Bernard Cronin, The last train (#Review, #1954Club )

Bernard Cronin (1884-1968) has featured in this blog a couple of times, but most significantly in a Monday Musings which specifically featured him. He was a British-born Australian writer who, in his heyday in the 1920s to 40s, was among Australia’s top 10 most popular novelists. And yet, along with many others of his ilk, he has slipped from view. However, I did find a short story of his published in 1954 so decided this was my opportunity to check him out.

The reason I wrote my Monday Musings on Cronin was because in 1920 he founded (with Gertrude Hart) the Old Derelicts’ Club, which later became the Society of Australian Authors, but I have mentioned him in other posts too. For example, in one post, I noted that in 1927, Tasmania’s Advocate newspaper had named Cronin as being “amongst the leaders of Australian fiction”. And, in my post on Capel Boake I shared that he had written collaboratively with Doris Boake Kerr (aka Capel Boake) under the pseudonym of Stephen Grey. In fact, he used a few pseudonyms, another being Eric North, which he used for his science fiction. Cronin wrote across multiple forms (publishing over twenty novels as well as short stories, plays, poems and children’s stories) and genres (including historical fiction, adventure stories, metropolitan crime fiction, romances, and science fiction and fantasy).

Wikipedia’s article on him includes a “partial” list of his works, with the earliest being The flame from 1916, and the latest novel being Nobody stops me from 1960. What the list tells us is that his most active period occurred between 1920 and 1950, so the story from 1954 that I read comes late in his career.

I had initially chosen a different story, “Carmody’s lark”, which was published in late 1954 in several newspapers, but belatedly discovered that one paper had printed it in 1951! Wah! Fortunately, I found another, “The last train”, that, as far as I can tell, was first published in newspapers in 1954. They are very different stories, the former being a character piece about a lonely suburban railway worker whose friends notice a change in behaviour and think he’s finally found a woman, while the latter is a more traditional suspense story set, coincidentally, on a surburban train. Both convey subtle wordplays in the their titles.

“The last train” picks up that conversation-with-a-stranger-on-a-train motif, a conversation that will change the life of the protagonist. It’s midnight, and a “nondescript little man in sports coat and baggy slacks” rushes onto the train at Ringwood in the outer suburbs of Melbourne heading for the Dandenongs. There’s a broken light in the carriage so it’s (appropriately) dim. He thinks he’s alone until he notices “a man in a rather comical misfit of hat and light raincoat”. He’s “slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at him”.

Now, our “little man” has had a rather dramatic night. The story continues …

there was nothing in the least sinister in the indolent down-at-heel looks of his solitary companion. He seemed, indeed, exactly the type preyed on by the garrulous; and the newcomer, who was shuddering deliciously with a sense of rare importance, instinctively shifted over to the corner immediately opposite him.

You have probably worked out already that all is not as our “little man”, as he is repeatedly described, thinks. The story builds slowly, starting with a bit of general chat that, if you are looking for it, already contains little hints of menace. But, our “little man” blunders on, ostensibly uncertain at first but in fact keen to tell of his experience that night, while the “other man” listens, gently encouraging him on. Too late does our “little man” realise the truth of the matter, but the story ends there, leaving it to the reader to imagine the rest from the clues given.

Lest you be thinking, it is not the same story as Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, Strangers on a train (adapted by Hitchcock into a film of the same name). And it is not like Christie’s earlier 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express. However, it is a well-told, if traditional, suspense story, that is typical, I’d say, of 1950s popular crime fiction and perfect for a newspaper readership. (Whatever happened to the inclusion of short stories in newspapers?)

And that, I think, is the best I can do for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club.

Bernard Cronin
“The last train”
in Maryborough Chronicle (Maryborough, Qld)
22 November 1954
Available online

Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.

My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.

So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experienceIt is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.

The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.

From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.

As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.

Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.

My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.

Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.

Julie Koh
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489440808

Janette Turner Hospital, The inside story (#Review)

Between 1985 and 1990, Janette Turner Hospital wrote four books which had one-word titles – Borderline (1985, novel), Dislocations (1986, short stories), Charades (1988, novel) and Isobars (1990, short stories). I’ve read the novels, and they imprinted on my mind Hospital’s love of metaphor. In these works, her titles clearly herald her concerns, and I love that. All this is to say that I thought I might kick off my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, with a short story, so I checked The Oxford book of Australian short stories. I found a few to choose from, but the writer who grabbed my attention was Janette Turner Hospital. I’ve read four of her novels, and have her latest short story collection, Forecast: Turbulence, on my TBR. I enjoy reading her.

The story is “The inside story” and it comes from the Dislocations collection, which was first published in Australia in 1986. I specify Australia because, at the time, and for many decades, Hospital was living overseas, primarily Canada and the USA, but elsewhere too. I note, however, that her website says that she returned to live permanently in Australia in 2019.

