Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

Katharine Susannah Prichard
KSP, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

Shelley Burr, Wake (#BookReview)

Regular readers here will know a few things about me. One is that I don’t regularly read crime, and another is that for three years, before the pandemic struck, I was the litblogging mentor for an ACT Writers Centre program. One of the last two participants in that program was Shelley Burr, author of the just-published crime novel Wake.

In my post on that 2019 program, I introduced Shelley as follows:

Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year … She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program.

That novel she was writing was Wake. It won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2019. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award, which gave her a Varuna fellowship, and the 2020 Bath Novel Awards, which is an international award for emerging writers. Judge for the Bath award, literary agent Jenny Savill, wrote of Wake:

With forensic attention to detail, the reader is effortlessly drawn into the small town, rural Australian setting and a community in mourning. Immersive and riveting.

Savill was right on all fronts. Burr’s attention to detail is forensic, and readers (even non-crime readers like me) are “effortlessly drawn in”. I was thoroughly engaged from the opening pages, and this is because, besides being a crime novel, it’s a novel about character, and what happens to people when terrible things happen to them. How do people respond, and why do different people respond differently? It confronts readers to think about our own responses. How would we respond if it happened to us? And, how would, or do, we respond when it happens to others?

Wake is about a cold-case that took place on a remote farm some twenty years before the novel opens. Nine-year-old Evelyn (Evie) McCreery disappeared from her bed one night, never to be seen again. This means the novel alludes to a longstanding Australian writing tradition, that concerning the lost child. However, this motif has layers of cultural complexity that are not central to this novel, so I’m just mentioning it and moving on.

Now, the plot … as the book’s promotion says, “no forced entry, no fingerprints, no footprints, no tyre tracks”. Evie’s twin sister, Mina, has grown up in the wake (pun intended!) of that disappearance. She has never fully recovered and is quietly trying to solve the mystery on her own. The novel opens with the clearly fragile Mina doing her shopping under the kindly eye of a local shopkeeper. A stranger, who turns out to be private investigator Lane Holland, approaches her, but she is not interested. The novel progresses from this point with the twists and turns typical of the genre until its inevitable – though not completely expected – resolution.

Wake is carefully plotted, with, for example, hints concerning Lane Holland and why he has chased this particular case being gradually shared. Wake is also well-paced, starting slowly, and gradually building intrigue until near the end when the pace hots up. Suddenly, the chapters become shorter, causing the alternating perspectives, which characterise the narrative, to become more urgent.

As I mentioned above, the characters are a major strength of the novel. Mina and Lane are sensitively developed. Both are driven by past trauma, and can be tough and prickly, but both also exhibit moments of vulnerability and tenderness which help us care about them. There are a few other characters, the main ones being Mina’s more together friend Alanna whose sister had also disappeared around the same time as Mina’s, and Lane’s much younger sister Lynnie. Though minor, they too have flesh.

The narrative is chronological, with occasional flashbacks filling in some gaps. Other gaps are cleverly filled in by entries on a social media forum, MyMurder, which open some of the chapters. They add a thoughtful layer to the story, by conveying how such mysterious cases catch the public attention and how obsession with them can play out. They show how crime aficionados, conspiracy theorists, and others, can spear wildly away from the truth and potentially, if not actually, cause mental harm to those most touched by the crime.

So, yes, I was impressed. The writing and plotting is so sure, and Burr’s exploration of the crime is considered, sympathetic, and grounded in reality. There is drama – of course – but it properly serves the story and the complexity of the emotions, reactions and consequences that Burr is exploring. This made for engrossing reading for a non-crime reader like me, but Wake is also, if the awards tell us anything, great crime reading. It’s a page turner, with depth.

Now, I’d better at least mention the setting, given I’ve referenced Burr’s interest in “drought noir”. Wake is set in rural central New South Wales. Burr, herself, grew up in regional New South Wales, and her grandparents had a farm in regional Victoria, so her writing of place and country life felt authentic. The setting adds tension because Mina and her father Liam’s property is remote, remote enough that they have installed alarms on the gates to announce the arrival of visitors. You can’t be too careful when you live so far away from help.

