Brooke Davis, Lost & found (Review)

DavisLostFoundHachetteI must say that my antennae go up when I hear a book being touted as a publishing sensation even before it is published, as Brooke Davis’ recently published debut novel Lost & found, was. What does that mean? That it was the subject of a mega-dollar bidding war like, say, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites? Well, not necessarily, but Davis’ novel, according to hoopla.com, was “one of the hit titles at the 2014 London Book Fair and has since gone on to sell into 25 territories”. The question is, does it live up to this, hmm, hoop-la?

You’re all going to die (Millie)

I’ll start by saying that this “sensation” comes dressed as a light book and is, in fact, an easy and delightful read, but it also offers something more, content-wise and stylistically. For those of you who haven’t heard, the novel was inspired by Davis’s grief over the sudden death of her mother in a freak accident in 2006, and was written for her doctorate at Curtin University. It tells the story of three characters: seven-year-old Millie whose father has died and whose mother subsequently abandoned her in a department store; 87-year-old Karl whose wife has died and who has escaped the nursing home to which his son had abandoned him; and 82-year-old Agatha who hasn’t left her house since her husband died seven years ago, and who fills her day shouting insults at passersby. Three lost characters who come together, looking, though not initially consciously, to understand the old question: what is life about, or, more specifically, how do you live life when it is defined by loss, or even, as Agatha wonders, wouldn’t it be better to never care for anyone?

At the end of my edition is a short version of an article titled “Relearning the world” that Davis wrote about grief.  If you have experienced the terrible grief of sudden or before-its-time loss, you will relate to much of what she writes. She talks of the moment when the loss becomes real (a moment I vividly remember in my own life), and of “feeling outside of everything and looking in” (another sensation I remember). She talks of theories of grief, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s, and how it makes sense because “we like order”. “Isn’t that”, she asks, “why we like narrative?”. But, she says, there’s been a backlash against the compartmentalisation of grief towards a recognition of “the disorder of grief”. Grief, she has learnt, is part of everything she says and does, all that she is. It is never resolved.

We’re just living, Derek (Karl)

This all sounds pretty heavy, albeit sensibly heavy. Davis’s book, however, is quite the opposite. The narrative line owes something to the picaresque novel, and the linear but choppy structure supports this form. The main body of the story concerns a rather wild and wacky journey the three characters take, some of it on the Indian Pacific train, to help Millie find her mother. As befitting the picaresque, they meet various colourful characters along the way, such as Stella the bus driver and Derek the train conductor. As the journey progresses, the adventures and mischief get sillier and sillier, and less and less “real”. But then, this isn’t a realistic novel. In fact, it is quite slapstick, which is not my favourite form of humour. However, Davis makes it work, pretty well anyhow, because we are invested in her characters by then. We want them to find what they are looking for – or something equally worthwhile.

Old is not a choice (Agatha)

Davis also makes it work because of the voice. Using third person, it’s fresh, and direct, and authentically captures the perspectives of a curious young child, a loving old man, and a grumpy old woman. It might be a “light” novel, but it’s not a prosaic or formulaic one. Each character is associated with various “things” or “recurring behaviours”. Just Millie writes “In here Mum” messages whenever she goes to a new place so her Mum can find her. Karl the Touch Typist, who had deeply loved his wife Evie, carries around Manny the store mannequin, with which he had helped Millie escape the authorities in a department store and which is mistaken for a sex doll by some of the people he meets. Agatha Pantha, a closed-off woman who had not been a kind wife, has her Age Book, in which she obsessively records her day in third person. Some of the character “associations” might, depending on your point of view, be a little overdone, just as the slapstick, depending on your tolerance, may be pushed a little too far. Overall though, I found Davis’ characterisation effective and engaging.

All this is supported by the narrative, which is moved along through delightful language, from the zippy dialogue to tight descriptions that nail with their acuity.

Here, for example, is Agatha trying to explain to Millie why at seven she can’t start a family:

You can’t get pregnant.
Why not?
You have to get your! Your! Agatha gulps. Your monthly womanly visitor!
Are they from the government?
Good God, no!
Where from then?
They’re not from anywhere!
Why are they called visitors, then?
That’s just what we say!
Who?
Agatha sighs loudly. Okay, I give up! Someone from the government comes to your house and makes you a woman!
Millie eyes the breastfeeding mum, and leans in close to Agatha. Will they bring me boobs too? she whispers. Because I’m not going to take them.

And here is Millie’s view on dates on gravestones:

The start date and the end date are always the important bits on the gravestones, written in big letters. The dash in between is always so small you can barely see it. Surely the dash should be big and bright and amazing, or not, depending on how you had lived. Surely the dash should show how this Dead Thing had lived.

Besides the loss-grief theme, Lost & found is about many things – loneliness, love, friendship and caring, and, above all, about taking risks because this is your life. It’s not a challenging novel, as it wears its heart on its sleeves, but it is lively, inventive and wise. It will be very interesting to see what Davis does next.

awwchallenge2014Brooke Davis
Lost & found
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2014
280pp.
ISBN: 9780733632754

(Review copy courtesy Hachette Australia)

Roslyn Russell, Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Review)

A week or so ago my local Jane Austen group had a guest speaker at our meeting, Roslyn Russell, the author of Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park. Russell is a local historian who has written this historical novel based on Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park. She is also a lapsed member of our group, so of course we had to ask her to come and talk to us about it. Most of this post draws from my report of her talk, which she titled Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park.

