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Miles Franklin Award 2018 Longlist

May 23, 2018

Catherine McKinnon, StorylandI didn’t post the Miles Franklin Award Longlist last year, but I’m intrigued by this year’s list so am sharing it with you – though I’m sure most Aussie readers will have seen it already.

Here is the list:

Some random observations:

  • There are 11 on the longlist, which is interesting in itself – the Miles Franklin judges have, in recent years at least, not constrained themselves to a set number for their longlist. In 2016 and 2017, there were 9 books, and in 2015 there were 10.
  • Six of the longlisted books are by women writers. Only one of these, Michelle de Kretser, was also longlisted for the Stella Prize.
  • The list, unlike the Stella, is rather short on diversity, though, in addition to representing women well, it does include twice-winning indigenous writer, Kim Scott and Sri Lankan-born Michelle de Kretser.
  • This is the first time that Gerald Murnane – frequently tipped as Australia’s next Nobel Laureate in Literature – has been listed for the award. About time.
  • Peter Carey has won three times. If he wins this year, he will equal Tim Winton and Thea Astley who have both won four.
  • I have several on my TBR, and others I would like to be there, but have only read one, Catherine McKinnon’s  Storyland which, I was starting to think, was not going to be listed for any awards, despite its fascinating structure and all-round good story.
  • I’m a little surprised not to see Claire G. Coleman’s Terra nullius nor Sofie Laguna’s The choke on the list.
  • The ABC notes in its announcement that it’s “a list that’s light on outliers, all writers have been shortlisted for, or won, at least one major literary award.”
  • Oh, and not surprisingly, Lisa has reviewed a lot of them!!

The judges for this year are: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW),  Murray Waldren (journalist and columnist for The Australian), Dr Melinda Harvey (book critic), Lindy Jones (bookseller), and Susan Sheridan (Emeritus Professor in Humanities, Flinders University).

The shortlist will be announced in Canberra on 17 June, and the winner in Melbourne on 26 August.

What do you think?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Blaming the Americans

May 21, 2018

Rummaging through my little folder of papers and ideas for Monday Musings posts, I found a 2014 article from The Conversation titled “The Americans are destroying the English language – or are they?” If you are a non-American English-speaker you probably know exactly what this is about, because we non-American English-speakers love to get on our high horse about how Americans have corrupted the English language, except …

If you actually do the research, as I have on and off over the years, you find that the situation is nowhere near as simplistic as we like to think. And this is what The Conversation writer, Rob Pensalfini from the University of Queensland, explores in his article. He starts with some facts about English-speaking around the world, including the fact that the United Kingdom has only about 15% of the world’s native speakers of English, while the USA has almost 60%. Not that quantity is necessarily a signifying issue, but still, it gives one pause. He also points out that there are various forms of “standard” or “official” varieties of, say, British, American, and Australian English, as well as innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins.

Erin Moore, That's not EnglishHe then discusses what “ruining” a language – if indeed we accept that’s possible – might mean. He suggests that since languages change, “ruining” or “destroying” one must mean changing it in “unacceptable” or “negative” ways. It must mean, he continues, that it “threatens the capacity of the language to express something – be that complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument”. Good points, particularly that regarding the impact on our ability to express ourselves.

Anyhow, he lists the main “changes” for which Americans are criticised, and addresses each one. I’ll try to summarise them:

  • corrupt spelling (eg center, honor, neighbor): the American lexicographer, Noah Webster, as we know, introduced spelling reforms in the 1820s into American spelling, including the now commonly accepted “American” spellings of “honor, neighbor, center, and jail.” However, before we non-Americans become too smug, he notes that other reforms by Webster, the rest of us have also accepted such as “public and mask (in place of publick and masque).” Meanwhile, other of his reforms were not even accepted by Americans, such as “tung (tongue) and wimmen (women).” The weird thing – and this one I’ve researched before – is that the forms that raise the ire of us non-Americans (the “or” and “er” spellings) were actually older British spellings. Pensalfini says that “honour” occurs 393 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623), while “honor” occurs 530 times; “Humour” 47 times while “humor” is used 90 times; “center” occurs nine times, but “centre” only once; and “sceptre” appears four times, but “scepter” 36. Pensalfini says that “Webster chose the ‘or’ and ‘er’ spellings because they looked less French” while the British chose the “our” and “re” spellings in the 19th century “because their French look lent them a certain dignity”.
  • discordant sounds (post-vocalic /r/, “flat” /a/): firstly, he says the post-vocalic /r/ is used in parts of England (the West Country and Scotland) and is not used in parts of America. Indeed, he suggests that “the loss of /r/ erodes comprehension, in pairs like father/farther, pawn/porn, caught/court and batted/battered merging”. As for the “flat” /a/, it is an earlier form – so there!
  • double negatives: let’s not even go here. As Pensalfini says, they have a role and, anyhow, they are “not accepted in Standard American English any more than they are in Standard British English.”
  • ending sentences with prepositions: this is just silly he says, and “is as common in British as in American English. Would you really say ‘From whence did you come?’ Seriously? ‘Where did you come from?’ is absolutely standard for all varieties of English.” (I agree, though I think his example is poor, as “from” is not needed before “whence” which means “from where”.)
  • singular they: again, he provides several examples of this, including from Shakespeare. Jane Austen, I know, used it too.
  • using nouns as verbs: this one, he says, really gets the “pedants’ collective goat … the use of words like impact and action as verbs”. Again, though, “it’s been with the English language since at least the early Middle English period.” In fact, “the modern-day Americans aren’t verbing nearly as much as Shakespeare (“Grace me no grace; nor uncle me no uncle” (Richard II)).”

Pensalfini concludes his article on a political point about the British, but I’m not going there. Instead, as I like to do, I checked Trove’s digitised newspapers for any discussion about American English in the early 20th century. There was – a lot in fact. Much of it was critical, and focused on pronunciation (including reports of the author Henry James complaining about Americans’ “slovenly” pronunciation!) But here, I’ll share two I found about spelling and usage.

The first is a letter to the editor, in Melbourne’s Herald in 1923:

Sir.— In answer to “Baffled’s” letter in tonight’s “Herald” re English spelling, it is my opinion the sooner English people all over the world wake up and copy the American system of spelling, the sooner will they become a more intelligent and efficient race. Let Australia be the first to start a campaign for the reforming of spelling, and do away with such spelling as “through” and “fright”. — Yours, etc

South Yarra, October 17.

Ms or Mr Efficiency was, from my short survey, swimming against the tide!

The other is an article from The Maitland Daily Herald in 1933. This writer goes to town. They (I’m using the “singular they” since the author isn’t identified) admit there are some good writers in the US, but just read any magazine they say and readers will see

the vile distortions of language, that there abound, the violations of fundamental rules of syntax, the apparent endeavour to write in a style as different as possible from that seen in an English or Australian journal of similar type. Slang is everywhere in evidence, often where it serves no good purpose, and where it ceases to be picturesque and becomes silly.

Some American slang is, they say, “decidedly clever and picturesque” but, “this cannot be said of the majority of what we see and hear. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to make American-English as much unlike English-English as possible.” Oh dear, such a crime! How conservative this sounds.

And so, this writer continues,

An effort should be made continuously by parents and teachers to impress on our young people the glory of good English, the priceless heritage left to them in the prose of Addison, the verse of Milton, the dramas of Shakespeare, and so forth. …

Now, that’s funny, given Pensalfini’s examples from Shakespeare (whom he used, he says, “because for many, Shakespeare represents a sort of pinnacle of English language usage”!)

I must say that over the years I’ve relaxed my attitude to all this. Language does change, and I know that many words we use now – such as “nice” – meant something completely different a few hundred years ago from the way we use them now. So, what to do? Like all readers, I love fine language. But I also know that fine language – that is, literary language – can be so, exactly because it breaks the rules, because it pushes boundaries. Ultimately, the point, as Pensalfini suggests, is to be able to express “complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument” and, I’d add, for that expression to be understood.

And so, the important thing, I’d argue, is to continue the debate, because it is probably that more than anything which keeps the language fresh and true.

