Shelley Burr, Wake (#BookReview)

Regular readers here will know a few things about me. One is that I don’t regularly read crime, and another is that for three years, before the pandemic struck, I was the litblogging mentor for an ACT Writers Centre program. One of the last two participants in that program was Shelley Burr, author of the just-published crime novel Wake.

In my post on that 2019 program, I introduced Shelley as follows:

Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year … She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program.

That novel she was writing was Wake. It won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2019. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award, which gave her a Varuna fellowship, and the 2020 Bath Novel Awards, which is an international award for emerging writers. Judge for the Bath award, literary agent Jenny Savill, wrote of Wake:

With forensic attention to detail, the reader is effortlessly drawn into the small town, rural Australian setting and a community in mourning. Immersive and riveting.

Savill was right on all fronts. Burr’s attention to detail is forensic, and readers (even non-crime readers like me) are “effortlessly drawn in”. I was thoroughly engaged from the opening pages, and this is because, besides being a crime novel, it’s a novel about character, and what happens to people when terrible things happen to them. How do people respond, and why do different people respond differently? It confronts readers to think about our own responses. How would we respond if it happened to us? And, how would, or do, we respond when it happens to others?

Wake is about a cold-case that took place on a remote farm some twenty years before the novel opens. Nine-year-old Evelyn (Evie) McCreery disappeared from her bed one night, never to be seen again. This means the novel alludes to a longstanding Australian writing tradition, that concerning the lost child. However, this motif has layers of cultural complexity that are not central to this novel, so I’m just mentioning it and moving on.

Now, the plot … as the book’s promotion says, “no forced entry, no fingerprints, no footprints, no tyre tracks”. Evie’s twin sister, Mina, has grown up in the wake (pun intended!) of that disappearance. She has never fully recovered and is quietly trying to solve the mystery on her own. The novel opens with the clearly fragile Mina doing her shopping under the kindly eye of a local shopkeeper. A stranger, who turns out to be private investigator Lane Holland, approaches her, but she is not interested. The novel progresses from this point with the twists and turns typical of the genre until its inevitable – though not completely expected – resolution.

Wake is carefully plotted, with, for example, hints concerning Lane Holland and why he has chased this particular case being gradually shared. Wake is also well-paced, starting slowly, and gradually building intrigue until near the end when the pace hots up. Suddenly, the chapters become shorter, causing the alternating perspectives, which characterise the narrative, to become more urgent.

As I mentioned above, the characters are a major strength of the novel. Mina and Lane are sensitively developed. Both are driven by past trauma, and can be tough and prickly, but both also exhibit moments of vulnerability and tenderness which help us care about them. There are a few other characters, the main ones being Mina’s more together friend Alanna whose sister had also disappeared around the same time as Mina’s, and Lane’s much younger sister Lynnie. Though minor, they too have flesh.

The narrative is chronological, with occasional flashbacks filling in some gaps. Other gaps are cleverly filled in by entries on a social media forum, MyMurder, which open some of the chapters. They add a thoughtful layer to the story, by conveying how such mysterious cases catch the public attention and how obsession with them can play out. They show how crime aficionados, conspiracy theorists, and others, can spear wildly away from the truth and potentially, if not actually, cause mental harm to those most touched by the crime.

So, yes, I was impressed. The writing and plotting is so sure, and Burr’s exploration of the crime is considered, sympathetic, and grounded in reality. There is drama – of course – but it properly serves the story and the complexity of the emotions, reactions and consequences that Burr is exploring. This made for engrossing reading for a non-crime reader like me, but Wake is also, if the awards tell us anything, great crime reading. It’s a page turner, with depth.

Now, I’d better at least mention the setting, given I’ve referenced Burr’s interest in “drought noir”. Wake is set in rural central New South Wales. Burr, herself, grew up in regional New South Wales, and her grandparents had a farm in regional Victoria, so her writing of place and country life felt authentic. The setting adds tension because Mina and her father Liam’s property is remote, remote enough that they have installed alarms on the gates to announce the arrival of visitors. You can’t be too careful when you live so far away from help.

However, the property also neatly reflect the challenges being faced by Australian farmers in climate-change-affected times. It was a working farm, but the disappearance of Evie consumed the family’s energy so much that viable farming fell by the wayside. In a nice political touch that speaks to our times, Burr has Mina and her father moving into working it as a conservation project.

