Georgia Blain: Births deaths marriages: True tales (Review)

Georgia Blain, Births deaths marriagesPoignant is a word I actively avoid in my review posts, as it’s such a review cliché, but sometimes a book really does call for it, and the late Georgia Blain’s essay-collection-cum-memoir, Births deaths marriages, is such a book. In the last essay, she talks of her mother, broadcaster, activist and non-fiction writer, Anne Deveson, trying her hand at fiction just as she, Blain, was trying non-fiction. She writes:

We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each other’s shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across once again, curious as to how this had happened (“A room of one’s own (2)”)

The poignant thing, of course, is that these two who were so closely entwined in life, not just as mother-and-daughter but as writers, died within a few days of each other – with the sadly ironic twist that the daughter died first. It makes my heart break a little, something I wouldn’t have felt had I read it before these deaths. Such is the impact of context on our reading, eh?

Anyhow, onto the book. Births deaths marriages (the title has no separating commas) is the second memoir-in-essay-form that I’ve read this year, the first being Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance. Both books follow a general chronological arc but the essay form makes it easy for this not to be strict, allowing the writers to follow tangential yet relevant threads. From here, though, the two “memoirs” depart, because the respective writers’ lives are very different. Wright, the younger writer, was writing primarily about her twenties and focused particularly on her experience of an eating disorder, while Blain was in her mid forties when writing hers. She was a published novelist and, significantly, had experienced a much more public life, not only because both her parents were public figures but also because of her mother’s own memoir, Tell me I’m here, about life with her schizophrenic son.

This book – with its intensely personal subject matter and its unusual form – offers rich opportunity for discussion. To do it justice, I’m going to have to narrow it, so I’m going to focus on form and style, but some content will push through along the way. The way I see it, there are two broad types of memoir, those which tell about lives most of us know little or nothing about (such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes, or, more obviously, celebrity memoirs) and those which are about lives much like ours. Georgia Blain’s falls into this latter category. For these ones to engage readers, they need to offer something illuminating about the lives we lead.

“the truth was a little more complex” (from “Getting in the boat”)

The first essay in Blain’s memoir is titled “A room of one’s own”. In it she reflects on her childhood, on how her mother would write about their family for newspaper columns and how reading these columns later, with their bland pictures that “did not accurately reflect who we were”, brought back the child she was, the child who wanted her family to be like the one in the columns, who thought all other families were like that and not like the messy reality she was experiencing. These bland columns are the antithesis of what Blain shares in her essays (and indeed of what Deveson herself shared in her memoir). It’s all about purpose I suppose. Newspaper columns tend to be more about entertainment – with perhaps some subtle messages about life – whilst memoirs, good ones anyhow, are about “truth”. If we don’t feel the memoirist is sharing the “truth” of her (or his) experience we are going to lose interest pretty quickly.

Blain convinces me that she is sharing her truths when, for example, she describes, in “The story my mother tells me” and “The outside country”, her fears about childbirth and her struggle to cope with the demands of motherhood. She exposes herself with soul-baring honesty when she shares her sense of disconnect, of being alone, of being “shattered” when her baby is born. She writes that she wanted to give her daughter “the place in my life that she needed and deserved, one that was without my terror and anxiety about loss of self” but it took several months for this to happen. She writes with similar honesty about her relationship with her husband Andrew. It takes some guts to write what she does.

In “Close to the bone”, Blain addresses more directly her writing life, and the difference between writing fiction, which she’d done until this book, and writing about herself, which she was now doing. Reflecting on her brother’s death, she says:

The complexity and rawness of an immediate response to pain is not easy to understand and recognise, let alone pin down in writing, in a photograph or in a film. The very act of capturing distorts. Once neatly contained, all that we felt is no longer unruly, unreasoned, immediate and wild. Perhaps this is why we hold these moments as truth. They cannot be replicated. Each time we try, we dilute their intensity, we confuse, holding up false images of this so-called truth that leave us reeling as we try to reconcile what we see encapsulated with what we have experienced.

Even her “truth”, the one she is writing, she sees, is not easy to grasp. She goes on:

I believed, and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and the lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate…

These two excerpts reminded me of that David Hockney comment about happiness being a retrospective thing I wrote about recently, because I read them as her recognition that there are different truths – those immediate reactions and feelings, and those that come later. It’s this sort of reflection on “how” we live and interpret our lives which makes Births deaths marriages such a meaningful read.

I said that this memoir exemplifies the second type of my two simple categories, but I meant it when I defined them as being about “lives much like ours” because no life is the same. And so, Blain, like all of us, had her own set of challenges, including her control-freak, sometimes-violent father, and the tragic loss of her schizophrenic brother. One of the joys of her book lies in watching her explore and expose her own development, her learning not only to come to terms with these experiences in her life, but to use them to come to a more open, flexible way of understanding. She writes of “chasing absolutes”, of believing that “there was one truthful answer to every question” which she had to pin down, when in fact, as she learns, the truth lies in the “layers”.

In the end, there are no resolutions, she realises, but there are momentary happy endings along the way. She also realises that “writing about oneself” can “amount to more than a purely personal exercise”. It sure can, as she has proven here. This memoir is special – and not just because of the context in which I am reading it – but because it’s honest, because it doesn’t pretend to have it all sorted, because, in fact, it’s true – to her life and experience, and also to ours.

AWW Logo 2016Georgia Blain
Births deaths marriages: True tales
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2008
ISBN: 9781742743981 (eBook)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016

AWW Logo 2016For the fifth year in a row, I’m devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge*.

This year has been one of consolidation rather than of huge change for the Challenge, as we got used to our self-hosted site to which we moved in 2015. The big advantage of this move was that it enabled us to produce a single searchable database of all reviews logged since the challenge started. It now contains reviews for nearly 3,600 books across all forms and genres of Australian women’s writing, an increase of 20% on last year’s total. A good achievement n’est-ce pas?

Once again the Challenge ran some special events during the year, achieved some milestones, and introduced some new initiatives. These include:

A big thanks to author/researcher Jessica White for her special posts on diversity – the Migrant heritage, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage, and writers with a disability  posts – and to Kelly (Orange Pekoe Reviews) for creating the Bingo Challenge, which we hope to run again in 2017. And a shout out too to Brona, Debbie Robson and Elizabeth who often commented on my AWW round-up posts.

