Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2012 Round-up

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

(Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

It seems fitting that my last Monday musings for 2012 be devoted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, partly because it turned out to be quite a significant event in Australia’s literary calendar for the year, and partly because I introduced it in my first Monday musings of the year. The challenge was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in response to growing concern in Australian literary circles about lack of recognition* for women writers here. This concern resulted in several tangible actions, besides this challenge, including the creation of the Stella Prize and the first Meanjin Tournament of Books being dedicated to novels by Australian women.

Elizabeth, I know, had no comprehension when she started the challenge of just how successful it would be. Not only did it end the year with around 350 participants, who wrote around 1500 reviews for over 550 authors, but it received significant recognition from multiple quarters, including:

  • Huffington Post, for which Elizabeth was asked to write an article
  • ABC Radio National, on which the challenge was mentioned at least once
  • The National Year of Reading, 2012, which recognised it as an activity in their program
  • Many bookshops, libraries and authors (too many to list), who got behind the challenge and promoted it on their blogs/sites

The challenge has infiltrated social media. It can be found on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), and GoodReads, as well as on its dedicated website and blog. It has built up such momentum that it will continue in 2013, with a team to help Elizabeth manage it. I have agreed to be part of that team, with responsibility for the “Literary” area. If it sounds like the sort of challenge for you, please sign up here: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

As I explained in yesterday’s highlights post, this is my first ever challenge. I’ve discovered that it is normal to do a round-up post at the end of a challenge, so here’s mine. I signed up for the Franklin-fantastic Dabbler level, that is, that I’d read (and review) at least 10 books by Australian women writers in more than one genre. I’m therefore listing them by category/genre (but please understand that the groupings are very loose and pretty arbitrary! They are indicative only).







What did I learn from the challenge? Principally that there’s a whole world of Aussie women writers out there that I knew little or nothing about. They are beavering away in genres I tend not to read and they have big followings, many of whom posted their reviews on the challenge site. The existence of this band of writers was one of the reasons Elizabeth started the challenge, because she knew they were scarcely known outside their specialised fields. I suppose this is the case with all reading categories: we tend not to know what’s going on outside our sphere of interest. But, I’m glad to have had my eyes opened, even if I’m unlikely to greatly change my reading habits. So much to read … and all that, eh?

* Somewhat ironically, this year two books by Australian women – Anna Funder’s All that I am and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread – pretty well scooped our top literary awards. While I like to see awards spread around a bit because there’s a lot of quality out there, it was good to see these two wonderful writers receive such clear recognition.

Finally …

A big thanks to all you readers who add so much to my blogging experience. I truly appreciate the encouragement you give me by visiting, by “liking”, and best of all by commenting. I hope you have all had a satisfying 2012 and wish you every good thing, bookish and otherwise, for 2013.

Highlights of 2012: Blogging and the Reading Life

It’s been a busy year chez Gums and so I’ve decided to write two highlight posts – one listing some favourite reads, and this one for other blogging and reading highlights. Here, in no particular order, they are …

The challenge to do when you don’t do challenges

I decided when I started blogging that I wouldn’t take part in challenges, much as some intrigued me. I wanted to be mistress of my own reading choices and not get drawn into “having” to read something to comply with a challenge. But then, along came the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and I couldn’t say no. It’s a bit of a cheat, really, to say I’ve engaged in a challenge because reading Australian women writers is not a challenge for me. It’s what I do anyhow, it’s my reading preference. And so, readers, I completed the challenge – and will take part again next year. Look for tomorrow’s Monday Musings for my challenge wrap-up …

Other blogging activities

This year I took part in two other blogger-initiated literary activities. One was the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize team (which actually started in late 2011 but ran through the first quarter of 2012). With a team of 6 (Lisa, Fay , Matt, Stu and Mark), we reviewed the full longlist and chose our winning book, Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother, which was also chosen by the official judges. It was a great experience, and some of the books I read will be among this year’s reading highlights. However, I have not joined the team this year because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I’m missing reading some great books though, I know.

The other activity was the Bah-Humbook virtual gift exchange instigated by Guy Savage and Emma. My exchange partner was Stu (see Shadow Man Asian team above!). Stu chose two fascinating sounding books for me, so you can expect reviews of these in the coming months!

Blogging highlights

It has been a pretty exciting year for Whispering Gums blog. Firstly, I finally decided in October to buy my own domain name so that I’m now the proud owner of “”. It doesn’t mean much really – except that Google “lost” me for a few months – but it somehow feels more authentic. I’m still hosted by WordPress, giving me, for my needs, the best of both worlds.

Around the same time, an excerpt of my review of Gillian Mears‘ wonderful novel Foals’ bread was included, along with those from another blog (Reading Matters) and several newspaper/magazine reviewers, in the front pages of the “C” paperback edition of the novel.

And then, in December, my blog was added to the Pandora web archive by the National Library of Australia, meaning that, if I ever disappear, my blog will be available online in perpetuity (or until a librarian decides to deselect it!).

Literary events

I attended a number of literary events this year … though never as many as I’d like to! The highlight was probably the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival. With writers like Kate Grenville, Anita Heiss and Frank Moorhouse speaking, it had to be a winner, and it was. We Canberrans hope it continues next year.

