Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (4), Impatient readers

Time is short tonight as my downsizing move has hit a little roadblock. In a nutshell, our furniture and some of our goods are sitting on a truck awaiting transfer to our new apartment where the lift went out of service the same time that the truck was being loaded. That was last Thursday. We spent Friday waiting for news about when the repair could be done, and then all day today waiting for the repair to be done. By the end of the day, the new part was installed but the lift was still not working …

All this is to say that for tonight’s post I’m just sharing one little piece that I found during my recent Trove research, because that’s all the time I have.

The reading of novels and curiosity

Such is the title given to the column I found in Perth’s The Daily News of 30 August 1912. It starts with

Woman reading with cushion

This is an age of curiosity, of impatience. We no sooner take up a book than we look at the end to satisfy ourselves as to whether “they shall live happily ever afterward,” or whether the heroine shall marry some other man.

It suggests that “we are so sure of ourselves, so sure of our ability to forecast the termination of a tale that we perchance miss a couple of important chapter [sic], only to find that we had jumped at a wrong conclusion”. And then it gives what seemed to me to be a strange “concrete example of this spirit”:

we may cite the cases of dozens of people who, the instant they begin to read an interesting short article in the paper, immediately look to see whether The Commercial Tailoring Company, 794 Hay-street (upstairs), have had anything to do with it. Very often they are right, but sometimes they are quite wrong. Even when they are right, they have deprived themselves of a vast amount of pleasure and profit. For the article was designed, even as the clothes of the Company are designed, for their pleasure and well-being. It pays to read right through to the end.

What the? So, of course, I did some research, and it seems that The Commercial Tailoring Company advertised itself through little circa 250-word “stories” in the paper, stories which they twist at some point to refer to their clothing. Stories which, our columnist tells us, are designed for the reader’s “pleasure and well-being”. Stories of which, indeed, this very article is one. Here are some others: The stranger’s mistake (2 August), The North Pole (16 August), The art of the funny man (17 August), and The gentle rain (31 August). Do read a couple, but I dare you to not peek at the end!

I wonder how effective their stories were. Anyhow, you probably know what I am going to ask:

Do you ever peek at the end of a story you are reading? Why or why not?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (3), Novel reading and health

My second post in this Trove Treasures subseries shared some arguments against novel reading. I do have a pro-novel-reading post, but today I thought I’d go a bit lighter – I think it’s lighter! – and some of the ideas I came across discussing the impact of novel reading on health.

Novel-reading disease

Woman reading with cushion

I found two articles that discussed addiction to novel reading, going so far as to liken those in its thrall to drunkards. One goes back to 1855, and is in fact a Letter to the Editor (31 March 1855) of The People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator. What a title for a paper! According to Wikipedia it was published in New South Wales from 1848 to 1856, and advocated on issues of importance for the working classes. In fact, Wikipedia says that it was “the first colonial paper to demand that the workers, as producers of all wealth, receive a fairer share of labour’s produce”. Great stuff, but this is not the subject of the Letter to the Editor.

Written by F.R. Surveyor (of Shoalhaven River) it expresses concern, not with occasional novel reading which simply represents a “criminal waste of time”, but with habitual novel reading which Surveyor describes as “detrimental to the health and vigour of the body”:

Novel reading tends to inflame the passions, pollute the imagination, and corrupt the heart. Moral sense is weakened by the false sentiment which novel writers inculcate. Novel reading is objectionable, because it creates an unnatural and morbid taste. It frequently becomes an inveterate habit, strong, fatal, as that of the drunkard. 

In this state of intoxication, great waywardness of conduct is almost sure to follow.

It also “destroys all taste for solid reading”.

Sixteen years later, on 2 November 1871, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article from The Examiner, titled “The Novel-Reading Disease”, and does it go to town. It commences by stating that “physicians are familiar with a complaint which, although sufficiently specific, has yet no name of its own” but it is caused by “over-indulgence in three-volume novels”. The article then chronicles the progression of this disease, explaining that at first the reader is simply found reading “at unnatural hours”, like “the early morning, or in the middle of a beautiful summer’s afternoon”. In this stage, readers exercise some discrimination in their reading choices, preferring Trollope, for example, over lesser authors. But soon, “the taste becomes deadened and blunted, and all power of distinction and appreciation is lost. In this stage the unhappy patient can no more go without her novel than can a confirmed dipsomaniac without his drain”. (There’s the equating with drunkenness again.) Quality goes out the window, quantity is everything. Indeed, “in the worst stages” of the disease, “novels are got through at the rate of three or four, or even five, a week, or at an average, in a severe and chronic case, of some two hundred and fifty or three hundred a year”.

And what does this disease do to its sufferers? Well, “the conversation of the patient becomes flabby and limp” leading eventually to “the last stage – that of absolute imbecility” unless “very powerful remedies” are applied. By this point in the article, all reference to sufferers are in the female gender. Indeed, the writer then says:

It is curious and interesting to observe that as this comparatively new female disease has grown more virulent and intense the old disease of scandal talking has become comparatively rare. It is, of course, physically difficult to talk scandal and to read a novel at one and the same time. 

True! Finally, the writer suggests that the cause of all this is the same as that for why “some young men smoke and drink bitter beer”. It’s the “sheer want of something to do”. The solution?

What a woman needs is an education which shall enable her to read and follow the Parliamentary debates instead of the police and divorce reports; and, when women are thus educated, then feeble novels and feeble novelists will vex our souls no longer to the horrible extent to which they irritate us at present.

I wanted to believe this article was tongue in cheek, it’s so extreme, but I don’t think it is. At least the writer recognises that women ought to receive an education!

Novel reading and wrinkles

Now for something lighter. I was astonished – and, I admit, delighted – to find an article titled “Novels and wrinkles”. I found it in multiple regional newspapers from South Australia and Victoria, but I’m using the Euroa Advertiser (12 February 1909). The article opens:

Excessive novel-reading (says a well-known beauty doctor) is responsible for the bad complexions, wrinkled foreheads, and sunken eyes of many young women.

Why specifically novel reading, do I hear you asking? Well, here’s the answer:

Many young women cause premature wrinkles to form on their fore heads by reading exciting novels. They sit for hours, often in an imperfect light, their brows furrowed, and if the book is a thrilling one, expressing on their faces unconsciously the emotions it excites. 