And now, the story. There is, as you’ll have realised, wordplay in the title. It is set “inside”, with the first person narrator being a teacher of a college literature course in a jail – an American one I presume, though it’s not specified. However, it is also about the “inside” of the characters, about their selves, particularly the narrator. The story involves this narrator, speaking from a later time, telling about the period she spent as a teacher in the jail, sharing her experience and some of the interactions she had with the inmates. So, she is also an outsider, coming from outside, and also an outsider in terms of not having shared experience with her students. For the first half of so of the story, her students are simply “they”, suggesting they are alike in their attitudes and reactions to her, but towards the end two, Jed and Joe, are differentiated.

For budgetary reasons, our narrator is limited in what she can teach to what’s available, so she chooses Malamud’s The fixer as a follow-up to Sozhenistsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich which had not gone down well. She’s surprised, thinking they’d “enjoy the prisoner as hero”. Not this lot. After all, these are the people who had told her:

We can’t afford your romantic empathy … Please check your angst in at the cloakroom, before you see us.

Still, our narrator tries:

‘Kierkegaard suggested that we are all equally despairing, but unless we can write and become famous for our despair, it is not worth the trouble to despair and show it.

You people with a tragic world view, they sighed, you make like so difficult for the rest of us.

And so the story continues, with the narrator trying to understand their experience, and how they manage the brutality of prison life, while they fend off her desire to understand and “reform them with culture”. When she suggests reading Franz Fanon, they are not interested in “another tragic bloody humanist–because that would be the kind of invasion of our head space we can’t afford in here”. In other words, while she is concerned about their “moral survival”, eschewing the cynicism of her colleagues, their focus is pure survival.

She’s not the only one who started with “idealism and compassion”. Another is a guard, but he learns:

The institution could only operate in black and white, he said. Grey got it from both sides. Get out, he said, while you’re still human.

Inevitably, there is violence, and the job comes to an end.

I enjoyed the story, though my brief search of the internet suggests that it is not mentioned the way some others are from the collection. Anthology editor Michael Wilding, however, must have liked it, though he doesn’t mention it in his preface. There is a lot to think about here in terms of dislocations – the prisoners from their lives, for a start, and our narrator’s confrontation with ideal versus reality. Who is our narrator? Does she stand for liberal do-gooders that I can relate to from the 1970s and 80s. Why did she take this job, and is her closing answer completely honest?

On Hospital’s website is a link to an interview with literary editor, Steven Romei, in which she tells him that

All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter. I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.

As for how this story fits into Bill’s conception of Gen 4 (see my first paragraph), I’m not sure. Hospital was an expatriate Australian writer when she wrote this, which places her at a remove from specific Australian movements, but – maybe – you could read it as occupying a transition between 196Os and 70s idealism and the cynical neoliberalism of the late 1980s. Then again, it could just be itself, and reflective of Hospital’s ongoing interest in “moral survival” and outsiderness, not to mention “dark matter”.

Janette Turner Hospital
“The inside story”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
Orig. pub. in Dislocations, 1987
pp. 288-294
ISBN: 9780195536102

Elizabeth Jolley, Hilda’s wedding (#Review, #1976Club )

One of Elizabeth Jolley’s biggest fans is Helen Garner, as I have said before. Garner often mentions Jolley, and my current read, the second volume of her diaries, One day I’ll remember this, is no exception. She writes:

Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel, My father’s moon [my review]. She re-uses and reworks images from her earlier work, brings forth experiences that she’s often hinted at but never fully expressed. I can learn from this. I used to think that if I said something once I could never say it again, but in her book I see how rich a simple thing can be when you turn it this way and that and show it again and again in different contexts.

This is not the only reason Garner admires Jolley, but the reasons are not my topic for today! I will add, though, because it is relevant to my topic, that another thing Garner appreciates about Jolley is that both draw closely from their own lives in their writing.

So now, “Hilda’s wedding”, which I read for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. It’s not the short story I had planned to read, but I couldn’t find that one – also a Jolley – in my collection or online. Fortunately, during my hunting, I found this one from the same year, and it exemplifies the two points I made at the beginning. Firstly, it features a character, Night Sister Bean, who appears in other Jolley works, including the first of hers I read, the short story “Night runner”. And, being a hospital-set story, it draws on (let’s not say “from”) her own experience of nursing.

“Hilda’s wedding” is a rather bizarre or absurd story – which, again, is not a surprise from Jolley. In it, the narrator, who is a relieving night nurse – so somewhat of an outsider – organises an on-the-spot wedding for the very pregnant, apparently unmarried, kitchen maid Hilda. The various roles – husband, celebrant, parents of the bride, pages – are played by night staff including the cook, cleaners and porters. The bride is dressed, with a veil made of surgical gauze and a draw sheet as her train (which contains a hint of the Gothic that we can also find in Jolley’s writing). Immediately after the ceremony, Hilda goes into labor and gives birth in the elevator.

What does it mean? I’m not sure, but this little story about an impromptu wedding sounds like children’s play-acting. It’s a game which uses imagination and creativity, which provides a sense of fun in a grim place, and which brings a little joy to Hilda, whose “melon-coloured face shone with a big smile”. Melons, as you may know, are often associated with pregnancy and fertility. However, injected into the story at various points is the real world, one characterised by rules and impersonality. There’s also the unresolved mystery about Sister Bean and rumours about her negative impact on transfusions/drips. Is she a witch, they wonder?

