Trevor Shearston, Hare’s fur (#BookReview)

While I want to, I often don’t manage to follow up books recommended by Lisa but Trevor Shearston’s Hare’s fur particularly caught my attention. He was an Australian author I didn’t know; the novel is set in the Blue Mountains; and the protagonist is a potter, which sounded intriguing. So, I bought it – over a year ago, in fact, when I had a bookshop gift voucher to spend – but have only just managed to squeeze it into my schedule.

It’s a lovely read. However, I was surprised to discover that Shearston has published several novels, and a short story collection. His 2013 novel Game, about bushranger Ben Hall, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead and Colin Roderick awards. Hare’s fur is quite a different book – at least, ostensibly, as I haven’t read Game to know its style or underlying concerns!

So, Hare’s fur. It tells the story of Russell Bass, a recently widowed 70-something potter living in the beautiful Blackheath area of the Blue Mountains. Unlike his potter son-in-law, Hugh, Russell sources the rock for his glazes in the canyons below his home. On one of his forays – to a remote creek that he thinks only he visits – he hears voices, and, on further investigation, discovers three children living in a cave, teen Jade who is looking after her younger sister Emma and little brother Todd. They are, he discovers, hiding from child welfare (DoCS) and the police. What would you do? The novel – novella, really, I’d say – tells the story of the relationship that develops between these four, and how Russell navigates this tricky human, legal and moral territory.

Now, before I go further, I was interested to see in Trevor Shearston’s GoodReads author page a book called The impact of society on the child: Proceedings of the inaugural annual meeting. I can’t find what his role was. It doesn’t seem he was editor or assistant editor, but, assuming he was involved, it suggests a formal interest in children’s well-being. Certainly, that is the essential theme of this novel. It’s about deciding what’s responsible and being generous, in the face of justifiable fear and lack of trust.

From Govett’s Leap, Blackheath

What’s lovely about this novel is that the adults involved – not just Russell, but, peripherally, his daughter and son-in-law who live 30-minutes walk away, and his neighbour – are open to solving this problem. They recognise the very real risks and challenges of Russell’s desire to protect the children, but they don’t resort to black-and-white solutions. I will leave what happens there, because one of the joys of the novel is following the various characters’ decisions and actions as they navigate this tricky situation.

Other joys of the novel include the writing, and particularly the descriptions of the landscape. Here is part of Russell’s walk down to his creek:

Tea-tree and lomandra had grown across the opening of the abandoned lookout. He pushed through the clumps of blades to the apron of lichened concrete and found the faint pad that only his feet maintained, skirting to the right of the platform through wind-sculpted casuarinas and hakea and more tea-tree to the cliff edge. There he stopped and removed his beanie and took the sun on his face and scalp. It was the last direct sunlight he would know until he stood again on this spot. …

He describes the birds and flowers, the colours and the misty coldness of the mountains, so beautifully.

The characterisation is good too. Told third person but from Russell’s perspective, we are privy to the feelings of this man who is still grieving his wife but is getting on with it. His daughter and son-in-law, and his neighbour, invite him over for dinner or drop meals on his doorstep, but he’s not helpless. He’s sad and a bit lonely, but he has his work. His relationship with the children is gentle, thoughtful and respectful. His response to Jade is wise,

She lacks education, he told himself, not intelligence. Don’t talk down to her.

Then there’s the title – hare’s fur. Hands up, if you know what it means? I didn’t, but it’s a special kind of brown glaze. Jade asks him how he turns the rocks into glaze. He tells her

… when it’s heated to a high enough temperature it’ll melt again. And, having lots of iron in it, that gives a black glaze. If I’m lucky, with streaks of dark blue, or red, or sometimes little brown flecks that look like animal fur.

One of Russell’s most treasured possessions is a valuable, 900-year-old hare’s fur tea bowl bequeathed him by a collector. Why the novel is titled for this is not obvious, but presumably part of it relates to the fact that this glaze is precious and rare, and needs to be nurtured like the children he has found. There’s a point where he shows Jade this bowl and lets her hold it. He tells her she can go look at it in his room any time, but asks her not to pick it up. Trusting her like this, with an object precious to him, is significant – but not laboured in the novel.

Hare’s fur is a positive book about the importance of trust and respect, and of being open to others. It’s also about how lives can be remade. Russell is as lucky as the children that they found each other.