I also attended the Prime Ministers’ Literary Prize post-announcement panel, and the launches of The invisible thread anthology, Nigel Featherstone’s novella I’m ready now and Suzanne Edgar’s poetry collection Love procession.

Reading goals

This heading is a bit of a misnomer, as I don’t set formal reading goals. However, I do have in my mind works and authors I’d like to read, and this year I achieved an important one, Gerald Murnane. He’s been on the Australian literary scene for a few decades but I had never managed to read him until now. And why now? Because of Text Publishing’s new Text Classics series – the publication of which is another highlight of my reading year. Text has made available, at a good price, a wonderful and diverse collection of Australian classics. I’m glad I finally met this goal, and look forward to more Murnane in my reading future.

Red Dog

I wrote a post in September about the number of ways people were reaching my blog by asking about the film Red Dog, particularly by asking whether Red Dog dies in the movie. Three months later – and some sixteen months after my review – my Red Dog post is still in my top five posts for the year. That movie seems to have really hit a chord. This doesn’t mean I am now going to tell you the answer, but I’m sorry to tell you that Koko, who played Red Dog in the movie, died this month. He was only 7 and had, apparently, won awards for his role. I didn’t even know there were awards for animal stars but apparently there are. All I can say is, Vale Red Dog, oops, I mean Vale Koko!

And that’s about it from me for my blogging/reading life highlights of the year. I’d love to hear if you have any highlights of the literary or blogging kind that you’d like to share …

Thea Astley, Hunting the wild pineapple (Review)

Thea Astley‘s “Hunting the wild pineapple” is both a short story and the title of a collection of connected short stories (that includes, of course, the title story). Today I am going to write on the short story as it’s one of the 16 included in the current Meanjin Tournament of Books – and it has made it through to the second round.

“Hunting the wild pineapple” is the third story of eight, which are all narrated by a man called Leverson. It is set in far North Queensland in a place called Mango, which she writes about again in her 1987 novel, It’s raining in Mango. In this story, Leverson, accompanied by the American Mrs Crystal Bellamy who is “impossibly researching the human geography of the north for a nonsense thesis”, is visiting a pineapple farmer called Pasmore. Pasmore, while waiting for a lobster to thaw for dinner, takes his guests on a somewhat alcohol-fuelled car-ride, first to hunt for wild pineapples and then to visit his two migrant farm workers, “the two”.

It is pretty vintage Astley, at least mid-career Astley as I know her, with its lush, evocative, “imagistic” (as she once described it) language and its focus on inequitable human relationships in which one group, usually white men, wield power over another – women, migrants, and (though not in this particular story) indigenous people.

The story is set in the 1970s, and is characterised by satire and irony. Leverson describes Pasmore as

a well-intentioned buddy who wanted to prove we’re not all grubbing away at soil up here, that we’re smooth, polished, and have swung quite nicely, ta ever so, into the sophisticated seventies.

So smooth that outside the house we are left gawking at a whopping heart-shaped swimming-pool filled with blue tears that blinked as a woman (his wife?) plunged from sight.

See what I mean about the language? It’s packed with images and ideas that rub somewhat uncomfortably against each other. In Astley, discomforting language is de rigueur; it, more than plot or characterisation, is the tool she uses to unsettle us, to shock us out of our comfort zone and force us to confront the unkindness, the viciousness, if not the downright violence that she sees lurking beneath the surface of human interactions. (I admit now that I don’t always get it on a rational level, but it rarely fails to move me.) In this story, the relationships she spears with her pineapples are those between husband and wife (Mr Pasmore and Tubs), employer and worker (Mr Pasmore and migrant workers, Tom and Georgy), and even between colleagues (Tom and Georgy).

And yet, it’s Astley’s language that has got her most into trouble, because it is heavily imagistic (not at all spare, until perhaps her very last works which were a little sparer, comparatively speaking) and some readers and critics don’t like it. Here, for example, is Leverson on Pasmore presenting his hunted down, “huge humped” pineapple to Mrs Bellamy:

… he tattooed her arms with spikes; the head spears stabbed her skin. He lit, post-coitally I think nastily, a cigarette.

Not very subtle, eh, but effective in its hints of sex, power and violence. Similarly, here is Pasmore knocking on the door of “the two”, he

drummed a neat riff on the wall beside the open front door, the over-familiar, paternalistic-presumptuous tat-a-tat, tat-tat, and emitted hearty cries of boss-lure …

Writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy, like me, likes Astley. She says*:

I love Thea Astley’s writing and always have. I love its densely woven grammar, its ingrained humour, its uncompromising politics, its demented metaphors, and its undimmed outrage at human folly, stupidity and greed. I love the way that even at its most savage and despairing, it has always had a suggestion of redemptive energy working away somewhere in the plot, no matter how subterranean, outmaneuvered or comprehensively beaten down….

This story is a good example of the Astley that Goldsworthy and I like. There’s a savage bite to it, but there’s also the slightest hint of the opposite. I wonder how far it will get in Meanjin’s tournament.

