My reading group’s favourites for 2021

In our now annual tradition, my reading group once again voted for our favourites from our 2021 schedule – and as has also become tradition (see last year’s if you like), I’m sharing our reading and findings with you.

First, though, here is what we read in the order we read them (with links on titles to my reviews):

This schedule is very different to last year’s which was was less diverse than usual: nearly all were Australian and we didn’t do a classic. It’s true that our focus always has been Australian – with a special interest in women – but it was never meant to be quite so narrow as it was last year. So, this year … we did a classic; we did just 5 Australian books; and we read three male authors (plus those who had essays in the Best Australian science anthology). The first half of next year will see a continuation of this variety, with not only a classic but a translated book (which has been absent for a couple of years).

The winners …

All twelve of our currently active members voted, and the rules were the same. We had to name our three favourite works, which resulted in 36 votes being cast. No weighting was given to one over another in those three, even where some members did rank their choices. Last year we had a runaway winner – it received twice the number of votes as the two which shared second place. This year though was completely different. The winning book received 8 votes, second 7 votes, third 6 votes and so on down to fifth with 4 votes. Consequently, we have two Highly Commendeds this year, because after 4 votes we dropped to 2, 1 and none.

  1. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (8 votes)
  2. The crocodile song, by Nardi Simpson (7 votes)
  3. Girl, woman, other, by Bernadine Evaristo (6 votes)

Highly commended: Where the Crawdads sing, by Delia Owens (5); Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (4).

  • Book cover

It was a real tussle this year, and I enjoyed watching the votes come in. Until the last two votes, Nardi Simpson was winning – oh, how I would have loved her to win, particularly after Melissa Lucashenko’s win last year – but she was pipped at the post.

Interestingly, last year all three of the nonfiction titles on our list featured among our favourites, while this year the two nonfiction works didn’t get any votes at all, though they both generated excellent discussions. It’s just that we read such strong fiction. Every book but the two nonfiction books received at least one vote.

Of course, this is not a scientific survey (and it’s a very small survey). Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book (though most did this year), so different people voted from different “pools”.

Oh, and if you want to know my three picks, they were Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, woman, other, and Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile. It was a hard decision though, with Shuggie Bain fighting for a place!

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 top five:

  • Shuggie Bain: Commenters used descriptions like “perceptive”, “powerful”, “brilliant evocative writing”.
  • Song of the crocodile: Comments included “punchy truth-telling”, “loved the ‘fantastic aspects’ … [like] the crocodile totem”, “edgy and important”, “full of beauty and … I understand intergenerational trauma more”.
  • Girl, woman, other: Commenters saw it as a “fabulous evocation of women in complicated relationships”, and “satirical, insightful exploration of diverse women”, while another said “made me feel like I was almost there in London. A great book to read while the borders stopped travel.”
  • Where the crawdads sing”: Our one commenter on it called it “evocative and compelling”.
  • Hamnet: Commenters agreed it was “powerful”: “powerful story of an invisible woman, and the impact of grief” and “powerful … imagined history. Beautiful descriptive writing”, while another said “engaging, well-plotted and historically plausible”

And a bonus!

As in 2019, a good friend (from my library school days over 45 years ago) sent me her reading group’s schedule from this year (links are to my reviews where I’ve read the book too):

  • Kate Grenville, A room made of leaves: novel, Australian author
  • Tony Birch, Ghost River: novel, Australian author (First Nations)
  • Annabel Crabb, The wife drought: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Mark Henshaw, The snow kimono: novel, Australian author
  • Richard Fidler, Ghost Empire: nonficton, Australian author
  • Clive James, The fire of joy…roughly 80 poems: poetry, Australian author
  • Michelle de Kretser, Questions of travel: novel, Australian author
  • Kim Mahood, Craft for a dry lake: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains (on my TBR): nonfiction, Kurdish-Iranian author
  • Pip Williams, The dictionary of lost words (on my TBR): fiction, Australian author

My group has read the Henshaw and de Kretser in past years, and we have also read a different book by Kim Mahood (Position doubtful) which we loved.

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

Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

One of the reasons I love reading fiction is to be introduced to lives and cultures I know nothing about. This is less so in nonfiction, but Sarah Krasnostein’s latest book, The believer, fits the brief. In it she explores questions concerning what people believe and why through six different people (or groups of people), all of which were foreign to me.

The six “beliefs” are eclectic, but can be divided into three categories : personal lives (a death doula and a woman who had been incarcerated for over 30 years for murdering her violent husband); religious lives (through a Creation Museum and some Mennonite families); and the unexplainable (paranormal seekers/ghostbusters and ufologists). These six “cases” all come from either the USA or Australia.

Different readers will be drawn to different ideas in the book, but in my reading group, the most popular were the two personal stories – death doula Annie, and ex-prisoner Lynn. Lynn’s story of abuse at her husband’s hands first and then the justice system’s was heart-rending. Yet Lynn had come to understand that she’d made choices, and had gone on to use her life to make things better for others. Inspiring.

The book has a disjointed three-part structure, with one of each of the three categories explored in “Below”, the remaining three in “Above”, and then some reappearing in the final “Coda: Here” section. Within these sections, the stories are told over several alternating chapters, so no one story is told in one go. One of the questions my reading group discussed was whether this structure helped or hindered our reading. We didn’t resolve this, though the overall consensus seemed to be that the alternating did keep us interested. There was probably method to the placement of the stories, but it wasn’t always clear to us, which might be more to do with the time of year and our concentration levels.

Lightbulb moments

What we did all agree on, however, was that the book had some great lightbulb moments – and for many of us, it’s the lightbulb moments that make a book special or memorable.

One refrain that ran through the book was that life isn’t easy or simple. Mennonite Becky says that “life isn’t just a bed of roses”, and ex-prisoner Lynn understands that “pain is a part of life”. Ufologist Jaimie has a more positive spin, seeing that life “is not just going to work and dying”. There are mysteries out there to explore.