Wake earned Shelley a two-book deal with Hachette, and is about to be published in the USA. Having now read it, I’m not surprised. I recommend it.

Shelley Burr
Wake
Hachette Australia: Gadigal Country/Sydney, 2022
360pp.
ISBN: 9780733647826

(Uncorrected proof courtesy Hachette Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

This week, Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing, was published, and I plan to attend the launch later this month. In the meantime, it seemed apposite to discuss his essay on Christos Tsiolkas in Reading like an Australian writer. Those of you who have read Nigel’s blog will know that he’s a Tsiolkas fan, so it’s not surprising that he was commissioned to write on him for this anthology. As it happens, I’m a Tsiolkas fan too, so this was one of the essays I was keen to read.

Fearlessness

This essay, though, is a little different to the previous essays I’ve discussed from this anthology, because it’s more about Tsiolkas’ oeuvre than one work.

Early on, Featherstone references Orwell’s essay, “Why I write”, noting that “political purpose” is one of those reasons. Tsiolkas is “one of Australia’s most politically attuned writers of his generation”. It’s relevant to explain here, as Featherstone does, that Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants, is gay, and identifies as a socialist and atheist. Given this (and, I would add, given the grittiness of many of his novels), it is “truly remarkable”, says Featherstone, that in our contemporary conservative Australia, Tsiolkas has had significant critical and commercial success.

Featherstone starts at the beginning – with Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (adapted to film as Head on), which was published in 1995. Now, Featherstone is a writer too, of course, so he is particularly interested in exploring Tsiolkas’ craft. To do this, he shares specific excerpts/quotes* which reveal, among other things, why he titled his essay “Fearless”. Tsiolkas is audacious, from the opening paragraph of his first novel.

I mentioned above that Tsiolkas is “gritty”, which is my description of in-your-face writing like Tsiolkas’. Featherstone doesn’t use that word, but it’s what he means when he says that the writing “could come across as crass”. It doesn’t, though, he says, because it feels confident, which is why readers stay with it.

How he makes it feel confident is the thing, isn’t it? It may partly be in the way, as Featherstone puts it, Tsiolkas “pushes his prose towards poetry”, by which he means “the language is doing more than one thing at once. Featherstone also refers to the epigraph for Loaded. I love that, because I do think the epigraph can contain serious clues to a work. Epigraphs are not there for fun (or, if they are, the fun is also part of the meaning!)

Featherstone looks at what emerging writers can learn about writing with audacity (or fearlessness): it requires, he says, writing not just from the brain, but the body (chest, gut and crotch) and it requires caring deeply about the characters (no matter how flawed).

Featherstone also identifies Tsiolkas’ main concerns – “class in Australia, and the power and privilege of whiteness” – and he describes one of Tsiolkas’ “many strengths” as “his ability to explore political concerns through the depiction of the everyday”. This is certainly how I think of The slap and Barracuda . I wrote in my Barracuda post:

“This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review), and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).”

So, I liked that when talking about the short story “Tourists” from Merciless Gods, Featherstone says:

In this relatively simple tale the author reveals the racism that exists at the core of Australia’s masculinity and the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular.

In fact, I don’t just like this, I love it, because, for me, “the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular” is the main idea behind The slap. As Featherstone writes, “Tsiolkas is a social critic as much as he is a writer of literary fiction”. True, and it’s not particularly surprising. Some of my favourite literary fiction also encompasses social criticism. (Think Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip.)

The last work Featherstone looks at is Damascus (my review) and again he starts with the first paragraph, and teases out its power – the precision which which Tsiolkas can convey multiple layers of fear. He see fear as being one of the novel’s themes. The opening of this novel is truly terrifying, but another point Featherstone makes is Tsiolkas’ ability to “contrast the heavy with the light”. (Some readers, I know, struggle to find the light in Tsiolkas’ work, but I’m with Featherstone. It is there.)

Nigel Featherstone perfectly meets the brief of this anthology, which was to share how a writer reads. His essay contains very specific lessons that can be taken from Tsiolkas’ writing. However, in doing this, he also conveys the two prongs that make writing sing for me – fearlessness in style, structure and/or content, and generosity in attitude to tough characters and/or ideas. Tsiolkas epitomises both, and so, I think, does Featherstone.

