Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

French Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning debut novella, Winter in Sokcho, was published when she was just 22 years old. As the title conveys, it is set in Sokcho, a tourist town in the Republic of Korea near the border between the two Koreas. In fact, when the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries following World War II, Sokcho was on the Northern side, but became part of the South after the 1953 Korean War armistice 1953. I suspect Sokcho was chosen as the setting partly for its “divided” history, this being in-between, neither one thing or the other,

But, more on that later. The novel’s unnamed first person narrator is a 24-year-old French Korean woman who works in a struggling guesthouse. She seems to do everything – reception, cooking, cleaning – but with little enthusiasm. The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the 40-something French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand. The two are drawn to each other in some way, but, at least from Kerrand’s point-of-view, it doesn’t seem to be romantically driven. For our protagonist, the situation is a little more complex. She has a boyfriend – Jun-Oh – but it’s not a satisfactory relationship from her perspective. However, her fish-market worker mother is expecting an engagement any day. The situation is ripe for something different to happen in her life, but will it – and what, anyhow, does she want? She seems betwixt and between.

Winter in Sokcho has many of the features I like in a novella, starting with spare expressive prose, a tightly contained storyline, and a confined setting. There’s also a small cast of characters, with little or no digression into backstories. All we have is what’s happening now.

And, what is happening now is that the stranger’s appearance has affected our narrator. In the second paragraph, while registering him as a guest, she says

I felt compelled for the first time since I’d started at the guest house, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of the place. I’d only been working there a month.

We then move to her visiting her mother, and another thread begins to appear, that of body image. We’ve already been told that one of the guesthouse guests is “seeking refuge from the city while she recovered from plastic surgery to her face”, and now we are introduced to our narrator’s mother’s concern about her appearance. She’s too thin, her mother says. Our narrator rejects this, but soon after, in a photograph her boyfriend has taken of her, she sees “a wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance … her bones sticking out” and is “surprised at how much”. When she’s with her mother, she binges on the food her mother makes, only to feel “sick” and later repelled by her “misshapen body”. There is a tension between this single mother and her daughter that pervades the novel. We sense that our narrator would like to leave Sokcho. Indeed, there’s a reference early on to the “literary world” suggesting she has aspirations in that area, but she feels she cannot leave her mother. Betwixt and between.

Throughout the novella, there’s an atmosphere of things being out of kilter or not quite right. Early on, the narrator describes Sokcho’s beach:

I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore.

This is not your typically loveable beach view, but she herself bears a physical scar on her thigh to which she often refers. It’s unexplained but there are hints later of self-harming. Meanwhile, later in the book, Kerrand tells her that he prefers the beaches of Normandy to those in southern France, because they are

Colder, emptier. With their own scars from the war.

And so the novella progresses, in this clipped spare prose, with a sort of wary dance going on between the narrator and Kerrand. He’s there for inspiration for the last book in his series about “a globe-trotting archaeologist … A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.” She is intrigued by him. She offers to show him some local sights – the border region, with its checkpoint “No Laughing” rule, and the nearby national park, with its snowy mountains and waterfalls. She watches him, surreptitiously, as he draws by night, but always the drawings are destroyed by morning, because they are imperfect.

What does Kerrand see in her, what is he looking for? This being a first person narrative, we see it all through her eyes. She is as reliable a narrator as she can be, but like any first person narrator her viewpoint is limited by her perspective.

Winter in Sokcho does not have a simple resolution, but I’ll return to that idea of Sokcho being chosen as the setting. Its divided history mirrors our narrator who is also divided – in her French Korean heritage and her torn sense of self. Further, Sokcho is described as “always waiting”, as it seems also is our narrator, though for what, even she doesn’t really know.

How much is this a personal story and how much political? Two-thirds through, as she and Kerrand discuss their scarred beaches, she tells him (and just look at this writing):

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of the war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In winter that never ends.

There can be no neat ending to such a story, but without spoiling anything, I’ll share something she sees in Kerrand’s final drawing:

A place, but not a place. A place taking shape in a moment of conception and then dissolving. A threshold, a passage …

Does this suggest hope, albeit tenuous – for both the narrator and her Korea? I’m reading it that way. As for the closing lines … they are glorious.

Read for Novellas in November, Week 2: Novellas in Translation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
154pp.
ISBN: 9781922585011

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Biff Ward, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (#BookReview)

Biff Ward’s The third chopstick was my reading group’s October selection. It’s the second book by Ward that we’ve done, the first being her memoir, In my mother’s hands (my review), about growing up with her academic father, the historian Russel Ward, and her mentally ill mother, at a time when mental illness was shameful and to be hidden. It was a moving book that engendered an engaged and wide-ranging discussion. Biff Ward, in fact, attended that meeting.

The third chopstick is another personal book, but one that’s not so easy to classify. I would describe it as hybrid memoir-creative nonfiction. Memoir, because it’s about her experience as an anti-Vietnam war protester who later chose to meet Vietnam veterans and listen to their stories. And creative nonfiction, because, although nonfiction, it uses some of the devices of fiction to engage its readers. These include hinging her story around one particular vet, Ray, whom she describes as her “muse”, her “archetypal veteran”, her conduit, perhaps, to “the missing piece”. His story, combined with his powerful presence, gives the book its compelling, narrative drive.

The implication of what I’m saying here is that while The third chopstick is historical it is not an academic history. Although Ward did the historian thing, and conducted recorded interviews with vets, she does not attempt to present an “authoritative” analysis of protesters or of vets, but a thoughtful, personal quest. It has no footnotes, although there is a selected reading list at the end, and there’s no index. This is not to say, however, that it doesn’t add to our understanding of history, because it certainly does.

