Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

Christine Balint’s Water music was a joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day (my review), but they are very different books. Meany’s is contemporary, perhaps even near-future, and tackles some up-to-the-minute issues regarding fact, truth and authenticity, while Balint’s is historical fiction, a coming-of-age story, albeit a very specific one.

Set in 18th century Venice, Water music tells the story of a young orphan, Lucietta, who is raised by a fisherman’s family until she’s 16 years old when she leaves to live in Derelitti Convent, one of Venice’s many musical orphanages for girls. This interested me, because when my children were young we loved listening to an audiocassette telling the story of Vivaldi teaching in a Venetian orphanage for girls, but I’d never researched it further.

Balint explains her inspiration in the Acknowledgements and on her website. The book, she says, draws on “the unique history of the musical orphanages” in Venice, which existed from around 1400 to 1797, and were run by and for women. They took in girls of any class or background, if they passed an audition, and provided them with an opportunity to pursue a professional career when this “was rarely possible elsewhere in the world”. In particular, they gave impoverished girls an opportunity “to earn an income and establish a career or save for a dowry—enabling them to forge a fruitful life”.

The obvious question is, how could impoverished girls learn enough music to pass the audition? There must have been a way, but in our Lucietta’s case, she was born illegitimately and placed in a “foundling home”. From here she was given to a wet-nurse, the woman who became her mother, but her “real” father had left instructions and money for her musical education. This sets her on the course that leads her to auditioning for and being accepted at Derelitti.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Lucietta, who has learnt the violin, is musically talented and that her parents have been conscientious about fulfilling these instructions. Her mother, Lucietta tells us, “believed that if she followed these instructions, my musical and marital future would be assured”. Notwithstanding this, the question the novella poses is, what is her future to be? A few options are available to, or possible for, Lucietta, ranging from the future her mother doesn’t want for her, being a fisherman’s wife, to one dreamed of by the orphanage girls of being married to a nobleman from the “Golden Book“.

The story is told first person by Lucietta, so we see it all through her eyes. She’s a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has loved her fishing family, which includes a brother Lionello, so it’s not surprising that she is initially disconcerted when she leaves her family to live in the convent. However, this seems to be a kind place were the nuns and music teachers are supportive and the other girls are friendly. There’s not a lot of drama here, which is counter to your typical historical fiction. Instead, we travel along with Lucietta as she absorbs the influences, ideas and life around her, as she grows and changes, and as she meets, under the eyes of her mentors Maestra Francesca and the Convent’s priora, her suitor and potential husband, Don Leonardi.

Lucietta has decisions to make … and the good thing is that she is supported in those decisions without pressure. Well, there is a little pressure, including from one of her Convent friends, the sweet but one-armed and therefore in those times unmarriageable Regina. She had been sent to the Convent by her father who didn’t want to waste money on her. This is a world, after all, where “a girl is only as worthwhile as her marriage prospects”. Through Regina, Lucietta sees all the

Unwanted, unmarriageable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building. Creating sublime music, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.

There is a little political barb here regarding all those women who created and produced in the past – but anonymously. These convent girls may have had more opportunities than many, but they were not individually remembered. Some may see it as anachronistic when Lucietta sees value in “restoring the music, in finding the music, trying to recover their stories”, but then again, why wouldn’t someone back then have thought of doing this?

Balint’s writing is lovely. She brings the settings Lucietta experiences – her fishing home and then her convent one – to life, and creates in Lucietta an engaging, believable character.

Water music didn’t excite me quite so much as Helen Meany’s book did, perhaps because it’s a gentle book that explores a familiar story, albeit in a different and thoroughly interesting historical setting. However, because of that setting, because of its feminist underpinning, and because the writing is sure, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a good – and not bleak – story.

Theresa also enjoyed this book.

Christine Balint
Water music
Lidcombe, NSW: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267610

Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

Challenge logo

Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267627

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Novellas

Yes, I know, novellas aren’t really a genre, but when I started this sub-series I couldn’t find one word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I might end up covering, so we are all going to have to live with “genres”. OK? Many of you will know why I’ve chosen novellas as my next in the series: it’s because one of the several blogger memes running this month is Novellas in November.

