fail? I Fly!) of the Going Down Swinging Longbox. This is a set of  “five slim books” containing pieces the literary magazine had rejected for publication in its magazine. Shaw calls this little collection “a beautiful artefact”. It is for this reason that I particularly wanted to mention it, because not only are these small books, but beautiful design is an important part of their production. In other words, they are a long way from the cheap Penguin 60s initiative. After all, there’s nothing like holding a beautifully designed book is there – something that is hard to experience in the e-format. (Going Down Swinging is a literary magazine that has been publishing in print, and later also online, since 1979.)

Finally, for this post anyhow, there’s Griffith Review’s novella project. Including this is a bit of a cheat, really, because in this case the book itself is not especially small, and these two posts have been focussed on physical smallness, not just smallness (or shortness) of content. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because it represents a commitment to the novella form, which as you know is a favourite form for me. Here is what they say:

In 2012, Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project played a major role in enabling Australian and New Zealand authors to gain a foothold in the English language revival of the novella underway internationally. In 2014, Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories – The Novella Project II published five novellas with an historical dimension in a confronting, moving and provocative collection.

And so, Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short – The Novella Project III has just been published. It contains five novellas which were selected in a blind-judged nationwide competition.

The printed book, in other words, looks to me like it’s not going anywhere soon. There might be a bit of a shake-down as publishers explore what is going to work best and for whom, but it is exciting to see them continuing to explore the possibilities of print, including producing short works in new forms and formats.

Caroline de Costa, Double madness (Review)

November 15, 2015

De Costa, Double madnessI’m not a crime reader as most of you know, and in fact most of the crime novels I’ve read here have been review copies sent to me. Caroline de Costa’s Double madness is one of these. I accepted it for a couple of reasons. It’s a debut novel by a doctor, indeed a professor of Medicine at the James Cook University in Cairns, who has been shortlisted for a nonfiction work in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. And it is set in beautiful far north Queensland, my home state.

Not being an expert in crime writing, I can’t really compare it with other novels, but I’d say it’s in the sub-genre known as police procedural. According to Wikipedia, in police procedurals the detective is a police officer and the story depicts the activities of the police investigating the crime. Tick. However, Wikipedia also says that in police procedurals the perpetrator is often known to the reader, but this is not the case here, and that the novel will often deal with a number of unrelated crimes, which is also not the case here, though several references are made to one other crime. None of this matters, really thought, does it? Categories can be helpful in analysis, but in the end what counts is the work itself. I was just intrigued.

Double madness opens with the victim’s body being found, by accident, in a secluded part of the north Queensland rainforest, by a doctor and his wife who are driving home the scenic way. Finding the body is, I presume, a pretty traditional opening for a crime novel of this sort. The dating, like the setting, is also precise – 27 February 2011, which is three weeks after the category-5 Cyclone Yasi hit northern Queensland, causing significant destruction. The novel is told in almost straight chronology, with each chapter titled by a date, the last being 17 March 2011. Early in the novel, though, there are a few flashback chapters – mostly to 2009 – which flesh out a few characters for us.

Our main detective is the 30-something now-single mother, Cass Diamond. She’s of indigenous Australian background. Ah, so we have a non-indigenous writer, as far as I know anyhow, writing an indigenous character. You may remember discussions we’ve had here on this topic. I’ve quoted writer Margaret Merrilees, “To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie”. De Costa is writing about Far North Queensland, a place with a significant indigenous population, where it would indeed be poor form to ignore indigenous characters. My assessment is that de Costa has done it well. Cass makes some references to her indigeneity, and to some of the challenges she faces, but this is not her defining characteristic in the novel. She is “just” another police officer, and is defined as much, if not more, by being a single mother whose “fridge was a temple consecrated to convenience foods”. In other words, she’s in that band of job-jolly detectives who struggle to keep their personal life going, though Cass does a better job than most (that I’ve seen on TV anyhow). She does, for a start, seem to have a good relationship with her teenage son. Moreover, she’s not drunk, middle-aged or unduly cynical – yet, anyhow!

Back now, to the plot. Tucked into the copy sent to me was a slip of paper containing a short interview with the writer by reviewer Fiona Hardy. De Costa tells Hardy that she had “for some time been interested in the concept of folie-à-deux [share psychosis]”. Folie-à-deux translates as double madness – hence the book’s title. De Costa also tells Hardy, when describing the sort of detective she has created, that she has to write what she knows. And she knows medicine. Consequently, not only does the investigation and resolution of the crime involve some medical knowledge, but the story is set largely amongst the community’s medical fraternity. In other words, the good doctors of Cairns have been getting up to a bit of mischief with our victim, so when the murder is committed they find themselves in the frame. They are not, however, the only ones. There be a husband, and sons, and sundry other possibilities. All I’ll say is this is a tricky plot with a goodly dose of red herrings. For more, you’ll have to read the book.

I wouldn’t call Double madness a ground-breaking or particularly innovative detective novel, but it’s an enjoyable read. The writing is clear and straightforward, keeping to the point and moving along at a fair pace. There’s no unnecessary description, but where it is needed, such as to describe the bush or, say, a doctor’s experience of working through a cyclone, it feels real and authentic. Hardy, in her interview, notes that the cyclone Yasi makes an effective metaphor for the havoc wrought by the victim, Odile Janvier, on those around her. She’s right, it does.

When I read fiction, as I’ve said before, I look for some underlying messages or themes or issues being explored because I like my reading to further my understanding of humanity. Double madness is not, in this sense, a deep or enquiring book, but it is quietly subversive in the way it handles race and gender. Its indigenous characters are not defined by their indigeneity, and women detectives and medicos play important, but accepted and unremarked, roles in the investigation and resolution of the crime. Moreover, while the murder victim is a woman, she is far from the norm of murdered women victimhood. Good on de Costa.