Regular readers probably know that I’m not a fan of fan-fiction or sequels of well-known works. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read any if it hadn’t been for belonging to the Jane Austen Society of Australia. However, having read Deidre Shauna Lynch’s essay, “Sequels” in Jane Austen in context, edited by Janet Todd, I decided that I should relax my “rule”. Lynch convinced me that these books are an important part of our understanding of Austen as a literary and cultural icon. Consequently, I have now read PD James’ crime novel Death comes to Pemberley (my review) and Jo Baker’s Longbourn (my review). Roslyn Russell’s historical novel is my third. In it, she imagines that some ten years after being banished to the country, and upon the death of her companion Aunt Norris, Maria Bertram goes to Barbados and learns about slavery and the abolition movement.

There are, I’m gathering, many different reasons why writers want to write sequels or fan fiction works. For Russell, it was, as she writes in her author’s note, inspired by two passions: her love of Jane Austen and of Barbados. Barbados? How many Australians have been to, let alone developed a passion for, Barbados? Not many, I expect. It was her museum work, in fact, which took Russell to Barbados and there, its history – and particularly the history of its plantations and the practice of slavery – reminded her of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in which the leading family, the Bertrams, draw their prime income from their plantation in Antigua.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Slavery

Russell commenced by telling us that although most of the characters in her novel are fictional, some are based on real people. Before discussing this further, however, she read the excerpt from Mansfield Park which contains the only reference to slavery:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (MP)

She noted that this shows Maria and Julia’s lack of interest in the source of their family’s income. She then referred to cultural theorist Edward Said’s discussion of the novel and his statement that it is not appropriate “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said, she told us, did not apply 21st century attitudes to his assessment of Austen, but suggested that her work, as that of an author who belonged to a slave-owning society, should be analysed in context and in terms of what she does and doesn’t say rather than simply attacked as being complicit.

Ros then briefly outlined some of Austen’s known or probable connections with plantations:

  • the family’s close relationship with her father’s friend, the plantocrat James Langford Nibbs who was also Austen brother’s godfather. Nibbs apparently took his son out to his plantations in Antigua to settle down his unruly behaviour, which rather mirrors Sir Thomas’ taking Tom out to his plantation.
  • Austen’s aunt-by-marriage, Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was born in Barbados, though went to school in England.
  • Mrs Skeet who is mentioned in Austen’s letters. Skeet is a common name in Barbados, suggesting she had a connection to slavery*.
  • the Holder family of Ashe Park, also friends of the Austens. Holder, too, is a common name in the Caribbean.

The title Mansfield Park, itself, could also reflect Austen’s awareness of the slavery issue, as it may have been inspired by Lord Mansfield who was famous for adjudications which contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. (This is the Lord Mansfield who became guardian of his mulatto niece Dido, fictionalised in the recent film, Belle).

Barbados and Maria Returns

Russell then turned to her own book, first addressing the question of why she had set it in Barbados and not Antigua, where the Bertrams’ plantation was. Firstly, she has been to Barbados several times and knows its history. She couldn’t, she said, write about a place she didn’t know. Secondly, Barbados is also the location of a historical event she uses in her novel.

Mansfield Park was written 20 years before emancipation (i.e. the formal abolition of slavery) in 1834. Maria Returns is set about 15 years after MP, and so during the time when the abolition movement was becoming more vocal. Ros explained that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not seriously affect the Caribbean plantations: they were “breeding” their own slaves and were essentially self-sufficient. However, the abolition of slavery represented a major threat to their livelihoods, and the plantation families were deeply concerned. By the 1820s the abolition movement was becoming active – mostly among Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers.

Ros discussed the historical basis of her fiction. For example, at the dinner party in the English village where Maria first meets abolitionist John Simpson, he talks of a trial in Barbados in which slaves were apparently unjustly convicted of and executed for a murder. This trial did occur and is a reason Russell chose Barbados for her setting. The trial was witnessed by James Stephen** who, though he lived a little earlier than our fictional Simpson, is Russell’s model for her character.

Simpson also talks at this dinner about a slave rebellion, led by African-slave Bussa, that occurred in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was killed in the rebellion. Such slave rebellions resulted in plantation owners becoming harsher. Simpson makes it clear which side he is on. This is a wake up call for Maria who:

had not been aware of the strength of feeling in the wider community against the institution of slavery, from which her own family had benefitted so materially. (MR)

After Maria arrives in Bridgetown she meets or hears of other abolitionists, such as the historically real free coloured man, Sam Prescod (who, with Bussa, is now a national hero) and plantation owner Josiah Thompson. Thompson is fictional but, as a former owner who had downsized his estate and treated his slaves-now-servants well, he has historical antecedents. Men who behaved like he did faced hostility from other Barbadians – and so, in the novel, Thompson is a lonely man who is keen to host Maria and her friends at his home. His willingness to import a teacher from England to teach his slaves also has precedents. Maria realises again that she’d never wondered about her father’s plantations, but she begins now to wonder what her father might think about the people she’s meeting.

Ros then spoke about the treatment of slave women by their white owners, particularly in relation to sexual predation. This forms an important part of the story – but I won’t spoil it here. However, she again spoke of historical precedents – not that we really needed any for this one!  We weren’t, though, quite prepared for the example she gave us, one Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his plantation life. Wikipedia confirms what Ros told us: his diary chronicled “3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves”.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Ros illustrated her talk with some wonderful illustrations, including the painting used on the cover of her book, Agostino Brunias’ The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl. She also mentioned some of the sources she used in her research, like Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the blood: A family’s story of slavery and empire.

So, the novel

I enjoyed the read. It is pretty much genre historical fiction rather than literary fiction, so not my usual fare. Russell doesn’t try to emulate Austen, and while her writing is clear, her dialogue can be a little too formal and uniform at times. She includes a lot of information about life at the time, information that Austen herself would not have needed to, and indeed did not, supply. But, of course, this is historical fiction, and modern audiences need background that Austen’s contemporaries didn’t.

