Joy Eadie, Discovering Charles Meere: Art and allusion (#BookReview)

Joy Eadie, Discovering Charles MeereThe award for my last review of the year goes to something a little left field for me, Joy Eadie’s Discovering Charles Meere: Art and allusion. I say left field because it is, essentially, a book of art criticism, and I don’t do much of that here (or anywhere, for that matter!) However, when Halstead Press offered me a copy for review a few months ago, I was intrigued, so accepted the book. And here is why I was intrigued …

In the email offering me the book, the publisher wrote:

Australian Beach Pattern is Meere’s most famous work and hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW. However, despite its popularity and recognition, it has been labelled by critics as an unimaginative work which glorifies an Aryan ideal of mid-twentieth Australia, and Meere’s name is hardly known.

And thus my interest was aroused, because earlier this year I had been to the Brave New World: Australia 1930s exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. One of the sections was titled “Body culture” and the commentary noted that “the evolution of a new Australian ‘type’ was also proposed in the 1930s – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by time spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.” The notes referred to the problematic aspects of this idea in an era when eugenics was on the rise in Germany.

While the exhibition didn’t, in fact, include Charles Meere, it is in this context that his most famous work, “Australian Beach Pattern” (online image) dated 1940, has been seen and it is this interpretation that Joy Eadie refutes by offering her own reading of the painting. She does this by analysing the painting and comparing it with like works from his oeuvre to develop her ideas about his themes and world view.

Eadie’s thesis is, essentially, that within Meere’s coolly formal application of an Art Deco-cum-neoclassical style lie recurring features including “a certain dry wit, irony, the use of allusion and appropriation, oblique reference to the historical context and to being in a certain time and place, while recalling other times and places”. These features, she argues, are not easily apparent in one work, such as “Australian Beach Pattern”, but they become evident in the context of several works.

Robert Drewe, The bodysurfersHowever, before I discuss the book, I should explain for those who don’t know that “Australian Beach Pattern” is one of Australia’s iconic images. It was used on the program for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, on the cover of Robert Drewe’s The bodysurfers, and apparently features in curriculum materials about democracy in Australian schools. Merchandise featuring it is also amongst the most popular at the Art Gallery of News South Wales, where the painting has resided since 1965. But now, to the book …

It starts with a brief biography of the little-known British-born Meere (1890-1961), then moves on in Chapter 2 to analyse the poster (“1978 … 1938 150 Years of Progress”) he created for NSW’s 1938 Sesquicentenary celebrations. Referencing some of the tensions of the anniversary planning and using the careful eye for detail needed by an art critic, Eadie identifies features of the poster which depart from traditional poster style, and proposes that Meere’s aim was to subvert the “nationalistic hubris” of the anniversary story. Her analysis includes the suggestion that Meere alludes to Hieronymous Bosch’s “Ship of Fools” painting to comment on the practice of sending British outcasts to the other side of the world. She notes his inclusion of tall strong Aboriginal people on the shore, his placing of his own signature in proximity to these figures, and argues that his “choice of black to proclaim the joyous message of progress” was “deliberate and ironic”.

In this vein – analysing Meere’s painting style, use of colour, allusions to European paintings, historical context, and so on – Eadie discusses picture after picture, including of course “Australian Beach Pattern”, to build up her argument concerning Meere’s more subversive commentary on contemporary culture, and she is, overall, convincing. Her close reading of the paintings, mirrors, really, the close textual analysis literary critics do. And her challenge with Meere reminded me of that issue regarding the value to criticism of knowing the creator that I raised in my recent review of Bernadette Brennan’s book, because, in Meere’s case, it appears there are “no diaries or notebooks recording his artistic practice” so, says Eadie, “one can only speculate”.