However, the property also neatly reflect the challenges being faced by Australian farmers in climate-change-affected times. It was a working farm, but the disappearance of Evie consumed the family’s energy so much that viable farming fell by the wayside. In a nice political touch that speaks to our times, Burr has Mina and her father moving into working it as a conservation project.

Wake earned Shelley a two-book deal with Hachette, and is about to be published in the USA. Having now read it, I’m not surprised. I recommend it.

Shelley Burr
Wake
Hachette Australia: Gadigal Country/Sydney, 2022
360pp.
ISBN: 9780733647826

(Uncorrected proof courtesy Hachette Australia)

Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

This week, Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing, was published, and I plan to attend the launch later this month. In the meantime, it seemed apposite to discuss his essay on Christos Tsiolkas in Reading like an Australian writer. Those of you who have read Nigel’s blog will know that he’s a Tsiolkas fan, so it’s not surprising that he was commissioned to write on him for this anthology. As it happens, I’m a Tsiolkas fan too, so this was one of the essays I was keen to read.

Fearlessness

This essay, though, is a little different to the previous essays I’ve discussed from this anthology, because it’s more about Tsiolkas’ oeuvre than one work.

Early on, Featherstone references Orwell’s essay, “Why I write”, noting that “political purpose” is one of those reasons. Tsiolkas is “one of Australia’s most politically attuned writers of his generation”. It’s relevant to explain here, as Featherstone does, that Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants, is gay, and identifies as a socialist and atheist. Given this (and, I would add, given the grittiness of many of his novels), it is “truly remarkable”, says Featherstone, that in our contemporary conservative Australia, Tsiolkas has had significant critical and commercial success.

Featherstone starts at the beginning – with Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (adapted to film as Head on), which was published in 1995. Now, Featherstone is a writer too, of course, so he is particularly interested in exploring Tsiolkas’ craft. To do this, he shares specific excerpts/quotes* which reveal, among other things, why he titled his essay “Fearless”. Tsiolkas is audacious, from the opening paragraph of his first novel.

I mentioned above that Tsiolkas is “gritty”, which is my description of in-your-face writing like Tsiolkas’. Featherstone doesn’t use that word, but it’s what he means when he says that the writing “could come across as crass”. It doesn’t, though, he says, because it feels confident, which is why readers stay with it.

How he makes it feel confident is the thing, isn’t it? It may partly be in the way, as Featherstone puts it, Tsiolkas “pushes his prose towards poetry”, by which he means “the language is doing more than one thing at once. Featherstone also refers to the epigraph for Loaded. I love that, because I do think the epigraph can contain serious clues to a work. Epigraphs are not there for fun (or, if they are, the fun is also part of the meaning!)

Featherstone looks at what emerging writers can learn about writing with audacity (or fearlessness): it requires, he says, writing not just from the brain, but the body (chest, gut and crotch) and it requires caring deeply about the characters (no matter how flawed).

Featherstone also identifies Tsiolkas’ main concerns – “class in Australia, and the power and privilege of whiteness” – and he describes one of Tsiolkas’ “many strengths” as “his ability to explore political concerns through the depiction of the everyday”. This is certainly how I think of The slap and Barracuda . I wrote in my Barracuda post:

“This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review), and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).”

So, I liked that when talking about the short story “Tourists” from Merciless Gods, Featherstone says:

In this relatively simple tale the author reveals the racism that exists at the core of Australia’s masculinity and the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular.

In fact, I don’t just like this, I love it, because, for me, “the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular” is the main idea behind The slap. As Featherstone writes, “Tsiolkas is a social critic as much as he is a writer of literary fiction”. True, and it’s not particularly surprising. Some of my favourite literary fiction also encompasses social criticism. (Think Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip.)

The last work Featherstone looks at is Damascus (my review) and again he starts with the first paragraph, and teases out its power – the precision which which Tsiolkas can convey multiple layers of fear. He see fear as being one of the novel’s themes. The opening of this novel is truly terrifying, but another point Featherstone makes is Tsiolkas’ ability to “contrast the heavy with the light”. (Some readers, I know, struggle to find the light in Tsiolkas’ work, but I’m with Featherstone. It is there.)

