Claire G. Coleman, Night bird (#Review)

Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman’s short story “Night bird” is the second First Nations Australia story in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction, the book I chose for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week. The week finished officially a week ago, but I’m hoping Bill won’t mind my still referencing it. Coleman is not new to my blog. I reviewed her debut novel, Terra nullius, the year after it came out. She has written more fiction and some non-fiction since then, with a clear focus on the devastating impact of colonisation on First Nations culture and people.

“Night bird” continues this focus. It follows Ambelin Kwaymullina’s story in the anthology, “Fifteen days on Mars” (my review), which works well, because both draw on the importance and role of Ancestors in First Nations culture. Coleman’s story is told first person by an artist who is “too afraid to sleep, too tired to be awake”, who drinks to drown her sorrows, who fears she may be “going mad again [my emph]”. She tells us

I am haunted by the ghost of my Ancestors’ Country like a phantom limb …

[…]

I have been cut off from my Country, my ancestors cut up, the land drilled and dug and eaten by machines … my wounded homeland won’t let me rest.

This is not a subtle story. The narrator (whom I think is female, so I’ll go with that) grieves for a life she “could never have” because Country has been “severed”. She has “returned to Country” but, finding it “dead”, “could feel nothing and none” of her Ancestors. She feels haunted, but by what or whom?

I can hear a voice but I can’t make it out. I can hear a song but I can’t catch the words. I can hear the wind and it’s stealing my breath. I can hear nothing and it is screaming.

Country is part of her, but she wants to be free of the haunting, the “wordless voice”, the “phantom presence” that won’t go away. There is a wind, but it is “coming from the wrong direction – away from Country”. Then,

The wind changes, it caresses my back, and suddenly it’s coming from Country.

However, at the same time, a man appears and threatens her. There are now two voices – his and the Ancestors. This is a story about a battle between disempowerment (represented by the man) and empowerment (represented by the Ancestors). Is she, and are they, strong enough to prevail?

I suspect this story was inspired by an experience Coleman describes in her article in Writing the Country (The Griffith Review 63). She describes the life-changing experience of going to Country in 2015, her family’s Country that had been taboo due to a massacre that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. She writes:

I didn’t go there until 2015, that place changed my life forever, my world, my life, even the way I breathed. I took the taboo air into my lungs and I did not die or maybe I did. The bones of my feet landed on the sand and returned to life, I was born again on Country. The story of that place made me a storyteller; story is in my veins.

She says an old man told her that “no matter where we go Country calls out to us” and she writes of the bird, the Wirlo (or curlew), that “to me and mine are family”. Its cry, its scream, “calls me home” – as does the night bird in this story. She describes how Country cares for people as they care for Country. She writes:

I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.

All of this is seems embedded in “Night bird”, so now, back to it. It is another example of “Indigenous futurism”. It is ground very much in the real world. The voices that our narrator hears are mysterious, sometimes coming from her phone, sometimes from the air around her, but they are not magical, not fantastical, they are the Ancestors – and the story envisions a healthy relationship with them and thus Country.

On her website, Coleman includes a link to an interview she did with VerityLa after Terra Nullius came out. Among the questions was that one we readers love, which is whether any authors or novels influenced her. The first one she named was HG Wells’ War of the worlds, because it “is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender”.  “In fact,” she says, “War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation”. You can certainly see its influence in Terra Nullius, and it is evident here too.

Claire G. Coleman
“Night bird”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 66-73
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

D’Arcy Niland, The parachutist (#Review)

D’Arcy Niland has appeared in my blog before but not in his own right. He was the Australian-born husband of the New Zealand-born Australian writer Ruth Park. I have posted on their collaborative memoir, The drums go bang, and have written specifically about Ruth Park, but have never written specifically on Niland before.

Niland is best known for his novel The shiralee, but he and Park were working writers who made their living from their craft, which means they wrote a lot – radio scripts, journalism, short stories, and novels. My path to his short story, “The parachutist”, though is a bit complicated. Over a decade ago, when my mother-in-law was still alive, I would search for suitable audiobooks for her, by which I mean books that had straightforward narratives, and not too much explicit sex and violence. She was 97 (and legally blind) when she died. A collection of D’Arcy Niland short stories seemed a possibility, but I’m not sure she ever did listen to it. Regardless, it ended back with us after she died, and we finally started listening to it on a recent road trip. The first story is titled, “The parachutist”.

Now with collections, I like to know each story’s origins. I discovered that the audiobook was based on a collection of Niland’s short stories selected by Ruth Park and published by Penguin in 1987. A start, but when did Niland, who died in 1967, write the story? The Penguin book might provide that information, but I don’t have it. However, given that back in Niland and Park’s heyday, newspapers were significant publishers of short stories, I decided to search Trove and, eureka, I found it. Well, that is, I found his story “The pilot”, which turned out to be the same story that was later published as “The parachutist”.

This discovery created another mystery: why the change of title? And when? Again, maybe Ruth Park discusses that in her Penguin introduction but … so, let’s just get on with the story. The plot concerns a predator and its prey. It starts just after a hurricane. A hawk, “ruffled in misery” comes “forth in hunger and ferocity” looking for food, expecting to find some “booty of the storm”. However, there is none, so it widens its search. Niland beautifully captures the devastation of the “ravaged” landscape and weakened hawk’s situation: “Desperate, weak, the hawk alighted on a bleak limb and glared in hate”. It’s vivid, visceral writing – and we feel some sympathy for this hawk.

It spies a dead field mouse, and gobbles it “voraciously”, but it’s not much as food goes, and just makes “the hawk’s appetite fiercer and lustier”. Niland, at this point, also introduces us to the hawk’s real nature, to the way it would normally “sup …. on the hot running blood of the rabbit in the trap, squealing in eyeless terror”. It will eat creatures still alive, in other words. Anyhow, still “frenzied with hunger”, this hawk spies something in a farmyard – a kitten playing, “leaping and running and tumbling”, completely “unaware of danger”. Life is fun. After checking for human presence, the hawk swoops, and suddenly the kitten finds itself “airborne for the first time in its life”:

The kitten knew that it had no place here in the heart of space, and its terrified instincts told it that its only contact with solidity and safety was the thing that held it.

It latches on for dear life. This is a powerful story that keeps your attention from beginning to its – hmmm – somewhat surprising end, which I won’t spoil. Instead, I will briefly return to the title. Niland describes the hawk and kitten doing battle in the sky, writing that, with the hawk now descending, the kitten “rode down like some fantastic parachutist”. Soon after, when the kitten’s claws are digging into the hawk’s breast, he says that “the kitten was the pilot now”.