What do you think?

World Bee Day 2018 – and literature

May 20, 2018

Apparently today, May 20, is World Bee Day! Who knew? Not me, until this morning. I understand it was designated last December by the United Nations, on the recommendation of Slovenia. Given the rise of cli-fi literature and the importance of bees to our planet, I’ve decided to give a little shout out to our fabulous bees today.

Actually, I’m not a huge fan of honey. I love the idea of it – of all those exciting flavours you see – but if I can choose between honey and maple syrup, it’s maple syrup I take, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, bees aren’t just about the honey, as I’m sure you know. They are critical to our planet for their busy little pollination activity. The World Bee Day website says that bees and other pollinators pollinate “nearly three quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food” and that “a third of the world’s food production depends on bees.” In addition, their pollination activity is critical for ecological balance and diversity, so much so that their presence, absence or quantity is a significant indicator of the health of our environment. In other words, we need bees … but they are  are in decline, due to a combination of factors including pesticides, climate change and disease. Hence World Bee Day.

Bill McKibben, Oil and HoneyBack in 2013 I read and reviewed American climate activist Bill McKibben’s book, Oil and honey: the education of an unlikely activist. It’s about the two important things in his life: bees, honey and good farming practice, and oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. They’re all related.

However, that’s a work of non-fiction, but increasingly fiction is dealing with climate-change, resulting in the genre called cli-fi (ie climate change fiction.) I’ve reviewed some cli-fi here, but none focussing on bees, so this post is as much for my benefit as yours. (This is why I love blogging – I get to research something I’m interested in and then share it with anyone who is interested.)

So, here is a small selection, in alphabetical order by author.

James Bradley, Clade (2015)

James Bradley, CladeAustralian author James Bradley’s book Clade is more broadly about climate change than the other books in my selection here, but it does have bees on its cover. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, Caroline Baum describes it as follows: “A global deadly virus, the collapse of bee colonies, extreme weather events causing social unrest, eco-refugees, infertility, autism and new advances in technology – these are just some of the themes of James Bradley’s new novel, Clade.” The bees, I understand, mainly feature in a sub-story about a refugee beekeeper who is concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder. However, this sub-story and the presence of bees on the cover suggest their importance to Bradley’s overall theme.

Moya Lunde, The history of bees (English ed. 2017)

Maja Lunde, The history of beesThe Saturday Paper’s reviewer, KN, describing Norwegian author Lunde’s The history of bees as presenting “an original angle” in the cli-fi realm, says that “the dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006.” As The Atlantic’s reviewer writes, its premise is simple: what would happen if bees disappeared? The book apparently has three strands – one contemporary, one set in the 19th century, and one in 2098 after “The Collapse”.

I learnt a new term researching this – First Impact FictionLA Times reviewer Ellie Robins says it was coined by novelist Ashley Shelby to describe “fiction set in more or less the present day, which depicts ‘our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known’.”

Bren MacDibble, How to bee (2017)

Bren MacDibble, How to beeBren MacDibble is an Australian-based New Zealand born writer. How to bee is a children’s book, which has been shortlisted for multiple literary awards, including the 2108 CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers, the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Children’s Literature, the 2017 Aurealis Awards for Best Children’s Novel, and the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards, Griffith University Children’s Book Award. Decent cred, eh?

Publisher Allen & Unwin describes the plot:

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.

Laline Paull, The bees (2014)

Laline Paula, BeesThe Guardian’s Gwyneth Jones describes British novelist Laline Paull’s The bees as “a debut dystopia set in a beehive, where one bee rebels against the totalitarian state.” It’s apparently a complex story, and Jones concludes her review by saying that “the crisis The Bees invokes is genuine, frightening and getting worse. Hive collapse disease remains a deadly real-life mystery …”

The Bees was Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Now, the question is: can cli-fi help the cause of climate change? Well, coincidentally, a climate change research fellow, Sarah Perkins-Kilpatrick wrote about just that in The Conversation last year. She believes it can. “Through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters”, she says, cli-fi can make people “care about and individually connect to climate change” and thus “motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.” She also argues – but of course this depends on the writer and the work – that cli-fi can deliver a message

of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.

