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Emily O’Grady, The yellow house (#BookReview)

November 16, 2018

Emily O'Grady, The yellow houseAlthough Emily O’Grady’s debut novel The yellow house won this year’s prestigious The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35, I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like it. I think this was because I was feeling I’d read a surfeit of books this year about young people living challenging lives in rural settings – Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review), Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review). I wasn’t sure this was going to have anything new to offer.

However, it wasn’t long before ten-year-old Cub’s voice got me in and I realised that this book had a different spin again, which is that it explores how families of violent or sociopathic criminals, like serial killers, cope in the long years after it all comes to light. It’s a coming-of-age story, in a way, but a very different one. Cub, then, is our narrator. She lives on a “lonely property bordering an abandoned cattle farm and knackery” (back blurb) with her twin bother Wally, her 17-year-old brother Cassie whom she adores, and her parents, Colin and Christine. Within sight of their home is “the yellow house” in which her maternal grandfather, Les, had lived. He had died two years before the Cub and Wally were born – and in the prologue we learn that he had been a serial murderer of young women. The prologue closes with a now wiser Cub telling us:

Now, I know everything he did trickled down and created us all, because it turned out he was the god of all our lives.

So we know at the beginning something that Cub doesn’t know when the narrative “really” starts. Why does O’Grady take this approach? I’m guessing it’s to focus us less on that plot. We know what Cub doesn’t know – or at least enough of it. We can therefore focus on how a family lives with this knowledge rather than on trying to work out, as Cub has to do, what the secret is. It makes Cub a perfect naive narrator: she has the curiosity and loyalty of a child but lacks the wisdom necessary to make the right calls. There’s an added complexity to Cub’s situation which increases her isolation: everyone else in the family knows, including her twin brother. Cub wasn’t told because she’s a girl. It’s no coincidence that she, Coralie, has a baby-ish nickname, while her twin brother doesn’t.

The novel proper starts when Cub is approaching 11 years old, and her aunt, Helena, and 11-and-a-half-year-old cousin, Tilly, move into the yellow house. Tilly’s father, Dermott, we’ve already been told, had driven his car into the dam some time ago and died. It is Helena and Tilly’s appearance which sparks the events that play out in the rest of the novel, events that are “driven” by that violent forbear whose “rotten blood” is in their veins, whose legacy they struggle to shake off.

It’s a horrifying novel. We realise early on that the family is ostracised by the community in which they live, and is struggling emotionally. Cub’s Dad does his best to keep them together but is ill-equipped for the challenge he faces, while her Mum also does her best in her own way, but regularly takes to her bed, with various malaises, many depression-based presumably. Cub and Wally have no other friends at school, something Cub doesn’t fully cotton on to, but we do:

The kids at school were strange; Wally and I played by ourselves at lunchtime, always paired up when we did partner work.

Cub is consequently desperate to make Tilly, so close in age, her friend:

I tried to think of something else to say. I knew we had one chance to make a good impression and I didn’t want to waste it. But the silence felt as deep as the dam, impossible to swim out of. I was annoyed at myself for not practising with the girls at school. I should’ve been prepared.

But, it never quite works. Tilly, dangerously – she’s too much like her mother, Cub’s Mum hints at one stage – is more interested in boys. And, there are boys – besides Wally. There’s Cassie, and his creepy friend Ian. Tilly, like Cub, doesn’t know the story of the “yellow house” and her mother is determined to keep it that way.

The story develops slowly, chillingly, and, it feels, inevitably, as the secrets, parental inadequacy, community prejudice and cold opportunism combine to result in … I’d like to say more, but perhaps should not spoil the plot.

This is not a novel in which everything is explained – as can be typical of naive narrator stories – but there seems to be a specific intention here. At least, I’d say that O’Grady’s aim is not to tease out all the possibilities and permutations of the situation, nor to follow the more usual crime fiction path of restoring order out of chaos. Instead, it’s to encourages us, at each point, to consider what might be happening, why it might be happening, and what might make (or have made) it happen differently. That gives the book a power that those more traditional crime novels don’t have.