So, “pilot”? This could suggest that the kitten is in control, but is it? “Parachutist”, on the other hand, seems more subtle, implying a somewhat mutual relationship between the two. It is not the sort of freely chosen relationship that parachutists traditionally have, but this later title introduces an ambiguity into the narrative.

I found the story compelling. It is told third person limited, with our point of view, and sympathy, shifting between the two protagonists. Its subject matter might be nature, but its themes are more universal, encompassing predator and prey, the powerful and the powerless, experience and innocence, and of course survival, given at different points in the story both the hawk’s and the kitten’s survival is at stake. What to do?

Also, this might be a long bow, but Niland apparently said about his 1955 novel The Shiralee, that “it is a Biblical truth that all men have burdens. This is the simple story of a man with a burden, a swagman with his swag, or shiralee, which in this case happens to be a child. I have often thought that if all burdens were examined, they would be found to be like a swagman’s shiralee – not only a responsibility and a heavy load, but a shelter, a castle and sometimes a necessity.” “The pilot” was published two years earlier, but we could argue that for the hawk, the kitten, with its fierce frenetic claws, turns into a burden. The storyline and outcome are simpler, of course, but was Niland playing with this idea too in his story?

Whatever, “The pilot” or “The parachutist” beautifully exemplifies Niland’s ability to capture and hold his reader’s attention with a strong narrative and expressive writing. I hope to share more of the stories in future.

D’Arcy Niland
“The parachutist” in Short stories collection
(Read by Dennis Olsen)
ABC Audio, 2007
ISBN: 9780733390616

D’Arcy Niland
“The parachutist” in The Penguin Best Stories of D’Arcy Niland
Penguin Books, 1987
ISBN: 9780140089271

D’Arcy Niland
“The parachutist” The Oxford book of animal stories
London, Oxford University Press, 2002 (orig. pub. 1994)
ISBN: 00192782215

D’Arcy Niland
“The pilot” in The Mail (Adelaide), 28 March 1953
Available online

Ambelin Kwaymullina, Fifteen days on Mars (#Review)

In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”, citing Grace Dillon (as did I in this week’s Monday Musings) as the term’s originator. I share this progression in her thinking because it’s indicative of the energy and intellectual engagement among First Nations people with literature and the politics of what they are doing. Kwaymullina is an example of a First Nations Australian writer who is actively engaged in First Nations culture and thinking, as well as in the craft of writing.

I first came across Kwaymullina early in my volunteer work for the original Australian Women Writers Challenge, because many reviews for her young adult novels were posted to our database. But, I had not read her because YA literature is not my thing. However, I decided to read Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January, and the first work in the anthology by an Australian woman was “Fifteen days on Mars” by Kwaymullina. Woo hoo… here was my chance to finally read her. I will post on more in this fascinating book, which I’ve not yet finished, later.

“Fifteen days on Mars” is an accessible short story, told chronologically from Day One to Day Fifteen. The politics is made clear in the opening paragraph, by beautifully skewering colonial settler behaviour concerning the naming of places:

It had been almost a year since we came to Mars. That was what I called this place although it had another name. It was Kensington Park or Windsor Estate or something like that but I couldn’t have said what because I could never remember it.

Our first person narrator Billie and her mum have come to Settler suburbia, where they are “the only Aboriginal people”, for some reason that is not immediately clear though we sense there’s a specific purpose. Billie hadn’t wanted to come but, as her mother’s only offspring without children, she’d drawn the short straw. The story starts with her pulling weeds from their garden, the very plants that the rest of the neighbourhood love, plants (I mean “weeds”) like roses. In this metaphorical way the colonial setting is established. This is a world we know. Very soon a new couple moves in across the road. Billie, at her Mum’s insistence, does the neighbourly thing, and makes contact. She quickly realises that their new neighbour, Sarah, is being abused by her husband, whom Billie calls The Suit. What to do?

To this point, notwithstanding the hint at the start that there’s something unusual about the situation, the story reads like a typical piece of contemporary fiction – that is, set in the known present world. But slowly, we become aware that something else is going on. Billie refers to “the rules”. Does she just mean the normal “rules” of social behaviour? Nope, our suspicion is right, there is something else. There’s reference to Sarah needing to “ask”, and to whether what or how she asks is “good enough for them upstairs”, aka “the Blue”, as Billie’s mum calls them. Billie says:

the truth was we knew very little about them, except they were some kind of intergalactic healers. But we knew why they’d come. It was because of the Fracture.

So now it’s clear we are in speculative fiction/Indigenous Futurism/Visionary Fiction/SFF territory. This is the sort of speculative fiction I can enjoy, something that doesn’t require me to learn a whole new world but that injects something new into the world I know, something that upends it a little.

The Fracture is not fully explained, but “something had smashed into the relationships that were space-time and cracks had spread out from the point of impact” resulting in, says Billie, “bubbles of the past floating across my reality”. The Blue, we are told, are trying to repair this Fracture, leaving humans “to do something about the bubbles” – but to the Blue’s rules. Billie’s mum had signed up “for the job of changing the bubble-world, or at least, of changing some of the people enough so they could exist in our reality”. Hmm, this makes them sound a bit like missionaries. An ironic twist?

Anyhow, the story continues, with a strong reference to the Stolen Generations, as Billie and her Mum, recognising these are “strange times”, try a different tack to save Sarah, and call on the ancestors. They hope the Blue won’t mind.

I will leave it there. I enjoyed the story – because it tells a First Nations story truthfully but generously; because the characters of Mum and Billie, while being somewhat stereotypical (the wise Mum and the reluctant Billie), are warm and engaging; and because the ideas and the story itself are intriguing to watch being played out.

In her 2017 piece cited above, Kwaymullina describes Indigenous Futurisms as “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine Indigenous futures”. This is exactly what she does in “Fifteen days on Mars”. The colonial legacy is unmistakeable, with most inhabitants of Settler suburbia remaining “unbelievably ignorant”, but she also offers glimmers of hope. I don’t eschew bleakness, but as an optimist I also appreciate it when writers can see paths to a better future. It’s energising.