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is the only challenge I do (or have ever done). This year I posted 30 reviews for the challenge, three more than last year. I managed a similar variety in my reading, but only dipped once into my TBR pile (to read part of Christina Stead’s Ocean of story for Lisa’s ANZLitLovers’ Christina Stead Week). Last year, I challenged myself to tackle my TBR pile and I failed, miserably. I also let the ball drop this year in one of my favourite areas, classic Australian women’s fiction. I’m therefore making no promises, setting no goals (at least publicly!) for next year.

Anyhow, here’s my list of works read for this year (with links to the reviews):

Debra Adelaide, The women's pagesFICTION

Tegan Bennett Daylight, Six bedroomsSHORT STORIES


Emma Ayres, CadenceNON-FICTION

As in each year, there are subtle differences in this year’s list, though none are big enough to suggest my reading tastes have changed! For example, last year 48% of the reviews were for novels, while this year only 40% were. Half of these were debut novels. This year saw a return to 2014’s heavy emphasis on Memoir in my non-fiction reading, though there was some interesting playing with form. Not only were a couple of memoirs told through essays, but I also read three mother-daughter stories which combined elements of memoir with biography.

aww2017-badgeAnyhow, if you are interested in the challenge, you can check it out here. The 2017 sign up form is ready so do consider joining up, as we welcome all – women and men – to join us. I’ll be there again. The challenge is also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), GoodReads and Google+.

Finally, a big thanks to Elizabeth and the rest of the team – including Lewis, our wonderful database developer – for making it all such a cooperative, and enjoyable experience. I look forward to seeing what 2017 brings.

* This challenge was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. I am one of the challenge’s volunteers – with responsibility for the Literary and Classics area.

Christina Stead, Ocean of story, Pt 1: The early years – Australia (Review)

Christina Stead, Ocean of storyContribution no. 2 for Lisa’s Christina Stead Week from Ocean of story: the uncollected stories of Christina Stead.

My first post was on the titular story, “Ocean of story”, which is also used as the collection’s Introduction. After this Introduction, the stories have been organised into 7 sections by editor RG Geering. These sections are presented chronologically, Geering says, reflecting Stead’s timeline, not when they were written. The first is, therefore, logically titled “The Early Years – Australia”. It contains three stories – “The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon” – all of which have children as their central subject, which is, perhaps, interesting given Stead had none of her own.

Now, if you ever went to primary (or elementary) school, and that’s all of you I presume, you will enjoy “The old school”. If you were a girl, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. “The old school” was, Geering says, one of the few things Stead worked on in the last years of her life. It was published in Southerly in 1984. It’s like a little slice of life, and like the other two stories, starts with a fairly detailed setting of the scene before she gets to her main subject matter.

So, “The old school” starts with a description of the school, followed by a description of what happens at the school, or, more precisely of what the rumours say happens. But, we are told, in spite of this, “cause and effect” are clearer at school than at home, and “mostly concerned the boys”. Boys who are bad – who truant for example – will go to “the reformatory”. And if you go to the reformatory, your next stop will be prison. And who knows all this? Why “the informants” of course. And who are these “informants”, these “small sages”? Well, Stead writes, they are the “natural moralists, two or three to a class and as far as I knew, all little girls”. From here we are regaled with stories about these informants’ moral pronouncements by this “I”, this “I” who appears in two of the stories and who is an observer, rather than a participant, from within. In “The old school” then, the “I” is a student at the school.

The rest of the story explores the “moral questions” debated by these “informants”, whom Stead describes in more detail:

The informants, our moralists, had clean dresses, pink, blue or sprigged, patent leather shoes and white socks, and curls natural or rag. They did clean school work too, even when we got pen and ink. Goodness alone knows how, with their pink cheeks and shiny curls and neatly dressed brink little mothers, they got all this news about jails, reformatories, judges and sentences, lashings, canings, bread and water.

They are, of course, often little tyrants, deciding which child will be approved and which won’t. The rest of the story chronicles some of their pronouncements and their impacts on their peers. Whenever anything happened in the school “they knotted together, a town moot: they discussed, debated and delivered an opinion.” What the teachers said was to them only “hearsay”. Our “I” character doesn’t have an opinion. She “thought then that cruelty and injustice were natural and inevitable during all of a poor creature’s life”. (The use of “then” would be worth exploring.)

The main story concerns poor little Maidie Dickon who is, literally, “poor” and thus ostracised by our “natural moralists”. She didn’t have the right shoes, didn’t bring the right notes from her mother, and didn’t have her own pen and paper and so would be given some from the school supply. “It isn’t fair” cry the well-provided “informants” who also prove, mystifyingly to our “I”, to be excellent “newsgatherers”. They somehow know about Maidie’s roadworker father, who is (illegally, in those days) striking, and washerwoman mother.

You are getting the drift I’m sure of the story and will be realising that Stead’s focus is on the “natural” justice delivered by these “sages” or “moralists” to those less able to defend for themselves, while the “I”, Stead’s young self, tries to make sense of it all, of how the world works. The ending is gorgeously sharp. The story could take up a whole post – I loved its vivid picture and its passion – but I’ll move on.

“The milk run” was published in The New Yorker in 1972 (and later appeared in a Penguin anthology, The Penguin book of the road, published in 2008). It is set in the same area of southern Sydney as “The old school”, but it tells the story of a family and a little boy whose job it is to get the family’s milk from the grandfather’s dairy a mile away. Stead takes some time setting the physical scene, and describing the family and the boy, Matthew, who worships his father.

It is a beautifully detailed story of a particular place and time. Stead captures ordinary family life and tensions with such precision – a comment here, a brief conversation there, convey all we need to know about the various relationships. It conveys a child’s eye view of the world, the child’s incomprehension of adult behaviour. Things happen. Sometimes they make sense to Matthew, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the father he worships supports him, sometimes he doesn’t. But, after a lucky find, Matthew gathers to himself a warming thought, something that offers him comfort when all else is uncertain.