Besides this open-endedness which kept me engaged and pondering throughout, there’s O’Grady’s writing. It’s not tricky. There’s quite a bit of dialogue and simple description of what’s going on, as you’d expect, rather than a lot of reflection, but O’Grady has some lovely turns of phrase. At one point Cub is near Cassie’s friend Ian:

Now that I was right up close to him I didn’t know what to do; it was like my brain was wrapped in sticky tape and I couldn’t think properly.

The language and imagery, as this example shows, are appropriate for Cub’s age. And there’s the “yellow house” itself. Yellow has so many connotations. It can suggest something warm, bright, cheery, hopeful, but is also the colour of cowardice and deceit, and can convey sickness. The contrast between these positive and negative meanings of the title underpin the novel’s horror.

Why read this novel? There’s the obvious reason that it explores a subject that many of us must wonder about when we hear of violent crimes – how does the wider family cope, what happens to them? And there’s the associated reason that in so doing it might encourage us to think more empathetically if we found such a family in our midst. But, besides that, it’s an engaging debut novel by a new young writer from whom we will hopefully hear more. It’s always exciting to be in there at the start.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Badge 2018Emily O’Grady
The yellow house
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760632854

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Barbara Jefferis Award and negative depictions of women

November 12, 2018

A month ago, blogger Kim Forrester (Reading Matters) tweeted “I’ve stopped reading books where a woman being murdered is the plot point. Let’s change the story.” I thought this was interesting, but didn’t think a lot about it at the time because I read very little crime (though I do watch some). However, I was reminded of it when, last week, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) brought my attention to this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award and the judging panel’s comment on the submitted books – but first some background.

The Barbara Jefferis Award has very specific criteria:

“the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

In other words, it is not the sex of the writer that’s relevant here (nor, in fact, the genre). This award is for books about women and girls, but it must also present them in a positive or empowering way. It was controversial at the time it was established. I remember it well because I created the Wikipedia article on it. I noted that journalist and literary editor Susan Wyndham had asked whether Australia needed a new fiction award encouraging ‘positive’ portrayals of women and girls, or whether it’s “an outdated gesture in a post-feminist culture rich with female authors, characters and readers?” And then I continued with:

Several writers have supported the award, including Tom Keneally, Helen Garner, Frank Moorhouse, Gerald Murnane, Anne Deveson, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Brian Castro. However, writer and critic, Andrew Reimer dislikes the idea of focusing on “social agenda” over “novelist’s skill and imagination”, and novelist Emily McGuire agreed, stating that she doesn’t “like the idea of judging fiction based on its message”. Author and critic, Debra Adelaide, expressed her concern that the award might encourage “safe and constrained” writing and wondered whether “we are getting to the point where we have more awards than publishing opportunities”.

Libby Angel, The trapeze actJumping ten or so years later to the 2018 award, here is The Sydney Morning Herald’s report after the announcement of Libby Angel’s The trapeze act as winner:

Among a record number of books entered for the $55,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, a surprising number featured domestic violence, death or the subjugation of women, according to judge Sandra Yates, running contrary to the prize’s explicit criteria.

The first three books Yates read from the longlist saw one woman burnt at the stake, one woman pushed off a cliff and the other a victim of domestic violence.

“We were surprised, I have to say, that so many even in the longlist seemed to have such dark, negative portrayals of women in them,” she said. “We [women] don’t need any more books about our capacity to endure, I think we have established that.”

Reporting this, Lisa commented “So I am not the only one sick-and-tired of the current crop of misery memoirs and novels featuring women as victims…”

I don’t feel as strongly as Lisa about the “current crop” of books, but I am interested in the wider issue at play here, which I’d break down into three main questions:

  • How do we define positive, empowering representation?
  • Is there, currently, a prevalence of negative representations?
  • Should writers conform to a “social agenda”?

I’m not sure whether there is a definition for the judges to work with – and would be interested to hear from Dorothy Johnston who wrote a guest post here on judging this award –  but I’d define positive, or empowering depictions of women and girls as those in which women are able to exert some sort of agency in their lives. This could include Lisa’s “misery memoirs” if, as often happens, they end with the woman rising above the challenges (the violence, the abuse, the poverty, the illness – whatever the initial misery is) to take control. There can be a fine line here, though, between Yates’ notion of “enduring” and the idea of being, or becoming, empowered.