However, for me, the most significant moment occurred in “Before”, in a Paranormal/Vlad chapter. It concerned the need for certainty. Krasnostein references German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who coined the term apophenia, which essentially means that we look for meaning and coherence, and will go so far as to perceive them in unrelated events and ideas. We will, writes Krasnostein, “choose certainty over accuracy”. “We are compulsive converters of fact into meaning”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but Krasnostein then cites a Science article which talks about the human desire to “combat uncertainty and maintain control” and the importance of this to psychological wellbeing and physical health. You can probably see the lightbulb here: it explained, to me, why some people have found the pandemic harder to handle than others, and why some people can become susceptible to conspiracies. People who feel out of control will look for patterns and answers. For me, living with questions is interesting – and in fact real, because I’m not sure there always are answers – but I feel I better understand now, those who do not feel this way, those who demand certainty, such as “promise there will be no more lockdowns”. I better understand why people might turn to conspiracies when authority doesn’t (indeed, sometimes can’t) provide consistent answers.

Other lightbulb moments were less applicable to my life, but were interesting nonetheless. An example was the Mennonites fear of higher education. It “contains an unacceptable risk of assimilation”, potentially causing tertiary educated members to leave the community (the Mennonite kingdom) and be assimilated into wider society. Higher education threatens their understanding of the world, their faith in the Bible as explaining the world. Krasnostein writes of one Mennonite man who had moved to New York in a mission “to make a difference in people’s lives”:

Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living.

There’s that idea of certainties again. Anthony tells Krasnostein that “Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex”. This too returns us to the idea of certainties. Anthony sees life simply. In the Mennonites’ belief in a “loving presence”, they see (create?) “a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality”. Patterns, again.

What added to the book’s interest was that Sarah Krasnostein was, herself, searching to understand “belief”. She admits to occasionally envying Anthony and his co-believers’ “refusal to accept the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence”. She says at one point, “If I could only ask the right questions I could understand”.

This has not been one of my typical review posts, partly because this is a different sort of book, but mostly because I finished it nearly two weeks ago and am not in the brainspace for doing my usual thing. Forgive me. However, you should be grateful, because this book is jam-packed with stories – some tragic, some poignant, some inspiring and some, I have to admit, infuriating (I’m looking particularly at you Creation Museum) – and it would have been tempting to share too many of them. They weren’t, of course, all equally interesting. And occasionally, they got a bit bogged down in detail to the point that I risked losing the thread. That’s the challenge Krasnostein faced in meeting so many people and wanting to explore all their thoughts and ideas. Overall, it works. Her lyrical prose, and warm, open heart play a big role in that.

Talking about UFO sightings, ufologist Ben tells Krasnostein that “we need to find all these little stories. They build up into a big matrix of stories” which, for him, might locate the “truth” of the events. However, this is also exactly what Krasnostein did in this book and, in doing so, she found, as she writes at the end,

six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable.

My reading group was a little disappointed that in the Coda, Krasnostein didn’t give us a clear summation of the sort you often find in nonfiction works. In fact, though, I think Krasnostein did find something very real, a belief that could help us accept each other’s wildly different shores a little more: it’s that we are “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. That is quite profound, and worth spending some time absorbing.

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Sarah Krasnostein
The believer: Encounters with love, death and faith
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2021
351pp.
ISBN: 9781922330208

Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours (#BookReview)

Those of you who know the subject matter of Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, Infinite splendours, will not be surprised to hear that it drew a mixed reaction from my reading group, particularly coming on the heels of recent reads like Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (my review). However, if we all agreed on one thing, it was that Laguna’s writing is splendid.

Some of you though, particularly non-Australians, will not know what it’s about, so let’s get that out of the way first. The back cover blurb starts this way:

Lawrence Loman is a bright, caring, curious boy with a gift for painting. He lives at home with his mother and younger brother, and the future is laid out before him, full of promise. But when he is ten, an experience of betrayal takes it all away, and Lawrence is left to deal with the devastating aftermath.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this betrayal involves sexual abuse.

Infinite splendours, like Laguna’s previous book, The choke (my review), is set in the rural past. In this case, we are in the Grampians, west of Melbourne, and the novel starts in 1953 when Lawrence is 10. As with The choke, my question is, why set the story in the past? And my answer – though I don’t know Laguna’s – is the same: it’s set at a time when awareness of abuse and the resultant trauma were essentially non-existent. This enables Laguna to explore her theme unencumbered.

The novel is told chronologically in three parts. The first ends with the abuse, and the second takes Lawrence through to another crisis in his late twenties, with the third picking him up, a couple of decades later, in 1994. By this time, Lawrence is living alone in the isolated family home. The novel is told first person, so we spend the whole time in Lawrence’s head, seeing only his perspective. It’s intense and introspective, but not unleavened. There are moments of calm and beauty.

One part engaged, another observing. Two selves. (p. 411)

Still, it’s a tough story, as we watch this lovely, sensitive boy, whom we’ve come to love, decline. He stutters. He gives up his interests, including the art in which he’d shown such talent, and he keeps to himself. His body is a source of mental and physical anguish. From the moment of the abuse, he’s a divided person:

I felt myself dividing; there were two selves to choose from. One inside, one outside. (p. 152/153)

There are moments when he may have been helped. Soon after the abuse, his younger brother Paul asks “what did he do to you Lawrence” – but Lawrence won’t confide. At the beginning of part 2, the family’s kind neighbour, Mrs Barry, tells his mother that he reminds her of the “men back from the war”, but of course PTSD was not properly recognised nor treated back then.

