Monday musings on Australian literature: Some novels about the second world war

As I am still immersed in things paternal – and as my father served in the second world war – I thought that this week I’d take the easy way out again and list some of my favourite Australian novels about that war. Although I call myself a pacifist, I don’t shy away from war novels. The main reason is because in war we see humanity under duress and, through that, we see the best and worst of human behaviour. I love how the best war novels throw up the “truths” that I love to find in literature.

I’m going to list just 5 – though I’ve read more than that – in the order that I’ve read them. I’ve chosen these 5 not necessarily because I think they are the best (though I have enjoyed them all) but for the different perspectives they offer on the experience of war. (Note: the dates after the titles are not the dates I read them but when they were first published! Just so you know!)

Nevil Shute‘s A town like Alice (1950)

Nevil Shute was one of my favourite authors when I was a teen though when I read him now I see that he’s not as good a writer as my other teen passion, Jane Austen! Nonetheless, he was a good storyteller and many of his novels were adapted for film, including A town like Alice. It’s primarily a post-war romance, but the two characters, English rose Jean and rough diamond Aussie Joe meet when they are prisoners of war in Malaya, a story which is told in flashback. It’s a pretty stereotypical romance but the war, the English-Australian cross cultural story, and the Australian outback setting captured my teen heart.

Arnold Zable‘s Cafe Scheherezade (2001)

Café Scheherazade is set in, and based on, the real cafe of the same name. It was, from its establishment in 1958 to its demise in 2008, a significant meeting place for Jewish refugees who came to Melbourne post war. The novel tells the stories of the Cafe’s patrons – their lives in Europe, and how and why they came to Australia. It taught me something I hadn’t known before – that many Jewish refugees came to Australia via Shanghai. Zable’s prose is beautiful, and though the stories, as you can imagine, contain much tragedy, the final message comprises those universals of courage, endurance, love and even laughter.

Markus Zusak’s The book thief (2005)

Zusak’s The book thief is one of those rare books that pulls off telling a terrible story with humour. Its subject is an ordinary German family which fosters a young girl, and then hides, to their great risk, a young Jewish man. It’s a deadly serious book about bravery and cowardice, about kindness and cruelty – and yet it has, much of the time anyhow, a rather whimsical tone.

Hans Bergner, Between sea and sky

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Hans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946)

Bergner tells the opposite story to that told by Zusak. His characters are Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Poland on a boat – but no-one will let them land, no-one will take them in, the way the Hubermanns took in Leisl and Max in The book thief. It explores the impact of this, as the reality becomes clear to the boat’s occupants. It’s a pretty devastating story.

Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman (2010)

I started with a romance and I’m ending with a romance, but that’s where the similarity between the two books ends. Shute’s book has a pretty traditional trajectory – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, more or less – against the backdrop of the war and early post war period. Gould’s story is far more complex – more realistic about life and character, with a touch of the mystical thrown in. Gould argues that his is not really a war novel because it’s not about the war. To a large degree that’s true, but in a sense it’s true of many books set in war. War is the setting, but the themes are often something bigger (universals about human behaviour) and smaller (about how particular people behave under stress). One of the issues Gould explores is how the promise of a person’s life can be thrown, not only by the things that happen to them but by the decisions they make as a result. And in war, a lot of things can happen to a person!

I’ve limited myself to 5 so am sure to have missed some favourites of yours. I’d love to hear whether you read war novels, Australian or otherwise and, if so, what your favourites are. If you don’t read them, you can tell us that too!

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Alan Gould on the Monaro (and thereabouts)

Tharwa - Angle Crossing, New South Wales
Monaro country after the 2003 fires

While I love reading to escape to other places and times, other cultures and ways of being, I also enjoy reading about the familiar, about places I know and experiences I’ve had. Alan Gould, whose The lakewoman I reviewed recently, is a local writer. The lakewoman, in fact,  is primarily set in England, France and Germany, but  the hero Alec Dearborn does return to Australia towards the end, and before that often thinks or talks about it. His Australia is the country surrounding where I live, an area we call the Monaro, to be exact.

Here are some descriptions from The lakewoman that describe this region;

He went on to describe the Murrumbidgee River that flowed beside The Dad’s place, how it used to run flush after rain, with the brown waters mounting each other like so many panicky sheep in a pen. How it might be a trickle at the end of a summer without rain, like glassy infrequent spillages between rocks.


Sometimes he would try to describe his part of Australia, the streaky, silvery, airy, dry spaces of his pastured and lightly timbered country, sheep standing immobile in fog as the crows called mournfully through the whiteness.


How, for instance, a Monaro mist would transform a big brittlegum into a delta of pale grey veins against the white. Or how the last hour of sunlight in this airy woodland could angle so searchingly under the foliage to suffuse the planet’s surface with aureolin gold.

