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Monday musings on Australian literature: Older women protagonists

January 21, 2019

This post was inspired by Book Word’s “older women in fiction” project, which involves her reading and posting reviews for books with older women protagonists as well as encouraging others to read these books and sharing them with her. She has quite a list on the page I’ve linked above, and is adding to it all the time. As I write, the list was updated in December 2018.

Now, her list does include a few Australian books, which I was thrilled to see, but I thought I would share my own list. It’s not a complete one – that would be impossible – but it’s intended to be indicative of what’s out there.

Of course, the big question is how do we define “older” women? Book Word uses 60+ as her definition. I think that’s a fair enough definition, so will use it too. However, I’ve had to guess at times, because in most cases, even if the age has been given I haven’t necessarily specifically noted it. Forgive me if a couple of the women below are not quite 60 yet!

My list is in alphabetical order by author (with links being to my posts). I have all of the books I list, except for Maria’s war, but some before blogging.

Older women protagonists

  • Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the river: Seventy-year-old Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home reconnects with the community she left, while also reflecting on the decisions she’d made.
  • Thea Astley, Coda: Kathleen, who’s “losing her nouns” describes herself as a “feral grandmother” and she’s not about to be pushed around by her selfish children.
  • Carmel Bird, Family skeleton: I’m not sure that Margaret O’Day’s age is given, but she’s a grandmother so let’s assume she’s in our ballpark. This book satirises middle-class family life, as Margaret works desperately to “save” the family’s image.
  • John Clanchy, Sisters: Three late middle-aged sisters get together at the request of the eldest who has more than one secret to share.
  • Brooke Davis, Lost and found: Seven-year-old Millie is joined by 82-year-old Agatha Pantha and 87-year-old Karl the Touch Typist on a wacky journey in which they all discover what it means to be human, no matter what your age.
  • Glenda Guest, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline: Sixty-something Cassie has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and before she loses her mind altogether she wants to revisit her past, and make amends if amends are indeed needed.
  • Marion Halligan, The fog garden: Writer Claire’s age is not given, and she might still be in her 50s, but her husband of 30 or so years has died and she’s confronting her grief, life as an older woman without a partner, and the opinions of others.
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Orchard thieves: An unnamed seventy-something grandmother watches over her somewhat fractious family, remembering her youthful passions and quietly hoping to impart some of the wisdom of her age.
  • Eleanor Limprecht, The passengers: Eighty-something war bride Sarah journeys to the USA, with her grand-daughter, to reconnect with her past as well as putting right some lies.
  • Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stones: Sixty-something Ro is dying of cancer, and we look back at the decisions she made, the causes that drove her and, most of all, the community of friends she has built.
  • Fiona McFarlane, Night guest: Ruth, in her mid-seventies, lives alone, having been recently widowed – until her sons arrange for a carer.
  • Amy Witting, Maria’s war: Living in a retirement home, Lithuanian migrant Maria remembers the past, and the traumas of her war experiences.

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A few observations. The themes and subject matter are generally what you’d expect – illness (dementia and cancer being the main ones) and resolving/atoning for/amending the past. That pull is interesting, isn’t it, to reflect on and put right (with yourself and/or with others) the things you did, the hurts you inflicted, the decisions you made. Several of the stories use the journey motif to convey their characters’ mental or psychological journeys to self-discovery. And … only one of the authors (in my list anyhow) is male.

Finally, I struggled to find Australian books written before the 1980s that feature older women protagonists. There must be some, but, on the evidence I have here, I can only think that the second wave of feminism has resulted in a recognition of the importance of all stories.

And now, you know what I’m going to ask! Can you add some books to the list – Aussie if you’re Aussie, or your own nationality if you’re not?

Capel Boake: Three short stories

January 20, 2019

Capel Boake, no date, presumed public domainHaving written about Capel Boake in my last Monday Musings, I couldn’t resist checking out some of her short stories. Bill’s AWW Gen 2 Week concluded yesterday, but I hope he’ll accept this post as a contribution.