Our unnamed “beauty doctor” continues:

In a tram or railway journey one can notice the different expressions of a man reading a newspaper, and a woman – or a man, for that matter – reading a novel. The newspaper reader’s face is quite normal; but the expression on the novel-reader’s face is quite different. 

Priceless, really. Anyhow, fortunately, our “doctor” does not try to stop people reading novels, but “strongly” advises against reading novels “for hours at a stretch”. Have a break, he (it’s probably a “he”) says, and “above all, do not allow yourself to get too much excited by the book you are reading”. You heard it here, folks!

Reading in bed

Here is one relevant to many of us. It appeared in the Richmond Guardian (22 May 1926) and is “by a Medical Officer of Health”. Essentially, our MO believes this is a bad habit:

Beds were made to sleep in. The healthy man or woman who has never formed the bad habit of reading in bed, but, on the contrary, the good one of going to bed to sleep, finds little difficulty in wooing repose within a few minutes of his or her head touching the pillow.

So, if you “woo sleep easily” you “should studiously refrain from cultivating the habit of reading in bed”. However, there are those (besides invalids) for whom the practice might be useful. These include the “large number of apparently healthy people who find great difficulty in allowing sleep to overcome them”. There are many reasons for this, and you should try to remedy them first, but if the cause is not so easily removed, like “business and domestic worries”, then reading in bed may be a good not bad habit! These brains need something to switch them “into a different train of thought”.

But, our MO does have recommendations – about lighting (it must not strain the eyes), about position (do not lie on your side which “imposes considerable strain on the eyes”), and about reading matter. On this he is not prescriptive, saying “the choice may be safely left to individual tastes” except it should not relate to what is keeping you awake.

Finally, no reading in bed for children:

Children should not be encouraged to read in bed. The healthy child should be a little animal, and the healthy animal soon sleeps.

Reading and death

And now, the biggie! Does reading cause death? I came across two articles addressing this issue. The first, sadly, concerned a suicide, and was reported in The Bowral Free Press (19 July 1884). Titled “Effect of reading trashy novels” it reports that a young 20-year-old man had committed suicide by “shooting and hanging”. It briefly describes the manner, before concluding:

The cause of his suicide was reading sensational and trashy novels, which unsettled his brain.

On what authority this was decided, we are not told. Meanwhile, we do hear from a coroner in Perth’s The Daily News (27 November 1909) which contained a similarly brief report of a death. Titled “Coroner on novels”, it concerned the death of an 18-year-old nurse “who died from poisoning by spirits of salts”. The par concludes with:

the Coroner, commenting on the statement that the girl was given to the reading of novels, said he did not know whether novel-reading was evidence of weakness of mind. The practice, however, was generally confined to people who had little to do and had not much mind.

Over to you!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (2), Anti novel reading

Recently, I started a new Monday Musings sub-series, Trove Treasures. That first post concluded on a rear-admiral reading novels while waiting for a court martial, and I said that my next post “might be one on novel reading and men”. I still plan to do that, but I’ve decided to first share some of the wider arguments about reading novels that were raging in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

Woman reading with cushion

Novel reading, as I’m sure you know, was regarded with much suspicion from its first appearance. Indeed, negative attitudes led Jane Austen to defend the novel in her own first (albeit last published) one, Northanger Abbey (1817). Novels, she wrote, are works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language”. This did not, however, put the argument to rest, and we find the issue being discussed with enthusiasm and passion in Australian newspapers over the following century.

Why am I interested in this old chestnut, given we now accept the value of reading fiction? There are two main reasons. One is that I’m interested in reading culture and how it has developed. The other is that debates about literature provide insight into the thinking and values of the times. (Just think about what our current discussions about issues like diversity, own-stories, and so on, tell about the culture of our times.)

So, much can be learnt about colonial and early post-colonial Australia from discussions about reading. There’s deference to the thinking of (mostly male) British commentators, for a start. There’s the high moral tone taken about reading “serious” literature and not wasting time on light or sensationalist fiction. There’s concern about the impact of light – undirected reading – on the young, and on the uneducated (particularly, it goes without saying, on women). Articles abound in the papers so, as usual, I can only share a smattering from the many that my searches retrieved. Those I’m using were published over 55 years, between 1869 and 1924.

For some commentators no novel reading was good, while for others it depended on the novel. The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser argued that “constant, uninterrupted perusal of works of fiction” could be “injurious and demoralising”, but recognised that some fiction, like “good historical novels”, could have value. These sorts of novels “assisted the reader to realise the conditions of society, &c, at certain periods”. Therefore, they concluded, “the works of our great masters of fiction might be perused (occasionally, of course, not always) with pleasure and with profit by the intelligent reader”. So, very qualified – “great masters of fiction” could be read “occasionally” by “the intelligent reader”. Not a resounding endorsement.

For some, then, the enumerated ills came from all novel reading, while for others these were due to too much novel reading, or reading the wrong sorts of novels. Some ills concerned the impact on health and well-being, such as loss of memory, weakening the brain, unfitting men for the stern realities of life by giving either exaggerated or false views of life. Many commentators, like this one, worried about the impact of a diet of stories of love and murder:

“What sort of wives and mothers may we expect these young women to make?” We may cease to wonder at the frivolous demeanor and flaunting airs of the girls we meet everyday in our towns, when we remember the strange garbage that serves them for mental food, and the “gallery of portraits” that is fixed in their imaginations. They are positively unfitted for the noble work of home life, and we may expect that many of them will develop into sluts and slatterns, and others will speedily figure in the divorce courts …

“Sluts and slatterns”! This writer admits there are novels that may be read “profitably”, like those by Walter Scott and some of Dickens, but believed these didn’t attract the “girls of the period”. Scott, Dickens, and Thackerary, in fact, are regularly touted as acceptable novelists – by those writers who don’t condemn all novel reading.

Other identified ills concerned the time spent reading. For example, novel reading “causes people to remain away from church and chapel duties”. Or, as another wrote, “necessary and serious work” was “thrown aside for the charming story, that helps to rob the mind of its proper strength, and real life of its importance”.