Nigel Featherstone perfectly meets the brief of this anthology, which was to share how a writer reads. His essay contains very specific lessons that can be taken from Tsiolkas’ writing. However, in doing this, he also conveys the two prongs that make writing sing for me – fearlessness in style, structure and/or content, and generosity in attitude to tough characters and/or ideas. Tsiolkas epitomises both, and so, I think, does Featherstone.

* Do read the essay to see all the great excerpts.

Nigel Featherstone
“Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 125-136
ISBN: 9781742236704

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.

Uluru

Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.

But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:

What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.

McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.

Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.

“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.

Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:

Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.

It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.

In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!

Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.

For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
256pp.
ISBN: 9781760642556

Stella Prize 2022 Winner announced

The 2022 Stella Prize winner was announced tonight and it’s not a surprise, as several of us in the blogosphere rather thought that

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

would be the winner. Indeed, I was so confident I took it with me to Melbourne this month, fully intending to read it. But, there was not much reading time, and it took most of my time there to finally finish 2020’s winner, Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (my review). I only read a couple of pages of Dropbear before I realised that I’d better read my reading group book for this week’s meeting. (It’s the next review you’ll see!) So, Dropbear is still languishing on the TBR, but you may remember from my shortlist announcement that Brona has reviewed it.

The book is a combination of prose and poetry, and the judges described it as:

a breathtaking collection of poetry and short prose which arrests key icons of mainstream Australian culture and turns them inside out, with malice aforethought. Araluen’s brilliance sizzles when she goes on the attack against the kitsch and the cuddly: against Australia’s fantasy of its own racial and environmental innocence.

The panel chair, Melissa Lucashenko, said that it will take you “on a wild ride” that is “simultaneously comical and dangerous”. All this confirms my desire to read it, because I enjoy writers who play with traditions, conventions and myths to encourage us to look again at who we are and what we do.

The quotes above, plus one by Stella’s Executive Director, Jaclyn Booton, can be found on the Stella website (linked below). There is also a quote from Evelyn Araluen’s acceptance. She commented that she’d been following the Stella for the length of her writing aspirations, and had hoped one day to write a novel that would win it. She never dreamed Dropbear would be that winner. She also said:

I’m deeply interested in the lives, histories, and dreams of women and gender diverse writers in Australian publishing, and it’s an honour to be recognised by a prize designed to champion those stories. There aren’t words to explain how thrilled I am to win.

Just to remind you, the judges were author Melissa Lucashenko, as chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

There’s more on the anouncement on the Stella website.

Any comments?

Jess Hill, See what you made me do (#BookReview)

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

I took me a long time to read Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella award-winning See what you make me do, partly because I bought the e-book version which I read in fits and starts and partly because of its content. As the Aussies among you will know, Hill’s book is an intense, thorough discussion of domestic abuse. It’s not an easy topic but it is a critical one because if statistics tell us anything it’s that the situation in Australia is not improving.

There’s no way I can share the wealth of information or fully convey the impressive depth of research Hill has done. However, I’ll do my best to give a sense of what this book does, and how Hill does it. She starts on definition, explaining that wherever possible, she replaced the term “domestic violence” with “domestic abuse” because “in some of the worse abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor or barely present”. “Domestic abuse” is the term now used by UK police because it undercuts the assumption that abuse is only serious if it’s physical.

Those of you versed in trauma will appreciate a fundamental challenge Hill faced, which, as she describes it, is that “power imbalance built into the journalist–source relationship: the journalist usually has ultimate power over what gets published”. For survivors of abuse, who have suffered at the hands of power, this could effectively mean abusing them all over again. So, Hill “wanted to flip that and give the power back to them. If this process was not a positive experience for them, there was no point in doing it”. So, she gave “them the chance, wherever possible, to review their story, suggest revisions or ask for things to be deleted – especially if there were safety concerns”.

In her Introduction she lays out the road map:

In the chapters that follow, we will travel through an extraordinary landscape, from the confounding psychology of perpetrators and victims to the Kafkaesque absurdity of the family law system.

And so, in eleven chapters, Hill traverses domestic abuse from multiple angles, grounding it in case studies – usually with names changed – which force us to put a face on the accompanying theories and statistics.