Ambelin Kwaymullina
“Fifteen days on Mars”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 42-64
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australia speculative fiction

This post is my first contribution to Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January. Gen 5 encompasses women who have been writing from the 1990s to now. Bill argues that two major trends characterise this era: “the rise and rise of Indigenous Lit” and “writing which in earlier days would have clearly been SF – but which now is generally characterised as Climate Fic., Dystopian, or less frequently, Fantasy/Surreal/Postmodern.” With this in mind, Bill decided that AWW Gen 5’s focus would SFF – Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Given Bill observed that First Nations Women are writing in this genre, I have decided, for this post, to combine the two trends. It won’t be comprehensive, but more in the spirit of providing an introduction or overview. Here goes …

I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction, which Wikipedia explains is not “science fiction” because it is driven by “new and uncanny experiences (mystical, spiritual and paranormal) in the neural web”. Wikipedia quotes Michael Gurian, who was one of the first to promote the genre on the web. He defines visionary fiction as “fiction in which the expansion of the human mind drives the plot. Where science fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of science to drive narrative, visionary fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of mental ability to drive narrative.” So, it may not be traditional SF, but I believe it can be encompassed under the speculative fiction umbrella, particularly as First Nations people see it.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

The other main term I want to share, I found in BookRiot, in their 2020 article, “Explore Indigenous Futurisms with these SFF books by Indigenous authors”, by Danika Ellis. Ellis, who also uses the umbrella term, Speculative Fiction, writes that “Indigenous Futurisms” was coined by Dr. Grace Dillon, professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State University. It was inspired by Afrofuturisms, which explores speculative fiction through an African diaspora lens. Ellis explains that “depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream media has often placed them in a historical context, not recognizing the Indigenous cultures and individuals of today, never mind the future. Indigenous Futurisms imagine Indigenous people into every context: space travel, fantasy worlds, alien invasions, and more.” BookRiot’s list includes Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius (my review) and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s young adult novel The interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Ellis makes the point that:

Indigenous Futurisms brings a much-needed perspective to a genre that is often uncritically colonial, whether it’s fantasy rooted in Medieval England, or space travel that celebrates conquering new worlds.

Good one. Not being a reader in this genre, I hadn’t clocked this.

Meanwhile, closer to home, last June The Conversation ran a review by Yasmine Musharbash of This all come back now: An anthology of First Nations speculative fiction, which was edited by Mykaela Saunders. This anthology, you will have noticed, uses the term Speculative Fiction, and Musharbash accepts this, offering her understanding of the genre:

In my view, speculative fiction – the narrative exploration of “what-ifs”, the creative probing into latent possibilities, the imaginary voyaging into potential futures – is the genre of our times. We are on the brink of … something. Environmentally, for sure. But also socially, politically, economically. 

What this something is, when it will happen, how it will shape the future: these are the questions at stake. 

This all come back now, she says, is the “first Australian anthology of First Nations speculative fiction”. This might be so, but of course First Nations Australians have been writing speculative fiction for some time. Musharbash discusses what characterises this anthology as “First Nations”, and says the first thing is “Country with a capital C, in that very First Nations sense of something utterly fundamental and intimately related to the self, is centrally present across these pages. Many of these stories are fully immersed in Country.” This is not surprising, nor, really is the other recurring element she identifies, humour. I have mentioned before First Nations humour and its particular flavour. Musharbash describes the humour as being cheeky, and often “bitter-funny”.

First Nations Australia SFF

I wrote above that First Nations Australians have been writing speculative fiction (SFF) for some time, and I’ve reviewed a little here on my blog, including Coleman’s Terra nullius, and Ellen van Neerven’s “Water” (my post), which is included in This all come back now. Coleman, in fact, is making this space a bit of her own, with two more novels, The old lie (Bill’s review) and Enclave (Bill’s review), published

Book cover

Before them was Alexis Wright with Carpentaria (my review) and, more obviously, The Swan book (Lisa and Bill). Bill describes this latter as being set “some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars”. It is still on my TBR.

However, there are several other writers whom I’ve not read or reviewed (yet) on my blog, like Karen Wyld and Alison Whittaker. Another is Ambelin Kwaymullina, who is best known for her YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe. Six years ago, she wrote a post, titled “Reflecting on Indigenous superheroes, Indigenous Futurisms and the future of diversity in literature on the loveozya blog. She starts with a strong argument about how Indigenous writing has been measured, against Western concepts, and addresses that colonisation aspect I mentioned above. She also addresses the point I have heard Alexis Wright make about “magic”, and takes it further:

In Australia and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples have also long been able to interact with the world in ways that the West might label as ‘magic’, but this is because the West often defines the real (and hence the possible) differently to the Indigenous cultures of the earth. There are many aspects of Indigenous realities that might be called ‘speculative’ by the West (such as communicating with animals and time travel). There is also much in Western literature that Indigenous peoples regard as fantasy even though it is labeled as fact, including the numerous negative stereotypes and denigrations of Indigenous peoples and culture contained within settler literature. 

Another good challenge to our worldview. She too references Dillon’s “Indigenous futurisms”, explaining that it describes “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and envision Indigenous futures”.

Kwaymullina argues that there’s a growing Indigenous presence in speculative fiction, including in YA and Children’s fiction, and names some writers – Teagan Chilcott, Tristan Michael Savage, graphic novelist Brenton McKenna, and the young Aboriginal people responsible for NEOMAD (my post).

So, an exciting time for the genre and for literature in general, but I’ll close here …

Have you have read any First Nations (anywhere) speculative fiction? If so, care to share?

Sandy Gordon, Leaving Owl Creek (#BookReview)

I do enjoy receiving books from non-profit independent publisher, Finlay Lloyd. Their books are physically distinctive, being longer and narrower than the norm, and they have a stylish, minimalist, design, which makes them lovely to look at and hold. They also appeal content-wise because Finlay Lloyd consciously, it seems to me, publishes books that regardless of form or genre interrogate prevailing values and attitudes, books that contribute to the conversation. Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek is another such book.

Sandy Gordon could be included in my late bloomer category, meaning he’s an older first time novelist. A grandfather now, he is, however, not a late bloomer in terms of achievement because, as the book’s front-matter explains, he has had a significant academic and public service career, especially in the areas of intelligence and national security. The notes say that “when he finished his last academic book in 2014, he vowed never to write another footnote – hence the novel”. Lucky us.

Leaving Owl Creek is a dual narrative story, alternating between the first person diary of Nicholas (Nick) MacLean, who has been captured by the Mujahideen in Kashmir, and the third person story of his life which begins on the family property of Owl Creek. It’s not just his story, though, as also at Owl Creek are his sister Lilly, and Richard and Kate Connolly whose family has worked for the MacLeans for generations. The novel takes place over several decades covering the second half of the twentieth century, a time of significant social, cultural and political change. Two fundamental issues of change are introduced in the first chapter, one relating to class and status, and the other to gender, and particularly to masculinity.

