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Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists

June 13, 2019

I don’t usually write up book launches, mostly because the speeches are brief, and I hope to eventually read and review the book itself. However, as the title of this post tells, the launch for Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell’s book, Australia’s first naturalists, was also billed as a lecture, hence this exception.

Australia’s first naturalists was published by NLA Publishing, and is subtitled Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology. The event was MC’d by NLA curator Nat Williams, with the first speaker being Rebecca Bateman, who is the NLA’s first indigenous curator. She talked about the NLA’s collections relating to indigenous people, and how, in some cases, they contain information, including language, that can help people regain lost culture. Then it was over to the authors…

The authors

Penny Olsen, Honorary Professor in the the Australian National University’s Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, has worked as a field biologist and ecological consultant, but now mostly writes books about Australian natural history. She started by saying that it feels like there’s been a sea change in awareness and appreciation of indigenous people’s part in Australia’s story (and I think she’s right.)

However, she said, while their roles as guides and trackers, as workers in the cattle industry, in mining, on stations, and in whaling, is well-known, less known is the significant role they played in the advancement of science – particularly in zoological science. She said that researching the contributions made by indigenous people was challenging, because sometimes their help would simply be referenced in a throwaway line. Other times, though, there would be more detailed accounts. Her reading of these relationships between indigenous people and scientists, was that indigenous people were willing, but also that the relationships ranged from exploitative to warm friendships.

Olsen then talked about some of the collecting partnerships she found – chronologically, starting with James Cook in 1770 – illustrating them with powerpoint slides. These partnerships involved activities such as indigenous people locating specimens, and sharing their knowledge about animal behaviour.  Sometimes the indigenous people were named, sometimes not. Sometimes scientists worked with individuals, sometimes with families or whole groups. It was fascinating, and whetted my appetite for the book!

She finished with a quote from geologist Cecil Thomas Madigan’s 1946 book, Crossing the dead heart, which included:

… but I knew the value of natives on trips such as these, real bush natives who know the habits of all bush creatures and catch them. They are of the greatest help to the biologist and botanist in collecting …

(She also made a disclaimer about the terminology – like “natives” – that is used in historical sources.)

Then it was co-author Lynette Russell’s turn.

Lynette Russell, Professor at Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, among other roles, calls herself an anthropological historian who focuses on developing an anthropological approach to the story of the past. She welcomed us briefly in the language of her great-grandmother – and then commenced, not surprisingly, by saying that “stories are important to understanding the past”. She won’t get any disagreement from us on that, will she?

Anyhow, she then shared various stories, also using images to support her points. She explained, for example, how long-lived traditions in indigenous culture contain information about climate change, such as the rise of sea levels, and how rock art provides evidence of indigenous peoples’ understanding of anatomy. She talked about how millennia of fire-stick farming has resulted in many Australian plants being fire resistant. And she commented on the arrival of feral animals, and their impact on indigenous peoples’ ability to sustain their environment.

The book is organised chronologically into 5 chapters, with the first chapter titled “Pre-European: Australia’s first naturalists”, and the last, “Epilogue: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land and Sea Managers”. This last chapter, she said, discusses Indigenous Protected Areas, and indigenous ranger programs, which enable those who so desire to remain living on country and thus to maintain their traditional ecological knowledge and ensure its continuity. Traditional ecological knowledge is, she said, an “attribute of societies having continuous connection to their country”. Aboriginal peoples’ faunal knowledge is still extant; creating these new collaborations, replicates in some senses, those of the 19th century. Now, like then, indigenous people are generous with their time and knowledge.

She referred to Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu (my review), saying it has managed to make promulgate more widely information about indigenous land management practices that archaeologists have known for a long time.

Finally, she noted that this book is an act of reconciliation.

Q & A

There was an interesting Q&A, with topics being:

  • why indigenous people wear clothing in some pictures and not others: they were interested in clothing, and were often “paid” in clothing.
  • why this information about expeditions has escaped us for so long: Australian history has focussed on squatters, and tragedies (like the Burke & Wills Expedition), but their research has uncovered a different story about real relationships and friendships.
  • whether the names of any indigenous people were used in scientific names for creatures they helped scientists “discover” (good question!): they couldn’t find any!
  • what was the quality of the expeditions in terms of their end-product: most were good for their time but tend to lack information we’d like today, such as animal behaviour, distribution, ecology. Their focus was – surely understandably? – more on identifying, categorising and naming.
  • what motivations did indigenous people have to help, besides being given items like sweets and clothes: friendship, it seems, and a genuine interest in these strange white men.