Boake’s stories are easily accessible in Trove. In fact, I was spoilt for choice, so just picked three at random. By the time I’d edited three – that is, corrected the multiple OCR errors* – I felt I’d done my bit for a while and so stopped there. I can’t say whether my three chosen stories are representative of her whole output – she wrote many short stories and poems – but I’m assuming they are. All appear in newspapers – in the days when newspapers published short stories – and most were syndicated. This means the version I edited is not necessarily the original publication, but I decided not to spend time identifying this.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeThe three stories (linked to their newspaper text) are:

  • The brothers (Canowindra Star and Eugowra News, 9 January 1920): a brother returns from the war, under a cloud, having been accused by his father, before leaving, of stealing money from the family farm business. He hadn’t, but he’s not going to dob in who did.
  • The necessary third (The Australasian, 28 August 1926): a wealthy young man meets, on a steamship trip from South Africa to Melbourne, a not so well-heeled young woman, and her mother, who is ambitious for a good marriage for her daughter.
  • Jenny (Weekly Times, 21 June 1930): a poorer young woman, “a State child”, is helped by a young man to make her career as a world-famous dancer.

A propos my point above re syndication, “The brothers”, for example, was first published, according to the subscriber-only AustLit database, in The Australasian in 1919.

These are generally straightforward stories, which is not surprising given they were published in newspapers and therefore intended for a broad audience. They lack the punch of, say, Barbara Baynton’s turn-of-the-century stories, but they make interesting reading nonetheless.

Two of them are romances – or, what the Western Mail reviewer I quoted in Monday Musings called “sex stor[ies] created on conventional lines”. They draw on traditional tropes – the poor young woman with the pushy mother, and the poor young woman who becomes a star thought the assistance of a young man who loves her. And yet, these young women are not pawns, and they do exercise some agency. Paula (“The necessary third”) takes things into her own hands to protect her self-respect, while Jenny (“Jenny”) takes action to ensure that she gets what she really wants (even if what she really wants is traditional!)

The stories also provide some insight into the times. I was particularly intrigued by this comment in “Jenny”. It’s told through the eyes of the young man, and here he is watching her, now a world-renowned star, dance on her home stage:

Glancing at the absorbed faces around him, their parted lips and shining eyes, he saw she had the same effect on them. Release . . . release . . . their spirits were free for once from the tyranny of the mechanised age that had gripped the world with relentless fingers.

This, then, is not “bush realism”, but a commentary on the modern urban world. However, it was also written in 1930 – Capel Boake straddling Bill’s Gen 2 and Gen 3 periods.

A neglected woman writer

Capel Boake has been identified as one of three neglected women writers of the 1930s by Gavin De Lacy in the La Trobe Journal (vol. 83, 2009), the other two being Jean Campbell and ‘Georgia Rivers’ (pseudonym for Marjorie Clark). De Lacy says that while they were all prominent in the Melbourne literary scene in the 1930s, they have been, with the odd exception, overlooked in significant studies of Australian literature. (He’s right. I found little about Boake in my little collection of books.)

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Boake did not write many novels. Painted clay (1917) was highly praised, but only two more novels were published in her lifetime – The Romany mark in 1923 and, 13 years later in 1936, The dark thread. De Lacy quotes a contemporary critic as saying The dark thread had some shortcomings which “constant practice in the novelist’s art might have been expected to overcome.” Another critic, Frank Wilmot (writing as Furnley Maurice), compared it with Dreiser’s An American tragedy. Nettie Palmer, however, said that it wasn’t “quite a Dreiser, as Furnley suggested … but it’s very respectable.” More interesting to us, though, is contemporary critic Susan Sheridan who argued that it

provides a salutary corrective to the bourgeois family sagas of the period.

Another reason for revisiting Boake in Gen 3!

De Lacy notes that Boake, Campbell and Clarke haven’t been revived as “forgotten authors despite the recent interest in Australian women writers”. Not only are most of their books long out of print, but are “virtually unprocurable in second-hand bookshops”. An option for Text Publishing perhaps”?