Regular readers here will know that I love a novella – and it’s not because they are short, per se, but what the shortness implies. You know that I love short stories, so you will probably know what it is that I love about novellas – it is the ability to condense a story to its essence, while still engaging my heart and mind. In an interview post on my blog, author Nigel Featherstone who has a few novellas under his belt said this:

If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point.

Featherstone, Fall on me

Of course, as he goes on to say, definitions like this “are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it”. True, but I do like the idea that novellas offer “succinctness and sophistication”. Kate Jennings’ Snake, on which I posted last week, is a perfect example.

I should, I suppose, discuss definition. The problem is that novella definitions tend to be based on word count, but we readers have no idea of the number of words in the books we buy. Consequently, we tend to go by number of pages, which has to be rough because the number of words per page can vary significantly from book to book. However, my rule of thumb is the same as that offered by the Novellas in November crew, which is “150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages”.

However, I do want to make the point that for me – and for all serious definitions I’ve read – a novella must be fiction (despite Griffith Review’s including creative nonfiction in its criteria!)


There is a sense that publishers are loath to publish novellas because they believe readers equate length with value and feel cheated paying a book price for something that’s 150 pages versus, say, 300 pages. However, some publishers do actively support novellas. They are often the smaller independent publishers. Most of the Australian-published novellas that I’ve reviewed on this blog have come from, in no particular order, Spinifex, Wakefield, Hybrid, Xoum, Scribe, Text, UQP, Blemish (no longer in existence), and Inkerman and Blunt (which published Nick Earls’ acclaimed Wisdom Tree series). Classic novellas, and novellas by “big” names are, of course, published by the big publishers like Penguin.

One publisher which has been actively promoting and supporting novellas is Griffith Review. Primarily a literary journal, Griffith Review has, since issue 38 in 2012, devoted one issue a year to novellas, which they call The Novella Project. Introducing the project, then editor Julianne Schultz discussed the changes that were happening in publishing, and said,

In this context we believe that the time is right for the revival of the novella – of those stories that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.

They have a page on their website titled Notes on the novella. It comprises a collection of “notes” from contemporary Australian novella writers, including those published in the Novella Project editions. If you are interested in what writers think about the form, here is a good place to start. Holden Sheppard, for example, sees it as a “very pure form of storytelling”:

Novellas promise readers a direct flight to their destination – no layovers in Singapore or Dubai. 

Love it …


Who would have thought there’d be a prize for novellas but, it seems, where there’s a form or genre, there’s likely to be a prize. Here are three for novellas:

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbour
  • Griffith Review Novella Project is a competition that commenced in 2012, and sees winning entries being published in an edition of the journal. Entries can be fiction or creative non-fiction, ranging between 15,000–25,000 words. Winners have included established writers like Nick Earls, Cate Kennedy, John Kinsella and Stephen Orr. Catherine McKinnon worked her Novella Project III winner, “Will Martin”, into a novel, Storyland (my review).
  • Viva La Novella Prize was also established in 2012 – by Seizure – with the first winner announced in 2013. It’s an annual prize awarded for works of 20,000-50,000 words. Seizure is “a social endeavour which runs under the auspices of Xoum Publishing“. Since the award’s inception, Brio/Xoum has published 20 short novels, meaning there’s been more than one winner per year. I’ve read two, and have a couple more on my TBR. It’s another wonderful initiative.
  • Storyfest National Novella Writing Competition is an annual competition for high school students, that seems to have been running since 2018. The entries have to be between 8,000 and 20,000 words. You can see and read the overall and state winners on the Somerset Storyfest website. Lovely to see such encouragement for student writers.


Just search “novellas” in your browser and you will find a multitude of lists, but for a useful list of Australian novellas, check out Brona’s blog.

Are you a novella fan? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime.

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girl (#BookReview)

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girlMirandi Riwoe was joint-winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella prize with her book, The fish girl – and it has now been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. As you may already know, it was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”, which I reviewed a few days ago. Indeed, Maugham’s story provides the epigraphs to each of the novella’s three parts. Do you then need to have read Maugham’s story to appreciate Riwoe’s take? I’d say not – and would hate that assumption to put people off reading her book. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read Maugham’s work. How’s that for a foot in both camps?