Trevor Shearston
Hare’s fur
Melbourne: Scribe, 2019
ISBN: 9781925713473

26 thoughts on “Trevor Shearston, Hare’s fur (#BookReview)

  1. I attended one of the first – THE first Sydney writers’ festivals – early 1980s – at the Sydney Town Hall – almost as many writers on the stage as the audience – could have been 30 or 40 seated below the stage – including Betty Roland and Nance Donkin. On the stage the only writer I recall was Trevor Shearston. I was there to see him in particular for his books set in PNG. My wife and I had a (National) mate born in the Highlands (Banz) – he’d stayed with us in Inverell in early 1976 – we’d attended his ASOPA graduation in Sydney in the late May – and in 1980 visited him – met his family – travelled from (Mt) Hagen to Banz, Minj, Goroka and as far as Lae and in and out of PNG via Port Moresby. I was hunting material to offer insight into PNG – the colonial/missionary era as much as other aspects. Trevor Shearston did that with Something in the Blood, White Lies, Sticks that Kill (1983). I had no idea of further books so I am delighted to meet him again here and to read elsewhere the story of how he came to create his central character in Hare’s Fur as a potter! And a friendship with the great Australian potter Peter Rushforth. (The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmond de Waal also comes to mind! Ceramics and netsuke and family history.)

    • Thanks for your stories as always Jim. I hadn’t realised those early books were set in PNG.

      In Hare’s fur, he talks a lot about pottery though I didn’t focus on that in my post. However, you’ll be amused to know that in this book Russell is reading The hare with amber eyes. I’m on the road now to Sydney so can’t check, but I think it was the last book his wife gave him.

      • I’ve purchased a copy now on line – was thinking surely there’ll be some reference to de Waal’s book – so thanks for the confirmation! I was in touch during my Japan days with Peter Rushforth following up on folkcraft connections – he was generous with his response… all those years ago reading Shearston I remember how impressed I was with his ethical portrayal of characters – colonial/ex-pats and Nationals…I was raised in a missionary-based fundamentalist sect with lots of missions throughout the South Pacific including PNG – and pastors and families “home” on “furlough” (so colonial that terminology) would subject us to their slide nights of “sing-sings” and their version of the transformations wrought by Jesus on these otherwise earlier steeped-in-paganism “darkness” peoples. All exoticism – I never got the sense of equality – so the friendship we made in the mid-1970s with our ASOPA mate – was on an entirely other level – and then Trevor Shearston’s books! Of course others since – including Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain in 2012.

  2. Hi Sue, it is a good read, and not judgemental at all. I love the Blue Mountains. Presently I am in Tasmania, and my daughter and I have just returned from a wonderful trip along the east coast to the midlands and to the north west coast. The Tarkine Drive was in breathtaking wilderness. The Trowutta Arch is awesome!

  3. Somewhere, I speculated with Lisa whether Trevor Shearston was related to/brother of singer Gary Shearston, ‘famous’ for his odd version “I get a Kick out of You’. I had another look today with no result except I came across an author interview (with Trevor) about why he wrote about pottery, the Blue Mountains, lost children.
    in which he mentions, nod to Jim, his first three books were about PNG.

    • Ah well done Bill. I saw one brief interview with him but didn’t check much out as I like to be fresh with my observations. I’ll check that interview out now. I did gather that his first wife was a potter on the NSW south coast and that since moving to the Blue Mountains he sometimes helps potters with their kiln work?

    • Have just read the interview Bill. The potting stuff I knew, but not his comments on where the story came from. Really interesting.

      BTW I remember that Gary Shearston song though I’d never have remembered the singer’s name on my own.

    • Bill – on pretty much the same line of reasoning – just to-day in speaking to my wife about Trevor she said: I wonder if he’s related to Gary? No. Not that I ever heard from Gary – we were in touch from my earliest exchange teaching days in Japan when he was the Vicar in Hay at St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral – taking scripture at the high school where my wife and I ha begun our teaching careers 20 years earlier (1971). There were other reasons to write and we enjoyed a long-term correspondence and twice called in on him – in Bangalow – and in Stanthorpe. He passed away in 2013 – too young really – known by many as the Father of Australian Folk! But in the last decade or so of his life was back into writing/singing/recording … some beautiful lyrical tales – literary I have long thought.

      • I love folk music Jim and regularly go to the National Folk Festival, but I hadn’t heard that about Gary Shearston. Then again I’m a dilettante rather than an expert so that’s not surprising.

      • Thanks Jim, I don’t know why Gary Shearston stuck in my mind. But years ago I lived in Adelaide for a while and the radio stations there, or maybe just the ABC, gave his song lots of airtime (around the same time they played the ear-worm Where do You Go to My Lovely every bloody day). In fact, I thought he might be an Adelaide DJ.

  4. I loved this as you know. It’s a book that has left a warm feeling in my heart.
    I keep looking out for those early novels because I feel it’s a real gap in my reading that I’ve read so little set in in PNG… and I’ve never, ever, seen a book written by a PNG author. There must be some…surely.

  5. Well this is set in a place that’s an easy drive for me – just checked and our library has several copies so I’ve reserved one. Thanks Sue!

  6. Pingback: ‘Hare’s Fur’ by Trevor Shearston – Reading Matters

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