And finally, “A little demon”, which was published, Geering says, in “an almost identical version” in the Harvard Advocate in 1973. It’s a satire, which again starts with setting a wider scene by describing a large and successful but rather insular family, the Masons. On the surface, they seem to be perfect, but asides and hints suggest that the surface is just that. There’s something a little claustrophobic and inward-looking about them with their “same notions” and suspicion of travel.

Into this family is born Stevie, the titular “little demon”. We hear a lot about him – the horror of his behaviour and what a trial he is to his mother, though, strangely, not to his teacher who finds him “very good” – but we don’t meet him until the last couple of pages. We are told what an “adorable” person his mother is, and how much she loves her two dogs, Duff and Rags. And here come some hints about who this adorable Mariana really is because, you see, she loved Duff and didn’t want her to ever have puppies. Why would you, after all, “spoil” that beautiful dog by letting her have puppies? Hmm, does this tell us something about Mariana’s attitude to motherhood? Ironically though, she falls in love with Rags, one of Duff’s unwanted puppies, the irony doubled because she doesn’t love her own offspring.

It all starts to go bad for Stevie when the cat that he found upset the dogs. He took the cat’s part, “just for a day or two; and then he saw which way the wind was blowing and lost interest”. And here the rot sets in. Stevie is depicted as having no feelings for animals, and as doing everything he can “to be disagreeable, to annoy, to tease”. How old is this Stevie that everyone – except perhaps his grandmother who defends him – hates? About 5!

It’s a satirical story in which Stead skewers shallowness and self-centredness, not to mention lack of maternal feeling. The language here is more heightened, using exaggeration and exclamation, than the more natural language of the previous two stories. It also has a somewhat stronger plot: we are set up to want to meet this Stevie, and there is a delicious little twist or sting in the tail, which the other two stories don’t have.

I’ve enjoyed reading these stories for Christina Stead Week. I’ll try to read more down the track, but in the meantime they have given me added insight into Stead, into the variety in her writing and into some of her broader themes. Thanks Lisa for the little push to read at least a bit of Ocean of story!
AWW Logo 2016

Christina Stead
“The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140100211

Christina Stead, Introduction: Ocean of story (Review, possibly)

Christina Stead, Ocean of storyI am so glad Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has given me an excuse, her Christina Stead Week, to finally pick up Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead. I bought this book, in 1991, from a sale table for all of 98 (Australian) cents! What a bargain. I then popped it on my Australian literature TBR shelves, where it has sat, and sat, and sat – until now.

Before I get to it, though, I must confess that this post’s title is a bit of a lie. Christina Stead just called this story “Ocean of story”, but RG Geering, the editor of this “uncollected” collection, made it the Introduction to the book. I decided that I could use this to differentiate in my post title that the post is just about this introductory story. Fair enough?

Now to the overall collection. I am on record as stating that I don’t read introductions to books before I read the book itself. I would in fact prefer these “introductions” to be called “afterwords” and placed at the end. And that’s what Geering has done here except, being perverse, I’d rather that for such a “curated” collection it had been at the beginning! Consequently, I didn’t see it until I’d read the first story and, finding it a little unusual, wondered why there wasn’t some sort of editor’s introduction. So, I went looking. And there, at the end, was his Afterword!

Geering writes that the book

brings together for the first time most of the short prose writings that appeared in various places (journals, magazines and newspapers) outside the thirteen volumes of fiction published during her own life, along with other unpublished pieces found among her personal papers after her death.

And then he says that he has grouped the pieces “according to their settings and contents rather than chronologically”. In this way, they will “follow the contours of [her] somewhat wandering life.” Then, right towards the end of his Afterward, he finally describes the opening piece: it’s

a contribution to ‘The International Symposium on the Short Story’ in Kenyan Review, 1968 … [and] is a highly personal essay, rather than a conventional article.

And that is exactly what it is, a “highly personal essay”, one that, by its end, has given us a “highly personal” understanding of what stories, and particularly short stories, meant to Stead. It starts:

I love Ocean of Story, the name of an Indian treasury of story; that is the way I think of the short story and what is part of it, the sketch, anecdote, jokes cunning, philosophical, and biting, legends and fragments. Where do they come from? Who invents them? Everyone perhaps. Who remembers them so that they pass endlessly across city life? I know some of those marvellous rememberers who pass on their daily earnings in story; and then they are forgotten to become fragments, mysterious indications. Any treasury of story is a residue of the past and a record of the day.

I love the open-endedness of her conception. It’s a free-flowing one that allows stories to take all forms. She goes on to say that “what is unique about the short story is that we all can tell one, live one, even write one down.”

Then she turns autobiographical, starting with her childhood with her father. She was, she says, “born into the ocean of story, or on its shores”, the daughter of a “lively young scientist”. He

told his tales. He meant to talk me asleep. He talked me awake.

Ha, the impact of stories on an imaginative child, which Stead clearly was. He told her stories drawn from his zoological work, and “stories of the outback…and even a few historic events.” But then comes the important thing – the thing that is important to all who read – that is, what stories do for us. She writes that the thousand stories she heard between two and four and a half

formed my views – an interest in men and nature, a feeling that all were equal, the extinct monster, the coral insect, the black man and us; and another curious feeling in me, of terrestrial eternity, a sun that never set.

This feeling came via her father’s nature-related stories which taught her that while death was necessary, there was always “a frail print” left. However, the storytelling – these times that allowed her “to see the unseen” – ended when she was four and a half and her father remarried. The magic was imprinted by then though!

“the million drops of water”

Indeed, she sees stories as “magical”. You only need for someone to say, she says, “Here’s a story; it happened to me” and all will listen. We seek stories – even those “twisted, inferior, cramped, and sterile stories on TV” – because we hope to recognise and “have explained our own existence”. She’s right – on both superficial (what am I doing) and deeper, more psychological (who am I) levels – don’t you think? She continues:

It isn’t necessary that these stories should be artistic or follow formula or be like Chekhov or the last metropolitan fad, or anything. The virtue of the story is its reality and its meaning for any one person: that is its pungency.

She argues that while the “masterpiece” might be appropriate for professionals, “the essential for us is integrity and what is genuine.” She then, interestingly given she wrote this in 1968, harks back to stories of the 1930s:

not all are memorable (some are) but all record the realities of the days when America was suffering and looking for a way out and thinking about its fate; and – look at those same today – they are a vivid and irreplaceable memento. That is what is best about the short story: it is real life for everyone; and everyone can tell one.