To be simplistic, we could say that, in the context of this award’s requirements, there are three “types” of books depicting women: those whose portrayals are positive (or, “ultimately” positive); those whose portrayals are neutral, that is, they are just about women getting on with the normal business of life; and those in which woman are essentially victims, with no agency to improve their lot.

Looking at the novels I’ve read that feature women and/or girls and were published between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2017, I would say that most – by my definition, anyhow – would fall into the first two “types”. These books include:

  • Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (my review)
  • Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne (my review)
  • John Clanchy’s Sisters (my review)
  • Claire Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review)
  • Madelaine Dickie’s Troppo (my review) (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis’ Award)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review)
  • Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (my review)
  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (my review)
  • Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review)
  • Catherine Mackinnon’s Storyland (my review)
  • Emily Maguire’s An isolated incident (my review)
  • Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (my review)
  • Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The paper house (my review)
  • Ariella van Luyn’s Treading the air (my review)

Not all of these are simple, positive depictions, but their women are not all victims, albeit some are certainly challenged by the decisions they’ve made. I know from experience, however, that my definition of “positive” is not universal, and that I see hope where others don’t. Laguna’s The choke, for example, is undeniably grim – but Laguna believes in offering hope, and, whether or not you like the ending, it is intended to be hopeful.

The only book I’ve read from this period which, by my definition, would not meet the Award’s positive depiction criterion is Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). That girl tries, but is ultimately powerless and so done in by men with power over her.

So, I don’t necessarily agree that the majority of current books – at least those I’ve read – focus on women as victims. Many of the female protagonists may commence as victims – like Laguna’s Justine or the two protagonists in Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (published in 2015) – but most of the books are about confronting problems, not simply succumbing to them and enduring.

As for whether writers should conform to a social agenda, my simplistic answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that a social-agenda based award is, in itself, wrong. It just means that it would be unwise for an author to write to an award whose requirements didn’t align with what they wanted to say. We have in fact many social-agenda oriented awards – the Stella Prize and the David Unaipon Award being just two examples.

How would you define “positive depiction”, and what do you think about the current crop of novels (regardless of where you live)?

Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 1 to 3

November 11, 2018

I’m not sure how long Non-fiction November has been happening in the blogosphere, but I first became aware of it last year. It runs for a month, with a different set of questions posed for each week of the month. Last year I concatenated my responses into two posts, one for weeks 1 to 3, and the other for weeks 4 to 5. I’m going to do the same this year.

The meme is jointly hosted this year by Katie (Doing Dewey), Lory (Emerald City Book Review), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Rachel (Hibernator’s Library) and Julz (Julz Reads).

Week 1: (Oct 31-Nov 4) (KatieYour Year in Nonfiction: 

There are several questions for this week, but, like last year, I’m just going to answer a couple …

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Now, last year, I read a disproportionate amount of non-fiction (in terms of my reading preferences, that is), and said that I would like to right the balance somewhat this year. I like non-fiction – a lot – but I don’t want it to overtake fiction as it nearly did last year. Well, this year I sure have righted it, with, so far, non-fiction representing around 15% of my reading to date – mostly biographies and autobiographies/memoirs.

There are three standouts: Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review), Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (my review), and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review). If I were forced to choose just one, I would have to go for The trauma cleaner for the sheer chutzpah of its subject against terrible odds and for the clever structure Krasnostein uses to tell the story.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? 

The same as last year – literary biographies – closely followed by Australian history.

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) – (Rachel) Choosing Nonfiction

Again, there are several questions and I’ll share them all: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of EurekaThese are complex questions that could take a whole post, but I’m going to keep it succinct, with the following answer encompassing the first three questions above! The two main things I look for in a non-fiction book are subject matter and engaging style. For example, I like biographies (particularly of writers and achieving women) and Australian history, but I don’t like dry factual this-happened-and-then-that-happened writing. I particularly like something called creative non-fiction. However, while I want to be engaged, I also want to feel that the writing is authoritative so I like to see the author’s sources. Clare Wright’s histories, such as The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review) and You daughters of freedom, are excellent examples. Wright writes with the narrative instincts of a novelist and yet her claims and statements are thoroughly cited.