And speculate she does, sometimes drawing long bows. These show the depth of her research, but with little evidence for what Meere actually knew, saw, experienced or thought, these bows rely on our agreeing with her assumptions – particularly regarding his alluding to other works. Her analysis of his “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” painting is fascinating but relies on our making a number of leaps with her. In her chapter discussing the origins of the large number of “copies” of “Australian Beach Pattern” which regularly hit the market, the speculations build, but, as she does elsewhere, she admits to them, calling one idea “highly speculative”. Other times, she explains that she had to work from digital or reproduction copies of works in private hands, and that her analysis could change on seeing the work itself. None of this, however, gets out of hand, and her arguments are clear.

Discovering Charles Meere might sound dry and suited only to specialists, but not so. Eadie’s writing is engaging and refreshingly free of academic jargon and meaningless polysyllabic words. The book is short, nicely produced, and is well-illustrated, making it easy to follow her argument. As for the content, it should appeal to anyone interested in Australian art and 20th century Australian culture. I enjoyed my foray into the outfields of my reading interests!

aww2017 badgeJoy Eadie
Discovering Charles Meere: Art and allusion
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781925043389

(Review copy courtesy Halstead Press)

Bernadette Brennan, A writing life: Helen Garner and her work (#BookReview)

Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workEnough of the filler posts for a while! It’s time for a review, and it’s a special one because it’s for a book about one of my favourite writers, Helen Garner. The book is Bernadette Brennan’s A writing life: Helen Garner and her work. Described as a “literary portrait” rather than as a biography, it carefully and thoroughly explores her work from multiple angles, the effect of which was to confirm my overall understanding of her work while also resolving some of the gaps or misconceptions in my reading of her.

This brings me straight to the book’s fundamental assumption that knowing a writer’s life is (or can be) relevant to understanding his or her work. Brennan writes in her Introduction that she did not want to write a biography, which was just as well, as Garner did not want her to either. However, Brennan “knew” that the intersection of Garner’s “life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work.” There are those who argue that the text is the thing – and the only thing. However, others of us believe that our reading of a text can be enhanced by other factors, that, as editor and critic Adam Kirsch has said, it is valid “to use the life to clarify the factors that shape the work — to show how life and work were both shaped by the same set of problems and drives.” What I realised while reading this book is that this can be as true for non-fiction as for fiction.

“honest, authentic” (Brennan)

I have written about Helen Garner several times on this blog, and many of those times I’ve explained that I love her writing, even though I don’t always agree with her. I love her honesty I say. Well, so do others apparently. In her Introduction, Brennan writes that:

Garner is one of the best-known and, some would say, best-loved writers in Australia. That admiration is inspired by a sense that she is honest, authentic …

And then, working chronologically, she starts the book proper with Garner’s first novel, Monkey grip. Concluding this chapter, Brennan quotes the judges who awarded Garner the National Book Council Book of the Year Award in 1978. They described her as “utterly honest in facing the dilemmas of freedom, and particularly of social and sexual freedom for women”. That was just the beginning. Garner, as we now know, continued to confront difficult issues and, as a result, to face censure, again and again, throughout her career. Brennan, to use current jargon, unpicks all this, book by book, using the texts themselves, the responses of critics, Garner’s unpublished letters and diaries, the clippings she collected, and spoken and written conversations with Garner herself and with several who know (or knew) her. It’s comprehensive.

You may be wondering at this point whether you need to have read Garner’s books to gain value from this book. Not necessarily, I’d say. I have read eight of the listed fourteen books, and found the chapters on those I haven’t read engaging despite not knowing them. However, those on the books I have read were particularly engrossing, and frequently illuminating.

Helen Garner, The first stoneTake The first stone, for example. Subtitled “Some questions about sex and power” it explores a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at a Melbourne University college. The book was highly controversial at the time and Garner copped some ferocious criticism, particularly from feminists, for the stance she took. I was one who disagreed, strongly, with her. But, here is where my point regarding the value of knowing the author’s biography comes in. In a 50-page chapter, Brennan analyses the book in depth, exploring the circumstances of the case, Garner’s writing process, and the role played by the facts of her life in the approach she took. It was enlightening. I came away still not exactly agreeing with her, but understanding Garner’s position more. Brennan describes, among other things, Garner’s uncertainty regarding the young women, and how her own history and vulnerabilities affected her response.