He offers various reasons for this, including publishing practices at the times, but he also says that the 1930s was a “radical literary and political decade” and these three women’s novels don’t quite fit “the prevailing orthodoxy and literary preoccupations and myths of the ’30s.” Also, he says, the writers who have been remembered were mostly Sydney-oriented and associated with the New South Wales section of the Fellowship of Australia Writers. Kerr, Campbell, and Clark belong to the same period, but they

were Melbourne authors, setting their novels in that city. They were among the earliest prewar Australian writers to fictionalise an urban environment, ignoring the bush as a theme, and preceding most of their better known contemporaries in writing about the city.

Including them in our study of the era would, as he says, deepen our understanding of the history of women writers (and, thence, I’d argue, of Australian literature.) Gen 3, here we come.

* The original image of “The brothers” is so bad that I was unable to fix all the errors – that happens sometimes in Trove, newsprint not being the best quality medium for preservation.

Louise Mack, Girls together (#BookReview)

January 18, 2019

Louise Mack, Girls togetherWell, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens (see Bill’s review), and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because …

The novel starts with this paragraph:

Square and solid as ever, stood the old brown school, with the fig-trees standing in its playground. The wooded staircase was as firm as even under the rush and onslaught of hurrying feet; the sturdy gate still bore with patience the cruel slammings of girls, big and little, rushing in late when the bell had finished ringing, or hastening homewards before half the school had left the classrooms.

It goes on to describe the chaos and disorganisation attending Lennie who is running late for her train home, and has, besides, lost her ticket. I thought that I was in for a pretty traditional school story. School stories were my favourite stories when I was a young reader, but now, of course, my interests are very different. I was prepared to persevere, however, because I was reading the book for Bill’s AWW Gen 2 Week and because this is a classic written in 1898 by a too-little known Australian woman writer. (You may wonder why I specifically chose it, but it was a serendipitous decision, being one of the books I found in my late aunt’s house when I was managing her estate. Bill’s week proved the perfect opportunity to read it.)

As it turned out, the book is not a traditional school story. School is part of it, but the focus is 16-year-old Lennie at a point of transition in her life – and her relationship with her 18-year-old friend Mabel, who returns in the opening chapters from Paris and is training to be an artist. Now, Lennie belongs to the tradition of some other famous sisters – like Judy in Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians, Jo in Little women, and even, in a way, Elizabeth in Pride and prejudice. She’s impulsive more than sensible, but is loyal and generous of heart to those whom she loves. She lives with her parents (the Mother and the Doctor), her big brother Bert who is at University, and her little sisters, sensible Floss, gentle obedient Mary and the youngest, 11-year-old Brenda, who is observant, quick and a bit naughty. I’m sure you can recognise some of these “types”.

There is a marriage plot – but not for Lennie. This is more a coming-of-age book than a romance: it’s about Lennie’s transition from self-focused girlhood to adulthood and its associated more mature world-view. This, Mack handles nicely. Her characters may be recognisable types – but they are also individualised. Mack captures how girls feel, how they relate to each other authentically. Here is Lennie meeting her friend Mabel after two years’ separation:

You see they merely hovered on the outskirts of all they meant to say, touching things lightly, with the shyness of their reunion still lingering around lips and eyes. But as the twilight deepened, and darkness came softly into the bedroom, laughs grew more and more frequent with them.

But, there are many writers who capture relationships and communication well. What makes this book particularly interesting to read for us, now – and here I’m repeating the point made by Bill – is the social history, the picture Mack paints of 1890s Sydney, including a reference to the Banking Crisis of 1893.  The reference is brief, but it is used as a plot point in the trajectory of Lennie’s life.

More interesting, though, is the discussion of gender. Louise Mack was not, I understand, an activist in the Australian suffrage movement but she was part of the “women-oriented culture” which was becoming increasingly visible from the 1890s. Gender issues, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, underpin much of what happens in Girls together. Indirectly, it’s there, for example, in an assumption that “girls” can go to university. Whether they should or shouldn’t isn’t even discussed. It’s just assumed that they can. Direct references, though, abound. Mabel’s art teacher in Paris tells her:

‘When you go back to Australia, Mees, you just take care you do not marry, for eef you marry you will never paint better than you do now.’