Is all cli-fi hopeful?

Do you like cli-fi? And, do you agree that cli-fi can help the cause (assuming, of course, that you agree it is a cause)?

Eleanor Limprecht, The passengers (#BookReview)

May 18, 2018

The passengers is Eleanor Limprecht’s third novel, but the second I’ve read, that being Long Bay (my review) based on the life of early twentieth century abortionist Rebecca Sinclair. The passengers is also a work of historical fiction, though not specifically based on one person’s experience. Instead, it’s about the Australian war brides who married American soldiers during World War 2 and followed their husbands to the USA after the war.

It is also somewhat more complex in conception and structure than Long Bay’s simple chronological third person narrative. It is framed around a journey, that of war bride Sarah who, through the course of the novel, travels back to Australia, on a cruise-ship, after a 68-year absence. She is accompanied by her circa twenty-year-old American grand-daughter Hannah, who has anorexia nervosa. The narrative comprises alternating chapters in Sarah and Hannah’s first person voices: Sarah’s is primarily her telling her story to Hannah, while Hannah’s is more her internal reflections on her life and her grandmother’s story.

Now, I’m going to get this voice decision out of the way first, because I found it a bit problematic. In her Acknowledgements, Limprecht thanks some people for helping her to hone her focus, and for showing her “how not to be scared of trying a different structure”. Good for her, I say. There’s nothing wrong with trying a different structure. This alternating-voice one, which is not particularly new or out-there, can be used effectively to throw light on two different perspectives and experiences, which is essentially what it does here, though war bride Sarah’s is the main story being told. Hannah never comes quite as alive as Sarah. She provides neat segues between episodes in Sarah’s story, and creates some parallels in their respective experiences, but she, and her condition, don’t really add significantly to the novel. Given this proviso, however, Limprecht does capture her illness authentically, and doesn’t trivialise it by presenting a simple resolution.

Still, the structure works. My issue is more the first-person voices, particularly Sarah’s storytelling one, because it constrains the narrative to the sorts of things Sarah would tell a grand-daughter. She is surprisingly open about deeply personal things like sex with her husband/s, but this narrative approach reduces the opportunity for deeper, more internal, reflections about the emotional, social, and mental challenges faced by war brides.

But now, that discussed, I’ll get on to all the positive things, because this is an enjoyable read. For a start, Limprecht’s evocation of Sarah’s life in Australia, first on a dairy farm south of Sydney and then in Sydney during the war, beautifully conveys life at that time, and captures the strangeness of those days:

How was anyone to make sense of it? The world was upside down, flipped and spinning backwards–women working men’s jobs, street and railway station signs taken down or covered in case the Japs landed, coupons needed just to buy butter, tea, sugar or meat. … The army and navy requisitioning anything they wanted, anything they needed for war. Japanese subs in Sydney harbour.

When death is close, you have to live.

It’s no wonder, as naval officer Jim says to war bride Sarah now en-route to Virginia, that the war “made us do strange things.” For many young women like Sarah, those strange things included marrying young American men whom they barely knew, and not fully comprehending the post-war implications of these weddings, which was that they would be expected to live in America!

Limprecht clearly did her war-bride research well – and I love that she details it at the end of the novel. It shows in the vivid way she relates the experience of these brides as, accompanied by Red Cross workers, they travelled by boat to America and then by train to their husbands all over the country. This part of the narrative not only felt authentic, but it was also highly engaging. At one point Sara describes herself as “barrelling blindly forwards” with “no idea of what world I would enter.” Brave stuff, really. Sarah’s journey continues after her arrival in Virginia, taking us from her early 20s to the present when she is a widow, and retired vet, in her late 80s.

As you’ll have realised by now, the novel’s unifying theme is the journey – a theme I discussed only recently in my post on Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline. Cassie’s journey was about deciding whether she’d made the right decision to leave Perth when she was around 20. Sarah’s is somewhat more complex. It’s about reconnecting with her past, and about putting right, or resolving, the lies she had told both before and after leaving Australia. There’s a journey for Hannah too. She thinks she is there to help her elderly grandmother, but in fact her grandmother had invited her because she hoped it would help Hannah get well. The relationship between Sarah and Hannah is a lovely part of the novel.