In other words, “the story has a magic necessary to our happiness”! We seek “the powerful story rooted in all things which will explain life to us”. I love all this. It is such an argument for the importance and value of the arts.

Stead concludes by telling a story about a group near London that she once joined. All were asked to stand up and tell a story, and

everyone, those stuffy and snug people came to life, became mouths out of which bubbled stories poor and ordinary or before unheard of.

There it was, she says, “the ocean of story”. And this happens everywhere, anytime. So,

The short story can’t wither and, living, can’t be tied to a plan. It is only when the short story is written to a rigid plan, or done as an imitation, that it dies. It dies when it is pinned down, but not elsewhere. It is the million drops of water that are the looking-glasses of all our lives.

I classed this post as “(Review, possibly)” because I haven’t really written a review. Rather, I’ve described/shared Stead’s attitude to stories – and to story-making and storytellers. I love her egalitarianism, even when describing stories that are “poor and ordinary”; I love her flexible idea of what makes a story; I love her chatty, idiosyncratic style; and most of all I love her passion for the importance of stories (particularly short stories) to our lives. I look forward to reading at least some of those in this book.

AWW Logo 2016Christina Stead
“Introduction: Ocean of story”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140100211

Susan Varga, Heddy and me (Review)

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

Susan Varga’s biography-cum-memoir, Heddy and me, was first published back in 1994, so why am I reading it now? By a rather circuitous route, as it happens. Lesley Lebkowicz, whose The Petrov poems I’ve reviewed, read my post on Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and suggested to Susan Varga that she might like to send me her book to review. Varga apparently liked the idea and consequently I received an email from her personal assistant offering it to me. I had heard of it, and am interested in the subject matter, so I said yes. That was, embarrassingly, over four months ago, for which I apologise, but eventually its time came and here, finally, is my review.

I’ll start with the judges’ comment when they chose the book to win the 1994 Christina Stead Award for Biography, Autobiography or Memoir*. They described it as “the front rank of autobiographical writing in this country”. That’s a big call but, having read it, I agree, because it is an engrossing book which intelligently negotiates two usually opposing forms, biography and autobiography/memoir. In it, Varga tells the story of her Hungarian Jewish mother Heddy – her life in Hungary, her experience of World War 2, and her subsequent emigration with her extended family to Australia. But, in telling this story, Varga, as the title conveys, also tells her own. She was born, mid-war, in 1943 and was just 5 when the family migrated. Hers was a complicated growing up in which she struggled to find self. She finally realised, late in her research, that she straddles two generations: the first (those who migrated) and the second (the children of those migrants).

Now, I can see why Lebkowicz thought I might be interested in this book, because both books involve a daughter not only telling the Holocaust-survival-and-migration story of a mother, but also working through her understanding of and relationship with that mother. Like Blay after her, Varga captured much of her mother’s story via tape recorder:

… the room itself is imposing, with its long oak table and chairs covered in embossed velvet. Imposing but not unfriendly, which is very much Mother’s style.

I switch on the tape-recorder. She talks, I listen. She [unlike Blay’s mother] doesn’t need much prompting; she’s telling me her life story, which she knows will be raw material for a book. In the past when people have said to her, ‘Heddy, you should tell your life story,’ she has said, ‘I’m waiting for Susan.’

I’ve told her it won’t be her life story, not properly. It will be filtered through my reactions and thoughts, my second generation eyes.

And Varga’s eyes are complicated, sometimes testy ones, as she strives to comprehend her strong-willed mother. So, like Blay’s book, Heddy and me is an amalgam of biography and autobiography, thereby neatly sidestepping David Marr’s injunction for biographers to get out of their story! Like Blay’s book, too, Heddy and me is a story of survival – of a peculiar combination of luck, resourcefulness and judgment – and it’s a story of the lasting impacts of the war. For both families, one of those impacts is an ongoing sense of fear:

… the fear of impermanence, the readiness to flee, takes the form, among others, of a deep conservatism running through the older generation, as if any change at all could result in their lives being uprooted again. They are over-protective, still prone to buy their children a diamond, something portable, just in case.

And we children feel a pervasive fear that we do not know how to express. Impermanence and insecurity lurk in the shadows behind this all-Australian red-brick security.

I found this analysis, this explanation of conservatism, enlightening – and helpful.

However, despite similarities with Blay’s book, Varga’s is different. For a start there are the obvious departures. Varga’s family is Hungarian to Blay’s Polish one, and Varga’s mother was married with a young child when the war started while Blay’s mother was still a teenager. Moreover, Varga’s mother managed to avoid, through various subterfuges, being sent to a concentration camp. She didn’t suffer the ghetto and concentration camp terrors and depredations of Blay’s mother, but Heddy and her colourful mother Kató, whose story is also told here, did suffer, including being raped multiple times by their Russian liberators. There are deeper differences too, speaking to the different psychologies of the two families, their individual wartime experiences, and how these subsequently played out in their post-war lives. And there’s the structure. Varga interweaves her own story and her reactions to her mother’s story within the one narrative flow, while Blay carefully differentiates her voice from her mother’s and aunt’s.

A particularly fascinating part of Varga’s book is the picture she paints of Hungarian society before, during and after the war. I learnt a lot, for example, about Budapest – its vibrant pre-war culture and life, albeit a life that, for its Jewish inhabitants, had its paradoxes. They lived, writes Varga, an outwardly normal life, “clinging to continuity while awaiting upheaval”. Varga chronicles the trajectory of anti-Semitism, from pre-war to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation in which Hungary’s Jews found themselves post-war, when Nazism was replaced by Communism. Indeed, having survived the war, Heddy, Kató and family were prepared to stay in Budapest until it became clear to Heddy “that the noose was tightening again, like Hitler, except then it was against the Jews, now against everyone.” So, Heddy, ever attuned it seems to the political nuances around her, worked on her family until they agreed to move to “the New World”. Later, as part of research for her book, Varga returns to Hungary with her mother, and becomes aware of the increasing (or, really, continuing) anti-Semitism:

As I begin to grasp the subtleties of political life in the post-Communist world, I find it awful that the Jews should once again need friends and protectors, I think of 1943, when Hungary’s Jews still thought themselves safe because Kállay, or some other prominent politician, was their friend.