Russell spins a credible story, both in terms of the plot she creates and how she develops the characters she draws from Mansfield Park. Maria does change significantly, but Russell convinces us that she could. However, this is historical, romantic fiction, not a fierce novel, so Russell’s more culpable characters, in particular Bertram father and son, are let off more lightly than they deserve. This perhaps mirrors the political reality: after emancipation, the Caribbean plantation owners received in total £20 million compensation, while the slaves received nothing.

What did Austen know and feel about slavery? We’re unlikely to ever know, but in Maria returns Russell has given us some insight into the darker side of life that Austen only hints at.

* Names that are common in slave areas are usually so because slaves tended to take on the surnames of their masters.

** Wikipedia tells that Stephen was great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.

awwchallenge2014

Roslyn Russell
Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park
Flynn: Bobby Graham Publishers, 2014
(Kindle ed.)

Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia (Review)

Eleanor Dark's Juvenilia

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Eleanor Dark was quite a star in Australia’s literary firmament of the 1930s to 1950s, and has left an important legacy, not only in her most famous book The timeless land but also in the fact that her home Varuna in the Blue Mountains is now one of Australia’s most significant and loved writers’ retreats. It’s therefore wonderful that the Juvenilia Press was able to produce a book on her early work.

Unlike the Press’s volume on Mary Grant Bruce, which comprises works that push their definition of juvenilia, Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia fits clearly within their guidelines. All pieces were written between 1916 and 1919, when Dark was 15 to 18 years old. Like the Bruce volume, it was edited by secondary school students and their teacher, rather than the Press’s more usual practice of using tertiary students. (The Press is a teaching press). The decision to use secondary school students is particularly appropriate for this volume as the students come from the school, Redlands, which Dark attended, in her childhood name of Pixie O’Reilly. Research for the volume included the school’s own archives, and all the pieces come from the school magazine, The Redlander. A Foundation Day speech given by the (then) school’s archivist, Marguerite Gillezau, is one of the appendices.

Like other Juvenilia Press editions, this book includes useful extra matter such as Pixie O’Reilly’s school report! There is, too, an introduction, this one titled “Pixie to Eleanor: From a spark to a flame”. It is creatively, and entertainingly, organised under headings taken from the school report – “Making fair progress”, “Very promising indeed”, and so on. The volume is also illustrated with photographs and other images from Dark’s school days – and there is also the list of references consulted.

As with most juvenilia, the pieces here provide an insight not only into the author’s childhood but also into the passions and interests they’ll develop later. Dark went to Redlands school in 1914 (an auspicious year) after her mother died. Although it was a girl’s school – why do I say “although”? – the school did not seclude its students. Indeed the school archivist in her Foundation Day speech said that, since its establishment in 1884, the school “has been aware of the world outside its front gates”, including war. One of Dark’s pieces in this volume is a poem about the First World War, “Jerusalem set free”.

For those of you who don’t know Dark, she and her husband were politically radical – or – socialist in leaning, something for which they were often persecuted. Not having read biographies of her, I cannot say how much of this may have come from the family, but the Introduction says that one writer on Dark, Marivic Wyndham, stresses the importance of the school’s ethos on her development. Wyndham writes that the school provided her “not only with flesh-and-blood models of the new woman and the radical intellectual she eventually adopted, but also with models of community and sisterhood that later featured prominently in her vision of a ‘good society'”.

These values are evident in the piece most dear to my heart, “The Gum Tree’s Story”. I loved this little 2-page piece for three reasons: it contains delightful descriptions of Australian flora; it contains a story-within-a-story about that Australian archetype, “the lost child in the bush”; and it’s an allegory about inclusion rather than exclusion. The story concerns Waratah who wants to organise a party to enliven his drooping companions but wishes to exclude the interloper White Rose. (Is it girlish, that the Rose is white not red, do you think?).

The other story in the volume – there are two stories and four poems – encompasses another theme common to classic Australian literature, the bushranger. Titled “‘Thunderbolt’s’ Discovery”, it tells of young boys on a picnic who play bushrangers – Australian readers will be aware that Captain Thunderbolt was a famous bushranger – and come across an unconscious man who, they imagine, is a bushranger. What I love in this is her description of the bush:

It was very deep in the bush. A clear stream trickled down over the rocks, and there was the faint bush smell of damp earth and fallen gum leaves. Maiden-hair grew thickly, and clumps of pale wide violets and pretty, delicate ferns. Where the stream was at its wildest a huge old tree had fallen across it, and the damp bark was covered with soft green moss. Further up the hillside flannel-flowers and Christmas bells grew among the tall bulrushes, and Christmas bush was already nearly in full bloom.

Dark, it is clear from this and “The Gum Tree’s Story” knew her botany – but I think she evokes it well too, without going overboard as young writers can do.

The four poems speak to different aspects of Dark’s girlhood – from the war to hatred of exams. They show someone comfortable with language and with expressing ideas through them. They also show an ability to mix tone, to work in the serious and the light, in the grand and the more personal, in the fanciful and the real.

Not everyone, I know, enjoys Juvenilia but I am thoroughly enjoying these texts, and the insight they provide into the writers to come. I look forward to telling you about the next one in, hopefully, a month or so.

awwchallenge2014Eleanor Dark
(ed. Jane Sloan with students from Redlands, Sydney)
Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2013
26pp.
ISBN: 9780733433733

* The book only costs $12 plus postage, from the Press.

My previous posts on the Juvenilia Press are: Monday Musings and Mary Grant Bruce.