An earnest letter-writer (“Another Reader”) to Hobart’s The Mercury argued that “for a man to confine his reading to novels is, especially in such times as ours, when social questions demand the attention and earnest study of all thoughtful men, to waste a considerable amount of time that would be far more profitably spent”. This writer concedes that it’s “very nice” to recline in a hammock in a quiet, secluded spot, and “devour a long account, generally slanderous, of human nature from a cleverly concocted novel” but asks whether this meets “the duty of mankind?” Hmm, novels being “generally slanderous”? And, must all life be about “duty”? He doesn’t insist on “total abstinence from novel reading”, but he does argue that spending all one’s time reading “is nothing more nor less than an intemperate love of pleasure, which is destructive in all forms”. Indeed, he suggests that reading biographies is more worthy than reading fiction, and returns to his point re the times, recommending “the study of the many problems that trouble the world at this time – Socialism, Theosophy, Religion (above all), etc.”

Concern frequently focused on novel reading by young men and women in particular, with some commentators exhorting parents to “exert a little wise control and careful supervision”. The Riverine Herald went a little further. Arguing that without a public censor, “it is the duty of the parents to wisely choose” their children’s novels, it suggests it would be even better “if the writers, publishers and book sellers” would write, publish and sell books of “higher standard”. A bit of self-regulation, in other words.

A certain Mrs Glover, however, speaking in 1924 at a conference of club, social and welfare workers arranged by the National Organisation of Girls’ Clubs, had a refreshingly liberal view, arguing, the report said, that

a girl had to go through a lot of “trash” before she found herself. The spirit of adventure in the girl must have an outlet. “I think girls ought to be thrilled. I think it is very nice to see girls in the tubes and trams who never look up from their books even when they pass the station. I think that is so much better than gossiping, or making eyes, that sort of thing. I went through a lot of awful trash myself and I really did thoroughly enjoy it. I think the girl has got to go through this before she finds herself. We want to let the girls read the very lightest form of sensational literature.

Okay, so only the “lightest form of sensational literature”, but this sounds like progress. The article concludes by damning not sensational writing but “novels of sentiment, novels of a pervading sickliness”:

From time to time perturbed moralists rush forth into the marketplace to denounce some book or other in which inconvenient or improper scenes occur. For my part I doubt whether all the books which contain passages such as a censor, a magistrate, a policeman can identify is undesirable, have done half as much harm as some volumes of sentimentality in which no one could fine a line to prosecute. The gush of facile emotion, the hectic talk confusing black with white, of which your novel of sentiment is composed, are very bad for heads which are not old enough to be hard, and hearts which are even softer. Such books seem to me the most dangerous trash, and they are to be found not only among the bestsellers but among the great works approved by the intellectuals.

Interesting … but s/he doesn’t give examples.

I’ll close here, because this post is long. However, it’s clear that engagement with the topic was keen, and that there were opinions on both sides. I’ll share some of the pro novel-reading arguments in another post.

Sources (in chronological order)

Your thoughts?

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (#BookReview)

Where should I start my discussion of Robbie Arnott’s third novel, Limberlost? Perhaps with the epigraph. It’s by Gene Stratton Porter, and says, “In the economy of Nature, nothing is ever lost”. I have posted on Porter – on her essay, “The last Passenger Pigeon”. She was, says Wikipedia, an author, nature photographer, naturalist and silent-film producer.

Some of you will know her for her now classic novel, Girl of the Limberlost (1909). My mother adored it, and passed it on to me. I adored it too, and passed it on to my daughter, who adored it in her turn. It is a beautiful book about love of place (Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp) and a young woman, Elnora, living with a wounded, neglectful, widowed mother. It is about how Elnora obtains sustenance (physical and emotional) from nature. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, in the style of the time, but Porter won me over with her description of the Limberlost Swamp and with her young protagonist Elnora’s strength. (Oh, and with Elnora’s beautiful lunchbox, which, apparently, also impressed author Joan Aiken! I wanted one.)

So, Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost … it draws more than a little – but also not a lot – from Porter and her novel. It is about a teenage boy Ned who, though not neglected like Elnora, is living with a loving but stressed and often remote father. It is set in a stunning and beautifully-rendered-by-Arnott environment, in this case northeast Tasmania, in the Tamar River valley. There are enough similarities to suggest that Arnott also loved Porter’s novel. However, Arnott has taken this kernel – troubled teenager left frequently alone in a beautiful environment – and woven a more subtle story about, well, let’s talk about that now …

Fundamentally, Limberlost is a coming-of-age novel but one that also happens to tell a whole life from childhood to 90s – in just over 200 pages. That’s impressive writing. If you like family sagas, this is not for you, but if you are interested in what makes a life a life then Arnott has written just the book. In this case, we are talking specifically the life of a man. I have reviewed a few books over the years that explore manhood – Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review) and Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek (my review), being two. Arnott’s book has its own take on this question.

He’d never felt so brotherless

The central narrative takes place over summer, near the end of World War 2, when Ned is 15. With his mother having died within months of his birth, and his two older brothers, Bill and Toby, being away at war, it is just Ned and his father on the family orchard, until big sister Maggie arrives to make it three. The core chronology follows Ned through summer, but the narrative shifts back and forth in time as events segue to other experiences in Ned’s life.

Ned is a sensitive, reflective young man. The novel starts with a scene from when he was 5. The community was awash with rumours and fears about a mad whale causing death and destruction at the mouth of the river, so Ned’s father had taken his three boys out in a boat to the eye of the storm, as it were. This little incident is key to the novel, because it is about facing fears, about checking the truth of stories, about memory – and about fathers and brothers. Throughout the novel, Ned struggles to remember what really happened in the various events of his life, starting with this one. Which brother had given him a coat that night when he’d shivered with cold? This bothers him, but what is more important is that “he remembered the warmth of the wool”.

It is perhaps the challenge of being the baby brother, but for Ned the struggle to feel competent – like his father, like his brothers – is ongoing. At 15, he dreams of having a boat, and he works hard to realise it, by trapping rabbits and selling the pelts. Achieving this dream would bring him two victories: “He’d have the boat, and he’d have people’s shock at the casual totality of his competence”. There is a guilty niggle, though, because his trapping for pelts looks “nobler” – providing pelts for slouch hats, while his brothers are at war – than he knows in his heart it is.

Limberlost, however, is not only about manhood and brotherhood. It is also a work of eco-literature (about which I’ve written before). The novel’s epigraph, along with the opening “mad whale” scene, clues us into this. Nature – the natural world – thrums through the novel – from the whale, the rabbits, and the quoll he mistakenly traps, to the beautiful giant manna gums (or “White Knights”) that Ned logs in a short stint on a logging crew. Many of the descriptions of the animals, plants and landscape are visceral in the way they act upon Ned’s emotions and consciousness. Ned’s relationship with this world is complex – at times it terrifies, at times it nurtures, at times he takes from it (such as logging and rabbit-trapping) and at times he gives back (such as returning the quoll), but it is always there. Arnott’s natural world is beautiful but fierce. It is also threatened – by man’s actions upon it – which Arnott shows graphically but not didactically.