Brennan starts this chapter with the statement that the “truth” surrounding the events “may never be fully known”, and follows this with the “facts” that are known. Of course, I loved this differentiation. Another significant point Brennan makes in the chapter concerns Garner’s positioning of herself in the story. The idea came from friend and publisher Hilary McPhee who, writes Brennan

suggested she insert herself as a character in into the narrative and write a book that charted the effects of each person’s statement on her own point of view. That strategy allowed her to explore the issues with which she was grappling, despite the absence of the complainant’s perspective, yet it late infuriated some commentators.

This approach would have come naturally to her, I’d say, given that all her writing has a strong autobiographical component, as she herself admits. This intrusion of her “self” has become a feature of her non-fiction writing and is part of a style of narrative non-fiction that she helped pioneer and that we now see used by younger Australian writers like Anna Krien and Chloe Hooper.

Brennan’s research into the writing of The first stone is meticulous, and is carefully documented in the end notes. Her subsequent analysis and the conclusions she draws are well-considered and make sense. She applies this technique to every chapter – to her discussions of Garner’s fiction like Monkey grip and Cosmo cosmolino, as well as to her other non-fiction works like Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief. The book ends with last year’s essay collection, Everywhere I look.

“For me, particularly, it’s one book. The book of what I make of the world and my life as I have lived it.” (Garner)

Superficially, Garner’s work is diverse. She has written in almost every form you could imagine, including song lyrics, libretti, and plays as well as novels, short stories, essays and longform non-fiction. But the subject matter is much tighter – it tends to be domestic and relationship-based, but with a particular focus, because it grapples, says Brennan, with the problem of balancing “the desire for personal freedom with ethical responsibility”. Garner’s concerns are ethical and moral. She explores these values in the daily lives of ordinary people, in both her fiction and non-fiction, whether it’s a mother deserting her family (in The children’s Bach) or a father driving his car full of children into a lake (This house of grief), and she doesn’t separate herself from the issues. She shows her own failings, her own ugliness, with a breathtaking vulnerability, and brings, Brennan shows, much distress upon herself. She doesn’t, in other words, write what she writes lightly.

So, what picture does Brennan paint of Garner, the writer? It’s a complex one. It’s of a writer who has strong emotions, a fierce intellect and a commitment to seeking out the “truth”. It’s of a writer who can be hard on others, including those she knows, but who is equally hard on herself. It’s of a writer who isn’t scared to cross boundaries of form and defy expectations in order to tell the best story she can. Brennan’s approach to her topic is analytical, rather than critical. That is, she interrogates Garner’s work and mines her life for the aspects that will help us understand the work, but she doesn’t, herself, critique the work – which is probably to be expected, given the book’s title.

There is so much more that could be said about the book, so many angles from which it could be discussed, but I’ll close here by saying that this is, obviously, a book for those who want to understand Garner’s work more. But, it is also a book which makes clear the significant contribution Garner has made to Australian literature. And, in doing that, it is itself a significant book.

aww2017 badgeBernadette Brennan
A writing life: Helen Garner and her work
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498035

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

aww2017 badgeAs has become tradition, I’m devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge*. But, this time, my last Monday Musings also coincides with Christmas Day, so I wish a happy, peaceful holiday season to all my readers here who celebrate this time of year, however or whatever you celebrate.

Now, on with the show … This year has been an active one at the Challenge with a significantly increased number of reviews, in my area at least. We’ve also, with the help of new Challenge volunteer Theresa Smith (of Theresa Smith writes), published a large number of interviews with authors in our Spotlight series and, through connections made by Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede, published several posts on classic Australian women writers. In other words, we are extending the content on the blog to make it a broader resource beyond our round-ups and the reviews database which is, of course, the backbone of the challenge. The database now contains reviews for over 4,400 books across all forms and genres of Australian women’s writing, from all periods. This represents an increase of over 20% on last year’s total. Another good achievement.

