The Gundagai area was home to the Wiradjuri people, and was settled by white people in the late 1820s. It was officially gazetted in 1840 despite repeated warnings by the Wiradjuri about the risk of large floods to this part of the Murrumbidgee River floodplain.
According to the Poet’s Recall Motel, Gundagai’s first streets were named for poets: Shakespeare Tce, Milton St, Pope St, Johnson St, Maturin St, Landon St., Hemans St, Sheridan St, Otway St, Byron St, Homer St, Virgil St, and Ovid St. However, believe it or not, the Wiradjuri knew their country and in 1852 a huge flood destroyed the town. Over one third of the 250 inhabitants and a number of travellers died, and 71 buildings were destroyed. The old mill is the only building still standing from the original town. As for the poets, when the town was rebuilt, on higher ground, the poet street names, according to the Motel’s notes, were not reused. However, looking at a modern street map of Gundagai, I did spy Sheridan, Homer, Byron Streets, plus a reference to Ovid Lane and the other poets. Presumably these have been returned to the town in more recent times.
Anyhow, this is where the Poet’s Recall Motel comes in. The owner – I’m not sure when – decided to revive Gundagai’s poetic history. Each motel room is named for a poet – the original 13 and then some. I was rather delighted to find that our room was Banjo Paterson, and the two rooms next to us were Henry Lawson and Breaker Morant. Fine room-mates for Whispering Gums! In addition, the historic bar in the motel’s restaurant is decorated with painted portraits – on local slate – of the original 13 poets.
Once again I’ve learnt that country towns can be surprising places … I don’t imagine I would ever have heard of Felicia Hemans, who was published in the early nineteenth century by John Murray, Jane Austen’s publisher, if I hadn’t stayed at the Poet’s Recall Motel.
Things have been looking up lately on the women writers front. Last year two women – Anna Funder (All that I am) and Gillian Mears (Foal’s bread) – made an almost clean sweep of our major literary awards. This year women writers are again faring well, with the Miles Franklin shortlist comprising all women. The shortlist, announced last week, is:
- Romy Ash’s Floundering
- Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel
- Annah Faulkner’s Beloved
- Drusilla Modjeska‘s The mountain
- Carrie Tiffany‘s Mateship with birds
Three of these – Floundering, Beloved and The mountain – are debut novels, though Drusilla Modjeska has published several books, some of which play with the boundary between fact and fiction.
I’m not writing this post to gloat. After all, I love many contemporary Aussie male writers including those I’ve reviewed here, such as David Malouf, Tim Winton, Murray Bail, Gerald Murnane, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan,. However, there have been some very lean years for women, including a couple of recent years (2009 and 2011) in which no women writers were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. These, together with VIDA’s evidence regarding inequities in women being published and reviewed, and women being used as reviewers, were the prime impetus for the establishment of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW). Last year’s stellar year for women and now this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist might suggest that the job is done – but I don’t think so. History has shown that gains made by women are often not sustained …
… and, anyhow, the AWW is not about ignoring men. It is simply about recognising and, in doing so, promoting women. Most of the women involved in the challenge also read male (or, should I say, men) writers. I sure do, as you can see if you scan my Author Index.
Last year, Rebecca Giggs wrote an article in Overland about the “woman” issue. She was commenting on a question put to Anna Krien (I’ve reviewed Into the forest and Us and them) regarding why Australia’s best non-fiction is currently being written by women. Giggs pondered:
During this past summer – a time when women’s writing has been the subject of renewed attention – I have found myself wondering why a direct answer to that question is so hard. It would be exceptionally unusual, one imagines, for an emerging male author to be asked why so many of our best books are currently being written by men. And yet it would also be wrong to say that the query, asked of a female writer, is unforeseeable. As regressive and problematic as the question seems, it remains relevant because of the prevalence of its assumptions in publishing and readership communities. To foreclose on Attwood’s right to ask about the specific role of women in nonfiction is to abandon the opportunity to learn from our stumbling answers.
This is the point – to keep the conversation going, to better understand if there are any underlying issues preventing longterm equal treatment and recognition. Reading Giggs again, I was reminded of the recent discussions regarding Wikipedia’s removing women from their American novelists category to the American women novelists category. The impetus for the new category was valid: people do want to identify and locate women writers, just as people want to locate a country’s indigenous authors or LGBT authors or some other specific group. The problem was the “removing” of women novelists from the main list, thereby marginalising them while at the same time highlighting them. Wikipedia, being the collaborative venture that it is, is reviewing its policy to ensure that its categories work practically, equitably and philosophically.
