Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital women novelists
Hmmm … it’s taken me a while to get back to my so-called series on Canberra’s writers. Over a year ago I wrote posts on Capital women and Capital men poets, and fully intended to write about the fiction writers last year too, but somehow the year got away from me. However, today is Canberra Day, the day we celebrate the “birth” of Canberra, and so it seemed like a time to get back to my series. As I did with the poets, I’ll start with the women, some of whom you’re sure to recognise from other posts.
Canberra Seven or Seven Writers
I have written before about this group of seven women. On one occasion, my post on Canberra’s Centenary, Dorothy Johnston wrote in the comments:
I don’t know whether you all had young families when you began your reading group in 1988, but half of us had small children, when 7 Writers started in the early 1980s. I remember Margaret Barbalet bringing her twin boys, and I quite often took my daughter – it was that, or not go to the meeting. I also remember that we held a small celebration when the combined number of our published books finally outstripped our total of children and grand-children!
Lovely story eh? The seven were, in alphabetical order: Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Marion Halligan, Dorothy Horsfield, Dorothy Johnston. I have reviewed some here – Suzanne Edgar’s collection of poetry The love procession, Marion Halligan’s Valley of grace, and Dorothy Johnston’s The house at number 10 and Eight pieces on prostitution. Long before blogging, I read several others by Halligan and Sara Dowse’s West block. I still, to my embarrassment, have a book by Margaret Barbalet in my pile! Several of these authors are excerpted in Irma Gold’s anthology, The invisible thread.
A Canberra setting isn’t the criterion for this series of posts, but of course I’m interested in works that are set here. Many of these writers did set at least some of their books here, such as Sara Dowse in her novel West block: The hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins. In addition to being a novelist and artist, Sara Dowse was a high profile bureaucrat. Indeed, she was head of the Whitlam Labor government’s women’s affairs section, a position she held for around 3 years until she resigned in 1977. West block, set in the mid 1970s, draws from her experience as that public servant. My reading group, Canberrans all, loved reading about something so close to our understanding, but, looking at it now I feel rather depressed. Here is the character Cassie, fearing the impact of Labor losing the coming election:
She would have liked to thrash it out with someone. State it baldly. Look here, she might say. Women, blacks, migrants, kids, old people, the unemployed. We’re the ones who need a public sector. Not the bastards who take it for their own, then disavow it …
Oh dear … she could have written that last year, and it wouldn’t have been out of place!
I’ve only read one book by d’Alpuget, and that’s her biography of one of our most colourful prime ministers, Bob Hawke (to whom she is now married). However, she is also a novelist, with her books including Monkeys in the dark, Turtle Beach (which was adapted for a movie), and Winter in Jerusalem. She wrote her first novel, Monkeys in the dark, in Canberra, when she had a young baby. Turtle Beach, which won The Age Book of the Year in 1981, is set in Canberra and Malaysia, and explores the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Malaysian refugee camps. I’ve always meant to read this book and it seems like now – Australians will know why – would be a good time.
Born in Queensland and now living in Melbourne, Rendle-Short lived in Canberra for a couple of decades. She has written, among other things, novels, short stories and the fictional memoir, Bite your tongue, which I reviewed a year or so ago. Her novel, Imago, which I haven’t read, is set in Canberra in the 1960s. Blogger Dani reviewed it last year in her blog Dinner at Caph’s, and included a couple of lovely descriptions of Canberra from the book. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also reviewed it recently. She includes a lovely description of English Molly revelling in Canberra’s summer heat. This book sounds like it might be an interesting companion to Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (my review) which covers the same time period but looks at life in Canberra from a very different perspective to Rendle-Short’s two suburban wives.
Warren is an author I hadn’t really heard of before reviews of her books started appearing in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and even then I didn’t realise her Canberra connections until Irma Gold’s The invisible thread anthology. Warren has, in fact, lived in Canberra for over 20 years. However, her genre is science fiction, which is not something I seek out. I did, nonetheless, enjoy her contribution to the anthology, an excerpt from her short story, “The glass woman”. She is a multi-award winning author in her field, so if you are into science fiction and horror, and haven’t discovered her, she is clearly worth checking out.
I’d like to end this post on Gold. She has not had a novel published yet though I believe she has written one and is now on the publisher trail. However, she has published a collection of short stories, Two steps forward (which I reviewed a couple of years ago and which was shortlisted for the MUBA award). It’s an excellent collection that demonstrates a sure grasp of form. I particularly liked the way she mixes up voice and point of view. There are mothers, teenagers, children, old men, and they all – this is fiction after all – confront challenges, the sorts of real challenges anyone can face, such as a miscarriage, or seeing a terminally ill friend, or working in a detention centre. I can’t wait to see what her novel is about!
As with all my regional literature posts, this contains an idiosyncratic selection and is by no means comprehensive. Some have written about Canberra, while others haven’t necessarily made Canberra their focus. They are all, though, interesting writers well worth following up when you have the inclination.