Thea Astley
“Hunting the wild pineapple”
in Hunting the wild pineapple and other related stories
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 63-76
ISBN: 9780140058437

* from “Undimmed Outrage”, Australian Book Review, Sept 1999, Issue no 214.

Barbara Baynton, The chosen vessel (Review)

I’m blaming author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson again for this post, because she wrote a wonderful comment on my post on Barbara Baynton‘s short story “Squeaker’s mate”, and I’m going to quote it pretty much in full (I hope that’s ok from a copyright point of view – tell me if it isn’t Karen Lee):

Barbara Baynton wrote some wonderful stories and, had literary politics been a little more inclusive in the days of the Bulletin, I’m sure she would have received wider recognition. Many of Baynton’s short stories, like ‘Squeakers Mate’, turn ‘The Australian Legend’ on its head and, perhaps because of this, the male literary elite (A.G. Stephens, A.A. Phillips for example) chose to modify or explain her work in various ways.

An interesting example of this editorial intrusion is the politics surrounding Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’ (Baynton’s preferred title was ‘What the Curlews Cried’) which I have read, in its various forms, a number of times. Stephens published it as ‘The Tramp’. It is believed he wanted the title to shift the focus away from the central woman and it allowed for clarity between a ‘tramp’ (an isolated individual) and a ‘swagman’ (a virtuous kind of everyman of the bush). Stephens also cut a significant part of the story before publication.

For anyone who enjoys ‘Squeakers Mate’, I’d suggest a reading of ‘What the Curlews Cried’ (aka ‘The Chosen Vessel’ or ‘The Tramp’), preferably in its unabridged form.

“The chosen vessel” and “Squeaker’s mate” are Baynton’s best known and most anthologised short stories. However, I hadn’t read “The chosen vessel” before and so decided, on Karen Lee’s recommendation, to read the version in Bush studies. According to my brief research, and Karen Lee can correct me if I’m wrong, The Bush studies version is the final complete version Baynton presented for publication. However, it is not the same as the original version which was submitted as “What the curlews cried” and then significantly edited by the Bulletin.

Anyhow, if I thought “Squeaker’s mate” was tough, then this one is tougher. The female protagonist is left alone with her baby, rather like Lawson’s wife in “The drover’s wife”, but this woman faces a double whammy. Left by a cruel husband, she is terrorised by a “swagman” (not a “tramp” despite its first published title). She’s a town girl unfamiliar with bush life, but that’s not what scares her. I won’t detail the plot more because it’s a short story (around 8 pages) and you can find it in the online link below. The shorter Bulletin version, I understand, did not change what happened to the woman, but excised a whole section and thereby effectively changed the meaning of the story to suggest an isolated instance rather than something more systemic.

In the introduction to my Sydney University Press edition, Susan Sheridan confirms my statement in my “Squeaker’s mate” post that Baynton’s main concern was not the harshness or terrors of the bush and the land, which contemporary critics tried to argue, but male brutality to woman and, more significantly, “the impossible position that male culture constructs for ‘woman’ in the abstract”. She writes that woman is glorified as the Madonna, God’s “chosen vessel”,  but “at the same time the capacity for motherhood is regarded as confining her to the animal level of existence”. In “The chosen vessel” religious imagery – the mother and her baby are both mistaken for a ewe and a lamb and as a vision of the Madonna and child – is used to devastating ironic effect.

I’m not surprised that those late nineteenth century men found her writing confronting and that the Bulletin only ever published one of her short stories, but, for me, Baynton’s writing presents an alternative view of life in the bush that I’m glad we have available today.

Barbara Baynton
“The chosen vessel”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg

Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s mate (Review)

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

My last post was about this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books which is pitting short stories against each other. One of the short stories is Barbara Baynton‘s “Squeaker’s mate”, which I’ve read before but a long time ago. I decided, though, to read it again, since I have easy access to a copy, on my shelves and online.

Author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson commented on my tournament post that she’d like to see a bout comparing “Squeaker’s mate” (1902) with Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” (1892), and it would be delicious. I was tempted to do it here but I won’t. However, I did think of commencing this post with “Only a woman …” because, despite their broad similarities in subject matter and setting – the harsh life faced by pioneer women in the outback – there is a big difference in tone. Both stories chronicle the bravery and perseverance of bush women,  but Lawson’s story has an heroic, even somewhat romantic, tone. Not so with Baynton.

Squeaker’s mate, “the best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats”, is a hardworking, taciturn woman whose mate, Squeaker, is a good-for-nothing. Here’s paragraph three:

From the bag she took the axe,  and ring-barked a preparatory circle, while he looked for a shady spot for the billy and the tucker-bags.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Squeaker, other than laziness, but “she knew the man, and her tolerance was of the mysteries”. However, things change dramatically early in the story when a tree falls on her, putting her out of action. Squeaker’s initial reaction is chilling – “he was impatient, because for once he had actually to use his strength” – and, a little later

he supposed he would have to yard them [the sheep] tonight, if she didn’t liven up. He looked down at unenlivened her.

It’s only in the last few paragraphs of the story that we learn “her” name. Significantly, it’s Mary.