It’s encouraging to see yet another book furthering scholarship and understanding of indigenous peoples’ lives and culture, and of their very real role in forming modern Australia. A most enjoyable launch.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has already reviewed this book!

Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists
National Library of Australia
11 June 2019

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some queer Australian writing

June 10, 2019

Well, it’s Gay (or LGBT) Pride month in the USA, and since I don’t think we have a specific national month here, I thought I’d give a little shout out to some of our queer writers. Now, I’m not sure about labelling, but Readings bookshop posted three years ago on “queer reads”, while Wikipedia has a category called LGBT Writers from Australia and the Australian Women Writers challenge has a list for Lesbian and Queer Women Writers. I have settled on queer for the title of this post, which I hope is acceptable.

That was the first decision. The next concerned how to narrow this post down to something that would be interesting but not too long. This involved some arbitrary decisions. One was to focus on fiction (including verse novels). This means no memoirs or other forms of writing. The other was to focus on content rather than the writer. In other words, I think it’s worth sharing some works that put queer people in the picture, because too often their stories are hidden. The more we see that everyone’s stories have similar truths – recognising of course that some of us don’t have to hide, or face discrimination and abuse – the better our world can be. However, even with this narrowing, there are too many books, so I’ll be focusing mostly on books I’ve reviewed here, with a ring-in!

So, here’s a small selection in alphabetical order:

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review): The most recently reviewed book in this list, Bodies of men is primarily a story about men and war, about what being a man is. But it is also a love story between two men, at a time when such relationships were taboo. However, while the relationship and its challenges are important, they are not, really, the defining issue that the two male protagonists confront in the novel.

Susan Hawthorne’s Limen (my review): A verse novel about two women on a camping trip, this focuses on issues and challenges external to the nature of their relationship, on changes and thresholds, physical and perhaps spiritual, to be faced.

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stonesMargaret Merrilees’ Big rough stones (my review): Spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, this novel tells the lives of Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. While Ro’s romantic relationships form part of her story, this book more widely encompasses the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.

Dorothy Porter’s Monkey maskFirst published in 1997, this verse novel can, I think, be called a classic. Because I haven’t, to my shame, read it, I’m going to quote for you part of the blurb at GoodReads: “Fuelled by homicide, betrayal, and a femme fatale to go to hell for, The Monkey’s Mask is an erotic mystery novel written in verse. But forget what you know about poetry. This is not a love sonnet. From one of Australia’s most innovative writers, The Monkey’s Mask drives headfirst into murder, manipulation, and the consuming power of sex, and is a thriller to make other whodunnits seem mild”.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverEllen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review): This complex book, with its three separate sections, explores all sorts of indentities, with, in the middle section, a very clever exploration of “othering”. The Readings post mentioned above describes it as follows: “Many of the characters are queer and Neerven writes about sexuality with a light touch that never feels forced.”

So, a small selection, but a varied and, I think, interesting one.

Now, before I conclude, I want to discuss what was really the first decision I made in writing this post – whether to write it at all. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do, and yet, promoting “diversity” is seen as a good thing. Diversity, in this sense, means, recognising that people vary in such ways as “race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs”. And promoting “diversity”, of course, is seen as a good thing because, historically, the majority – white heterosexual men, in particular – have controlled the stories that are told about who we are. I get this. It’s why I like to read widely. But I’m also uncomfortable labelling people, because it feels like slotting people into boxes, suggesting that that label is all they are. So, in the interests of balance, I refer you to this excellent post by novelist Andrea Goldsmith on her blog on the whole practice of labelling LGBTQI people. She makes sense to me, and makes me almost decide to pull this post. But, I’ve written it, and I’m hoping it serves a purpose, so I’ve decided to leave it here.

What do you think?

Nadine Gordimer, Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan (#BookReview)

June 9, 2019

There are authors I read long before blogging whom I really want to document here, in some way. One of these is Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who first came to my attention in 1983 with her memorable, confronting 1956 short story collection, Six feet of the country.

Nadine Gordimer, as I’m sure you know, had a lifelong concern for economic and racial inequality and injustice in South Africa, and this is evident in her short story, Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan. The story is told third person through the perspectives of a mother and father, the titular Claudia and Harald. Early in the story, they are visited by Julian, their 30-year-old son Duncan’s friend. They assume there’s been an accident, but

This Julian draws the flaps of his lips in over his teeth and clamps his mouth before he speaks.