However, the novel opens not with this chapter, but with Nick’s diary. He reports playing chess with his main captor, the Mujahid, and their discussing Nick’s western versus the Mujahid’s Islamic values. It is clear that Nick’s survival very likely depends on the Mujahid. This provides the main narrative tension for the novel, but it’s not the main interest, albeit I cared deeply about what might happen to Nick. (Gordon knows whereof he speaks, having written a nonfiction work about the region, India’s rise as an Asian power: Nation, neighborhood, and region.)

What I enjoyed about the novel was its portrayal of those issues I’ve mentioned. Nick and Lilly were born into the squattocracy, Protestant of course. They are privileged – materially, anyhow. In other ways, not so, because the expectations are not only high but they are conservative, which means, for example, that Nick is expected to live up to the traditional idea of manhood, an idea that focuses more on “honour” than on feelings. This does not sit well with Nick who is cut of a more sensitive and artistic cloth. He’s interested in art and poetry, which to his father are “not sound in a man”. Richard, the son of Catholic station workers, is closer to Mr MacLean’s idea of a man. This difference creates another tension in the novel as we watch Nick and Richard (named, ironically, for Richard Wright, but often more pointedly referred to as Dick) grow from boys to men. We do also have their sisters, who are each attracted to the other’s brother, but Leaving Owl Creek is not a cliched family drama. While these sisters’ roles are important to fleshing out the main themes, their relationships do not play out in the standard rural romance way – because, this is not rural romance. It’s a novel written by a man primarily about men.

“man of affairs” to “affairs of men”

So it is this that I’d like to tease out a little more. The second half of the twentieth century, and into the present, has been a difficult time for men. As women have found their place (albeit this has not yet translated into full equality) men have had to work out how their place fits in. For Richard, his Catholicism and working class background mean he starts with a handicap, but he’s a hard worker, a real “man”, and he gets opportunities as a result. He takes them and becomes a confident, successful, and powerful man, a politician in fact, but in the process he manipulates and betrays others, and loses his self. He talks big about a “man of affairs” being a humanist, but in the end, “the affairs of men” comes to encompass for him the ends justifying the means.

Nick, on the other hand, grows up with everything except what he wants most, the freedom to follow his own path. His struggle is great. He is sent to a prestigious boarding school, where his artistic preferences are not supported. On leaving school, he goes to university and gets caught up in the Push (about which I wrote early in this blog), and other leftist intellectual groups. It’s the 60s, and unsettled Nick falls prey to substance abuse. He fails his father’s expectations, and ultimately ends up in India where he finds a place for himself – until his capture. Nick too reflects on what it means to be a man but is less concerned with “manhood” than with what human beings are. In a fraught conversation with some leftist intellectuals, he sees the issue in terms of “moral choice”.

Politics provides the backdrop to the novel, and Gordon presents us with a broad sweep from Richard’s mother’s statement that their family had come out from Ireland for “political” reasons, through various wars, to our contemporary concerns with Indigenous dispossession and the increasing conflict between Eastern and Western values. But, threaded through this historical expanse is a recurring issue, the role of men, and the importance of “duty” and “honour”. Nick’s refusal of his Vietnam War call-up is the last straw for his father, and he is disinherited. From his father’s point of view:

‘If your country says it needs you … that has to be good enough. Beyond that it’s a question of honour …’

In the closing pages of the novel, Nick, still a captive of the Mujahideen, returns to these ideas:

The Mujahid. The thing is, he likes me, perhaps even loves me. Why then is it not enough? Why is it never enough?

Because duty, as he sees it, trumps liking, even love. Duty, honour, loyalty, death – these four ride side by side over the blistered landscape and will do so for as long as we humans occupy the planet.

Leaving Owl Creek is a highly readable and deeply thoughtful novel that tackles some complex issues, intelligently and generously. We feel for each of the characters at different points in their lives. We see the pressures they face – social, political, psychological – and we are encouraged to understand why they are who they are, and, beyond that, to consider how on earth we might all be better. Like Lisa, I recommend this book.

Sandy Gordon
Leaving Owl Creek
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2021
358pp.
ISBN: 9780994516565

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Jessica Au, Cold enough for snow (#BookReview)

What did I say about mothers and daughters recently? Just when I thought I’d done with them for the year, along came another, Jessica Au’s gorgeous novella, Cold enough for snow. However, before I get to that, let me describe the award it won, The Novel Prize.

Cold enough for snow was the inaugural winner of this plainly named, but ambitious prize which was established by three independent publishers, Australia’s Giramondo Publishing, the UK and Ireland’s Fitzcarraldo Editions, and North America’s New Directions. It is “a biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world”, and looks for “works which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style”. The winner receives US$10,000 and simultaneous publication of their novel in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and North America.

Jessica Au’s novel was selected from over 1500 entries worldwide, and was published in the above-named territories this year, but is to be published in many more. It has made quite a splash, and was one of the most favourited Australian books in my recent 2022 Favourite Picks post. Those who nominated it used words like “meditative”, “mesmerising”, “elegance”, “exquisite” and “quietly brilliant”. I would agree with those.

Told first person, Cold enough for snow revolves around a holiday in Japan organised by a daughter for herself and her mother. They walk, and travel by train; they visit shops, cafes, galleries, churches and temples, the things you do in Japan. Very few places are identified, keeping the focus on the characters and the ideas being explored, rather than on travel. As someone who has visited Japan several times, I was initially frustrated by this. I wanted to compare my experiences with theirs, but I soon realised that this was not that sort of book. Once I accepted that, I also realised that it was, in fact, the sort of book I enjoy.

By this I mean that it is one of those quiet, reflective books, ones without a lot of plot – albeit I like plots too – but with lots to say about life and relationships, and with much to make you think. The novel has an overall chronological trajectory following the daughter and her mother’s journey but, along the way, the daughter – our first-person narrator – digresses frequently to consider other people and relationships in her life, particularly with her sister and partner. It is in these digressions, in particular, that we get a sense of what this trip is about.

Ostensibly, the book is about the daughter and her mother, who live in different Australian cities, reconnecting. In the opening paragraph, the daughter describes their walking to the train station:

All the while my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was the current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart.