The book has a logical, and more or less chronological, structure, though there is criss-crossing of timelines where appropriate. It has three main parts – Protest, Veterans, Vietnam – which are bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue. In Protest, Ward describes her life as a protester, and introduces us to her ongoing interest in Vietnam long after the war ended. In Veterans, she introduces us to the veterans she met and interviewed, shares their stories and experiences, and reflects on these. Finally, in Vietnam, she discusses post-war Vietnam, including how Vietnamese people have processed, and live with, what happened. She has visited the country many times – as a sole tourist, on war-themed tours, and as a tour leader herself. On some of those visits, she either accompanied or met vets. Through these postwar connections, she starts to bring together her central questions concerning how we Australians got caught up in this, and what it did to us – as a nation, as individuals – though, of course, there are no simple answers.

“a scrambled snarl”

A bit over halfway through the book, while interviewing Nick, an SAS veteran of the war, Ward confronts the issue of “killing”. Nick’s story causes her to think about that and, thence, her stance as a pacifist. She realises she’d never really grappled with it. She had, she writes, a ‘”natural” antipathy to killing, a generalised kind of pacifism which yearns for peace’ but she also believed that, if needed, she would strive as hard as she could to defend “me and mine”. Her pacifism was “a scrambled snarl of thoughts and feelings”. She doesn’t explore this further, as it’s not the subject of the book, but …

… I liked this expression because what her book does is explore just what “a scrambled snarl” war is, whichever way you look at it. I particularly liked her various reflections on war. She makes the point early on that it is well known that war takes years to recover from. Vet Graham tells her that medieval knights “used to go into a monastery after being on a crusade”. He himself had, after leaving the army, been ill; he’d been in hospital and at a health farm, before spending “thirteen years, mostly alone, making music, keeping quiet”. By the time Ward met him, he was working with the Federation for Vietnam veterans.

Throughout the book, then, Ward reflects on war in general, but I’ll just share a couple that captured my attention, both resulting from her reading of Ray’s journal, where he expresses the trauma he experienced. It leads Ward to suggest “that the truth of all war is only these depthless oceans of grief”. A few pages later, she discusses “moral injury”, which “refers to an injury to the soul, to morality, to what can happen when a soldier has to do something against his own sense of what is right and wrong.” The injury done to Ray is immense.

Ward may not have intended this, but her book also functions, at least a little, as a cautionary tale, because she shows how easy it is to believe you are doing the right thing when you protest for a humane cause, and be oblivious to the potential for unintended consequences. The anti-Vietnam War protesters’ beef was with the government and its policies, but the result, as we all know now, was that the soldiers who went to Vietnam were vilified – not so much by the core protesters but by others who took their ideas on without understanding the politics. Ward shares some of the facts and myths about how it played out.

Ward also discusses those other two big fall-outs from this particular war – Agent Orange and its ongoing impact on the health of both soldiers and Vietnamese people, and PTSD, which she describes as the Vietnam vets’ gift to the world.

What makes this book a particularly good read, besides all this subject matter, is the language, which mixes journalistic-style reportage with more evocative writing. There’s too much to share, but here’s one describing her experience of transcribing Ray’s journal:

As I transferred his words from the page to pixels on my screen, they sometimes spiralled off and pranced about the room like leering pixies.

(This sometimes necessitated her needing to take a break!)

Here’s an appropriate point to explain the title, because it came from Ray, as she explains in Chapter 2. While in a restaurant, he places two chopsticks in parallel lines, about two centimetres apart, across a bowl, and names the space between the two as “normal life … where people get born and grow up …” etc. Then, he takes another chopstick (“the third chopstick”), places it parallel to the others, the same distance apart, and says

The veteran lives here, alongside but separate, see? He can see this life, he pointed back to the first space. He can see what other people are doing, but he can’t join in. He doesn’t know the rules anymore. It might look like like garbage to him. It’s got no connection to what’s happening inside him, see?

The secret, Ray continues, is for the veteran to be able to handle both “his own stuff” and join in. There’s a little more to it but that’s the gist.

    Lest you be thinking so, The third chopstick is not just relevant to those who lived through the Vietnam War era. As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about a war that is happening right now. Near the end, Ward writes:

    So even today, for the People of the Bag*, the mountains and the rivers, the land and the water and their interconnectedness are concepts integral to the way Vietnamese conceive of themselves. And, I chucke to myself, those men in Washington and Canberra thought they could somehow beat them, that the People of the Bag would eventually give up? Really?

    Given its origins in a leftie anti-Vietnam war protester who went on to engage openly and genuinely with soldiers involved in that very war, The third chopstick is quite an astonishing book. For anyone interested in the complex experience of war, it makes excellent reading. All eleven who attended my reading group agreed.

    * The Vietnamese, from their Creation Myth

    Biff Ward
    The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
    Penrith: IndieMosh, 2022
    313pp.
    ISBN: 9781922812025

    Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch (#BookReview)

    Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch is a curious book. It’s my fourth Julian Barnes, and the third I’ve read with my reading group. In 1995 we read A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters, and in 2012 it was his Booker Prize winning The sense of an ending (my review). (I have also read his curious but enjoyable Pedant in the kitchen.) All have intrigued me, for different reasons.

    Elizabeth Finch tells the story of a man’s fascination with an inspirational teacher, the eponymous Elizabeth Finch, who taught an adult education class on Culture and Civilisation. This man is Neil, our first person narrator, and he maintains a friendship with EF (as he refers to her), through semi-regular lunches, until her death some two decades later. Through Neil’s memories of the class and his reading of EF’s papers that she’d bequeathed him, Barnes explores various ideas, including how we live our lives (particularly in terms of friendship and love), and the impact and thrust of history (primarily through considering the so-called last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate). (Interestingly, the protagonist in The sense of an ending is also bequeathed personal writing.)