A kind of … Not Duncan, no, no! Someone’s been shot. Duncan, he’s been arrested.

This description of Julian is so typical of Gordimer in the way, in a few words, she conveys something grotesque, something that feels more than the bringing of bad news, even before we know why he is there.

Book coverHowever, this 1996 story is particularly intriguing because it seems to be related to her 1997 novel The house gun. As far as I can tell, the first third of the story I read is very close to the first chapter of that book, but after that I don’t know. I do know that the details of the crime seem a little different in “my” story (but it may just be that they are not fully revealed). Also the novel’s Duncan is 27, while the story’s Duncan is 30. So, did Gordimer write the short story and then decide to flesh it out into a novel? I don’t know, but here is what Wikipedia says about The house gun, which was her second post-apartheid novel:

It follows the story of a couple, Claudia and Harald Lingard, dealing with their son Duncan’s murder of one of his housemates. The novel treats the rising crime rate in South Africa and the guns that virtually all households have, as well as the legacy of South African apartheid and the couple’s concerns about their son’s lawyer, who is black.

While the short story doesn’t emphasise all this, there is a reference to people having guns for protection, and there’s the sense that we are dealing with the post-apartheid world.

Anyhow, back to the story. What I love, as I’ve already intimated, is how Gordimer creates tone. Here’s our couple on hearing that the crime for which Duncan has been arrested is murder:

He/she. He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.

What a wonderfully fresh way of conveying the sense of discombobulation, of unreality, that results when the world seems to change in an instant.

From here – it’s a Friday – we follow Harald and Claudia through to their son’s arraignment on Monday, and into the hours immediately after, at which point the story ends, fairly suddenly.

One of the themes, in the story anyhow, concerns the idea that no matter how much you try to lock yourself away from the “outside”, you can’t keep it from coming in. This has a political as well as a personal reading. The story starts by telling us that Harald and Claudia had recently moved from a house to a “town-house complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance”. Later in the story, Claudia, a doctor, does her shift at the clinic which services “areas of the city and once genteel suburbs of Johannesburg where now there was an influx, a rise in and variety of the population.” During this shift, she considers the pain that it is her job to assuage – the pain that comes from inside, like a tumour, and that which comes from the outside, like being burnt or, yes, hit by a bullet. She reflects:

The pain that is the by-product of the body itself, its malfunction, is part of the self; somewhere, a mystery medical science cannot explain, the self is responsible. But this – the bullet in the head: the pure assault of pain.

This is surely a metaphor for that fear of the “outside” by the well-to-dos who choose to live in security-monitored complexes. What’s inside, the implication is, cannot be necessarily controlled but it’s part of your own world; what’s outside is to be feared. In this section of the story, there are references to socioeconomic differences. Claudia gives out diet sheets, for example, to people, mostly black, who, she knows, are “too poor for the luxury of these remedies”.

It is, then, just the sort of story I like to read. The careful word choice, the slightly odd syntax, plus things like the references to class and race, combine to convey something that is more than a simple murder plot involving a son and his devastated parents. As the narrator slyly says:

This is not a detective story. Harald has to understand that the mode of events that genre represents is actuality, this is the sequence of circumstantial evidence and interpretation by which a charge of murder is arrived.

Circumstantial evidence and interpretation. The stuff of complex lives in complex times, eh? I’d like to read the novel now.

Nadine Gordimer
Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996
(A Bloomsbury Quid)

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of men (#BookReview)

June 7, 2019

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone’s latest novel, Bodies of men, is a brave book – and not because it’s a World War 2 story about love between two soldiers at at time when such relationships were taboo, though there is that. No, I mean, because it’s a World War 2 story that was inspired by Featherstone’s three-month writer-in-residence stint at the Australian Defence Force Academy, in 2013. That’s not particularly brave, you are probably thinking, but wait, there’s more. What’s brave is that this novel, this story inspired by that residency, is about some darker sides of war – it’s about deserters, and violence from your own side, for a start … It’s certainly not about heroics, or, to be accurate, not the sort of heroics you’d expect. Courage, it shows, comes in many forms.