It’s vexing, really, that the question is still vexed …
Andrew Croome’s latest novel Midnight empire is yet another read this year that is outside my usual fare. I read it because of my reading group’s focus this Centenary year on Canberra writers. It wasn’t a big ask, though, because I had read and enjoyed his first novel, Document Z. While both deal with spies, they are very different novels: Document Z is historical fiction, while Midnight empire is a thriller. I wonder what Croome will do next. Romance? Interestingly, Croome, who attended my reading group’s discussion, suggested that Midnight empire is more like a first book. This is because when writing Document Z, he could always go back to the historical record when he stalled, but with Midnight empire he had to rely on his own ideas to keep the story going. Croome told us that the inspiration for the book was drones and, developing that, the idea that with drones people can conduct “war” from their office desk. What does this mean for our psyches, he wonders. And where is the line between who is at war and who isn’t? But more on that later.
First, a little about the plot. The protagonist, Daniel Carter, is a rather naive 26-year-old computer programmer whose company’s encryption algorithm has been bought by the US government for its drone program. Daniel is sent by his Canberra-based company to Creech Airforce Base, outside Las Vegas, to install the software and make sure it runs properly. Suddenly he finds himself at war, albeit sitting at a computer terminal in the American desert, a long way from Afghanistan and Pakistan where the actual war is being waged. Unlike the airforce pilots and CIA agents Daniel is working with, he has not been trained for war.
Parallelling the story of Daniel’s professional life is his personal one. He comes to Las Vegas despite the wishes of his long-term girlfriend Hannah. Their relationship has been foundering and his, to her mind, not well thought through decision to go to Las Vegas is the catalyst for her to break up. Daniel is disappointed, but it leaves him free to meet someone new – and he does, of course. He meets the beautiful Russian, Ania, at the poker table. This is Vegas after all!
As you would expect for the genre, things start to go awry. An agent double-crosses them, pilots start dying mysteriously in Vegas, and the drones are sent in to Peshawar to take out their target. Daniel becomes perturbed about the morality of what he sees and decides to leak some information. Meanwhile, his life with Ania becomes complicated when she tells him her brutal husband has come to Vegas looking for her. Daniel is torn between his work and his personal responsibilities, and starts crossing even more lines from which he may not be able to return. As we read on, we are not sure who to trust or believe. Is or isn’t Ania the traditional spy-tale Femme Fatale? And are the CIA starting to suspect him?
Daniel … in the lion’s den
Croome has, I suspect, chosen Daniel’s name for its allusive – and ironic – value: we can see where Daniel is, but he seems pretty oblivious. Fairly early in their relationship Ania questions Daniel about his work. She’s mystified by the fact that he says he’s fighting a war, even though he didn’t volunteer for it and wasn’t conscripted:
‘Then why are you here?’
‘It is simply that I have a job. I am doing my job.’
You are at war because of your job?’
She seemed to find this amusing. ‘But that is not romantic,’ she said. ‘How am I supposed to believe that you are my hero, if it is your job?’
She tries to understand this war in which he says that he won’t be killed. It’s not a war, she believes, if he is not in danger of being killed. Daniel sees it differently:
‘We drop bombs on people … They are trying to harm people and we blow them up. I don’t know what else you’d call it’.
At this point, the war is just like a job to Daniel. He goes to work on the base, they track targets with the drones, and he goes back to his temporary home in Vegas and lives his life. When he is reminded by his CIA boss Gray that “like it or not, you happen to be at war” his reaction is disingenuous:
if people were dying or endangering one another, it had stuff-all to do with him. Gray could shove it. If the alertness of your encryption operator was your primary concern, you needed your priorities set straight.
He has a point – to an extent – and yet, as his ex-girlfriend had clearly understood, he had agreed to be part of it. Not long after this, they attack their target, completely demolishing a building in which people, including children, had been. It’s remote, cold, clinical … Daniel looks for the children hoping they’ve not been taken out too, but “where were they?” And yet, still, the penny hasn’t fully dropped. Ania, as Hannah had before her, wants Daniel to recognise what he is doing:
I am just saying think, Daniel … I am just saying there are choices – there are decisions to make.