    The novel, while told chronologically, is quirky in form. Part One comprises Neil’s introduction to EF, up to her death; Part Two contains Neil’s “essay” on Julian the Apostate (who was significant to EF’s ideas); and Part Three returns to Neil, now focusing on trying to understand EF with a view to possibly writing a memoir/biography. Here, he also catches up with old student friend, and ex-lover, Anna, who does enliven the book. In a sense, the novel reminded me a little of J.M. Coetzee’s tricksy books, like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a bad year (my review), because they also tread this strange fiction/nonfiction, novel/philosophy ground.

    At this point, I’m going to depart a little from my usual approach, and share some of my reading group’s discussion, because the book book engendered widely divergent reactions. They fell into three groups. One member loved it, describing it as a dense, compact novel which takes readers down interesting paths. She enjoyed thinking about Julian the Apostate, and what might have happened had he prevailed, and she enjoyed reading about the wide range of thinkers who have pondered Julian over time. A couple actively disliked it or were “very disappointed”. They felt the novel had some interesting threads but found it simplistic, repetitive, disjointed. They didn’t like the EF character, and one described the novel as “an ordinary study of a crush on an ordinary woman”. The rest of us, including me, had mixed feelings. Our reactions varied but we all found things to like (or be intrigued by) as well as dislike (or be mystified by). I won’t share all our ideas, but a couple of us felt that the book read like something that Barnes wanted to “get off his chest” at this stage in his life. (He’s 76). A couple of us particularly enjoyed the discussions of Epictetus and of history.

    The book’s narrator, Neil, was problematic for some, but I rather liked his self-deprecatory tone, the sense of bumbling along as a middle-aged British male. Neil is not Barnes, but I wondered if reflects Barnes’ self-assessment or, at least, a recognition of how he and his peers are viewed in the current age. It is tempting, actually, to see an autobiographical element to the novel, because EF was apparently inspired by the late British novelist Anita Brookner. She had beaten Barnes in the 1984 Booker Prize, but they had subsequently become friends and had lunched semi-regularly after that. I have read (and enjoyed) several of Brookner’s novels and can imagine her being somewhat like EF, who was “high-minded, self-sufficient, European” and “whose vocabulary was drawn from the same word-box she used for both writing and general conversation”. (Brookner’s books aways send me to the dictionary!)

    What might Barnes have wanted to get off his chest? This is where I came unstuck a little. As I started reading the book, it felt like the elder Barnes wanting to work through long-pondered ideas, but what exactly were they? As the novel progressed, I felt less certain. Is Barnes – ironically perhaps – emulating EF, and throwing out seemingly random ideas for us all to consider. However, there are, actually, recurrent threads. One concerns whether the world might have been better had “history” fallen out differently. This is where Julian the Apostate comes in, because early in the novel EF poses the idea that Julian’s defeat in 363 was “the moment when European history and civilisation took a calamitous wrong turn” (p. 31), it being the moment when Christianity defeated paganism/Hellenism. I wondered if the novel was going to be an anti-Christianity treatise, but it’s not exactly. EF raises many questions – but she also draws some long bows. I think Barnes challenges us to think about this.

    Anyhow, history is one of the book’s central concerns, which is not surprising, given Barnes’ age and the ideas that have underpinned his writing to date. I have only read three of his novels but from those, I’ve gathered that he likes to interrogate, often playfully, the slipperiness of life and relationships, culture and history. So, in this novel, he explores what we believe and who we rely on, when it comes to history (and that related field, biography). In his Julian essay, which some in my group found lifeless, Neil describes how perspectives on Julian’s role and significance varied over time. He’s been either completely ignored, or seen as the cause of all ills, or held up as a model for good thinking.

    History, in other words, is “fallible”. It’s “for the long haul … not inert and comatose … [but] active, effervescent, at times volcanic”. This is not new, but worth repeating all the same.

    EF also shares with the class an idea she attributes to Ernest Renan, which is that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation” (p. 33). Renan, she points out, does not say part of “becoming” a nation. This point was appreciated by my reading group, given where Australian “history” is right now. I’m guessing it may also reflect Barnes’ own reflections on British history.

    Another recurrent thread in the novel is EF’s interest in the Greek Stoic Epictetus‘ statement that

    Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing. (p. 21)

    Epictetus’ point, as Anna clarifies with the often obtuse Neil in Part 3, is that learning to distinguish between the two, and understanding that we can’t do anything about what is not up to us, “leads to a proper philosophical understanding of life”. My reading group discussed this, with one member suggesting that “a proper philosophical understanding of life” means “not being neurotic”, that is, “not expending energy on the things you can’t influence”. Made sense to us!

      The novel does meander a bit, but that’s not all bad if you find the ideas you are meandering through interesting. Ultimately, I’d say that Elizabeth Finch is part homage to the people who inspire us, part a discussion of the business of living, and part an exploration of the fallibility of history and biography. It is not Barnes’ most exciting book, but I found it compelling enough all the same.

      Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book, which in fact she generously sent me. Thanks so much Lisa. Her post commences with an interesting discussion of its cover.

      Julian Barnes
      Elizabeth Finch
      London: Jonathan Cape, 2022
      181 pp.
      ISBN: 9781787333932

      Audrey Magee, The colony (#BookReview)

      Irish novelist Audrey Magee’s second novel, The colony, was my reading group’s August book, and it proved an excellent choice. Literary and highly readable, with vivid characters and a sophisticated exploration of its subject matter, The colony engaged us on all levels. It was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize (and may yet be shortlisted. We will know next week.)

