John Kinsella, Displaced: A rural life (#BookReview)

John Kinsella, Displaced

I haven’t talked about reading synchronicities for some time, but when I started reading John Kinsella’s memoir, Displaced, I couldn’t help but think of the book I had just finished, Gay Lynch’s historical novel Unsettled (my review). Both have one word titles which play with opposites; in both cases, those opposites refer to physical meanings and more abstract, intellectual, social and/or emotional ones; and, in both, these meanings draw significantly from the colonial act of settling Australia and displacing its original inhabitants. I enjoy such wordplay that forces us to consider multiple, and sometimes conflicting meanings because it encourages a deeper engagement with the ideas being explored.

Notwithstanding this, reading Displaced was a labour of love, because it is a demanding, and often confronting read. However, I wanted to know about this man who is one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets, so I persevered. My assessment? If you are interested in how one might live life as ethically as possible with regard to justice and the exploitation – of First Nations people and the environment – that is encompassed in the long tail of colonialism, Kinsella’s book is a good place to start.

This leads me, as I’m wont to do, to a consideration of form or genre. Displaced is characterised in promotions as a memoir, but I see it more as a manifesto with memoir elements. Events in Kinsella’s life underpin the book, including his stints in Ohio, Schull and Cambridge, but they are not the focus. Instead, they are used to explicate and exemplify his ethical beliefs and, more, to explore the paradoxes we all live with. These paradoxes provide the book’s main thread. They are expressed in such terms as “belonging and unbelonging”, finding a meaning for “home” that recognises Indigenous “dispossession” and doesn’t encompass the exploitative ideas of “ownership”, and feeling “displaced” while very definitely being in a place. He characterises this as “the ethics of presence”. It’s difficult to get your head around while also being very simple really. In other words, the idea is simple, but the living of it, not so!

Two-thirds through the book, Kinsella talks about conducting peace readings, and says that:

A poet has a job to do – art in itself is meaningless if it does not jolt us into self and collective action.

He then describes a sculpture in the British Museum comprising bits of AK-47s welded together. “The artwork,” he says, “jolts one out of apathy, if not out of complicity”.

For Kinsella then, art is not just for art’s sake. And so, here, this work of art, his “memoir”, has a very specific goal, to raise our consciousness regarding the lives we are living and how colonialism, and the accompanying capitalism, continue to damage both colonisers and colonised. He calls himself an “anarchist”, but not one who subscribes to chaos and disorder. His anarchism, he says, has

the social angle, it has the respect for individual difference. I do not attempt to tell people what to believe, but I do attempt to draw attention to the damage being done.

So now, let me return to my opening comment regarding the title and its multiple meanings. Early in the book, Kinsella talks about growing up in the Western Australian wheatbelt, and about the paradoxical, hypocritical love of nature and place he espoused. “Something didn’t add up”, he says, between the way he “felt about the world” and the way he “acted in it”, his actions drawing from “outdoorsmen activities and the attendant crisis of masculinity.” The things he did – farming, hunting, and so on – were counter to the things he loved. The book chronicles his realisation that

I was part of a colonial invasion force, and I belonged nowhere. What could I do about it? I wandered, displaced as an addict [literally as well as spiritually], and as someone trying to undo my own identity.

Learning a new way of being (“unbecoming what I was, becoming what I might be”) became his lifelong project, one he shares with his wife, the poet Tracy Ryan, and their son Tim. Kinsella puts this thinking into his work – in his writing (as mentioned above) and in his role as Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University. He speaks in the book of trying to create a new way of writing about place, “a system for working through the contradictions of presence, of time and space and catastrophe and catastrophising, of the failure of modernity and the consequences of colonial modes and modalities of presence”. That’s a mouthful, but it explains his wish to find a way of expressing how colonialism has negatively infiltrated our lives physically, spiritually and linguistically.

To explain his beliefs, he wanders between childhood, youth and adulthood, amongst relationships with other writers and thinkers, and between his current home, Jam Tree Gully back in the Wheatbelt, and those places he’s lived in overseas. Because – I think – of this to-and-fro structure, there is a lot of repetition of ideas and experiences, and these repetitions did become a little tedious at times. I get it John, I get it, I felt like saying a few times as I read. The other challenge for Kinsella was to not preach or virtue signal. He does come close, at times, but he makes clear that he understands the nuances – how does someone like him, for example, deal with feral cats or weed pests? “There’s plenty of mea culpa in my life”, he says.

In the end, this earnest, frank book is full of heart and commitment. One of the things I’ve taken away from it is a heightened awareness of how “colonialism” has infiltrated our language. Take, for example, an interpretive sign we recently saw on a bushwalk that described a tree trunk as providing “high rise living”. Or, a Wiradjuri country rural town’s proud sign promoting its “170 years of heritage”. Just 170 years? On its website, the Blayney Shire speaks more on this (colonial) heritage, and then mentions its natural environment and Aboriginal heritage. “Aboriginal relics and artefacts”, it explains, “are primarily protected under the provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974. Listed heritage in the Shire is mainly European in nature”. This sort of demarcation in thinking about heritage needs to change.