Once again, I am astonished, though I suppose by now I shouldn’t be, at how deeply anti-Semitism seems to run, particularly in Europe.

And here, I’m going to insert some personal connections with Varga’s story. I mentioned in my review of Sister, sister that I’d spent some time in my Sydney youth with Jewish people – eastern European Jews – who were business friends of my father’s. Blay’s and now Varga’s books consequently ring true for me, Varga’s particularly, because her parents did exactly what many of these people did – they set up business in the rag trade, and then handbags. I still have some handbags to prove it! But, my connections with Varga are more than this, because I went to the same high school she did, albeit a decade later. Unfortunately, Varga’s experience was not as positive as mine, partly due to her increasing sense of disconnection with her family and partly to the fact that by my time in the mid-to-late 1960s society was becoming less rigid (even in strict government girls’ schools). It was at that school that my understanding of civil rights – particularly, then, relating to racism and anti-Semitism – was honed. This is rather ironic given Varga found it “a school of endless strictures and platitudes”.

Anyhow, enough about me, and back to the book. Heddy and me was, I suspect, groundbreaking when it was first published, not so much for its portrayal of personal experience of the Holocaust, because such stories started appearing soon after the war, but for Varga’s intensely personal exploration of women’s experience and identity across three generations, before, during and after the war. Since then, similar stories have been written – Blay’s, for example, and another I’ve reviewed, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. However, these later books don’t minimise the power of Heddy and me, which not only illuminates the personal and familial costs of the Holocaust, but also provides an historical perspective on that mysterious thing we call human behaviour. This book deserves a continued life.

AWW Logo 2016Susan Varga
Heddy and me
Abbotsford: Bruce Sims Books, 2000 (2nd ed.; Orig. ed. Penguin, 1994)
ISBN: 9780957780033

(Source: Susan Varga)

* Unfortunately FAW’s awards website only goes back to 1999. This comment is on the front cover of my edition, and is credited to “Christina Stead Award”.

Josephine Rowe, A loving, faithful animal (Review)

Josephine Rowe, A loving faithful animal

How many novels have you read featuring the Vietnam War? I’ve not read many I must say, but last year I did review Charles Hall’s Summer’s gone, and now this year I’ve read Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal. It’s a debut novel but, from its form, you can tell that Rowe is an accomplished short story writer. I have in fact read one of her short stories – from her collection, Tarcutta Wake. Unusually for me, I didn’t review it at the time. I think this is because I planned to read the whole collection, but that hasn’t happened (yet, anyhow), which is clearly my loss.

So, before I discuss the content of this novel, I should explain what I mean by this statement regarding short stories and its form. For a start, it’s a multi-voice novel. On its own, this is not unusual, but here the voices are also in different persons, which is not unheard of either, really. However, added to this is the fact that the chapters (or “stories”), particularly “Breakwall”, could be read as stand-alone pieces. To make the novel out of these pieces, they are linked via character, and there’s an overall chronological narrative arc to them, but they also remain little jewels in themselves. There’s real skill here, in the way Rowe juggles her voices, perspectives, stories to create a very satisfying whole.

Now, to discuss the novel itself. It comprises six stories, starting in second person with Ruby, whom we come to realise is the younger daughter of the book’s central family. It then progresses through four stories told from different third person limited perspectives – Ruby’s mother Evelyn, her father Jack, her uncle and father’s brother Les or Tetch, and her sister Lani – before returning to Ruby’s second person voice to conclude. The story is one of a family broken by the father’s ongoing trauma (PTSD) following his Vietnam War experience. It’s a devastating story showing how such trauma can play out, resulting in domestic violence, dividing loyalties and causing splits in families.

… she did not drive away …

The novel opens on New Year’s Eve, around 1990. The family has struggled on for some time. Jack has been unable to retain good employment, going in and out of rehab, with Evelyn always drawing him back, wanting their relationship and the family to work. But, every time she takes him back, she loses something too, particularly in terms of the respect of her elder daughter. As the novel opens, it’s New Year’s Eve, and Jack has gone, for good this time it seems, after something unspeakably brutal – the full details are never, fortunately, given – has happened to the family’s pet dog, Belle, the titular “loving faithful animal”. Except, as you’d expect, there’s more to the title than this. Evelyn, too, is “a loving faithful animal”, as in her way is Ruby and, perhaps we could also argue, Jack’s half-brother, Les/Tetch. He had escaped the war by “getting rid of his own fingers” and now hovers on the edge of the family, wanting to keep an eye on them, wanting his brother to be okay, but wanting too some family for himself.

What I enjoyed most about this book, besides its tackling this important subject, is its empathetic but unsentimental portrayal of its characters. Evelyn’s loyalty (her faithfulness) is shown to be both admirable and stupid. We see the catch-22, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t nature of her situation, with the added element of a young girl having made her bed, that is, having married against her parents’ advice, and now having to lie in it:

But she could never quite bring herself to. Run out on him like that. And it was never as simple as money. It was never as simple as pride, because she’s not sure she’s never had much of that either. Or if she does, it hasn’t turned out to be worth much, not when it comes right down to it. (II “The Coastal Years”)

Life is cruel, particularly when stubbornness and lack of forgiveness face off against each other. Anyhow, we also ache for Jack who can’t escape his past, and nor “get a handle on” the future, so leaves rather than inflict more cruelty. We see and understand Lani’s decision to reject it all and escape into a future on her own, while Ruby stays determinedly loyal. Every decision though comes at a cost.

It’s not an easy book to read, and not just because of the subject matter. Rowe is not the sort of writer who wants to tell a simple narrative. She wants to convey emotions, psychology, motivations, not just actions, because these are the stuff of life. And this requires a particular sort of writing which, for Rowe here, is a sort of minimalist, sometimes disjointed, sometimes lyrical style:

This is Exhibit A in the Museum of Possible Futures, the life that might have rolled out smooth as a bolt of satin, if she had just swung her slender legs up into that beautiful car and driven as fast as she could in the opposite direction, leaving the man with the camera far behind. Your father, he could keep the photograph.