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

  • Spotlights: Throughout the year we posted a variety of Spotlights – Saturday and Sunday Spotlights comprised author interviews (of which I did two, with Sara Dowse and Dorothy Johnston), Small Press Spotlights in which we featured some of Australia’s small publishing houses), and spotlights on classic women authors, like Ada Cambridge.
  • Facebook Page: Our Facebook Page – Reading Australian Women Writers – which was created last year, continues to attract readers wanting to share their latest Aussie women writers’ reads.
  • Bingo: We ran our second Bingo challenge – two in fact, one general, one classic – but I let it slip. Next year I will try a reminder system, although I’m not keen to overfill my blog with non-review content.
  • New releases: We are playing with how to capture and promote upcoming releases. We haven’t settled on the perfect process yet. Watch the blog for more on this.
  • Diversity: Once again author and researcher Jessica White coordinated a series of guest posts by “diverse” writers. There were posts by writers living with mental illness, by lesbian/queer writers, and others. These sorts of posts help make the AWW blog stand out from the crowd.

My personal round-up for the year

Let’s start with the facts, followed by some commentary. By the end of the year I will have posted 30 reviews for the challenge, the same as last year. Here they are, with links to my reviews:

Catherine McKinnon, StorylandFICTION

Rebekah Clarkson, Barking dogsSHORT STORIES


Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangersNON-FICTION

I’ve noticed an interesting trend over the last three years in my Aussie women’s reading – a noticeable decrease in the proportion of novels:  48% in 2015, 40% in 2016, and just 34% this year. I’m not sure why this is, but I have been aware of reading more non-fiction this year – more by accident than on purpose. The types of novels I read changed from last year too, with very few debut novels this year as against nearly half last year, and two classics as against none last year!

Indigenous writers represented 10% of my total, with two books by Ali Cobby Eckermann and one by Ellen van Neerven. And memoir featured significantly – again – in my non-fiction reading, though they weren’t all your traditional memoir, one being an essay anthology, and two being what I would call “hybrids”. Overall, I’m reasonably satisfied with the diversity of my contribution – though I could always do better.

Anyhow, if you’d like to know more, check out the challenge here. The 2018 sign up form is ready, so do consider joining us. All readers are welcome. I’ll be there again (this being my sign-up post).  The challenge is also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), GoodReads and Google+.

Finally, a big thanks to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team – including my longtime online bookgroup friend Janine Rizzetti (Resident Judge of Port Phillip), who joined us this year. Once again it has been a positive experience, which is a credit to the willingness and flexibility of those involved. See you in 2018.

* 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.

Amy Witting, Afterplay (#Review)

Amy Witting’s first novel wasn’t published until 1977, when she was 59 years old, which is why she appeared in my late bloomers post a few years ago. She went on to publish five more novels after that – two of which I read and enjoyed long before blogging – and she was an accomplished short story writer and poet.

An interesting piece of Witting trivia is that in the 1960s she taught at the same high school in Sydney as Thea Astley, who was a few years younger. Astley encouraged her to submit a short story to the New Yorker, which duly published it. Wikipedia tells us that Australian poet Kenneth Slessor once said “tell that women I’ll publish any word she writes”. And critic Peter Craven argues that her form of realism wasn’t really accepted by the reading public until Helen Garner appeared on the scene.

Amy Witting, Selected stories

“Afterplay” is not in this collection!

All this is to say that although Witting has never had the level of recognition enjoyed by writers like Astley, Jolley and Garner, she was well-regarded in literary circles, and is being brought to our notice again through Text Classics. This year they added three of her books – The visit (her first), A change in the lighting (which my reading group did back in the 1990s), and Selected stories – to their list. Discussing the publication of her stories, they said they could not include them all as they wanted to keep the book to a manageable size. However, as a little tempter, they decided to publish one of her stories, “Afterplay”, online, describing it as “a bite-sized taste of Witting’s short-form genius”. This has given me a wonderful opportunity to include her on my blog – and with a story you can read too. Win-win, as they say!