After his mother dies when he is 26 years old, his brother leaves home, and a crisis occurs at his workplace. At this point, Lawrence’s self-isolation is complete. He does, however, have points of solace. His beloved mountain Wallis, a fictional mountain in the Grampians which features in the story from the beginning, provides moments of peace, hope and transcendence; a bunker on the property, in which he hides in a game of hide-and-seek at the novel’s opening, is a place he goes to for safety; and his art, to which he returns after leaving his job, provides occupation and self-expression:

This was the world for me; there was Wallis above and the bunker below, and here was I, between them with my tray of colours. (p. 267)

Lawrence also has an art book, Letters from the masters, that his uncle had given him during his “grooming”. This book becomes his “bible” – for art and life – and he returns to it again and again. He studies the paintings, and he ponders the artists’ words. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from Master Millet who wrote “I see far more in the countryside than charm, I see infinite splendours”. And so does Lawrence, particularly in his beloved Wallis. It is while standing on Wallis, before the events unfold, that he has his first intimations of “something else, greater, that was infinite–the earth’s invisible self. Wallis whispered, See this“.

It is in this context that Lawrence’s art becomes his life’s work. He describes one of his landscapes as “like a living thing … a soul contained within an object”, and sees his paintings as his family. He is as settled as he can be. But, change is inevitable, and the time comes when Mrs Barry’s long-empty house across the yard is occupied again. It discombobulates Lawrence:

I painted into the sun, layers of yellow into yellow. Immersion in light. Sun across my knees, sun in the sky, sun on my canvas. Could I not keep going, contained forever within this one emerging world of light? Must I inhabit another?

It seemed I must … Everything changes.

The new occupants are a single-parent family like his own had been, this one, though, with a mother, teen daughter, and, yes, a 10-year-old boy. The tension builds as we readers watch and desperately hope that Lawrence will not repeat history, that he will get his two selves back in sync in the best way.

I said at the beginning that my reading group praised Laguna’s writing. Her descriptions of the landscape are exquisite and her delineation of character, even minor ones, is so very good. Her warmth and empathy are palpable. I also love her ability to change pace and rhythm to evoke different emotions. However, several of us did feel it became repetitive. Further, although I was fully engaged in Lawrence’s story, and was never going to give up on him or the book, there were times that I felt overwhelmed with the multitude of motifs. As well as those I’ve mentioned, like Wallis and the bunker, there’s Robinson Crusoe, Madame Butterfly, a strawman/scarecrow, birds and the bird clock, rocking and a rocking chair, colours, and more. While none of these were gratuitous, they did sometimes become distracting, as I tried to identify whether they were adding anything critical to what I already knew and felt.

As I read this novel, with a frequent sense of foreboding, I was buoyed by my memory of Laguna’s statement that hope is important. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that, here, the hope felt a bit thin, albeit there is a real transcendence in the ending. For that I was truly grateful.

As for my reading group? Well, there’s been a request for books with a lighter touch next year, which is fine by me, as long as they have meat too!

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Sofie Laguna
Infinite splendours
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020
435pp.
ISBN: 9781760876272

Winner of the 2021 Colin Roderick Award

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (#BookReview)

Book cover

Not unusually, I’m late to this book that was all the talk in 2020 – and, I may not have read it at all if it hadn’t been for my reading group. I’m talking, as you will have guessed from the post title, of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

As most of you will know, Hamnet’s plot draws from the life of Shakespeare (never named in the novel) and Anne Hathaway, and the death of their son Hamnet at the age of 11. There was an older sister, Susanna, and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. O’Farrell explains her interest in her Author’s Note:

Lastly, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or ‘pestilence’, as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare, in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.

Because this book has been well-covered already online, I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this post, and focus on a couple of questions.

“She herself might tell a different story”

With all books, but particularly with historical fiction, one of my questions is, why did the author choose to write their story. O’Farrell partly answers it in her Author’s note. However, there is also, surely, a feminist reading, because, although the novel is titled Hamnet, it is primarily about his mother Agnes (as Anne is named in Shakespeare’s will). Early in the novel, O’Farrell writes “This is the story, the myth of Agnes’s childhood. She herself might tell a different story”.

The thing is, we don’t know a lot about Agnes Hathaway which makes her ripe for historical fiction. What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant. It means that importance hasn’t been placed on them. Whoever Agnes really was, O’Farrell has created a wonderful, eccentric character, who is perceptive, warm, independently-minded, a little flawed but engaged in the life of her family and community. She is fun to read about.

Besides telling a story about her, though, O’Farrell also presents, through her, a story about grief, and this, for me, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Agnes’ thoughts about burying her son, her astonishment that people can complain about their children, her utter discombobulation were so real:

Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her …

This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. … Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.

So real …

Hamlet?

Warning: Spoiler of sorts

Given the novel is titled for Hamnet, rather than for its main protagonist, Agnes, it’s worth considering why, and this leads us to the play Hamlet. The novel ends with Agnes attending a performance of her husband’s play, which confirms the significance of this play to the novel. The epigraph to the novel’s second part is a quote from Hamlet (V:ii): “Thou livest;/ . . . draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story”. But, Hamlet could scarcely be seen to be Hamnet’s story, though I did have a little laugh at the point in the novel where Hamnet chooses to die:

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Eleven-year-old Hamnet seems, here, to be far more decisive than his namesake who is known for his prevarication. This, however, is not what we are expected to take away from the novel I’m sure!

So, what else? Well, there’s the grief theme, which Hamlet can be seen to “resolve” in the novel. Agnes, devastated after her son’s death, can’t understand her husband returning to work – and writing comedies:

His company are having a great success with a new comedy. They took it to the Palace and the word was that the Queen was much diverted by it.

There is a silence. Judith looks from her mother, to her sister, to the letter. 

A comedy? her mother asks.

She is even more devastated though to learn that her husband has gone on to write a play using their son’s name – Hamnet and Hamlet being interchangeable – so she goes to London to confront him. What happens is something else. Initially, she feels eviscerated:

How could he thieve this name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? 

But then, as she sees the ghost father and living son, she starts to see something else:

He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.

My reading group discussed the question of the play a little, though we didn’t come to any particular conclusion, which I rather like. However, we did talk about how Shakespeare wrote his darkest, strongest plays, including the four great tragedies, after Hamnet’s death, which suggests that his son’s death had a big impact on him. A member also raised the play’s existential nature, seeing it exploring the fragility of life – “to be or not to be” – and how you go on in the face of bleakness.