We can’t turn back the clock, which Indigenous Australians accept, I believe. However, they want and warrant the respect due any human being, recognition of their sovereignty and of their dispossession, and for us to listen to their wisdom and knowledge.

Kinsella, who believes that “poems can stop bulldozers”, includes many in this book. They make good reading. But I’ll end here on a positive note from halfway through the book:

The land is constantly being rewritten. We don’t have to be stuck with the damage. It can be undone.

John Kinsella
Displaced: A rural life
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760477

Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge, via Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media

My literary week (5), or, those reading coincidences

Last time I wrote a My Literary Week post it was because I’d scarcely read that week, but had some literary moments to share. This time it’s because I’ve been reading things which have generated some thoughts that I want to document, but not in long dedicated posts. (I’m feeling lazy). Most have been inspired by those reading coincidences (or synchronicities) where you read something in one place and then it, or something related to it, pops up in another.  See what you think …

Critical critics (and Jane Austen)

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckA week ago, I read a post about Georgette Heyer by blogger Michelle who, knowing my love of Jane Austen, wondered what I thought about Heyer, given she was an avowed Austen fan and wrote about the Regency. I’m afraid I disappointed Michelle because I confessed that I’ve never read Heyer. I tried one a couple of years ago, but I just. couldn’t. get. into. it. I commented on Michelle’s post that what some of those (not Michelle I might add) who try to compare Heyer and Austen miss is that Heyer was writing historical fiction, while Austen was writing contemporary fiction. Austen was writing about her own time, and this makes their works very different. Heyer doesn’t write Jane-Austen sorts of stories. Her stories are not about small villages and a small number of families, but are set on bigger stages and mostly amongst the wealthy. War and high drama are more her subject matter. Austen’s characters are mostly middle class, and even those who are wealthy live in the country and attend quiet social events. Her themes involve critiques of society and human behaviour.

And here comes the synchronicity, sort of. As I was preparing for my local Jane Austen group’s meeting this weekend on Austen’s grand houses, I read the essay “Domestic architecture” by Clare Lamont in Janet Todd’s (ed.) Jane Austen in context. In it, Lamont notes that critics have expressed disappointment at the lack of architectural information or descriptions of interiors in her novels. But, but, but, I say, Austen was writing contemporary fiction. She was writing for readers who knew the homes the wealthy, the middle-class, the parsons, farmers and others lived in. Austen did not have to describe these in detail. Historical novelists do though! So Austen, being the sort of writer she was, used her descriptions to convey character, not to tell us what the places were like.

When we read, it is so important to know the context and genre within which we are reading before we start casting aspersions!

What contemporary readers know

And this brings me to another comment on the topic of what contemporary readers – that is, readers reading books around the time they were written – know. I was mooching through Instagram this morning, and came across an image of mini-pineapples by Iger aforagersheart. She wrote that she’d read a history of pineapples which told her, among other things, that they were used as a symbol of wealth for “fancy Europeans”.

Aha, I thought, Jane Austen used this – and her contemporary readers would have recognised it for what it was, a pointer to the pretensions and focus on money of the character involved, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. He has “a village of hot-houses” but, oh dear, “The pinery had yielded only one hundred [pineapples] in the last year” he complains to our heroine Catherine. General Tilney, we gradually discover, values people by their money, and is ungenerous to those without. This starkly contrasts with the admirable Mr Knightley in Emma who grows strawberries and apples, in fields and orchards, and shares them willingly with neighbourhood families. He even gives his last keeping apples, to his housekeeper’s dismay, to the poor Bateses:

 Mrs. Hodges … was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring.

We readers of later times see, of course, this generosity, but we may not know what the pineapples symbolise, and are therefore likely to miss that little early hint to where Austen was going with General Tilney.

Hungary and the war

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

The third reading coincidence relates to my review last weekend of Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, in which she tells of her mother’s life in Hungary before, during and after the war, and her (and the 1943-born Susan’s) immigration to Australia. A great read. Then, I opened my digital edition of The Canberra Times this morning, and what did I see but an article about local food-blogger Liz Posmyk’s recently published book, The barber from Budapest, which tells the story of her parents through two world wars in Hungary, the challenge they faced in living postwar under Communism, and their subsequent migration to Australia.

There are still many stories to tell about people’s experiences of the two world wars, and about what happened postwar. Whether we’ll ever learn the lessons they provide is another thing.

Christina Stead Week

And finally, of course, I can’t let the post finish without mentioning Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Christina Stead Week, with which she has aimed to raise the profile of, and gather together a list of blog reviews for, this often overlooked writer. Stead was, Lisa shares on her post, described by the New Yorker as “the most extraordinary woman novelist … since Virginia Woolf” and by Saul Bellow as “really marvellous.”

I have contributed two posts – one on the story, “Ocean of story”, and another on the first three stories in the Ocean of story collection. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these, and thank Lisa for giving me the impetus to read them.