The rest of the story chronicles his self-centred callous treatment of her, sometimes leaving her for days with no sustenance. All she has is her loyal dog which, for we readers, relieves, albeit slightly, our despair at her situation. There is no heroism in here, very little kindness even – but there is, on the part of Squeaker’s mate, resilience and, without giving away the story, a triumph of sorts.

Baynton is critical of men’s attitude to women – and this is a major theme of the story, though it’s not that simple either. Early on, a few men do show kindness to Mary – let’s dignify her with her name now – but their women put a stop to that. Mary had not been one for “yarnin'”, making her “unlikely” to be popular with them. Baynton writes:

It is in the ordering of things that by degrees most husbands accept their wives’ views of other women.

And so Mary is left alone.

The writing is compelling. It is told third person, but the perspective swaps between hers, his, and, later on, that of the woman he brings into their home. In some circumstances this narrative approach could provide an even-handed view of the characters, but here it only serves to reinforce our early opinion of them. In other words, Squeaker does not improve on acquaintance. Baynton plays effectively with the “word” mate, contrasting the roles, responsibilities and rights of mates as partners, alongside those of the Australian “mateship” tradition, with Squeaker’s un-mate-like, in all senses of the word, behaviour.

Imagery is used sparingly, but it’s pointed when it’s there. It is a tree that brings Mary down, and then late in the story Squeaker decides to clear some land:

So that now, added to the other bush voices, was the call from some untimely falling giant. There is no sound so human as that from the riven souls of these tree people, or the trembling sighs of their upright neighbours whose hands in time will meet over the fallen victim’s body.

A little melodramatic in that 19th century way maybe, but Baynton’s suggestion that there’s more solidarity among trees than the humans below is well made. In fact, while life is harsh, it’s not an unforgiving environment that is the main problem for Baynton’s characters.

It’s a grim but effective story that focuses mostly on gendered callousness in a world where survival would be best ensured by cooperation. In confronting gender issues, Baynton is part of a tradition of Australian women’s writing of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century that has, to a large degree, been forgotten a century or so later. It’s time to revive these early writers – and hopefully recent initiatives by Sydney University Press, Text Publishing and others, will do the job.

Barbara Baynton
“Squeaker’s mate”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg

Kate Grenville, The lieutenant (Review)

Kate Grenville, The lieutenant book cover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

I first came across William Dawes, the inspiration for Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, in Inga Clendinnen’s award-winning history, Dancing with strangers (2003). But this is not the only book that Grenville’s novel brought to mind, as it also reminded me of Kim Scott’s That deadman dance. (Intriguing that both these books use a dance motif, but it’s an historically valid one).

However, before I talk more about these connections and their relevance, I should briefly describe the plot. The novel is set during the first years of the white settlement of Australia. (The very fact that I write the “white” settlement says something about how far we have come in the last two centuries, though we still have some way to go). Daniel Rooke, the protagonist, is a young astronomer. He has been chosen for the First Fleet on the recommendation of the Astronomer Royal who believes that a significant comet will appear in the southern hemisphere in late 1788-early 1789. With this role in mind, Rooke manages to largely separate himself from the day-to-day hurly burly of the first year or two of settlement by creating an observatory, of sorts, for himself, on a hill (now called Dawes Point) overlooking Sydney Cove. Here, in his isolation, he is visited by a group of indigenous people, mostly women and children, and develops a particular relationship with the young 12-13 year old girl, Tagaran. They learn each other’s language, which Rooke chronicles in his journals. All this generally reflects the story of William Dawes whose journals Grenville (and Clendinnen) read, but, as Grenville writes in her author’s note:

Although I made use of historical sources, I departed from them in various ways. This is a novel; it should not be mistaken for history.

Meanwhile, back in 2003, Clendinnen wrote of Dawes, bemoaning his earlier-than-wished-for departure from the colony:

His departure cost us access to the local language as it was spoken at the time of contact. It possibly also cost us a brilliant ethnography, although his tender conscience  might not have allowed him to open the people to easier communication, and to more disruptive exploitation.

Grenville does a good job of imagining the Dawes described by Clendinnen as an “introspective, scholarly type” in her characterisation of Daniel Rooke. She introduces him as a socially awkward but sensitive and thoughtful young man who joined the military not for love of war but because it provided the best chance for a poor young man to make a life for himself. From this supposition she develops a credible character whose final actions in the book pretty closely mirror what we know of Dawes.

I will leave Rooke here for a moment, though, to talk a little more about the conjunction between the three books I mentioned in my introductory paragraph. The significant point they all make is what Clendinnen calls “acts of kindness” by the indigenous Australians in the early days of settlement (in the east, in the case of Grenville and Clendinnen, and the west in the case of Scott). All three writers describe a willingness to be generous that was not recognised or accepted by the colonial invaders. Now, I know that here I am speaking of history and fiction in the one breath and I know that, as Grenville wrote, novels should not be mistaken for history. However, modern readers can, I think, glean the truths, regardless of form or genre, if the writers provide the appopriate signposts.