Hill starts by establishing coercive control as a fundamental aspect of domestic abuse. Our understanding of its techniques, she writes, come from the Cold War and US Air Force social scientist Albert Biderman’s recognition of how the tools of coercive control had been used on American POWs in North Korean camps. From here she analyses how the same techniques are used by intimate partners – almost always male, though there is a chapter on women who abuse – to create a threatening atmosphere that will convince the victim of the perpetrator’s omnipotence, the futility of resistance, and the necessity of compliance. The aim is total dominion (which is exactly what Wemyss’ wanted over Lucy in the prescient Vera). Hill describes the techniques in detail, and it’s chilling.

The best word for this book is forensic, because Hill burrows deep. She confronts us with our uncertainties – why did she stay, for example – and makes us see just how deep the degradation goes. She explains how a concussed women can look drunk and so be missed by the police as the victim. She shows how a traumatised woman can come across as irrational and erratic in court versus her cool, calm, well-presented abuser. She interrogates the role of patriarchy, and how it damages men, as well as women. Feminists, as many of us know, were the first to recognise this.

She looks at disabled women. She looks at children and the way they are used and treated by abusers in power plays. Indeed, her chapter on children and the courts is horrifying. She details the gradual weakening of the Gough-Whitlam-established family court system through successive, mostly conservative, governments. She shows how some of this weakening has been underpinned by a particularly egregious theory called Parent Alienation Syndrome. She reveals the perfect storm created for children caught up in a family court softened by law and bolstered by such spurious theory.

And, she devotes a chapter to First Nations women, who are at significantly greater risk of abuse than their non-Indigenous peers. The stories just keep on piling up as you read, stories that you can barely countenance, except that anyone with any semblance of awareness will know they are true.

It’s tough going but it’s valuable reading, because for all I thought I knew, there were details I didn’t know or appreciate. Hill asks some pertinent questions, like:

In the years I’ve spent writing this book, I’ve found that it’s the questions we don’t ask that are the most confounding: Why does he stay? Why do these men, who seem to have so much hatred for their partners, not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving? Why do they even do it in the first place? It’s not enough to say that perpetrators abuse because they want power and control. Why do they want that?

Or, as “Survivor Queensland” put it, ‘I want people to stop asking “Why does she stay?” and start asking “Why does he do that?”‘

Some of the answers lie in “traditional notions of masculinity – particularly male entitlement” which are at “the core of men’s violence against women”. But Hill identifies more questions, such as “what are the different reasons men have for needing to dominate their partners?” and what is going on in their minds that makes them “sabotage the lives of their partners and children – to the point where they destroy even their own lives?” These are “critical parts of the puzzle” that are “missing from our public conversations about domestic abuse”. 

Hill titles her final chapter “Fixing it”. She notes Australia’s excellent record in tackling public health problems. “From thwarting the tobacco industry to criminalising drink-driving, Australian governments have shown they are willing to burn political capital to save lives”, she says, and have achieved results. She then shares some of the actions currently being taken – but, of course, this was just before the pandemic so I suspect some of them have fallen by the roadside.

In 2017, she writes, a KPMG report concluded that although “significant progress” had been made against the “National Outcomes”, not only was there no evidence of reduction in “domestic violence”, in fact, the evidence suggested that “the incidence and severity of domestic and family violence” was increasing. However, lest we close the book feeling completely hopeless, Hill concludes with examples of two recent programs that have worked. We just need government will and support to back more such targeted programs. It can be done.

Janine (Resident Judge) also reviewed it.

Jess Hill
See what you made me do: Power, control and domestic abuse
Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc, 2019
416pp.
ISBN: 9781743820865 (eBook)

Margaret Atwood, Dearly (#BookReview)

Earlier this year, I decided to try audiobooks more regularly – and thought short stories would be a good way to go. Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities was my choice. It was, overall, a positive experience. Then I thought poetry might be worth trying given it’s such an aural form. I chose Margaret Atwood’s latest collection Dearly for my first foray into audio poetry since, although I’ve been an Atwood fan, I’ve only reviewed her once on my blog. Also, Atwood was a poet before she was a novelist. An added benefit was that the audio version was read by her. 

It worked really well – as a reading experience. For blogging, it was tricky. I found it difficult to capture the details I like to have for a review, much harder than remembering the plot, characters and themes of a novel experienced in audio form. Short stories fall somewhere in the middle. Anyhow, all this is to say that this post will share my overall thoughts, and a little about a few poems that I managed to jot down notes about or find online.