But she did not drive away. Instead she sold the car and spent every night of her life trying to lead your father out of the jungle, out of the mud, away from the cracks of invisible rifles, strange lights through the trees. (I “A Loving, Faithful Animal”)

There’s more of course – isn’t there always? – including little running motifs involving cicadas and panthers, and Tetch whom I’ve barely mentioned, but I’ll close here. This is the sort of book that I’d love to see in next year’s awards shortlists, for its writing and for its fierce, authentic evocation of the lasting effects of war. I wonder if I will.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by the book.

AWW Logo 2016

Josephine Rowe
A loving, faithful animal
St Lucia: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253966

AWW Bingo 2016 Challenge Completed

For a blogger of more than 7-years standing who doesn’t take part in memes and challenges, I’m doing a good job this month. First it was 6 degrees of separation earlier this month, and now it’s a bingo game. I have good reasons for these exceptions, but I don’t expect you really want to know those, so let’s just get on with it.

AWW Logo 2016Back in April, Kelly from Orange Pekoe Reviews created two Bingo cards for the AWW Challenge and posted them on the blog. The date for completion was set as 31 October. A couple of days ago, AWW participant Christy Collins became the first person to post that she’d completed the challenge. Now, my life has been so busy these last 6 months or so that I’ve not actively pursued the challenge. However, I’ve kept the cards next to my work area and have checked them every now and then. After Christy posted her completion, I had another look and blow me down but I’d complete one! Now, that’s the sort of challenge I like as you know, one that’s not a challenge!

So, here’s my post recording that I completed Card One:

2016 Bingo Card One

  • A book with a mystery: Not being a big reader of crime/mystery books, I was initially glad that this didn’t say “a mystery book”, because it meant I could choose any book which contained a mystery. However, as it turned out, I did read a crime mystery this year, Dorothy Johnston’s engaging Through a camel’s eye: A sea-change mystery (my review). It’s first in her new series set around where she lives on the southern Victorian coast.
  • A book by someone under 30: I really thought this would be the stumbling block for me. I  read quite a few books by young women writers, but which ones are under thirty and which are just over? It’s not always easy to find out. Fortunately, I was saved by Leah A who titled her book perfectly for my purpose, Ten silly poems by a ten year old (my review). Can’t be clearer than that. Thanks Leah! And thanks for your delightful book too.
  • A book that’s more than ten years old: I haven’t read as many classics this year, but I did read Kate Jennings’ autobiographical novel Moral hazard (my review), which was first published in 2002. Not only did it help me meet this challenge but it introduced me to the existence of “business novels”.
  • A book by an indigenous author: I’ve read a few indigenous authors this year, but the one I want to choose here is Ali Cobby Eckermann’s mesmeric verse novel Ruby Moonlight (my review). If I’d been going to do Card 2, I would have saved it for that, because it would have satisfied that card’s “book with poems” category”.
  • My choice (Free square): Oh dear, what to choose here? It’s a toss-up between two collections of essays, Garner’s Everywhere I look and Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance, and Julie Proudfoot’s award-winning novella, The neighbour. But, for her honest handling of such a difficult subject, the experience of an eating disorder, I’ll choose Wright’s book (my review).
  • A bestseller: Fortunately, the challenge didn’t define what it meant by “bestseller”, otherwise I might have had a challenge here, but Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review) was listed a few times in Melbourne bookshop Readings’ Top Ten sellers of the week. I think that qualifies, don’t you?
  • A book set in the outback: I tend mostly to think of “the outback” as Australia’s dry remote regions, but for this category I’m submitting Sarah Kanake’s debut novel Sing fox to me (my review) set in a remote mountainous area of Tasmania.
  • A short story collection: Now, in this category I have a few excellent choices, including books by Tegan Bennett Daylight and Cassie Flanagan Wilanski, but I’m going to choose Elizabeth Harrower’s A few days in the country, and other stories (my review). That woman can so write, and I’m determined that now re-discovered she’s not going to disappear again.
  • A book published this year: Again, I could choose from several books, but for her wonderful turns of phrase and exploration of mental illness, I’m choosing Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The paper house (my review)

Now, that wasn’t too hard … I rather enjoyed looking at this year’s reading from a different angle, and being reminded of some very fine reading I’ve done.

If you had done this challenge, what books would you have chosen in any of these categories. (Unlike us challenge participants, you don’t have to limit yourself to Australian women!)

Anna Spargo-Ryan, The paper house (Review)

Anna Spargo-Ryan, The paper-houseI hadn’t heard of Anna Spargo-Ryan’s novel, The paper-house, when it was sent to me for review, which is not surprising given it’s a debut novel. However, I loved the cover – designed by one of Australia’s top book designers, Sandy Cull – and so was more than willing to give it a go. It traverses some familiar ground, grief and loss, and  mental illness, but it did so differently enough to keep me well engaged.

The novel starts with a young couple, Heather and Dave, in a strong, happy relationship. They decide to have a child and that this means buying a house to accommodate their new family. They see one south of Melbourne and immediately know that’s it. And already here, by page 4, as she describes the end of their house-hunting, we have garnered a good sense Spargo-Ryan’s clear but evocative writing:

After six weeks of looking and imagining, we ate teacakes on the western side of the peninsula and our hearts stayed behind when we left.

So simply said – no florid adjectives – but so arresting in its clarity. And it also encompasses two motifs which feature strongly in the novel, hearts and imaginings. Indeed the book opens with the line “My heart fell out on a spring morning”. We know, right then, that this is going to be a story about feelings – not to mention, also, that our writer has a wonderful turn of phrase!

Another strong thread in the novel is that of gardens. Their new house, of course, has a garden:

And the garden: a maze of established trees and crouching shrubs and flowers with bees on them and the faint trickle of water. A garden in which to wander, in which to get lost. For picnics and parties. It breathed in time with me and spat me out into the afternoon air, where the sea caught on the updraft and shot through the corridors. I watched it heave and change as it became night.

It’s a big garden, one which disappears from view behind a “row of pittosporums with their straight backs”, one with “good solid pittos … [which] keep the neighbours out of your business”. These pittosporums become a sort of reference point in the novel for her experience of the garden and, in a way, for her mental state, because this is a story about mental states. It’s about suffering a deep, deep loss, and how this new loss brings back a similarly deep past loss that has remained unresolved.