I won’t labour this further; I’m sure you’ve got the main theme by now.
The midnight empire …
How do you critique a novel like this, one that is more plot driven than I’m used to? What should my review focus on? Plot, character, setting are, I’m guessing, the critical things – and I’d give them the thumbs up. The plot is plausible, the character of Daniel believable, and the setting chillingly realistic. The resolution – particularly in terms of who is implicated – is a little more ambiguous than Croome apparently intended but that’s probably the risk you take when you start to play with genre formula. I did find some of the technical details – the encryption technology, and the ins-and-outs of poker playing – somewhat uninteresting at times, but that’s more to do with me and my reading focus I think. Overall, it’s a carefully orchestrated and gripping read that should appeal to a wide readership.
‘Aren’t you interested, though?’ she said. ‘That people would be able to do this – exist somewhere beyond the rest of us, surfacing, emerging at night, a strange midnight empire, you would almost say traceless.’
Ania is talking about the people – and they are real – who live in the storm drains beneath the Strip – but what, we wonder, about the other, infinitely more worrying midnight empires? Croome has made very clear in this novel why we should be intersted in them…
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
Place. It’s a complex thing isn’t it?
Arti (Ripple Effects) commented on my recent post on Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “Spring and Fall” that
… while spring may be a welcome sight, for some strange reasons, I miss winter’s snow. (not the temp. just the beautiful snow scenes).
Would I miss winter and snow? Not on your nelly! Meanwhile, Nigel Featherstone (Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot) wrote in response my comment on a recent post of his:
As to the drive to and from Canberra: most of my trips are through Lake Bathurst; so amazing – all that sky!
But arriving in the ACT is always a good feeling. Though almost immediately I miss my home town.
Isn’t place interesting? So difficult to capture accurately…
These comments got me to thinking about my sense of place – and then about place in literature. First me. My love of the Australian landscape came home to me when we returned in 1985 from a two-year posting in Virginia, USA. Like most Aussies, I’d read a lot of fiction from the northern hemisphere and had somehow been imbued with the idea that the loveliest landscape is lush and green and the best houses are two-storey. After enjoying two years in such a place, I wondered how I’d feel about returning home. I needn’t have worried. We drove back into my city and it felt wonderful. I knew then that here, this browner place with its scraggly vegetation, was my place.
Now for literature. I can think of two main uses of place in literature. One is the obvious one, place as setting, as background for the action. I enjoy reading good descriptions of place, and have shared some in my reviews. My favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to “feel” and “see” the place and its impact on the characters. A favourite example is the opening paragraph of Charles ‘ Bleak House. It’s hard to forget London and its fogs after that.
The other use, though, is more complex. It’s to do with our relationship to place – the way we interact with place, the way we feel about it, the way it interacts with us.
But here’s the rub. Relationship to place is complicated in colonial/settler societies like ours, societies which have taken over someone else’s place. How do we reconcile that? There’s a fundamental conflict between our two different experiences of place, and it’s discomforting. We want to respect and better understand the original owners’ values while validating our own. Literature (and the arts in general) can help us work through these issues - by directly exposing and exploring the conflict, and more subtly by sharing our respective experiences. For literature to be effective, of course, we need universal literacy – but that’s another story.
Fortunately, more indigenous writers are being published and we are hearing their voices about land, about country. We need to hear it, we need to share and talk. In That deadman dance, Kim Scott tackles head on the issue of land and ownership, of competing values and different understandings, in the early days of settlement. Killam, the soldier, has to give up to the Governor a place he’d taken:
Mr Killam was learning what it was to have someone move in on what you thought was your very own home. He thought it was the last straw. The very last.
Meanwhile, Skelly tramps about the land with a gun in his hand, explaining:
Well, it’s not our home is it?
And entrepreneur Chaine decides, at one point, to give up his farming goal for whaling:
Whaling was better than attempting to work this land with its topsy-turvy seasons and poor soil, and there’d be trouble with the natives, farming. The best land was their land, too.
For our indigenous narrator, Bobby, land is something known, felt:
And then Bobby found a sheet of granite, and a small rock hole covered with a thin stone slab and filled with water. He crouched to it, he touched the stone, and sensed home.