Take The lieutenant. In it, Grenville is still smarting I think from the criticism she received from historians regarding her claims about the historical value of The secret river. The book contains many rather sly allusions to facts, reality and truths. I particularly liked Rooke’s contemplation about the value of his journals in which, as well as documenting the language he was learning, he described his interactions with indigenous Australians, telling stories that actually happened but whose meaning, he discovered, could be distorted. He considers omitting all but the dry documenting of language, but then realises:

Making an expurgated version of the notebooks would kill them. Like a stuffed parrot, they would be real, but not true.

With a little sleight of hand, Grenville uses a fictional character and his fictional journal to talk about the use of historical sources and the telling of stories from them. Do you simply present the “facts” or do you tell a story –  either factual as in history or fictional as in novels – from those facts in which you aim to draw out the truths as best you see them. Am I drawing too long a bow? I don’t think I am.

And so, as you can probably tell, I enjoyed the novel. It suffers from a little earnestness in tone but that doesn’t get too much in the way of a good story about how first contact in the first settlement played out. It’s not the only story about first contact but it is a valid one – and it helps us understand how an all too human inability to walk in the shoes of the other resulted in a catastrophe of major proportions that we are still working through today.

Kate Grenville
The lieutenant
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 9781921656767

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing. An unsolicited review copy received in 2010 so I’m afraid I’ve taken my time to get to it.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Marilyn of Me, You and Books

I first “met” Marilyn earlier this year when she decided to take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. There aren’t many non-Australians who have signed up for this challenge so Texas-resident Marilyn stood out. She is a retired professor of a small liberal arts school in the USA, where she taught women’s history, black history, US social history, and women’s studies. We started “talking” about the similarities and differences in our respective settler nations, and discovered that we share some interests in the intersection between literature and history. She seemed a perfect person to ask to do a Guest Post for Monday Musings. Luckily for me she said yes … thanks Marilyn! Here is her post:

Writing about Indigenous Peoples: Grenville and Clendinnen

I never set out to become a critic of Australian writers. When I started blogging last January, I joined the Australian Women Writers challenge because I wanted to read more globally. Then I read Anita Heiss’s guest post on Australian Indigenous Women Writers and started reading books by and about Indigenous women. I was hooked.

In the past, as a white scholar, I have researched and taught about African American, Native American, and Hispanic peoples in US history. In Women’s Studies, I also have explored the differences between the stories that women and men typically tell about women. With an African American colleague I researched and wrote about Black Women’s Clubs in Kansas. In my own mind, I have played with questions of how those from the dominant culture can write with authenticity about those our culture has defined as Other. Reading books by and about Australian Aboriginals put me back into those issues.

Kate Grenville and Inga Clendinnen have both written about the original encounter between British settlers and Australian Aboriginals. Both have strong views about how to approach the subject. In 2006, after the publication of Grenville’s The Secret River and in the context of the Australian “History Wars,” the two publicly debated their different viewpoints. Having recently read several books by each, I see their debate as crystallizing the issues for all of us who seek to read and write those who are different from us in essential ways.

Grenville writes as a novelist and Clendinnen as an historian, making some of the differences between their writing predictable. As an historian, I may be biased in favor of Clendinnen. But their initial perspectives on Indigenous people are even more divergent and more critical. Clendinnen speculates equally about the British and the people they found in Australia. Grenville explicitly immerses herself in the characters based on her ancestors and views the Indigenous people as “too different” to attempt to understand.

As many of you know, Grenville is a superb writer, in part because she literally puts herself into the landscapes and characters of her stories. For her Thornhill books, she sailed along the rough Australian coast and stepped into the wilderness just off the path to try and discover how her ancestors would have experienced those places. And she is able to convey what she has experienced to her readers. In part, her method works because people, past and present, share basic human thoughts and feelings. Clendinnen points out, however, that the British whose experiences Grenville seeks to know and describe are really not like those of us who read her novels today. Grenville is able to make people from the past seem real, but she can not know them more accurately than historians, as she may have claimed to do. She later retracted comments which implied that fiction was superior in telling what really happened. It may indeed be better at conveying the feelings, but it cannot prove their reality.

Clendinnen is very aware of the rules that historians agree to follow in their writing. She sometimes chaffs at those rules, describing herself as Gulliver held down by all the little ropes of the Lilliputians. Historians are limited by the “evidence.” They don’t write oral dialogue into their books, and they state the sources of their information, for example. In the end, Clendinnen accepts her identity as an historian. But her discipline is changing as historians, like others, face the implications of shifting understandings of “memory” and “truth.” With some assistance from anthropology, Clendinnen seeks to squeeze out clues to the larger cultural significance of human actions, and she is more willing to speculate than historians have traditionally been willing to do. Looking very carefully at the accounts written by British officials about their first contact with the Australian Aboriginals, she analyzes both groups and the values held by each, revealing both the cultural misunderstandings and the confusion on both sides. She points out how initially both groups were hopeful, even willing to “dance with the strangers.” Gradually, however, each side misread the other and tension between them grew. The British could not conceive of the rituals the Australians were enacting, and the Australians could not grasp why the British lashed and hung members of their own community.