There are many strong, dramatic descriptions of nature in the novel, but I’m gong to share a rare joyful one. It comes during Ned’s honeymoon, after he had experienced the true joys of lovemaking (in one of the best sex-scenes I’ve read for a while):

Afterwards he’d driven them across the plateau through white-fingered fog, through ghostly stands of cider guns, through thick-needled pencil pines, through plains of button grass and tarns, through old rock and fresh lichen, until the road twisted and dived into a golden valley. Here at winter’s end, thousands of wattles had unfurled their gaudy colours. As they descended from the heights their vision was swarmed by the yellow fuzz. Every slope, every scree, every patch of forest, every glimpse through every window was a scene of flowering gold.

The rolling, breathlessly joyful rhythm of this description is very different to that in the next paragraph where Ned’s old fears return, and the sentences become clipped, and staccato-like.

Arnott also refers to the presence of local First Nations peoples, to Ned’s awareness of their knowledge of the land. “At no point, Ned had heard, were they hungry” – not the way he and Callie were as they struggled to make their little orchard work. Some members of my reading group, with whom I read this book, felt this was anachronistic, but the Tasmanians amongst us argued that northern Tasmanians have long been aware of First Nations presence.

The final point I want to make concerns dreams and imagination. Ned, as I wrote above, feels guilty about his boat-dream when others think his rabbit-trapping is war-effort related, but it’s the dream that sustains him. When crisis comes and dreams are shattered – not in the way you are expecting so this is not a spoiler – Ned is devastated:

He wanted something to do, something to love. He had … nowhere to push his imagination, nothing to dream of … nowhere to turn his thoughts from reality … He felt cut loose from the anchors he’d been dropping all summer. He’d never felt so brotherless.

Limberlost is a great read. It is imbued with warmth for its world and characters, but it is not sentimental, nor simplistic, and no answers are given – except for one, the ties that bind, family. The novel starts and ends with father and brothers – but in between are real lives lived authentically in a vividly-rendered landscape that has its own life. Beautiful.

Several bloggers got to this before me, including Lisa, Kimbofo and Brona.

Robbie Arnott
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922458766

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (1), Reading novels

During my Trove searches for specific topics, I come across – serendipitously – other articles that are interesting and worth sharing. So, I have decided to create an occasional sub-series called Trove Treasures. My first group comprises some random little pieces, particularly jokes, that I’ve come across about reading novels.

Humorous snippets

Woman reading with cushion

The interesting thing about all these is what the humour tells us about the values of their time particularly regarding novel reading … see what you think. The ones I’m sharing here all relate to women reading novels, and the dangers that may or may not ensue!

From 21 December 1892, in Townsville’s The North Queensland Register, comes this one titled “Worse than novels”:

Father (impatiently): Where is your mother?
Little pet: Upstairs, reading.
‘Hush! Reading novels, I suppose, when she ought to be–‘
‘No. She’s readin’ a perfumed letter she found in your inside vest-pocket.’
‘Hem! Tell her I’ve gone out to buy her some new novels.’

My next one comes from 27 May 1905 in Sydney’s The World’s News. It’s titled “Silly fellow” (though I also found it in an earlier paper, Melbourne’s Leader of 26 December 1903, titled “Unpardonable”):

He: So the engagement is broken off?
She: Yes; he told her he thought she should stop reading novels and read something more substantial—something that would improve her.
He: Well?
She: Well, the idea of a man intimating to his fiancee that she could be improved in any way!

Then, there’s this one that particularly made me laugh from 4 February 1909 in Melbourne’s Table Talk. It’s a cartoon caption, and is titled “The Cause of the Trouble“:

Mistress (entering suddenly): Mary, how is it I find you reading novels instead of doing your work?
Mary: Oh, it’s ‘cos you wear them sand shoes, mum.

I’m interested in Mary’s “mum” not “ma’am” for her Mistress?

Finally comes this one from 19 March 1926 in Hurstville’s The propeller. It is headed “Flapperism” with a subheading, “Reading novels”:

He: Do you read all the popular novels of the day!
She: Gracious, no! I have only just time to see how they end.

In a future Trove Treasure, I plan to share a piece about impatiently reading endings!

A little more serious

On 2 April 1928, Perth’s The West Australian ran a paragraph headed “Reading novels!” with the subheading “Admiral’s calmness“. The same story was run in two Kalgoorlie papers, Kalgoorlie Miner on 5 April 1928, and the Western Argus on 10 April 1928. Here is the text from The West Australian:

GIBRALTAR, March 31.— Before the court-martial opened the calmest figure seemed to be Rear-Admiral Collard, who, clad in flannels, spent hours in reading novels in hotel lounges. Commander Daniel and Flag-Captain Dewar spent yesterday conferring with their counsel aboard the warship Valiant, which is moored off-shore, preparing a reply to the charges. Meanwhile their wives show plain evidence of the strain.

I found an article in Trove about this far-flung event written before the court-martial – in Brisbane’s Daily Standard of 28 March 1928. It provides some background. (I have not fully edited it, so it’s quite messy to read.) There are a few articles about the court-martial, including this one that I have edited from The Sydney Morning Herald on 6 April 1928. Read them if you are interested in naval history – my interest is in the Admiral’s novel reading!

My next Trove Treasures post might be one on novel reading and men.

Meanwhile, do any of these grab your attention?

    Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land (#BookReview)

    There was a collective cheer from the four librarians in my reading group when one of our members read Anthony Doerr’s dedication for his latest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. It goes like this “For the librarians then, now, and in the years to come”. Thank you Anthony! Cloud Cuckoo Land, at over 600 pages, is a big book and, like most big books, is about a lot of things, but threading through it is the idea of the book – and of the role played by librarians in fostering knowledge and reading. Indeed, the central event of the book takes place in a public library.

    Those of you who have read the novel will know what I’m talking about, but for the rest of you I’ll take a step back. Anthony Doerr, from my limited experience of two novels, seems to like two things – multiple-points-of-view and young protagonists. All the light we cannot see (my review) has two protagonists from the same era, but Cloud Cuckoo Land takes it to another level with five protagonists spanning multiple centuries.