Identity … Cusack meets Heiss

A few days ago I reviewed Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark, a sort-of memoir of her two decades as a teacher. As seems to happen more often than not, I found synchronicities between it and my previous read, Anita Heiss’s Am I black enough for you? The main one relates to identity.

I shared, in this week’s Monday Musings, Heiss’s statement regarding the functions of Aboriginal literature. One of these is that it:

assists understanding of the diversity of our identities.

Literature, in other words, helps us understand who we are and where we come from – and it does this both for “us” (those who belong) and “other” (those who are outside but are related in some way).

Cusack argues strongly for “relevant” education and is critical of a curriculum that seemed suited only to a university-bound minority. This doesn’t mean, though, that she wanted to promote a purely “practical” or “vocationally-oriented” curriculum. As a student of history and literature, she believed in the importance of the humanities BUT she also believed that they needed to be relevant. For example, she believed that rather than forcing all students to learn ancient languages (like Latin), they needed to be expert in their own language:

But I soon came to realise that English and history teachers have in their hands the tools with which a genuine education is forged. In all the countries in which I have since lived, I have realised the particular and vital importance of teaching the native language. This is not only the vocal instrument by which one learns to express one’s thoughts; it is the key to the thoughts of others …

She believed, in other words, that all students – academic and non-academic – should be inculcated

with a love of literature and the capacity to express themselves clearly – surely the best heritage heirs to all our culture can have …


The more we know about our background, the better we know our identity …

So, there we have it … Cusack, writing in 1976 of her experience in the 1920s-40s, and Heiss, writing nearly 40 years later, both argue that identity (knowing who we are) is intrinsically linked to language, literature and history. This may be self-evident to most of us, but somehow it seems, we need to keep reiterating it … and so here I am, doing my bit …

Deborah Robertson, Sweet old world (Review)

Sweet Old World by Deborah Robertson cover image

Cover (Courtesy: Random House Australia)

I may not have read Sweet old world by Deborah Robertson if Random House Australia had not suggested it to me – but I’m rather glad I did. Why do I say this? Because it isn’t the sort of book I usually like to get my teeth into. It doesn’t play with form, or voice, or style. It is, instead (“hallelujah” some might say), a single voice, third person, chronological novel. In other words, it’s a traditionally told tale – but is well done.

Before I continue, though, I must mention a surprising synchronicity. I read today, in Random House’s publicity sheet, that in 2006 Robertson had won the Colin Roderick award (for her first novel Careless, 2006). Now, if I’d read that before writing this week’s Monday Musings, that name (and therefore award) would have passed me by. Some things are clearly meant to be! I should add that, with the same book, she also won the Nita Kibble Award, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. She is a writer to watch.

So, onto the book. Sweet old world is about journalist and part-guesthouse owner, David Quinn. He’s 43 years old, single, childless, and lives on Inishmore Island, one of those beautiful but harsh Aran islands off Galway. David is your quintessential SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy), but I say that without any sense of satire. He is a genuinely nice guy who desperately wants to be a father, something he, as a man, feels unable to talk about “although he’s not exactly the silent type”.

At the start of the novel, the closest he is to achieving this goal is to be the involved uncle of his sister Orla’s three sons. They are not central to the plot though. A woman is. Early in the novel, after dining at his house, 17-year-old Ettie has an accident on her bicycle and ends up in hospital in a coma. Her mother, 38-year-old Tania, flies out from Western Australia (whence David had also originally come) to watch over her daughter … and you can guess the rest. Or can you? I’ll say no more on the plot, to avoid spoilers.

Connemara Donkey, Galway, 1980

Connemara donkey, Galway, 1980

What is lovely about this book is Robertson’s ability to describe place and get to the heart of a character. I loved her description of Inishmore and Galway (which I have visited). There’s rain, and more rain, there’s the wild terrain, but there are also blue skies and mild, warming weather. David’s relationship with nature charts his emotions, but not in a heavy-handed way. The first section of the novel (there are no numbered chapters) ends with:

He pushes the door wide open … and steps out into the day of salt-scented sunshine.

Later in the novel, “he gives into the sun and the excitement inside him” but, in a down period, “rain blackens the island’s limestone”. Another time, the island makes him feel “subtly undermined”. Out of context, these seem too obvious, but within the text they effectively support the tone.

What also charts David’s emotions is his bad back. When things aren’t going well, he is laid (seriously) low. This bad back also plays a role in the plot. It brings Tania to him – and it reminds us, and him, that he is on the wrong side of 40 (particularly in terms of his fatherhood goals), and “that, one day, time would suddenly contract; tighten around him”. It’s an effective and believable motif.

Like most chronologically told stories there are flashbacks to fill out the picture. We hear about David’s past failed relationships and about his previous job as a journalist for Agricultural Times which saw him writing about the Animal Liberation Front. We discover that Orla may be right about David being “a truth-seeking missile for hurt”.

