Trevor Shearston, Hare’s fur (#BookReview)

While I want to, I often don’t manage to follow up books recommended by Lisa but Trevor Shearston’s Hare’s fur particularly caught my attention. He was an Australian author I didn’t know; the novel is set in the Blue Mountains; and the protagonist is a potter, which sounded intriguing. So, I bought it – over a year ago, in fact, when I had a bookshop gift voucher to spend – but have only just managed to squeeze it into my schedule.

It’s a lovely read. However, I was surprised to discover that Shearston has published several novels, and a short story collection. His 2013 novel Game, about bushranger Ben Hall, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead and Colin Roderick awards. Hare’s fur is quite a different book – at least, ostensibly, as I haven’t read Game to know its style or underlying concerns!

So, Hare’s fur. It tells the story of Russell Bass, a recently widowed 70-something potter living in the beautiful Blackheath area of the Blue Mountains. Unlike his potter son-in-law, Hugh, Russell sources the rock for his glazes in the canyons below his home. On one of his forays – to a remote creek that he thinks only he visits – he hears voices, and, on further investigation, discovers three children living in a cave, teen Jade who is looking after her younger sister Emma and little brother Todd. They are, he discovers, hiding from child welfare (DoCS) and the police. What would you do? The novel – novella, really, I’d say – tells the story of the relationship that develops between these four, and how Russell navigates this tricky human, legal and moral territory.

Now, before I go further, I was interested to see in Trevor Shearston’s GoodReads author page a book called The impact of society on the child: Proceedings of the inaugural annual meeting. I can’t find what his role was. It doesn’t seem he was editor or assistant editor, but, assuming he was involved, it suggests a formal interest in children’s well-being. Certainly, that is the essential theme of this novel. It’s about deciding what’s responsible and being generous, in the face of justifiable fear and lack of trust.

From Govett’s Leap, Blackheath

What’s lovely about this novel is that the adults involved – not just Russell, but, peripherally, his daughter and son-in-law who live 30-minutes walk away, and his neighbour – are open to solving this problem. They recognise the very real risks and challenges of Russell’s desire to protect the children, but they don’t resort to black-and-white solutions. I will leave what happens there, because one of the joys of the novel is following the various characters’ decisions and actions as they navigate this tricky situation.

Other joys of the novel include the writing, and particularly the descriptions of the landscape. Here is part of Russell’s walk down to his creek:

Tea-tree and lomandra had grown across the opening of the abandoned lookout. He pushed through the clumps of blades to the apron of lichened concrete and found the faint pad that only his feet maintained, skirting to the right of the platform through wind-sculpted casuarinas and hakea and more tea-tree to the cliff edge. There he stopped and removed his beanie and took the sun on his face and scalp. It was the last direct sunlight he would know until he stood again on this spot. …

He describes the birds and flowers, the colours and the misty coldness of the mountains, so beautifully.

The characterisation is good too. Told third person but from Russell’s perspective, we are privy to the feelings of this man who is still grieving his wife but is getting on with it. His daughter and son-in-law, and his neighbour, invite him over for dinner or drop meals on his doorstep, but he’s not helpless. He’s sad and a bit lonely, but he has his work. His relationship with the children is gentle, thoughtful and respectful. His response to Jade is wise,

She lacks education, he told himself, not intelligence. Don’t talk down to her.

Then there’s the title – hare’s fur. Hands up, if you know what it means? I didn’t, but it’s a special kind of brown glaze. Jade asks him how he turns the rocks into glaze. He tells her

… when it’s heated to a high enough temperature it’ll melt again. And, having lots of iron in it, that gives a black glaze. If I’m lucky, with streaks of dark blue, or red, or sometimes little brown flecks that look like animal fur.

One of Russell’s most treasured possessions is a valuable, 900-year-old hare’s fur tea bowl bequeathed him by a collector. Why the novel is titled for this is not obvious, but presumably part of it relates to the fact that this glaze is precious and rare, and needs to be nurtured like the children he has found. There’s a point where he shows Jade this bowl and lets her hold it. He tells her she can go look at it in his room any time, but asks her not to pick it up. Trusting her like this, with an object precious to him, is significant – but not laboured in the novel.

Hare’s fur is a positive book about the importance of trust and respect, and of being open to others. It’s also about how lives can be remade. Russell is as lucky as the children that they found each other.

Trevor Shearston
Hare’s fur
Melbourne: Scribe, 2019
194pp.
ISBN: 9781925713473

Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (#BookReview)

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road has been sitting on my TBR pile for over seven years. It was sent to me on spec but, as crime is not my preferred reading, I didn’t feel obliged to read it – and yet, I hung onto it, just in case… So, when Kim (Reading Matters) decided to run an Aussie-New Zealand crime month, I knew what I was going to read.

Actually, though, this is not the first Disher to appear on my blog. Text had previously sent me an earlier one of his, Wyatt, which I managed to talk Son Gums into guest reviewing for me. You can read his review here. However, Wyatt is a thriller with an anti-hero as its protagonist, so is very different to Bitter Wash Road, a police procedural featuring the more sympathetic constable, Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch).

More sympathetic he may be, but straightforward he is not, because Hirsch is a recently demoted detective who has been sent three hours north from Adelaide to a “single-officer police station” in Tiverton, a fictional “blink-and-you’d-miss-it-town” in struggling “wheat and wool” country. Having previously worked with a team of corrupt detectives, Hirsch, though not found guilty (which, he realises, is different to being found “not guilty”), has “a stink clinging to him”. For whatever reason, Internal Investigations is not convinced he’s clean. Consequently, Hirsch finds himself investigating crime in a fearful community where the police are hated, while also having to watch his own back. Who can he trust?