To recap briefly, “The four Dutchmen” tells of four fat, jolly Dutchmen who work together on a boat plying the southeast Asian seas. Immensely loyal to each other, they plan to all retire when the first of them dies. The only blot on their togetherness is the captain’s penchant for Malay girls. However, the chief officer usually cleans up after him – paying off the girls, in other words, when the captain tires of them – until the day the captain decides to bring one of these girls along on a boat trip. Tragedy ensues.

Now, Maugham’s story is told first person by an observer-narrator, a traveller in the region, rather than one who’s involved in the events. The story has a matter-of-fact tone. Not so Riwoe’s story, which, although told first person, gets into the girl’s heart. Unlike Maugham, Riwoe gives her a name, Mina, and from the start, we realise that Mina’s fate is tied to men. Hers is a world controlled by men – regardless of whether that world is her village or the Dutch Resident’s house.

I should, perhaps, clarify some terminology at this point. Maugham uses the terms “Javanese” and “Malay girl” in his story. These days, we differentiate Javanese, who come from Java which is part of Indonesia, from Malaysians, who come from Malaysia, which neighbours Indonesia. However, in Maugham’s time, Malay was used for Austronesian people, which include today’s Malaysians and Indonesians, amongst others. Mina, Riwoe’s version of Maugham’s Malay girl, is from a Sunda village in this region.

Riwoe tells her story in three acts, each preceded by epigraphs from Maugham’s story. In the first part, Mina is offered by her father to a man who comes searching for “cheap labour for the Dutch Resident’s kitchen.” The barely pubescent Mina doesn’t want to go, has never left home before, but for her parents, her father in particular, there is hope that she will be able to send them things they “need, like more spice and tobacco.” Mina is scared, but we also get an intimation of resilience when we’re told of the “tremor of excitement finally mingling with the dread in her stomach.” Maybe it will work out alright we hope.

By the end of part 1, she has arrived at the Dutch Resident’s place where she works in the kitchen to the unsympathetic, unkind head cook Ibu Tana. She seems to be a favourite of the Dutch Resident who treats her kindly, and requests her to serve table in his house. Is he grooming her? Or is he decent? We fear the answer.

Part 2 introduces the four Dutchmen who dine with the Dutch Resident, and, in particular to the captain – the man described in the epigraph from Maugham as “losing his head over one brazen hussy or another”. That should warn us, though in this part he seems gentle. He wants her to teach him her language. In return he teaches her his, and gives her gifts. Hmm … our antennae are up. Meanwhile, Mina has fallen for Ajat, her village chief’s son who does some work for the Dutch Resident. Her sexuality is awakening, but Ajat treats her cruelly. Part 3 commences with her arrival on the boat with the captain, after which the story plays out pretty much as Maugham tells in his short story.

What Riwoe does in this story – her post-colonial response to Maugham’s – is to look at it from the angle of the colonised, and particularly colonised young women. What she shows is that young women are not only pawns in the hands of colonial powers but also in the hands of their own men (in this case her father who trades her for potential material gain, and the chief’s son who tricks her and uses her ill).

This may all sound same-same, as in “I’ve heard all this before”, and at a simple level that’s so. However, what makes The fish girl such a good read is the character Riwoe gives Mina. She’s young and naive, but she’s not a type. She has dreams and at least an attempt at having agency. Here she is, as she’s about to be taken to the boat by the Captain:

Kanjeng Ratu Kidal (Ocean Queen): By Gunawan Kartapranata (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Mina leans against a tree, rolls her head gently against the prickly bark. She takes a deep breath. She will need to be very strong. She will need to be like one of the dhalang’s wayang puppets, as hard as lacquer, enduring.

Also, Riwoe adds a mythical element through Mina’s love of the sea, and her belief in the Ocean Queen. The sea is presented as a curative force – both physically (for her rash, presumably eczema) and spiritually.

She calls for the Ocean Queen. Only when she feels Nayai Loro’s strong, smooth pull, feels the soft arms suckle at her damaged thighs, does Mina scatter the flowers upon the sparkling water.

Finally, although this is short, Riwoe unfolds the story slowly, developing Mina’s character and allowing us to hope that Mina will endure. But that, of course, would be a fairy tale and, despite its heartening mystical conclusion for Mina, this is definitely not that. An engaging but powerful read.