If there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s in the plot. I found it a little contrived, particularly regarding the crises in the relationship. While the story is told in third person, it’s limited to David’s point of view. If we are to believe him, and I think we are meant to, then his actions make sense.  And yet Tania keeps falling over one issue – her uncertainty regarding his very brief and, from what the reader saw, innocent time with her daughter. I found Tania’s uncertainty understandable, somewhat, the first time, but less so thereafter. It all hinges on David’s credibility …

Technically, though, the plot is well-constructed, and teases us to second-guess where it’s going. Take, for example, this description of David’s nephews’ comic project which, sometimes

turns out to be the genuine item, that rare thing – a romantic comedy with injuries, tears and forgiveness, as well as real jokes.

Whether Sweet old world meets this description is something for you to discover. I will simply say that despite my initial statement, there is something fresh in this novel. I loved her descriptions, and the occasional flashes of whimsical humour. Robertson has created in David an interesting and psychologically-comprehensible character, and she has given real voice to men who long for children. There’s much to enjoy here.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed it too, but also has some questions.

Deborah Robertson
Sweet old world
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781741668254

(Review copy supplied by Random House Australia)

Banana Yoshimoto, The lake (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

When I saw that Banana Yoshimoto‘s novel The lake was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize I knew that it would be a high priority for me to read, because I like Japanese literature and I have read and enjoyed Yoshimoto (her novel Kitchen) before.

The first thing that struck me, however, as I started reading the book was a case of reading synchronicity. Roy’s The folded earth, the first book I reviewed for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 project, is about a young woman grieving the death of her husband. In The lake, the protagonist, Chihiro, also a young woman, has just lost her mother. And, in further synchronicity, both women meet men who impact their lives. This is not unusual, of course, but the thing is that in both books there is a sense of mystery surrounding these men. However, this is where the similarity ends: the mystery in The lake has nothing to do with the death of Chihiro’s mother. Rather, it relates to something the man has experienced, something that has clearly damaged him.

So, what is the plot? It is basically a romance. The first line of the novel is:

The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom*.

Chihiro, our first person narrator, then flashes back to tell us about her background, her somewhat unusual life with her bar-owner mother and businessman father who never married due to his family’s objections. Chihiro is around 30, but this is, really, a coming-of-age novel because she doesn’t yet feel grown-up:

I’m still a child. I still need my parents, and yet, I suddenly feel I’m walking alone.

Into this solo life comes a young medical student, a “puzzling young man”, Nakajima, who lives in the apartment opposite hers. They first communicate non-verbally across the dividing space. Gradually Chihiro feels she is falling in love with Nakajima, but she is not sure, partly because he’s odd, uneasy, something he admits to but can’t (yet) explain. However, it is through learning to accept Nakajima, to not push him but simply to care for him, that Chihiro starts to grow up. At first she wants to have fun – “I didn’t want to deal with weighty matters” – but she comes to realise that she needs him, and senses that he is “the one”. All this develops before we know what happened to Nakajima. Plotting the story through Chihiro’s description of their developing relationship puts the focus less on what happened in the past – though we certainly want to know – and more on how two young “kind of weird” people might move together to a good future.

Now, here’s the rub. Do I let on what happened to Nakajima? The blurb inside the jacket hints at what it is, so perhaps it’s ok to. However, I think I won’t. All I’ll say is that the lake – to which Nakajima takes Chirihiro half way through the novel – and the brother and sister (Mino and Chii) living there are important to the resolution. Chii is bedridden and mute but she can foretell the future and she does this through Mino. This adds a supernatural element to the story, which works well enough for me though I’m not sure what it specifically adds to the novel (except perhaps a sense of “otherness” to the atmosphere?)

The more important question to ask is why has this novel been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize? Is it more than a nicely written coming-of-age love story? Well, the mystery and its impact on Nakajima, Mino and Chii is a significant one, but that, from the way the story is told and how the plot is resolved, doesn’t seem to be the main point. It is clearly about grief, trauma and recovery, but I think this might be overlaid with the struggle in Japanese society, particularly for the current young generation, to not follow the norm blindly. Nakajima and Chihiro did not have “normal” upbringings. This means that, whether they like it or not, they symbolise nonconformity – and must, consequently, make active decisions about where to next. Freedom is not, I understand, a high value in Japanese society … but it is an issue that comes up regularly in the book. Chihiro’s parents aren’t, through family expectations, free to marry. The mystery surrounding Nakajima relates to a loss of freedom. In her work as a muralist, Chihiro’s only demand is the freedom to paint what she wants and, when that is threatened by a sponsor wanting her to incorporate an enormous logo into her mural, she intelligently but resolutely conducts a campaign to encourage him to change his mind.

Late in the novel, when talking about his experience, Nakajima says:

When you’re in a state of homogeneity, you’ve lost yourself.

Beyond loss and childhood trauma, then, it is the ongoing things like homogeneity, lack of freedom, the push to be normal that challenge Yoshimoto’s characters. But this is a quiet, lyrical book rather than a feisty one. It recognises that life involves “dull repetition of the same old thing” peppered by those “little leaps of your heart to put a splash of colour in the world”. Have I fully understood this novel? I’m not sure that I have … but I did enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues Yoshimoto seems to be exploring.

Matt of A Novel Approach and Lisa of ANZLitLovers, on our Man Asian team, have also reviewed it and are worth reading for their different takes.