“an air of waiting”

To my surprise, I greatly enjoyed this novel. It’s well-plotted, so that while the ending isn’t a complete surprise – surely it’s not a good crime novel if it is? – there are enough possibilities thrown in your path along the way to keep you pondering which way it will go. However, it’s not the plot that grabbed me. It’s the characterisation, the writing, and the subtle way contemporary issues are referenced or implicated in the story.

Hirsch is introduced in the first paragraph as the “new cop in Tiverton” and then we immediately meet him through a phone conversation with his sergeant, Kropp, in nearby Redruth. Some shots have been heard out near Tin Hut and he is to investigate. We are then launched into the action as Hirsch drives off, but we are also introduced to his character. He’s observant and careful, but also, probably sensibly, a bit paranoid. When he comes across a gum tree blocking the road, he sees it as a potential ambush, but on closer inspection it’s simply a fallen branch:

All that sinewy health on the outside and quiet decay within.

A bit like the police, really.

With such language the tone is set. Hirsch is isolated, physically and psychologically, like many in the region, for different reasons. This is a tough place where Sergeant Kropp’s two brutal constables, Nicholson and Andrewartha, terrorise the locals, paying particular attention – if you know what I mean – to young girls and Indigenous youths. Hirsch needs all his resources to navigate this lot and the rest of the community’s officials. Fortunately, he’s a true policeman, sizing up every place and person he sees or comes across, alert to every nuance in behaviour. This is, after all, the key both to survival and getting at the truth.

Now, I’m not an expert on writing about crime, but even I realise that I haven’t actually mentioned the crime. It wasn’t the gunshots out near Tin Hut, in fact, but the body of a dead girl out that way, along Bitter Wash Road. Hit and run? Or something else? A little later, a woman is found dead, this time looking like suicide. What is going on in the area? Were these deaths murders? Are they connected?

Set in a dry, struggling outback community, Bitter Wash Road is an example of a sub-genre that is now loosely known as outback or drought or bush noir. It is typified by remote communities living in harsh, unforgiving landscapes, and, as Disher makes clear, by the sort of sexism and racism that is peculiar to such settings (which is not to say they aren’t found in other settings too.)

In this sub-genre you would, I expect, find descriptions like this:

A five-hour round trip. Lengthening shadows striped the crops, the highways, the hillsides. More birds on more wires. An air of waiting, of things drying, turning to dust.

So, with suggestive writing like this, a compelling and complex character like Hirsch, and a plot with as many dips and turns as its titular road, Bitter Wash Road makes splendid reading. I’m not surprised that Disher decided a few years later to return to Hirsch with Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Read for Reading Matters Southern Cross Crime Month. Kim has also reviewed this novel.

Garry Disher
Bitter Wash Road
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
325pp.
ISBN: 9781922079244

Review copy courtesy Text Publishing

Elizabeth Harrower, The long prospect (#BookReview)

Oppression and tyranny, power and manipulation in human relationships are the stuff of Elizabeth Harrower’s writing, at least in my experience of it, and so I found it again in her second novel The long prospect. Unlike The watch tower (my review), however, which explores the more traditional domination of women by a man, The long prospect’s tyrant is narcissistic grandma Lilian who makes pre-pubescent granddaughter Emily’s life a misery. Why is a novel about a cruel, manipulative person wielding power over someone whom they should love so enjoyable? Let me try to explain …

The long prospect, which was first published in 1958, is set in postwar Ballowra, a fictionalised industrial town based on Newcastle, just a couple of hours’ drive north of Sydney. The major part of it takes place in the home of forty-seven-year-old Lilian who wields sadistic power over all who come within her purview, including but not limited to the aforesaid granddaughter Emily. The novel starts, in fact, with Lilian visiting her ex-tenant and apparent friend, thirty-something Thea, in her new apartment in another part of Ballowra. Lilian walks into the apartment, without being invited, “her eyes on swivels”, and very quickly we realise that this friendship is one in which Lilian has assumed power but is now feeling put out. Words like “disapproval”, “frowning” and “affronted” leave us in no doubt that Lilian’s visit is not the sort of generous one you’d expect from someone visiting their friend in their new home.

This controlling, self-centred, unaffectionate behaviour of Lilian’s, as I’ve said, is not limited to Thea and Emily but extends to all her relationships, including to her daughter Paula, and to the various men who populate the novel, such as the hapless “boy-friend” Rosen and the tender, thoughtful but powerless boarder Max.

At the heart of The long prospect is Emily’s desperate search for affection and attention, which she finally finds in this thirty-something Max, who had been introduced earlier, by name only, as a past lover of Thea. Max warms to the intelligent – but clearly neglected – young girl, and starts spending time with her, mentoring her intellectual and emotional development. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go unnoticed by Lilian’s self-centred and jealous entourage, and eventually insinuations are made that bring about the novel’s denouement. Before that, though, Emily’s blossoming enthusiasm for life and learning is a delight to see.

Harrower constructs her novel and builds up the tone and tension beautifully. She introduces Lilian’s character via her opening visit to Thea. She sets up Emily’s need for affection and her subsequent bond with Max through her previous attachment to Thea and her desperate crushes on teachers. Harrower’s word use is precise, from the recurring appearance of “grey”, describing people and place, to the plain spare language that pares relationships and actions down to their essence. Here’s the desperate Rosen, trailing after Lilian into the kitchen, still hoping she will keep him:

There, catching her, he chances a reproachful expression, seeing that, anyway, her grey eyes were no longer hard, but mild and blank. She had quite abandoned her fiery mood. He was reassured, and smiled at her sheepishly. Her new look must mean apology. In fact, Lilian thought about salmon sandwiches. She filled the kettle.