What is unusual here, and in sharp contrast to Grenville’s first and third Thornhill novels, is that Clendinnen explicitly gives the Australian Aboriginals and the British equal treatment. Deeply aware that societies define “truth” differently, she sees both groups as equally human. She explicitly rejects any assumptions that the British accounts are objective rather than filled with their own value judgments. In contrast, Grenville stops at the surface of the Indigenous people, portraying them as if they were objects, not as she treats her fully developed Anglo characters. In doing so, she does recreate her own ancestors’ probable perception of them. However, this approach encourages her readers to go on thinking of Aboriginals as silent and thus less than human.

In The Lieutenant, the second of the Thornhill books, Grenville is able to write with an authenticity and feeling about the Indigenous people not present in the other books. Grenville does a fine job of using history as a starting point for this novel. She uses some of the same source material that Clendinnen used in her historical work, Dancing with Strangers, but she goes in a difference direction. First, she creates the character, Daniel Rooke, the fictional version of William Dawes, who kept the notebooks which Grenville used in researching the novel. She envisions him as a boy and young man with a prodigious mathematical ability but no social skills. When Rooke comes to Australia as the astronomer for the First Fleet, one of task he sets himself is that of learning the language of the people already living there. He realizes that learning individual words, as others are doing, is not enough. He wants to grasp the structure and feel of the language. A bright, young Indigenous girl agrees to help him learn in exchange for his teaching her English. Grenville says she is ten or twelve years old, the age that Rooke remembers his dearly loved sister as being. A delightful exchange develops between the two, not romance but the shared excitement of discovery and learning which Grenville describes wonderfully. In the process, Rooke becomes sharply aware of the native peoples’ humanity and, with joy and pain, of his own. As events unfold, he is forced to realize that these human bonds conflict with his duties as a military officer.

Despite their previous disagreements, Grenville follows Clendinnen’s approach to conceptualizing Indigenous people in The Lieutenant. Her major character is British and his changing thoughts and feelings are the focus of the book. When he gets to Australia and begins to work with the people there to learn their language, however, he is increasingly aware of them as real people, not as the silent shadow figures that appear in her other books. Native and British are equals; in fact he realizes that at times the girl is quicker than he is to figure things out. Perhaps Grenville is capable of doing this in this particular book because she stayed so closely to the actual words written in Lawson’s notebooks. She notes, in something approaching a footnote, that the conversations between Rooke and he young girl were not imagined but taken directly from the notebook. She only creates the feelings and thoughts that might have accompanied those words. Clendinnen and any other historians would be impressed. As I read, I didn’t care whether or not Grenville’s descriptions had actually happened because she stayed so close to what we can know in her imagining.

Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant that an author need not be Indigenous to write authentically about them. Using the notebooks left by William Dawes seems to have helped her achieve this. Sadly, she was not able to do the same thing in her next novel where the documents she used were written by those who did not honor and listen to those unlike themselves. Perhaps listening is the key; listening to documents, listening to voices that are unfamiliar. It is hard work, however, for an author to understand and write from the perspective of the Other. But it can be done, as Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant.

I agree that is easy to expect too much of novelists who write historical fiction. But I believe that the most basic requirement of the genre is that authors not treat any group of characters in their books as empty stereotypes. For years male authors treated women in this way until, finally, women began to introduce women characters that were as fully human as their male ones. Now we seeing fuller and more authentic women in men’s writings as well as women’s. We need to make the same change in how we write about other groups which have been subordinated in the past. That is what it means to move beyond colonization and assumptions of white superiority.

Relevant writings. Links to my reviews and online articles.

Grenville, Kate. The Secret River (2006), The Lieutenant (2008), Sarah Thornhill (2012) and “Unsettling the Settlers.” I tried to obtain her Searching for the Secret River, but no libraries in the US have a copy to loan.

Clendinnen, Inga. Tiger’s Eye (2001), Dancing with Strangers (2005), and her online essay, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past” (2006).

And now Marilyn and I would love to hear your thoughts on the books and/or issues she raises here.

Paddy O’Reilly, The salesman (Review)

I’ve been wanting to read Paddy O’Reilly for the longest time but somehow haven’t managed to get to her so, as is my wont, I decided to read a short story of hers in the Griffith Review. She made her name, I think, with her short stories, but has also written novels/novellas and a screenplay, and is a regular contributor to Australia’s best literary magazines.

I know you wouldn’t expect this of me, but I’ve just told a lie – just a white one, your honour – because I have read a couple of articles by Paddy O’Reilly, and I did read her opening story in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2, published in 2010. The story was titled “How to write a short story”. It’s a very short piece, just over a page, but it was my first, albeit very short, introduction to O’Reilly. The piece is presented as a recipe, with a list of steps, such as:

Test whether the story is done by inserting a reader. If the reader comes out clean, the story is done. If the reader comes out sticky, place the story back into the situation for another 500 words.