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air is another book that has been languishing too long on my TBR pile, though not as long as Sara Dowse’s Schemetime. For Swallow the air, it was a case of third time lucky, because this was the third year I planned to read it for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. Like the proverbial boomerang, it kept coming back, saying “pick me!” Finally, I did.

Winner of the 2004 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers, Swallow the air made quite a splash when it was published in 2006, winning or being shortlisted for many of Australia’s major literary awards. (See Tara June Winch’s Wikipedia entry). I believe Winch is working on another novel, but it hasn’t appeared yet.

Now, though, to the book. The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English. At the novel’s opening, she is living in coastal Wollongong, which is not her mother’s country, in a single-parent household with her mother and her brother, Billy, who has a different and indigenous father. Absent fathers are, I should say, disproportionately common in indigenous families.

In fact, one of the impressive things about this debut novel is how subtly, but clearly, Winch weaves through it many of the issues facing indigenous people and communities. Poverty, loss of connection to country, the stolen generations, mining and land rights, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, rape, child abuse by the church, imprisonment and the tent embassy are among the concerns she touches on during May’s journey. Listing them here makes it sound like a political “ideas” novel but, while Swallow the air is “political” in the way that most indigenous writing can’t help but be, its centre is a searching heart, for May has been cast adrift by the suicide of her mother. Life, which was tenuous anyhow, becomes impossible to hold together as her brother and aunt, both loving, struggle with their own pain.

This is where I become a little uncomfortable as a non-indigenous person making a generalisation about indigenous literature, but I’m going to do it anyhow, because I think I’m on firm ground. I’m talking about story-telling and what I understand to be its intrinsic role in indigenous culture. It imparts – or can do – a different flavour to the writing. Marie Munkara’s David Unaipon Award winning Every secret thing (my review) has some similarities in form to Swallow the air, and covers some similar thematic territory, but is very different in tone. Munkara’s novel also presents as a bunch of stories, with a uniting narrative thread. Swallow the air is more subtle, but nonetheless it’s the idea of stories that underpins the narrative.

What particularly impressed me about Winch’s writing is the way she manages tone and structures her story. She understands the Shakespearean imperative to offer some light after dark. For example, there’s a lovely little chapter/story called “Wantok” about family closeness which occurs after a story about a difficult work experience. In another situation, with just one word at the end of a story (“Mission”) – “Seemed [my emphasis] all so perfect, so right” – she prepares us for the opposite in the next (“Country”).

This flow – with shifts in tone that are sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, and with a narrative that is mostly linear but with the occasional flashback – kept me reading and engaged until the end. As did the writing itself. It’s deliciously poetic. Sometimes it is tight and spare, as in:

I do not cry, my eyes are hardened, like honey-comb, like toffee. Brittle, crumbling sugar. He puts his hand out toward me; we shake hands, a pact that I won’t be here digging up his past when he gets back.

And I’m not.

And in this description of life in the city: “Suits and handbags begin to fill the emptiness of the morning”. Other times it is gorgeously lyrical (a review buzz word, I know, but sometimes there’s no other word):

The river sleeps, nascent of limpid green, tree bones of spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming. And at their fingertips claws of blue bonnets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the erratic dips and weaves of wild galahs, grapefruit pink and ghost grey splash the sky.

But back now to the story. As May makes her journey, we meet many characters – her brother, aunt, women like Joyce who care for her but also know when to push her on, men with whom she hitchhikes, to name a few. None of these characters are developed to any degree, but we learn what we need to know about them by how they relate to May. Most are kind, generous, nurturing. May’s journey, in other words, is not challenged so much by human barriers, but by emotional, social, political and historical ones. It is a generous thing that when she starts to understand her place, it’s an inclusive understanding, one that encompasses all of us who occupy this land:

And it all makes sense to me now. Issy’s drawing in the sand, boundaries between the land and the water, us, we come from the sky and the earth and we go back to the sky and the earth. This land is belonging, all of it for all of us.

However, while May comes to a better understanding of the land and her relationship to it, there is no easy resolution to the ongoing struggle of living in a place in which there is still “a big missing hole” created by the loss of connection to culture. It will take a long time to refill that hole, if indeed it can be done, but books like this will help communicate just what it means, and how it feels, to be so disconnected.

awwchallenge2014Tara June Winch
Swallow the air
St Lucia: UQP, 2006
198pp.
ISBN: 9780702235214

* One chapter/story, “Cloud busting” was published in Best Australian Stories 2005.

Sara Dowse, Schemetime (Review)

Sara Dowse SchemetimeWhat Sara Dowse didn’t know when she recently commented here on her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles was that I was in the closing stages of reading her novel, Schemetime, set there. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve had this novel since Christmas 1990 when I was living in the LA area (in adjoining Orange County, in fact). For some reason, I didn’t read the book then, and it has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since, along with several other novels by Aussie writers from the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was interesting to read a book in 2014 that was published in 1990 but set mostly in the late 1960s. This is not a unique situation of course, but most books in my TBR pile are set around the time they were written. Why then was this one set a couple of decades before it was written, making it a “bit” historical, but not really? I think it’s because the late 1960s was an exciting time, politically and socially. It was the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a time when high ideals were being vigorously tested against commercial imperatives. Where better to set such a novel than in LA – using the film industry as a framework?

Early in the novel, Dowse establishes this tension through her description of place:

California the golden, Eden re-entered. People pretend they are children. They revel in the heat and the sunshine. But they are fretful. Do they deserve this? The question nags. So there is always, underlying the play, the fear of catastrophe. For a paradise, it has known its fair share. Earthquakes make dogs howl and plateglass shatter and bricks spill from walls, and the fires that sweep through the hills and down the canyons have consumed the grandest of estates. Coyotes live in those hills …

I love this prose – so crisp, so clear, so evocative, and yet so provocative too.