Catastrophic emptiness

But, now, here’s the thing folks. I finished this book, and half-wrote this post, just before my Dad died three weeks ago. I am having trouble remembering all the thoughts I had while reading it, thoughts that particularly related to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Realism vs Modernism discussion we were having – but I’ll try. Harrower falls primarily into the Modernist tradition. She reflects the ills of the time through individual psyches, rather than exploring causes and social impacts as we find in Realist books like Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (1961) (my review).

Both Emily and Max feel the psychological impacts of their environments. Early on Emily, desperate to belong, finds herself an outsider yet again:

There was a chill lack of desirability about the room she had left, and about those she might enter – a bleak and rigid lack of warmth that penetrated the future as well as the present and the past.

Max recognises that he had responded to “the catastrophic emptiness of the past few years” by settling for:

Comfortable resignation. He looked at the idea of it. It had not always been that, but the change had been slow and subtle, worked in him secretly. Now the metamorphosis was complete, surprising, disagreeable. (p. 150)

Disagreeable, particularly now that a crisis involving Emily, whom he had wanted to nurture and protect, had come:

Max fought down a sense of alienation … (p. 150)

And yet, in The long prospect there is also a subtle backdrop of the industrialisation that is one of the drivers behind Modernism’s theme of alienation and the individual. Emily’s father Harry Lawrence, on his way for a rare visit with her, considers his old home town:

After years in the country, this subjection to industry, the smoky sky, the matured deterioration immanent at the birth of such towns as Ballowra left him oppressed and indignant. He was unwilling that it should be so bad.

The overriding sense in the book – from all the characters – those we like, and those we don’t, is one of disappointed lives. Max is one of those we like, for his warmth and his capacity for mature reflection:

No external excuse, not lack of this or that fine feeling could be counted as justification. Nothing could undo the harm these casual people had done. Yet, Max argued, they were themselves and lived as they could, and had not been wisely treated either, very likely.

I like the “very likely” qualification! I also like this fundamentally non-judgemental attitude, that doesn’t then follow through to excusing poor behaviour. Max goes on: “it was too easy to exempt from responsibility those who felt no responsibility for their actions. Too easy, reductive, wrong.” In other words, understand but don’t excuse!

The long prospect is thoroughly engaging, despite its overall depressing subject matter. The perfection of Harrower’s insight into human psychology combined with the delicious precision of her writing make it, yes, a joy to read, even though Emily’s plight is heartrending. It’s no wonder, really, that Patrick White was disappointed when Harrower stopped writing. He knew a good writer when he saw one.

Read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week; also reviewed by Kim (Reading Matters).

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Elizabeth Harrower
The long prospect
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2012 (Orig. ed. 1958)
277pp.
ISBN: 9781922079480

Angela Savage, Mother of Pearl (#BookReview)

Book cover

Having commented in my Reading Highlights post about how little self-directed reading I did last year, I decided to start the year with just that, before returning to the Review TBR pile. What to choose? Many books jostled for attention, but in the end I chose Angela Savage’s novel Mother of Pearl because I felt it would be a warm-hearted but meaty read, just right for this time of year. I was right.

Let’s start with the meaty first. The subject matter is commercial surrogacy, in Thailand specifically. This surrogacy involving “farang” couples was banned in Thailand during the writing of this book, but that doesn’t invalidate it. Many novels have been written about behaviours, cultures, practices that have changed or disappeared – and, anyhow, commercial surrogacy still exists in various forms in different countries around the world. So, on many fronts, both contemporary and historical, Mother of Pearl has much to offer.

And what it offers is a sensitive portrayal of a very complex issue. On the surface, the novel is about a childless Australian couple paying a poor Thai woman to carry “their” baby (created using the husband’s sperm and a donor egg) but, as Savage wrote on novelist Amanda Curtin’s blog*, what specifically interested her were “the political, ethical, cultural and emotional aspects of overseas surrogacy”. This, of course, makes the book sound very much like an “issues” novel, and it is. However, Savage, who is an experienced and award-winning crime writer – I have reviewed her novel, The dying beach – has written a novel that shows not tells, that is in no way didactic, that explores the “issue” from multiple angles without moralising.

How does she do this? Partly by creating well-rounded and engaging characters, which include Meg (the would-be mother), her sister Anna (an experienced Southeast Asian aid worker), and surrogate mother Mod. There are others, including Meg’s husband Nate. The novel starts in 1998 with Mod who is, then, a 16-year-old girl. We learn of the role of temple culture in her life, and we hear her “fortune” told which says that her “good luck will be earned, not won”. The novel then jumps ten years and we are introduced to forty-year-old Anna, recently returned from Cambodia, and her 14-months-younger sister Meg who has, ostensibly, given up the idea of having a child after years of trying, including gruelling IVF rounds. However, at Anna’s place, she meets a gay couple with a child born to a Thai surrogate mother, and the seed is sown.

Who are the winners, who are the losers (Anna, paraphrased)

From here, the novel, like many modern novels, switches perspectives, primarily between Mod, Anna and Meg, to explore the emotions and motivations, the practice and legalities of commercial surrogacy, and the cultural implications in Thailand. Anna – who is experienced in Thai culture and, let us say, the “disinterested” party – is our main guide through all this. She is, I’d say, our voice, because she is the one concerned about the exploitative aspects of this surrogacy. However, she comes to see that it’s a little more complex than would appear on the surface. This is not to argue that such surrogacy is a good thing, but that neither is it a black-and-white issue.

I particularly liked the way Savage explored the different motivations of surrogate mothers through Mod’s spending time with other surrogates and potential surrogates. We learn not only of the need for money, but of factors like the desire to earn Buddhist merit and the exploitation of young Thai women by their boyfriends and fathers. Exploitation, we realise, is a complex beast.