      The novel’s overall subject is, as the title implies, colonisation – and Magee teases out its personal, cultural and political ramifications through a small island colony off the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. The word colony, like much in this book, is multi-layered. The novel is set over the summer of 1979, easily dated for readers by reporting of the assassination of Louis Mountbatten in August 1979.

      “the battle of the colonisers”

      The colony is carefully structured, with chapters about what’s happening on the island alternated with reports of sectarian killings from the Troubles in the north. These reports are brief, stark, and devastating, and serve as a constant reminder of what colonisation can do. But these reports are just one of the layers in the novel, which starts with the arrival of the ambitious British artist Lloyd (whose name is not random. He has plenty of money!)

      Lloyd is coming to the island to make his name. He is a modern colonialist in the way he assumes he can buy what he needs, and manipulate others, to achieve his goal. He promises, for example, to respect the islanders’ wishes that he not paint them, but this doesn’t last. The way Magee unfolds his role is clever and subtle, because the islanders, whose numbers have dwindled to twelve families, want and need his money to survive. His perspective is told through terse, poetic language.

      Arriving soon after Lloyd is the French linguist, JP Masson. He has been visiting this Gaelic-speaking island for years, undertaking a longitudinal study of the island’s linguistic patterns for his PhD. JP is fierce about the need for the islanders’ language to preserved as is. He resents the infiltration of any English into the island, so Lloyd’s appearance is the last straw. It will, he believes, force a “sudden and violent ” shift to English, instead of the slow “linguistic evolution” to bilingualism that was under way:

      The Irish here was almost pure, Lloyd, tainted only by the schoolchildren learning English, by the intermittent visits of emigrants returning from Boston and London with their sophisticated otherness, and by mercenaries in linguistic mediation, men like [islander] Micheál who want only to communicate, indifferent to the medium or its need for protection  …

      JP’s perspective is told through the carefully thought prose of a writer, though when he is writing his paper on colonisation and language, I found it a bit heavy-handed, a bit too much of the telling not showing.

      However, this issue of maintaining language – and its relationship to the colonial project – is intelligently explored. JP argues uncompromisingly for preserving the language, because it “carries their history, their thinking, their being”, and resists the fact that languages change. He rides roughshod over the islanders, insisting that they must use their language. Lloyd, on the other hand, wipes his hands of the issue, “not my concern” he says. Meanwhile, the islanders go about their business, continuing to speak their language with each other, while being willing to use English where it benefits them. They are no fools, for all JP’s exhortations:

      What do you think, Micheál? said Masson. Are you less Irish when you speak English?
      I don’t talk politics, Masson. You know that.
      We’re talking about language, Micheál.
      Same thing

      Just this topic alone, and how Magee uses it to expose colonialism’s short, medium and long tail, could take up a whole review.

      Throughout the novel, the islanders are caught in the middle, but maintain a healthy perspective:

      Imagine that, said Mairéad. A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf. 
      They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis. 

      There is a wonderful, dry humour in this novel. And much of it comes from the islanders, who have their own way of dealing with things. But they, too, are not united. The matriarch, 89-year-old Bean Uí Fhloinn supports the old ways, and is a perfect subject for JP’s research, while her granddaughter Mairéad tends to be the voice of humane or sometimes just resigned reason. Her son James sees Lloyd as his way out. He doesn’t want to be a fisherman, as all the men before him have been (including his drowned father, grandfather and uncle). He shows real talent as an artist, and believes Lloyd’s promise to take him back to England at the end of summer.

      And so, as summer progresses, tensions increase, between Lloyd and JP (who both come from colonising nations, for all JPs attempts to ignore his own complicated origins), but also between the islanders as they respond to what’s happening on the island and up north. They comment on the violence in the news reports. In one telling moment, Mairéad and her brother-in-law Francis discuss the Mountbatten assassination in which two teenage boys were also killed. For Mairéad this is wrong, whilst for Francis it’s “collateral damage”:

      Where does this end, Francis?
      In a united Ireland, Mairéad. One free of British rule.
      And you’ll blow up innocent children to get it. Mairéad swallowed the last of her whiskey. You’re pathetic, Francis Gillan.

      Violence is a constant presence in the book, from the relentless news reports to young James’ brutal killing of rabbits for food. Francis hangs over the novel ominously. What does he do on the mainland? What will he do to “get” Mairéad, for whom, she knows, he is “Waiting. In the long grass. Waiting for me to fall flat on my face so that he can pick me up and make me his.”

      I am interested in this issue of violence and how it permeates society. It’s what I think Tsiolkas was on about in The slap (my review). When people are confronted with violence on a regular basis, how do they respond? How should they respond?

      Another issue Magee explores is art. While Lloyd hides away, painting his magnum opus – which draws inspiration from Gauguin (another artist who worked in a colonial, exploitative environment) – the islanders discuss whether they should be worried. Is it “just” art, or something else?

      James clearly understands that art has meaning, and recognises the message in Lloyd’s final painting:

      It’s me as you want me to be seen, Mr Lloyd. As you want me to be interpreted.

      It’s certainly not James as he wants to be seen. It’s a cruel scene, particularly given Lloyd’s earlier lofty dreams of showing “that art is greater than politics. Art as peacemaker, as bridge builder.”

      Truly, The colony is, to use a favourite word of the islanders, a “grand” book. The writing is expressive, with various motifs running through it – like rabbits, apples, smells – and refrains, like “young widow island woman”. There are gorgeous descriptions of landscape and nature, and of daily life. There’s rhythmic variation, finely evoking different characters and tones. And there’s the shifting of perspectives, sometimes within paragraphs, which brought to mind Damon Galgut’s The promise (my review).