But now to the plot. Schemetime concerns an Australian filmmaker, Frank, who comes to LA wanting to make a career in the film industry, a quality career, though, on his terms. Through him we meet a varied cast of characters: refugee film director Mannheim who wants to make artistic films but needs to make commercials and B-grade movies to survive; Frank’s old flame Susan, a physiotherapist and anti-war campaigner, who leaves her Aussie husband for Nathan; this Nathan, a lawyer conflicted about money and his ideals; the black singer-actress, Paula, with her precarious career; and sundry others. We watch Frank as he enlists these characters to help him, practically, artistically or financially, achieve his goal of making a film about his somewhat mysterious father.

This is not a plot driven novel, however. It is about LA, but more than that, it is about characters searching for, well, meaning. This may sound clichéd, but isn’t it what most of us seek? What makes this novel not clichéd is the style and structure Dowse puts to her task. Often when we describe a novel as reading like a film script, we are suggesting, usually a little dismissively, that the author has written it with a movie deal in mind. But, when I say Dowse’s book reads like a film script, I am implying something very different. I am implying a complex picture comprising multiple little scenes, that sometimes flow and sometimes jolt us along with sudden changes in perspective, much like a camera can, particularly in an experimental movie. In fact, particularly given its time, I’d say this novel is innovative (or experimental) in structure and narrative point-of-view, in the way it moves between first person narration by Frank, and the third-person subjective perspectives of the main characters. It is, though, highly readable because the language is accessible. The syntax is flexible and the imagery expressive, but they are both comprehensible.

If it’s not plot-driven, then, what does drive it? Several things really. The characters’ relationships with each other, for one. An exploration of the meaning of art, for another. And dreams, the dreams and passions that drive us. Much of the novel concerns Frank’s filmmaking venture with Mannheim and Paula. There are lengthy discussions about the 1931 film Tabu, made by Murnau and Flaherty. It was a production mired in conflict between two, if I understand correctly, competing perspectives – Murnau’s focus on aesthetic “truths” and Flaherty’s on those coming from social or political realities. Dowse seems to be suggesting that “art” is (perhaps even should be) a constant struggle between these two imperatives. In Tabu, Mannheim argues, Murnau’s

craft and artifice triumphed. But there is enough of the real to make us believe …

There’s another reason why Dowse seems to have chosen Tabu to discuss, and this is its setting, the Pacific. The Pacific is the link between her two lives – her American birth and her adopted Australian home. Its nature is paradoxical, representing different things to different people: to Mannheim, “nothing in the Pacific is quite as real” as Europe;  to Susan it is both escape and barrier, “the way to freedom and then the highest wall”. One of my favourite scenes occurs when Frank, Paula and Nathan do a beach-crawl along the LA coast looking for the perfect Australian-looking beach! Various stories and images of the Pacific appear throughout the novel, making it, perhaps, her “poem to the Pacific” like Murnau’s Tabu.

Schemetime is a novel of grand conception. Even the title with its hints of schemes, screens and dreams suggests that. I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped all that Dowse intended, and I certainly haven’t touched on all that she raises in this book about “money and love and culture”. I haven’t explored, for example, the rise and fall of Nathan as a hotshot lawyer-investor or the conflicted restlessness of his second wife Susan or the survival skills of first wife Estelle or even the discussions about artists in exile.

“The camera”, Mannheim lectures early in the novel, “is no golem … it sees things you cannot imagine”. And so, we find, does Dowse’s pen. Schemetime is a fine read – and one that is as relevant today as it was when it was written, perhaps even moreso.

awwchallenge2014Sara Dowse
Schemetime
Ringwood: Penguin, 1990
295pp.
ISBN: 9780140080742

Barbara Baynton, Bush church (Review)

awwchallenge2014“Bush church” is my sixth and last* story from Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies, and it presented a rather pleasant change in tone from most of the others in the book. I’m sorry in a way that I read these stories quite out-of-order. “Bush church” is the fifth story in the collection, appearing after “Billy Skywonkie” and before the very grim “The chosen vessel”. It would work well in this position I think.

Like “Billy Skywonkie”, “Bush Church” contains a lot of dialogue in the vernacular of that particular place and time, making it somewhat of a challenge to read. However, I didn’t find it off-puttingly so. This may be because I’ve developed a bit of an ear for it (and you do have to use your ear when reading it) or perhaps because there is less dialogue. The story concerns a motley group of graziers and selectors gathered together at a grazier’s property to attend a church service delivered by a travelling parson. It becomes clear early on that attending a church service is a very rare occurrence in this neck of the woods. There are couples not married, children not christened, and people, indeed, who have never been to a church service.

It is, in many ways, a comic piece. But, here’s where I should take back that word “pleasant” in my first sentence because, while it doesn’t have the violence that several of the other stories have, the comedy is bitter. Baynton’s people here, as in her other stories, are not the noble sufferers we meet in Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” or those two stories by Mary Grant Bruce that I recently reviewed. They are, with few exceptions, jealous, self-centred and/or mean-spirited.

The story, divided into two parts, starts with the parson on a horse en route to the grazier’s property. It’s not a good horse. The story opens:

The hospitality of the bush never extends to the loan of a good horse to an inexperienced rider.

The implication, of course, is that the bush is hospitable. You know, country hospitality and all that! However, as the story progresses we see little if any evidence of bush hospitality. Early in the story, our unnamed parson, is joined by “flash” Ned, who is desperate for a smoke, but gets none from the non-smoking parson, nor from “hairy Paddy Woods of eighteen withering summers” whom they meet along the way.