So, the novel is meaty because it does tease out many of those “political, ethical, cultural and emotional” factors that Savage intended to do. Meg’s single-minded focus on having a child, and the pressure this creates on others, is quietly interrogated. Aid-worker Anna’s discomfort with the exploitativeness of commercial surrogacy is teased out, as she faces reassessing “the moral high ground, where she’d once felt so at home”. The financial, cultural and emotional implications for Mod are also genuinely explored.

However, the novel is also warm-hearted because it is non-judgemental. Our main characters aren’t perfect. Meg and Anna, in particular, have their sisterly squabbles, tensions and fallings-out, but their disagreements aren’t bitter, and they both “put their foot in it” at times. More importantly, though, Savage leaves it to the reader to consider the issues and decide where we stand, and why.

Finally, underpinning all this is the writing. Mother of Pearl, which is logically divided into three parts – Preconception, Gestation, Afterbirth – is an accessible novel. The alternating perspectives are easy to follow, the pacing is good, and the writing flows well. There are some perfect descriptions, like

Anna recoiled like a sea anemone poked with a stick. She was fixed to the rock face; everything moved around her.

but they are not overdone in a novel for which the narrative is the driving force. I was concerned for a while that Meg and Nate were too good to be true, given the stresses they’d been under for years, but Savage injected enough little cracks to reassure me that they hadn’t stepped out of a romance novel. Finally, there’s the perfectly apposite pearl motif, which is also handled with a light touch.

Mother of Pearl, then, respects the complexity of its “issue” without becoming polemical. In so doing, it discourages judgement where compassion should prevail, and yet is clear-eyed about the realities that make surrogacy so problematical. A good choice for my first book of 2021.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also appreciated this book.

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Angela Savage
Mother of Pearl
Transit Lounge, 2019
318pp.
ISBN: 9781925760354

* Thanks to Lisa for providing the link to this post.

Thea Astley, An item from the late news (#BookReview)

Book coverSet in the satirically named town of Allbut, whose nearest large town is the equally satirically named Mainchance, Thea Astley’s An item from the late news is framed by the story of a man who comes to the town, fearful of “the atom bomb”, and wanting to live a quiet – sheltered, you might say – life.

Wafer is this man, and the story is narrated, from the perspective of ten years after the events, by townswoman Gabby. Introducing the story, she tells us that she was living at the coast when he arrived for “his sad little attempt at reclusion”, and goes on to say that

I reckon now, sprawled on my day-bed guilt, that … the town wasn’t really different from anyplace else except that its final actions become more redly horrible as I think about them.

This tells us much, that the story is not going to end well, that Gabby is implicated, and that Allbut is “anyplace”. It focuses our mind less on what’s going to happen, and more on how and why things go badly. This being Astley, the answers lie in small-mindedness, cowardice, brutality – and, in this story in particular, in greed. It is greed which provides the impetus for the denouement, but along the way, we see sexism, racism, and machismo running amok, all of which lay the groundwork for the behaviour that brings about the end.

Allbut is “anyplace”, one of hundreds of towns set in “landscape skinned to the bone”. It’s a “nothing” town, or, alternatively and ironically, “a clean and decent town”, “a caring town”. It has “all” the obvious things – people, farms, cemetery, pub, war memorial, police – “but” what you really need, kindness and generosity. Into this town comes the outsider, Wafer. Hippie-like in dress and behaviour, “he smiles at children, blacks, old gummy folk. He doesn’t count his change.” Indeed, Gabby tells us, he is “too friendly with the blacks. The town hates that.” He is too kind, too generous, but is also afraid. Having seen his father blown up before his eyes during the war, and having followed the Hiroshima attack, he has come to Allbut to build a bomb shelter.

Narrator Gabby, although of the town, is also an outsider, also a misfit. She has never quite fit with normal “squatting class” expectations, couldn’t be “the daughter of their Sunday social page dreams”. An artist by trade, she’d painted “the very heart of boredom”, albeit unrecognised by her buyers. After failed relationships, institutionalisation for a mental breakdown, and overseas travel, she returns to town, still bored and looking for love. She falls for Wafer, and starts painting again – well, drawing, anyhow. But, she tells us – ominously – “this whole horrible canvas will have the detail of a Brueghel and the alarm of Goya.”

Allbut is peopled with several characters: loner Moon with “the trigger-quick temper”, Sergeant Cropper, Councillor Brim, Smiler Colley and his teen daughter Emmeline, Headmaster Rider and son Timothy, the regularly mentioned but rarely seen (of course) Indigenous woman Rosie Wonga, and Doss (with “blonde hair set in jazz age waves”) and her man Stobo. Karen Lamb, in her Astley biography Inventing the weather, writes about Astley’s use of music: “A character’s mind might be full of classical music – to show an evolved intellect – but jazz was better to bring out a character’s exuberance and refusal to follow convention”. Doss, then, is one of the positive characters in the book, though she has little power to affect the outcome.

An item from the late news is a slim volume – at 200 pages in my edition – but through irony, foreshadowing, repetition, and evocative menace-laden language, Astley builds her story painstakingly but irrevocably to its conclusion. Sexual violence – first against shop dummies, then an assault on Emmeline – sets the stage, but it’s Wafer’s gemstone which captures the attention of the men in the town. It is then that the brutality really starts to build, and we know, even if we’d hoped before, that this really will not end well.

The novel is Astley’s 8th of 15, that is, it’s slap bang in the middle of her fictional oeuvre. By the time she wrote it, her broader themes were well established. These include concern about the Americanisation of Australian culture, the negative influence of television, rabid commercialisation and development (“Sunshine of the vanished sand … the high-blood pressure of the high rise”), poverty and social inequity, not to mention racism and sexism. She fears for the “nothingness” that she sees characterising people’s lives; she rails against what Wafer calls “this blinkered world”; and she exposes her ultimate truth that, as Wafer again says, “we all fail … we fail each other”.