    “It’s like we’re about to walk into the book” (Alex, fifth-grader)

    The critical thing about these five characters is that they are outsiders – subversives, even – each confronting the received wisdom of their times. All live precarious lives. In the fifteenth century, in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, Omeir is born with a cleft palate. Those were superstitious times, so he, his siblings, mother and grandfather are ostracised and find themselves living in a ravine miles from their village. Omeir “imagines the adventures that might lie beyond”. Over the way, in Constantinople, is Anna, a poor orphan, living with her sister in a great embroidery house where they sew for a living. She daydreams about a better life than this, and, as Constantinople falls, sets about achieving it. Meanwhile, in 20th century Idaho, Zeno is born – in 1934, to be exact. He, too, is ostracised, an “undersized orphan with foreigners blood and a weirdo name. Ahead is what?” In the same state, born early in the 21st century is Seymour, living with his impoverished, hard-working, single mother. From birth he is difficult – fussy about food, textures and sounds – suffering, the school decides, from some sort of “disorder” or “combination thereof”. Nature is his sanctuary, “amazing … Big. Alive. Ongoing”. Out there, inspired by the great grey owl he calls Trustyfriend, “lifelong knots deep inside the boy loosen”. Finally, some time into the future, on the spaceship Argos, is Konstance, stuck in a life not of her choosing, and condemned to live all of it on board. She’s imaginative and suffers for it, mystifying her mother who believed their “imaginative faculties” had been “suppressed”.

    Threading through each of their stories is a fictional codex from the real Ancient Greek author, Diogenes. It features Aethon, who, having all his life “longed to see more”, wants to become “a fierce eagle or a bright strong owl” and fly to the “city in the clouds”, the titular “Cloud Cuckoo Land, where no one wants for anything”. This codex plays different roles in the lives of our protagonists but for all of them it represents, at some time, hope, dreams and the value of books.

    I’ve focused a lot on these characters, but that’s because they are the book. From these introductions you can see that Doerr has chosen young people who have little agency over what happens to them. The novel explores what they do to survive and make meaningful – authentic – lives for themselves in an imperfect world. What does it take to cope?

    Fundamentally, the book is about challenge and change. For Aethon, our unifying character, the journey is not simple, and he is changed into undesirable creatures like a donkey and a “humble crow”. For our other characters, life also does not go to plan, with each surprised by what it dishes up to them. There are tricks in store for them – as well as for the reader – including in the codex itself which, in the course of its journey from Ancient Greece to the future, becomes jumbled, so its true ending is lost. However, in 2020, 86-year-old Zeno’s fifth-graders, who are rehearsing his translated and dramatised version in the public library, decide on an end, one that encompasses life’s reality.

    Cloud Cuckoo Land, then, is also about books, but they too are vulnerable, as the scholar Licinius tells Anna:

    “… books, like people, die. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.”

    Fortunately, though, Doerr clearly believes enough of us will safeguard them, and the novel ends way into the future with Aethon’s book being read to a young boy:

    “And the tale I have to tell is so ludicrous, so incredible, that you’ll never believe a word of it, and yet”—she taps the end of his nose—“it’s true.”

    As many of you will know, I love this.

    Now, I’ll return to the title. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is, literally, the name of an idyllic place in a real Ancient Greek play, Aristophanes’ The Birds, the place Aethon seeks in our codex. But, for me, the title also encompasses some interesting imagery. Cuckoos are birds, and all sorts of birds feature throughout the novel, representing nature, and freedom, amongst other things. Cuckoos, themselves, are sacred in some cultures, but some species, as we know, lay their eggs in other bird’s nests forcing, we could argue, those young to be resourceful outsiders. Then there are the “clouds”. As I read this book I couldn’t get the Joni Mitchell song “Both sides now” out of my head, with its line “it’s clouds illusions I recall .. I really don’t know clouds at all”, progressing to “life’s illusions … I really don’t know life at all”.

    These two ideas – resourceful outsiders and life’s illusions – encapsulate for me this truly engaging book. Doerr presents for us life’s challenges – historic, economic, climatic – but he also offers the dreams and resourcefulness of humans in confronting these challenges. Zeno’s friend Rex describes the codex as “part fairy tale, part fool’s errand, part science fiction, part utopian satire”. This could also describe Doerr’s novel, but it is more too. Rich, complex, and highly readable, it contains multiple treasures and connections for engaged readers to find and make on their journey. I have barely skimmed its surface. It was a very popular start to my reading group’s year.

    Anthony Doerr
    Cloud Cuckoo Land
    London: 4th Estate, 2021
    ISBN: 9780008478308 (e-Book)

    Sandy Gordon, Leaving Owl Creek (#BookReview)

    I do enjoy receiving books from non-profit independent publisher, Finlay Lloyd. Their books are physically distinctive, being longer and narrower than the norm, and they have a stylish, minimalist, design, which makes them lovely to look at and hold. They also appeal content-wise because Finlay Lloyd consciously, it seems to me, publishes books that regardless of form or genre interrogate prevailing values and attitudes, books that contribute to the conversation. Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek is another such book.

    Sandy Gordon could be included in my late bloomer category, meaning he’s an older first time novelist. A grandfather now, he is, however, not a late bloomer in terms of achievement because, as the book’s front-matter explains, he has had a significant academic and public service career, especially in the areas of intelligence and national security. The notes say that “when he finished his last academic book in 2014, he vowed never to write another footnote – hence the novel”. Lucky us.

    Leaving Owl Creek is a dual narrative story, alternating between the first person diary of Nicholas (Nick) MacLean, who has been captured by the Mujahideen in Kashmir, and the third person story of his life which begins on the family property of Owl Creek. It’s not just his story, though, as also at Owl Creek are his sister Lilly, and Richard and Kate Connolly whose family has worked for the MacLeans for generations. The novel takes place over several decades covering the second half of the twentieth century, a time of significant social, cultural and political change. Two fundamental issues of change are introduced in the first chapter, one relating to class and status, and the other to gender, and particularly to masculinity.

