Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

This week’s Monday musings has a personal, sentimental, genesis. Last Friday, my 91-year-old father underwent his third major abdominal surgery in 6 years. It’s a big ask for an older body but he’s hanging in there. My parents, not surprisingly I suppose, were instrumental in my becoming a reader. My mother introduced me to Jane Austen. My father would let me bring my “28 books” (why I thought there were 28 is lost in my childhood haze) to him in bed in the morning so he could read them aloud to me. It was also he who introduced me, through reading aloud again, to Banjo Paterson‘s ballads. I have a lot to thank my parents for – and my being a reader is one of them.

All this got me to thinking of fathers in literature, and particularly Australian literature. There are a lot of men – yes, really! – in Australian fiction, but how often, I wondered, is their role as fathers a feature of the writing? As it turns out, it’s more common than I thought, but I’ll just share five here.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s My father’s moon (1989)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy and, while it is really about Vera and her challenge to find a place in the adult world, the support provided by her father is critical in her life … and Jolley writes of it beautifully:

He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept because I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at, ‘And because of this’, he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

Murray Bail‘s Eucalyptus (1998)

Eucalyptus is one of my favourite books. The writing is gorgeous and it explores fatherhood from a surprising angle – for a modern novel. It is in fact a rather traditional fairy story, with a modern twist. The father in Eucalyptus sets a task for his daughter’s wooers – they must be able to identify every eucalypt tree on the property in order to win her hand, but this modern father finds that managing his daughter’s future is not quite as easy as he thought. She might in fact want a say in it.

Joan London‘s The good parents (2008)

Joan London targets, among other things, the whole issue of parenthood by exploring three generations or so of parents and children. The central family is Jacob and Toni, with their two children, and Jacob is given reasonable “airplay” in his own right as he contemplates his missing daughter and his role as her parent, and along the way his relationship with his mother, Arlene. He wonders, as many parents do at some stage, whether the choices he made for his and his family’s life were the best ones for his children.

Steve Toltz‘s A fraction of the whole (2008)

The father-son relationship is the central idea of Steve Toltz’s big, loose, baggy monster of a novel as it explores Jasper’s rather typical desire to not be his father, the free-thinking-out-there Martin. After a rather wild ride in which Jasper learns many important things, he realises that he will never be his father, that he is the sum of more than one part.

David Malouf‘s Ransom (2010)

And then there’s Ransom, Malouf’s reimagining of Priam’s approach to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector in order to give him a proper burial. The book has larger themes – about daring to dream, about humility, about the power of compassion, to name a couple – but at the heart of it is the love of a father for his son. Without that, there would be no book and we would have missed another beautiful read from Malouf.

This is a pretty quick introduction to some views on fathers in recent Australian literature, because my time right now is otherwise engaged – but I’d love to hear if you have favourite literary fathers. Who are they, and why do you like them?

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

    • Thanks Lisa, I’m with him now … Wrote much of this post in the hospital which is why the formatting is plain as posting on the iPad is not easy. We are doing round the clock at the hospital these early days just to get him over the first hump. He’s a keen reader of my blog – and loved Ransom – so he’ll enjoy this post I think.

    • Wow, thanks for this Rowan. The lost/missing father is an archetype I didn’t cover in my selection, though I nearly included another Aussie novel, The white earth by Andrew McGahan in which the absent father is replaced by the grandfather. Anyhow, I.ll try to catch some of these programs.

  1. Hope all goes well with your dad, Sue.

    I’m getting ready to read Malouf’s Ransom pretty quick here. I’ve read other books by him and expect to enjoy it.

    • Thanks Bekah … so far so good, but it is a very tough thing for a man of his age. If you’ve liked other books by him I’d be surprised if you didn’t like this. It’s one of those which lingers after it’s gone too – the sense and tone of it.

  2. Enormous best of luck to your dad. As for literature: I like Henry Handel Richardson for her intelligent writerly use of fatherhood at the end of Richard Mahony, when she decides to describe Mahony’s madness through his son, who understands things in a nonadult way. And Lilian’s Story would not be Lilian’s Story without Albion. And there’s the father in The Drover’s Wife, whose absence is probably more potent than his presence. And now I think of Blinky Bill’s father, and Dorothy Wall’s drawing of him up a tree, and my memory says, “He was shot for his coat,” but when I check the story online I see that the hunter left him there and walked off whistling, which is even more cold and spectacular. “The man with the gun stood and waited a long time, then walked away, whistling as he went.” O! say the children of Australia, bewildered and horrified. O!

    • Thanks DKS for your good wishes too. And I love your suggestions. Lilian’s story is a great one. And of course, but I haven’t read it yet, your Stead book, The man who loved children.
      You’re right about the impact of the absent father too … that can have just as powerful an effect.