You could also say, though, that there is a cliche at the heart of this story, that of the woman scorned, because although it’s the men of the town who are the most brutal, it’s Gabby who fails her big moment. However, she is such a complex creation that this is not how the novel reads. Instead, by having the damaged Gabby operating as both observer and actor in the events, Astley subtly subverts that trope – and encourages us to be generous.

It was in her review of An item from the late news, that Helen Garner described Astley’s writing as “heavy-handed, layered-on, inorganic, self-conscious, hectic and distracting” and wrote that “this kind of writing drives me beserk”. If you know the writing styles of these two writers, this will make sense, but I suspect Garner, who had a long relationship with Astley, came to appreciate her work. Certainly, the language could be seen as “heavy-handed, layered-on”, but I love its evocativeness and power, the richness of her allusions, the succinct yet poetic way in which Astley can convey an idea. Even the title conveys a punch. It’s thrilling to read.

An item from the late news is quintessential Astley. It offers an unflinching look into the heart of small-minded Australia, and finds much to disturb us. And that is the value of reading literature like this.

Read for ANZLL Thea Astley Week; Lisa also reviewed the book for her week.

Challenge logoThea Astley
An item from the late news
Ringwood: Viking, 1999 (Orig. ed. 1982)
200pp.
ISBN: 978014069488

Shokoofeh Azar, The enlightenment of the greengage tree (#BookReview)

Book coverI bought Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The enlightenment of the greengage tree when it was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, for which it was also shortlisted. However, it was its shortlisting this year for the International Booker Prize that prompted me to finally take it off the TBR pile.

Born in Iran, artist and writer Azar was still a child when the Islamic Revolution started in 1979. She grew up there, and, as an adult, obtained work as an independent journalist. However, after being imprisoned three times, she fled Iran by boat, ending up on Australia’s Christmas Island, and was eventually accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She has written a children’s book and two short story collections, but The enlightenment of the Greengage tree is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels autobiographical, though given the narrator is a ghost and Azar is clearly still with us, it is not exactly autobiography!

The story chronicles the lives, experiences, and reactions of a family caught up in the chaos and brutality of post-revolutionary Iran. This family comprises father Hushang, mother Roza, son Sohrab, daughter Beeta, and another daughter, the above-mentioned ghost narrator, Bahar. Following the 1979 Revolution, they flee Tehran for the remote village of Razan, which was untouched for years by the revolution, until it came there too during the Executions of 1988.

While the story is roughly linear, it does slide around a bit, so you need to keep your wits about you. It starts in Razan with Roza’s attainment of enlightenment “at exactly 2:35pm. on August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree”, the same moment at which her son Sohrab is executed amongst hundreds of other political prisoners in Tehran. This, of course, is told to us by thirteen-year-old Bahar who, we don’t discover until chapter 5, had died in a fire set in her father’s library in 1979 by Revolutionary Guards.

Now, the book is described on its back cover as magical realist, but this is term I have been uncomfortable about ever since hearing Alexis Wright question it. I fear that with our rationalist Western minds, the description “magical” can carry a hint of condescension. Alexis Wright said that “Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things.” Toni Morrison has spoken similarly. Azar, on the other hand, embraces the term, describing it like this: “People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems”. That makes sense. I also rather like this description in Wikipedia by Mexican critic Luis Leal. He says “to me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world” or, to be more specific, toward what happens to them. I guess it’s really a matter of a rose by any other name, and that the issue is less the term, than how we readers understand or approach what we read?

So, when I tell you that Roza finds enlightenment at the very top of a greengage tree, that the ghosts of 5000 executed people confront the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his bedroom, that Beeta becomes a mermaid and joins the merpeople to escape the sorrows of the world, that forest jinns place curses, or, even, that the novel is narrated by a ghost, I am accepting that this is how the characters experience their world.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is, then, the story of people in extremis. The background is the repressive regime, but the book’s ambit is much bigger. It’s about life and death, love and loss, and how those play out in brutal, politically-charged times. While “most people”, says Hushang, “wanted to get used to everything”, his family heads to the jungle town of Razan, where they think, foolishly as it turns out, they will be safe. When the revolution does reach them, the people are unprepared, and are left

wondering how they’d ended up in a game whose rules they hadn’t written. The game of aggressor and victim. A game in which it didn’t take long for the victims to become the aggressors; become victim aggressors… it wasn’t long before they forgot their myths and dreams, their history and balance …

With Sohrab soon arrested, our family soldiers on, each reacting to the brutality they confront in their very different, beautifully differentiated, ways.

Roza leaves home early in the novel because:

… she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.

Beeta, on the other hand, who had stayed and struggled, eventually transforms into an aquatic creature, “so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human”. Meanwhile, Hushang, who also stayed, reads. He had “a thirst for reading”, a desire to be “connected with the world’s thinkers”, to distance himself “from the contemporary world of intellectual midgets that had overrun his country.” Eventually though, his reading brings him to “contemporary Iranian history; the place where all his questions turned to bottomless chasms”.

History is, in fact, a constant thread in the novel, one that is pored over from every angle – including an attempt by the people of Razan to discard it altogether. Azar shows, graphically, the damage done by those regimes which try to quash people’s past, their heritage.

Late in the novel, there’s a confrontation between Hushang and his brother Khosro who had taken a mystical path. Hushang is furious, arguing that “this mysticism game” had done nothing against the various atrocities and traumas, and criticising “smart people” like Khosro for hiding “in the safety of temples instead of doing something to fight the corruption and injustice.” Khosro, though, believes, probably realistically, that nothing can be done to avert the ongoing destruction of Iranian culture. He argues that “all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.”