However, it soon becomes clear that it is the daughter who is more concerned about drifting further apart. A couple of pages in she mentions that on a previous trip to Japan with her partner Laurie – one of the few named people in the novel – she “remembered thinking” that she wanted to share some of the fun she’d had with him with her mother. On the next page, she refers to a bonsai plant that her mother had had, and “remembered disliking it”, perhaps because it looked “unnatural, lonely, this very detailed, tiny tree, almost like an illustration, growing alone when it looked as if it should have been in a forest”. Subtly, Au has conveyed in the opening pages that the seemingly sure and in-control young woman we thought we had met is not that at all. Gradually this becomes more explicit. Nearly halfway through the novel, in one of her many digressions, she describes house-sitting for a lecturer and comments that “somehow it felt like I was living my life from outside in”.

There is a melancholic tone to this novel, which is not to say it is unhappy. It is simply that our narrator is uncertain about her life, while her mother, for whom she feels responsible, is quietly self-contained. Her relationships – with her partner, Laurie, with her sister, and with her mother – seem positive enough. It’s a ruminative book, in which the daughter’s thoughts roam between history, art, and life past and present, seemingly at will, but of course all carefully structured by Au to lead us to a deeper understanding. It’s a short book but I took time to read it because the thoughts and ideas, so quietly and delicately expressed, would constantly pull me up – because I am used to looking for meaning and answers in my reading. For example, early in the novel, she recounts looking at some pots in a museum. They were “roughly formed but spirited”, their handmade utility “undifferentiated from art”. I could grasp these ideas. So, it’s about art and life I thought, but then later, discussing Laurie’s father’s art, the daughter remembers feeling she didn’t “even know enough to ask the right questions”. And I realised that, perhaps, neither did I – and that this book, in which time and memory move fluidly rather than exactly, is about something very different.

The Japanese setting is perfect for this novel, because Japan too is paradoxical. In the cities, particularly, where our two spend most of their time, Japan is a bustling place but it also, sometimes in the smallest ways, manages to simultaneously exude stillness and quietness. Similarly telling is that the trip takes place in autumn – the mother and daughter’s favourite season – which is surely the season most conducive to reflection, and to the idea of change over which we have no control.

Early in the novel, one of the issues confronting our narrator becomes clear, that concerning whether to have children. She and Laurie have been discussing it exhaustively – between themselves, with their friends, and, it seems, also with her mother. She’s aware that, unlike her own generation, her mother very likely never had the opportunity to choose, and she comes to wonder

if it was okay either way, not to know, not to be sure. That I could let life happen to me in a sense, and that perhaps this was a deeper truth all along, that we control nothing and no one, though really I didn’t know that either.

Cold enough for snow is not easy to write about because its very essence is the mutability of life. How do you pin down something that seems to be about being unpinnable? And yet, Au manages to pin down this very fact, or, at least, to convey the idea that, as the daughter glimpses near the end, “perhaps it was alright not to understand all things, but simply to see and hold them”. A good book, methinks, to end the year on!

Lisa also reviewed this novel.

Jessica Au
Cold enough for snow
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022
98pp.
ISBN: 9781925818925

Nell Pierce, A place near Eden (#BookReview)

Nell Pierce’s debut novel, A place near Eden, won the 2022 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was my reading group’s last book of the year, and it engendered a lively discussion, partly because our response was mixed and partly because its setting on the south coast of New South Wales is well-known to us.

Part coming-of-age novel, part mystery, part family drama, A place near Eden is told first person in the voice of Tilly who is around 20 years old when she is telling her story to a mysterious “you” – at least, “you” is not revealed to the reader until around half-way through the novel, so I won’t reveal it now. I can reveal however, that Tilly is trying to tell her side of a story to this “you”, and slowly, what this story is comes out of the murky recesses of her memory.

My reading group’s practice is to start with each of us briefly sharing our first impressions before we settle into deeper discussion. My first impressions for A place near Eden were that I loved its exploration of how truth can be manipulated or twisted, of different versions and perspectives of the same experience, and of the difference between facts and truths, in personal lives, in law, in art, but that I found the tone a bit heavy-handed, with little respite. Respite in tone – as Shakespeare knew – is good. A place near Eden is a reflective novel in which Tilly reviews the events that had happened to her, trying to make sense of them, so its tone is peppered throughout with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “looking back”, “in retrospect”, “now”, “still” and so on. It was a little unremitting. However, A place near Eden is a first novel so can be forgiven some flaws.

As you will have guessed, the title has both literal and metaphorical meanings: it is set near Eden in southern New South Wales, and the characters may be “near” but they don’t achieve being “in” Eden (paradise). Their own flaws prevent it.

The story starts with a prologue which looks back to halcyon days in the life of Tilly, then 13 years old, and her foster brother Sem and friend Celeste who were 14, almost 15 years old. The dynamic is set between them, one in which the younger Tilly is seen by the other two as “just a kid”. There is a bit of an experience gap between them – as can happen at the time of early puberty. An incident happens at the local pool that sets us up for the tone of the book, though it’s not “the” incident on which the book centres. In this incident, a small child falls – or is knocked – and hurts his head. Who did it? Tilly blames Celeste, though she herself “might” have done it. Writing later, she says:

The more I think on things, one way or the other, the more real they seem. That I was afraid of getting in trouble. Or that I wanted to punish Celeste. That it was her fault, or mine. I can believe it either way.

Throughout the novel, which primarily takes place when Tilly and Celeste are around 19 to 21 years old, the story is told in this maybe-this-maybe-that sort of tone. It is, essentially, a story about finding one’s self, one’s identity. In this case, it’s Tilly’s, so we see it all through her eyes, as she struggles to keep up with the just-a-bit-older, just-a-bit more experienced, just-a-bit more confident Celeste. This sort of uneven friendship is difficult to maintain.

“it could play either way” (Tilly)

So we come to the critical incident. Tilly and Celeste have been living at a holiday shack near Eden, while Sem – who is in a relationship with Celeste – comes and goes at will. One night, however, he disappears, and Tilly, who was drunk at the time, is blamed for it. Did she cause it or didn’t she? This is what she is trying to comprehend and explain to “you”.

Tilly is a character who likes facts – her preferred reading is the encyclopaedia – but she is aware that there is often a gap between facts and the truth (which she describes as “something that hissed out”). She is aware that “even when people try to tell the truth about something as mundane as a tomato, they couldn’t help but betray other things about themselves”. So, what are we to believe from this self-consciously unreliable narrator, from this narrator who says to us “saying something with confidence … can make a story real” and that “maybe we all embroider the truth sometimes”? Late in the novel, when she writes about telling her story to her lawyer, she says “I could feel stories emerging in my mind, ways of presenting things that I knew would please her”. She admits to lying to both the police and the lawyer, but that doesn’t, in fact, mean she is guilty of what she is accused of.