Now, I could go on and talk about the style (language, use of present tense, symbolism), the decision not to name Shakespeare, and the dual storyline structure, as I normally would, but I’m sure they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so I’m leaving it this time. There were aspects of the novel that I question, but the truth is that I fell for Agnes and her story.

So, I’m going to leave you with two quotes, one from the husband, one from the wife.

It is so tenuous, so fragile, the life of the playhouses. He often thinks that, more than anything, it is like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat. 

Gardens don’t stand still: they are always in flux. 

These relate to their spheres of activity, but they also say something about life, don’t you think?

Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet
London: Tinder Press, 2020
310pp.
eISBN: 9781472223814

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (#BookReview)

How to write about a book that has made such a big splash that it has already been extensively reviewed. What more can one say? This is what I’m facing with Douglas Stuart’s debut and Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain.

I haven’t, in fact, read much about it, because I prefer to come to books fresh, but I have heard an interview with Stuart, and I can imagine what has been written about his book. I have also discussed it with my reading group. All I can do is just launch in, and write what I would normally write, but I fear it won’t add anything fresh to the discussion. It will, however, record, for me, my thoughts and feelings.

The story

For those of you who haven’t yet read Shuggie Bain, it tells the story of its eponymous protagonist growing up in public housing in 1980s industrial Glasgow. This was the time of Thatcher, a time when mines, shipyards, railyards closed, resulting in significant unemployment and the usual fallout when men can’t work and women and children end up on welfare:

Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity.

This is important, but it is also just the backdrop for the personal story of Shuggie and his mother Agnes. There are other characters, but these two are the book’s core.

The story starts in 1992 with Shuggie, nearly 16, living on his own in a boarding house in Southside Glasgow. He is clearly pitied by the people around him, so the question for us is why is he there alone, how did he get there? We then go back to 1981, where we meet Shuggie’s family, thirty-nine-year-old Agnes, her second husband Shug, and Shuggie’s two older siblings, Catherine and Leek, who were born to Agnes’ first husband. It is not a happy situation. They are all living in a flat with Agnes’ parents, Wullie and Lizzie, and Agnes feels a failure.

When Shug does take his family away, it’s a cruel action, and Agnes and her three children soon find themselves alone, living on welfare payments in the desolate Pithead – a housing scheme which had “the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen”. She knew Shug was “a selfish animal”, but she wasn’t expecting this. From here, their lives are a struggle, though Agnes – now drinking heavily – tries her darnedest to maintain appearances amongst women who reject her and her airs.

The characters

Agnes’ airs! Stuart has an impressive ability to create vivid, real characters. Even the villains of the piece – like Shug – are recognisable as people beyond the “type”, in his case a macho, violent, womaniser, they represent. This is no mean feat. However, it’s Agnes, Shuggie and, to a degree, Leek, who are our focus.

Agnes is a woman with aspirations. She’s resourceful, when sober, and wants more than the life she’s been dealt. But, she is unable to find a way out, largely because, for women of her time and place, it seems that a man is the answer. Her first husband Brendan tries to buy her happiness, but he’s boring. Then the flashy Shug comes along. For all his failings, and they abound, he too tries to buy her happiness, but tires of all her “wanting”.

Unfortunately, one of the things Agnes wants is “to take a good drink”. Her drinking, which was already evident when they lived at her “mammy’s”, becomes a serious problem at Pithead. Life, for her children, becomes insufferable. Catherine skedaddles into an early marriage as soon as she can, while the sensitive, artistic Leek withdraws into himself, leaving the young Shuggie to be the main watcher over his mother. And this is where this novel’s credentials as autofiction come into play, because the evocation of the child-addict parent relationship reads so authentically. We can’t help admiring Agnes’ gallus, while also despairing for her and her children.

So, it’s a heartbreaking story. Not only does Shuggie struggle with his addicted mother – loving her, caring for her in ways that a child should never have to – but he must cope with his own outsiderness that he doesn’t understand. From a very young age his way of talking, dressing and walking, not to mention his disinterest in typical boy things, are ridiculed. He’s called names, beaten up, ostracised, and he doesn’t know why. At 10 years old, aware he’s “no right”, he asks his mother, “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” If she knows, she doesn’t tell him, but a few years later, he realises that Leek, who had tried to teach him to toughen up, had known all along.

Leek is the support act, figuratively and literally, to Shuggie and his mother. He quietly provides support in the background, even after he eventually leaves home. He’s resentful of the impact on his own ambitions to become an artist, but he sticks around, taking labouring work, because he is needed. In many ways, he’s the hero of the novel, and my heart went out to him as much as to Shuggie. This, I think, says it all:

he looked like a half-shut penknife, a thing that should be sharp and useful, that was instead closed and waiting and rusting.

The writing

It also gives you a flavour of the book’s expressive writing. One of the first things you might notice is that Stuart loves a simile. The book is full of them, but they are so good, like

“The auld man’s face crumpled like a dropped towel.”

and

“The unwelcome presence of a man was like a school bell.”

and so many of Agnes, such this when Shug leaves her

“Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor”.

The book is also well structured, opening in 1992, which immediately tells us that whatever happens Shuggie is going to survive, and ending back in 1992, this time on a note of hope, albeit a tentative one.

Stuart uses vernacular extensively, resulting in much unfamiliar-to-me vocabulary – boak, hauch, gallus, to name a few – but they are understandable from the context, and essential to setting the scene. The novel is not at all hard to read. Indeed it’s beautiful – and easier to understand than some spoken Scottish can be!

Moreover, for all its bleakness, the novel has a good smattering of humour. Here’s Shuggie defending his mother, drunk and over-dressed, marching into the hospital to see her dying father,

Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl.

“She is not,” said Shuggie, quite proudly. “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.” 