There are also several references in the novel to John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath, which Sarah reads on her train journey across America. Although the Joads’ travels are rather different from Sarah’s, she sees some similarities to her family’s farm struggles in Australia, and she sees value in Tom Joad’s practical philosophy that “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

Overall, then, The passengers is an engaging book about a by-product of war – and the long tail of its aftermath – that has tended to be forgotten in the ongoing focus on men and their experiences. For this, as well as for its lively descriptions of war-time Sydney and of the war brides’ journey by boat to America, I’d recommend it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the war-bride story.

AWW Badge 2018Eleanor Limprecht
The passengers
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760631338

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie “up lit”

May 14, 2018

Hands up if you’ve heard of a new genre (or literary trend is perhaps more accurate) called “up lit”? I hadn’t, until I read a post recently on Kate’s (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) blog. She pointed to an article about it at The Guardian.

The writer, Danuta Kean, says:

In contrast with the “grip lit” thrillers that were the market leaders until recently, more and more bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too.

See how behind I am? We’ve had “grip lit” but it’s on its way out before I’d even heard of it, and is being replaced by “up lit”.

My first thought when I saw the term “up lit” was “feelgood” but it appears that we are talking something more active than that, we are talking optimism – and empathy, and kindness. And, it’s not just fiction we’re talking about, but non-fiction too. Kean’s article, written in August 2017, argues that the trend was kickstarted by “a bruising year dominated by political and economic uncertainty, terrorism and tragedy.” This reminds me of American screwball comedy films which started during the Great Depression and lasted through to the early 1940s (that is, into World War 2). Times were tough and people needed some brief moments of escapism – which is also part “up lit”.

But, as I’ve already said, “up lit” seems to involve more than just “escape”. A March 2018 article in The Guardian by Hannah Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, the international bestselling author of The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry:

But up lit isn’t simply a means of sugar-coating the world … “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”

It’s about the idea that “it is possible to fix what’s broken”. The publisher HarperCollins describes it more simply as “meaningful, optimistic books that celebrate everyday heroes, human connection and love!” In other words, it’s a pretty broad church it seems.

Kean and Beckerman provide popular and literary fiction examples of “up lit” including, for example, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, and last year’s Booker Prize winner, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. You can check out all their examples in the articles linked above, while I move on to see what I can find in Australia’s literary firmament. Are we seeking – and producing – such literature?

Do we have Australian “up lit”?

I struggled to come up with many recent Aussie “up lit” books. I was looking for the more “literary” end of the spectrum than at genres like Romance which, by definition, are happy or positive, regardless of current literary trends.

  • Brooke Davis’ Lost and found (my review): a rather quirky (hate that word, really) novel about the loss experienced by three people, and how community helps them cope.
  • Eliza Henry Jones’ In the quiet: “A moving, sweet and uplifting novel of love, grief and the heartache of letting go” (HarperCollins); “uplifting and tender” (The Canberra Times.)
  • Inga Simpson’s Mr Wigg: a gentle book about ageing and loss, apparently.
  • Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (my review): belongs to the Romance end of the spectrum, but has an edge because the male protagonist is not your usual romantic hero.

Some of you may remember that there was discussion last year in Australia about reading lists for senior school students being “too dark and depressing”. Of course, there were arguments pro and con. One student said that she thought a lot of the books “are quite depressing” and “don’t really give any motivation or happy feeling in the classroom” while another thought that “if they’re not depressing, they’re not going to be interesting to analyse.” She’d agree with Eva Gold, the executive officer of NSW’s English Teachers Association, who said that “A mark of great literature is conflict and tension. … Unfortunately, resolutions that provide uplift do not necessarily reflect the complexities of life.”

Three years before that, in 2014, there was an article in The Conversation about young adult fiction. The writer, Diana Hodge, argued that “dark themes give the hope to cope,” and that “discussing life’s tougher issues is not in itself pessimistic or disheartening.” In fact, she says:

Overcoming obstacles, developing strength through hardship, experiencing human kindness in the face of traumatic events are not depressing themes; they can be powerful and uplifting and inspire hope.