Banana Yoshimoto
The lake
(trans. by Michael Emmerich)
Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011 (orig. Japanese ed. 2005)
ISBN: 9781933633770

* An American translation. We would say “mum”!

Willa Cather, When I knew Stephen Crane

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

Stephen Crane, 1899 (Photographer unknown; Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

I haven’t reviewed a Library of America offering for a while and so have decided it’s time I dipped again into its offerings. Willa Cather‘s essay/journalistic piece “When I knew Stephen Crane”, which they published last month, appealed to me because of a couple of synchronicities. One is that Lisa of ANZLitLovers reviewed Crane’s The red badge of courage a few days ago, reminding me that I have yet to read Crane. The other is a little more obscure. Colleen of Bookphilia wrote a post earlier this week in which she complained about Anthony Trollope‘s admission that he would, in order to meet a deadline, submit work that he believed was not very good. The synchronicity is that in her essay Cather writes that Crane

gave me to understand that he led a double literary life; writing in the first place the matter that pleased himself, and doing it very well; in the second place, any sort of stuff that would sell. And he remarked that his poor was just as bad as it could possibly be …

Not having read Crane, I don’t know whether he really did present poor stuff, but Colleen, I suspect, would not be impressed with this admission!

“When I knew Stephen Crane” was first published in 1900, two weeks after Crane’s death. It documents 21-year-old Cather’s meeting with 23-year-old Crane in 1895 at the offices of the Nebraska State Journal not long after the journal had published The red badge of courage. The introductory notes state that she changed some facts and suggests she did this “to foretell his tragic fate and to reflect [her] own interest in writing and literature”. I can believe this may be the case as the article is peppered with foreshadowings of his early death. Nonetheless, the notes argue that her report “sounds authentic”.

Certainly, she doesn’t try to present him in a heroic light. She describes him as “thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven … His grey clothes were much the worse for wear … He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie.” He had, in other words, “a disreputable appearance”. She writes that she had read and helped edit, for the journal, The red badge of courage:

… the grammatical construction of the story was so faulty that the managing editor had several times called on me to edit the copy. In this way I had read it very carefully, and through the careless sentence structure I saw the wonder of that remarkable performance.

She writes eloquently of her moment of revelation from Crane, saying that

The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention … It selects its listeners wilfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour.

Hmm … I think there’s a lot of truth in this, at least in my experience as a giver and receiver of such “messages”. Anyhow, Cather, on a night when “the white, western moonlight threw sharp, blue shadows below us”, felt lucky to have had such a moment with Crane, one in which he talks about his craft, “his slow method of composition”. He tells her that while The red badge of courage had been written in 9 days, he had been unconsciously working on it throughout his boyhood. He also tells her that it would be months after he got an idea for a story before he’d feel able to write it:

‘The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever’, he remarked.

Cather also briefly refutes the criticism by some that Crane is “the reporter in fiction”, arguing that his newspaper account of a shipwreck he’d experienced was “lifeless” but his “literary product” (“The open boat”) was “unsurpassed in its vividness and constructive perfection”.

She concludes the article on a somewhat sentimental note which is not surprising given its publication so soon after his death … but even this sentimentality is expressed in the robust language that we know Cather for:

He drank life to the lees, but at the banquet table where other men took their ease and jested over their wine, he stood a dark and silent figure, sombre as Poe himself, not wishing to be understood …

It is for Cather’s own writing and her insights into character, as much as for what I learnt about Crane, that I enjoyed reading this offering from LOA. I will still, however, read Crane one day.

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s crossing

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing

Caleb’s crossing book cover (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

In the Afterword to her latest novel, Caleb’s crossing, which was inspired by the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, Geraldine Brooks describes the reactions of members of the Wampanoag Tribe:

Individual tribal members have been encouraging and generous in sharing information and insights and in reading early drafts. Others have been frank in sharing reservations about an undertaking that fictionalises the life of a beloved figure and sets down an imagined version of that life that may be interpreted as factual. This afterword attempts to address those reservations somewhat by distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention.

This concern – “an imagined version … that may be interpreted as factual” – should by now be familiar to readers of Whispering Gums. In fact, this book has several synchronicities with my recent and current reads. There must be something in the water! Firstly, the issue of fictionalising the life of a historical figure is something I have raised a few times, but most recently in my review of Tansley’s A break in the chain. And then there’s Scott’s That deadman dance which explores early contact in Australia between white settlers and indigenous people. Very different stories and yet several similar concerns and issues, such as those regarding land, education, and cultural attitudes to material possession and to hunting. And there’s more! My next review will probably be Leslie Cannold‘s The book of Rachael which is set in biblical times and features a fictional woman who loves learning and rebels against the strictures of her gender.