“Afterplay” provides an excellent introduction to Witting’s writing for a number of reasons. It’s a good example of the realism which Peter Craven sees as her métier; it exemplifies her spare, direct style; and its subject matter reflects her main writing interest, relationship-focused stories in domestic settings. It is also, at less than 1,500 words, a short short-story, and, according to Text, demonstrates “Witting’s masterly economy”.

“Afterplay” focuses on “two young women”, Judith and Geraldine, and their response to Geraldine’s break-up with Ken ten days previously. The problem is that her way of breaking up was to walk out leaving a note on the kitchen table, and he, not expecting this to happen, wants to talk to her. Judith thinks Geraldine should, but Geraldine is resisting all his attempts to contact her, telling Judith that she “can’t stand confrontation. Never could.”

The thing about this story, which is told third person, is the way Witting subtly shifts perspective between the two women, and only gives us Ken’s perspective through Judith reporting a phone conversation as it takes place. There is also a little back story about Geraldine’s previous relationship which seems to have ended with, or just before, the man’s death (by suicide is the implication). The effect of all this is to keep the reader a little uncertain, a little off-balance. We are not given the full picture from any of the perspectives, so our antennae keep pointing in different directions as we try to work out where our sympathies should lie. In the end, I think, my sympathy went mostly to the poor friend caught in the middle!

There’s some cheeky humour here – including little innuendoes about sex as a sport. Ken was “proficient at all sports, never missed a goal”, and of course the title “afterplay” brings to mind “foreplay” (which was not, apparently, Ken’s forte, albeit he’s “a sweet-tempered man”.) However, there is one awkward part where Geraldine tells Judith some things about the break-up that she surely already knows. You could argue, perhaps, that at times like these people do tell and retell their experiences, but it did feel a little clumsy.

Regardless, “Afterplay” is a beautifully crafted little (in size, not in value) story. But, don’t take my word for it. At only 1500 words and available on-line, how about you read it too – and let me know what you think.

aww2017 badgeAmy Witting
First published (I think): Quadrant 39 (5), May 1995
Available online at Text Publishing.

Betty McLellan, Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography (#BookReview)

BettyMcLellanAnnHannahBetty McLellan’s Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography disconcerted me at first. I’d never heard of a psychological biography (which, I presume, is the same as psychobiography) so I was intrigued by McLellan’s discussion in the Introduction of her decision to use this approach. I did feel, for a chapter or two that she was drawing a long bow, but I persevered and it was worth the effort.

McLellan commences her Introduction by telling us a little about who Ann Hannah Stickley was and why she decided to write the book. As you’ll have gathered from the title, Ann Hannah was her grandmother. Born in 1881, and emigrating to Australia with four children when she was 40, Ann Hannah was, writes McLellan, “an unremarkable woman who lived an unremarkable life and died an unremarkable death” (albeit at the, I’d say, remarkable age of 97!) However, McLellan came to realise, long after Ann Hannah had died, that this grandmother, who was already living with her family when she was born and who was still there when she left home at nineteen, was worth investigating. She sensed that her grandmother had had a “remarkable resilience” and wanted to know how she’d done it. But how was she to explore this, given her grandmother had been dead for nearly 40 years?

The problem was that she knew relatively little about this quiet, practical, hardworking woman, and that there was no one left who might have known more. So what, she questioned, “would be the best literary device to use to record her story, explore my own reactions to it and analyse it in terms of its relevance for other women?” A straight biography would not work, for the reasons already given. Consequently, she turned to this new-to-me genre of psychological biography which “seeks to discover a subject through analysis of their political pronouncements, decisions, writing, behaviour or art”. Ann Hannah, being a private, “ordinary”, person had none of those, but she did have a number of sayings – didn’t all our grandmothers? It is through these that McLellan decided to analyse Ann Hannah, “with a view to uncovering the deeper meaning behind her words” and in so doing to not only understand her grandmother more, but, among other things, “to present her as a representative of many women born in her time and circumstance”. It’s a big ask …