      • The book she wrote from Albion’s point of view has less of a public profile than Lilian’s but I think I even prefer it, for its sombre semi-hysterical tone — none of the uplift of the daughter’s book, just coldness and doom. Does Patrick White have much to say about fathers? His fathers always seem to recede in front of his big smothering mothers.

        • I haven’t read Dark places/Albion’s story, but would like to one day. I don’t darkness in writing. I thought of Patrick White … I wondered a little about The solid mandala because the father does feature somewhat in the first part of the novel and has some impact on his sons’ lives. He’s a reader and would like his son to work in a library. They keep some secrets from him for fear of his displeasure. My recollection is that he’s a little weak, a little shambly, but my recollection might be wrong.

          The tree of man deals with parenting issues … my memory of the details though is a little vague now. Do you recollect anything?

  3. Hmm, I wonder what you would say about the father in Seven Little Australians? Or what about (and this is stretching it, perhaps…) the fathers in The Silver Brumby series? After all, with all his mares, Thowra certainly had his fair share of “children” 😉

    • Yes, Seven little Australians … he’s your traditional regimental, disciplinarian father isn’t he? At least as I recollect. A bit reminiscent – or am I wrong – of the father in the Sound of Music?

      As for Thowra, but what sort of father was he?

      • Yes, I remember him being very disciplinarian and detached. And Thowra? I believe there was one of his kids who he doted over… did he once go and collect a mare for one of his sons? 😛

  4. I remember the Tree of Man man more as a husband and a landowner than a father. In fact even now that you’ve mentioned it I don’t remember him as a father. All I can see is him and his wife and his house and scrub all around, and maybe a chicken. When I try to picture a typical White father then it’s someone “a little weak” I see, never close to the children, somewhat ineffectual, someone that the child can lie to, because they don’t push for the truth, they don’t bother the child (the mother in White is the botherer). The father is a vaguish authority figure. (One of the interesting things about Man Who Loved is Stead’s reversal of that usual literary dynamic — the smothering mother or grandmother (eg, in Lawrence’s Virgin and the Gypsy, a big toadlike granny squatting over the family) versus the colder, more reserved father. In Stead it’s the father who presses in on his children, won’t leave them alone, and wants to push food from his mouth into theirs with his tongue — the same way that Hurtle’s adoptive (I think) mother in The Vivisector tries to feed the boy chocolates.)

    • Yes, must say I recollect more the husband and farmer, but they did have family too didn’t they? I think the fathers in White do tend to be on the weak side – as fathers anyhow. Have you read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead? It’s about, among other things, a father wanting to pass on his wisdom, but not in an arrogant way, and I was loving it as I read it. And then I lost it! How stupid. I did find it again but months later and I was onto other things. It’s one of those sparely written, quiet meditative books that I love … and I must get back to it.

      • Gilead! Gilead is terrific. The tone of the father is so beautiful and so apparently wise — but then there’s the hidden side of the book, the things he glides past so sweetly, the racism, and the raging grandfather, the very mild acknowledgements of things that would be possibly terrible if he pressed harder and saw them more clearly, or at least differently. I once saw someone at the Guardian’s bookblogs get so passionate about this understated side of the town that they argued the father was sitting over a rural Hellmouth, unable to recognise it. It was a convincing argument too.

        I’ve dug White’s memoir out of a box. “My father was small and mild. I can’t remember him losing his temper even when forced to assert himself by taking a strap to me. The whippings were left to my mother, whose technique with a riding crop was formidable … Imagination was not part of [my father’s]
        make-up … [he] had been round the world without any of it rubbing off on him.”

        • Ah you’ve read it … I must get back to it as I love that sort of complexity contained in such slow measured writing.

          Are you talking about Flaws in the glass? I’ve had that next to my chair for a year now to dip into. His mother was a strong woman wasn’t she! But oh dear, poor dad and his imagination (or lack thereof). How does he define imagination? I must say that by certain definitions I’m rather lacking in it too!

  5. Hope your father’s surgery went well and he is recovering comfortably.

    At last I have read one of the Australian books you mention! Eucalyptus is a wonderful book, I agree 🙂

    • Thanks Stefanie. He’s on his way but it’s a slow process at his age. So glad you like Eucalyptus. You have to be a certain sort of reader to like it I think but if you are that sort of reader you’re bound to love it!

  6. Here’s hoping your father makes a speedy recovery — I’m so impressed he is 91!!

    As for father’s in Aussie literature, don’t forget D’Arcy Niland’s The Shiralee.

    • He’s recovering thanks kimbofo but I wouldn’t call it speedy! He’d like it to be so though, so all wishes are gratefully accepted!

      Oh yes, good one. Because I haven’t read it yet – naughty me – I’d forgotten it. So many great books from the past to read. How can we keep up?

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