I love it when my reading interacts closely like this, when books enable me to explore and play off ideas against each other – so I thought, given this and the fact that there are already many reviews out there, that I’d tease these out a little instead of my more usual review. But first a brief outline of the plot, which provides a mostly imagined backstory to the real Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk through the eyes (journals) of the fictional white girl/woman Bethia Mayfield. The book starts in 1660 when Bethia is 15 years old, but it quickly flashes back a few years to when she met Caleb while out clamming and it describes the friendship which developed between them, forged by a mutual interest in learning about each other’s culture. Idyllic really, but of course it doesn’t last. Caleb is noticed as a young man with the potential to achieve in the white world and comes to live with Bethia’s family, so he can be taught by her father. Eventually, Caleb and another indigenous student, Joel Iacoomis, go to school and then Harvard along with Bethia’s not particularly clever brother, Makepeace. By a cruel twist of fate, Bethia goes with them as an indentured servant. She’s not too disappointed about this because she hopes to surreptitiously acquire a bit of learning too. That’s the gist of the story … and if you know the history, you’ll also know roughly how it all ends, but I won’t spoil that here.

And so to the first issue, fictionalising a historical figure. Brooks is upfront in saying hers is “rampant invention” inspired by “scant fact”. Like Grenville in The secret river, Brooks uses a real figure to explore how and why it might have been, though, unlike Grenville, she retains the name of her inspiration. This muddies the water for the unwary reader but it is common to historical fiction. How many novels have been written about, for example, Anne Boleyn? I have no problem with this. She and Grenville, unlike Tansley, are very clear about their fiction and are not afraid to imagine where there are gaps. Her Caleb may not be the Caleb of history but he is a Caleb whose motivations makes sense:

You will pour across the land, and we will be smothered … We must find favor with your God, or die.

And this brings me to the second synchronicity, that concerning early contact between white settlers and indigenous inhabitants. Brooks (a white Australian author based in the USA) and Kim Scott (a Noongar author from Western Australia) explore similar territory but from different points of view: hers is told in the voice of a white woman, and Scott’s has a more complex narrative voice but from an indigenous perspective. Both explore the complexity in motivations. In white society, we see the whole gamut from altruism through attempts to “get along”/cooperate to arrogance, cruelty and greed. And we see an equally complex response from the indigenous people, from Caleb’s “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” to Tequamuck’s anger and aggression. The end result, as history shows us, is the same … and neither book (nor Grenville’s) is anything other than realistic about it.

Finally, there’s the gender issue. This – like Grenville’s writing about colonial attitudes to indigenous people – is where writers are often criticised for being anachronistic, for putting modern attitudes into the mouths of historical people. It’s a criticism I tend not to share (providing the character is coherent within the text). “New” ideas do not pop out of nowhere. They grow and develop over time, and they grow from exceptional people – not necessarily well-known people, but people who thought ahead of their times – and novelists, almost by definition, tend to explore the “exceptional”. I have no problem believing that a “Bethia” or a “Rachael” lived in their times … just as I have no problem with what some critics have called Thornhill’s “anachronistic sensitivites” in The secret river.

Enough rambling, back to the book! Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I think it worked? Partly. Geraldine Brooks is a good storyteller and I read this book in quicksmart time. I was interested in the characters and I wanted to know what happened to them. Brooks evokes the era well, using enough vocabulary and phrasing of the period to immerse you in the time and place. Her physical descriptions are beautiful. You know exactly why Bethia would prefer her island home to the streets of Cambridge. The themes – colonial cross-cultural conflict, gender roles, coping with loss – are valid and clear. And her wide cast of characters realistically cover the gamut of attitudes you’d expect.

And yet, I’m not sure she quite pulls it off. My concern is not so much with her vision, with the ideas she puts in the mouths of her characters, but with her mode of telling. She is rather heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. It’s a valid technique given the story is told in retrospect but it feels overused, which somewhat devalues its dramatic impact. I also wonder whether telling Caleb’s story through Bethia’s eyes means we don’t get to know Caleb well enough, resulting in our not being as emotionally engaged with him as we could be. There are hints of sexual tension between Bethia and Caleb but they are never played out. Perhaps doing so would have turned it to melodrama and yet, once hinted, it needed some resolution. I tend to like first person stories and the immediacy they provide, but maybe a different narrative voice (even multiple points of view) would have been better here.

All that said, it’s an enjoyable read. Reasonably early in the book, Bethia writes:

this truth my mother had voiced … that it could not go on, this crossing out of one world and into another.

Near the end she wonders:

If I had turned away from that boy … and ridden back to my own world and left him in peace with his gods and his spirits, would it have been better?

Would it? Now there’s the million dollar question!

Geraldine Brooks
Caleb’s crossing
London: Fourth Estate, 2011
ISBN: 9780007367474

Abraham Verghese, Cutting for stone

Verghese, Cutting for Stone

Bookcover (Used by permission of the Random House Group Ltd)

I  saw a man under the spell of his own tale, a snake charmer whose serpent has become his turban.

I’m not sure how I want to use the above quote, which comes late in the book, but I just liked it and so decided to start this post with it. Bear with me!

Discounting Dinaw Mengestu‘s short story, An honest exit, Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for stone is the first novel I’ve read that’s set in Ethiopia (mostly). And for that, as much as for anything else, I enjoyed it. Also, in one of those eerily frequent experiences of reading synchronicities, this is the second book that I’ve read this year to deal with a long-standing dictator – and, even more eerie, is the fact that dictators in Africa are falling (sort of) around our ears at present. How do these things happen?