McLellan, a psychotherapist and feminist activist who has written other books, does this by taking each saying, explaining its meaning and how her grandmother had used it, and then exploring its wider implications or connotations. What exactly she explores is largely driven by the saying. The saying in Chapter 2, for example, is “I’m a Londoner”, and so McLellan explores – through historical and sociopolitical lenses – what life was like in the parts of London where Ann Hannah had lived until her migration to Australia in 1921.  She was uneducated, and part of “the working poor”. But, this was also the time of the women’s suffrage movement, which McLellan describes in some detail. Ann Hannah, she says, had never indicated she was aware of the “political machinations” going on around her, so in one sense we could question McLellan’s inclusion of the history here. However, McLellan concludes the chapter by saying her grandmother had lived her life as a “strong, determined woman”. It could be argued that this was in part made possible by the sociopolitical environments she found herself in.

By contrast, Chapter 4’s saying is “‘e was a wickid man” [ “wickid” being spelt that way to capture Ann Hannah’s pronunciation]. It deals with Ann Hannah’s second husband’s violence and sexual abuse of his step-daughter, as well as of Ann Hannah, herself, and one of their daughters. Here, not surprisingly, McLellan looks more at psychiatry, psychology and the law, than history and politics. She describes the lack of recourse women had during the time Ann Hannah lived, and concludes that her grandmother’s only choice, really, was to “accept her lot” and get on with it, which is exactly what she did. (Not surprisingly, Ann Hannah said it was “the ‘appiest day of my life when ‘e died”!)

These are just two of the six chapters exploring Ann Hannah’s sayings. Two others deal with the experience of migration and of the loss of a child, both of which particularly engaged my interest.

Overall, the approach makes for a somewhat disjointed book, skipping as it does around different fields of human knowledge and experience. Nonetheless, it all works reasonably well because there are unifying threads to which McLellan returns, one being Ann Hannah herself, and the other McLellan’s feminist perspective. I say “reasonably” well because there were times when, due I’m sure to lack of information, Ann Hannah seemed to slip though my fingers. I wanted, I suppose, a more traditional biography! Given that McLellan explained why she couldn’t produce that, it’s unreasonable of me to criticise the book for what it’s not, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it’s what I would have liked!

The real question is, then, does McLellan’s decision to write a psychological biography of her grandmother work? Does it provide, in other words, some useful insights into women’s lived experience, as McLellan intended? I think it does – and does so in a way that not only illuminates the past, but also contributes to our understanding of the present and why things are the way they are today. A different but interesting read.

aww2017 badgeBetty McLellan
Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography
Mission Beach: Spinifex Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781925581287

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Helen Garner, Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake (#Review)

Three years ago I reviewed Helen Garner’s This house of grief about Robert Farquharson who drove his car into a dam in Victoria, resulting in the deaths of his three sons. It’s a grim grim story, so you might wonder why I am now writing about her essay “Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake” about Akon Guode who, in 2015, drove her car into a lake in Victoria resulting in the deaths of three of the four children inside.

There are two reasons, the main one being that this essay was, last week, awarded the Walkley Award (about which I’ve written before) for Feature Writing Long (over 4000 words). I hadn’t read the article when it was published in June this year, and probably wouldn’t have read it now, except for this award. What, I wondered, when I heard the news, made this essay, on a topic so seemingly similar to her recent book, worthy of the Walkley Award? The other reason is that although there are similarities – both parents drove their cars into water resulting in the deaths of children – there is a big difference. One parent was a father, and the other a mother. I wanted to know what, if anything, Garner would make of that in her analysis.

I’ll start two-thirds through the essay, where Garner quotes Guode’s defence counsel using a statement made to the Victorian Law Commission in 2004:

While men kill to control or punish their children or partner, women kill children because they cannot cope with the extreme difficulties that they encounter in trying to care for their children.

Given the current political climate – Harvey Weinstein, Don Bourke, et al – this statement must surely be read as part of that bigger picture concerning women’s powerlessness.