To some extent, what she’s saying doesn’t completely contradict some of the “up lit” proponents who talk about facing the tough things and then being “fixed” by, for example, kindness. Still, my sense is that “up lit” supporters don’t want the tough things to be dwelled upon for too long, don’t want that grim tone that can attend the so-called “depressing” reads. Take, for example – and here I’m moving briefly away from Australia – Rohinton Mistry’s novel A fine balance. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels. I’d argue that despite the gut-wrenching nature of the plot – if something could go wrong it does – the ending is positive. Many disagree with me, however!

I must admit that I do look for signs (or glimmers) of hope in the novels I read, but I don’t require it. That, I think, would be unrealistic, as Eva Gold above suggests. “Up lit” won’t, therefore, be my go-to.

What do you think? Do you find yourself seeking “up lit”? And if so, have you any recommendations?

Nick Earls, NoHo (#BookReview)

May 13, 2018

Nick Earls, NoHoNick Earls is a Queensland-based writer known mostly for humorous fiction about contemporary life. While I’d heard of him, I hadn’t read any of his work when I attended a session involving him at the 2016 Canberra Writers Festival. The session was titled “Modern Masculinity” (my report). Earls was there because of the recent publication of his Wisdom Tree series of five novellas, of which NoHo is the fifth. I chose to buy it because of my familiarity with its setting, Los Angeles.

The Wisdom Tree books are beautifully designed (by Sandy Cull), and just lovely to hold. For that reason alone, I’m glad I finally decided to pick NoHo off the TBR pile and introduce myself to this writer. The books are apparently “subtly linked”, but I don’t think that means you need to read them all, or read them in any order. I certainly haven’t, and I enjoyed NoHo regardless.

The five books in the series are titled by the name of a place: 1. Gotham, 2. Venice, 3. Vancouver, 4. Juneau, and this one, 5. NoHo. NoHo refers to North Hollywood where 11-year-old Charlie is temporarily living with his mother and 12-year-old sister Cassidy who is seeking her break into the movie business. It’s not this Australian family’s first stay in Los Angeles, so Charlie knows the routine. As Cassidy and her mother do the rounds of agents and auditions, Charlie is left to himself. He chases wifi at audition venues. He goes “dumpster diving” for bottles and cans he can cash in at a recycling centre. And, in the last part of the story, he’s left at an art gallery to work on a school assignment that has been posted on the Distance Ed Blackboard site. Dropped off at 1.15pm, he is still there at gallery closing at 6pm because his sister has a “call-back” – and her needs come first. That’s the basic set up. Oh, and there is a father, but he is back in Australia, due to join the family at Christmas.

The story is told in the first person voice of Charlie. At the Canberra Writers Festival session I attended, Earls said that he used an 11 to 12-year-old boy as a protagonist because this is the age of starting to push boundaries, of wanting to be successfully independent but also being a little fearful. He wanted, he said, NoHo’s narrator to be naive about what he was seeing. That’s pretty much what he’s achieved: Charlie is starting to push boundaries – willing to be independent to a degree – but is not so confident that he isn’t a little anxious when his mum leaves him too long at the gallery. He’s lucky that a down-to-earth warm-hearted security guard, Wanda – “a tough woman who has had difficult times, I can tell” – stays with him.

Charlie isn’t, however, completely naive. He’s an intelligent boy who has some insight into the treadmill his mother and sister are on. He comments on the sorts of dream-and goal-focused mantras that his sister follows:

I’ve seen sports clothes that say, “Never, never, never give up,” but is that right? Never? Triple never? What if your dream is to win a marathon and your body with triple-never do that? It’ll finish, if you work at it, but it’ll never cross the line first and could fall apart trying. What if your dream is to be a movie star before you’re old, and it’s a million other people’s dreams as well? More than a million, actually. And some of them, lots of them, have perfect teeth and better luck than you.

Good questions, Charlie.