Sister Bean opens and closes the story, but otherwise appears only occasionally. There are various ways we could read her. One could be people’s need to find a reason or explanation or scapegoat for the bad things that happen in a world where you have little control. In the third last paragraph, our narrator comments on the early morning, and the city waking up:

A thin trickle of tired sad people left the hospital. They were relatives unknown and unthought about. They had spent an anonymous night in various corners of the hospital waiting to be called to a bedside. They were leaving in search of that life in the shabby world which has to go on in spite of the knowledge that someone who had been there for them was not there any more.

It is against this backdrop of sadness that our nurse narrator was there for Hilda. In the next and penultimate paragraph, the narrator is standing outside, taking “deep breaths of this cool air which seemed just now to contain nothing of the weariness and the contamination and the madness of suffering”.

In this story, as is typical of Jolley, there is humour alongside sadness, comedy next to tragedy, unreality bumping up against reality, and, appropriately, no resolution at the end.

In Central mischief – a collection of Jolley articles, talks and essays compiled by her agent Carolyn Lurie – is a talk Jolley gave to graduating nurses in 1987. Before I get to my concluding point from it, I’ll just share something else she says, which is that “for me fiction is not a form of autobiography”. This is an important distinction, which I think Garner would also make. Writers like Jolley and Garner may draw on their own experiences, but what they write is something else altogether.

But now, I want to conclude on this that she tells them:

There is a connection between nursing and writing. Both require a gaze which is searching and undisturbedly compassionate and yet detached.

What a clear-eyed view – and how hard to achieve. What do you think about this?

Challenge logo

Elizabeth Jolley
“Hilda’s wedding” (first pub. 1976, in Looselicks)
in Woman in a lampshade
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1983
pp. 139-46
ISBN: 0140084185

Shirley Jackson, The lottery (#Review)

As a lover of short stories, I have wanted to read Shirley Jackson’s “The lottery” for some time. With Kate selecting it as October’s Six Degrees starting work, now seemed the perfect time!

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) pops up on blogosphere with some consistency, and is clearly well-regarded. Her career spanned two decades and, during that time, as the thorough Wikipedia article says, she wrote six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories. Her debut novel, The road through the wall, and “The lottery”, were both published in 1948, though she had had short stories published over the preceding decade.

It was “The lottery”, however, which established her reputation – particularly as a master of horror stories. Wikipedia says it resulted in over 300 letters from readers, many “outraged at its conjuring of a dark aspect of human nature”. In the San Francisco Chronicle of July 22, 1948, Jackson responded to persistent queries from her readers about her intentions:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Many of you probably know the story, but, just in case, I’m not going to “spoil” it beyond that. I will, however, make a few comments.

I’ll start with Wikipedia’s succinct synopsis: it is about ‘a fictional small town which observes an annual rite known as “the lottery”, in which a member of the community is selected by chance’. It’s a great read, because the build-up is so good and the ending so powerful. If you were not forewarned, you’d have no idea you were reading a “horror” story, because there’s nothing Gothic about the setting, no eeriness, no overt build up of fear even. Instead, there’s the coming together of this village’s 300 people coming for this annual event. It’s summer, “the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green”. Idyllic, in other words, or, so we are set up to see it is (or, could be?)

The children are described, then the men and women. It all seems benign, though there are tiny hints of something else, that you may not notice if you’re not expecting it. The emcee of “the lottery” is the ironically named Mr. Summers, who has the “time and energy to devote to civic [my emph] duties”. Many of the names in the story sound normal, but they also carry symbolic weight – Graves, Adams, Delacroix (pointedly, as it turns out, perverted to Dellacroy by the townspeople).

Anyhow, there is a long discussion of the “black box” that is used for the lottery, but, although it is “black”, it sounds quaint and unimportant. No great care is taken of it between lotteries. There’s a bit of camaraderie and joking between the townspeople; there’s confirmation of the formalities; but, slowly tension builds. Mr Summers and the first man to draw from the black box, grin at each other “humorlessly and nervously”. We are now half way through the story, and there’s nervousness among the attendees.

Then, plopped in here, is a little discussion about some villages – because this is not just this village’s tradition – having given up, or talking of giving up, the lottery. However, Old Man Warner (another interesting name), who has been through 77 lotteries, doesn’t approve of change. He sees “nothing but trouble in that”. When you know the end, you wonder what sort of person he is! Certainly not the archetypal dear old man, grandpa to everyone! Meanwhile, anxiety slowly builds, with another townsperson saying to her son, “I wish they’d hurry”.

The “winner”, when identified, doesn’t behave like a winner, which provides another dark hint, but which causes our aforementioned Old Man Warner to pronounce that “people ain’t the way they used to be”.

The final line of the story is shocking, but by then you have worked out what winning means, so it adds an extra layer to the story’s meaning (as you’d expect in a good short story).