Overall, the collection came across as melancholic in tone, which is not to say the poems are uniformly grim, as there’s also plenty of Atwood’s cheeky humour. The worldview tends to the dystopian, reflecting Atwood’s concerns, but it felt realistic rather than hopeless. The subject matter is both political, dealing with issues like climate change and war, and personal, exploring ageing, grief and mortality. All of these speak to me.

Many of the poems draw on nature for their imagery, if not their subject matter. There’s a sense that nature is bearing the brunt of our wilfulness, that it shows evidence of our wilfulness, and, conversely, that it may also provide the answer. But, there are other poems which explore her themes through worlds I know nothing about, like zombies, aliens and werewolves.

And, of course, there’s Atwood’s love of language. The poems are accessible rather than obscure, but they’re not simple, because Atwood understands the weight of words and loves to play with them. This comes across really well in the audio version.

The collection is broken into five parts, starting, perhaps counter-intuitively, with “Late poems”. Many of the ideas here appealed to me, such as the idea in “Salt” that we don’t recognise the past was good until later. But, the poem that most touched me in this part was “Blizzard” in which Atwood talks about her nearly centenarian mother, asking “why can’t I let her go”? I could tell her why.

I enjoyed poems in Part 2, like “Health class (1953)” and “A genre painting”, but in Part 3, we find many poems inspired by nature. “September mushrooms” talks of fungi bringing “cryptic news of what goes on down there”. Halloween is the ostensible subject of “Carving the jacks”, which concludes with such a great line, “After we’re gone, the work of our knives survive us”. Atwood can do last lines.

In “Update on werewolves” (read it online), Atwood riffs on the masculine threat inherent in werewolves, then expands it to explore the empowerment of women. “Zombie” is prefaced by a lovely epigraph by Rilke, that “poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts”. In “The aliens arrive”, Atwood runs through various movie aliens and their actions:

We like the part where we get saved.
We like the part where we get destroyed.
Why do those feel so similar? 

I love these pointed, paradoxical lines.

“At the translation conference” toys with language and culture, and how different cultures have words (or don’t) for different things. Some languages have “no word for him her … have no future tense”. There’s a wry reference to women and the word “no”, and, more scarily, to translation as a dangerous activity where punishment can result if the translation is “wrong”.

Part 4 also contains many nature-inspired poems. It continues the concerns and questions about where we are going, particularly regarding the environment. Finding a “Feather” causes Atwood to think of the “calligraphy of wrecked wings” and of the feather’s owner being “a high flyer once as we all were”. (This is one of many references to birds, which are a particular passion of Atwood’s.) “Improvisation on a first line by Yeats” continues the exploration of our rapacious attitude to land, as does “Plasticine Suite” with its word play on ages – the Pleistocene, the Myocene, now the Plasticine, “evidence of our cleverness, our thoughtlessness”. It addresses the arrogance of proselytising developed nations disregarding the needs of the less rich. “Oh children” ends with “Oh children … will you grow up in a world without ice … will you grow up?”

The collection concludes on the personal, with Part 5 devoted to ageing and loss, largely inspired by the death of Atwood’s husband in 2019 from dementia. There are some really lovely meditations here. In “Sad utensils” she writes of “the word reft/ who says that anymore?” despite its being honed over years and used by many. As words pass, so do our own lives, and the people we love. In “Silver slippers” she reflects on ageing and the things we give up along the way, “no dancing anymore … all my wishes used up … where did you go and when/ it wasn’t to Kansas”.

The second last poem is the titular poem, and it speaks directly to her loss of her husband, starting with the loss of the word “dearly”:

It’s an old word, fading now:
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for:
I loved him dearly.

Moving, and to the point – as is the final line of the book, from the poem “Blackberries”: “the best ones grow in shadow”. More paradox. I will leave my thoughts there and pass you over to Margaret Atwood herself in her essay for The Guardian on this collection. She says it all far more eloquently than I ever could.