This story suggested to me that O’Reilly is not afraid to let women’s experience underpin her writing. But, this doesn’t mean that she wants her writing to be labelled “women’s fiction”. As she asks in her recent post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, what is women’s fiction? Writing for women? About women? By women? I’m inclined to agree with her that it’s not a useful distinction. What after all is “men’s fiction”? Categorising works as “women’s fiction” has the potential to (and in fact does already) marginalise, trivialise even, women writers and readers. So, like Paddy O’Reilly, I tend not to think in terms of “women’s fiction”. I do, however, and I’d argue this is quite different, like to focus on “women writers”.  Hence, here I am, reading (more) Paddy O’Reilly …

“The salesman” is set in a working class suburb of Melbourne where there’s 80% unemployment. It features a salesman (obviously), a young woman named Marly, and her boyfriend and his mate. The story opens with the young woman alone at home. It’s hot and life is clearly not much fun. Her boyfriend Shaun and his mate, Azza, spend their days working on cars, their heads “under the bonnet like stupid long-necked emus”. And, the fridge is “moaning”. Such language in the first paragraph makes it pretty clear that Marly is not a happy woman. In fact, we learn a little later on that she has lost part of a leg, creating an effective metaphor for a life that is missing something critical. Pran, the salesman, appears in the fourth paragraph. He’s a Hindu from Delhi but Marly, and later Shaun and Azza, persist in calling him a Paki.

Pran insists he’s not selling anything, but after Shaun and Azza return, we finally learn that what he is “selling” is a free offer! Shaun and Azza, as (stereotypically) men often do in these situations, lead Pran on while Marly is conflicted. Shaun is an “attentive” boyfriend. “She would not do better than this”, not better, she thinks, than a man “who had not once in eleven months raised a hand to her”. But, she’s attracted to Pran, to his “rich burnt-toffee” coloured skin and his “runny dark brown” eyes. It’s not just the physical though.  She senses through him, through her questions about his beliefs, that there could be more to life than hanging around waiting for the men to bring home beer and pizza. She does not want his visit to end in violence as, we are told, has happened before.

I’ll say no more about the plot. This is a story about the underside of modern Australia. It’s about poverty and deprivation and how these result in an arid, goal-less life in which there is little empathy for other. It’s about racism, about how, if you are the wrong colour, years of study can lead you to peddling “free offers” to people who can’t afford them. The ending is clever. While we are told the general outcome, we have to guess what really went down. What we do know, though, is that no-one ended up a winner. This is just the sort of story I like – it’s accessible, it has a clear vision with a tight focus, and it raises more questions than it answers. You can read it online at the link below.

Paddy O’Reilly
“The salesman”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 29, August 2010
Availability: Online at the Griffith Review

Nancy Cato, All the rivers run, Book 1 (Review)

It’s been a long time since I reviewed an audiobook or, more accurately, reviewed a book via its audiobook version. As I’ve said before, I don’t listen often to audiobooks, but last month Mr Gums and I did a long drive and so decided to listen to Nancy Cato‘s All the rivers run. I referred to this novel a few Monday Musings ago, because it was one of Australia’s early, successful adaptations for television.

Enough introduction though, time to talk about the book. Our audiobook contained the first book* of Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon’s saga. It starts her story when, in 1890 at the age of 13 she is orphaned in a shipwreck off the coast of Victoria. She is taken in by her dour aunt and more welcoming uncle who lead a spartan prospecting life at Kiandra in the Australian Alps. When her uncle Charles strikes it rich – that is he finds a large nugget of gold – the family (with her cousin, Adam, who is three years older than she) move to a sheep farm on the Murray River not far from Echuca. This first book, which is pretty much a coming-of-age story, finishes when Deli (as she prefers to be called) leaves home at the age of 17, after a tragedy has struck the family.

This is not really the sort of book I would normally read, though it is the sort of book I’d listen to on audiobook. Why so? Well, at the risk of being called a literary snob, I tend not to read sagas (whether they be historical fiction, fantasy or whatever). This is because their focus tends to be plot rather than style, structure, theme and, even perhaps, character development, though I know aficionados will argue with me and they will probably be right (to a degree!). Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I prefer to read. However, such stories are perfect for listening to in the car. Literature requiring intense concentration is not a safe bet when you are driving (or even when you are navigating). Horses for courses, as they say.

Cato’s book, like good historical fiction, captures the social history of the era well, particularly the tail end of the gold rush, the 1890s depression, life along the Murray River for the pastoralists and paddle steamers, the challenges faced by women in a male dominated society. She also touches on the dispossession of the indigenous people, showing the women working as “house-girls” for the pastoralists and their all too often descent into prostitution, often as the result of being used by and bearing the children of their white male bosses. Cato was, apparently, an active campaigner for indigenous land rights as well as for conservation.

I enjoyed Cato’s vivid descriptions of the landscape. The plot is a little predictable and the characters are somewhat stereotypical – the welcoming, easy-going farmer, the tough wife, the handsome son champing at the parental bit – but not so much that they don’t engage. Delie in this first book, for example, is a believable young girl, orphaned and taken in essentially by strangers and then experiencing her first love. She’s bright but not brash, independent but not without uncertainties.

I enjoyed one little description in particular. At a moment when things are going wrong for Deli, Cato writes that “a pair of kookaburras laughed sardonically”. I liked this description because only recently I’d been thinking about the first white settlers in Australia and what they made of the birds here, many of whom can sound pretty raucous. I wondered, in particular, what they thought when they first heard a kookaburra’s “laugh” as we describe it. Sardonic, is a very good description of it!