You can find in Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the web, all sorts of critical reactions and theories about what it means, but I’d like to return to Jackson’s comment that she intended a “graphic dramatisation of the pointless violence and general inhumanity“. Why do the townspeople accept “the lottery”? What makes some villages give up the ritual and others not? Why do some in this town act with relish and others not? It recalls, for me, Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap. Yes, it’s a novel and a very different story, but I saw it as being fundamentally about the violence that seems to be be lying too near the surface of our so-called civilised society. I’ll leave it at that, but it makes me think, plus ça change.

Image credit: Shirley Jackson, New York City. 1940s. Contact: photography@magnumphotos.com. Low resolution version from Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Shirley Jackson
“The lottery”
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1948

Avalailable online at The New Yorker.

Claudine Jacques, The Blue Cross/La Croix bleue (#Review, #WITmonth)

I haven’t taken part in Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) before but decided to dip my toes in this year with a translated short story. I hoped to find one online and I did, “The Blue Cross” (or, in its original French, “La Croix bleue”) by New Caledonian writer Claudine Jacques. Coincidentally, I found it was translated by Patricia Worth who now, apparently, lives in Canberra. She translated it as part of her Master of Translation Studies. It was published in The AALITRA* Review, with the English presented alongside the French.

I didn’t know Claudine Jacques, but Worth provides some information on her website. Jacques was born in Belfort, France, moving to New Caledonia as a sixteen-year-old with her parents. She’s lived there ever since. She ran a vocational training centre, before establishing a publishing company, but she now, says Worth,”devotes herself almost exclusively to writing”. She and other authors founded the Association des Écrivains de la Nouvelle-Calédonie (New Caledonian Society of Authors) in 1997.

Literary Bureau Trames adds that Jacques lives “in the bush”, and has run the local village library for 20 years. She also runs the Boulouparis comic strip festival, is involved in writing workshops for schoolchildren and in an initiative of the Association Écrire en Océanie (Writing in Oceania) which has identified talent in young Caledonians.

Worth says she finds Jacques’ writing “compelling” and is particularly interested in “the social problems laid out in her stories”. She “was surprised to find numerous similarities between the histories of Australia and New Caledonia”. Her favourite Jacques novel is Cœurs barbelés, which is about the “painful experiences of white Caledonians and the indigenous Kanak people trying to live harmoniously on an island”.

Worth has translated several of Jacques’ short stories, with three available online. “The Blue Cross” is the first I found. It comes from a collection, Le cri de l’acacia. Google translate summarised the description I found: “The cry of the acacia or all those cries that you can’t hear! Because they would be too strong, too present, too throbbing … hear the life that endures in banal tragedies or squeaky comedies, universal deep down in the intimate and the tiny, the grandiose and the derisory. All these crumpled fates are those of everyday heroes” who are the “valiant men and intrepid women with extraordinary courage … in the face of violence, alcohol, pornography and the addiction of their own lives”.

“The Blue Cross”** certainly fits this description. Its story is one of those universal, banal, domestic tragedies, one with alcohol at its centre, and a courageous woman who does the right thing. Jéhovana, the woman and wife at the centre of the story, is married to an alcoholic who is no longer fully employed due to his drinking. She has tried to maintain appearances:

She wasn’t used to making certain judgements and, out of decency, put them off. What would the neighbours and the family say, seeing her speaking and acting for him? Yet at the last family meeting it was to her that they spoke; she had given her opinion while stating plainly that it was for both of them and that she was doing it under her husband’s control, but it seemed to her that no one had been fooled.

She’s behaving as a widow would and wonders if she’d be better off if it were true

freed from all these constraints, this waiting, this shouting, these beatings, this fetid washing stinking of vomit and alcohol, and especially from the shame that she and her children bore! 

For his part, he is conflicted. She is no longer interested in him, “had banished him” from her bed.

Now and then he forced himself on her, he had the right, she was his wife, but he had less and less strength and his desire for her had softened with time. And then he didn’t like to see her sad preoccupied look; she was so happy at the beginning of their marriage but now would often cry. How could he continue to desire a woman who cries?

It all comes to a head at their son’s Communion celebration. She begged him to not drink, but, well, of course he’s an alcoholic and is unable to keep his promise. What happens next is not particularly surprising, but the resolution is, perhaps, though, then again, perhaps not. The story certainly conveys, without telling, the complexity of situations like this – particularly for women.

It’s hard to comment on the writing, given I’m reading a translation, but I enjoyed reading the story. It is told well, giving us just enough information for us to get a sense of the two main protagonists, and just enough description to set the scene for us. The most interesting thing about the choices the author has made is to name the woman, Jéhovana, but not the man. Does this suggest that he stands for all such men, while Jéhovana’s situation and decisions are individual? And Jéhovana’s name? I don’t know it, but it does bring to mind the God, Jehovah. Does this give us a hint regarding her character?

In all, an interesting story. I can see why Worth likes Jacques’ work.