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is a wonderful read if you like books which pose these sorts of fundamental questions about how to live in difficult times. It could be a grim read, given the brutality contained within, but it’s not. It’s tragic, of course, but it has a sort of unsentimental, slightly melancholic tone that doesn’t weigh you down. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Beeta tells Bahar that “imagination is at the heart of reality”. A perfect description of what Azar has done in this book.

In the front matter, Azar expresses gratitude to the Australian people for accepting her “into this safe and democratic country” where she can “have the freedom to write” such a book. We, however, should be grateful, in return, to have such a creator in our midst.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

Challenge logoShokoofeh Azar
The enlightenment of the greengage tree
Translated by Adrien Kijek*
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
268pp.
ISBN: 9780987381309

* Translator’s name is a pseudonym; the European edition was published with translator as anonymous.

Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross (#BookReview)

Book coverUnlike many, I think, I have not read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which, I understand are very different to her only Australian-set novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, which, in fact, she published under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker. It has been on my TBR for some time, so I’m grateful that Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week provided the impetus for me to finally pull it off the shelves and read it.

That said, Angela Thirkell is a bit of a ring-in. Wikipedia describes her as an Australian and English novelist, but really, she, who lived from 1890 to 1961, only lived in Australia from 1920 to 1929. All her novels were published after her return to England, so, although she did some journalistic writing in Australia, it’s a bit of a stretch to call her an “Australian” novelist. Nonetheless, I’d argue that this book, which has an Australian protagonistwas and was published in 1934, is worthy of Bill’s week, and the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Before I get on with the book, I should tell you that Thirkell’s father was William Morris’ good friend and biographer, and her maternal grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She had Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin as cousins, JM Barrie as godfather, and Beatrix Potter as a neighbour. She moved, then, in interesting circles.

Hilarious and affectionate satire

GoodReads writes that in Trooper to the Southern Cross, Thirkell “assumes the voice of an Australian army officer and relates an amusing, rough-and-tumble sea story about an eventful, post-World War I journey on a troop-carrying vessel deservedly labeled a ‘hell-ship.’ Thirkell’s keen ear for dialogue, and her skillful use of her own first-hand experience of a voyage on a similarly rumbustious vessel, combine to create an amusing and spirited yarn.” This is a fair description, but Virago’s back cover does a better job, describing it as “an hilarious and affectionate satire on the manners and mores of Australia”, “satire” being the operative word.

I make this point because, as Bill will be interested to know, HM Green, in his History of Australian literature, believed, says Virago, this book was written by a male, and described it as an example of “unconscious humour” rather than as satire. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly if you don’t know the full story. At this point, of course, I had to check out Trove, where I found two contemporary reviews. One, from Sydney’s The Sun (18 November 1934), is scathing, describing it as “without literary merit, with just a touch of sardonic humor and a good deal of unrestrained nastiness”. The main complaint is that the book “portrays the Australian soldier as something between a savage and a simpleton”.

The other review, from The Sydney Morning Herald (29 September 1934), is a little more positive. It has its criticism, though, saying that the “language and outlook” of its army doctor narrator “is that of the common soldier and rather difficult to reconcile with his rank and the assumption that he is a graduate in medicine of an Australian university. Our Medical Faculties hardly turn out their diamonds quite as rough as this unpolished specimen.” However, this reviewer finds the book funny, and concludes:

The voyage was full of incident, and the episodes, tragic, thrilling, or amusing, lose none of their interest in the free manner of telling. From the major’s mouth came artless revelations of opinions on all subjects that are reminiscent of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” though the artlessness has not the subtlety of the art of Anita Loos. Diggers will chuckle over this book.

Hmmm … not The Sun’s diggers, perhaps.

“a reserved kind of chap”

Trooper to the Southern Cross is based on Thirkell’s own trip to Australia in 1920 on the requisitioned German troopship SS Friedrichsruh which, like the novel’s fictional Rudolstadt, had been ingeniously sabotaged by the Germans. For example, the toilets flushed boiling water and salt water flowed from freshwater taps. Not surprisingly this added to the havoc on a ship that was carrying officers with their wives and families, “ordinary” diggers, and prisoner diggers who soon had it over the soldiers guarding them. As Thirkell tells it in her novel, there was much violence on board and at the only two stops made en route, Port Said and Colombo. All this is told in the voice of Major Tom Bowen, who is modelled on Thirkell’s husband, albeit her husband wasn’t a doctor or a major. Bowen’s wife, Celia, however, is not based on herself, says Tony Gould in Virago’s introduction, but Mrs Jerry, the Colonel’s wife, is.

The novel is interesting to read for a number of reasons, one being simply for its history, its being, according to its publisher, the first book to deal with “the repatriation of Australian troops after the war.” A very particular repatriation one would hope, but a story of such nonetheless. Mostly, though, it’s interesting for the voice of its narrator. He is quite something, and I can imagine different readers responding very differently to him. He, like George Thirkell, served in the war from the Gallipoli Campaign right through to Armistice. He’s reasonably educated, having done medicine in Sydney, but he uses Australian vernacular and his cultural tastes are popular. Virago’s Gould notes that Thirkell “became extremely well versed in Australian literature and culture and uses it to comic effect” in the book. Here, for example, is Bowen soon after meeting “the wonderfully pretty little thing” who was to become his wife:

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain that they were way out beyond everything. I asked her if she’d read ‘On Our Selection’, because that gives you some idea of the back-blocks. But she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We  of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’, so I knew she wasn’t literary.