AWW Badge 2018Mirandi Riwoe
The fish girl
Sydney: Xoum, 2017
ISBN: 9781925589061

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbour (Review)

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbourWhen Julie Proudfoot offered me her debut novel, The neighbour, for review I was more than happy to accept. After all, it had won Seizure magazine’s Viva La Novella Prize in 2014, and you all know how much I love a novella. I must say it’s a gorgeous looking book. I’m not one to judge books by their covers, but neither am I immune to a beautiful book, and The neighbour is that – from its rich, green and mysteriously intriguing cover to its crisp, clear internal design. It is such a pleasure to hold and read. No wonder I prefer print to electronic!

But of course, the most important thing is the content, and the book delivers here too. It’s an Ian McEwan style page-turner. By this I mean it starts with a dramatic event which sets in train actions and reactions as the characters struggle to come to grips with the event, with its impact on themselves and their relationships, and with the way it exposes secrets and past traumas. The event is the horrible but accidental death of a child due to a mistake made by a neighbour. The circle of characters is tight – Ryan, Angie, and the nearly-five Lily, who live next door to Luke, Laney, and their four-year-old son Sam. On the opening page, Luke acknowledges, internally, that a frisson of tension (“a nervous kind of energy”) exists between himself and Angie  – and then she asks him for a favour he does not want to do.

“His actions were wrong, but now he can right them”

The neighbour is a novel about psychological disintegration brought about by grief and guilt, and about the tension that ensues when one wants to forget, another wants to remember, while yet another wishes to atone. Grief, we see, is a personal, private thing, and particularly so when it is bound up in a secret that prevents its full expression. Luke has always been Mr Fix-it for Angie and Ryan, so of course he wants to keep on fixing. If he can just fix their house, the loose roof-tiles, for example, he can make amends. Actions, he tells Angie, are the only way he can “beat down” the guilt. But you can’t help or fix for others if you are falling apart yourself, and you certainly can’t if those others don’t want that help. This is something Luke has trouble recognising as his thinking becomes more and more disordered.

And Luke’s thinking becomes so disordered, in fact, that his behaviour moves into quite bizarre territory. His determination to fix things for Angie and Ryan, despite their refusal, edges him into stalker territory. But, stranger still, Lily’s death resurrects (I’ve chosen this word specifically but I’m not going to explain why!) memories of his older brother’s drowning when they were children. Luke’s response to these memories is, there’s no other word for it, sadistic, but we go with it because we know Luke is losing his hold on reality. He is not a sadist. He is a troubled man. We care about him – because Proudfoot makes sure we do.

She achieves this by telling most of the story through Luke’s perspective, though we also occasionally enter other perspectives, such as Angie’s, too. It’s in third person, but present tense, so we journey with Luke, and other characters, as they try to make sense of their situation. Here’s Luke after Ryan has vehemently rejected his attempt to fix their roof:

As he climbs back over the fence, he can feel Ryan watching him. It’s going to be tough. Ryan will fight it. He knows this, but they’ll thank him in the end. They don’t even know what they need right now. He’ll get them all back on track. Ryan and Angie need never be aware of it.

The language, as you can see, is clear and direct. Because we are in Luke’s head most of the time, description is kept to a minimum, but the writing is nonetheless evocative. Sentences are generally kept short, which keeps the story moving and develops tension. The short, choppy sentences also mimic the characters’ erratic, distressed mental states. Here is Angie through Luke’s eyes:

When she talks her face is in parts. Her eyes shine. Her mouth moves. Her cheeks square up when she speaks and droop when she stops. In doing what Ryan wants, she has become fractured and tense. The more Luke tries to help her, the worse she gets.

Then there’s the plotting. It’s delicious. As the novel progresses, we think we’ve guessed the back story, and we have, but not quite. As it builds to its conclusion, we think we know how it will end, and we are right, almost. The end, in fact, has a beautiful irony – and is perfect.

Despite its brevity, The neighbour tells a complex story of grief, guilt, culpability and responsibility. There are layers, here, as there often are in tragic accidents, but rather than labour them, Proudfoot trusts us to comprehend them while she gets on with the story. This is a powerful, thoughtful – and at times – shocking novel that gripped me from its opening sentence. I look forward to seeing what Proudfoot produces next.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) read and enjoyed this when it first came out.

awwchallenge2016Julie Proudfoot
The neighbour
Sydney: Xoum Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922057983

(Review copy courtesy the author)