Alongside Tilly telling her story is her description of the documentary film being made about the case by her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, who tells the story from three angles – the lost, troubled boy (Sem); a revenge story (Tilly); the manipulator (Celeste). In each version, different pieces of information are omitted to construct a specific viewpoint about what happened. It’s a clever portrayal of the “art” of the documentary. Tilly sees how “controlled” it is, and admits that she had “thought in art there might be truth”. Not here … though she had seen “truth” in Celeste’s portraits.

The book’s tagline on the cover is, “who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself?” This personal story is part of it, and reminds me of the recent conversation I attended with Heather Rose. She commented that “life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves”. This could easily describe Tilly’s situation, as she struggles to come to terms with what she did – or what she may have done – in that tortuous process of becoming herself.

However, Nell Pierce also has a bigger story to tell, I believe. Late in the novel, Tilly comes to realise that, like her Mum, she is “sceptical of these neat stories we tell about people”. By concluding her book without a neat resolution, Pierce suggests to us that we too should beware of “neat stories”, that we should take nothing at face value. Question everything, just as Tilly seems to do.

Lisa also found this an intriguing book.

Nell Pierce
A place near Eden
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022
296pp.
ISBN: 9781761066177

Lucy Neave, Believe in me (#BookReview)

Mother-daughter stories – in fiction and nonfiction – seem to have been particularly popular in recent years. Lucy Neave’s second novel Believe in me is one of these, but just this year I’ve read several others, including Larissa Behrendt’s novel After story and Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops.

Their trajectories can vary, but in novels the most common one concerns a fractured relationship. More often than not, they are written from the point of view of the daughter (though in After story, Behrendt alternates the perspective between the two). Believe in me is one of those written from the daughter’s perspective, but in an interesting voice which switches between extended third person telling of her mother’s life and her first person telling of her own. The narrative starts around a year before Bet is born, out of wedlock in 1970s Sydney, to her 19-year-old American mother, Sarah. Why in Sydney and how Sarah became pregnant occupies the first quarter of the book.

However, the novel itself commences in 2004 with Bet telling us:

I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not exactly sure what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one place and time to another.

She is doing this because, she says, “if I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little, it might help me see who I am”. Immediately, then, we are clued into a problem, presumably the book’s key problem, that of Bet wanting to understand herself. She’s stalled it seems, but she needs, she continues, “to walk towards the future without always looking back”. Consequently, she tells her mother’s story by drawing on her mother’s scrapbooks “which are filled with overlapping memories and souvenirs and notes” and her own memory.

Sarah’s story is a sad and frustrating one. Bet introduces her in that first chapter as a naive, trusting 18-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York. She’s being sent away by her mother, and the religious community to which they belong, on a three-month mission to Idaho with their preacher Isaiah. Well, the inevitable happens and Sarah finds herself unbelieved, pregnant and despatched to Sydney, far away from home, to have the baby. Sarah is expected to give her baby up for adoption – to a childless aunt and uncle who show her no warmth. However, with the help of midwife Dora, she manages to escape, and thence begins her new life as a single mother in a strange country. The Whitlam government is in, and things are changing, but life is still not easy for a single mother, particularly one as unprepared for life, and as unsupported, as Sarah was.

While the focus of the novel is Sarah, it is told through the eyes of Bet, and in Bet’s eyes her mother rarely measures up. She frequently describes her as weak, when Bet really wants her mother to be “unbroken, robust”. The child’s eyes, however, seem to be at odds with the reality. For example, one-third into the novel, Sarah realises that her own mother back home is never going to help her:

Sarah had thought that in the end her mom would understand what she needed … Now she understands her longings have always been irrelevant. She’s meant to accept all that she receives. Only sometimes, like now, she can’t. In any case, she’s someone else now, different to the core.

This idea of “acceptance” is an important mantra for Sarah. Religious in origin – accept what God gives you – it often frames her choices, but in fact, she doesn’t always “accept”. Indeed, she flees several men when she realises they are not right for her:

Some things, she realises – and why did it take her so long to work this out – should never be accepted. Some things turn out not to have come from heaven.

Nevertheless, a few pages later, Bet continues with the weakness theme, “a part of her was still weak, the way it had always been”. The story here is one of the child never fully knowing the parent. It’s ironic, in fact, that Bet sees Sarah as naive, which she was, because for much of the novel, so is Bet in terms of understanding the pressures Sarah was under. The result is an uncomfortable but very real tension between these two who both love each other but struggle to make that love work.

The idea of “acceptance” is one motif that runs through the novel, but another involves animals. Sarah becomes a wildlife carer – particularly for injured wildlife – and Bet, a vet, which reflects their mutual desire to nurture. More curious though is the fox motif which threads through the story. A baby fox, back in her American childhood, is the first wildlife Sarah rescues and cares for. She eventually releases him, but “foxes will always be with you” becomes a bit of a grounding talisman for her. The clue to it lies in her mother Greta’s advice when she sends Sarah off: “Don’t worry about us. Be as free as a bird, as a fox”. In the tradition of mothers and daughters, Greta wants more for Sarah than she had, just as Sarah in her turn wants more for Bet – and yet, in their turn, the daughters don’t understand and so don’t appreciate this in their mothers.

I did find one aspect of the novel somewhat challenging, and this relates to its “interesting voice”. I love “interesting voices”, but there were times when Bet’s telling of Sarah’s story felt awkward. How did Bet know this? Was it from the scrapbooks, from conversations, from Sarah’s own confidences, or Bet’s imagining? The uncertainty this occasionally engendered affected my ability to properly engage with Bet’s perspective. However, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the way Neave weaves through it many of the social issues affecting women in the decades she traverses. There’s a political element to this personal story.

So, how to end? Or, more to the point, what does it all mean? When I’m in doubt, there are three things I turn to – the opening paragraphs, the title, and, where it exists, the epigraph. I’ve already mentioned the opening which explains that Bet is writing Sarah’s story in order to understand herself better. This, I’d say, she achieves (but to say how would give too much away).

Believe in me does have an epigraph, and it’s appropriate for a book about fraught mother-daughter love. It’s from Eudora Welty’s The optimist’s daughter, “… any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”. I’ve read some Welty, but not this one. However, this idea seems perfect for a daughter to take from her mother’s life.