What it all means

The novel is, as I’ve said, autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean that Stuart simply sat down and wrote his life. Shuggie Bain reads as a considered piece of fiction that has some things to tell – about dashed dreams, the powerlessness of women in a male-dominated world, poverty, addiction and outsiderness. It’s both political and personal about what happens to lives when the ground beneath is taken away. And yet, for all that, it’s also about love – child-to-mother, brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend – that survives in places you barely expect it to. No-one in my reading group was sorry we scheduled it.

Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain
London: Picador, 2020 (2021 eBook)
355pp.
ISBN: 9781529019308

Nardi Simpson, Song of the crocodile (#BookReview)

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile is a tight multi-generational saga set in the fictional town of Darnmoor over the last decades of the twentieth century. It tells the story of the people of the Campgrounds, who are ostracised, exploited and abused by the white townspeople. Between the Campgrounds and the town proper, with its ironically named Grace and Hope Streets, is the tip, which was created by knocking down “strangely scratched gums” on the old bora grounds. The road to the tip, and on to the Campgrounds, is Old Black Road. The stage is set …

“trespassers on their own country”

The story is told in three parts which span three generations of the Billymil family – Celie, her daughter Mili, and Mili’s eldest son Paddy. Celie’s part starts, however, with her mother, Margaret. Margaret not only runs the town hospital’s laundry, but also undertakes the major load of nursing the hospital’s First Nations patients. They are housed on “the back verandah” and are mostly ignored by the hospital’s medical staff. In this way, very early in the novel, we get the picture loud and clear about how the town’s Indigenous people are treated. The racism, the omniscient narrator tells us, is “hidden yet glaring. It’s the Darnmoor way”.

But there is a parallel story going on here, too, that of the spirits and ancestors, the “knowledge keepers”, who reside among the stars. They “wait for their loved ones to arrive” but they also introduce an important idea underlying this story – the “connectedness” of “all living or once lived things”. This connection is symbolised in the novel by threads and ropes that join sky and earth through birds and trees to the roots underground. I loved that Simpson shared this, that she trusted her readers to respect a worldview that’s foreign to many of us.

Intrinsic to this connectedness, of course, is the land. Some of the book’s most lyrical writing comes from descriptions of the country – rivers, trees, birds – in which it is set. This country is the freshwater plains of northwest New South Wales, the traditional lands of Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay heritage. In her novel its main feature is the Mangamanga River, “known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains.” It is to this river that Mili and/or members of her family go to refresh their spirits, but the men of Darnmoor want to control it, and protect themselves, by building a levee between the town and the Campgrounds.

Essentially, then, Song of the crocodile is the story of people who are made to feel “trespassers in their own land”. But, it’s also the story of strong, resilient women who forge a community on the Campgrounds. With guts and confidence, Celie turns her mother’s laundry skills into a business called the Blue Shed, providing work for herself and the other women. These women are a joy to read about, but they and their families are barely tolerated by the town, which ensures they know their place. When Mili’s bright young friend Trilpa wins a mathematics prize she is disqualified on trumped-up grounds, and when Mili, herself, applies for permission – permission, would you believe – to continue school past the age of 15, she too is brought down, by Mayor Mick Murphy, in the worst way.

“threads of broken lore”

Needless to say, it’s a difficult story. Too many people, people we’ve come to love, “pass” too young. As the oppression of those left behind builds, creating “hopelessness and grief”, the beast – Garriya, our titular crocodile – starts to stir. Regular hints of his rumbling imbue the novel with a sense of foreboding.

The crocodile is apparently a creator being in Yuwaalaraay country, but his evocation in this novel, as Garriya, is unleashed by the evil that has been visited upon the Campground people, evil that has broken the country’s lore. We feel him coming, and Mili’s alienated son Paddy is the conduit. Desperate to counteract this, spirit songman Jakybird wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. He prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song, Garriya’s cycle. The climax is shocking, but the ending is cheekily open.

All this sounds grim, but I didn’t find it hopeless. There is delightful warmth and humour in the interactions between the Campground women, and there is humour and hope in the spirit world. Through these, Simpson gives us a complex story of oppression and survival. For all the misery suffered by the Billymils and their community, there is hope in their resilience, in their ongoing connection to country, and in their determination to keep passing on culture. Early in the novel, laundry worker Joyce addresses the parcels for delivery, using drawings that convey “a belonging, a knowledge, a truth of the place on which they walked and worked”:

In most cases the recipients failed to notice the mark, tearing the paper off and crushing it into a ball. It didn’t matter that eventually it was taken to the tip and returned to the earth. What mattered were the boys on the bikes that delivered them, that read the symbols then read the land. The drawings and the washing restored old journeys, countrymen walking on places they knew.

Simpson also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, uses Yuwaalaraay language throughout. She doesn’t directly translate it and there is no glossary. This bothered some of my reading group, while others of us felt the meaning was always clear – or clear enough. Here, for example, is Margaret in Chapter 1:

“Yaama. Dhii ngaya gaagilanha. Who wants a cuppa?” Margaret pushed open the door to the hospital’s back verandah, its hingers squealing as she entered. “How are we all today?”

Song of the crocodile was my reading group’s July book, and it resulted in one of our liveliest discussions this year, as we defended our diverse responses to its ideas, style, characters and tone.

For me it was an absorbing read. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the insidious racism that First Nations Australians confront and the devastating impact of that on the spirit, but it also shows resilience in the face of that, and it affirms that culture is strong. That has to be a positive thing?

For Lisa’s and other blog reviews, check her ILW Fiction Reading List.

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Nardi Simpson
Song of the crocodile
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2020
401pp.
ISBN: 9780733643743

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate (#BookReview)

Steven Conte burst on the scene in 2008 when he won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award with his 2007-published debut novel, The zookeeper’s war. I always intended to read it but somehow it never happened. Jump to 2020, and Conte’s second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, was published. That’s a big gap, but what he’s produced is a well-researched, carefully-crafted, thoroughly absorbing novel.