* Do read the essay to see all the great excerpts.

Nigel Featherstone
“Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 125-136
ISBN: 9781742236704

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.

Uluru

Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.

But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:

What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.

McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.

Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.

“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.

Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:

Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.

It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.

In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!

Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.

For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
256pp.
ISBN: 9781760642556

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Sources for early Australian Women Writers

As I think you know, Elizabeth Lhuede (founder of the Australian Women Writers Challenge), Bill Holloway (The Australian Legend), and I, are behind the re-framed Challenge. Our focus is early Australian Women Writers, by which we mean women writers from the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries. We are particularly interested in those women writers who have never received due recognition, but we’ll cover the bigger names too. We publish twice weekly – articles and reviews on Wednesday mornings, and excerpts (mostly) of actual writings on Friday mornings (Australian time of course).

Currently, I post on the last Wednesday of the month, and my first two posts were on sources for researchers and anyone else interested in the topic. I have decided to document them here, for my own records – and, just in case some of you haven’t caught those posts, but would be interested in them:

  1. Early Australian women writers: 1, Primary sources: focuses on where actual writings by the authors can be found… Read on …
  2. Early Australian women writers: 2, Secondary sources: focuses on where information and writings about the authors and the period can be found… Read on …

Clicking on either of the Read on links will take you to the blog. Once there, please potter around to see what else we’ve posted to date. You might find something interesting. We’d love to hear from you if you did, and if you have an idea of something relevant you might like to contribute, please contact Bill who is our commissioning editor, theaustralianlegend[at]gmail.com.

This is a very short Monday Musings this week. Enjoy the respite!

Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, 1866-1941) back in the 1990s when Virago republished her first novel, Elizabeth and her German garden. Published in 1898, this novel, writes Gabrielle Carey, was an immediate hit, turning her, almost overnight, into one of England’s favourite authors. It was certainly a revelation to me.

I went on to read several of her books, including her pseudo-autobiography All the dogs of my life, over the next decade. I was completely charmed by her wit and humour together with her insights into love and marriage, and their impact, in particular, on women’s lives. Anyone who’s a Jane Austen fan couldn’t fail, I’m sure, to see von Arnim’s ancestry. I wrote one of my early Monday musings posts on her.

Book cover

What, a Monday Musings on Australian literature on Elizabeth von Arnim? It was cheeky I know – and I admitted it at the time. Yes, she was born in Australia, but yes, she left here, never to return, when she was three. However, I just wanted to write about her. And so, it seems did Gabrielle Carey, who opens her hybrid memoir-biography with

When I first discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy. So much of my reading life – which essentially means so much of my actual daily life – had been spent reading miserable literature because, let’s face it, most literature is miserable.

Carey isn’t clear about when she discovered von Arnim in relation to when she started working on this book, but says that once she discovered von Arnim, she became something of a “von Arnim evangelist”. She was “incensed” that von Arnim had been so completely forgotten. I could relate to this, because I felt the same. Unfortunately, my evangelising didn’t go far because no-one in my reading group had heard of her when I recommended that we do one of her novels as our “classic” this year. More on that, then.

If you are among those you don’t know this writer, you might be surprised to hear that several biographies have been written about her, including three in the last decade. I have two of them, Jennifer Walker’s more traditional literary biography, Elizabeth of the German garden: A literary journey, published in 2013, and Gabrielle Carey’s. The third is Joyce Morgan’s The countess from Kirribilli, published in 2021. Just this should tell you something about the fascination with which this woman is held, this woman who published 21 books, whose first cousin was Katherine Mansfield, and who knew EM Forster, had an affair with HG Wells and married (among others) Bertrand Russell’s brother. She had a life – and then some!

OK, so I’ve written quite a bit about Elizabeth von Arnim, but not much about Gabrielle Carey’s book. Only happiness here is the third sort-of literary biography that Carey has written, the other two being Moving among strangers (my review) about Randolph Stow and her family’s connection with him, and Falling out of love with Ivan Southall about her losing faith in this childhood writing idol. Carey, it seems, likes to explore her subject matter through the prism of her own life and experience (a bit like Von Arnim did with her fiction). This is not to everyone’s taste, but when done well, like, for example, Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review), it can be both engaging and effective.