    However, the novel opens not with this chapter, but with Nick’s diary. He reports playing chess with his main captor, the Mujahid, and their discussing Nick’s western versus the Mujahid’s Islamic values. It is clear that Nick’s survival very likely depends on the Mujahid. This provides the main narrative tension for the novel, but it’s not the main interest, albeit I cared deeply about what might happen to Nick. (Gordon knows whereof he speaks, having written a nonfiction work about the region, India’s rise as an Asian power: Nation, neighborhood, and region.)

    What I enjoyed about the novel was its portrayal of those issues I’ve mentioned. Nick and Lilly were born into the squattocracy, Protestant of course. They are privileged – materially, anyhow. In other ways, not so, because the expectations are not only high but they are conservative, which means, for example, that Nick is expected to live up to the traditional idea of manhood, an idea that focuses more on “honour” than on feelings. This does not sit well with Nick who is cut of a more sensitive and artistic cloth. He’s interested in art and poetry, which to his father are “not sound in a man”. Richard, the son of Catholic station workers, is closer to Mr MacLean’s idea of a man. This difference creates another tension in the novel as we watch Nick and Richard (named, ironically, for Richard Wright, but often more pointedly referred to as Dick) grow from boys to men. We do also have their sisters, who are each attracted to the other’s brother, but Leaving Owl Creek is not a cliched family drama. While these sisters’ roles are important to fleshing out the main themes, their relationships do not play out in the standard rural romance way – because, this is not rural romance. It’s a novel written by a man primarily about men.

    “man of affairs” to “affairs of men”

    So it is this that I’d like to tease out a little more. The second half of the twentieth century, and into the present, has been a difficult time for men. As women have found their place (albeit this has not yet translated into full equality) men have had to work out how their place fits in. For Richard, his Catholicism and working class background mean he starts with a handicap, but he’s a hard worker, a real “man”, and he gets opportunities as a result. He takes them and becomes a confident, successful, and powerful man, a politician in fact, but in the process he manipulates and betrays others, and loses his self. He talks big about a “man of affairs” being a humanist, but in the end, “the affairs of men” comes to encompass for him the ends justifying the means.

    Nick, on the other hand, grows up with everything except what he wants most, the freedom to follow his own path. His struggle is great. He is sent to a prestigious boarding school, where his artistic preferences are not supported. On leaving school, he goes to university and gets caught up in the Push (about which I wrote early in this blog), and other leftist intellectual groups. It’s the 60s, and unsettled Nick falls prey to substance abuse. He fails his father’s expectations, and ultimately ends up in India where he finds a place for himself – until his capture. Nick too reflects on what it means to be a man but is less concerned with “manhood” than with what human beings are. In a fraught conversation with some leftist intellectuals, he sees the issue in terms of “moral choice”.

    Politics provides the backdrop to the novel, and Gordon presents us with a broad sweep from Richard’s mother’s statement that their family had come out from Ireland for “political” reasons, through various wars, to our contemporary concerns with Indigenous dispossession and the increasing conflict between Eastern and Western values. But, threaded through this historical expanse is a recurring issue, the role of men, and the importance of “duty” and “honour”. Nick’s refusal of his Vietnam War call-up is the last straw for his father, and he is disinherited. From his father’s point of view:

    ‘If your country says it needs you … that has to be good enough. Beyond that it’s a question of honour …’

    In the closing pages of the novel, Nick, still a captive of the Mujahideen, returns to these ideas:

    The Mujahid. The thing is, he likes me, perhaps even loves me. Why then is it not enough? Why is it never enough?

    Because duty, as he sees it, trumps liking, even love. Duty, honour, loyalty, death – these four ride side by side over the blistered landscape and will do so for as long as we humans occupy the planet.

    Leaving Owl Creek is a highly readable and deeply thoughtful novel that tackles some complex issues, intelligently and generously. We feel for each of the characters at different points in their lives. We see the pressures they face – social, political, psychological – and we are encouraged to understand why they are who they are, and, beyond that, to consider how on earth we might all be better. Like Lisa, I recommend this book.

    Sandy Gordon
    Leaving Owl Creek
    Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2021
    ISBN: 9780994516565

    (Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

    Reading highlights for 2022

    Regular readers of my blog will know two things about my end of year reading highlights post, but I’ll reiterate them here: I always do my list right at the end of the year when I have read (even if not reviewed) all the books I’m going to; and I do not do a list of “best” or even, really, “favourite” books. Instead, I do a sort of overview of the year through highlights which I think reflect my reading year. I also like to include literary highlights, that is, reading related activities which enhance my reading interests and knowledge. All being well, tomorrow I will share my blogging highlights.

    Literary highlights

    My literary highlights, aka literary events, saw a return to more live events this year, though the pandemic has taught us that there are opportunities to be had by also continuing online experiences – so this year like last I enjoyed a bit of both

    Reading highlights

    I don’t have specific reading goals, just some “rules of thumb” which include reducing the TBR pile, increasing my reading of First Nations authors, and reading some non-anglo literature. While I didn’t make great inroads into these, I did make some, and, regardless, I had many reading highlights. Last year, I framed this post around my reading preferences, but this year I’m returning to my practice of pulling out random observations that epitomise my year’s reading.

    • Re-find of the year: Elizabeth von Arnim was an author I loved back in the 1990s, and I managed to finally revisit her again this year, via not one but two novels – Vera and Expiation – which reminded me why I enjoy her so much. She is sharply observant about men and women but also witty. I also read this year one of the three biographies recently published about her, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here.
    • Retelling of the year: Retellings can be hit or miss for me but I was greatly moved by Tom Gauld’s graphic novel, Goliath.
    • Topic of the year (1): Mothers and daughters featured heavily in this year’s reading, through Jane Sinclair’s memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, Nell Pierce’s A place near Eden, Jessica Au’s Cold enough for snow not to mention that absolute classic, and a reread for me, Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility.
    • Topic of the year (2): Colonialism and racism are issues that many of us read about in order to educate ourselves, and this year I read some magnificent explorations, from Damon Galgut’s The promise and Audrey Magee’s The colony to several works by people of colour, including Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel Passing, Julie Koh’s astonishing Portable curiosities, Evelyn Araluen’s Stella winner Dropbear, and Anita Heiss’s historical novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray.
    • New nationality (for me): I love to add new nationalities to my reading diet, and this year it was Uruguayan, via Ida Vitale’s intriguing Byobu.
    • New genre: Bibliomemoirs are not new, but the term for them is relatively so! Besides Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (mentioned above), I read Carmel Bird’s thoughtful and engaging Telltale.
    • Totemic critters: Every year something interesting pops out from my reading. An odd narrator, perhaps – like a skeleton. This year, it was totemic critters with a few books featuring a lurking critter, such as Nigel Featherstone’s quoll (My heart is a little wild thing) and Lucy Neave’s fox (Believe in me).
    • The locals have it: I like to support local authors, and this year I have read more than usual – Nigel Featherstone’s My heart is a little wild thing, Shelley Burr’s debut rural noir Wake, Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, Nell Pierce’s A place near Eden, and (then resident) Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain, plus two nonfiction works, Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru and Biff Ward’s memoir-of-sorts, The third chopstick. I also read, but didn’t review several books by local picture book creators. For a little region, we achieve a lot!