You can imagine the female Thirkell enjoying writing this male character – and she does it so well. He makes you cringe – with his frequently smug patronising manner, sexism, racism, and general all round chauvinism – and yet you can’t help liking him too. He has nous dealing with men, particularly the diggers for whom he has a clear-eyed affection; he is resourceful; and he shows tenderness to others in need, regardless of who they are. He’s even open to having his mind changed, such as when the Roman Catholic padre helps him out:

To think of an R.C. showing me what Christianity really was. It gave quite a shock to a lot of my ideas.

As a document of 1920s Australian manners and culture, told with a lightly satiric eye, Trooper to the Southern Cross is a surprisingly entertaining read.

Challenge logoAngela Thirkell
Trooper to the Southern Cross
London: Virago, 1985 (Orig. pub. 1934)
(Virago Modern Classic No. 171)
177pp.
ISBN: 0860685926

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
195pp.
ISBN: None

Chloe Hooper, The arsonist: A mind on fire (#BookReview)

Chloe Hooper, The ArsonistIt may not have been the most sensible decision to read Chloe Hooper’s book, The arsonist, during Australia’s worst-ever bushfire week, but in fact I picked it up a few days before the crisis became evident, and once I started I couldn’t put it down. The arsonist tells the story of the man arrested and tried for one of the major fires in the Black Saturday series of bushfires that ravaged much of Victoria in February 2009. I have often wondered how you identify how and where a fire started. Hooper answers much of this.

However, what made this book unputdownable was that Hooper adopted, as she did in The tall man, the narrative (or creative) nonfiction style to tell her story, and proved herself, again, to be a skilled exponent of this genre. For those not sure about this genre, Lee Gutkind’s definition, quoted in Wikipedia, is a good start: “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” In other words, the information must be true or factual, but presented like a story.

Car in fire burnt bush

Bush, eastern Victoria, 9 mths after Black Saturday, 2009

Hooper structures her story like a classic three-act drama: I The detectives, II The lawyers, III The courtroom, followed by the Coda. She provides the facts – the whos, whens, wheres and whys – as much as they are known, but forms them into a narrative. So, after an opening paragraph which evocatively describes a fire-destroyed bush landscape, the second paragraph reads:

At the intersection of two nondescript roads, Detective Sergeant Adam Henry sits in his car taking in a puzzle. On one side of Glendonald Road, the timber plantation is untouched: pristine Pinus radiata, all sown at the same time, growing in immaculate green lines. On the other side, near where the road forms a T with a track named Jellef’s Outlet, stand rows of Eucalyptus globulus, the common blue gum cultivated the world over to make printer paper. All torched, as far as the eye can see. On Saturday 7 February 2009, around 1.30pm, a fire started somewhere near here and now, late on Sunday afternoon, it is still burning several kilometres away.

You can see, in this, that we are being invited in to see what her “character” Detective Henry is seeing, but we are also given very specific facts. The next paragraph, provides some personal background to this first “character” in her story:

Detective Henry has a new baby, his first, a week out of hospital. The night before, he had been called back from paternity leave for a 6 am meeting …

As Part I progresses, we meet other police officers and forensic experts; we travel with them as they investigate the fire itself and then follow leads to the most likely suspect; and we are with them as they interview this suspect and arrest him for the crime. We also meet many victims who lost family members and/or property. Their stories are heartrending – excruciating, in fact, as I wrote in the margins – and were particularly hard to read, with similar losses occurring in Australia right now.

Using a similar narrative technique in Part II – providing facts, and describing the “characters” and their feelings – Hooper then introduces us to the Legal Aid lawyers, or one lawyer in particular, brought in to defend the accused. As she does this, our allegiance and sympathies shift a bit from the hardworking police to the hardworking lawyer – and, perhaps even, to her client who, only now, at this point in his life, is finally diagnosed as autistic, which provides a previously missing context for his strange responses and behaviours. And then, finally, in the third “act” or part, these two – the police and the legal team – come head to head in court, with our allegiances swaying between the two as they tussle it out, until the jury delivers its verdict.

The Coda, “set” some years later, contains Hooper’s reflections on the aftermath and some commentary on the process. For example, it’s clear that she had researched the case, had visited the fire region many times, including soon after the arrest, and had interviewed many of the participants, but, like Helen Garner in her three major narrative nonfiction works, had not managed to speak to the person at the centre, in this case, Brendan Sokaluk, the arsonist. Her request is refused, for understandable reasons. She was, she writes, both “disappointed” and “relieved”. Would speaking to him, she wonders, answer the book’s central question of “why”, and, even if he were able to explain why,

would understanding why Brendan lit a fire make the next deliberate inferno any more explicable? Or preventable? I now know there isn’t a standardised Arsonist. There isn’t a distinct part of the brain marked by a flame. There is only a person who feels spiteful, or lonely, or anxious, or enraged, or bored, or humiliated: all the things that can set a mind – any mind – on fire.

And there, I suppose, is the multiple tragedy of this story: the tragedy of a man ridiculed and bullied all his life for being different; the tragedy of a community that isn’t very good at managing people who are different; the tragedy of the conflagration (in this case a fire, but it could be anything) that can result when the two collide; and the overriding tragedy that there are no simple answers to arson.

Now, I fear you might think that I have given the “story” away and that you therefore need not read it. But, you don’t read The arsonist for the “story”. After all, this is nonfiction and the basic “story” is known. You read it for the insights that a fine mind (not a mind on fire!) like Hooper’s can bring to the situation. What she brings is both clarity about the facts and a nuanced understanding of what they mean. The arsonist is, as everyone’s been saying, an excellent read.

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of this book includes information from a festival conversation session featuring Hooper.