Overall then, it’s an enjoyable read, if you enjoy historical sagas, are interested in life in country Australia in the 1890s – and particularly if you have a long drive ahead of you! You could do way worse …

Nancy Cato
All the rivers run: A river not yet tamed (Audio CD)
Read by Kate Hosking
Bolinda Classics
6 hrs 15 mins on 5 discs
ISBN: 9781742336732

* Note: As far as I understand it, the three books in the trilogy were originally separately published as: All the rivers run (1958); Time, flow softly (1959); and But still the stream (1962). Recent editions, however, combine the three novels into one volume titled All the rivers run. I am not sure where the title A river not yet tamed comes from, but it looks like it might be Bolinda’s title for the first part of their recording of the trilogy.

Toni Jordan, Nine days (Review)

Jordan's Nine Days

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Toni Jordan’s latest novel, Nine days, is somewhat of a departure from her first two novels which are more in the chicklit vein, albeit chicklit with a difference. The thing is, I don’t generally read chicklit, but I did enjoy Addition and Fall girl, so I was more than willing to read Jordan’s next offering. I was not disappointed.

Nine days was, according to the Author’s note, inspired by a photograph from the State Library of Victoria’s Argus collection. The photograph forms the cover of the book’s first edition: it depicts an unidentified soldier leaning out of a train window to kiss an also unidentified young woman. Jordan has woven around this photo a multi-generational story that spans six decades or so from the eve of world war 2 to the present. The title refers to the nine days upon which the book’s nine chapters are built – with an added complexity. This is a multiple point of view novel like, say, Christos TsiolkasThe slap and Elliot Perlman‘s Seven types of ambiguity, but while those two novels progressed their narratives in a linear chronology via the changing voices, Jordan’s chronology jumps around in a seemingly chaotic manner. However, there is method to it, because careful reading reveals thematic or structural connections, even if not chronological ones, between each chapter.

That’s the basic structure, but the real interest of course is in what the novel’s about. How, though, to describe the plot of such a novel succinctly? The best way is to simply say that the novel tells the story of three generations of one family, which is, by the way, an impressive thing to attempt in 250 pages. There is a central mystery – for the reader and for the family though they aren’t necessarily aware of it – to do with the two figures in the photograph. Each chapter is named simply for the character in whose first person voice it is told. The first is Kip, a nearly 15-year-old boy in 1939, who has just had to leave school and go to work because of the recent death of his father. Other chapters are told by his twin brother Francis/Frank (who gets to stay at school), his mother Jean, and his much loved big sister Connie. Interspersed with their stories are those told by Kip’s wife, Jack who lives next door, Kip’s twin daughters, and even his grandson. For each person something happens – some choice must be, or is, made – in the particular day they describe, which impacts their life’s direction.

It’s an ambitious structure, but Jordan succeeds, for a few reasons. A big one is her ability to create strong, believable characters who are likable despite their faults. It helps that the first character, Kip, is particularly engaging. He’s easy-going and generous-hearted, but is also endowed with a good dose of wits and common-sense. He plays an important role in the denouement. His daughters, the overweight, rather uptight Stanzi, and the hippy-alternative-eco-warrior Charlotte, are clearly differentiated and provide a touch of humour with their (mostly) good-natured sibling bickering and point-scoring. Most contemporary female readers will see bits of themselves or people they know in these two. And, while I’m speaking of women, I can’t resist quoting Kip’s young, restless sixteen-year old grandson Alec:

I’ve wasted my whole entire existence up to now. I’ve done absolutely nothing with it. I’ve just been counting down the months of my life. Sixteen years, totally useless. I live with three women. A big night at my place is when the ABC runs a Jane Austen marathon. God I hate that Bennet chick. Marry him already, and spare us the drama.

Another reason the book works is that Jordan manages place and time well. Counterbalancing the seemingly erratic chronology is the fact that place is kept simple. The whole novel occurs pretty much in one suburb in working class Melbourne. This helps keep we readers grounded, as do two little motifs – a “lucky” shilling and a purple pendant – which appear on and off throughout the novel. I was initially concerned, after the first couple of chapters, that the shilling was going to be a little heavy-handed or mechanistic – particularly given the shilling graphic commencing each chapter – but it’s not. Like the pendant, it appears in some, but not other, chapters, and in so doing helps keep us focused without irritating us.

In other words, the book is handled very well technically. But, that’s not what makes a book, in the end, is it? What makes a book good is its heart – and the heart of this book is warm but real. Its particular subjects are war, abortion, religious and class difference, social conscience and social mobility, but it is also a universal tale about how love (marital, romantic, sibling, parental, and so on) forms the glue that keeps us going. This might sound corny, but that’s not how it comes across. The novel has its share of grittiness; and relationships have their tensions, conveying the message that love (whether marital, sibling or parental) is not a simple endpoint but something to be worked at.

This may not be the book for readers who like long family sagas they can lose themselves in, but for those like me who enjoy works which tease and leave ties undone, much like life really, Nine days has plenty to offer.

Toni Jordan
Nine days
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 9781921922831

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)