I loved White’s book for the way she explored Maud Praed (daughter of novelist Rosa Praed) through their joint experiences of deafness, neatly marrying information with activism. Carey’s book has a very different driver, one I foreshadowed in the opening quote from her book. A few pages on, Carey makes her goal clear:

What did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?

She wanted to know “the secret to her enviable ability to enjoy life” because it was clear from her novels and journals that she did, despite the many trials she faced. Indeed, the book’s title is the sign von Armin put over the door of her Swiss chalet. Carey argues that von Arnim “was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the earliest proponents of positive psychology”. Carey was so serious about her goal that amongst the end-matter in her book is a page titled “Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles of Happiness”. There are nine, but if you want this bit of therapy you are going to have to read the book yourself! However, to whet your appetite, the first one is “Freedom”.

Carey tells her story – I mean, von Arnim’s story – chronologically, regularly interspersing her own reflections and experiences in relation to von Arnim’s. An early example occurs when she writes about von Arnim’s first marriage to the much older Count von Arnim, and her novel inspired by this, The pastor’s wife (albeit the Count was not a pastor!) In this novel, von Arnim writes that “Ingeborg in her bewilderment let these things happen to her”. Carey immediately follows this with:

How well I understand this experience of letting things happen. All my life I had let things happen to me, often without my consent.

And she then spends nearly two pages exemplifying this from her life. Mostly this approach of Carey’s was interesting, even illuminating, but there were times when it felt a little too self-absorbed. However, this didn’t overly detract from what is a thoughtful introduction to von Arnim and her work. In under 250 pages, Carey manages to tell us something about almost every one of Von Arnim’s books – how each one fit into her life, what aspects of her life it drew from, and how it was received at the time. In that same number of pages, she conveys the richness of von Arnim’s long and event-filled life. I’m impressed by how succinct and yet engaging the book is, and am not surprised that it was shortlisted for the 2021 Nib Literary Award. I should add here that while the book is not foot-noted – its not being a formal “literary biography” – there are two and a half pages of sources at the end.

So, what did I, as a reader of von Arnim, get from this book, besides a useful introduction to her complete oeuvre? Well, firstly, I got a deeper understanding of how much of her oeuvre drew from her own life, and from that I got to better understand her attitude to marriage and to the relationship between men and women, and to her exploration of, as Carey puts it, “the clash between the concept of the ideal and the real”. I also got to understand more about her times, its literary milieu, and her place within it – and to see how we can never really foretell which writers will survive and which won’t. When von Arnim died, obituary writers were sure she’d not be forgotten. They also believed she’d be far more remembered than her shorter-lived cousin, the above-named Katherine Mansfield. But …

… as Carey sums up, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however, rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”, because, wrote English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy”. These, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. We are talking, of course, of Modernism, which, as Carey puts baldly, “didn’t believe in happiness”, a value that has carried through to today.

I will leave this here, because I want to return to it in a separate post. Meanwhile, I’d argue that while von Arnim’s books might be witty, they are not simplistic. They come from an astute and observant mind that was able to comment both on the times and on universalities in human nature. They may not have Modernism’s bleakness, but they aren’t light fluff either. Carey’s simple-sounding quest has, I think, touched on something significant.

Brona (This Reading Life) enjoyed this book, which she ascribes to the bibliomemoir genre.

Gabrielle Carey
Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
249pp.
ISBN: 9780712262975

Delicious descriptions: John Hughes on Newcastle

Recently, Bill (the Australian Legend) commented on a post of mine that reviewers rarely talk about place or “think geographically”. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I think, partly, he wants us to discuss whether we think what we are reading accurately depicts place.

Now, I love descriptions of place, for all sorts of reasons, but particularly for the tone they convey, and for the way authors use place to describe character or to underpin their themes etc. Place in literature was the prime topic of a book I reviewed last year, Chrystopher J. Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature. It offers a fascinating approach to studying place in literature. In a recent Delicious Descriptions, I briefly looked at Sara Dowse’s use of place in her novel, West Block, and in another I commented on place in Gay Lynch’s novel, Unsettled. Pure accuracy, you’ll have seen, is not something I focus on.