Covers are never hugely important to me in selecting books. Of course, a good cover can catch my eye, but I will never buy a book by its cover. With fiction, it’s the author or a recommendation from a person I respect, that will decide me once I’ve seen the book. With non-fiction, the cover is even less important to me, which is just as well, because in general I’ve found non-fiction covers to be less interesting. Non-fiction covers seem more literal, more determined to capture the “facts” of the book – an image of the subject of the biography for example or of a war scene for a war history – whereas fiction covers can get a little more creative and look to capture an emotional response rather than depict content.

PS I also like Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She could write about grass growing and I’d be there.

Week 3: (Nov 14 – 18) – (Sarah) Book Pairing

I’m a bit ahead of the game here, but as I’ll be away from November 14 to 16, I’m going to sneak in my response now. The challenge is to pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction one – via whatever sort of connection seems fit. I loved this challenge last year, and found it fun again this year.

My pair is:

Yes, it is Clare Wright’s latest history, You daughters of freedom, which I’m still reading, and EM Forster’s Howard’s End which I reviewed just a week or so ago. You daughters of freedom is about the achievement of women’s suffrage in Australia, from the late 19th to early 20th century, and the role Australian suffragists played in worldwide suffrage movements, particularly in England.

Howards End was published in 1910, and its two main female characters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are well aware of and support women’s suffrage, though, as you’d expect from their personalities, Margaret is the one who is clearer about its meaning and impact. The novel opens with Helen writing from Howards End where Mr Wilcox easily demolishes her arguments for suffrage and equality:

He says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I’ve never had. … I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn’t point to a time when men had been equal, or even to a time when the wish to be equal and made them happier in other ways. I couldn’t say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book – probably from poetry, or you.

Later, when Margaret holds a luncheon party in Mrs Wilcox’s honour, suffrage and women’s rights come up. Margaret sees the issue as wider than just “the vote”:

“Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may…”

Howards End provides a fascinating study of England during this time of political and social change – and gender is one of the issues which recurs throughout.

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stones (#BookReview)

November 9, 2018

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stonesIn her latest novel Big rough stones, Margaret Merrilees seems to have done for Australian lesbians what Armistead Maupin did for the American gay community in his Tales of the city series. It is the story, spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, of a character named Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. In so doing, it also encompasses some of the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.

Now, Merrilees has appeared here before – with her debut novel The first week (my review) and in my post on her essay about non-indigenous writers writing about indigenous people. I’ll return to this point later …

The novel’s title comes from Miriel Lenore’s poem, “the walls of lesbos”, which is quoted at the beginning of the book. It starts:

to build a lesbian wall
take big rough stones

don’t cut to fit

The poem concludes with the idea that the strength of the wall lies in the combination of the places where the stones touch and the gaps between. This idea perfectly encapsulates the relationships in Big rough stones, because there’s a real sense of a bunch of different individuals who support each other for the long haul. There are points at which they meet. They share political beliefs, for a start, and they share their lives (sometimes as lovers, sometimes in share houses, sometimes in work). But there are also the gaps, those individual differences that either make a community stronger or break it apart. Here, they make it stronger.

Ro, we soon realise, is not the easiest person to live with, not always the most responsible or reliable person, but she’s “sturdy and energetic, descended from a Welsh pit pony and a dour Scot.” She’s idealistic, passionate, and will give things a go. She’s our focal point. The novel is told third person but mostly through her perspective. However, we also get to know several of her friends and lovers, sometimes through her eyes, but sometimes we pop into their heads for a brief while too.

Besides this occasionally shifting third-person point of view, the novel also has an interesting, almost circular, 4-part structure: Now, A while ago, A long time ago, Now. At the novel’s opening – in Now – Ro is in her 60s and learns that she has terminal cancer (so, no spoiler here). We also learn that, at this stage in her life, she wishes she still had someone called Gerry in it. We then move back in her life, eventually reaching “a long time ago” where we meet Gerry and discover why she is no longer in Ro’s life. It’s a sad story. In the final “Now”, Ro is in the terminal stages of her cancer, being cared for by her friends. We see just how strongly that wall has been built. The story reminded me just a bit of Helen Garner’s The spare room – not that Ro tries ineffective alternative medicine, but in the challenges her friends face in caring for a seriously ill person. It isn’t easy.