And finally, there’s the title. It’s a little trickier. As I was reading the novel, I wondered who was saying “Believe in me”? Sarah? Bet? God (whom she’s supposed to accept)? The egregious Isaiah who tried to convince Sarah to lie for him? Probably all of these, conveying the challenge we all face regarding who to believe and trust. It’s only through hard experience that we come to really know whom we can believe. Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, with its perceptive exploration of complex relationships, is one of those reads that makes you think, and for that I enjoyed it.

Lisa also reviewed and enjoyed this book.

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Lucy Neave
Believe in me
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
312pp.
ISBN: 9780702263361

Heather Rose in conversation with Sally Pryor

As I’ve written before, Muse Canberra, a restaurant-cum-bookshop or vice versa, offers a wonderful program of book events, year after year. I don’t get to many, but today I attended a conversation featuring Tasmanian author Heather Rose with local journalist Sally Pryor.

The participants

Heather Rose has written three children’s books and five novels, of which I’ve reviewed two, The Museum of Modern Love (my review) and Bruny (my review). Her latest book, the subject of this event, is different, a memoir, Nothing bad ever happens here: A memoir of loss and recovery.

Sally Pryor is the Features Editor of our newspaper, The Canberra Times, which is now part of Australian Community Media. Since that company changed hands in 2019, it is now publishing local reviews once again, after some years in the dark when most of the arts reviewing we got was syndicated from the big city newspapers.

The conversation

After Dan did the usual intros, Sally spoke a little more about Heather and her book, explaining that while Heather had always planned to write a memoir, she hadn’t planned to publish one, for several reasons, one of which was that she was wary of outing herself as a spiritual person and of putting her views onto others. Sally described the memoir – which Heather has indeed published – as the “least predictable and most enticing memoir” she’d read. Heather then read the book’s first chapter, “Sky”. It places herself as a 6-year-old at school, and then concludes with

I could write a memoir about travelling, the writing life, or my love of making cakes. But I’m still that girl under the tree who wants to get to the big conversations, to the heart of things. So here are some stories about life and death. About experiences that have no easy explanation, but which happened, nevertheless. The unknown, that 95% – maybe it’s an invitation for compassion. Life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves.

On what started it all 

Sally suggested they start with the tragedy that, says the back cover blurb, set her on “a course to explore life and all its mysteries”. Heather commenced by describing her idyllic childhood in Tasmania. It was beaches, paddocks and orchards; days spent outside; a “glorious, wild childhood”. There was the family home on the edge of Hobart and a shack on the Tasman Peninsula, built by her maternal grandfather built the shack. He also taught Heather to appreciate nature, telling her, “Look Heather, that’s what beauty is”. But, just after she turned 12, her grandfather and older brother died in a boating accident. It destroyed the family, and by the time she finished year 12, she found herself alone in the family home. She decided to go overseas, to live her life “very fully” because her brother hadn’t.

On life being “a process of forgiveness for the choices we make”

Sally shared a little of that overseas trip, that “thrilling life”, which had it all, from meeting celebrities, including the Queen, to staying in a Buddhist monastery, not to mention romance, drugs and alcohol. But, asked Sally, what did she mean by life being “a process of forgiveness”?

One of the things I enjoyed about this conversation was Rose’s comments on writing memoir, and one of the places she discussed it was here. One of the most challenging things about writing a memoir, she said, is revisiting who you were in the past. Memories are tough to go back to. She was reckless, but didn’t realise then what dangers she’d put herself in. She made many mistakes, and revisiting all those things is “a hollowing out experience”. She wrote a lot, and then had to decide what to leave out to hone it to the things that shaped her. She needed to confront what she’d inflicted on herself, and to not blame others. It was her life she said, and she was going to own it, hence life being a process of forgiveness for all we’ve done. I found this moving – and something worth thinking about a bit more for myself!

On the book’s spiritual journey

Sally then turned to the spiritual journey aspect of the book, calling it a “very religious book”. She asked, in particular, about Heather’s taking part in a Native American ceremony that lasted several years. I won’t detail it here as it’s all in the book, but it was the Sun Dance. The point is that it changed her world-view entirely because after this she did not see herself as separate. She felt connected to everything (animate and inanimate), and “did not see world as a fixed reality”. She writes in the book, “everything was permeable, malleable, responsive” (p. 132).

Sally, continuing this theme, mentioned that she understands Heather always asks people if they’ve experienced anything they can’t explain, and everyone has! Most are post-death experiences – messages from the recently dead that all is ok – but others include warnings (like “don’t go that way”) that people feel have served them, sometimes to the point of saving their lives. For Heather this is reassuring, the idea that we have other senses, while Sally said she finds it frightening, which resulted in Heather teasing her ideas out a bit more.

Heather’s point is that the hardest thing is to think our lives are meaningless. She goes back to Descartes, but instead of “I think therefore I am” she sees it as “I am, therefore I feel”, “therefore I think”, etc. Life is a finite thing, she continued, and our fear is that maybe it’s all for nothing. Perhaps, she said, but we could also think that maybe it’s all for everything. Don’t we all love people, she said, who are vibrant, alive, who give of themselves?

On the book’s title

Sally suggested that the book’s title was “a way of reframing the narrative”. Heather said that in her 50s she visited the place, Lime Bay, where the tragedy had occurred and “felt nothing”, which brought her to think that “if everything just is, maybe nothing bad ever happens”. (Me: Not sure about this.) She then threw out that she “likes being un-evolved”. In my experience, the idea of being “un-evolved” is usually seen as a bad thing, but I like her understanding of the idea, her sense of never being finished, of always being curious and open.