And the girls themselves frequently discuss gender issues, sometimes with Lennie’s brother Bert. There’s a discussion about ambition where Bert suggests that Mabel and Lennie talk about it constantly while men, he says, never do. Does this reflect women’s increasing awareness that they can have goals beyond the domestic? There’s a reference to Lennie’s mother’s anxiety about the potential for girls failing in their push for “public” careers, and, being a woman of her times, she “would have kept them back from success rather than let them face the chance of failure.” All this is told naturally, not melodramatically, giving a realistic sense of a normal family facing changing times. We see parents having their thoughts and concerns, but supporting their children, rather than opposing them.

Nonetheless, this is a book of the 1890s. So, when Lennie is told by Mabel’s art teacher – a character respected in the novel – that “It’s better to be a good woman than a great one, little girl … unless you can be both”, I wondered what Mack really saw as options for her heroine.

All I can say is that the novel has an open ending. This may be because Mack planned to write more about the family – and she did write a third novel, Teens triumphant, in 1933 – but perhaps it also reflects an awareness that girls’ lives aren’t complete at the age of 17 or so, and that Lennie still has a chance at greatness!

Finally, there are lovely descriptions of Sydney, but again this is not overdone. In this week’s Monday Musings, I quoted a reviewer writing in 1917 that Capel Boake had “not made the mistake, very common with our writers, of painting in the ‘local colour’ so heavily that the human element in the picture is lost in what we may call a superficial provincialism of incident and characterisation.” Well, neither did Mack make this mistake, some twenty years earlier. The colour is there and is lovely, but is used sparingly to set the scene – and perhaps convey some attendant emotions:

The year was at September, when suddenly Summer came stepping down from her niche among the seasons, and ousted Spring before her time was well begun. The hot winds from the great inland plains of New South Wales blew down over the mountains to this city at the Harbour’s edge, and suddenly everyone woke from their winter cosiness, and furs and fires, and delightful nights, to find that the time for sleeping was over, and the restless nights and long, trying days of the Australian summer-time had come again, long before their time was due.

Girls together is an entertaining, refreshingly written story that clearly draws on Mack’s own experiences and concerns. It also reflects the social consciousness for which the period is well-known and, as an urban novel, it offers an antidote to the “bush realism” school which largely typifies Bill’s Gen 2 period. Well worth reading if you get the opportunity.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeLouise Mack
Girls together
London: The Pilgrim Press [n.d]
[first pub. 1898]

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)

January 17, 2019

Late last year I hosted a review of Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic by Amanda who had responded to my call on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for reviews of it and Jamie Marina Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island, which won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Readings Residency Award, and was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.  Amanda offered to write reviews of both, and so, as with Axiomatic, I am hosting Amanda’s review, so that it can then be added to the AWW database. Thanks very much – again – Amanda!

Synopsis of Pink Mountain on Lotus Island

From publisher The Lifted Brow’s website:

“Monk lives in Chinatown with her washed-up painter father. When Santa Coy—possible boyfriend, potential accomplice—enters their lives, an intoxicating hunger consumes their home. So begins a heady descent into art, casino resorts, drugs, vacant swimming pools, religion, pixelated tutorial videos, and senseless violence.”

Amanda’s review

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Lotus IslandTwenty-year-old Lau’s debut novel is simultaneously innovative, surreal, disjointed and funny. At her best she writes like a stand-up routine; at her worst, though, she veers into the bizarre and nonsensical: “cardigan metropolis and a hushed voice millennia”; “he was in a creme brulee mood”. I don’t get it either. The chapters are divided into numerous short vignettes and sequences, some only a sentence long and follow a linear timeline. It’s a book for the social media and internet age – perhaps written for those just getting used to reading serious prose after the word limits on Twitter.

Its protagonist Monk is 15, and living with her Xanax-addicted former Art lecturer Dad after the departure of her Mum. It could be set in any urban metropolis with a bustling Chinatown. Along comes the love interest Santa Coy (also a developing artist) and then things get complicated.

There is a narrative though that can be followed, and it is cinematic so you can visually follow her discussions around what makes Art and what people will sacrifice for it, the difficulties of human relationships, and cross cultural complexities.