Challenge logoChloe Hooper
The arsonist: A mind of fire
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
254pp.
ISBN: 9780670078189

Louise Erdrich, The bingo palace (#BookReview)

Book coverWhen I bought Louise Erdrich’s The bingo palace in 1995, I never expected it to take me 24 years to read it but, there you go. Time flies, and suddenly it was 2019 and the book was still sitting on the high priority pile next to my bed! Truly! It took Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week to make me finally give it the time it deserved – and even then I’m late. Oh well.

I have read Louise Erdrich before, back in 2000 when I read The crown of Columbus with my reading group. She it wrote with her then husband, the late Michael Dorris. While it was an enjoyable read, it didn’t make a big impression. However, I have always remembered it because of her. So now, her!

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa), and it is among the people of this nation that The bingo palace is set. One of the reasons the novel captured my attention all those years ago is because when we lived in the USA, we became aware of the importance of gambling as a major source of income for many Native American communities. Erdrich’s narrative draws from this fact, but it also provides her with the “luck” or “chance” metaphor – “the drift of chance and possibility” – which underpins the novel. One-third of the novel’s twenty-seven chapters, in fact, include the word “luck” in their titles, as in “Lipsha’s luck”, “Shawnee’s luck”, “Lyman’s luck”, and so on. Luck, good and bad, is a constant in the novel, and Erdrich constantly puts her characters to the test, as they navigate their rocky worlds. How much “luck” is of their own making is a question for them, and us the readers, to consider, I think.

Anyhow, the story centres on an unsettled young man, Lipsha Morrissey, and his love for Shawnee Ray, who has had a baby with Lyman Lamartine, manager of the titular Bingo Palace. The novel contains a complex web of relationships, which takes a while to unravel, but for which we are prepared in the first chapter:

The story comes round, pushing at our brains, and soon we are trying to ravel back to the beginning, trying to put families into order and made sense of things. But we start with one person, and soon another, and another follows, and still another, until we are lost in the connections. (p. 5)

Now, you might have noticed something interesting about the voice in the above paragraph – it’s a first person plural voice. This voice – which operates a bit like a Greek chorus, though here it’s the tribal Chippewa – disappears for most of the novel, reappearing near the end in chapters 25 and 27. The other chapters are told in first person for Lipsha’s story, and third person for all the other stories. This is tricky, daring stuff, but it works, partly because of the power of the stories being told, partly because of its unusual tone (to which I’ll return), and partly because of the language. Erdrich’s language is arresting:

As a baby, Lipsha knew how to make his hands into burrs that would not unstick from Marie’s clothing. (p. 28)

AND

Unwilling, I followed him out to the barn, placing no in my mouth like a pebble to throw. (p. 47)

AND

Albertine could see that Shawnee Ray bent her strength like a bow to the older woman’s need. (p. 210)

AND

We get into the car, pull into the pitted road, and I try not to brush too hard against my sorrows. (p. 215)

Now, back to the story, which concerns Lipsha’s attempts to win Shawnee Ray’s love, after being called back to the reservation by his grandmother, Lulu Lamartine. Life is not simple on the reservation, and as we follow Lipsha’s desperate quest, we are introduced, through a wonderful array of characters, to reservation life – to the tension between old traditions and new businesses, between spiritual life and the material one. Lipsha tries them all – he is initially lucky at bingo and wins a van, only to lose it to some white Montana boys. With a degree of easy-come-easy-go nonchalance, he then seeks out his great grandmother, Fleur Pillager, for love medicine. She lives on sacred land around Lake Machimanito, that Lyman has managed to have set aside for another bingo palace. Lipsha also, with Lyman, tries a spiritual retreat run by ceremony man, Xavier Toose.

All this is told with a tone that veers between resigned realism and sudden visions, a tone that effectively conveys the paradoxes involved in trying to retain tradition while surviving in a modern world. Lyman puts his faith in bingo entrepreneurship, while Shawnee sees education as her way. Zelda, on the other hand, has tried for decades to deny love and passion, while Fleur puts her faith in land and spirit.

Near the end, Lipsha, who has his moments of insight, says:

It’s not completely one way or another, traditional against the bingo. You have to stay alive to keep your tradition alive and working. Everybody knows bingo money is not based on solid ground […]

And yet I can’t help but wonder, now that I know the high and low of bingo life, if we’re going in the wrong direction, arms flung wide, too eager. The money life has got no substance, there’s nothing left when the day is done but a pack of receipts. Money gets money, but little else, nothing sensible to look at or touch or feel in yourself down to your bones … Our reservation is not real estate. Luck fades when sold … (p. 221)

Of course, as I read this, I wondered whether I could see any comparisons with indigenous lives and literature here, and one book immediately came to mind, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review). The likeness is loose, but both books have a wildness about them. Both confront the challenge of marrying tradition with contemporary life, and both do it by slipping easily between concrete reality and what we non-indigenous readers see as something more magical, but which for many indigenous people is all part of one spectrum. Both books are exhilarating, mind-expanding, to read.

Our “Greek chorus” tells us near the end, when “the federals” try to get the truth out of Lulu:

anyone of us could have told them they were getting into mazy woods when talking to that woman. (p. 265)

As you’d probably expect, there is no simple resolution at the end. Instead, there is, as the “chorus” says, “more to be told, more than we know, more than can be caught in the sieve of our thinking”. Like “the federals”, I got lost at times in the “mazy woods”, but I thoroughly enjoyed the humour and inventiveness, the warmth and heart – along with the challenge – to be had in reading this novel.

Canadian blogger Buried in Print has also reviewed this novel.

BannerLouise Erdrich
The bingo palace
London: Flamingo, 1995 (orig. pub. 1994)
274pp.
ISBN: 9780006547099