So, the book is about relationships – lesbian ones, yes, but there’s much that’s universal here too. However, it is also about the times – about political ideals and feminist activism, about the environment and climate change. Several of the women, including Ro, work in a Shelter for abused women. They work as a collective, and we share in some of the struggles of making such arrangements work. We sit in on a collective meeting, after Ro has missed a shift without calling in. There’s discussion and dissension about Ro’s commitment, with one member suggesting this might not be the job for her. Lovely, loyal Maddie speaks up:

I don’t like this. We’ve never been into sacking people or any of that sort of patriarchal shit.’

‘Maybe that’s our problem,’ said Tilda. ‘The place would run a lot more efficiently if we were.’

But this was going a bit too far for the others.

‘No, that’s completely against what we value,’ said the oldest member. ‘People always come first, and that includes workers. It’s up to us to honour Ro’s strengths and figure out how to work with her.’

Ro herself was struck by Tilda’s echo of her own thought. We should have a few more rules, she wanted to say.

She doesn’t say it, though. Instead, she concedes that she was wrong, and offers to work on her relationship with Tilda. An uneasy truce is achieved!

Another quote from the novel that has been used in its promotion provides a good sense of what Ro and her friends were about:

‘You thought feminism would stop violence against women,’ said Julia. ‘And that would stop war. And stop people trashing the Earth. You tried.’

‘Not alone,’ said Ro modestly. ‘I had help.’


I want to end, however, with Merrilees’ concern about representing indigenous Australians in our stories. Here’s something I quoted from her in my previous post:

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. However, for a non-Aboriginal writer to write about Aboriginal people is to run the risk of “appropriating” Aboriginal experience; speaking on behalf of … There’s been too much of that already.

This, as I see it, relates to the issue of truth-telling. There’s the formal truth-telling – via, say, a truth-telling and reconciliation commission – but there’s also the more informal truth-telling that we can all do. Truth-telling is about all Australians coming to a “shared understanding of our history”, which includes “the acceptance of mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land and forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families”. The now standard welcome or acknowledgement of country statements are part of this.

So, in Big rough stones, Merrilees has taken a sensitive approach. She does not, here, as she did in The first week, have an indigenous character, but she acknowledges indigenous Australians by showing her characters being aware of the “truths”. For example, Alby, one of Ro’s friends gets a job at a mine. Ro is horrified, and says:

‘Shit, Alby. How could you? Mining. Probably on Aboriginal land.’

‘Certainly on Aboriginal land. The whole country is Aboriginal land. This pub is on Aboriginal land.’

True! On another occasion, after a protest in Alice Springs against Pine Gap, Ro ends up in gaol for a night. The cells are disgusting and Ro finds it hard to engage in the political debate about the US base:

The walls were covered in graffiti. The misery and degradation of the previous occupants hung in the air, a miasma, shockingly brutal. The protest about the US base lost its urgency. Here was racism, fundamental, elemental, an Australian truth most of them had never seen before. Not close up. This they should protest about.

She realises that:

She and the others had privilege that no Aboriginal prisoner ever had. They could give up their resistance and walk away any time. And eventually they did.

I think she has hit on a way of not continuing terra nullius but, at the same time, also not appropriating indigenous experience. It may not work in all situations, but here, with politically aware characters, it does.

Fundamentally, Big rough stones is a straightforward, accessible story with a lot of dialogue that keeps the story moving along – but this is not all it is. Like Tales of the city, it offers a realistic, but warm-hearted portrayal of a time and place, with all the attendant personal and political messiness. An engaging read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this novel.

AWW Badge 2018Margaret Merrilees
Big rough stones
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743055526

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading for Reconciliation

November 5, 2018

Funny sometimes how Monday Musings topics suddenly appear to me. I was researching for a future post, when I came across a site called Reading for Reconciliation – and couldn’t go past it for today’s post.

However, the site’s Home Page needs a bit of unpicking. It has a heading, “Finalists in 2012 Queensland Reconciliation Awards”, followed by text which reads “More than a ‘book club’ – we celebrated our 10th Anniversary in August 2014.” At first, I thought the page was going to list the 2012 finalists, but then I realised that they were saying that their bookclub was a finalist in the 2012 awards? Duh, silly me! Anyhow, the accompanying text tells us that the group:

  • is diverse in background and age, and has no political or religious affiliations; and
  • seeks “to expand our knowledge and understanding of current issues impacting on Australia’s First Peoples by reading and discussing works in an informal, friendly setting”.