Notes on the translation

Worth prefaces her transaction with some comments. She says that she left in the text “culture-specific expressions – from New Caledonian-French, Wallisian and Polynesian languages – whose meanings were clear, feeling this added “richness to the story in the way Jacques allowed them to enrich her French”. That makes sense. She includes a glossary, as Jacques did. In some cases, however, she expanded where a French expression has a specific cultural meaning in New Caledonia.

I can’t really comment on the quality of the translation, as my French isn’t up to that, but I did notice that Worth changed some of Jacques’ punctuation. For example, there’s one long sentence in French, with just commas separating the different parts, that Worth breaks into two sentences, and uses a semi-colon. It looks sensible to me, but I wonder if it says something about French style versus English style. Does anyone have any ideas on that?

* AALITRA: The Australian Association for Literary Translation.

** The Blue Cross: an international organisation “engaged in the prevention, treatment and after care of problems related to alcohol and other drugs”.

Claudine Jacques
“The Blue Cross” (“La Croix blue”) from Le cri de l’acacia (2007)
(trans. Patricia Worth)
in The AALITRA Review Vol. 0 No. 2 (2010)

Avalailable online at LaTrobe University’s Open Journal Systems site.

Emma Ashmere, Dreams they forgot (#BookReview)

Emma Ashmere’s short story collection, Dreams they forgot, is different again from recent short story collections I’ve read. Certainly very different from the most recent, Adam Thompson’s Born into this (my review). One of the things that makes it different is its breadth in terms of time and place. Thompson’s collection, for example, is mostly contemporary, with occasional forays into the past and a little jump into the future. It is also very definitely centred in Tasmania. Ashmere’s collection on the other hand, while having some grounding in South Australia, has stories set elsewhere in Australia as well as overseas, including London, France, Bali and even Borneo. Furthermore, a significant number of the stories are historical fiction, with some set in colonial Australia, or during the Depression, for example, or post war, or in the 1970s. This is quite unusual in my experience of short story collections.

Unusual I say, but not surprising, because Emma Ashmere’s debut book is an historical fiction novel, The floating garden (my review). It is one of those books that has stuck with me because it tells such a strong story of social injustices that occurred during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I could, then, start my discussion with the story in this collection which concerns the Bridge during its construction (“The sketchers”), but instead I’m going to the final story, because it gave me a laugh. This story, “Fallout”, concerns the (not funny) nuclear testing at Maralinga and concludes with the narrator taking her mother to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra to show her some relevant treasures. What a great little promo for the importance of collecting institutions like the NFSA. But, that’s not what made me laugh. As some of you know, I spent most of my career at the NFSA, and this is how our narrator introduces it:

I tell her I live with my girlfriend in Canberra and work at the Film and Sound Archive with a bunch of other failed actors, part-time poets and overlooked opera singers.

I wish I could count myself as one of those, but I’m far too prosaic. However, there is probably an element of truth in what she writes. All I can say is that at least the NFSA offers gainful, and valuable, employment! This story, dealing as it does with the “fallout” from nuclear testing – great wordplay here – makes a fitting and strong end to Ashmere’s collection, which deals with all sorts of fallouts in people’s lives.

Take the first story, for example. Titled “The winter months”, it concerns a young woman who, like many young people, is uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, much to her mother’s frustration. She’s in England, and is doing a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which, she believes, “is going to change everything. It will give me purpose. A goal. A life”. She meets and is attracted to a mysterious and seemingly confident young woman, Aveline, but, unbeknownst to our narrator, Aveline has her own challenges, and suddenly disappears.

“The winter months”, however, is more complex than I’ve described here. It introduces us to several types of characters and relationships which thread through the collection – uncertain young women, lepidopterists (would you believe), mothers-and-daughters, neglected wives, fledgling same-sex attractions, to name a few. The result is that, as the book progresses, some stories start to feel linked, even though in most cases the link isn’t actual. The effect though is to ground the collection because this feeling is supported by recurring concerns.

One of these is Ashmere’s concern for social justice, for overlooked people, for women in particular. “Nightfall” tells the story of a young Irishwoman who arrives in Adelaide during goldfields days:

Most of us here Behind the Wall sailed across the sea with our Billies, Jemmies or Toms. No sooner did they set their boots in the dust, they streaked off like a dog chasing a rabbit across a field, all glint and muscle and hunger and bragging about what they will become. I waited for my Billy to bring back rabbits and gold, but he didn’t come.

And so, girls like her were left behind:

It’s the same in every port for girls like us. You stand with the bones of your back pressed against the wall as sailors rope up their harpoons and aim them at your lower parts, or you go into a tavern for a drink.

She ends up working for an abortionist who is, of course, more concerned about not being caught than her health and safety … This story was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Other stories explore the impact on relationships of PTSD in times when there was no support or recognition (“Warhead” and “Seaworthiness”), and another, as already mentioned, looks at the aftermath of nuclear testing at Maralinga. Many of the more contemporary stories feature children and young adults who find themselves caught in worlds they don’t fully understand or don’t yet know how to handle. “The violin” is a carefully told story about a controlling young man and his bride-to-be.