Margaret Atwood
Dearly
(Read by Margaret Atwood)
Bolinda Audio, 2020 (Orig. pub. 2020)
1hr 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781867504009

Stella Prize 2022 Shortlist announced

The 2022 Stella Prize shortlist was announced, yesterday. But, as I had just posted my review of Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, I decided to hold my announcement post over for a day. Those of you keenly interested will have seen it, but at least I will have it for my records.

Just to remind you, the judges are author Melissa Lucashenko, in the chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

And remember, this year poetry was added as a form eligible for the prize – and, it seems to have been a popular decision because, well, look at the …

The shortlist

  • Eunice Andrada, Take care (poetry)
  • Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (poetry) (TBR, Brona’s review)
  • Anwen Crawford, No document (memoir) (Lisa’s review)
  • Jennifer Down, Bodies of light (novel)
  • Lee Lai, Stone fruit (graphic novel)
  • Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (memoir) (Lisa’s review)

So, two books of poetry, two memoirs and two novels (one being a graphic novel.) Three of the four I thought might have made it to the longlist – Araluen, Crawford, and Down – have now made it through to the shortlist. The announcement email I received from Stella said the list spanned “fiction, nonfiction, social history, a book-length essay, a graphic novel, and – eligible for the first time in 2022 – poetry”.  It also noted that “half of the shortlisted books written by debut authors.”

I will try to read at least the one I have on my TBR before the winner is announced, but I’d actually like to read all of these.

Melissa Lucashenko says that the shortlist:

is big on emerging voices writing in unconventional ways –  from regions, positions, and literary forms that transcend the mainstream. These authors are writing back, insisting that ‘other’ lives – First Nations lives, poor women’s lives, queer lives, and Filipina lives – matter on the page just as they do in everyday affairs. Although the shortlisted authors vary widely in location, gender, and culture, they all share two things. First, all six shortlistees undertake the essential work of any artist: paying attention to what is happening around them, and interrogating that experience. Second, the authors have produced powerfully beautiful literature, sacrificing no art in their unflinching focus on justice, inclusion, and truth-telling. It has been a great pleasure as well as an honour, to shine a light on these six brilliant talents.”

There’s more on the shortlist on the Stella website.

The winner on 28 April.

Any comments?

Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, 1866-1941) back in the 1990s when Virago republished her first novel, Elizabeth and her German garden. Published in 1898, this novel, writes Gabrielle Carey, was an immediate hit, turning her, almost overnight, into one of England’s favourite authors. It was certainly a revelation to me.

I went on to read several of her books, including her pseudo-autobiography All the dogs of my life, over the next decade. I was completely charmed by her wit and humour together with her insights into love and marriage, and their impact, in particular, on women’s lives. Anyone who’s a Jane Austen fan couldn’t fail, I’m sure, to see von Arnim’s ancestry. I wrote one of my early Monday musings posts on her.

Book cover

What, a Monday Musings on Australian literature on Elizabeth von Arnim? It was cheeky I know – and I admitted it at the time. Yes, she was born in Australia, but yes, she left here, never to return, when she was three. However, I just wanted to write about her. And so, it seems did Gabrielle Carey, who opens her hybrid memoir-biography with

When I first discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy. So much of my reading life – which essentially means so much of my actual daily life – had been spent reading miserable literature because, let’s face it, most literature is miserable.

Carey isn’t clear about when she discovered von Arnim in relation to when she started working on this book, but says that once she discovered von Arnim, she became something of a “von Arnim evangelist”. She was “incensed” that von Arnim had been so completely forgotten. I could relate to this, because I felt the same. Unfortunately, my evangelising didn’t go far because no-one in my reading group had heard of her when I recommended that we do one of her novels as our “classic” this year. More on that, then.

If you are among those you don’t know this writer, you might be surprised to hear that several biographies have been written about her, including three in the last decade. I have two of them, Jennifer Walker’s more traditional literary biography, Elizabeth of the German garden: A literary journey, published in 2013, and Gabrielle Carey’s. The third is Joyce Morgan’s The countess from Kirribilli, published in 2021. Just this should tell you something about the fascination with which this woman is held, this woman who published 21 books, whose first cousin was Katherine Mansfield, and who knew EM Forster, had an affair with HG Wells and married (among others) Bertrand Russell’s brother. She had a life – and then some!