I have heard writers talk about place many times. It’s a popular topic at writers festivals. At the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival, Karen Viggers (The orchardist’s daughter) and Alice Robinson (Anchor Point) spoke about it. Viggers said she uses place to orient herself as a writer, and then to explore our connections and help us reengage with the natural world and each other. The challenge, she said, is to bring readers in and engage them with ideas they may find uncomfortable. Robinson said that Anchor Point was based on landscape she grew up in. She was interested in how we have engaged with the landscape, and have failed to care for it.

For some authors, getting place right can be critical, more to avoid reader criticism, than because absolute accuracy is that important to them. They don’t want their novels to be de-railed by pickiness about, for example, whether the church was on this corner or that (which I have heard readers do!)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I think place can be very important in novels for a raft of reasons, and that I enjoy reading about place for the said same raft of reasons. John Hughes’ The dogs, while being about “big” human issues, is also very much set in place. Mostly this is Newcastle, and its environs, though there are vivid scenes in Europe, particularly Venice, and Surfers Paradise. Here, though, I’m focusing on Newcastle (which, I might add, has been written about by many authors, including Dymphna Cusack, Elizabeth Harrower, Marion Halligan, and Michael Sala).

Newcastle is probably best known to Australians as an industrial town, but, it is also a coastal city near beautiful beaches. Hughes draws on these beaches. At the end of Part 2 of the novel, protagonist Michael spends a day at a beach just north of Newcastle with his potential new love interest Catherine, and in Part 3, he and his son Leo spend a glorious day together, which takes in a Newcastle beach.

Here is an excerpt from the day with Catherine:

A cold sea breeze hit us when we got out of the car. There was no one on the beach. Catherine tied a scarf around her neck and pulled her shawl in tight around her shoulders. It was just like her to come so prepared. I, on the other hand, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It certainly cleared my head. We took our shoes and socks off and left them in the car, then walked down the small grassed slope. On the soft sand Catherine displayed for me the best way to walk without sinking. … But I’m a sinker by nature …

It’s all rather blissful, particularly when Catherine hikes up her skirt to paddle:

It was quite a sight, all that bare leg, and it made me lightheaded myself, my mind no longer on the surroundings, which were spectacular. When I looked up, the sky seemed higher somehow, like someone had lifted the roof.

There’s hope here for a new beginning for both these lonely people, but, soon after

At the top of the beach, in the soft dry sand she finds a small dune which offers some protection from the wind, which has picked up again while we’ve been walking. A few clouds have appeared in the sky and the sun moves in and out behind them, as if in the game of hide and seek.

Not long after this, their happy moment takes a downturn … This could be many beaches, I suppose, but the description of place seems accurate to me, and Hughes uses it to such great effect.

Then, in Part 3 comes our lovely father-son day in which this somewhat estranged pair plan to do something deadly serious – but first, there is the day together. It starts with Michael picking up Leo from Newcastle airport, and Leo taking the wheel:

I’m enjoying the world from the passenger seat and anticipating the view from the top of the bridge, which always takes my breath away even though I’ve seen it a million times. Above us, pens dipped in blue-black ink, Pacific swifts (on winter sabbatical from Siberia!) write their signatures on the sky and blink their wings. They leave no mark except in recollection, hurled into space with sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns, rapid wing-glides, accelerations, gear shifts. I’d like to point them out to Leo but I don’t want to distract him as he glides into the overtaking lane …

I don’t know this part of Newcastle, but what an evocative description. It made me stop my reading and think – the way nature and machine are seamlessly linked, and the bird metaphor for life with “sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns …”.

This book is full of delicious descriptions like these, descriptions which read so well on the surface, but which suggest so much more in terms of mood and meaning, whether we specifically notice it or not.

John Hughes, The dogs, Perth, Upswell, 2021

John Hughes, The dogs (#BookReview)

Dogs are mentioned frequently in John Hughes’ novel, The dogs, but the most dramatic reference occurs when the narrator’s mother, Anna, is hiding in a swamp with other partisans during World War 2. The barking of the Germans’ dogs tells them “it was only a matter of time” before they’d be found, causing Anna to do something that will irrevocably change who she is and result in her being the glacial, detached mother she was.