      The colony recognises some of the fundamental ironies in the situation the islanders find themselves in. Both JP and Lloyd, who look like they might (or, at least could) do good, are ultimately there for their own aggrandisement. The little island colony, to which they come, functions then as a perfect microcosm of the colonised. With dwindling numbers, those remaining need to do what they can to survive, but the odds are stacked against them. It’s an all too common story, and Magee tells it skilfully, giving her novel an ending which makes its point without going for the high drama I half expected. It’s all the more powerful for that.

      Coincidentally, Lisa and Jacqui (JacquiWine’sJournal) both reviewed this book last month, and both are worth reading.

      Audrey Magee
      The colony
      London: Faber & Faber, 2022
      376pp.
      ISBN: 9780571367627 (Kindle ed.)

      Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

      Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

      After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

      Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

      What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

      What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

      The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

      Like life.

      But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

      Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

      There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

      As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
      “We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

      Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

      Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

      Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

      I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

      In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

      Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

      Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

      She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

      This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

      Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

      This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

      Larissa Behrendt
      After story
      St Lucia: UQP, 2021
      307pp.
      ISBN: 9780702263316

      Monday musings on Australian literature: Warm Winter Read

      For several years now, Cathy of 746 books has been running a 20 Books of Summer challenge, which many Southern Hemisphere bloggers re-frame as “of Winter”. It’s a great initiative, and this year has over 120 participants. You go, Cathy! However, for something closer to home that’s geared to this winter, I thought I’d share with you Warm Winter Read. It is an initiative of Public Libraries Victoria, and I read about it on Angela Savage’s blog. Well-known as an author, Angela is also the CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.

      As a retired librarian, I love checking out what libraries are doing – and when they encourage reading AND Australian authors and books, then I’m on side.

      The program’s aim, Angela says, is “to encourage readers to develop a daily reading habit by tracking the days they read over June and July 2022”. It has been taken up by most of Victoria’s library services, and involves an app – the Beanstack app (here) – through which participants can log daily reading, take part in optional challenges and share book reviews. Apparently the optional challenges include things like, Angela writes, “read outside your home; read aloud to a pet, person or plant; and talk about what you’re reading in person or online”.

      This is all great, but I’m mainly sharing it with you because the campaign has eight ambassadors, who are all “high-profile” Victorian authors. Each of these was asked to recommend four books to get readers started (although people can read any books). There are apparently bookmarks for each author, containing their recommendations.

      The ambassadors are a diverse bunch (links on their names are to my posts on them) and so are their recommended books, which range across a wide variety of forms and genres, fiction and non-fiction. Their recommendations are:

      • Maxine Beneba Clarke: Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning; Claire G. Coleman’s Lies, damned lies; Alice Pung’s One hundred days; Ennis Cehić’s Sadvertising
      • Claire G Coleman: Omar Sakr’s Son of sin; Maxine Beneba Clarke’s How decent folk behave; Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s (ed), Unlimited futures; Evelyn Araluen’s Drop bear
      • Helen Garner: Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end; David Owen Kelly’s State of origin; Larissa Behrendt’s After story; Gabbie Stroud’s Teacher
      • Jane Harper: Sally Hepworth’s The younger wife; Karina Kilmore’s Where the truth lies; Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault; Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone in my family has killed someone
      • Toni Jordan: Genevieve Novak’s No hard feelings; Emily Spurr’s A million things; R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys; Paddy O’Reilly’s Other people’s houses
      • Rebecca Lim: Amani Haydar’s The mother wound; Trent Jamieson’s Day boy; Cixin Liu’s The three-body problem; Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay
      • Jock Serong: Emma Viskic’s Those who perish; Robert Gott’s The orchard thieves; Emily Brugman’s The islands; Michael Winkler’s Grimmish
      • Christos Tsiolkas: Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon; Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl; Andy Jackson’s Music our bodies can’t hold; Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin

      I have not heard of all these books, let alone read them, but I can see that the list offers something for most readers and should kickstart some thinking about what to read.

      Different library services are promoting the program in different ways. Here are some: Goldfields Libraries; Hume Libraries; and Yarra Plenty Regional Library. BUT as I pottered around some of the sites, I also picked up other things that libraries are doing. For example, the Warrnambool Library advertises that it can help members access their vaccination certificates. What a great service for the less technologically proficient in our communities. I love how modern public libraries are comprehending and expressing their role as community information centres.

      Also, in some communities, the local newspaper has got behind the program too. What about this one from the Shepparton News:

      Come into your local library to check out a Warm Winter Read. You’ll find hot romances, spicy thrillers and toasty tales of fun and adventure. You can register and log your participation via the Beanstack website at www.plv.beanstack.orgor by downloading the Beanstack Tracker app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

      For readers who prefer ‘old-school’, pick up a tracking sheet from your local library. Lots of challenges to keep the next few months interesting.

      And here I will leave you. This is a pretty short and simple Monday Musings, partly because I have joined the growing number of bloggers who have contracted COVID-19. So, while I’m not very sick, thanks to being fully vaccinated, I’m also not wonderfully chipper and need now to go take a nap!

      Meanwhile, here’s a job for you: what would you have recommended if you’d been asked to suggest four books for a program like this? (And if you’re not Aussie, you can choose non-Aussie books!)

      Stephen Orr, Sincerely, Ethel Malley (#bookreview)

      Like Lisa, I’m a Stephen Orr fan, but for some reason it took me forever to finish his latest book, Sincerely, Ethel Malley, partly I think because while its characters are engaging, it’s a novel that deserves concentration which I seem to have in shorter supply this year. This is not meant to discourage readers, because it’s a fascinating, and wryly humorous read that explores a range of issues, to do with art and society, against a backdrop of war-time 1940s Australia.