In the first part of the essay, Garner describes Guode’s life. She was a Sudanese refugee to Australia who had been married as a teenager but had then lost her husband in the civil war there. In that culture women cannot remarry, but remain a possession of their husband’s family. Guode’s third child was fathered by a brother-in-law. Eventually, after more trauma in Africa, she was sponsored to come to Australia by another of her late husband’s brothers, Manyang. Her life here became difficult in a different way, with her bearing four children to this already married man. At the time of the incident she had seven children.

Garner details the difficulties of Guode’s life, including the traumatic birth of her seventh child, and her struggle to care for her family while also sending money back to family in Africa. To her, this was an obligation, but at the committal hearing, Garner writes, a local community leader said that “It is not an obligation. I would call it a moral duty”! Not surprisingly Garner’s reaction to this is that “under the circumstances this seems like a very fine distinction”! This sort of word play – “obligation” versus “moral duty” – can make such a mockery of the law (or of its practitioners), can’t it?

There was of course discussion during the hearing of Guode’s mental state, with the judge suggesting that “something dramatic” must have triggered her action. The psychiatrist, however, argued that “it can just be the ebb and flow of human suffering, and the person reaching the threshold at which they can … no longer go on.”

But Garner also proposes a possible “trigger event” that went back 16 months to the last traumatic birth. Postnatal haemorrhaging was so bad she was close to needing a hysterectomy. Guode initially refused treatment. Garner writes that she was

prepared to risk bleeding to death on a hospital gurney rather than consent to the surgical removal of the sole symbol of her worth, the site of her only dignity and power: her womb?

Surely, a woman whose life had lost all meaning apart from her motherhood would kill her children only in a fit of madness.

Garner also discusses the technicalities of infanticide versus murder in Victorian law, and Guode’s counsel’s argument that all three deaths should be viewed through “the prism of infanticide”, which would result in a lesser sentence, even though only one of the children met the age criterion. Her eventual sentence makes clear that he didn’t win his argument.

What makes this essay so good, besides the analysis, is Garner’s writing. Here she is on a jury trial versus a plea hearing (which this was):

If a full-bore jury trial is a symphony, a plea hearing is a string quartet. Its purpose seems to be to clear a space in which the quality of mercy might at least be contemplated. There is something moving in its quiet thoughtfulness, the intensity of its focus, the murmuring voices of judge and counsel, the absence of melodrama or posturing. It’s the law in action, working to fit the dry, clean planes of reason to the jagged edges of human wildness and suffering.

That last sentence! Breathtaking. It reminds me once again what an excellent essayist Garner is, and it’s not just for her style. She has the ability to take us on a journey, leading us logically, and empathically, to consider values and ethics, without ever being didactic.

In this essay, it’s her concluding comments and final question regarding mercy which gets to the nub of it. It concerns the idea of “mother”, which she calls “this great thundering archetype with the power to stop the intellect in its tracks”. Read Garner’s essay, and/or this report in The Age, and see what you think. I don’t envy Justice Lasry’s job, but I know, based on what I’ve read, where my intellect goes.

aww2017 badgeHelen Garner
“Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake”
The Monthly, June 2017
Available online

Stephanie Buckle, Habits of silence (#BookReview)

Stephanie Buckle, Habits of silenceI have been champing at the bit to read local author Stephanie Buckle’s debut short story collection, Habits of silence, ever since I attended its launch in August by John Clanchy at the Canberra Writers Festival. The readings that both Clanchy and Buckle herself gave from the book grabbed my attention and convinced me that this would be a book I’d like. However, it had to wait its turn in my review copy pile. Finally its number came up – and I devoured it. I will never understand why some readers don’t like short stories. At least, I understand their reasons in my head, but I don’t in my readerly heart! (If that makes sense.)

John Clanchy, in launching this beautifully designed book, spoke about its title which is not, as commonly occurs, the title of one of the stories inside. When this happens, it’s logical to consider what the title means, and for Clanchy it reflects the book’s interest in communication, and particularly in the part played by silence. Silence, he said, can be positive or negative, and both of these are explored in Buckle’s stories. This is not to say that all the stories are specifically about, or even feature silence in a major way. But even in those that don’t, there’s usually some missed communication or miscommunication that might just as well be silence.