Anyhow, Cutting for stone is about as different from Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The feast of the goat as it could be. In the latter, dictator Trujillo is central to the story. He is the story really. In Cutting for stone Haile Selassie, and later Mengistu, provide the background. The characters are touched and, eventually, significantly affected by coups and unrest, but Selassie and his reign are not the subject of the novel.

So what is its plot? It is mostly set in an Ethiopian hospital, aptly, metaphorically, named Missing (a perversion of its original name, Mission). To this mission hospital come an English surgeon (Thomas Stone) via India and a young Indian nun (Sister Mary Joseph Praise), with rather cataclysmic results. Some time later (I’ll leave you to draw your conclusions) identical conjoined male twins named Shiva and Marion are born. The story follows their lives as they grow up, living through political upheavals while their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh, treat the sick and poor of the region, until one of them moves to the United States. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to quote Psychologies from the back cover: “a sweeping saga of family life, love, betrayal and redemption”.  Get the picture?

This is a traditional nineteenth-century-style novel, reminiscent, say, of Rohinton Mistry‘s A fine balance (1995). It’s about social conditions and family. The back cover (again) suggests it has flavours of Dickens and Waugh. Perhaps, but a weak flavour I’d say. While it has some of the intensity of those writers, it lacks their bite. I also found the fundamental crisis – which, not surprisingly given the set-up, has to do with a betrayal between the twins over a woman – to be not quite convincing. Maybe it’s me, but the narrator kept telling us of his love for the girl-then-woman in question, Genet, and I went along with it to a point. But it was never made clear how mutual this was. Marion is the narrator – this is a first person tale – and so we see it all through his eyes, but the whole “love” storyline did feel a little bit like a house of cards. Perhaps that’s the point? Perhaps it’s about his obsession regardless of whether it was realistic or not. It is, after all, partly a coming of age novel.

Verghese, like his main characters, is a doctor and so there is a lot of detail about things medical – about vena cavas and how they relate to the liver, about fistulas in circumcised women, about volvulus, and so on. More detail really than I needed, and yet most of it was interesting. What was even more interesting was the difference between the medical system in Africa and in the United States, and then the difference in the United States between the “Mayflower” hospitals and the “Port Ellis” hospitals. There are social messages here about the construction of medicine in the developed and developing worlds, and between the haves and have-nots. But this wasn’t the only message. According to Wikipedia, Verghese is passionate about “bedside medicine” and there is certainly a strong message here of caring for patients as well as treating them. Early in the novel the young Marion sits with a woman, Tsige, as her son dies. Much later, he is the one who can answer Thomas Stone’s question “What treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”. The answer? “Words of comfort”.

Marion, then, as a child and a young doctor is well attuned to the feelings of others and yet he was unable to forgive all those who “wronged” him – Genet, his brother, and his birth father. I found that somewhat inconsistent with his character, and it affected my ability to fully buy  into the angst on which the plot turned.

Nonetheless, I liked the characters and so I kept reading, the story was interesting and so I kept reading, the writing was fine and so I kept reading. It doesn’t quite hang together, is a little melodramatic at times, but it’s a lively tale about characters I couldn’t help caring about. Early in the novel, we are told that Hema, who raises the twins, had:

come close to defining the nameless ambition that had pushed her this far: to avoid the sheep life at all costs.

The novel is full of characters who “avoid the sheep life”.

I started the review with Marion’s description of his father telling the painful tale of his life. I’ll end with the advice Marion’s adoptive father gives him:

The key to your happiness is to own your own slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your own family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more…

Obvious stuff really, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be said.

Abraham Verghese
Cutting for stone
London: Vintage, 2010
ISBN: 9870099443636

Freedom, a postscript

In one of those wonderful bits of reading synchronicities, I woke up this morning to read about US District Judge Roger Vinson declaring ObamaCare unconstitutional. Florida Governor Rick Scott (among others) agrees, saying that: “ObamaCare is an unprecedented and unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of the American people”. Those of us in other parts of the world wonder how much America is, in the end, willing to pay for this liberty. I hope it won’t be too much.

Anyhow, I did a little digging around … and came across an undated YouTube interview with Michael Badnarik on the blog of the Foundation for a Free Society. He was asked what Freedom means to him, and this is what he said:

It means not having any government involvement … I don’t need and don’t want the government helping me, making decisions it thinks are in my best interest.

And in the next sentence or two he mentions various apparently un-free things like drivers’ licences. Hmm …

He goes on to mention a wide range of issues, many of which bear good discussion but not, it seems, in his mind. Freedom, I know, is not a simple thing. I value it, but …

… here’s the thing (as I see it) – Jonathan Franzen touches on it but just doesn’t quite nail it – and that is that “no (wo)man is an island”. John Stuart Mill said that:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others …


The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.