There is a melancholic or, at least resigned, tone to many of the stories, but most are not completely depressing. While happy endings might be rare, little wins or rebellions or, in some cases, lovely acts of grace lighten the endings. As with most collections, there are stories that didn’t quite work for me, but those that did more than made up for the rest. I particularly loved “Seaworthiness” and “The violin”, but most read well.

This brings me to the title, which is not one of the stories in the collection. What does it mean? It’s certainly true that many of the characters had dreams, and it’s also true that in most cases these dreams do not come to fruition. Did they forget them? Not always, but, for better or worse, other dreams – or, at least events – replace them.

If you’d like a taste of Ashmere’s writing, you can read one of the stories, “Standing up lying down”, online at Overland. I’ll finish with a quote from it:

Apparently she’d heard Laurie’s conference paper on the omissions and silences in Australian history, how particular stories are concreted over, while others are constructed and celebrated in their place.

In Dreams they forgot, Ashmere retrieves some of these concreted over stories – those she feels able to, anyhow – and gives them a darned good airing.

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Emma Ashmere
Dreams they forgot
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020
239pp.
ISBN: 9781743057063

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Adam Thompson, Born into this (#BookReview)

When my brother gave me Tasmanian author Adam Thompson’s Born into this earlier this year, I told him I’d save it for Lisa’s ILW 2021, which I did – and which means I can now thank him properly for a yet another well-chosen gift, because this is a strong, absorbing and relevant read. If you haven’t heard of Thompson, as I hadn’t, he is, says publisher UQP, “an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania”. 

Born into this is a debut collection of sixteen short stories about the state’s Palawa/Pakana people, and based primarily in Launceston and islands in the Bass Straight. It reminds me a little of Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Too much lip (my review) because, like it, these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian – in setting and in dealing with issues and conditions specific to that place.

They may live in two worlds, but they are still mob (“The old tin mine”)

I like to think about the order in which stories in a collection are presented, although I can never be confident of the assumptions I make about the reasoning. How can I, I suppose, as I’m not in the heads of the authors and their editors. The first story here, “The old tin mine”, is an interesting choice: it introduces various issues and ideas which are picked up through the collection and it sets a sort of resigned tone. The issues include the relationship between black and white in Australia, the introduction of city Indigenous kids to country and culture, the clumsy conscientiousness of white people who want to do the right thing, the politics involved, and the world-weariness of older Indigenous people in dealing with all of this. The story is told first person through the eyes of “Uncle Ben”, the Indigenous leader on an “Aboriginal survival camp”. He is tired, and cynical, and not particularly interested in dealing with these

Aboriginal teens. City boys. Three from Launceston, three from Hobart. “Fair split, north and south”, according to the organisation that had won the black money.

But it’s a job, and these jobs are becoming less frequent, so he takes it on.

The second story, “Honey”, is told third person, and concerns the interactions between white man Sharkey, who has a honey business, and his Palawa employee, Nathan. Sharkey is arrogant, condescending and oblivious of how his behaviour might affect Nathan. He asks Nathan for the “Aboriginal word for honey” because he thinks using it to brand his honey would “be a good gimmick for selling honey … ‘specially with the tourists”. Not all stories work out this way, but in this one, Nathan has the last laugh.

“Honey” also introduces another idea that peppers the collection, which is land rights, and non-indigenous Australians’ fear of losing land. The collection, in fact, references many of the issues confronting contemporary Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples: land rights; Invasion Day (or “change the date”); dispossession, the loss of Indigenous culture and attempts to reclaim it; social issues like incarceration, alcoholism and suicide among Indigenous people; and the Stolen Generations, to name some of them.

Some stories, however, respond to a particular Tasmanian issue, that regarding the definition of indigenity. As I wrote in my post on Kathy Marks’ Channelling Mannalargenna, Tasmania’s history has resulted in a specific set of circumstances regarding loss of identity, which has caused, and is still causing, complications and conflict over Indigenous identification in the state. One of the stories on this subject is “Descendant” about a bright, politicised but ostracised young schoolgirl who runs her school’s ASPA (Aboriginal Students and Parents) committee. Dorothy is assiduous about who is and is not “P-A-L-A-W-A”, and has family-tree records to prove it. Aboriginality, she says, is about “being”, not “choosing”. The story provides an excellent example of Thompson’s use of imagery to underpin his themes: Dorothy’s prized mug is accidentally broken, and Cooper, the supportive (of course!) librarian, tries to repair it, but

Bold, white cracks now intersected the Aboriginal colours like a tattered spider web.

Thompson’s writing in this collection is accessible but evocative. His dialogue varies appropriately from speaker to speaker, and the imagery, particularly that regarding colour – red, blue and white, representing white Australia, versus the red, black and orange of First Nations Australia’s flag – is pointed but not overdone. Thompson clearly knows his country. His descriptions of the islands, and the plants and birdlife endemic to them, take you there (or, at the very least, teach you about them.)