Perhaps because of this or just because he’s who he is, Ned decides, mischievously, that the parson is there as an Inspector, and spreads this news to all and sundry, so that they start hunting for:

land receipts, marriage lines, letters from Government Departments, registered cattle brands, sheep ear-marks, and every other equipment that protects the poor cockey from a spiteful and revengeful Government, whose sole aim was “ter ketch ’em winkin'” and then forfeit the selection. All of these documents Ned inspected upside down or otherwise, and pronounced with unlegal directness that “a squint et them ‘ud fix ‘im if thet’s wot ‘e’s smellin’ after”. He told them to bring them next day. Those of the men who had swapped horses with passing drovers, without the exchange of receipts, were busy all afternoon trumping up witnesses.

No wonder Ned, who, we also discover, is a wife-beater, “was no favourite” among his neighbours!

This is where the first part ends. The second part comprises the church service which takes place on the grazier’s verandah. The attendees, we are told, are “ten adults and eighteen children”. Baynton provides us with colourful descriptions of these people as they arrive, and then the service starts:

For a few minutes the adults listened and watched intently, but the gentle voice of the parson, and his nervous manner, soon convinced them that they had nothing to fear from him. Ned had been “poking’ borak” at them again; they added it to the long score they owed him.

Not surprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, they all gradually lose interest. The adults bicker, while the children find the food the hostess had prepared for a post-service lunch for the parson, herself and her husband. Her hospitality was not extending any further, but she’s one-upped by the children and one of the mothers! When the service is over, she has a problem to solve!

This is not a story with a strong plot, but is, rather, a slice of life, presented with a good deal of humour peppered with bite and irony. Susan Sheridan, in her introduction to my edition, suggests that Baynton’s writing belongs to the naturalist tradition of writers like Zola and Gorky. Naturalism, she says, is a style that “was crafted to express the view that the uncontrollable forces of the natural world had their equivalents in human nature, and that the values of civilisation were a mere crust over an underlying struggle to death among various life forms”. In this style, she suggests, violence and cruelty are expressed in a detached way. That doesn’t mean, I think, that we readers react in a detached way. Rather, the detached tone adds to our feeling of horror.

Barbara Baynton, I’ve decided, was a very interesting woman. I plan to do a Monday Musing on her soon to share a little more about who she was.

Barbara Baynton
“Bush church” in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

*For my previous reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: A dreamerScrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel, and Billy Skywonkie.

Deborah Sheldon, 300 degree days & other stories (Review)

Sheldon, 300 Degree Days, book cover

Courtesy Ginninderra Press

What I found particularly interesting about Deborah Sheldon’s short story collection, 300 degree days & other stories, is that the stories deal almost exclusively with a particular type of family relationship, the one to do with children, parents and, sometimes, grandparents. I’m not sure I’ve read a short story collection before that has been quite so tightly focused, but that’s not to say that it is boring. Far from it, because Sheldon explores these relationships from multiple, and sometimes surprising, angles.

There are eleven stories in the collection, most told from a third person point of view. They vary in length from two or three pages to eight or so. This produces an effective change in pace which nicely counteracts the impact of a similarity in tone across the stories, a tone which tends to be on the melancholic end of the mood meter. This tone is not unusual in short stories about families and relationships because writers are, not surprisingly, most often drawn to the challenges people face. Sheldon certainly was. Many of her stories deal with fractured relationships in which resolution seems unlikely or with relationships in which there is a sadness – such as childlessness in “Closed for Renovations”, or the after-effects of illness in “Bull Rider”, or ageing in “Thy Way, O God, is in the Sanctuary” – that tests deeply loving relationships.

Sheldon has the ability to make you sit up with her insight. “First and Last Words” is a devastating, tight little vignette about a single mother giving birth. And the other tiny story, “Little Yellow Hat”, contains a shocking – almost unbelievable – display of lack of compassion from those who should know better, leaving the young people gasping for air. The title story, “300 Degree Days”, is the longest, and explores a first-time pregnant woman’s fears, her lack of confidence in facing the change coming, even though she knew “she was a good worker and a good wife”. There’s nothing to suggest that she won’t be a good mother, but emotions run high in late pregnancy and Sheldon captures this nicely through a very Australian image, a plague of blowflies!

Sheldon’s language is clear and direct. She has, I understand from her website, written scripts and plays, which suggests that she’s not likely to over-indulge in description – and she doesn’t, but neither does she overdo the dialogue. It’s just that there’s little that’s wasted here. She uses imagery sparsely, but effectively. I’ll give just one example of her writing. It comes from her story, “The Birthday Present”, in which a mother takes her son to visit his cranky, unwelcoming grandfather on the grandfather’s birthday:

‘Josh, go on, he won’t hurt you,’ she said.

But the kid didn’t look too sure. He advanced across the rug, brandishing the present as if it were a shovel and Don was a tiger coiled in the shade. Don flung out an arm and gestured hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, but the kid faltered and stalled in the middle of the rug.

Not all the stories are hopeless, as I may have implied, and this is where order in the collection plays an important role. In “Bull Rider”, the opening story, the love and care are palpable as the son puts himself out for his frail mother. He finds her relaxed attitude to risk mystifying, given the risk-averse way she’d raised him. It’s not for nothing that his job involves “contributing to the financial security of the country”. The already mentioned “300 Degree Days” occurs in the middle of the collection, and then couple of stories later is “Closed for Renovations” about a couple forced to accept childlessness. Their sadness, particularly the wife’s, pervades the story. Their love is strong but will the husband cope with her grief? And then there is the last story which departs dramatically from the preceding ten, in that parents and children don’t feature, although a grown-up brother does. It is about a sixty-something gay man facing life after prostate cancer. It is a warm story about uncertainty and fear of loneliness, but ends on a note of hope, which makes it a perfect conclusion for the collection.