In the end, of course, the “settlers” win and we descendants are left with the legacy of loving land that was not ours. Kim Scott has made an intelligent contribution to the conversation about this complex business of land.
Some years before Kim Scott’s book (2011), Andrew McGahan, a non-indigenous writer, wrote The white earth (2004), a contemporary story set on the eve of Native Title. It’s about the love of land, by both indigenous and non-indigenous people, about greed and putting money and land ahead of spiritual and emotional values. It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s a powerful read. The old grazier believes that:
Ownership could not be shared. Not the power of it, not the weight of it either. It could be crushing that weight, encompassing all the history that the land had ever witnessed, the summation of the lives and deaths of all those who had walked it before. But William [his great nephew] barely even knew the station – he hadn’t smelled it or touched it or felt the terrible age in its bones …
The irony is that this is a man who loves his land, but selfishly and greedily. There are indigenous people who own this land and Native Title is being enacted. His daughter says:
This law is brand new, it has to be interpreted by judges. Maybe the Kuran people haven’t kept up their presence, but if they argue that eighty years ago their entire male population was killed off while trying to – then what? What humane person isn’t going to consider that a reasonable excuse, no matter what the letter of the law might say?
This is a complex novel with no easy ending …
And I have ranged far from what inspired me to write this post but it comes down to this: we have a long way to go before we (non-indigenous people) can feel comfortable about our love of our place. We need the arts to help us through it … I suspect Nigel would agree.
As we were driving home from Woven Words, the most recent event associated with The invisible thread anthology, it occurred to me that the evening, which blended words with music, was rather like a three movement musical composition. It went a bit like this:
- Sara Dowse‘s bright and slightly quirky allegro
- Alex Miller‘s intense adagio
- Alan Gould‘s cheeky scherzo.
The event took place in an intimate venue in Canberra’s newest inner city precinct, New Acton, which, I understand, is positioning itself as an arts hub. Even before a fire in mid-2011 set the area back, there had been some lovely musical evenings in Flint, one of the precinct’s restaurants. The Nishi Gallery, though, is a very recent player on the block, so recent that I’m not quite sure what its long-term plans are. Last night, however, it became a delightful space in which a gathering of, guessing here, about 100 people heard three great authors read from their works, bookended by music (mostly) chosen by them and performed by local professional musicians. It was, in a word, a blast.
After some pre-show piano music performed by Adam Cook, Allegro started with the gorgeous Chanel Cole singing Kurt Weil’s “Speak Low” accompanied by Cook. Sara Dowse chose this because it was the theme song of Ava Gardner‘s film, One Touch of Venus, which is the title of Dowse’s piece in The invisible thread. In it she describes a weekend she spent with Ava Gardner when she was 7 and Gardner about 24. An unusual choice perhaps for a Canberra anthology, but the anthology isn’t solely about Canberra. Dowse’s piece is about those moments in your life in which you learn something precious and lasting. Her time with Gardner provided one of those moments for her. Her movement finished with another jazz piece performed by Cole and Cook, “Old Devil Moon”.
At question time I asked her how someone with such strong creative drive – she sings, writes and paints – ended up working in bureaucracy. She was, for those who don’t know, the first head of the Office of Women’s Affairs which was established by our new reformist Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1972. Her answer was perfect: They were very creative times, she said. Can’t argue with that. They were.
After a short break, it was time for Adagio, my least favourite movement when I was a young music-lover. I was impatient, wanted something faster, with more beat. Now, though, I’ve learnt to enjoy and love the slow and the opportunity it provides to dwell. Tonight’s Adagio provided exactly that … It was bookended by Adam Cook playing the “City of Carcosa” by Larry Sitsky and the CSO (Canberra Symphony Orchestra) String Quartet playing Samuel Barber’s elegaic “Adagio”. Alex Miller has a love-hate relationship with Canberra, mostly the latter it seems! He earned a polite but forgiving (I think) hiss from the audience when he said that no-one chooses to live in Canberra. Wrong! However, he also said that he felt privileged to be involved in the event.