    These are just some of 2022’s highlights…

    Some stats …

    I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I do have some reading preferences which I like to track to keep me honest to myself! This year I was closer to my preferred ratios in most of the categories than I have been for years – without specifically trying. It just happened:

    My preferences are …

    • to read mostly fiction: 74% of my reading was fiction (meaning, everything not non-fiction, so novels, short stories, and poetry). This is close to my plucked-out-of-the-air 75% rule of thumb, and I’m pleased with that.
    • to give precedence to women: 64% of this year’s reading was by women writers, which is similar to last year’s 65%, and around my preferred two-thirds proportion.
    • to read non-Australian as well as Australian writers: 32% of this year’s reading was by non-Australian writers, which is close to my goal of around one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian.
    • to read older books: 34% of the works I read were published before 2000, which is more than in recent years. I did say last year that I wanted to increase this, because I love checking out older works.
    • to support new releases: 19% of this year’s reads were published in 2022, which is rather less than last year’s 25% for that year’s releases, but I’m fine with that – even if my to-be-reviewed pile isn’t.
    • to tackle the TBR, which for me means books I’ve had for over 12 months: This year I read just 5, which is similar to the last few years. I’d really love to lift this number because I have so many good (older) books there waiting to be read!

    Overall, it was a perfectly fine reading year but I didn’t read as much as I was hoping, mainly because Mr Gums and I are travelling more often to Melbourne to visit family. This is a good thing so I’m not complaining, but still, I’d like to have read more. 2023 is going to be a challenging year with a downsizing move in the offing, as well as our trips to Melbourne. Watch this space!

    Meanwhile, a huge thanks to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be thoughtful and fun people. Our little community is special, to me!

    I wish you all an excellent 2023, and thank you once again for hanging in this year.

    What were your 2022 reading or literary highlights?

    My reading group’s favourites for 2022

    As I’ve done for a few years now, I am sharing my reading group’s top picks of 2022. This is, after all, the season of lists, but also, I know that some people, besides me, enjoy hearing about other reading groups.

    I’ll start, though, by sharing what we read in the order we read them (with links on titles to my reviews):

    • Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop: novel, Australian author
    • Ida Vitale, Byobu: novel, Uruguayan author
    • Elizabeth von Arnim. Vera: classic, British author
    • Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru: nonfiction, Australian author
    • Damon Galgut, The promise: novel, South African author
    • Marion Frith, Here in the after: novel, Australian author (I was in Melbourne, with COVID, and didn’t manage to read this)
    • Larissa Behrendt, After story: novel, Australian First Nations author
    • Audrey Magee, The colony: novel, Irish author
    • Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch: novel, British author
    • Biff Ward, The third chopstick: nonfiction/part-memoir, Australian author
    • Nell Pierce, A place near Eden: novel, Australian debut author (review coming)

    This year’s schedule was reasonably diverse. Our overriding interest is Australian women writers but not exclusively. We also like to challenge and broaden our tastes. So, this year’s list included a classic (or two, if you include Amy Witting’s 1999 novel); a translated novel from Uruguay; a First Nations novel; five non-Australian books; two works of nonfiction; and three by male authors. Politics and social justice featured strongly in both the fiction and nonfiction, looking at such issues as coercive control, racism and dispossession, colonialism, war and PTSD.

    The winners …

    This year only 10 of our twelve active members managed to vote – one was travelling and one moving house, so their excuses were accepted! The rules were the same. We had to name our three favourite works, and all were given equal weighting. It’s interesting how the years vary. In 2020, we had a runaway winner, while last year our favourites were more bunched, with the winning book receiving 8 votes, the second 7 votes, the third 6 and so on down to fifth with 4 votes. This year, however, we returned to the runaway winner mode, with 5 more books, a few votes behind, vying for 2nd and 3rd spots.

    1. The promise by Damon Galgut (8 votes)
    2. Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim and Return to Uluru by Mark McKenna (4 votes each)
    3. Here in the after by Marion Frith, The colony by Audrey Magee and The third chopstick by Biff Ward (3 votes each)

    Interestingly, two years ago, all three of the nonfiction titles on our list featured among our favourites, while last year, neither of our two nonfiction works received any votes at all. This year, both nonfiction works appeared among the favourites. I’m not sure this tells you (or us) anything.

    Anyhow, if you want to know my three picks, they were Damon Galgut’s The promise, Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera and Audrey Magee’s The colony. But, it was a great year and I found it truly hard to choose. In the end, although I greatly enjoyed the two nonfiction works, I stuck with my main love, fiction, for my choices. I really wanted to include Byobu, but something had to give!

    Selected comments (accompanying the votes)

    Not everyone included comments with their votes, and not all books received comments, but here is a selection of what members said about the most liked:

    • The promise: Commenters used descriptions like “insightful”, “compelling”, and “enlightening”.
    • Vera: Comments included “a truly chilling tale”, with a few noting how relevant this 1921 book still is.
    • Return to Uluru: Commenters saw it as a “timely and interesting attempt to balance the record of a sad episode in Australian history”, “a terrific uncovering of history and treatment of First Nations Australians”.
    • Here in the after: One called it “insightful”, while another noted its “many social comments”.
    • The colony: Commenters used terms like “multilayered”, and “subversive, acerbic”. Its sense of place was also mentioned.
    • The third chopstick: One called it “a moving journey” while another focused on the author’s “talent for delving” into a painful time in Australian history.