Here is what self-described pacifist Featherstone wrote in his blog two months into his residency:

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’ …  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

So, what did Featherstone actually write? It’s the story of two Australian soldiers from Sydney. William is from a conservative, well-to-do North Shore Sydney family, with a Member of Parliament father, while James comes from a poorer working class family, with a widowed mother who runs a shop but who’s also a socialist, a pacifist, and committed to helping homeless people. The boys had met and spent a few times together in their youth, but had lost touch for some years – until they find themselves in Egypt in 1941.

The novel opens with a reconnaissance that turns into an ambush. At an important moment, William, just off the boat, prevaricates, but James, there with a different military section, takes the initiative, and saves the day. The men vaguely recognise each other – “The officer”, thinks James, “does look familiar … but no it can’t be” – but have no opportunity to follow up, each returning immediately to their sections. From here the narrative, told third person from the alternating perspectives of William and James, follows the two men on their different paths. William, soon to be a lieutenant, is sent to manage a training camp in the desert. Believing he needs to redeem himself from that first experience of action, he sees this as an opportunity. He excels as a leader of men, finding the right balance between toughness and friendliness, but is dogged by his cold father’s voice, and worries about his ability to be the man his father expects. However, his mind is on that young man he glimpsed. Meanwhile, James goes AWOL on a military motorbike, which he crashes. Luckily, a family takes him in, a family which has its own tricky background and secrets, but James is just the right person to not rock their boat, so a warm relationship develops.

It’s not long before William works out a way of tracking James down. The story is told chronologically, but with frequent flashbacks which fill in that boyhood friendship. It was short, but intense. Both felt it, but William, in particular, struggled to understand it. It is therefore James, who, upon their renewed acquaintance, takes the lead – and the novel becomes, in part, a love story. Featherstone finds the right balance, here, conveying their tenderness and warmth, without sentimentality. We are never allowed to forget that this is war-time, and that both William and James are taking serious risks in their desire to be together.

However, this is not simply a boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy-finds-boy again story. As mentioned above, Featherstone’s goal was to explore what it means to be a good man, against the backdrop of war. We do see some action, besides that opening scene, and there is an over-riding sense that something sinister could happen at any moment, but the main theme concerns men and their reactions to their circumstances – soldiers, men in hiding, men displaced, men in resistance. Each of these men provides the reader with a perspective on how men might choose to be. Courage and risk-taking, passion for a cause, recklessness, fear, commitment to helping others, tenderness and kindness – all of these come into play as the story progresses. And, as in all good novels, there are no simple answers. A love story this might be, but a genre romance or war-story it’s not.

How does Featherstone achieve this? Well, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint these things, isn’t it? In a later post on his blog, Featherstone says that he wrote 38 drafts. You can tell this, and yet you can’t tell. You can tell, because you can feel the craft in the book. You can’t tell, because it also feels organic, not overworked. There’s skill in that. This skill includes the characterisation. William and James are sensitively fleshed out, well individuated, and grow through their experiences. But there are other characters too, including two strong women characters. James’ grounded, supportive mother is one, and open-minded Yetta, the woman who cares for James after his accident is another. It is she who articulates some of the novel’s main messages, including:

‘People must care for people. It’s not more complicated than that.’

There’s skill also in the narrative structure. The novel has a lightly episodic touch, with little breaks marked on the paper between “scenes”, but the story nonetheless flows. These breaks simply provide a way for the narrative to be progressed without unnecessary explication.

And, of course, there’s the writing. It’s spare, and yet perfectly evocative – of life at William’s desert camp, of the nervous busy-ness of war-time Alexandria where wells of quietness can also be found, and of William and James’ love. Here’s an example showing the edgy sort of tone Featherstone creates:

But now, something new: he was – he and James both were – sliding into the back seat of a car. They were being driven along one of Alexandria’s palm-lined boulevards; before long they were surrounded by blackness. William wound down his window and was about to yell, BUGGER THE WAR! – the night was getting away from him – but he managed to drag the words back down to where they belonged, in the pit of his gut.

Bodies of men, then, is a war novel that questions war. But, it is told with a generous touch that doesn’t undermine or betray those who choose to go. It’s a page-turner, underpinned by a fundamental understanding of humanity. It’s a very good read.

Nigel Featherstone
Bodies of men
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019
ISBN: 9780733640704


Monday musings on Australian literature: American apologist for Australian literature

June 3, 2019

If you read my 1965 series Monday Musings post on literary visitors, you will know the subject of this post. It’s Professor Bruce Sutherland, who was credited with establishing one of the first university courses on Australian literature in the USA (at Pennsylvania State University, in 1942) and who became the first American Professor of Australian Writing in 1950. He was regarded as a pioneer in promoting the study of “Commonwealth literature.”