I enjoyed 300 degree days for its authentic portrayal of how people behave and respond to challenges in their relationships. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real, and that made it a winner for me.

awwchallenge2014Deborah Sheldon
300 degree days & other stories
Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2014
74pp.
ISBN: 9781740278577

(Review copy supplied by Ginninderra Press)

Mary Grant Bruce, The early tales (Review)

Mary Grant Bruce, Early Tales

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Around a month ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on the Juvenilia Press, and said that I would read and post on some of its publications. Well, here is the first of those posts.

While I discovered the press through its Jane Austen juvenilia, the books I ordered were those for juvenilia by Australian authors. My first reading choice was the Mary Grant Bruce volume. You probably haven’t heard of Bruce if you are not Australian, and perhaps not, even if you are. She is best known as the author of the children’s series, the Billabong books (1910-1942). They were published way before my time, but my mum knew them and gave them to me to read when I was a child. I loved them. They probably contributed to my early love of and identification with the Aussie outback.

However, the Juvenilia Press’s book, The early tales, contains two stories that Bruce wrote for an adult audience when she was working for The Leader newspaper in MelbourneThese stories push the envelope in terms of the Press’s criteria for juvenilia, which is that the works should be written when the author is 20 years old or younger. Bruce was born in 1878, and the two stories in this volume were published in 1898 (“Her little lad”) and 1900 (“Dono’s Christmas”). I’m glad though that they stretched their definition. Rules, after all, don’t always need to be slavishly followed.

I will get to the stories soon, but first, I want to comment on the quality of the publication. It might be juvenilia but it is thoroughly scholarly, as the Press aims. It contains an in-depth introduction, which, in the way of academic introductions, contains spoilers, so beware that if you don’t like spoilers. It also explains the source of the text, and the text itself is comprehensively annotated with notes explaining editorial decisions, linguistic features, and points of literary interest. There four appendices on a range of topics, including how Bruce represented the Australian voice/speech patterns in her writing. And, of course, there is a list of references.

Now to the stories. They are an interesting pair. Both were published as Christmas Supplements of The Leader. And both are stories about families – the first a poor selector family and the second a more comfortable squatter family. However, despite their difference in means, both families experience the challenge of living isolated lives in the harsh Australian bush. Money, it seems, may provide a more comfortable house, an extra room or two, but it can’t protect you from the dangers of a life lived in isolation.

The stories belong to the tradition that includes Henry Lawson’s The drover’s wife (1892) and Barbara Baynton’s The chosen vessel (1896). In both, the father must leave his family for a day or so (wife and toddler son in “Her little lad” and wife and two young sons under ten in “Dono’s Christmas”) – and, of course, a crisis ensues that the family must cope with alone. I don’t want to give the stories away but both stories involve snakes (as does also The drover’s wife). One also involves dangerous illness, and a child and a horse lost in a storm. In both stories, too, characters find themselves short of water. These are all common motifs in Australian bush literature. The introduction explores them, and refers us, for example, to other works, like Banjo Paterson’s poem “Lost” and Frederick McCubbin’s painting of the same title. (Longstanding readers here might remember my post on the lost child motif. I wasn’t making it up!)

What, though, is it all about? With so many stories – of which the four mentioned above are just a few – dealing with such similar subject matter, it’s clear that what is being portrayed is the Australian character, and what is being developed is a sense of national identity. The introduction defines this character as comprising “independence, resourcefulness and resilience”. The fiction, poetry and art of the period portray the hardship and the failures. Citing another McCubbin painting, the introduction suggests that these works don’t idealise, but they nonetheless convey a sense of nobility. (This is a generalisation, of course. Nobility can be hard to find in many of Baynton’s stories!)

I won’t write much more here because I’d love you to read them yourselves*: they are well-told stories that have an emotional punch alongside their historical interest. Rather, I’ll leave you with a couple of short excerpts describing the bush, starting with the opening of “Her little lad”:

Across the clearing fell the first rays of the sun, each laying a path of living gold upon the long, withered grass. They lit up the giant gums, and lingered lovingly in the tangle of clematis and convolvulus which wreathed their great branches; and as they fell the night wanderers of the bush – the awkward wallaby, the giddy possum, and the shy bandicoot – started in affright and fled every one to his hole. Then the sunbeams penetrated still further, through the wild scrub tangle, down to the quiet creek, and there they lay upon its surface, forming, with the reflection of the over-hanging trees, a delicate mosaic of shadow and gold. They opened the buds of the wild orchids, the swaying bluebells, and kindled into flame the orange clusters of the grevillea; and, on the hut in the midst of the clearing, they spread curiously, as who should ask by what right man, with this ungainly excrescence, so marred the face of nature.

The introduction doesn’t discuss whether Bruce also had an environmental agenda, but she clearly recognised “man’s” impact. But for now, here is the sun, in “Dono’s Christmas”:

The sun was already up, and seemed to be climbing quickly into the cloudless sky; it was going to be a real scorcher, Dono thought, and he resolved to push on as fast as he could before the great heat commenced, when he hoped to be in the shade of the bush. So he cantered sharply over the hard-baked plain, where the sun had split big gaping fissures in the dry earth …

Reading these stories reminded me why I so enjoyed her children’s novels way back when. What a thrill to have discovered this little book at the Juvenilia Press.

awwchallenge2014Mary Grant Bruce
(ed. Pamela Nutt with students from the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
The early tales
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2011
90pp.
ISBN: 9780733429415

* The book only costs $12 plus postage, from the Press.