Food is another obsession – its preparation, consumption, description of, e.g. Yum Cha – and some bizarre discussions. What is the difference physically and philosophically between turnips and yams? Turnips are lively and yams are brooding. Obviously, if you didn’t know this you have to visit the same supermarkets as Monk does. [Haha, love this Amanda.]

Some plot twists are unbelievable and her non-traditional use of metaphors and language often fall flat. Lau (who also makes music under the pseudonym ZK King, hence the musical references in the novel) stated in an interview that she often has several browsers open while writing – reading articles, listening to music etc – and this multimedia multi-tasking is what comes across in her writing and original use of language.

Lau described Monk as the most sincere female character she had created – and that is the strength of this novel, Lau’s authentic portrayal of her teenage Monk as a composite of angst, joy, confusion, curiosity and strength. You just need to get through some bizarre distractions to discover this.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJamie Marina Lau
Pink Mountain on Locust Island
Brow Books, 2018
ISBN: 9780994606884

Indie Books Awards shortlist, 2019, announced

January 16, 2019

And so it, starts, the Literary Awards trail! Early in the year will be the Stella Prize, but first up is the Indie Book Awards. These are lovely awards, because they are run by Australia’s Independent Booksellers – who are members of Leading Edge Books – and we love to support them don’t we? Consequently, I’ve decided to share them this year. (I don’t list every award, every year, but just select a few to give a flavour to the year’s Awards scene!)

The Press Release I received reminds us of the Awards’s role and history. They were established in 2008, and, they say, have developed “a well-deserved reputation for picking the best of the best in Australian writing”. They “recognise and celebrate this country’s incredible talent and the role independent booksellers play in supporting and nurturing Australian writing.”

Past Book of the Year winners have gone on to be bestsellers and win other major literary awards, and include Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things by Charlotte Wood (my review); Don Watson’s The bush (on my TBR); Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (my review); Anna Funder’s All that I am (still on my TBR); Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (read before blogging); and Tim Winton’s Breath (my post).

The shortlisted books have been nominated by independent booksellers, but the winners in each category will be selected by judging panels. The booksellers, though, get to vote for their favourites in each category too. And, there is also an overall Book of the year which is what those examples I mentioned above won.)

The list seems a reasonable one though we could make the usual comments about diversity. There’s not a lot of it here, though indigenous writers (Marcia Langton, and Ambelin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina) appear in the categories I haven’t listed here.

The shortlist


  • Jane Harper’s The lost man (Macmillan Australia)
  • Kristina Olsson’s Shell (Scribner Australia) (Lisa’s review)
  • Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • Markus Zusak’s Bridge of clay (Picador Australia)


  • Richard Glover’s The land before avocado (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia): Mr Gums is reading this now
  • Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist (Penguin Random House Australia) (Lisa’s review)
  • Bri Lee’s Eggshell skull (Allen & Unwin)
  • Leigh Sales’ Any ordinary day (Penguin Random House Australia)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeDebut fiction

  • Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (HarperCollins Australia): I’ll be reading this month
  • Chris Hammer’s Scrublands (Allen & Unwin)
  • Heather Morris’s The tattooist of Auschwitz (Echo Publishing) (Lisa’s review)
  • Christian White’s The nowhere child (Affirm Press)

There are also shortlists for Illustrated non-fiction, Children’s and Young Adult. For the full list, check out the website

The Winners will be announced on Monday 18 March, 2019 at the Leading Edge Books Annual Conference Awards Dinner, in Adelaide, SA.

The Indie Book Awards list their main sponsors for these awards: Peribo, Pan Macmillan Australia, Affirm Press, Allen & Unwin, Thames & Hudson Australia, Hardie Grant Egmont, Text Publishing, and Awards partner: Books+Publishing.  

Good Australian writing needs good Australian bookshops to prosper. Without them Australian writers are one more endangered species whose bush has been bulldozed.
(Richard Flanagan, Indie Book Awards 2014 Book of the Year,
The narrow road to the deep north)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Capel Boake

January 14, 2019

This week Bill (The Australian Legend) is following up last January’s Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week with a Gen 2 Week, this one highlighting Australian women writers from 1890 to 1918. He takes his inspiration from HM Green’s A history of Australian literature, which characterises 1890-1923 as a period of “Self-conscious Nationalism”, the time of “bush realism”.