    And, a bonus again

    As in 2019 and 2021, a good friend (from my library school days over 45 years ago and who lives on the outskirts of Canberra) sent me her reading group’s schedule for the year:

    • Jock Serong, Preservation (on my TBR)
    • Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow
    • Xinran, Buy me the sky
    • Bri Lee, Eggshell skull
    • Don Watson, The bush (on my TBR)
    • Joshua Hammer, The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu (never heard of this one)
    • John Grogan, Marley and me
    • John Clanchy, Vincenzo’s garden (love John Clanchy but haven’t read this)
    • Amanda Lohrey, The labyrinth (on my TBR)
    • Jane Harper, Force of nature
    • Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
    • Geraldine Brooks, Horse

    Links are to my reviews where I’ve read the book too. The two I’ve read are, coincidentally, ones I read with my reading group in previous years. In fact, Shuggie Bain was our top pick last year.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you were in a reading group this year. What did your group read and love?

    Lucy Neave, Believe in me (#BookReview)

    Mother-daughter stories – in fiction and nonfiction – seem to have been particularly popular in recent years. Lucy Neave’s second novel Believe in me is one of these, but just this year I’ve read several others, including Larissa Behrendt’s novel After story and Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops.

    Their trajectories can vary, but in novels the most common one concerns a fractured relationship. More often than not, they are written from the point of view of the daughter (though in After story, Behrendt alternates the perspective between the two). Believe in me is one of those written from the daughter’s perspective, but in an interesting voice which switches between extended third person telling of her mother’s life and her first person telling of her own. The narrative starts around a year before Bet is born, out of wedlock in 1970s Sydney, to her 19-year-old American mother, Sarah. Why in Sydney and how Sarah became pregnant occupies the first quarter of the book.

    However, the novel itself commences in 2004 with Bet telling us:

    I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not exactly sure what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one place and time to another.

    She is doing this because, she says, “if I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little, it might help me see who I am”. Immediately, then, we are clued into a problem, presumably the book’s key problem, that of Bet wanting to understand herself. She’s stalled it seems, but she needs, she continues, “to walk towards the future without always looking back”. Consequently, she tells her mother’s story by drawing on her mother’s scrapbooks “which are filled with overlapping memories and souvenirs and notes” and her own memory.

    Sarah’s story is a sad and frustrating one. Bet introduces her in that first chapter as a naive, trusting 18-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York. She’s being sent away by her mother, and the religious community to which they belong, on a three-month mission to Idaho with their preacher Isaiah. Well, the inevitable happens and Sarah finds herself unbelieved, pregnant and despatched to Sydney, far away from home, to have the baby. Sarah is expected to give her baby up for adoption – to a childless aunt and uncle who show her no warmth. However, with the help of midwife Dora, she manages to escape, and thence begins her new life as a single mother in a strange country. The Whitlam government is in, and things are changing, but life is still not easy for a single mother, particularly one as unprepared for life, and as unsupported, as Sarah was.

    While the focus of the novel is Sarah, it is told through the eyes of Bet, and in Bet’s eyes her mother rarely measures up. She frequently describes her as weak, when Bet really wants her mother to be “unbroken, robust”. The child’s eyes, however, seem to be at odds with the reality. For example, one-third into the novel, Sarah realises that her own mother back home is never going to help her:

    Sarah had thought that in the end her mom would understand what she needed … Now she understands her longings have always been irrelevant. She’s meant to accept all that she receives. Only sometimes, like now, she can’t. In any case, she’s someone else now, different to the core.

    This idea of “acceptance” is an important mantra for Sarah. Religious in origin – accept what God gives you – it often frames her choices, but in fact, she doesn’t always “accept”. Indeed, she flees several men when she realises they are not right for her:

    Some things, she realises – and why did it take her so long to work this out – should never be accepted. Some things turn out not to have come from heaven.

    Nevertheless, a few pages later, Bet continues with the weakness theme, “a part of her was still weak, the way it had always been”. The story here is one of the child never fully knowing the parent. It’s ironic, in fact, that Bet sees Sarah as naive, which she was, because for much of the novel, so is Bet in terms of understanding the pressures Sarah was under. The result is an uncomfortable but very real tension between these two who both love each other but struggle to make that love work.

    The idea of “acceptance” is one motif that runs through the novel, but another involves animals. Sarah becomes a wildlife carer – particularly for injured wildlife – and Bet, a vet, which reflects their mutual desire to nurture. More curious though is the fox motif which threads through the story. A baby fox, back in her American childhood, is the first wildlife Sarah rescues and cares for. She eventually releases him, but “foxes will always be with you” becomes a bit of a grounding talisman for her. The clue to it lies in her mother Greta’s advice when she sends Sarah off: “Don’t worry about us. Be as free as a bird, as a fox”. In the tradition of mothers and daughters, Greta wants more for Sarah than she had, just as Sarah in her turn wants more for Bet – and yet, in their turn, the daughters don’t understand and so don’t appreciate this in their mothers.

    I did find one aspect of the novel somewhat challenging, and this relates to its “interesting voice”. I love “interesting voices”, but there were times when Bet’s telling of Sarah’s story felt awkward. How did Bet know this? Was it from the scrapbooks, from conversations, from Sarah’s own confidences, or Bet’s imagining? The uncertainty this occasionally engendered affected my ability to properly engage with Bet’s perspective. However, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the way Neave weaves through it many of the social issues affecting women in the decades she traverses. There’s a political element to this personal story.

    So, how to end? Or, more to the point, what does it all mean? When I’m in doubt, there are three things I turn to – the opening paragraphs, the title, and, where it exists, the epigraph. I’ve already mentioned the opening which explains that Bet is writing Sarah’s story in order to understand herself better. This, I’d say, she achieves (but to say how would give too much away).

    Believe in me does have an epigraph, and it’s appropriate for a book about fraught mother-daughter love. It’s from Eudora Welty’s The optimist’s daughter, “… any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”. I’ve read some Welty, but not this one. However, this idea seems perfect for a daughter to take from her mother’s life.

    And finally, there’s the title. It’s a little trickier. As I was reading the novel, I wondered who was saying “Believe in me”? Sarah? Bet? God (whom she’s supposed to accept)? The egregious Isaiah who tried to convince Sarah to lie for him? Probably all of these, conveying the challenge we all face regarding who to believe and trust. It’s only through hard experience that we come to really know whom we can believe. Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, with its perceptive exploration of complex relationships, is one of those reads that makes you think, and for that I enjoyed it.

    Lisa also reviewed and enjoyed this book.

    (Review copy courtesy UQP)

    Lucy Neave
    Believe in me
    St Lucia: UQP, 2021
    ISBN: 9780702263361