They are a Brisbane group, which meets every 6 weeks or so – and they welcome new readers. The way they work is for members to take turns in leading discussion of the chosen book, with this leader being expected “to provide some extra background or context, focus the discussion, etc.” I’d be there if I lived in the Brisbane area. A bit more Googling uncovered the fact that they seem to run under the banner of Reconciliation Queensland Incorporated.

Paul Collis, Dancing homeAnyhow, next on the home page is the list of books they’ve scheduled for 2018:

  • John Newton, The oldest foods on earth
  • Damien Freeman & Shirleen Morris, The forgotten people
  • Anita Heiss, Barbed wire & cherry blossoms
  • Mark Tedeschi, Murder at Myall Creek
  • Mark Moran, Serious whitefella stuff
  • Mark McKenna, From the edge
  • Nonie Sharp, No ordinary judgement
  • Paul Collis, Dancing Home

A varied list, and one that contains some titles and authors I don’t know. However, the best thing about this site is that they also have a page listing every book they’ve discussed since they started in 2004. That’s a great resource for anyone else wanting to read for reconciliation (or start such a group!) It’s worth noting that the books they read aren’t all by indigenous Australians, and they include fiction and non-fiction. They’ve read books by indigenous authors like Kim Scott and Anita Heiss, Bruce Pascoe and Jeanine Leane, for example, all of whom you have met here. Non-indigenous writers they’ve read include novelist Kate Grenville and historians Henry Reynolds and Ann Curthoys.

Understanding the past to comprehend the present

Rosalind Kidd, The way we civiliseAnyhow, I kept Googling, as I wanted to find out how this group started, and up popped an article titled “Six Books for Reconciliation Week” on an Amnesty International site! The article is by the group’s founder Helen Carrick. She starts:

In a Brisbane suburban lounge room in 2004, a diverse group aged from their 20s to 70s gathered to discuss Ros Kidd’s ‘The way we civilize’, which Professor Marcia Langton has described as a “ground-breaking history in the lives of Aboriginal people.”

They may have been diverse but their reason for meeting was not. They “all wished to learn more about Australia’s shared history – all regretted this hadn’t been learned at school.” They believe that they need to understand the past, in order to comprehend the present.

Carrick then describes the group’s history to date – including moving its home from members’ lounge rooms – and lists some of its highlights, including:

  • being a finalist in those awards I mentioned above!
  • establishing their website
  • having authors attend some meetings to discuss their books
  • the establishment of similar groups in Logan City (still Qld – you can see their 2016 list here) and Lismore (NSW)

And with this, I’ll end, making it a short Monday Musings for us all. I’ll just say that it’s great seeing a group like this – and not just seeing it, but seeing it survive for more than a decade and seeing the idea copied by others. Meanwhile, if you’re interested but can’t join a group, there’s always Lisa (ANZLitLovers)’s Indigenous Reading Week. From little things, big things grow – hopefully.

Do you take part in any reading for reconciliation programs?

EM Forster, Howards End (#BookReview)

November 4, 2018

EM Forster, Howards EndWhere to start? Like all great classics, EM Forster’s Howards End has so much to think and write about that it’s difficult to know where to focus, not to mention what new angle I could possibly add. Perhaps I’ll just start at the beginning – with its epigraph, “only connect…” That’s a concept that’s sure to get idealists like me in!

First, though – a quick plot summary. Howards End is a place – and it was left, unbeknownst to her, to a young woman named Margaret Schlegel. The novel tells the story of how this came about and what happened after the owner died and Margaret was not told the place was intended for her. But, of course, this is Forster, so the story is not a simple inheritance plot. In fact, almost none of the central plot tensions relate to this little Wilcox family secret. Instead, the novel explores the lives and values of two – well, three, really – families: the business-capitalist-oriented Wilcoxes; the more intellectual, idealistic, arts-and-culture-focused Schlegels; and the poor, down-on-their-luck Leonard Bast and his ex-prostitute wife. You can surely see in this, where the theme of connection might play out.