Anyhow, I will, of course, be contributing a review for this, but later in the week. In the meantime, as I did last year, I’m devoting a Monday Musings to a writer of the period, though unlike last year, not for the writer I’m reviewing. That’s because she, Louise Mack, already has a Monday Musings to her name. Today’s featured writer, then, is the unusually named Capel Boake.

Who was Capel Boake?

Capel Boake, no date, presumed public domainLike last year’s Tasma, Capel Boake is a pseudonym. Her real name was Doris Boake Kerr. She was born in Sydney in 1889, to Australian-born parents, and died in Victoria in 1944. She wrote under two pseudonyms, Capel Boake and Stephen Grey (the latter for collaborative works with poet, Bernard Cronin).

Although born in Sydney, she apparently spent most of her life – including most of her childhood – in Melbourne. She left school early, and worked as a shop assistant, secretary, librarian and book-keeper. Arnold in the Australian dictionary of biography, quotes Boake as saying that she was “self-educated at the Prahran Public Library”.

Her uncle was the respected poet, Barcroft Boake, who committed suicide in 1892 at the age of 26. His father, and Boake’s grandfather, was Barcroft Capel Boake, the Capel apparently reflecting their Welsh heritage.

Boake never married, and lived in the family home in Caulfield. The Australasian article, cited under Sources below, says that she liked swimming, fires and grilled chops on the beach, billy tea, and gardening.

Most relevant to us though is that, as another article says, she was “well-known in literary circles.” This included being active in P.E.N. International, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and a foundation member of the Society of Australian Authors. She worked at one stage as a secretary to J. K. Moir about whom I’ve written before: he founded Melbourne’s Bread and Cheese Club, and was an impressive book-collector who created “one of the finest private libraries of Australian literature ever assembled”.

What did she write?

There is far less written about Boake, than there was about last year’s Tasma, but I did find some info in Trove, particularly in The Australasian’s Australian Writers Series (cited below). It reports that

Writing has always been in her blood, and from her earliest years she has felt the urge to express herself through the written word. But she remembers her first published story, which appeared in “The Australasian” in 1917. From then on she wrote a number of stories and poems for “The Australasian.”

So, she wrote short stories, poetry, and articles, but her favourite medium was apparently the novel. Her first, Painted clay, brought her “definite recognition as a serious writer”. Yet, she only wrote four novels, one of which was published posthumously:

  • Painted clay (1917, reprinted by Virago, 1986)
  • The Romany mark (1923)
  • The dark thread (1936)
  • The twig is bent (Sydney, 1946, posthumous)

Wikipedia says that her “subject matter included the options available to women in the early twentieth century, circus life, and early Melbourne history.” What Wikipedia doesn’t say, but The Australasian does, is that The dark thread 

tells of the growth of Jewish national feeling in a boy, the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, who, living in Australia but going to the war and later learning of the establishment of the Jews in Palestine, felt the urge to go there as a unit of the Jewish nation. The idea of the theme came to Capel Boake when staying in the country, in hearing from a Jewish hawker some of his hopes and aspirations.

Interesting, huh?

Painted clay

Capel Boake, Painted clayGiven Painted clay is the only novel that officially falls within Bill’s Gen 2 period, I’ll conclude with two contemporary comments on it. The Western Mail describes it thus:

It is a sex story created on conventional lines. If there be still a demand for this type of fiction, this new nation under the Southern Cross may as well make its contribution. This is a story of city life, every word of which might well be true. It is original only in the sense that every individual life is original, and a bringing together of a number of lives in a novel may be done without either much originality or imagination. Neither of these qualities are conspicuous, yet the story is well written and suggests talent for better things. Helen is a really fine character, and capable of better things than the author gave her to do.

Positive, but not completely so. Interestingly, the article seems to pretty much tell the whole story. No worries about spoilers then?