But now, I don’t want to give away this loss, though perhaps if you’ve heard of the book you already know. The story is told chronologically but, interspersed with this main narrative which chronicles around 6 months in the couple’s lives, are flashbacks in which Heather remembers life with her mentally ill mother Shelley, with her father and her older sister Fleur, and with her Gran. It was clearly a loving family but one under immense stress which each member handled in slightly different ways. As the contemporary story exposes Heather’s increasingly unstable state, we are also inexorably led to the tragedy that occurred in Heather’s teenage life. The resolution has a certain predictability to it, but Spargo-Ryan builds it so well that it doesn’t feel clichéd.

One of the pleasures in reading this sad but ultimately hopeful book lies in the characters around Heather. Her sister and father, and elderly neighbours Sylvia and Ashok, in particular, are colourful but human, and they create a warm, engaging but not sickly-sweet community which tries to shore up Heather. There’s husband Dave too, but he is a little more shadowy, off working as a teacher during the day when much of the action takes place.

The story is told first person by Heather, and as her mental state worsens we find ourselves a little destabilised, uncertain about what is real and what isn’t. She’s reliable only in the sense that she’s telling us what she is seeing and believing, but what she sees and believes is not always “real”. This is where the garden becomes significant. Initially the focus of her dreams for her little family, it becomes escape and refuge:

I threw myself from the bed and into the air. Nightlife moved in silhouette and shadow: the broad wings of a fruit bat against the sky, the low call of the boobook owl that always spoke in couplets – mopoke, mopoke. In the garden the pittosporums stood to attention and the moon pooled at their feet.

Shhh, said my body, folding around me.

But gradually it enables her imagination to run amok – and it plays an important role in the resolution.

The book is beautifully produced – creatively presenting text and white space to mirror and convey the disarray of Heather’s mind. However, what I most liked about it is the way it conveys the impact of mental illness on family members, the way it explores how family members, neighbours and friends can work together to nurture an ill person, and, importantly, the way it shows how carers can get lost in the focus on the ill person. It’s all done through language that shines and shows, rather than didactically tells and exhorts. By the end I had real tears in my eyes, and that doesn’t happen often.

AWW Logo 2016Anna Spargo-Ryan
The paper house
Sydney: Picador, 2016
ISBN: 9781743535202

(Review copy courtesy Picador Australia)

Leah A, Ten silly poems by a ten year old (Review)

Leah A, Ten silly poems by a ten year oldPREFACE AND DISCLOSURE: As some of you know Son Gums is a primary school teacher. One of the programs he likes to run with his class is “the Passion Project”. Part of the theory behind this project is that kids don’t always get to do in class the things that really interest them so, over one 10-week term in the school-year, each student chooses a project s/he is passionate about to work on. Some time is allocated in class each week, and the rest is done at home. At the end of term, the students present what they’ve produced or created, which I understand can (and has) included games, computer programs, websites, artworks, live or animated films/videos, novels and cookbooks. This year, one girl wrote, illustrated and then published on Amazon a book of ten poems. I have bought and read the book and been given permission to write about it here.

NOW, THE FUN PART, THE BOOK: I titled my brief Amazon comment/review, “Edward Lear watch out”, because this gorgeous little (in size, not value) book reveals a lively, cheeky mind just like, I imagine, Edward Lear’s was. And like Edward Lear, Leah (hmm, I didn’t notice that homophone until now) is both writer and illustrator. Her ten silly poems are written in a variety of styles, including Lear’s favourite, the limerick.

The first two poems are not limericks, however, but 8-line rhyming couplets about her parents. They reminded me of when our children (one being, of course, Leah’s teacher) were growing up and showing an interest in writing. I decided then that I needed to let go of my ego and be prepared for my less endearing qualities to be revealed to all. Leah’s parents have clearly realised they must do the same, if they are to encourage her talent. Mum gets away with it this time, but Dad doesn’t come out quite so well:

You’re very handsome and oh so cool
Even though you sleep and drool.
(from “Dad”)

Lucky Mum eh?

Several of the poems are about animals and their adventures, usually involving food. “Lightning”, with its nicely controlled a-b-c-b rhyme, tells of the secret behind this horse’s speed (“All his speed and fastness/Was due to eating sauerkraut”)! Isaac the dog, on the other hand, finds that he needs to be a little careful about what he decides to “bite, bite, bite”. Like many of the poems, “Isaac” also uses the a-b-c-b rhyming pattern, but here Leah changes the form a little by ending most of the stanzas with the refrain “bite, bite, bite”. This use of a refrain comprising repeated words enhances the poem’s mood of silliness, but Leah also has the confidence to break the pattern in the middle of the poem, before taking it up again, to provide a needed change of pace. She’s not afraid, in other words, to mix it up a bit.

Leah A, Ten Silly Poems, hen imageMost of the poems are narrative, and tell humorous little stories, as you’d expect of the nonsense verse tradition within which Leah is writing. “Carolina Reaper”, for example, tells of a birthday girl who ignores the advice of a Mexican restaurant waiter, to her detriment, while the two delightful “Turbo Turtle” poems play with the commonly held assumption that turtles are slow.

Turbo Turtle, Turbo Turtle
How fast can you go?
Compared to me a cheetah
Is oh so very slow.
(from “Turbo Turtle”)

Occasionally the rhythm falters, but this is offset by the sure sense of story, the cheeky sense of humour, a clever use of language, not to mention the delightful illustrations. And anyhow, what can you expect when you have to write, illustrate and publish a book in ten weeks! Ten silly poems by a ten year old is not only an entertaining read but an impressive achievement. If you have a mind to support young authors, and you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app on your tablet), you might like to buy a copy for yourself at the Amazon link below. At AUD1.31, it’s a steal.

awwchallenge2016A, Leah
(Illus. by Leah A)
Ten silly poems by a ten year old

Available at Amazon (Kindle only) for the amazing price of AUD1.31

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live (Review)

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live“Write what you know” is the advice commonly given to new authors – and it’s something Cassie Flanagan Willanski, author of Here where we live, seems to accept. Set in South Australia, where Willanski lives, this debut collection of short stories reflects her two main interests, creative writing and the environment. The book won Wakefield Press’s Unpublished Manuscript Award a couple of years ago, and I can see why.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the book. Adelaide author and creative writing teacher Brian Castro is quoted on the front cover as saying “I was moved and I was haunted” and on the back “Her stories are as spare and understated as the harsh landscape she describes…” I’d concur. Her stories are not your typical short story. That is, they don’t have tight little plots, nor do they have shock (or even just surprising) endings. They are more like slices-of-life, or like chapters of a novel, in the way they tease out moments in people’s lives that you can imagine continuing into a larger story. And yet, they are complete in themselves and absolutely satisfying.