This is not verdant country, nor is it particularly welcoming. But, it is spacious, golden and airy – and it lifts my heart whenever I drive through it. Gould captures its particular variety perfectly.

Talking with Alan Gould

Joseph Conrad
Conrad, 1904, a favourite writer for Gould (Photo: George Charles Beresford, Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I didn’t say in my recent review of Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman that Gould attended my reading group’s discussion of his book. I had so much to say – so many thoughts – about the book, that I thought I’d save a report on his comments for another post, so here goes … but first …

Becky of PageTurners wrote a post recently on the impact of having an author attend a reading group discussion of his/her book. She suggested that it can be hard for group members to be honest when the author is present. That’s true of course. Few of us are willing to “attack” an author face to face, particularly when we see what heart (not to mention sheer sweat) has gone into writing the book under discussion. Fortunately, being honest didn’t seem to be a big issue in my reading group’s discussion with Alan Gould. Some found it slow at the start, and some asked him about the resolution, but all seemed to have enjoyed the book and his writing as a whole. For me, having an author present can add benefits that outweigh this honesty concern. See what you think from this report of our meeting with an author, because Gould, like Halligan when she joined us for her book, was articulate and generous in sharing his ideas with us.

Gould on his influences

  • Joseph Conrad (and, before him, Emily Bronte), who taught him about timing, something Gould plays particular attention to in his writing. I particularly liked the timing and pacing in The lakewoman, but I wrote a little about that in my review so won’t go on about it here.
  • Thomas Hardy, who uses coincidence, arguing that it’s coincidence that makes a story a story, if you know what I mean. Gould did say though that Hardy tended to use coincidence in a realist setting, whereas for him coincidence helped create the sense of magic or enchantment. He said his aim was to use coincidence in a way that would be psychologically or practically plausible but that also added a sense of mystery. One of the things I enjoyed about the novel was its somewhat mystical tone – the sense that things were occurring on a slightly “higher” plane than pure logic.
  • Shakespeare, who taught him that the key to writing a novel is to quickly establish “the calibre of the character’s intelligence”, that is what makes that character tick, what his/her mind is like. He gave Iago as an example and explained how Shakespeare establishes early on “who” Iago is. This is certainly what Gould does with Alec Dearborn in the novel. We get into his head quite early and gain a clear understanding of what sort of person he is and why he might be open to Viva’s influence.
  • Roger McDonald, an Australian novelist, who encouraged him to try writing a novel (instead of poetry) by saying that “a novel begins with a sentence”. Gould then talked about a few of his books and how this idea works for him. This first sentence, he said, does not always end up being the first sentence of the book but it is the kernel that gets him going.

Gould on writing novels versus poetry

Gould started as a poet and now writes both. He told us that he writes them alternately, that he can’t write poetry and a novel concurrently, because it’s like “changing from an art form tilted to music to one tilted to history”. He further explained this as being related to “time”. Poetry is a case of “and now and now and now” while novels are more “and then and then and then”. I’d love to hear what you think of this. I found it an interesting concept, though my first reaction was to think “but…” And yet I think I see his point, at least in general terms because of course there are always exceptions. Poetry is, I suppose, often about capturing a moment, while a novel does usually cover a period of time with at least some elements of cause-and-effect (even those novels, like Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway or McEwan’s Saturday that take place in a day).

Gould on The lakewoman

And of course, he talked about the book, in particular. It was inspired he said by the poet David Campbell, though Alec Dearborn is not Campbell. Rather, it is Campbell’s combination of physicality (he, like Dearborn, was a rugby player) and “a lyric sensibility” that Gould tried (successfully I think) to capture.

He also wanted to write a “romance” in the old sense of the word. He defines this as being about a hero on a quest, who thinks he knows what he’s about until he meets someone who shakes up this idea. Viva is this catalyst for Alec. She is an utterly practical woman – something we see played out through the novel from the way she saves Alec from drowning at the beginning to how she plans to conceive a child towards the end – and yet she has an aura of enchantment, starting from that first moment when she appears by the lake as he lands from the sky!

He said a lot more – particularly about some of the images and motifs he used in the novel – but I’ve probably written enough, so I’ll just share his answer to my last question, which was about his favourite contemporary writers. After prevaricating a bit on the definition of contemporary, he named the following Australian writers and books: Inga Clendinnen (not a novelist), Helen Hodgman’s Blue skies, Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, Kate Jennings’ Snake, Christina Stead’s For love alone, Randolph Stow, and Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. No wonder I enjoyed his novel, he has great taste.