The second part of the novella involves Charlie choosing an art work for his art assignment. He chooses an anthropomorphic sculpture titled Family #5, which features three creatures made primarily from found objects. There’s irony or, at least, poignancy, in Charlie’s descriptions of the work:

She could have put three creatures in a row, ignoring each other, but these ones aren’t. They’re relating to each other in a way that says family. We can’t help but see it that way. It’s an instinct. So, it makes you connect with them more … It’s a good family. How a family should be, looking out for each other.


The child creature has no idea how good life is in this moment before trouble comes, however long the moment might be. It’s the care the parent creatures are showing that keeps you looking.

There’s also a lovely humorous little scene in the art gallery between the guard, Charlie, and a couple of other gallery visitors, that provides a wry little comment on art, what it is and what it means.

Anyhow, NoHo is an engaging, lightly told but not light story about family relationships. Charlie is generous, tolerant even, about his lot. He doesn’t rail about the attention his sister garners (and expects) again and again. It’s not an abusive or consciously neglectful family. The mother and sister don’t exactly ignore Charlie, nor are they intentionally cruel to him. It’s just that Cassidy is the centre of the mother’s energy and Charlie is expected to understand this. And this is, perhaps, where the naive narrator comes in. We see the family dynamics and recognise the potential pitfalls. Life is seemingly good now but trouble is very likely around the corner. Will the family unit hold?

I thoroughly enjoyed NoHo, partly for Earls’ evocation of the place – it made me laugh at times – but mainly for its delightful narrator and his insights into what makes a family. I wish him well!

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reviewed 1. Gotham and 2. Venice.

Nick Earls
(Wisdom Tree 5)
Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015
ISBN: 9780992498573

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleaner (#BookReview)

May 10, 2018

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleanerI’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t planned to read Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The trauma cleaner. I feared it might be one of those sensationalised, voyeuristic stories, but how wrong I was. I thank Brother Gums and partner for this great birthday gift.

I was wrong because … no, let me start with why I thought what I thought. The subject of this biography, Sandra Pankhurst, is a transgender woman, now in her early-sixties. She’s been a drag queen and a sex worker, and now has a trauma cleaning business, which means she cleans houses after murders and other difficult, messy deaths. It also means that she cleans the houses of hoarders, particularly those whose hoarding has resulted in squalid living conditions. And there’s more. Pankhurst was also an abused, neglected and rejected adopted child, and she experienced the violent death of her pregnant girlfriend. You can see why I feared what I did.

But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, for two main reasons – Sarah Pankhurst is a compelling human being, and Sarah Krasnostein a wonderful writer who knows her subject well. I’m not surprised that the book is doing well on the award circuit this year, including winning the 2018 Victorian Prize for Literature.

First Pankhurst

Born apparently a boy, and adopted when 6-weeks-old by a couple to replace their son who’d died during childbirth, Pankhurst’s life was fraught from the start. He was adopted because his parents had been told they couldn’t have more biological children, but his life was upended five years later when the inevitable happened. A son was born, followed by another two years later. His parents told him they’d made a mistake, because now they had two sons, and proceeded to increasingly exclude him from the family circle. He was physically and emotionally abused and neglected. Unbelievable – except that we all know, don’t we, that human beings are capable of unbelievable cruelty.

Eventually, Pankhurst left home, married, and had children, but his gender dysphoria began to affect his ability to live the life he’d forged. He left his family, and over the next couple of decades was a drag queen and sex worker, and underwent sex reassignment surgery in its early days in Australia, to become the person now known as Sandra. She lost a pregnant partner through a vicious assault by a club bouncer, and worked in the brothels of Kalgoorlie. All this at a time when gay and transgender people were ostracised and brutalised, particularly by those in authority. Then she married an older man, George. She ran a small hardware business with him, and became a respected leader in her community. It was after this business failed that Pankhurst moved into cleaning and thence to her current speciality of trauma cleaning.

Now, popular wisdom would say that a person so neglected and abused would end up abusing others, or, at the very least, be bitter, but not so Pankhurst, which makes her an amazing being, or, as Krasnostein says, “utterly peerless”. Here is just one example of her tender but firm care of a hoarder – Janice, whom she and her team struggle to keep from going through the bags of “rubbish” being thrown out.