This story, that we don’t get until half way through the novel, is foreshadowed in the Preface, where the narrator briefly backgrounds the story he is about to tell, sharing with us a telling moment. The last time he had visited his normally remote but now also ageing mother in her home, she’d said to him “Don’t you see them? … The dogs, they’re getting closer”.

So, The dogs. It was, for me, a bit of slow burn. I was pulled in from the start by Hughes’ writing. His gorgeous descriptions and his perceptive insights into human behaviour were enough to keep me going on their own. Also, the two main characters, Michael and his mother Anna, despite being, initially, more unlikable than not, intrigued me. But, I was unsure where all of Michael’s introspection was going. Patience, however, is a virtue, and my patience was rewarded, because this story about dysfunctional family relationships and inherited trauma had so much to offer both my heart and mind.

Fifty-five year old Michael is our first person narrator, and the novel starts with him returning to Newcastle in 2015 to see his 99-year-old mother, whom he had placed in a nursing home two years previously, against her will. He’d not seen her since, partly out of guilt, but partly also because she had rejected him for this action. Although Michael is a successful screenwriter, he is a lonely, isolated individual. He is divorced, and has a difficult relationship with his wealthy, property developer son.

The novel follows Michael as, desperate to understand both himself and his mother, he tries to untangle her mysterious past while she still has some memory left. With her mind going and her lifelong reticence, it’s not easy to get the truth, though he senses, as he always had, “the traces of a story she wasn’t telling”.

Anna’s past is a complicated one, taking in, among other things, an Italian opera-singer mother and a Russian Prince father, not to mention world wars and the Russian Revolution. Anna had grown up fatherless, as Michael had from the age of 7 after his father’s suicide. But Anna had other traumas too, about which Michael only learns in this closing stage of her life. It’s a convoluted tale, mostly revealed in the second part of this three-part novel through recently discovered letters and an interview Michael records with his ailing mother.

Now Anna, as I’ve already intimated, is not a sweet old lady, and Michael, as you’ll have gathered, is not the doting self-sacrificial son, but as the story progresses, we come to understand some of the whys. In doing so, I came to like the characters more. Isn’t that why many of us read? To see into the human heart to better know it? “Whose heart … isn’t a Pandora’s box?” Michael proposes late in the novel.

“It’s never really the past we remember”

The dogs is one of those books that can be explored from all sorts of angles, but one particularly captured my attention from the beginning – the past, and its relationship to the future. The past is mentioned several times in the first chapter, including this on page 12:

… it’s never really the past we remember. The future clings to the past like a winding sheet. Every time we think back, we attach the future to it, if only unconsciously … thus the past always knows the future, not as something still to happen, but as something that already has.

Get your head around that! Seriously though, I love this idea because it seems true that what we remember as the past is just that, what we remember – and what we remember is coloured by what has happened since. And, to complicate it a bit more, I guess, the past we remember informs who we are, which then affects the past a bit more? Michael says a little further on about his mother’s story that “in Europe she would have told one story; after seventy years she adds her whole life to the memory”.

Anyhow, the problem for Michael is, always was, that his mother would not tell him about the past – her past or his father’s – so he grows up never understanding who his mother really is, and why she is the way she is. Gradually we come to realise that this is a story about intergenerational trauma, about “the way family travelled through the flesh”. As the truth becomes clear, Michael writes of the impact of not knowing:

I thought it was me. That I’d failed to please her in some way. Some way she would never say. So solemn, so cold.

Furthermore, not only had he felt guilty, but he had also thought, equally, that “the monster was her”.

Having grown up in this atmosphere of coldness and unknowing, it’s not surprising that Michael had not been a good husband or father. He is, and this helps endear him to us, excruciatingly honest about his failings, but we see that these failings are replicated before and after him in this challenged family.

By now, you may be thinking this is a bleak book, but in fact, while there’s a lot of sadness here, the overriding sense is one of humanity and, reality. This means that there’s lightness too. There are wonderful scenes of connection, and there’s even a reference to the good things you can inherit from family. As Michael’s son Leo thinks happily of something he’s inherited from grandma Anna, Michael thinks, “so much pleasure in inheritance”.

The novel has four epigraphs, but I’ll just share the first, which comes from the Bulgarian author, Elias Canetti: “The story of a life is as secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all”. This is interesting given the book is about uncovering secrets, and about how important that is for Michael. Perhaps, though, it’s there to remind us that no matter how many secrets we might expose, we can, and should, never know it all.