Alan Gould, The lakewoman: A romance

Alan Gould, The lakewoman

Book cover (Courtesy: Australian Scholarly Publishing P/L)

I’m a little embarrassed to say that until The lakewoman was shortlisted in the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, I only knew of Alan Gould as a poet. Turns out, though, that he has written several novels, of which this one is his most recent. It is, ostensibly, a war novel, in that much of it is set in or around World War 2, but it is not in fact about the war.

It’s an intriguing book that slides literally and metaphorically between the solidity of the earth and the fluidity of water, between pragmatism and magic (or enchantment). It tells the story of Alec Dearborn, an Australian grazier’s son who was born in 1918. He goes to Cambridge in England and, when the war starts, decides to join up with the British Army rather than return home. The novel starts with his having landed in a lake, after parachuting from a plane for the D-Day Invasion. He is drowning, dragged down by his weapons bag and parachute, but is rescued by – yes – a lady in a lake. Ha! Now you see why it is called a “romance” because, while it contains “a” romance, it also hearkens back to the “romances” of yore, like the Arthurian legend. Here is the set up, pp. 2-3:

As he vomited he also wondered why this sudden young Mamzelle happened to be present at the exact, unlikely spot in France where his foolish body had come to earth. It was a question that would usefully occupy his mind later, when he was behind the wire with the austere leisure to brood on the magic that settled into his life following this, his fluky rescue. Magic? He was not a fellow given to outlandish notions, and would interrogate the dubious word, looking for its sense, not in mumbo jumbo, but as some friable quantity existing within the very crevices of everyday occasions.

In this passage, we see how carefully Gould has laid out his novel. He introduces us to the ideas of coincidence (fluke) and magic versus the everyday business of living, and he uses foreshadowing to distract us from plot issues (what will happen next) towards more interior ones (what is the meaning of what happens). As the novel progresses, this fellow who is not given “to outlandish notions” finds himself drawn, almost telepathically (it seems), to his rescuer. She , Viva, rather like the Arthurian lady-in-the-lake, frames the rest of his life, one way or another.

What happens on the surface of the novel is fairly matter-of-fact. Alec’s life runs its course in a mostly unremarkable way. One of the central questions of the book is that which Alec poses to his sister, Bell, a little while after he returns to Australia:

What I can’t work out is […] Well, how a person knows whether the existence he’s been given has been of value to anyone else.

This is Alec’s conundrum. He does not fulfil the traditional expectations of a grazier’s son (“Dearborn”, after all), despite his “prospects” : he’s intelligent, sensitive, and physically capable (“the dynamism in balance with the dreaminess”). Much of this failure stems from his being “disarmed” on June 6, 1944, by Viva. There are some lovely, appropriate wordplays in the novel, and one of these centres on the idea of disarming/arming, which works beautifully against the novel’s military background:

‘If you think about me, then, when you are gone, I will be arming you still,’ she assured him, mysteriously.

Soon after he leaves her, he ponders what has occurred:

‘I feel distress at having relinquished you,’ he supplied on consideration. For it was distress, he recognised, to be walking away from this sudden new claim on his life. ‘It is this that has disarmed me, I reckon,’ he explained for her.

I will be arming you, she reminded.

It is difficult with this WordPress theme to get the formatting right: this last statement by her is in italics in the novel and suggests either his memory of her words or an actual telepathic communication. Which one it is, is one of the lasting ambiguities of the novel. Italics are used throughout the novel for “communications” like this and for interior monologues/reflections, usually Alec’s, since this is a third person narrative, told mostly from Alec’s point of view.

By now you may be thinking that this novel is a fantasy, even a romantic fantasy, but not so. Neither is it magical realist. It’s simply that there is a sense that slightly mystical things may be happening, things that make sense psychologically but that also convey another plane of human thought and behaviour. It reminded me, at times, of Patrick White‘s Voss, but to suggest more than that would be to do it a disservice because it is not at all derivative. Rather, it is simply that the story focuses on a dimension of experience that can’t always be logically explained but that is nonetheless very real. Gould has, I think, pulled this dichotomy off, by careful manipulation of tone: through language that is poetic but not overdone; a pacing that is meditatively slow at the beginning and pragmatically faster at the end; evocative chapter titles (such as “To Fling the Lovely Foolish Body”, “Had You Down Dead”); the occasional light touch (“‘You are the invasion?’, she asked”); and timing that foreshadows just enough to make sure we stay focused on the ideas and not the facts.

And for me, the main idea (the one that provides an “undercurrent” to all the others) is that of completing the self, which is something Alec struggles  to do. In the end though:

…the joy, the completion was her presence, and the talk was strangely superfluous. Yet by convention they did talk from some region of the mind where the words did not especially matter but the proximity of the person created an entirety of being.

This is a rather melancholic, but by no means sentimental, book – and it moved me deeply.

Alan Gould
The lakewoman
North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2009
ISBN: 9781921509346