However, there is more to these stories than “just” slices of life. Willanski writes in her author’s note that they were written as part of her Master of Arts degree, in which she explored “the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”. She introduces the notion of “Indigenous invisibility” which she describes as “ignoring Indigenous Australian people’s current existence, and mourning them as extinct”. She then talks about the issue we’ve discussed here before noting that as white writers became aware of this “Indigenous invisibility” they started to “write about them as characters in their books”. She says she has tried to reflect in her stories the various attitudes she found in her research. I found them authentic and sensitive, but the real judges of whether she’s been successful are indigenous people, aren’t they? There’s a reference to indigenous elder and activist Sue Haseldine in her acknowledgements, which may suggest some acceptance?

There are nine stories in the collection, three told first person, and the rest third person, except for the last and longest story which has two alternating voices, one third, the other second. Her protagonists include a young girl, a young male teacher, a 70-something woman, and a woman grieving for her late female partner. A few stories are connected, but this is not critical to appreciating the collection. Several of the stories, Willanski says in her author’s note, were inspired by real events but in each her imagination has created something new and fictional. Some of these real events are matters of history, such as the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy and the Maria shipwreck, while others draw from personal experiences.

Despite the historical inspiration behind some stories, they are all set in contemporary South Australia. The first two are told first person: “This is my daughter’s country” opens the first (“My good thing”) and “The night my husband told me he was going to leave me we were in the middle of a heatwave” starts the second (“Drought core”). Straightaway we are introduced to Willanski’s nicely controlled, pensive tone, and her ongoing themes: family relationships, indigenous issues, the environment and climate change.

The first story is told in the voice of a white woman who has an indigenous husband and a daughter. They are going back to country to clean rockholes. No-one is named – “this is my daughter”, “this is my husband”, “my daughter’s grandmother” – which gives the story a universal, almost mythical sense. There are hints of challenges – subtle references to the Stolen Generations and to environmentally destructive tourism – but it’s a short, warmhearted story about the drive to connect with land and people, and sets up the collection nicely.

I can’t describe every story so I’ll jump to the fourth one, “Stuff white people like”. It is lightly, self-mockingly satirical. It tells the story of a young couple, Oliver and Clay, visiting Ceduna where Oliver is considering a job as a “Nature School Teacher”. They are both earnest, Oliver particularly so, in wanting to understand and relate to indigenous people, so they decide to attend a “healing ceremony” for “‘Maralinga, climate change, feral animals, you name it,’ said the principal vaguely.” It’s an uncomfortable experience, and Oliver doesn’t know how to react to the event which isn’t what he expected. He doesn’t want to be “like the other white people” but how should he be? Clay is able to go with the flow a bit, but not Oliver. Later, on their trip home, she is able to laugh, and take the jokes in the book Stuff white people like, while Oliver is “crippled with self-awareness”. He can’t quite match Clay’s insight. She reads from the book about white people “knowing what’s best” for others:

“Do you think I’m like that?”
“‘Cos you’re excited to get to work with Aboriginal  kids? No!” She stopped for a minute, trying to piece together her thoughts. “Well, I mean–” she said and stopped again.
“What?” said Oliver.
“Well it’s just that Aboriginal people already know about having school outside.”
“I know,” said Oliver. “What’s your point?”
Clay looked at him again, then said, almost irritably, “Well, you’re taking something they’ve been doing for thousands of years and putting the white seal of approval on it.”
“But the missionaries took it away,” said Oliver.
He didn’t say it, but it was implied, and they didn’t know what to do with the implication. Oliver would be giving it back.

I love this on so many grounds – the personal and the political, the desire and the discomfort, the sincerity and uncertainty. These underpin the collection.

Desert oaks

Desert Oaks, Centralia

There’s only one story in which Willanski speaks “for” or “in the voice of” indigenous people, “Oak trees in the desert”. It’s about the First International Woman Against Radioactive Racism Conference, held in Monument Valley, Utah. This is a fictional conference, but “radioactive racism” is “real” and the aforementioned Sue Haseldine is active in this area.

Willanski opens the story with an indigenous Australian woman introducing herself at the conference. It’s a strong story, with the first-person voices of various First Nation conference attendees interspersed with the third-person story of white Australian woman, 76-year-old Bev, whose late husband had worked at Maralinga and had contracted cancer. There’s also a young white woman activist-organiser providing, again, a light satirical touch. Like many of the stories, it’s very personal but also has a big political message. (I also enjoyed it because I love Australia’s desert oaks, and I’ve driven in the stunning Monument Valley.)

This is getting long so I’ll end with the last story, “Some yellow flowers”, which contrasts a mature love, through the grieving Jean whose partner Nancy has died, with the young love of two teenagers, Loretta and Jackson. This story brings together several of the collection’s themes, including developing and maintaining loving relationships, climate change and caring for the environment, and indigenous-settler relationships. There is a big storm – one of those one-hundred-years storms that are occurring more frequently these days:

The roof shrieks and the sea spray pelts against the front verandah. The separation between land and water, sea and sky, past and present and living and dead becomes more obviously a figment of daytime imagination.

Dreams are had, stories are told, relationships are resolved – not simplistically, but with a sense of continuum.

This is the sort of writing I like: undramatic, understated, reflective stories about ordinary people coping with breakups, death, new relationships, but overlaid with a strong set of values and contemporary concerns, in this case encompassing the intertwined issue of respecting indigenous people and caring for our country. While not always comfortable reading, it’s a hopeful book – and I like that too.

awwchallenge2016Cassie Flanagan Willanski
Here where we live
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054031

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)