I started my post by referencing “the dogs”, so I’m going to end with them too, because, in addition to negative connotations, “dogs” can also be positive, representing love, loyalty, warmth, protection. John Hughes’ The dogs is a tough, honest book about human frailty, about the decisions we make, the things we do that we shouldn’t, and the things we don’t do that we should have. But, it’s also about family, and ultimately, Michael and his son do the most loving thing they can do in the circumstances. Consequently, this title, The dogs, which encompasses such horror for Anna and, through her, for Michael, can also embrace the idea of redemption.

Lisa also enjoyed this book.

John Hughes
The dogs
Perth: Upswell, 2021
312pp.
ISBN: 9780645076349

Monday musings on Australian Literature: Colonial Texts series

I came across the Colonial Texts series back in 1988 with the publication of its first book, Ada Cambridge’s A woman’s friendship. I bought it and read it, and was inspired to read another novel by Cambridge, Sisters. Somehow, though, I lost touch with this series, partly due to my young family busy-ness at the time but also, I’d say, due to poor general (ie outside academia) marketing.

The series is just one example of the flurry of activity that was happening around the late 1980s in terms of retrieving Australian literary history, particularly, but not exclusively, women’s writing. This was strongly related to the Australian Bicentenary which saw all sorts of renewed enthusiasm for things “Australian”, though there was at the time, and quite rightly, controversy about celebrating 200 years of settler society, given the long habitation of this land by First Nations Australians who had never been celebrated.

This is an important issue, but not related to this post, so, back to the series … The University of New South Wales’ Australian Scholarly Editions Centre (ASEC) devotes a page to it. The eight titles were published between 1988 and 2004, when it – just – stopped. ASEC describes the series’ aim as being “to provide reliable reading texts of little-known nineteenth-century Australian literary works”, in editions that include introductions and explanatory notes, which “outline relevant biographical, book-historical and critical contexts”.

ASEC also notes that the titles by Catherine Martin, Ernest Favenc and Tasma, as well as Ada Cambridge’s  A Black Sheep, are “full-scale critical editions, recording variant readings in other lifetime printings”. These are, then, scholarly editions but this doesn’t detract from their essential content, which is accessible to any interested reader.

Some of these works first appeared as serialisations in the newspapers of the day, and for some, this series was the first edition since their original publication. Others, however, had – and/or have since – appeared in other editions.

The list

Here is the list of the books published, in series no. order, and with some notes from ASEC’s site.