      As those who know the story will have guessed, Orr’s novel takes as its starting point the infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. To summarise Wikipedia, this hoax was perpetrated by two conservative writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who created modernist-style poetry in the name of a fictitious poet, Ern Malley. They wrote the poems using random words from various reference books and rhyming dictionaries, and, in 1943 sent them, in the name of Ern’s sister Ethel, to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, the journal of a modernist art and literary movement. This movement included some of the leading lights of the Heide art group, which was the inspiration for Emilly Bitto’s novel, The strays (my review). They were modern, confident, and prepared to tackle head on conservative Australia. It wasn’t long before the hoax was exposed, but that wasn’t the end of it, because Max Harris was then tried for publishing the poems, on the grounds of obscene content.

      I have written about literary hoaxes earlier in this blog, and made some points about what hoaxes tell us. Among these are that they raise some fundamental issues for readers and critics about the nature of literature, about what we mean by authenticity and how we define quality. Is a work, for example, somehow less “authentic” and of less literary quality because the author isn’t who we believe s/he is? In other words, is the work the thing? These are some of the issues Orr explores in Sincerely, Ethel Malley.

      The novel’s intent is also suggested by the four epigraphs, the first of which – with its own in-joke – is “ascribed” to Aeschylus. It suggests that Prometheus is the source of “every art possessed by man”, so, perhaps, why worry about anything but the art? Then there’s Frederick R. Ewing’s suggestion that the problem occurs from a misunderstanding over where “the truth left off and imagination began” – which, in a way, is the idea underpinning this book. The third comes from Max Harris arguing, essentially, against “playing god”. And finally, there’s Donald Crowhurst’s “it is the mercy”. I’ve never heard of Crowhurst but, according to Wikipedia, he was an amateur sailor who disappeared during a race. Wikipedia says that this statement, which he left behind “is obscure, [but] most commentators have accepted that it signifies his relief that, at last, he is leaving an unbearable situation”.

      All this will tell you that Stephen Orr has big ideas in his sights. Fortunately for us, they are wrapped up in the engaging character of Ethel. She carries the novel. It starts in 1981, with her death, and then flashes back to 1943, which begins the main body of the novel and tells the story of Ern and his poems from Ethel’s (first-person) point-of-view. The novel’s last chapter returns to 1981, with Max hearing about Ethel’s death. Ethel (and Ern) are Sydney-based – which is where McAuley and Stewart were based – but most of the action takes place in Adelaide, where Max Harris was based.

      In the 1970s, Adelaide was a beacon of progressive thought in Australia, but back in the 1940s it was a very different place. Orr is South Australian and captures the ambience of the place and time beautifully, as our Sydney-suburban housewife, Ethel, makes her way between the iconoclastic Max, the lively bookseller Mary Martin, and Adelaide’s conservative establishment.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the explorations – many of them done with wit if not downright cheek – about truth and authenticity, about poetry not being meant to be understood but to be “interpreted”, and about the art versus the artist. It’s subversive in self-consciously confronting some of the things we say and think about art and literature. It tackles conservatism, our resistance to innovation – “Originality. If your writing’s worthwhile, most people will hate it”, Max tells Ethel. Early in the novel is a discussion within Harris’ theatre group about what play they will perform, one by Shaw or one by Cocteau. Most of the players argue that people won’t come to Cocteau, because they “want a story”. For boundary-pushing Max, “that’s their problem”. He wants to do something “modern” (hence, also, his interest in Ern). This dilemma is not confined to 1940s Adelaide, but is one arts communities grapple with constantly. What will audiences tolerate?

      Orr’s skill is in presenting his “big” issues through “authentic”, engaging characters and strong narratives which draw us into their reality. Orr’s characters are always warm and authentic (even when fictionalising an already made-up person like Ethel) and his dialogue is so natural. The story of Ethel as she struggles to prove that Ern is real, and his poetry not obscene, is entertaining – particularly when people start questioning her existence too. It can get mind-bending some times, and quite rollicking other times, as Ethel flips between present and past, but it works.

      All of this is in the service of issues Orr thinks are worth thinking about, but it’s the thinking and the questions that are, in the end, more important than the answers, with Ethel, of course, being our guide. Early on, she’s never heard of Sid Nolan, but by the end she can hold her own with the best of them as she struggles to defend herself, Ern and his art against those who question. It’s both heartfelt and funny.

      There is a lot to this book, but fundamentally, I see it as being about conservatism. In addition to the whole modernist poetry debate, Orr makes pointed comments along the way about the press and academia, not to mention Australians themselves. Ethel tells Sid Nolan, she’s learnt that “Australians hate anyone who claims to be creative”. In Sincerely, Ethel Malley, Orr is teasing us, goading us even, into being open to new ways of seeing, just as Max Harris wanted to do in the 1940s – and he has done so with his usual skill combined with a good dose of fun.

      Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book and covered its essence very well.

      Stephen Orr
      Sincerely, Ethel Malley
      Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2021
      441pp.
      ISBN: 9781743058084

      Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.

      Damon Galgut, The promise (#BookReview)

      Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel, The promise, is one of those novels that grabbed me intellectually and emotionally from its opening pages. The plot, itself, is straighforward. It concerns a White South African family’s promise to give a house on their property to their Black maid, whom their grandfather had acquired “along with the land”. The narrative tracks just how hard it is for the family to honour this promise. What makes the novel a Booker-Prize winner is the quality of the writing and how Galgut uses his story to create a potted history of South African life and politics in the post-Apartheid decades.

      The novel is set between 1986 and 2018, and centres on the family, and their farm outside Pretoria. The family comprises Ma, Pa, and their three children, Astrid, Anton and Amor. In the opening pages, the youngest family member, Amor, overhears her dying Jewish mother extract the aforementioned promise from her Afrikaner father to give the house to Salome. Amor wants this promise honoured but achieving it turns out to be much harder than she expected.