I would love to write about more of the collection’s stories, but I should leave you some surprises. I will say, though, that Thompson’s wide cast of characters – from young, disaffected palawa to smart activists, from genuine white people, who want to understand, to the smug and/or rich ones (as in the incisive “The black fellas from here“) – ensures that this collection hits home. No reader, really, can hide from the truths here because they touch us all.

White makes you wary (“Aboriginal Alcatraz”)

Born into this, then, is clearly political, but it is not all bleak. Some stories end with a bang or a twist, which skewer their points home, while others are more gentle. The title story, “Born into this“, is one of the more poignant ones. It tells of Kara, who works as a receptionist at an Aboriginal housing co-op. She’s jaded. Her boss is “a tick-a-box Aboriginal” who “could never prove his identity”, and she is tired of the struggle to survive. So, deep in the forest, where she had learnt about country from her uncle, she spends her spare time working away on her own quiet, little subversive project, a project that involves

Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.

“Born into this”.

She knows she won’t make a difference, but “fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way” keeps her sane.

It would be great to think that books like Born into this could make a difference – and I think they could, if we all not only listened to Indigenous writers like Thompson, but also took on board, really took on board, what they tell us about ourselves.

For more reviews of this novel, please click Lisa’s ILW 2021 link in this post’s opening paragraph.

Adam Thompson
Born into this
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
210pp.
ISBN: 9780702263118

Marian Matta, Life, bound (#BookReview)

In August 2020, small independent publisher MidnightSun sent me two short story collections, Margaret Hickey’s Rural dreams (reviewed last month), and Marian Matta’s Life, bound. I enjoyed Rural dreams, as some of you may remember, for its exploration of rural lives from multiple angles and points of view. Life, bound is a very different collection. It doesn’t have a stated unifying theme but, like many short stories, it is unified by its characters being ordinary people trying to make the best of the life they have been given – or of the life that, sensibly or not, they’ve made for themselves!

The promotion accompanying the book describes it this way:

Free agents or captives of our past?

In Life, Bound, characters find themselves caught in situations not of their own making, or trapped by ingrained habits, walking in grooves carved out by past events. 

What characterises this collection, beyond this, is the varied tone, from the gothic-influenced opening story “The heart of Harvey’s Lane” to the strongly realist closing stories, “He turned up” and “A bench, a bard, a turning tide”. As with many short story collections, you never quite know what you’re going to get when you turn the page to the next story. In “The heart of Harvey’s Lane” a man becomes a famous photographer off the back of a shocking incident, but, after a while, starts to withdraw from the world, into a very strange house. As he scales down his career, he recognises that

The downward turn in my income almost exactly mirrored the upward turn in my satisfaction.

Nonetheless, the ending, when it comes is disconcerting. Covering a few decades, it’s an engrossing story about the way life can go.

Some stories are shocking, such as the second story “Climb”, about a young boy abused by his step-father, while others are cheeky, such as “Lovely apples” about a loving young couple and the suggestive “Drive my car”. In some stories, abused or overlooked characters get their own back. “Roadkill” is particularly cleverly told – with a great opening – and you have to cheer for the much-maligned Emily who’s not as stupid as they all think. But in other stories, things don’t work out, such as the devastating story about blighted hopes, “He turned up”. This title has a powerful double meaning. Titles in short stories are, I think, particularly important, because, given the form’s brevity, every word must count. Matta uses her titles well. Some are purposefully obscure, not giving anything away except perhaps the literal, as in “Climb”; others are more clearly figurative, as in “Desire lines” or “Lovely apples” or “Three-sixty”; while others are superficially descriptive but contain so much more, as in “A bench, a bard, a turning tide”.

Now, though, let’s get back to the characters “caught in situations not of their own making”. They include an abused boy, a transgender person, a woman caught in domestic violence, a homeless woman. These characters can break our hearts, but in Matta’s hands they are the characters who just might come through. I’m not naming the stories, here, because part of Matta’s skill is in slowly revealing the character’s situation, so why should I tell you here straight off?

Other characters are a mixed bunch, some “trapped by ingrained habits”, others just at a certain stage in their lives where an action has, perhaps, unintended reactions. There’s the alcoholic ex-husband who desires reconnection with his family (“Desire lines”), two sea-changers who meet in their new chosen town and become friends (“Claimed by the sea”), two people post-one-night-stand (“Summer of love”). This last one exemplifies how Matta mixes up her structure. Not all stories are simple, linear chronologies. “Summer of love” is linear, but told from the alternating points of view of the woman and the man, a perfect solution for a story about a one-night-stand.

The varied structure is one aspect of this collection that keeps the reader engaged. The above-mentioned variations in tone are another, plus, of course, the characters and stories themselves, but another is the language. Here, for example, is a character deciding that discretion is the better part of valour:

Jimmy decided not to chase that remark down to a point of clarity.

(Waterwise)

Then there are those phrases that make you laugh, such as this on entitled teenage boys being told off by their headmistress:

They shrugged, just sufficiently out of sync to appear like a music video dance troupe.