Miller suggested that writers would like to write music, that music manages to express something that writers never quite achieve. Now that’s something for us to ponder. Has it to do with music being the universal language I wonder? Would all writers agree? He talked about writing – about the importance of voice, about the imagination and the act of “imagining something into being”. How to write his novel, The sitters, from which he read, came while he was sleeping on a plane flight between Los Angeles and Sydney. It is about a portrait artist, and explores the nature of “art” and the relationship between artist and subject. The reading ended on:
It’s a story not an explanation.
I like that … it sounds simple but packs a lot.
The final movement, Scherzo, belonged to poet-novelist Alan Gould. It started with CSO String Quartet performing Percy Grainger’s “Molly on the Shore”. I noticed Gould’s head, up front, bopping away just like mine. Gould read several poems starting with “The Roof Tilers” which I mentioned in a recent Monday Musings. I love that poem. Gould was an engaging reader, introducing each poem with some background. He read his most recent poem “A Rhapsody for Kenneth Slessor” and “Sea Ballad“. And concluded with two flamenco inspired poems, first describing the challenge of replicating in poetry a flamenco rhythm. He read “Flamenco Rehearsal” and “Flamenco Pair”, at times toe-tapping the rhythm as he went. Appropriately, Gould’s movement ended with guitarist Campbell Diamond performing two Spanish pieces, “Junto al Generalife” by Joaquín Rodrigo and (appropriately) “Finale” by Antonio José.
When asked, at the end, whether a sense of dislocation was important to being an artist, Gould, also a model shipmaker, said that for him it was more a sense of being “oceanic” which he described as “being at home in the unstable element”. That may be why I’m a reader not a writer!
The evening was beautifully em-ceed by ABC 666 Radio announcer, Genevieve Jacobs. She was a charming presenter who engaged well with each writer. And she managed her high heels on the tiny stage with great courage!
The evening had a few little challenges. The microphones did not properly work for the singer who opened the evening, the seats were a little hard after three hours, and the venue has just one all-purpose toilet. These were minor. Far more important was the wine! As an Anything-But-Reisling girl, I do hope a choice of white wine is offered next time …
Seriously though, it was a delightful evening. The writers were generous, the musicians superb. Irma Gold, editor of The invisible thread, is doing a stunning job of exploring and exposing the invisible threads that connect the anthology to other arts, to readers, to Canberra. It’s exciting to be part of it.
POSTSCRIPT: With thanks to Dave, of NewActon.Com, for the images.
I was lying in front of a sunny window reading my current novel this afternoon when an urge came upon me to write about one of my favourite poems. It’s one of the few I can recite from heart. The poem is “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it goes like this:
To a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Now, I know you Northern Hemisphere people are enjoying spring and looking forward to the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, but down here in the south it is autumn which is, for me and I suspect many of us, a bittersweet time. Sweet because the weather is usually mild and stable, and the light soft and warm, but bitter because there’s a chill in the air, the days are shortening and the frosts are coming. It is for this paradox – and its implications, its recognition of our mortality – that I love Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”.
What I love about this poem is what I love about Hopkins in general. Firstly there’s his heart that is so openly on show in all his poems, both the religious crisis poems and the ones about life and nature. Then there’s the tone, which is, in this poem, rather melancholic. After all, he is telling the child, Margaret, that what she’s really grieving for, though she’s unaware of it now, is her own mortality. I also love his rhythm (which he called “sprung rhythm“) and how in this poem there’s a jolt towards the end when he makes his main point. And associated with this, the rhyme, which is appropriately simple here for a poem addressed to a child. But most of all, I love his language, particularly his imagery and the neologisms (like “wanwood leafmeal”). Or, perhaps, not quite most of all … I think most of all I love the way the language so perfectly matches the heart.
The older I get, the more I understand and love this poem!
Do you have poems that come back to you again and again at different points in your life?
Dorothy Johnston‘s The house at number 10 has one of the cheekiest opening sentences I’ve read for a long time … but I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you are interested you’ll have to find out for yourselves – and tell me if you agree.
I decided to read this novel for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’d known of Dorothy Johnston since the 1980s but have only read some short stories (specifically, those in the recent Canberra-focused anthologies, The invisible thread and Meanjin’s Canberra Issue.) Secondly, I chose this particular novel because it is set in Canberra and this Centenary year I’m focusing a little, though not exclusively, on books set in Canberra or by Canberra writers.