Tischler, writing about Sutherland in Antipodes, says that, originally a medievalist, he was converted, saying that “Nowadays, I prefer to feel the keen wind of the contemporary world blowing through my study windows.”

Hume Mystery of a Hansom CabSo, he offered his course for the first time in 1942, just after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Australian books were hard come by in the American market, and with the war, they became “almost impossible to import”. Tischler says that at the time he started the course there were four Australian titles in the Penn. State Library:

  • John Boyle O’Reilly’s Life … with complete poems
  • Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony
  • E.W. Horning’s Stingaree 
  • Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab (my review)

I wonder how many Aussies know all these? I’ve only vaguely heard of two of them: O’Reilly and Hornung. Anyhow, Sutherland began collecting Australian literature, resulting in Penn. State having “one of the best research collections outside Australia”. Carter and Osborne write that Sutherland’s teaching and his collection of Australian books “became a touchstone for the organised study of Australian literature in America”.

His first courses, Tischler says, relied heavily on a Henry Lawson short story collection, a poetry collection, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Moon of desire, Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, Miles Franklin’s All that swagger, and Kylie Tennant’s Battlers. She praises this selection for its “openness” and “willingness to include women as well as men, popular and classically shaped pieces, modern and nineteenth-century titles.”

In 1945, Sutherland wrote an article titled “Australian books and American readers” for America’s The Library Quarterly. He listed some of his favorites, says Tischler,

noting that Richardson was “perhaps the greatest living Australian novelist”. Others, whose works he cites are Marcus Clarke, Lawson, Joseph Furphy, Prichard, Christina Stead, Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Edith Littleton [sic], and Xavier Herbert.

Edith Littleton? Ah, it’s Edith Lyttleton, who wrote as GB Lancaster. She won the ALS Gold Medal in 1933, but seems to have lived mostly in New Zealand.

In a Meanjin article in 1950, Sutherland described his course, explaining that he examined the general movements in Australian literature, using materials, writes Tischler, “covering history, geography, explorations, flora and fauna, customs and manners, travel, biography, and literary criticism”. He included all the major forms – novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and essays. Tischler suggests he was teaching at a good time, being before the explosion in opposing ideas about literary criticism. He could, she writes, “simply bring his interest in social, historical, and biographical criticism to bear on his criticism, rather than limiting himself to the text as the “New Critics” might have done, or questioning the text and its voice as the “Deconstructionists” might have done later on.”

Sutherland did visit Australia, as we know from my Monday Musings. His first trip, though, was not 1965, but 1951 on a Fulbright scholarship to study A.G. Stephens, that long-term editor of The Bulletin “whom he considered Australia’s foremost literary critic.” Sutherland was apparently an affable man who could get on with all sorts of people. Tischler quotes the Sydney Telegraph as saying that he looks like “the young Abe Lincoln, speaks like a college educated Gary Cooper, and has the homespun simplicity of Will Rogers.” He became good friends with Miles Franklin.

“There is more to Australian literature than most Australians realise” (Sutherland, 1952)

He also – and many of us won’t be surprised by this – found that Australia’s university students back then were mainly interested in “a classical, academic course of study” which limited their engagement with their own literature and culture. Sutherland’s response was to take “on the role of apologist and critic” for our literature! Nice that someone did, eh?

Things did improve, he noticed, over time. Nonetheless, in the second issue of Australian Literary Studies, in 1963, he noted that although there is literary criticism in Australia “no Australian author is in danger of being smothered under an avalanche of critical commentary”. Hmm …

In his Meanjin article “An American looks at Australian literature”, Sutherland, Tischler explains, said he was looking for an “indigenous” literature, “an honest and sincere attempt at self-expression in Australia”. Australia had “no Emerson, no Hawthorne, no Melville, no Poe, no Whitman” all of whom “combined a knowledge of old world culture with new world conditions”. But, it did have, he said, Shaw Neilson and Christopher Brennan. Also, Henry Kingsley was “a rough Australian equivalent to Fenimore Cooper”; and “in For the term of his natural life” could be found, he said, some of the moral indignation that produced Uncle Tom’s cabin”. He believed that there were many other parallels “among local colour and regional writers of both countries”. Indeed, he said, “Tom Collins could well have been an Australian Mark Twain had he been recognized soon enough and given the backing and encouragement that Twain received from the common man in America.” Darn it, eh!