The novel is described as a “condition-of-England” novel. It is set in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Edwardian period, and England was changing. Money and progress (symbolised by things like the automobile) were replacing more traditional culture and values (symbolised by things like Howards End). It was a time when socialist ideas were being discussed, and of course, it was the time of the women’s suffrage movement. It was a time when society was moving increasingly from a division between the leisured class and the (mostly agricultural) working class to one between those with “their hands on the ropes” in business and industry and the urban workers who had little control over their destiny. (At least farm workers, traditionally, had homes, for example. Not so, the urban poor.)

All this Forster explores through the relationships that develop between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels – and the poor Basts who get caught in the middle of their complex economic and moral conflicts. This is not to say that the book is all about overt conflict. Our characters are “civilised”. There is a lot of discussion, of presenting ideas and values. But, most are set in their ways and it will, in the end, take more than discussion to shift understanding on.

Only connect …


This is a classic, and has also been adapted to film and television, so I’m not sure how careful I should be, but it’s hard not to say that by half way through the novel Mr Wilcox (father, and widower of Mrs Wilcox who had “left” Howards End to Margaret) proposes to Margaret. Margaret’s more romantic, uncompromising sister Helen is horrified, and when some unfavourable information regarding Mr Wilcox comes out, she deserts the scene while Margaret – doing her best to “connect” in her own way – learns to accommodate this new knowledge.

Even before this crisis, however, Margaret has expressed (to herself) the “only connect” mantra:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

She wants to help Mr (Henry to her, now) Wilcox build within himself “the rainbow bridge” that will unify all the fragments of his soul, “the beast and the monk.” This is where Margaret and Helen differ. Helen has no time for the Mr Wilcoxes of the world, no time for business and industry, or for murky morals, while Margaret, who is “not a barren theorist”, makes the connections. She knows for example that Mr Wilcox had saved Howards End for Mrs Wilcox when it was all but lost, and she knows that their comfortable lives are underpinned by the industry that Helen so despises.

This difference between the siblings reminded of another writer – one whom EM Forster admired greatly – Jane Austen! Soon into the book, I felt there was a bit of Sense and sensibility going on here, a bit of sensible, practical Elinor versus romantic, idealistic, single-minded Marianne. Like Elinor, Margaret has a good heart, and deeply humane values, but she’s not blind to the world and how it works. Like Marianne, Helen sees only one way to live … and must learn something about compromise and moderation.

And so, the resolution, when it comes, sees Mr Wilcox and Helen coming to appreciate each other’s strengths, with Margaret’s more mature understanding prevailing. That said, the ending, while recognising the role of the Wilcoxes in the world, comes down firmly on the side of the importance of “the inner life”. It is only when Margaret finally makes a stand on the values most important to her – when she confronts Henry with his refusal to connect – that the rapprochements can begin.

Where to end?

I started this post by asking “Where to start”, and now I’m wondering “where to end?” Howards End is so rich – I took multiple notes and made many observations as I was reading it. I want to share them all, but that would be impractical (if not downright boring.)

So, I might just share a few things about the pleasure of reading this book. What makes a classic a classic – that is, a book that we keep re-reading – can be many things. Most important is that they have something new to say on each re-read and for each generation, that, in other words, their themes and/or understanding of humanity translate well into other times. This is certainly true of Howards End, given the philosophical and political schisms we are facing now.

But, we are, I think, only prepared to read these older books if their writing is also good – if they tell a good story, if their characters engage us, if their language and style woo us. Again, Howards End satisfies. The involving story of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts and the evocation of their individual characters get us in. These are why the book has been adapted for screen more than once. But it’s more than the story and characters that made this book such a wonderful read for me.

It’s also that it is so beautifully conceived and written. It starts with Helen’s letters from Howards End in which she describes the place and talks of Mrs Wilcox bringing in the hay, and ends with Helen, back at Howards End, but bringing in some hay herself this time. There is recurring imagery – such as frequent references to “grey” and “greyness” which convey the misery of impoverished lives, the impoverishment (of mind and spirit), and, more generally, the dullness of daily life. Here is Margaret near the end, reflecting on the importance of respecting and tolerating difference:

It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences – eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.