      The promise was my reading group’s May read and, somewhat unusually for us, it was universally enjoyed. Our ex-South African member used words like sharp, clever, funny, vicious, and said that Galgut nails the South Africa she knew and had experienced.

      “something out of true at its centre”

      There is so much to say about this book, that it’s hard to know where to start, but the writing is an excellent place, because it truly carries the novel. Particularly effective is the slippery voice (or point-of-view) which shifts perspective and person, sometimes mid-sentence. The effect, among other things, is to implicate us readers in the narrative. It prevents us distancing ourselves from the choices, decisions and behaviours we see. Here, for example, we shift from third to first in a paragraph:

      For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family  … We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.

      And here is a mid-sentence shift from third to second person:

      But in truth he’s bored by this man, by his ordinary life and his ordinary wife, just as he’s bored by almost everything these days, all significance leaked away by now, and it doesn’t feel wrong to wait till he’s gone, then get up and wander out into the night, as if you’ve been drinking on your own. You probably have.

      Alongside the voice is Galgut’s wordplay, his recognition of the power of words to clarify or obfuscate. Take the irony of the white family’s name, Swart, which means black. But it doesn’t stop there because it is also an archaic word for “baneful, malignant”. Take also the narrator’s frequent self-corrections that always nail home a point, like:

      “So Salome has gone back to her own house instead, beg your pardon, to the Lombard place.” (Which reminds us that the promise has not been enacted.)

      “He no longer calls himself dominee, he’s a pastoor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits.” (Which tells us something about this man of the church’s real motivations.)

      Then there’s the idea of promise itself. What a loaded word that is. While this is the story of a family, The promise is ultimately a political novel, so Galgut deftly plays with the idea of “promise” in more ways than one. The novel opens and closes with false promises, related to the historical realities of 1986 and 2018, as well as to the family’s inaction. It also teases us with the idea that the end of Apartheid would bring the promise of a new South Africa, but it shows that ideal foundering. The failure of the country to live up to its promise is paralleled in the character of Anton who, at the beginning of the novel, is “full of promise”, as he describes himself in his unfinished autobiographical novel, but who, by the end, admits that he has not lived up to it:

      He’s still stunned by the simple realisation that’s just struck. It’s true, I’ve wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he’s never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do … Not ever going to do much of anything.

      (Note the slip from third to first to third person, here!) There are many failed promises in the novel, including a minister’s failure to keep a confession.

      Other motifs threading through the novel include the four funerals in four different religions/belief systems that shape the narrative’s four parts, and the fact that the Swart’s family business is a (failing) Reptile Park. How telling is that! Just think of all the allusions.

      The characters are another compelling aspect of the novel. As an epigraph-lover, I can’t resist sharing Galgut’s from Frederico Fellini:

      This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me, ‘Are you Fellini?’ With this metallic voice she continued, ‘Why is it that in your movies, there is not even one normal person?’

      What a hoot, and what a great epigraph choice. It immediately challenges us to consider what is “normal”, if such exists, and puts us on the alert about notions of normality. Galgut’s characters – even the minor ones like Lexington the driver (who “brings the Triumph to the front steps”), the homeless man (“as he keeps obsessively singing the first line to Blowin’ in the wind, let’s call him Bob”), and the various funeral workers – are carefully differentiated, and add depth to the picture being painted of a family and country in crisis. The irony is, I think, that each is disconcertingly normal – in their own way!

      Early in the novel, the narrator describes the recently departed Ma’s spirit lingering around the house:

      She looks real, which is to say, ordinary. How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.

      “Vague and adrift” perfectly describes Astrid, Anton and Amor, none of whom have it together. The “quiet and attentive” Amor, however, is at least empathetic, and therefore the most sympathetic. She constantly shows heart, but, having little power in the family, her solution is to disappear at every opportunity, and live a spartan life, working as a nurse among the most needy. Could she have done more sooner?, is the question worth asking.

      So, what is the takeaway from this novel? My reading group was unanimous in feeling that the novel is underpinned by the idea that when one group has an unhealthy position of power over another, both are diminished, if not destroyed. It is to Galgut’s credit, however, that he explores this without didacticism. We are never told what to think. Instead, he presents his characters’ thoughts, actions and decisions, and leaves us to consider what it all means.

      We are also given this:

      No truthful answers without cold questions. And no knowledge without truth.

      The wonder of this book is that such a strong and serious story can be so exciting to read.

      Lisa also loved it.

      Damon Galgut
      The promise
      Vintage, 2021
      295pp.
      ISBN: 9781473584464 (Kindle ed.)

      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

      Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

      After a run of tough reads in 2021, my reading group wanted something gentler, so I suggested that for our “classic” we do a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose works I’ve loved for their pointed wit, delightful humour, and astute commentary on marriage and the relationship between men and women. As is my wont, I nominated one from my TBR shelves, Vera. To my delight, they agreed.

      Then, before reading it, I decided to remind myself of von Arnim’s life, so I read Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (my review). Imagine my horror when, two-thirds through, Carey wrote that Vera was her “darkest” novel, “a haunting portrait of psychological tyranny”. What? Too late by then, but I did hope my reading group would, one, forgive me, and, two, not be turned off von Arnim. As it turned out, all those who attended the meeting liked the book and pronounced it “not too dark”. Was I pleased!

      Nonetheless, Vera is a dark novel, one that reminded me of a book written four decades later by Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (my review). Both novels are about narcissism and coercive control, about older men who marry and tyrannise vulnerable and inexperienced much younger women.

      Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

      When Vera was published, readers and reviewers were, says Carey, confused. How did “playful, witty Elizabeth von Arnim, author of light social comedies” become “a gothic writer of macabre tragedy”? Von Arnim was distressed but cousin Katherine Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, is reported to have said to her, on the appearance of a negative review in The Times Literary Supplement, “Of course my dear, when the critics are faced with Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”

      This is an apposite comment for a few reasons – besides its intention to reassure. Firstly, von Arnim pointedly has Lucy, our young wife, read Wuthering Heights even though husband Everard calls it “morbid”. It’s an effective allusion, given the darkness of Brontë’s novel and its focus on obsessive love. However, Murry’s comment also conveys something about the experience of reading this novel, because, while it is dark and distressing, it still bears von Arnim’s Austen-like light touch, and that, I think, is what my reading group appreciated.

      By now, if you haven’t read it yourself, you may be wondering why this novel is called Vera when the two protagonists I’ve named are Lucy and Everard? So, let me do a quick plot summary.

      The novel begins with 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle leaning on the front gate of the house in Cornwall that she and her father had taken for the late summer. Her father has just died suddenly and Lucy is in shock. Into view comes another – apparently – grieving person, the mid-forties Everard Wemyss, whose wife Vera had died a week or so ago. Things, though, are not quite as they seem. A shadow hangs over Vera’s death, with a suggestion that it may not have been accidental but a suicide. Lucy, unfortunately, is naive and vulnerable, and despite the best efforts of her wise Aunt Dot, she is swept into marriage, with socially unacceptable haste. After the honeymoon, Everard takes her to his county mansion, “The Willows”, where Vera had died. He makes no attempt to change anything – expecting Lucy to sleep in the same bed Vera did, to occupy Vera’s sitting room, to have breakfast overlooking the flagstones onto which Vera had fallen (or jumped). Kind, head-over-heels-in-love Lucy does her best to justify Everard’s increasingly controlling behaviour but it dawns all too quickly that he expects nothing less than utter servitude . 

      And so, Lucy, whose usual state had been one “of affection and confidence”, learns that the “scenes” that she hated could not be avoided “for no care, no caution would for ever be able to watch what she said, or did, or look, or equally important, what she didn’t say, or didn’t do, or didn’t look”. It leaves her “afraid with the most dismal foreboding, that someday after one of them, or in the middle of one of them, her nerve would give out and she would collapse. Collapse deplorably; into just something that howled and whimpered.”

      Lucy starts to think kindly of this Vera she’d never met.

      “It’s wonderful, wonderful … what love will do” (The doctor)

      It’s grim, certainly, but this is Elizabeth von Arnim, so there’s humour – black comedy – here too. There are some truly funny scenes, particularly involving the poor servants for whom Everard has not one ounce of humanity. These servants only stay at “The Willows” because he is in town all week. They can manage his cruelly imperious ways from Friday night to Monday morning, because the wages were higher than any they’d heard of. (They probably had to be!)

      So, here is a scene in which Everard confronts the parlourmaid about a missing button on a piano leg cover:

      “What do you see?” he asked.
      The parlourmaid was reluctant to say. What she saw was piano legs, but she felt that wasn’t the right answer.
      “What do you not see?” Wemyss asked, louder.
      This was much more difficult, because there were so many things she didn’t see; her parents, for example.
      “Are you deaf, woman?” he enquired.
      She knew the answer to that, and said it quickly.
      “No sir,” she said.

      And so it continues, but you get the gist. The scene is indicative of Wemyss’ extreme bullying behaviour, but you can’t help laughing while feeling for the poor parlourmaid.

      This black humour is one of the things that kept me reading. Another was von Arnim’s writing. She has wonderful turns of phrase, such as this of Lucy reining in some disturbing thoughts: “Lucy made a violent lunge after her thoughts, and strangled them”.

      Von Arnim is also an excellent satirist and ironist. Just look at the doctor’s statement above. He’s surprised and unsure about the marriage to Lucy but, well, look what love can do! Already, however, we are aware that his initial uncertainty is more than valid. One of the points Carey makes in her book is von Arnim’s disappointment in love and marriage. In her experience – including the marriage to Francis Russell which inspired this novel – men change as soon as they are married or, as the heady days of love wane. Vera is at the extreme, but not unbelievable, end of this disappointment.

      Finally, there’s Jane Austen. Elizabeth von Arnim – and I’m not the first to say this – owes much to Austen. From my first Von Arnim, Austen’s wit and astute observation of human nature shone through. She nails the way humans think and behave with, sometimes, excruciating accuracy. But von Arnim’s style in Vera is not Austen’s. We don’t have Austen’s omniscient third person voice. Vera is told third person, but von Arnim uses that technique more common to modernists, the interior monologue, with the narrative perspective shifting between the main characters – Lucy, Everard and Lucy’s wonderful Aunt Dot. In fact, a few of the last chapters are with Aunt Dot as she comes head-to-head with Everard and learns just how right she had been to be concerned – but, well, look “what love will do”.

      There’s more to discuss in this book. There’s Wemyss’ deeply creepy infantalisation of his 22-year-old wife, calling her “a good little girl” and “my very own baby”. There’s also his insistence that everything can be simplified to one right answer. Initially, the overwhelmed, grieving Lucy finds this comforting but, having grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry, she starts to not only think that such an attitude might “cut one off from growth” and “shut one in an isolation”, but to doubt “whether it was true that there was only one way looking at a thing” or “that his way was invariably the right way”.

      Too soon after her death, Elizabeth von Arnim was relegated to the realms of light romantic comedy, but that denies their value, even when you look at her lighter works. However, when you add Vera to her oeuvre, you have a writer whose work must be seen as relevant now as it ever was.

      Elizabeth von Arnim
      Vera
      London: Virago, 1983 (orig. pub. 1921)
      319pp.
      ISBN: 9781844082810