OK, so I’ve written quite a bit about Elizabeth von Arnim, but not much about Gabrielle Carey’s book. Only happiness here is the third sort-of literary biography that Carey has written, the other two being Moving among strangers (my review) about Randolph Stow and her family’s connection with him, and Falling out of love with Ivan Southall about her losing faith in this childhood writing idol. Carey, it seems, likes to explore her subject matter through the prism of her own life and experience (a bit like Von Arnim did with her fiction). This is not to everyone’s taste, but when done well, like, for example, Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review), it can be both engaging and effective.

I loved White’s book for the way she explored Maud Praed (daughter of novelist Rosa Praed) through their joint experiences of deafness, neatly marrying information with activism. Carey’s book has a very different driver, one I foreshadowed in the opening quote from her book. A few pages on, Carey makes her goal clear:

What did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?

She wanted to know “the secret to her enviable ability to enjoy life” because it was clear from her novels and journals that she did, despite the many trials she faced. Indeed, the book’s title is the sign von Armin put over the door of her Swiss chalet. Carey argues that von Arnim “was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the earliest proponents of positive psychology”. Carey was so serious about her goal that amongst the end-matter in her book is a page titled “Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles of Happiness”. There are nine, but if you want this bit of therapy you are going to have to read the book yourself! However, to whet your appetite, the first one is “Freedom”.

Carey tells her story – I mean, von Arnim’s story – chronologically, regularly interspersing her own reflections and experiences in relation to von Arnim’s. An early example occurs when she writes about von Arnim’s first marriage to the much older Count von Arnim, and her novel inspired by this, The pastor’s wife (albeit the Count was not a pastor!) In this novel, von Arnim writes that “Ingeborg in her bewilderment let these things happen to her”. Carey immediately follows this with:

How well I understand this experience of letting things happen. All my life I had let things happen to me, often without my consent.

And she then spends nearly two pages exemplifying this from her life. Mostly this approach of Carey’s was interesting, even illuminating, but there were times when it felt a little too self-absorbed. However, this didn’t overly detract from what is a thoughtful introduction to von Arnim and her work. In under 250 pages, Carey manages to tell us something about almost every one of Von Arnim’s books – how each one fit into her life, what aspects of her life it drew from, and how it was received at the time. In that same number of pages, she conveys the richness of von Arnim’s long and event-filled life. I’m impressed by how succinct and yet engaging the book is, and am not surprised that it was shortlisted for the 2021 Nib Literary Award. I should add here that while the book is not foot-noted – its not being a formal “literary biography” – there are two and a half pages of sources at the end.

So, what did I, as a reader of von Arnim, get from this book, besides a useful introduction to her complete oeuvre? Well, firstly, I got a deeper understanding of how much of her oeuvre drew from her own life, and from that I got to better understand her attitude to marriage and to the relationship between men and women, and to her exploration of, as Carey puts it, “the clash between the concept of the ideal and the real”. I also got to understand more about her times, its literary milieu, and her place within it – and to see how we can never really foretell which writers will survive and which won’t. When von Arnim died, obituary writers were sure she’d not be forgotten. They also believed she’d be far more remembered than her shorter-lived cousin, the above-named Katherine Mansfield. But …

… as Carey sums up, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however, rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”, because, wrote English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy”. These, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. We are talking, of course, of Modernism, which, as Carey puts baldly, “didn’t believe in happiness”, a value that has carried through to today.

I will leave this here, because I want to return to it in a separate post. Meanwhile, I’d argue that while von Arnim’s books might be witty, they are not simplistic. They come from an astute and observant mind that was able to comment both on the times and on universalities in human nature. They may not have Modernism’s bleakness, but they aren’t light fluff either. Carey’s simple-sounding quest has, I think, touched on something significant.

Brona (This Reading Life) enjoyed this book, which she ascribes to the bibliomemoir genre.

Gabrielle Carey
Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
249pp.
ISBN: 9780712262975

Delicious descriptions: John Hughes on Newcastle

Recently, Bill (the Australian Legend) commented on a post of mine that reviewers rarely talk about place or “think geographically”. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I think, partly, he wants us to discuss whether we think what we are reading accurately depicts place.