(Roadkill)

My last example is Rita – her town’s “voice of authority, the historical society’s walking catalogue” – being unusually flummoxed by a question:

A frown settles slowly on Rita’s face; her infallible memory has tripped over a corrupted file.

(Winston Mahaffey’s hat”

The stories are all, fundamentally, about humans – the things that happen to us or the messes we get into, and how, or if, we get out of them. But some of the stories also reference contemporary issues, such as climate change, domestic abuse, and homelessness.

The stories aren’t linked but this does not mean that order is not important. With a collection like this – that is, one dealing with some of life’s toughest challenges – the order in which the stories are presented, and which one is chosen for the end, can be significant. In this collection, Matta has followed the sad, bitter penultimate story with a story about homelessness in which the destitute but proud Merle slowly comes to trust the warm, generous 23-year-old Ethan. Surely this is intended to leave us with a sense that all is not lost, that there is hope if we ignore our differences and focus on our common humanities.

So, another engaging and stimulating collection of stories from Midnight Sun with – is it too shallow to end on this? – another beautiful cover.

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Marian Matta
Life, bound
Adelaide: MidnightSun, 2020
223pp.
ISBN: 9781925227710

(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun)

Arthur Gask, The passion years (#Review, #1936Club)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a Monday Musings in support of Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) #1936 Club, which involves participants reading, posting and sharing books from the chosen year.The #1936 Club has been running, 12-18 April, which means it is about to finish.

In my post I listed a number of potential books for me – or others – to read (and noted those from the year that I’ve read in the past.) Unfortunately, I did not find the ones I wanted to read, so I decided to do something different, read a short story! The first short story I considered was Ernest Hemingway’s The snows of Kilimanjaro, which was first published in Esquire in 1936, but, I really wanted to do an Australian story – so, back to the drawing board. And, at Project Gutenberg Australia I found a short story published on Boxing Day (26 December) 1936 in, wait for it, The Australian Women’s Weekly! Nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought so in I dived. It’s called of course, “The passion years”.

Published in a women’s magazine on Boxing Day, it is, as you would guess, a romance. It’s past midnight and two women – “all pink and white in their robes-de-nuit” and looking “pretty enough to eat” – are chatting, one of them telling the other about her brother’s romance:

It seems just like a tale one reads and, of course, it’s a very sentimental one, too. Oh, no dear, you take it from me sentiment is not all sickly, and only those say it is who are getting old and sickly themselves. Sentiment’s the most beautiful thing in all the world, and when you’re first in love, well, the sentiment there is just too holy and too sacred to understand.

As the story goes, her brother had lost all his money in a horse race and at the same time a wealthy young woman falls for him, but, being a proud and responsible man, he withdraws when he realises she is showing interest in him because he doesn’t want to be a fortune hunter. You can guess how it works out, but what adds to the story is the perspective and world view offered by the narrator. Our teller asserts that “a baby’s only what every girl who’s really in love looks forward to”. The story is very much of its time and place, highly gendered, but it is nicely written.

However, of more interest is the writer, Arthur Gask. The Australian dictionary of biography (ADB) describes him as a dentist and novelist. Born in England in 1869, he came to Adelaide, Australia, with his second wife, in 1920. He was particularly a crime writer, and was prolific as Wikipedia and the Project Gutenberg Australia show. His first novel, The secret of the sandhills, was published to immediate success in 1921, partly he believes due to the reviews by S. Talbot Smith. Wikipedia says he wrote it while waiting for his patients!

Gask went on to write over thirty books, as well as countless short stories. He gave up dentistry in 1933, and bought a farming property, which he names Gilrose, after his detective, Gilbert Larose. However, apparently most of his stories were set in England. ADB’s Michael Tolley described his writing as pacy and sometimes titillating, and says that his works were translated into several European languages, were serialised in newspapers, and broadcast on radio.

For interest, I tracked down a local review of his posthumously published novel, Crime upon crime. The review was written by AR McElwain in Adelaide’s The Mail on 4 October 1952. I was interested in his comment on the writing

Prolific Mr. Arthur Gask of Adelaide (SA) has a remarkable facility for blending sordid crime with old world charm So much so that I am usually more fascinated by his prose style than by the actual cases …

He also provides insight into Gask’s detective:

Our old friend, Gilbert Larose introduces some unorthodox sleuthing. But there’s a Gaskian explanation for it all, never fear. Larose is simply “acting up to his reputation as a man who always places justice above law.”

McElwain’s comment on Gask’s writing points to why he most drew my attention. His writing was also admired by novelist, HG Wells, who called Gask’s 1939 novel, The vengeance of Larose as his “best piece of story-telling…It kept me up till half-past one.” In addition, philosopher Bertrand Russell also loved his books. Russell corresponded with Gask, and visited him in Adelaide in 1950, when Gask was 81 and Russell 78.

According to Wikipedia, Gask was still writing two 80,000-word novels a year when he was nearly 80. Prolific indeed.

So, my contribution to the #1936club is small, but I’m thrilled to have finally taken part and to have discovered another Aussie writer.

Did you take part in the 1936 Club?