Stephen Orr, Sincerely, Ethel Malley (#bookreview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.

Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

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

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

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

Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
204pp.
ISBN: 9780140089448

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).

Challenge logo

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