What intrigues me more than this gap, however, is that both his novels are set during World War 2, and both deal with Germany in the war. The zookeeper’s war is about how the Berlin Zoo’s owner and his Australian wife managed to keep it going through the war. I wonder what it is about war and Germany that attracts Conte? Or, is it just coincidence?

So many paths to follow

The Tolstoy Estate’s plot is not complicated. Most of the story takes place over the six week period – November-December 1941 – during which a German army medical unit established and ran a hospital in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. Arriving at the estate, the Germans, including doctor Paul Bauer, meet the site’s curator, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as its commanding officer Metz’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

Sounds straightforward enough? Yes, but as one of my reading group members said, the novel has so many paths to follow, so many ideas to think about, that it’s impossible to follow them all. I agree, so, here, I will focus on just a couple of them.

I’ll start, however, with a few comments about the style and structure. The novel is primarily told in third person through the perspective of Paul, so our understanding of what happens, our assessment of the characters and their relationships, come through his thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, he is quickly established as a humane, considered person, so we can trust him, as much as we can trust anyone.

SORT OF SPOILER (though not the ending)

Half-way through the novel we jump to 1967, and a letter from Katerina to Paul. This introduces a second chronology which covers nearly a decade from then. Most of it, until the last chapter, is conveyed though a few letters between the two, interspersed with the main wartime narrative.

Why does Conte do this? This is the question I always ask when an author plays with their narrative structure like this. My usual thought is that the author wants to de-emphasise the plot to encourage us to think about something else, but then the question is, what? I suspect that this is partly the case here, and I’ll talk about the “what” soon. Regardless of the “what”, however, the impact of revealing that Katerina and Paul have survived the war, is to slow us down. It encourages us to focus on the development of their relationship against the backdrop of this cruel war, rather than rushing to turn the pages to see what happens next.

As for the paths, the “whats”, there are many. The Tolstoy Estate is about war of course. The history part of this novel is true, in that Tolstoy’s estate was indeed occupied by the Germans for a military hospital, so there is that. And, there’s the exploration, through our two protagonists, of two unappealing regimes, Nazism and Stalinism. I could write more about the nuances of that, but I won’t. Then, there’s its evocation of how humans behave during war, of how some will and some won’t behave with humanity across the enemy divide. We see this in many war novels, so I won’t dwell on that, either, except to say that I liked Conte’s appreciation of the continuum of humanity’s behaviour from the worst to the best. One of the questions on Steven Conte’s website concerns whether we can forgive what we come to understand. I’ll leave that one with you too!

Love is an excellent motivator (Katerina)

Now, though, I want to turn to two paths that particularly interested me – love and literature. Let’s do love first. The Tolstoy Estate is a love story. Both our protagonists have lost their spouses, meaning both are currently free but have experienced love before. However, they are also, of course, technically, enemies, belonging to opposing regimes, both of which can be brutal to those who cross the line. This tests their love.

Love is not one-dimensional, as Conte knows, so he sets their love against other sorts of love, including master-race proponent Metz’s dutiful but ultimately sexless marriage because of the “physiological costs imposed by sexual congress”; the Soviet Government’s conservative, sexist attitude to romantic relationships, evidenced in its reaction to Katerina’s novel; a German officer’s homosexuality that brings about his demise; the bawdy conversations and behaviour of many soldiers. There’s also Bauer’s brief but pointed reference to the soldiers he treats:

Loves or is loved“, he thought constantly as he amputated, concerned less about the truth of the incantation than its usefulness to keeping him alert.

War and love, by definition, make strange bed-fellows. War heightens emotions of all sorts, and forces those who love to think seriously about it, as Paul and Katerina do. Paul’s bawdy but romantic colleague Molineux says that Paul and Katerina’s bond “transcends race, it transcends law”, and yet both Paul and Katerina are aware that the practicalities of love can spoil even a strong bond – which provides the perfect link to the literature path …

Writers document, great men do (Metz)

Contemplating the value and practice of literature underpins the novel, with Tolstoy’s War and peace, of course, providing the pivot. It links to the love path, because Paul and Katerina frequently consider Tolstoy’s evocation of love in the novel. In a letter to Katerina, Paul writes that War and peace reminded him

that love doesn’t always conquer but that, arguably, it’s better that way – that thwarted love is stronger, more enduring than the domesticated kind.

But, beyond love in Tolstoy, Conte’s characters also think about the value of literature. Again, here is Paul in a letter to Katerina, telling her that War and peace had restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar.

This counteracts Metz’s argument to Katerina early in the novel that

with his rifle our humblest “Landser” shapes the world in a way your Tolstoy never did.

The old “pen is mightier than the sword” discussion I suppose, but oh so engagingly told!

There are also discussions about the craft of writing – some of which reflect wryly on Conte’s interest, such as Katerina’s research focus being narratology.

But I will end with Katerina’s concern about the fading of the novel in the later 20th century:

Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love.

Love … and the novel. A good place to end my post on this compelling and intelligent novel.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved this novel.

Steven Conte
The Tolstoy Estate
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
410pp.
ISBN: 9781460758823

Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
379pp.
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)

Sara Phillips (ed), The best Australian science writing 2020 (#BookReview)

In 2016, my reading group discussed the 2015 edition of The best Australian science writing. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it again, and so this month we read the 2020 (tenth anniversary) edition. Our discussion was as engaged as before (and the overall reasons I enjoyed this volume are the same as those I listed in my post on it, so I won’t repeat them here.)

The publishers invite a different editor each year, and for 2020 it was Sara Phillips, a respected and award-winning science writer herself, with a particular interest in environmental science. The edition opens, however, with a Preface by UNSW Press’s publisher Kathy Bail. She references the annual Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing, which was named for the father and son who were Australia’s first Nobel laureates. All shortlisted pieces are included in the anthology. 2020’s winner was Ceridwen Dovey’s fascinating, moving essay, True grit. (Dovey, many of you will know, is also a respected writer of fiction.) The runners up were Ricky French’s Case of the missing frogs and Konrad Marshall’s Jeepers creepersLesley Hughes’ The milk of human genius, Donna Lu’s Stranger thingsand Nicky Phillips’ Bringing home the ancestors, were the other shortlisted articles.