Q & A

There was a brief Q&A, which I’ll summarise:

  • On what she wanted her children to take away from the memoir: Heather shared that her 22-year-old daughter had said that most of her readers were older, but she thought it was a good book for people HER age 22 because it will make them braver. Heather added that it’s not bad for kids to see their parents 360°.
  • On her family’s response to the book given they were not allowed to talk about the tragedy at the time: This was hard, particularly how her parents would feel about it, but she also felt that it was her story, not theirs. Her sister read various drafts, and said she felt it completed her life. Heather was most concerned about her father, who has been a great supporter of hers but whose grief had been “enormous but unvoiced”. His reaction was “I think we all needed you to write about it”. Heather also commented that writing memoir is hard, because you can’t avoid writing about people who are alive, and then quoted Hemingway’s, “writing is easy, you just sit down and bleed”! Sally commented here that most people can’t get their feelings onto a page, so she can see what it meant for Heather’s dad, at which point, Heather observed that she was relieved to be returning to the novel!
  • On whether characters get away from her: Yes, for example her The butterfly man character “didn’t tell her the truth for two and a half years”! She kept stitching up the end to give him redemption, but had to let that go because it wasn’t him, it was her, the writer. That’s what makes good writing, she said, when the writer stops trying to intervene. She also gave a Bruny example.
  • On her reluctance to wear a “spiritual tag”: This was partly because things go very badly when women put themselves out in the world. It can be a “very vicious world” if you stand up and align with a specific perspective. But, she also wants people to take on their own perspective, rather than imposing her own point-of-view. The questioner appreciated that Heather is still exploring, which she saw as the “heart of spirituality”.
  • On the process of writing, particularly re fiction vs nonfiction: With fiction there are rules, responsibilities, and voice. We know, for example, that with Murakami we will get a “distant, hapless” voice, and with Kingsolver, “heart”. There is so much you can build on in fiction. With the memoir, she had to start with nothingness to find who she was, and she found she is still that 6 year old girl looking for the big conversations. Writing the memoir was “harrowing, and hallowing” but she feels braver, and now owns all she is.
  • On returning to the novel: Heather loves writing fiction because she loves her characters, and she also enjoys the research.

Closing the session, Dan commented on the level of attention he’d observed in all our faces! I’m not surprised. It was such an engaging, different and, at times, surprising discussion – and that always gets my vote.

Brona has reviewed this book.

Heather Rose: Nothing ever happens here (with Sally Pryor)
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday, 26 November 2022, 4-5pm

Frederic Manning, The middle parts of fortune, Ch. 1 (#Review, #1929 Club)

I had identified two novels for my 1929 read, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and another. With Lisa also considering A house is built, I decided to go for the other. I started it, and am loving it, but I won’t finish it in time, so I thought I’d check my Australian anthologies for a 1929 offering, and found one. In the Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature is the first chapter of a book I’d been unaware of until I wrote my 1929 Monday Musings post this week. The book is The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916, by Frederic Manning.

It particularly caught my attention because the title sounds more like a nonfiction book. So, I checked it. Yes, it is fiction, I clarified, and has an interesting history. I’ll start, though, with the author…

Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was born in Sydney. An apparently sickly child, he was educated at home, and when a teenager he formed a close friendship with Rev. Arthur Galton, who was secretary to the Governor of New South Wales. When Galton returned to England in 1898, Manning went with him, but returned to Australia in 1900. However, he returned to England in 1903 – when he was 21 – and there he remained. He produced all his writing from there, but the Australian Dictionary of Biography (linked on his name) claims him as Australian.

That’s all very well – for us to say now – but at the time of his death, according to Nicole Moore who wrote his entry in the Anthology, he was “largely unknown in Australia”. And yet, she continues, “his novel, The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929) is cited around the world as one of the most significant and memorable novels of the First World War”. Indeed, she writes, it is “often grouped” with Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to arms and Erich Remarque’s All quiet on the western front.

Manning served in the war from October 1915, first as Private (no. 19022) and later as a second lieutenant, though apparently the officer’s life did not suit him. He drank, and resigned his commission in February 1918. Wikipedia explains explains that, with increasing demand through the 1920s for writing about the war, and his having published some poems and a biography, he was encouraged to write a novel about his wartime experiences – and so The middle parts of fortune was born.

The story does not end here, however. The first edition was published privately and anonymously, under subscription, says Moore. Soon after, in 1930, an expurgated edition was published under the title Her privates we, with the author now identified as Private 19022. This version, Moore says, “removed the soldiers’ expletives that strongly punctuate the text”. Acceptable, apparently, for the private edition, but not for the public one! Wikipedia says that Manning was first credited as the author, posthumously in 1943, but the original text wasn’t widely published until 1977.

Wikipedia identifies the book’s admirers as including Ernest Hemingway, Arnold Bennett, Ezra Pound, and T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence is quoted as saying of The Middle Parts of Fortune that “your book be famous for as long as the war is cared for – and perhaps longer, for there is more than soldiering in it. You have been exactly fair to everyone, of all ranks: and all your people are alive”, while Ernest Hemingway called it “the finest and noblest novel to come out of World War I”. How could I have not known it?

Now, the book … Wikipedia says that each chapter begins with a quote from Shakespeare – answering a question I had, because Chapter 1 so starts. The source of the quote, however, is not cited, but a quick internet search revealed it to come from Act III, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 2:

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once;
we owe God a death. … and let it go which way it will,
he that dies this year is quit for the next.

It basically says that we can only die once, and that we’ll all die one day – so, we may as well accept our fate? A soldier’s creed?

Before I say briefly discuss the first chapter, I’ll add that Nicole Moore says that the protagonist’s nationality is not “made explicit” which is “in keeping with the novel’s deflation of military hierarchies and nationalism”. She goes on to say that it explores “the effect of war on reason and selfhood” and is thus “an existentialist study of the extremes of human experience”.

I’ve read several novels, over the years, about World War 1, including – to share another Australian one – David Malouf’s Fly away Peter. It too powerfully evokes the terrible impact of that war.

So, Manning’s Chapter 1 introduces us to a soldier stumbling back to the trenches after some action during which many men had been lost. Soon, he – named Bourne, we learn – is joined by a couple of Scottish soldiers – not from his battalion – and then an officer from his. The rest of the excerpt chronicles his moving through a “battered trench” to join his compatriots in their dugout, before setting off again to meet their captain and retire to their tents in the ironically, but truthfully, named “Happy Valley”.

The tone is one of desperate resignation. Faces are blank (despite “living eyes moving restlessly” in them); no energy is wasted in unnecessary talk; and whiskey is a necessary support after “the shock and violence of the attack, the perilous instant”. The description of their progress from the dugout to the camp above ground beautifully exemplifies the writing:

they saw nothing except the sides of the trench, whitish with chalk in places, and the steel helmet and lifting swaying shoulders of the man in front, or the frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees, and the sky with clouds broken in places, through which opened the inaccessible peace of the stars.

The “frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees” and the “inaccessible peace of the stars” conveys it all – and this is only Chapter1.

If you would like to know more about this novel, you can check Lisa’s blog, as she knew of this book and reviewed it back in 2015!

Read for the 1929 reading week run by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book).

Frederic Manning
The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929)
in Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature (ed. Nicholas Jose)
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009
pp. 365-369
ISBN: 9781741754407