In other words, Freedom is not an absolute concept … we are human (read “social”) beings and that, to me, involves responsibilities as well as rights. Responsibilities that, by definition, limit our freedom. Don’t they?

Finally, I write this post nervously – it is simple, and the concept is complex. I know that, and have no answer except one. Freedom cannot be absolute and surely must be discussed in that context. Otherwise, isn’t it a little paradoxical for the proponents of freedom to be arguing it absolutely?

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable creatures


Cover image courtesy HarperCollins Australia

Most readers experience, I think, periods of reading synchronicity when we read books in close succession that are related in some way. I am experiencing such a period now as Tracy Chevalier‘s Remarkable creatures is the third book I’ve read recently to deal in some way with the first decades of the 19th century. The others are David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America.

Tracy Chevalier would not normally be high priority for me, but this book intrigued me because of its period and setting. You see, it is set in Lyme Regis in the early 1800s, and that rings a special bell for me! Yes, it’s to do with Jane Austen. Not only did she visit Lyme Regis, but she set a significant scene in Persuasion there*. So, my appetite was whetted.

But, I must say, I was somewhat disappointed. It’s not that I expected a lot, really, but I did expect a little more than I got. In other words, I didn’t expect exciting or innovative prose, but I did expect writing that wouldn’t bother me. However, it did, and this was mostly due to a lack of subtlety. The best writing shows, not tells, but there was way too much telling in this book, and it falls into two main types:

  • Giving “facts” that we should know. Here is Elizabeth over-explaining Mary’s calling her “Ma’am”, when she’d previously called her “Miss”:

And she was calling me “ma-am” now. Spinster or not, I had outgrown “miss”. Ladies were called “miss” while they still had a chance of marrying.

  • Describing something, such as a character’s emotions, when it should be (and usually is) apparent. Here is a bit of petulance that sounds rather silly in the first person voice of a supposedly mature Elizabeth:

As angry as I sounded, I was also secretly pleased that Colonel Birch had discovered the value of my fish enough to want one for himself.

(For a humorous review of an unsubtle book, do read Kerry, aka Hungry Like the Wolf, on Ken Follett’s The pillars of the earth.)

There are also a couple of rather gratuitous references to Jane Austen and her novels, gratuitous because the main characters don’t read novels and the reference to Austen adds nothing significant in terms of plot or characterisation. It’s as if Chevalier knew Austen went there and decided to draw on Austen’s current popularity by making the connection:

One of Miss Austen’s books had even featured Lyme Regis, but I did not read fiction and could not be persuaded to try it. Life itself was far messier, and did not end so tidily, with the heroine making the right match. We Philpot sisters were the very embodiment of that frayed life. I did not need novels to remind me of what I had missed.

Enough of all that, however. Let me give a quick rundown of the plot. It tells the story of two women who were fossil hunters in Lyme Regis in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were Mary Anning (1799-1847), a poor working class woman whose fossil finds helped change the course of paleontology, and Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857), a gentlewoman who befriended Anning and who was particularly interested in fossil fish. Using known facts and novelistic licence, Chevalier has written an engaging story that focuses not only on the fossils and their impact on scientific and religious thinking of the time but also on the difficulties faced by women, particularly those unmarried like Philpot or unmarried and uneducated like Anning. Philpot says early in the novel that

… I had to find a passion: I was twenty-five years old, unlikely ever to marry, and in need of a hobby to fill my days. It is tedious being a lady sometimes.

Chevalier shows the financial precariousness of women, their lack of power, and how easily they can be exploited. Women, for example, were unable to belong to the Geological Society of London, and Mary’s collections (in particular) were written up in scientific journals by men, often with no credit given to her contribution. This is the real story of the novel and Chevalier captures well the circumscribed lives of women, and the challenges they faced in living independently. And yet, she undermines this by fabricating a jealous falling out between Elizabeth and Mary over a man. Did Chevalier really need to do this to make the story exciting?

That said, the characterisation is effective overall. She differentiates the two main characters not only by their very different voices, but also by creating a conceit for each of them. For Elizabeth it is her describing what people “lead with”. The forthright Mary, for example, leads with her eyes, while one of the foppish male characters leads, she says, with his hair. Good one, I thought! Mary’s conceit is being the “lightning girl”. The book begins with her being struck, but not killed, by lightning when she was a young girl. Lightning thereafter becomes a motif in her life for surprising or lucky events and for strong feelings.

Chevalier also writes some lovely descriptions – of people and landscapes:

While I accommodated her absence, a dull ache in my heart remained, like a fracture that, though healed, ever flares up during damp weather.


Lyme Regis is a town that has submitted to its geography rather than forced the land to submit to it …It is not planned, like Bath or Cheltenham or Brighton, but wriggles this way and that, as if trying to escape the hills and sea, and failing.

This is an enjoyable book for the glimpse it gives into the lives of two interesting and little known women, but the writing, for me, doesn’t quite do the story justice. For a more positive review, you may like to read Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

Tracy Chevalier
Remarkable creatures
London, HarperCollins, 2010
ISBN: 9780007178384

*It is also the setting, of course, of John FowlesThe French lieutenant’s woman.