COVID-19?

There is so much I want to share about this volume, but I’m going to start with a quote I used in my 2015 edition post. It came from one of that edition’s Bragg Prize runners-up, Idan Ben-Barak’s Why aren’t we dead yet. This essay provided a wonderfully lucid description of pathogens and the immune system. You can guess why I want to share it again!

And so, an immune system must correctly identify a diverse array of harmful creatures and react to each one in its own special way. Oh, and you know what would be very helpful? If it could remember the pathogens it’s encountered before and store this information on file, somehow, so that it could make short work of them the next time they pop in. And it needs to be prepared for new invaders it’s never encountered before, because life is like that. And it needs to be prepared for completely new invaders nobody has ever encountered before in the history of humankind, because pathogens evolve over time. And it needs to be economical, so the body can keep it operational. And it needs to be fairly unobtrusive, so the body can keep functioning normally. And it needs to do it all very quickly, every time, or the body will be overrun, because pathogens multiply like the devil.

It sure does, as we all now know only too well. However, if you’re expecting pandemic articles to dominate the 2020 edition, you would be wrong, because the edition’s cut-off was March 2020. There are a couple of articles on the topic, but presumably there’ll be more in the 2021 edition. The two in this edition are Liam Mannix’s The perfect virus: two gene tweaks that turned COVID-19 into a killer, which tells us exactly what the title says it will (and in a clear, intelligent way), and Tessa Charles’ Synchrotons on the coronavirus frontline, which describes the importance of synchrotrons to mapping the crystallography of the SARS-CoV-2 protease. Knowing this is critical for the development of drugs/vaccines.

Science and politics

Each edition seems to have threads, which must surely relate to the “zeitgeist”. Introducing the 2015 edition, editor Nogrady wrote that while the 2014 anthology featured several articles “on our changing climate and its repercussions, this year there were an overwhelming number of submissions about our vanishing biodiversity, and what could be or is being done about it”. There were also several articles on robotics and artificial intelligence. Well, five years on, issues like climate change and biodiversity still feature strongly, as Phillips writes in her introduction, but there are some different threads too, as she also identifies, such as the role and importance of description and taxonomy, which, in fact, underpin many of the biodiversity articles. Dyani Lewis’ Identity crisis for the Australian dingo, is an example.

But, Lewis’ article also references something else I detected running through the volume, the close – and sometimes uncomfortable – relationship between science and politics. In the case of the dingo, there are political implications for whether the dingo is classified as its own (native) species (canis dingo) or as a dog (canis familiaris). As a native animal it “could be listed as threatened” if its populations decline, but as a dog “it wouldn’t qualify”. Some scientists accuse others of “bad science”, of forcing the dingo into its own species in order to protect it, when, they believe, the scientific arguments aren’t there for separate classification or taxonomy.

Nicky Phillips’ Bringing home the ancestors discusses the use of DNA to help identify indigenous remains held in museums (and similar institutions) but, she writes, “As a result of the history of mistreatment, some Indigenous people fear that unscrupulous governments or scientists might misuse their genetic information”. To invoke the potential of science or not, that is the question! The following article, The Murray–Darling’s dry mouth, by Jo Chandler, uses the stressed ecology of South Australia’s Coorong to exemplify “the mal-administration, negligence and ignoring catastrophic risks of climate change” that has brought the river-system to the parlous state it is in.

These are just three of many articles which explored the science-politics nexus. I’d love to share them all with you, but, given the year it is, I’ll end this section with an article written before the pandemic but which is so apposite, Felicity Nelson’s Pathogen sovereignty. Nelson explains how such a thing came to be and its implications for scientific research into, yes, pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. “For poorer nations, exercising state power over pathogen samples was quite often their only point of leverage”. Fair enough, as they’d been taken advantage of, but you can see the implications for the quick-sharing of samples so needed during pandemics.

A related thread through the volume concerned the practice, philosophy and funding of scientific research, but I’ll have to leave that, as I do want to get onto …

Inspiring people

It’s not surprising that articles written by journalists for educated-but-lay readers will often hang their information on the stories of inspiring personalities. Bragg Prize winner Ceridwen Dovey did this in True grit, by telling the story of Brian O’Brien, whose inspired idea about gathering and measuring moon dust in the 1960s was overlooked until the 2000s, when, quite serendipitously, his work was noticed by a scientist after NASA realised that it did indeed need to understand moon dust! Jo Chandler tells her above-mentioned Coorong story through the work of ecologist David Paton. He has studied the region for decades, and, though now officially retired, is not giving up, “not least because of his concerns about the capacity of working scientists to conduct deep, unfettered research. ‘You talk, they cut your funding. It’s as simple as that.’”

The inspiring people aren’t all old, however. Cameron Stewart’s Brain wave tells of Vietnamese-Australian inventor, Tan Le, whose work on producing technology that can read brain waves is already providing benefits – to quadriplegics, for example. The potential of this technology is immense, and Tan Le, herself, is astonishing, particularly when you read her trajectory from boat-person to Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

To end …

It’s impossible to do justice to an anthology like this, so, as I did last time, I’m concluding with three quotes that make important points, to my mind anyhow. First is Michelle Starr, who reminds us about the practice and limits of scientific research in The repeating signals from deep space are extremely unlikely to be aliens – here’s why:

‘Wild speculation can sometimes inform the next generation of instrumentation, which can then either confirm or refute the wild hypothesis, or see something else entirely unexpected. And that too is what makes science fun.’ The difficulty lies in understanding the difference between pondering wild ideas as a thought exercise, and evidence based on data and prior experience, observation and conclusions.