So, if you are looking for a new crime author for your crime fan friends this Christmas – because yes, it’s that time of year again – then Double madness is well worth putting on your list.

awwchallenge2015Caroline de Costa
Double madness
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780987561565

(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)

And so another great Musica Viva year ends

November 14, 2015

Musica Viva has done it again: it has produced another year of splendiferous, inspiring concerts. Mr Gums and I have been subscribing to Musica Viva (or its predecessor here in Canberra, the Canberra Chamber Music Society*) for nearly four decades – albeit with a gap in the middle for child-rearing and overseas posting. We love it, which of course is not surprising given we subscribe year after year!

I don’t know how Musica Viva runs in other cities, but we have a vibrant community here, fostered by an enthusiastic committee (and no, I’m not a member) and a small but creative office led by Michael Sollis (he of the Griffyn Ensemble). All of this is underpinned by the intelligent programming of Australian composer and Musica Viva artistic director Carl Vine.

Before I talk a little about the concerts I want to say something about timing. Canberra’s concerts have commenced at 7pm for over a decade now. I loved it when I was working. Of course, it may have helped that the concert hall was across the road from my workplace, though it wasn’t for Mr Gums. He’d drive over to me, we’d have a light meal on the ANU campus, go to the concert and be home by around 9.30pm. Perfect for a work night. Now we are retired, we are perfectly happy to do the European thing – eat our main meal in the middle of the day, then have a light snack before the concert, and perhaps a dessert afterwards. Works well for us.

Now to the concert experience. Over his years as office manager, Michael Sollis (who only turned 30 this year!) has worked hard to add value to the Musica Viva experience. We have pre- and post-concert events, and interval performances. To give you an example, this year’s pre-conference events have included a courtyard performance by local early music specialist Ian Blake before Renaissance group Tafelmusik, a tour of the Canberra School of Music’s historical piano collection before piano soloist Paul Lewis, a pop-up choir before a cappella group I Fagiolini, and even a wine tasting by Musica Viva’s local wine sponsor, Eden Road Wines. That of course could go before any concert!

During Interval, we can hear a performance on the School of Music’s café floor by young music students, usually mirroring the main act. So, for example, our last concert was the Eggner Trio, and the interval recital was by a young student trio. We enjoy checking out the next generation, and hopefully they enjoy performing for an appreciative audience.

The post-concert event is usually a Q&A with the performers or a CD signing. For the final concert of the year, Sollis and the committee tried something different. The Q&A was held in one of Canberra’s oldest brewpubs, the Wig & Pen, which is located in the School of Music’s ground floor. An inspired idea. At least Eggner Trio, comprising three brothers aged from their late 20s to mid 30s, seemed to think it was! And I think we audience members who joined in found it a fun, relaxed end to our Musica Viva year.

I don’t know what you think about all this, whether it would appeal to you, but I love the commitment to engaging and inspiring the community that lies behind all this.

Beethoven statue, Bonn

Beethoven statue, Bonn (his birthplace)

So, you are probably wondering, who (or what) did we actually hear in 2015. In Canberra, we get 6 of the year’s 7 touring performers. Our numbers don’t, apparently, quite support receiving all 7 yet. A goal for the future! This year, we had:

  • Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra from Canada which presented a staged/choreographed multimedia show called House of Dreams, in which the musicians took us through the art, architecture and music of Europe through works by Handel, Vivaldi, Purcell, Telemann, Bach and Marais. It was an exciting show though perhaps not quite as coherent as their Galileo Project which we saw a few years ago.
  • Goldner String Quartet, from Australia and comprising two married couples, played Ligetti, Beethoven and a new crowd-funded piece by Australian composer Paul Stanhope. Lovely music – and I can never say no to Beethoven who, if I were forced to choose, would be my favourite composer.
  • Cellist Steven Isserlis with pianist Connie Shih. We always love Steven Isserlis (with his wild curly hair) – but Shih more than held her own in what was a Gallic-inspired program.
  • I Fagiolini is an English a cappella group which specialises in “Renaissance and 20th-century vocal repertoire”. They were impressive and very entertaining, particularly in their staging of Janequin’s “La Chasse” which they performed from memory. It’s “a nightmare to memorise” says their leader Robert Hollingworth. They also performed a new work by Australian composer Andrew Schultz titled “Le Molière imaginaire; Or, Keep Your Enemas Closer”. You had to be there really. (I hope you didn’t think chamber music is all toffee-nosed seriousness!) Their concert ended on a more respectfully serious note, though, with another 20th-century piece, Adrian Williams’ “Hymn to Awe”.
  • Paul Lewis is an English solo pianist. In the spirit of gender equality, I’m going to talk about male appearance. I do like a male musician with curly hair, so I’m automatically partial to Steven Isserlis and Paul Lewis! Luckily they are excellent musicians too. Lewis, as I recollect, played his whole program – all Beethoven and Brahms – from memory, something we discussed with him at the post-concert Q&A.
  • Eggner Trio, comprising three young brothers from Austria, closed out the 2015 season with a beautiful program featuring Robert Schumann, Australian composer Dulcie Holland (her trio composed in 1944 but not performed until 1991!), and Dvorak.

Musica Viva’s four core values are “quality, diversity, challenge and joy”. We certainly had all that 2015. A huge thanks to all the paid staff, volunteers and performers who made it happen.

* The Canberra Chamber Music Society was founded in 1956 and for more than two decades presented chamber concerts in Canberra, in association with Musica Viva Australia which was established in 1945.


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