The Australasian’s reviewer was a little more expansive, albeit also noting faults. S/he starts, however, by mentioning that the novel is wholly a product of Australia and says that its typography and format are “a credit to its publishers”. S/he then continues:

As might be expected in a first effort of the kind, the story is not free from certain crudities of thought and occasional lapses in craftsmanship, but it has, on the other hand, decided merits which raise it far above the average of Australian novels, and justify one in expecting much from Miss Boake in the days to come. It is a real attempt to present a faithful picture of life in a Melbourne setting. The authoress has not made the mistake, very common with our writers, of painting in the “local colour” so heavily that the human element in the picture is lost in what we may call a superficial provincialism of incident and characterisation. [my emphasis] In other words, while rightly choosing for her story a setting with which she is familiar, she uses the setting merely as a medium for explaining general truths of the interaction of human nature and life experiences as she understands them. It follows, therefore, that the interest of her story does not lie in sensational happenings or in the surface peculiarities of habits or manners on this continent or any particular part of it, but in the quality of her characters and the manner in which they react to their environment. The defects in her work are obviously the result of her own as yet somewhat restricted experience of life, and not of wrong method of attack, or misguided imagination, or a striving after meretricious effects. Their cause is consequently one that time should cure.

Such a lovely detailed analysis.

Anyhow, it sounds like Boake is worth checking out. How great that Virago reissued her, choosing this novel, I presume, because, as ADB’s John Arnold writes, it’s about “a shop assistant’s fight for independence in a period when menial work or marriage were the only choices for a majority of young women.” Not all Gen 2 writers were about “bush realism” it seems.


Arnold, John. ‘Kerr, Doris Boake (1889–1944)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 2000.

‘Australian Writers Series: Doris Kerr, as “Capel Boake,” adds lustre to a name already known in literature’, The Australasian, 27 May 1939.


Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (#BookReview)

January 13, 2019

Maria Tumarkin, AxiomaticA couple of weeks ago, I posted a guest post by Amanda for Maria Tumarkin’s book of essays, Axiomatic. At the time that post was negotiated, I had no immediate plans to read the book myself, but that changed when Brother Gums and family gave me a copy for Christmas …

Now, if you are a regular reader here, you may remember that Amanda had mixed feelings about the book. She liked the writing, and found the analysis was “at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues”. But, she found the book “unrelenting”, “not balanced or fair”, and ultimately nihilistic in not offering hope or, to put it simply, ways forward. She concluded by asking what Tumarkin wanted to achieve with the book. Having now read the book, all of these comments make sense to me, but my response is more positive. Perhaps it’s because this Ukrainian-born Australian Tumarkin reminds me of Helen Garner whose bold, clear-eyed writing about tricky subjects I greatly appreciate. Indeed, Garner is quoted on the back of my edition, describing Tumarkin as charging “headlong into the worst and best of us, with an iron refusal to soften or decorate…” That’s Garner, and that’s Tumarkin.

Axiomatic comprises five long essays, each interrogating an axiom:

  • time heals all wounds
  • those who forget the past are condemned to re–––––
  • history repeats itself
  • give me a child before the age of seven and I will show you the woman
  • you can’t enter the same river twice

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Tumarkin doesn’t unquestionably accept these axioms, showing them instead to be simplistic or misguided, if not, false.

In the first essay, she explores the notion that “Time heals all wounds” through the prism of teenage suicide. At one point she references psychologist Erminia Colucci’s study of “attitudes to suicide and suicidal thoughts among young people in Italy, Australia, India”, and adds, in parentheses:

(There are intellectually rigorous reasons for her choice of countries. There are lovely simple ones too: ‘I am Italian. I love Australia. I am fascinated by India.’)

This description could also be applied to Tumarkin’s rather idiosyncratic approach to her book. There is intellectual rigour – at least to the best of my knowledge and experience – but it also frequently feels personal, subjective, drawing on stories that interest her, that relate to her experiences, and that may not, initially anyhow, seem the most obvious choices. A lot of names – like Colucci’s, for example – are given, but this is not a foot-noted academic book, so you need to use your search engine if you want to check out the authorities she invokes. All this suggests that the book belongs to the creative non-fiction genre, one for which Garner, too, is well recognised. Amanda described Tumarkin’s writing as “a powerful composite of investigative journalism, analytical thinking and literary technique”. I’d agree, and add “personal reflection”.