Then comes Brian Key from Peter Meredith‘s Underwater and underrated, which is all about fish brains and intelligence:

On the question of animal welfare, Brian emphasises it needn’t be linked specifically to an animal’s ability to feel pain. ‘You can apply human principles to animal welfare,’ he says. ‘Those principles don’t have to be based on scientific evidence; they can be based on the morals and ethics of a society.’

Finally, here is a Moore Foundation grant recipient in Smriti Mallapaty’s For risky research with great potential, dive deep commenting on one of the Foundaton’s sensible research grant conditions:

‘Science has a rich history of not talking about what doesn’t work,’ says Wilhelm, a grant recipient …. ‘By sharing our failures, we have been able to help each other and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again’ … 

Another rich volume, with so much to offer, but I really must end here – or, I’ll be putting you all to sleep.

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Sara Phillips (ed)
The best Australian science writing 2020
Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781742245072 (ebook)

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other (#BookReview)

If ever there was a “zeitgeist” book, Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning novel, Girl, woman, other is it. It might be an English-set novel about black British women, “the embodiment of Otherness”, but its concerns, ranging from ingrained inequality, racism and sexism to newer issues such as globalisation, are contemporary – and relevant far beyond its setting.

Take, for example, sexual violence. One young woman, after being raped, is not sure exactly what happened:

    wondering if he’d done anything wrong or was it her fault
    she should have stayed and talked to him about it
    he might have said he hadn’t heard her saying no

(Chapter 2: LaTisha)

This could have been set in Australia, given discussions happening here right now. It is truly troubling how many young women apparently feel uncertain about what they’ve experienced, and turn it back on themselves. But now, having leapt in to make my “zeitgeist” point, I’ll start again, properly!

Girl, woman, other is an astonishing book, as most of my reading group agreed. It’s fresh and exuberant, but oh so biting too. As much poetry as prose, it has minimal punctuation and yet it just flows. It’s a risky book – what great art isn’t? – because, in addition to its idiosyncratic style, it comprises multiple points-of-view that move back-and-forth in time. There are four main chapters, each divided into three parts with each part in the voice of a different character. This makes 12 voices in all! The voices within each chapter are closely related in some way – mothers, daughters, friends – but the links between the four chapters are more subtle. This demands much of the reader.

Fortunately, the voices are captivating. Spanning over a century, they range from the ultra-confident 19-year-old Yazz, daughter of a lesbian mother, to 93-year-old Hattie, a strong-minded farmer and great-grandmother. All are women, and all have some genetic links with African or Caribbean cultures, some from a few generations back, others being themselves migrants. Through them, Evaristo interrogates a diversity of experiences and responses to colour, in particular, in contemporary England. Hattie’s mother, for example, had an Abyssinian father, and she herself had married an African-American GI. However, with the colour fading amongst her descendants, the family is less than happy when it is reintroduced by Julie who “saw not the darkness of his skin but the lightness of his spirit”. Hattie reflects

    none of them identifies as black and she suspects they pass as white, which would sadden Slim if he was still around 
    she doesn’t mind, whatever works for them and if they can get away with it, good luck to them, why wear the burden of colour to hold you back?
    the only thing she objects to is when they objected to Chimango when he arrived on the scene, a fellow nurse at the hospital where Julie worked, from Malawi
    Hattie was sickened by their behaviour, they should’ve been more enlightened 
    but the family was becoming whiter with every generation 
    and they didn’t want any backsliding

(Chapter 4: Hattie)

You can see how well the language flows, and how accessible it is. It’s experimental but unforced. You can also see the author’s approach to her subject matter, which is to show, through her characters, different behaviours, values and attitudes. With 12 characters telling of their interactions with even more people, the breadth of humanity Evaristo encompasses is breathtaking – and it is all done without judgement. Some characters might, and do, judge each other, but Evaristo doesn’t. She lets them speak for themselves, which requires us to read attentively.

So, when Dominique’s female lover increasingly restricts her life, we see abusive control long before she does. And, when 93-year-old Hattie’s mother, Grace, experiences postpartum depression in the early 20th century, it is not named. Who talked about that then? But we recognise it immediately.

Issues come and go in this novel, whether they are up-to-the-minute topics, such as Brexit or transgender rights, or ongoing issues in women’s lives such as violence or ageing. Underpinning it all, however, is race and inequality. Being “othered” is common to Evaristo’s characters, and they all deal with it differently, but we see very clearly its debilitating, devastating impact.

    oh to be one of the privileged of this world who take it for granted that it’s their right to surf the globe unhindered, unsuspected, respected

(Chapter 2: Carole)

By now you might be thinking a few things – that the novel is heavy-going, perhaps, or that it’s chaotic. But nothing doing. For all its seriousness – and there are definitely grim moments – the novel has a light touch, frequently bitingly satiric, sometimes simply funny, always human. Nineteen-year-old Yazz, for example, is a hoot with her teenage know-it-all confidence. Many recognise their failings, as they grow older, such as Amma appreciating her father too late or Carole realising her supportive teacher had feelings. Transgender Morgan, the epitome of the modern activist, speaks many truths:

    Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English
    which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being

Chapter 4: Megan/Morgan

And, although the novel may sound chaotic, it does have an overarching structure. It starts hours before Amma’s play – the one she hopes will finally make her name – is to premiere at the National Theatre, and it ends with the After Party and an Epilogue, which, combined, bring most of the characters together. The ending, in fact, is clever. The After Party is political, drawing together the threads and reminding us that there’s a long way to go before black people in white societies are not defined by their colour. The Epilogue, on the other hand, is personal, showing us that there’s always human connection and that that, really, is the stuff of life – if only we could all see it.

Girl, woman, other is such a read. Uncompromising in its politics, but also warm and cheeky, it offers heart and intelligence in equal measure.

Bernadine Evaristo
Girl, woman, other
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
453pp.
ISBN: 9780241985007 (ebook)