Now, I love descriptions of place, for all sorts of reasons, but particularly for the tone they convey, and for the way authors use place to describe character or to underpin their themes etc. Place in literature was the prime topic of a book I reviewed last year, Chrystopher J. Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature. It offers a fascinating approach to studying place in literature. In a recent Delicious Descriptions, I briefly looked at Sara Dowse’s use of place in her novel, West Block, and in another I commented on place in Gay Lynch’s novel, Unsettled. Pure accuracy, you’ll have seen, is not something I focus on.

I have heard writers talk about place many times. It’s a popular topic at writers festivals. At the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival, Karen Viggers (The orchardist’s daughter) and Alice Robinson (Anchor Point) spoke about it. Viggers said she uses place to orient herself as a writer, and then to explore our connections and help us reengage with the natural world and each other. The challenge, she said, is to bring readers in and engage them with ideas they may find uncomfortable. Robinson said that Anchor Point was based on landscape she grew up in. She was interested in how we have engaged with the landscape, and have failed to care for it.

For some authors, getting place right can be critical, more to avoid reader criticism, than because absolute accuracy is that important to them. They don’t want their novels to be de-railed by pickiness about, for example, whether the church was on this corner or that (which I have heard readers do!)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I think place can be very important in novels for a raft of reasons, and that I enjoy reading about place for the said same raft of reasons. John Hughes’ The dogs, while being about “big” human issues, is also very much set in place. Mostly this is Newcastle, and its environs, though there are vivid scenes in Europe, particularly Venice, and Surfers Paradise. Here, though, I’m focusing on Newcastle (which, I might add, has been written about by many authors, including Dymphna Cusack, Elizabeth Harrower, Marion Halligan, and Michael Sala).

Newcastle is probably best known to Australians as an industrial town, but, it is also a coastal city near beautiful beaches. Hughes draws on these beaches. At the end of Part 2 of the novel, protagonist Michael spends a day at a beach just north of Newcastle with his potential new love interest Catherine, and in Part 3, he and his son Leo spend a glorious day together, which takes in a Newcastle beach.

Here is an excerpt from the day with Catherine:

A cold sea breeze hit us when we got out of the car. There was no one on the beach. Catherine tied a scarf around her neck and pulled her shawl in tight around her shoulders. It was just like her to come so prepared. I, on the other hand, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It certainly cleared my head. We took our shoes and socks off and left them in the car, then walked down the small grassed slope. On the soft sand Catherine displayed for me the best way to walk without sinking. … But I’m a sinker by nature …

It’s all rather blissful, particularly when Catherine hikes up her skirt to paddle:

It was quite a sight, all that bare leg, and it made me lightheaded myself, my mind no longer on the surroundings, which were spectacular. When I looked up, the sky seemed higher somehow, like someone had lifted the roof.

There’s hope here for a new beginning for both these lonely people, but, soon after

At the top of the beach, in the soft dry sand she finds a small dune which offers some protection from the wind, which has picked up again while we’ve been walking. A few clouds have appeared in the sky and the sun moves in and out behind them, as if in the game of hide and seek.

Not long after this, their happy moment takes a downturn … This could be many beaches, I suppose, but the description of place seems accurate to me, and Hughes uses it to such great effect.

Then, in Part 3 comes our lovely father-son day in which this somewhat estranged pair plan to do something deadly serious – but first, there is the day together. It starts with Michael picking up Leo from Newcastle airport, and Leo taking the wheel:

I’m enjoying the world from the passenger seat and anticipating the view from the top of the bridge, which always takes my breath away even though I’ve seen it a million times. Above us, pens dipped in blue-black ink, Pacific swifts (on winter sabbatical from Siberia!) write their signatures on the sky and blink their wings. They leave no mark except in recollection, hurled into space with sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns, rapid wing-glides, accelerations, gear shifts. I’d like to point them out to Leo but I don’t want to distract him as he glides into the overtaking lane …

I don’t know this part of Newcastle, but what an evocative description. It made me stop my reading and think – the way nature and machine are seamlessly linked, and the bird metaphor for life with “sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns …”.

This book is full of delicious descriptions like these, descriptions which read so well on the surface, but which suggest so much more in terms of mood and meaning, whether we specifically notice it or not.

John Hughes, The dogs, Perth, Upswell, 2021