Book coverI hope you’ve enjoyed this little portrait. I’ve loved discovering this American enthusiast for our literature. I’ll finish with comments he made about one of his favourite Australian authors, Henry Handel Richardson, after her death. He said (reported The Argus in 1946) that she’d been “snubbed by her old school and ignored for many years by the [Australian] reading public” but that “she nonetheless regarded herself as Australian” which was demonstrated by “her choice of Australia as the background for most of her work.” Of The fortunes of Richard Mahony, he wrote

in this family chronicle she reached her highest peak as a writer, as an analyst of character, and as a proponent of tragedy that is Shakespearian.

Oh, to have such a supporter, eh?


  • Book news: American Tribute (1946, July 27). The Argus. p. 15.
  • Carter, David and Bruce Osborne. Australian books and authors in the American marketplace 1840s–1940s. Sydney University Press, 2018. p. 338.
  • Praise for Australian literature (1952, June 17). The Age. p. 2.
  • Sutherland, Bruce. ‘Review by Bruce Sutherland.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 1963.
  • Tischler, Nancy. ‘Bruce Sutherland and images of Australia.’ Antipodes, vol. 7, no. 2, Dec. 1993, pp. 135-138.

Six degrees of separation, FROM Murmur TO …

June 1, 2019

And still it continues, and by this I mean my unbroken record this year of not having read the Six Degrees of Separation meme starting book. Who is to blame for this parlous state of affairs? Not me, of course – haha – but our meme leader Kate! I forgive her, though, and direct you to her blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest – for the meme’s rules. Fortunately, you can trust that I’ve read my selections in the chain.

Book coverSo, this month’s starting book is Will Eaves’ Murmur. Not only have I not read it, but I had never heard of it. It is apparently inspired by the life of the mathematician Alan Turing, who among other things was instrumentally involved in Britain’s cypher-breaking work at Bletchley Park during World War 2.Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems

It’s a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but from here I’m going to link to Lesley Lebkowicz’s historical fiction verse novel, The Petrov poems (my review). It tells the story of the Petrovs, who were Russian spies operating in Canberra during the earlier years of the Cold War. Early in his career, Vladimir Petrov was a cypher clerk!

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby MoonlightMy next link moves to form, not content. It’s Ali Cobby Eckermann’s verse novel, Ruby Moonlight (my review), which is, in fact, another historical fiction work, though not based on “real people. It’s about an Aboriginal teenage girl, Ruby Moonlight, whose family is massacred by white settlers, and who, in her lonely wanderings, meets another lonely person, Miner Jack.

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

Ruby Moonlight’s subtitle is “a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880”. Another novel about the impact of colonisation, but this one set in Africa, is the modern classic, Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart (my review). It’s rather different from Eckermann’s book, but it also offers a thoughtful rather than simplistic exploration of how colonialism can play out.

Sefi Atta, A bit of differenceChinua Achebe is Nigerian – though he wrote in English. Another Nigerian writer I’ve reviewed here, and who also writes in English, is Sefi Atta with her novel A bit of difference (my review). It is set in England, though, and its subject matter is very different. Its protagonist is an accountant at an international charitable foundation. Her job is to audit the organisations that receive its grants.

Jordan Fall GirlGrants provide the link to my next novel, Toni Jordan’s chick lit novel, Fall girl (my review). It’s about a young woman con artist trying to extract grant money from a young man representing his wealthy family’s trust. (Though, as is the way of cons, all is not as it seems.)

Cover for Amor Towles A gentleman in MoscowNow, if you are a reader who keeps an eye on the publishing environment, you’ve probably seen the discussions in recent years about book covers featuring women’s backs or headless women (of which Fall girl, in fact, has both). I’ve reviewed a couple of other novels featuring the backs of women, but I also have one featuring a man’s back, so rather than perpetuate anonymous women, I’m choosing the man! Hence, I give you Amor Towles’ A gentleman in Moscow (my review)!

I had fun with this challenge, partly because it took me a little more time than usual to get it going. However, I love that we’ve been to England, Australia, Nigeria and Russia. Four of my six writers are women – not unusual for my chain – and three are writers of colour, which pleases me.

Have you read Murmur? Would you recommend it, and, regardless, what would you link to? 

Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (#BookReview)

May 30, 2019

Book coverConvenience store woman, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, is Sayaka Murata’s 10th novel, but her first translated into English. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. A rather unusual book, it elicited a stimulating discussion at my reading group last week.

The convenience store woman of the title is 36-year-old Keiko Furukawa. She isn’t “normal”, and her family worries she will never fit in to society. However, when 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened Smile Mart convenience store, and quickly feels comfortable, undertaking routine daily tasks, and following the store’s rules. Eighteen years later, she’s still there. This is not seen as a valid situation for a woman of Keiko’s now mature age. Why isn’t she married? And why doesn’t she have a better job? Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems by having him move in with her.

It’s a short book, at just 176-pages in the print edition, and is told first person. Now, for those of you who remember my recent discussion of first person voices, Convenience store woman is a perfect example of an effective use of first person. The main theme is the push for conformity, the push to follow the expected narrative of a life, but our narrator, Keiko, is not, for whatever reason, able (or willing) to conform. This theme is particularly relevant to Japan, which has a reputation for conformity and group behaviour, but it’s also universally relevant, because many societies, my own included, are not good at coping with people who stray from the “norm”.

So, Keiko is different. She’s been different all her life. She knows it, and she’s mystified. She’s particularly mystified by the way people often behave which seems counter to logic, and also by the way people cheer up when they think she’s behaving “normally”. An example of the former happens in her childhood, which she tells us via flashback. There’s a schoolyard fight. The kids call for the fight to stop, so she goes to the toolshed, gets a spade and bashes one of the kids with it. Everyone is horrified,

“But everyone was saying to stop Yamazaki-kun and Aoki-kun fighting! I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it,” I explained patiently. Why on earth were they so angry? I just didn’t get it.

An example of the latter occurs after she invites Shiraha to live at her place. Everyone assumes they are in a relationship. “They were all so ecstatic”, she wondered, she says, “whether they’d lost their minds”. Listening to her friends “go on”, she says,

was like hearing them talk about a couple of total strangers. They seemed to have the story wrapped up between them. It was about characters who had the same names as we did, but who had absolutely nothing to do with me or Shiraha.

There it is – the expected story or narrative of life!

Of her convenience store colleagues, she says:

I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?

As you can see there’s a good deal of humour in this book. You can also see why this story could only be told first person. Any other voice would risk undermining Keiko’s authenticity, her reality.

So, for Keiko, it’s “convenient” having Shiraha at her place. Everyone is happy for her, and she likes that “they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business”.

However, while Keiko, for all her strangeness, is a likeable character, Shiraha is not. He has no desire to work, and takes advantage of her wish to appear “normal”, even though it satisfies his need for the same. He excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men:

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

Worse, he’s arrogant and cruel:

“I did it! I got away! Everything’s okay for the time being. There’s no way you’ll be getting pregnant, no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you, after all.”

Actually, he only “got away” because Keiko had the idea of his moving in. Fortunately, she has no interest in sex, so his comment falls on flat ears – but we notice it.

The novel, then, hinges on the idea of normality, with the word “normal” recurring throughout the novel. Early on, Keiko realises that “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects”. This is why, it dawns on her, her family wishes to “cure” her. She is therefore grateful for the convenience store, where she can operate as “a normal cog in society” – until her age makes it no longer “normal”. The charming Shiraha has his own take:

“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know. But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around.” Shiraha gave a thin laugh. “I always did want revenge, on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women. I always thought to myself that I’d be a parasite one day. That’d show them. And I’m going to be a parasite on you, Furukura, whatever it takes.”

Shiraha shows us that Murata’s understanding of deviations from the norm is nuanced, not simplistic.

Anyhow, later in the novel, after her sister asks “How can we make you normal?”, Keiko comes to recognise that her sister is happier seeing her as “normal”, albeit with “a lot of problems”,

than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.

In the end, Keiko does resolve her conundrum regarding how to live in a way that is true to herself. It is inspired, in fact, by the convenience store, which I think we can read as a microcosm of society. She suggests that “a convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like”. She can play a role in that.

Convenience store woman is a wonderful read. Perfect in tone and voice, and fearless in its exploration of the confining nature of “normality”, it forces us to look beyond, and imagine other lives and ways of being.

Sayaka Murata
Convenience store woman
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
London: Portobello Books, 2016 (trans. ed. 2018)
eISBN: 9781846276859