But, now, how to discuss this complicated, rather slippery book? Discuss each of the essays, teasing out the ideas Tumarkin explores? Choose just one essay, and use it to discuss Tumarkin’s approach? Or, just focus on some specific aspects of the book that stood out for me? I’m opting for the latter.

What most appealed to me is the iconoclastic way Tumarkin thinks, the way she looks behind the assumptions we make, confronting the platitudes, or the way she asks questions from different (but often logical) angles. Regarding adolescent suicide in “Time heals all wounds”, for example, she identifies the nature of adolescence itself:

… one of adolescence’s constants is not knowing what’s happening inside you. And by extension not knowing what you’re capable of.

How do schools, society, handle this inherently unstable nature of adolescence? Then there’s the current “untreated depression” model of suicide causation, an explanation more common, Colucci tells her, in Australia than in Italy and India. What are the implications of this? This is a powerful essay – offering no resolution or answers. Just questions. I’d argue, though, that there’s value in that. Without asking the right questions, there can be no answers?

In “History repeats itself”, Tumarkin applies her pen to the justice system and the way it treats “offenders”, the way it assumes that they’ll re-offend, and then behaves, treats them, accordingly. It’s devastating – and certainly discomforts those of us, including herself she admits, living “cushy middle-class” lives.

Tumarkin discusses how offenders fall through the cracks. For example, she writes:

It’s a real issue, how to keep people real. And not make them into catchphrases for banners, appendixes to principles … Many of those who advocate on behalf of others don’t want a connection with those they are advocating for.

And yet, there are paradoxes, she sees, in connecting. Beware what you start if you can’t see it through. What, for example, does giving up drugs do to a person whose whole life is bound up in that community? What indeed? Do you have an answer?

(An aside: I can’t resist mentioning here that the idea of “connecting” recurs several times in the book, reminding me of EM Forster’s Howards End and its theme, “only connect”.)

Then there’s the notion of “knowing [my emphasis] your life is precious” and the assumption that that is “the default state of the human psyche”. But

How about all those people for whom their life does not feel precious? Why not is often the easy bit to get [and she then catalogues the reasons why not]. A harder question is can the feeling your life’s worth shit be fixed, whether from outside in, or inside out? Can it? All the services offering legal aid, food, counselling, employment (tedious employment), shelter, they cannot get close to this worth-shit feeling … I mean this feeling’s impervious to being messed with, it is too deep and diffused … And when this feeling is there it skews the survival instinct  …

“History repeats itself” also provides examples of another feature of the book – its writing. There are perfect (often gut-wrenching) descriptions like this:

Perhaps one way of putting it is that many of Vanda’s [her main “guide” in this essay] clients live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks. As they are bandaging their wounds, cleaning them out with rainwater, putting bones back into sockets, another truck’s coming.

Beyond this, the writing is varied, and rather eccentric, slipping from formal perfection, dialogue and narrative, to, at times, idiosyncratic syntax and punctuation that stop you in your tracks, forcing you to think about what she is saying. Compounding this are digressions and odd juxtapositions which also keep the grey matter exercised.

There is so much more to say about the content, style, thought processes, and inspirations for the book, not to mention the ‘yes’ moments – so many of those – but I’ll close with what I see as a unifying idea running through the five essays – the past. How the past affects us, how we perceive and deal with it. I’m not sure I fully grasped her meaning on one reading – and maybe there is no one meaning. But I sense she’s saying that although the past is significant, although it doesn’t “disappear”, we are not – to quote one of her contacts – “all sum totals of our histories.” That idea is too simplistic – and yet is the way it is too often viewed, which limits us, repeatedly, in our interactions with each other, personally, politically and systemically.

Axiomatic is, for me, a compassionate work. While Amanda sees it as lacking hope, I see it as realistic. True, it doesn’t offer answers. As Vanda says, “there are no fairytale endings.” Why not, Tumarkin asks. “Because,” replies Vanda, “people are people.” And that, I’d say, is the fundamental humanity of this slippery, uncomfortable, provocative book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMaria Tumarkin
Brow Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781925704051