And then, speaking to herself [Janice this is], sharp and low, ‘Why do you do this? You know what rubbish is.’

‘Because you see yourself as rubbish,’ Sandra says. ‘Time to start seeing the good in life. You deserve it.’ The angel statue suddenly slips off the couch and bounces on the carpet; a wing snaps off.

‘Is that a bad omen?’ Janice asks, looking up at Sandra frantically.

‘You know what it’s saying?’ Sandra answers with a smile. ‘I’m broken but I’m not dead.’

And this is what she does, time and time again, building up her damaged clients, gently guiding them to make better decisions, and, above all, treating them with absolute dignity, all the while surrounded by a squalor most of us would run a mile from.

And now Krasnostein

But what makes this book so captivating is Krasnostein’s skills in telling it to reveal Pankhurst’s extraordinariness. I’ll start with the mundane, the book’s structure. It begins with an untitled preface in which Krasnostein introduces Pankhurst, and then moves into the first and unnumbered chapter titled Kim, who turns out to be one of Krasnostein’s clients. From here we move to the numbered chapter 2 which begins the chronicle of Pankhurst’s biography with her childhood. The book then progresses in alternating named and numbered chapters – switching that is, between clients and biography – until the last two chapters which are both numbered. This structure does a number of things, one of which is to show, as we go, how Pankhurst’s own experiences have made her the empathetic, but no-nonsense, trauma cleaner (no, person) she is.

This brings me to the book’s genre – a biography of a living person. To write it, Krasnostein had to traverse several mine-fields, the first being the presence of the subject. It’s clear that Krasnostein is close to her subject, which could make us question her objectivity. Fortunately, I’m not a huge believer in objectivity, but I do believe in being thoughtfully analytical, and this is what Krasnostein achieves. She doesn’t hide her admiration of Pankhurst. Indeed she addresses Pankhurst in her “preface” calling the book “my love letter to you”.

Related to this minefield is the fact-gathering one. There are gaps in Pankhurst’s memory. She is not, Krasnostein says, “a flawlessly reliable narrator”:

She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality.

Krasnostein suggests various reasons for this lack of reliability, including drugs, trauma, and the fact that she has not spent her life surrounded by people who have always known her and with whom she’s shared life’s stories again and again, building up a personal history. Makes sense – and suggests another fallout from the ostracism and neglect experienced by people like Pankhurst.

One of these Pankhurst-memory-gaps relates to her first marriage. Whenever Krasnostein questions her about this time in her life, about the way she left her wife and children, pretty much high-and-dry and with no ongoing interest or involvement, Pankhurst, who exhibits such empathy in so much of her life, seems unable to answer. Krasnostein writes – and this is also a good example of her gorgeous style and of her attempt to get at “the truth”:

When I ask these questions, Sandra genuinely seems to be considering them for the first time and uninterested in pursing them further. We have floated across the line and here we stay, becalmed, past her outer limits. The mediaeval horizon where you simply sailed off the edge of the earth or were swallowed by the monstrous beasts that swam there.

With a biography of a non-famous living person, there are few documentary sources against which the biographer can validate what the subject says, but there are other people. And Krasnostein speaks to them, including this first wife, Linda, who was treated so poorly but who seems to bear no animosity. She’s amazing too. That’s the thing about this book: there’s such a display of basic human compassion amongst people, many of whom have so little.

And finally, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s the language. It frequently took my breath away with its clarity and freshness. Here’s a description of Sandra after she’d experienced a brutal rape while working in a Kalgoorlie brothel:

It’s not the first time she’s had crippling pain that she pushes into a tight little marble and drops down through the grates of her mind, somewhere deep below.

It may be that I loved this book so much because I had no real expectations, but I think it’s more than that. The trauma cleaner is an elegantly conceived and warmly written book about a woman who could teach us all something, I’m sure, about tolerance, acceptance, and respect. With a red-face, I recommend it.

AWW Badge 2018Sarah Krasnostein
The trauma cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498523