Australian Women Writers 2014 Challenge completed

awwchallenge2014Regular readers here know by now that I only do one challenge, and that’s the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. As in previous years, I signed up for the top level: Franklin-fantastic. This required me to read 10 books and review at least 6. I have now exceeded this. I will continue to add to the challenge, as I’ve done in previous years. However, one of the requirements of completing the challenge is to write a completed challenge post. Here is that post.

I have, so far, contributed 14 reviews to the challenge.

Here’s my list in alphabetical order, with the links on the titles being to my reviews:

Only two of these – Baynton and Anderson – are for non-recent works. I would like in the second half of the year to read more backlist, more classics. Let’s see what happens when I write my end-of-year post for the challenge.

 

Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (Review)

Kirst Krauth, Just a girl

Courtesy: UWA Publishing

If you’ve already heard about Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel just_a_girl, you’ll know something about its confronting nature – and it is confronting, though perhaps not quite in the way I expected. It was both more and less, if that makes sense.

However, if you’re not Australian, you may not have heard about this novel. Essentially a coming-of-age story, just_a_girl is told in three voices. Two are first person – Layla, a 14 to 15 year-old-girl, and Margot, her mother – and the other is, interestingly, told third person, Tadashi, a lonely Japanese man. The main voice, though, is Layla. She opens and closes the novel, which is set around 2008 in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Layla typifies the modern knowing teenage daughter that parents worry they may have. She’s sexually precocious and is acutely aware of her effect on men. She’s what many would call “a tease”. She tells us, though, that she’s a virgin (technically, anyhow, because she’s done pretty much everything else). She wants, she says, to wait until she’s 16:

Fifteen just seems too skanky. You tell your kids you lost your virginity at 15. They’ll just want to do it even younger.

This tells us something more about Layla – her street-wise wisdom. It’s believable because Layla has had to grow up fast. Her parents separated when she was in primary school because her father finally admitted his homosexuality. Her mother, prone to depression, turned to an evangelical church. Layla has learnt to navigate these waters with smart talking, and by using all the weapons at her disposal including personal attributes and modern technology. With studied insouciance, she tells us about her relationships, with her mother, her friend, her father, and various boys and men. She is not innocent, but she is also abused in several ways, by old and young, through the novel.

Meanwhile, her mother Margot struggles with depression, a sense of rejection and failure, and consequent inability to properly relate to her daughter. She has turned to God, but unfortunately the church she has chosen, with its hypocritical leader, is unlikely to be her salvation. You see how easily relationships can go awry during these turbulent years if family members are not strong and confident in themselves. But, Krauth keeps it real. This is not melodramatic. There are no over-the-top mother-daughter scenes, just lack of real communication leading to distance and lack of mutual support where both need it. By the end of the novel both have learnt something and are starting to see each other as people, rather than simply as roles. In other words, it’s not only Layla who needs to grow in this contemporary coming-of-age novel.

Into this mix is added a third voice, Tadashi. He often travels on the same train as Layla, and on one occasion rescues her from a risky situation. Like Margot, he’s lonely, used to relying on a mother who has now gone. In scenes reminiscent of the bitter-sweet movie Lars and the Real Girl he orders and takes possession of a sex (or love) doll which he sees as “a person” who will alleviate his loneliness. In some ways it’s an odd inclusion in the story but, besides his probably not essential role as rescuer, he adds another angle to the exploration of loneliness and relationships, and the use and misuse of sex to address gaps in people’s lives.

In her “Sources and permissions” note, Krauth tells us about her sources for “love dolls” and other ideas or events in the novel. She also explains that some of Layla’s comments have been inspired by teenagers who have appeared on SBS’s Insight program. She has listened well, because from my experience of similar programs I felt very comfortable (if one can call it that!) with Layla’s voice. She’s so fresh, so funny, so knowing, that you can’t help liking her and worrying about her vulnerability, while also being horrified.  Here’s a short example:

Mum says I have to be careful now that I’m in year 9. Because men will start looking at me in a new way. Fuckadoodle, they’ve been looking at me like that for years. Especially when I eat Chupa Chups on the train.

I was going to share the Chupa Chups (“I have a favourite game on the train trip home from school”) episode with you, but I reckon you should read it yourselves. It would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing. It’s a fine piece of writing about a sexualised young girl who “knows” too much. Talk about playing with fire!

Margot’s voice is quite different – the long run-on sentences versus Layla’s short ones convey her anxiety and uncertainty well. Here she is, for example:

When is this soul-searching going to end, I mean, I knew coming off the meds would be hard as I’ve tried it a few times before but it’s like I’ve sunk into a bog, and it’s been a horrendous week because of that film Layla hired, Brokeback Mountain, you know she loves Heath Ledger and was completely devastated when he died last year and everyone thought … [and on she goes for several more lines]

I feared at times that Krauth was trying to pack too much in – single mother, gay father, hypocritical evangelical church, breast cancer scare, viral you-tube, sex doll, workplace sexual harassment, and so on – but no, she made it work. They are treated as things that happen. She doesn’t trivialise, but neither does she labour. Instead, she keeps her focus on the main game, which is how we, and particularly young people and their parents, must navigate the modern digital world with its potential for serious ill, and how in such a world might we still forge meaningful relationships. A thoroughly modern book for a thoroughly modern audience. It will be interesting to see what Krauth does next.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also liked the book.

awwchallenge2014Kirsten Krauth
just_a_girl
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2013
265pp.
ISBN: 9781742584959

(Review copy supplied by UWA Publishing)