  1. Ada Cambridge, A woman’s friendship (1988, ed. Elizabeth Morrison): a “gentle satire of class and sexuality” which “opens a window on Melbourne society of the 1880s and illuminates some important issues of the day – reform of dress and diet, the ‘marriage question’, socialism, and women’s suffrage”. (1889)
  2. Mary Theresa Vidal, Bengala, or, Some time ago (1990, ed. Susan McKernan): “depicts the life of the colonial gentry in the years before the goldrush, but it offers a more domestic and less exaggerated version of their lifestyle”. (1860)
  3. N. Walter Swan, Luke Mivers’ harvest (1991, ed. Harry Heseltine): “a tale of adventure, love, and revenge”, which ranges from the sheep runs of Victoria to the Palmer goldfields in North Queensland. Intersperses scenes of high passion and excitement with “satirical commentary on many aspects of nineteenth century Australian life and manners”. (1879)
  4. Catherine Martin, The silent sea (1995, ed. Rosemary Foxton): “centres around the Colmar Mine which is modelled on the largest gold mine existing in South Australia at the end of the nineteenth century … intelligent and sophisticated novel [which] encompasses compelling psychological obsession, passionate romance and ironic questioning set in vivid historical detail against Adelaide society and the outback”. (1892)
  5. Ernest Favenc, Tales of the Austral tropics (1997, ed. Cheryl Taylor): collection of stories which “draw their vivid realism” from the author’s experience as an explorer and rover in north Queensland”. Includes romances and comedies, but most “return to the theme of death in the desert, mangroves and caves. Their obsessive horror and ugliness are suggestive of tensions in the national identity, as it emerged in an alien environment, to confront many kinds of racial and cultural differences”. (1890s) (Lisa’s review of SUP edition)
  6. Louisa Atkinson, Gertrude, the emigrant : a tale of colonial life (1998, ed. Elizabeth Lawson) (Bill’s review of Mulini Press edition on AWW site): “the first Australian novel written by a native-born woman and the first to be illustrated by its author … [the] story of a young immigrant heroine making a life in a colony which is itself in the making … draws on authorial and family memories to summon the harsh, more complex, convict worlds of Sutton Forest, the Shoalhaven and Sydney in the late 1830s and 1840s”. (1857)
  7. Tasma (Jessie Couvreur), The Pipers of Piper’s Hill (serial version of Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill ) (2002, ed. Margaret Bradstock) (my review of PGA edition): “the story of the Cavendish family who come to Australia from England to live with Mrs Cavendish’s parvenu brother, Tom Piper” focusing on “the clash of values between the impoverished old world of privilege and the new-world democracy of the self-made man … Tasma’s depiction of the conflicting currents of life in colonial society, and her delightful evocation of the characters involved, rapidly established her as an author of note”. (1888)
  8. Ada Cambridge, A black sheep: some episodes in his life (serial version of A marked man) (2004, ed. Elizabeth Morrison) (Narelle Ontivero’s review of Pandora’s edition of A marked man on Bill’s blog): follows the life and loves of Richard Delavel, from being “a rebellious Oxford undergraduate in 1850s England” to “a still restless middle-aged family man in 1880s Sydney … against a background of constraints and opportunities in Britain and Australia”. Described as “a powerful creation of an iconoclastic character in search of professional fulfillment” and “a complex reflection on marriage ties and social obligations and a lively evocation of late colonial Sydney”. (1888/1890)

It’s interesting, but not surprising, to see that the goldrush and goldmining feature in several of these, not to mention the clash between old and new worlds. It’s also interesting that a few are satirical.

Hmm…

In 1991, a report titled “Successful symbiosis of defence and books”, was published in The Canberra Times. Written by literary editor Robert Hefner, it describes the launch of NINE books published by the staff of the English Department at University College, the Australian Defence Force Academy, which, Hefner writes, “has for more than a decade, been building a reputation as one of the country’s leading centres for the study of Australian literature”. Australian polymath Barry Jones, who did the launch said:

It’s always very flattering to be asked to launch a book … but to have been asked to launch nine is something well beyond my experience … and to do it here in the environment of the Australian Defence Force Academy… makes the occasion all the more unusual and to be cherished.

The English Department here at the University College… an outpost — and I would hope a revolutionary and subversive outpost of the University of New South Wales — with its extraordinary symbiosis has been extraordinarily productive.

It was the idea that a Colonial Texts series would come out of a defence force academy that thrilled me so much when I bought my Cambridge. The nine impressive books are listed in the article. They include two Colonial Texts, Vidal’s Bengala and Swan’s Luke Mivers’ harvest. Bengala editor, Dr McKernan, said that something they’ve

all found in working on this series is that you can’t rely on public opinion for the good things to come to the surface… there’s a lot of pleasure in things that’ve been lost. 

Don’t we know it! She went on to say, writes Hefner, ‘that this reinforced the sense that critics working today had a big responsibility to read and argue about things, “because in a hundred years’ time they may all be forgotten”.’ This is why our reframed AWW program is so important.

Why, you might wonder, did I head this section, Hmm? It’s because Hefner concluded his report with a comment by one of the launched authors, Adrian Caesar:

All these books were, I think, largely conceived, written and produced before the Government and the University of NSW began expending so many efforts and energies on making us more efficient, productive and accountable.

Very possibly we’ll have to work even harder in the future to match this output, since so much of our time is now taken up with shuffling bits of paper around our desks in order to prove how efficient, productive and accountable we are. This of course inevitably makes us much less efficient since it detracts from our proper task of teaching and research. I feel hopeful, however, that this department at least will maintain its productivity, despite, not because of the valiant initiatives to improve us.

You can’t help thinking that in saying this, he was foretelling the future, because publication of the last five Colonial Texts took much longer than the first three (even allowing for a couple of years lead-time before the first was published). And then they stopped. I’m sure that’s not because there was nothing else worth publishing!