Dorothy Johnston was a founding member of the Seven Writers, a group of women writers in Canberra who met for many years to share and critique each other’s writing. They have become the stuff of legend, at least to Canberra readers. Johnston has written several novels including four crime novels set in Canberra. She has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award – twice. But The house at number 10 is not one of her crime novels, nor one of the shortlisted novels. It is, though, a good read … and it’s time I got to it!
The novel is set in the early 1990s, on the cusp of the legalisation of the sex industry in Canberra. Its protagonist, late-twenties-something Sophie, has been left by her husband, Andrew, not for another women but for “a floating, open-ended freedom”, for “a raft of girls”. They are sharing the care of their four-year-old, rather self-possessed daughter, Tamsin, and Sophie, now living in the garden flat at the back of the old widow Mrs B’s home, needs to support herself. So she applies for a job in a small, newly established and rather shabby brothel in the suburb of Kingston, at 10 Andover Street. Hence the novel’s title. The novel explores Sophie’s various relationships – with Elise and Kirsten who work in the brothel, with Marshall the brothel owner and Elise’s partner, with her landlady, with her old friend (and architect) Ann, with a couple of her clients, and of course with her estranged husband and her daughter.
There is a little bit of the “oh what tangled webs we weave” about this novel as Sophie strives to keep her two lives separate – but Johnston is not so much interested in mysteries and intrigues here as in how we navigate complicated relationships and cope with betrayal. It’s a surprising set-up but it works, because she keeps the story grounded in the relationships and not in its potential for salaciousness.
And the relationships are what keep you reading, as Johnston slowly draws the various characters into Sophie’s new life. Ann designs a renovation for the brothel, Mrs B takes over fixing up its garden. Characters look out for each other – Kirsten deflects Marshall who is keen to try out this new “girl”, while Sophie looks out for Kirsten through a long illness; Ann and Mrs B accept Sophie’s choice, supporting her while also offering advice. Not all is rosy though. Elise is suspicious and prickly, and Ann has a little fling with Andrew, albeit with Sophie’s not-overly-happy knowledge.
Underpinning all this is a tension stemming from Sophie’s grief and anger at her abandonment. She doesn’t rant, and she holds it together in front of her daughter, but her feelings are made clear when she meets her first client:
She handed him a condom and he rolled it expertly. Now, she thought, now, as grief at her failed marriage made barriers transparent, each one constructed of material so thin she could burst through it at will. Anger welled up, and resentment and self-pity. Blame struck out and swam through the lamplight towards this stranger who wore Andrew’s hair.
It’s a dangerous game she’s playing, particularly when she takes on Jack, who is into bondage, something the brothel has not offered before. For Sophie, though, it provides an opportunity to enact revenge on Andrew, displaced though it is to Jack. She knows he’s not Andrew, but she can imagine so – and this works for a while. However, you can’t of course maintain a secret or divided life forever. Eventually the crunch comes, and Sophie risks losing what matters to her most …
Besides her sensitive characterisation, Johnston also does place well. Canberra is rightly depicted as a place in which ordinary people live and go about their business, but she also captures its particular beauty – the “flat, clean” sun which has a “greedy kind of clarity”, and the light and colours of the changing seasons that are so marked in Canberra. The house at number 10 has a character of its own – shabby, but somehow warm with its worn out armchair and cosy kitchen. Not quite what you’d expect for a brothel – though how would I know – and yet it feels true. And there’s Sophie’s garden flat with its comforting garden:
There was the dark green garden, watered to the gills, and the sense it always gave her of luxury, repleteness, a deep satisfaction with its own existence.
Johnston uses imagery lightly but effectively. Sophie’s divided life is represented by her living on one side of the lake and working on the other. We often drive with her over the lake, making the transition clear. As the novel builds to its climax, the colour “red” and words like “fire” and blood” start to appear, suggesting anger, violence (real or imagined), and revenge. Contrasted with this are references to water, primarily via the lake and a Cupid fountain bought for the brothel’s garden, implying something more female, perhaps calming but also a little mysterious. And then, throughout, there’s gardening and its association with nurture and growth, with vision and imagination.
So what really is it about? Revenge is the motive for the plot, but it is not really the theme. Rather, it’s about facing life bravely and taking risks even if you “draw blood”, about friendship and the things you do for your friends, and about love in all its guises. A quiet book, despite its subject matter, and well worth the read.