I also enjoyed EM Forster’s surprising, occasionally intrusive first person voice, and the sly irony that enhances, or complicates, the novel’s commentary. Some deeper analysis would be worth doing, in fact, on the narrative voice.

Howards End was my Reading Group’s classic for the year and while everyone enjoyed the writing, there were some understandable demurs, demurs which are comfortably explained or overlooked for some, but not for others. Aspects of the plot, for example, are improbable – but that’s not new in fiction. And some of the values and attitudes are problematic – particularly regarding the impoverished Basts, who seem more like pawns than real people. But, for me, these were not flaws. They marked the book as being of its time, and perhaps, of a time in Forster’s own life and thinking, but they do not destroy the integrity of the message, nor of Forster’s overall humanity.

Have you read – or re-read – Howard’s End? If so, did it speak to you?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted on this back in 2016.

EM Forster
Howards End
Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1941 (1910 orig. ed.)
ISBN: 140003118

Six degrees of separation, FROM Vanity fair TO …

November 3, 2018

Well, it’s a tricky night here in Canberra, with a nasty bushfire on my side of town. It’s probably far enough away to not put us at serious risk, but a serious fire just two-thirds into spring is a worry. For now, though, I shall put those thoughts aside and turn to Six Degrees. As most of you know, Six Degrees of Separation is a meme that is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Click on the link on her blog-name to see her explanation of how it works.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity FairNow, mea culpa – or something like that – I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t, though I should have, read this month’s starting book, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity fair. It was one of the books set during my study years, but I chose other books at the time and for some reason have never got back to it, though I have a copy on my TBR. I have though seen it. Does that count? Probably not … but it’s the best I can do.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon

What’s in a name?

However, I have read Thackeray, and in fact, since blogging, because his The luck of Barry Lyndon (my review) was scheduled as my reading group’s classic a couple of years ago. I must say that it wasn’t my favourite English classic, but I will get to Vanity fair one day.

Eve Langley, the pea-pickersThe reason I didn’t much like it was that it seemed to go on and on and on, which is not something that usually bothers me, but there was nothing special about the writing I think to overcome my lack of interest in all the adventures. It’s a picaresque novel, which is a style or form I can enjoy, such as Saul Bellow’s wonderful The adventures of Augie March. Here, however, I’m choosing an Australian novel with picaresque elements, Eve Langley’s The pea pickers (my review). Set primarily in 1920s Gippsland, it’s a book that has stayed with me long after reading it – because of its fresh, evocative writing and voice.

Frank Moorhouse, Cold LightNow, in The pea-pickers, the two protagonists, sisters, dress as men, partly to travel safely but mainly, as I recollect, to be considered for farm labouring jobs like, say, pea-picking. Cross-dressing was a common way for women to make their way in the patriarchal worlds of the past. Another book in which a character cross-dresses is Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (my review), except that in this book the cross-dressing is for a very different reason. It’s practised by the main character Edith’s bisexual husband.

Amitav Ghosh, River of smokeI’m not a big reader of series, even of trilogies, but I have read two books in Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy, though only one since blogging. I’ve partly read another trilogy on this blog: Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s River of smoke (my review), which is the second in his Ibis Trilogy. It’s set primarily in China around the 1830s. I read it in 2012 for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team.

Jahnavi Barua, RebirthAnother book by an Indian writer that I read for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team was Jahnavi Barua, Rebirth (my review). It’s about a woman in an arranged marriage and her journey to self. It takes the form of a first person monologue by a mother to her unborn child. The child is waiting to be born, but we sense that for the mother, Kaberi, a rebirth might be in the offing. It’s a quiet contemplative book with, as I recollect, slow dawnings rather than dramatic changes.Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and punishment

A more dramatic and much longer book in which the protagonist finally seems to be reaching for a rebirth – for redemption and a new start – is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and punishment (my review.)

A rather different chain for me this month. We started in 1840s Europe and ended in 1860s Russia. We spent most of our time in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in fact. We also spent time with four male writers, and just two female, a change from my usual ratio. And, this post contains more classics and more non-Australian books than usual, which may mean more of you have read books in my chain than usual.

And now, over to you: Have you read Vanity fair? And, regardless, what would you link to?