And now I come to that part that’s always a challenge with reviewing short story collections, which is whether to quickly survey all the stories or focus on a couple or try to do a bit of both. I usually opt for the last of these, and will probably do so again here. One day I’ll come up with an exciting new way to discuss short story collections, but I haven’t found it yet!

So, the survey part. There are fourteen stories, some of which have been published before, with a couple having won awards. There are both first-person and third-person stories – providing lovely variety – and the protagonists range in age, situation, and gender. It feels like a collection that could only be written by someone with a good few decades of life experience under her belt (but perhaps that’s denying what imagination can do). I’m certainly not saying that Buckle has experienced all she writes about, but the stories do feel imbued with a deep sense of knowingness.

One of the stories that is specifically about silence is titled, well, “the silence”. It’s about two brothers, Jim and his older brother George Clayton (love this cheeky last name), who live in a country town and have run the family furniture business for years, without speaking to each other. Each works alternate days and George communicates with Jim by letter, because, it seems

Silence is safe. Silence commits to nothing. Far easier to be silent than to speak.

Except, this silence is burning Jim up – that, and his brother’s complete inflexibility about changing anything in their increasingly anachronistic shop to bring it up to date. I liked this story, the beautiful realisation of the characters, and its tentative but by no means certain resolution.

Another story in which silence is central is “fifty years”. This is one of the stories read from at the launch, and it tantalised me. It concerns a woman who has been rendered mute by a stroke. She’s in hospital, attended by her husband of fifty years and her daughter, from whose point of view the story is told. Here’s part of the excerpt read at the launch. It comes after the husband has been prattling on with platitudes:

And that’s when I see it, the first time. It’s the expression you make when you think no one’s looking. The one you make to yourself, with your back turned. It’s the one that makes all the others look like masks, as if all the cups of tea, and all the ironed shirts, are just pretending. She turns from me and regards him quite steadily, but as if she sees him down the wrong end of a telescope, or as if he’s a fly buzzing still against the window, that she briefly thinks she might stir herself to deal with, but can’t be bothered. Are you still here? it says.

If that doesn’t make you want to read this book, then I’d say you’re a lost cause! Buckle’s insights into human relationships make you sit up and pay attention – and her honed spare writing is well-suited to her theme.

The second story in the collection, “sex and money”, is also about a lonely wife who feels unappreciated. Like the husband in “fifty years”, Frank appears to know little about the wife he lives with, and is more likely to help a neighbour than do something she’s asked. And yet, in his head, he loves – at least he desires – his wife. Rose meanwhile finds her own way of obtaining pleasure. It’s all to do with money, but not what you might be thinking. Buckle’s playing with ideas of lust, desire and money here is cheeky – and telling.

But not all marriages, not all relationships in the book, are poor. The woman in “the man on the path” has been grieving her beloved husband’s death for four years. She has come to the Lakes, a favourite holiday place of theirs, for a break, but feels out of place amongst all the happy holidaying couples. Then, out walking, she meets a man on the path, but a “failure of courage”, an inability to communicate appropriately, sees an opportunity to make a connection pass. She perseveres with her walking, however, and, well, you never know, there could be a second chance …

There’s nothing like mental illness to focus us on essential truths about humanity. Lillian, in the opening story “lillian and meredith”, is developing dementia – her “words scatter in all directions” – but, like many of the book’s characters, she’s lonely so when new patient Meredith appears she sees her opportunity. Meredith is welcoming, but when money goes missing, it all falls apart and poor Lillian is handled with less than kindness by the staff. This is just one of several stories which feature mental illness, with three of them – “us and them”, “frederick”, and “no change” – set in the same place, Cedar Grove Psychiatric Facility. There is no cross-over in characters, but there’s something nicely grounding in returning to a familiar place, even if when we get there we are confronted by questions about duty of care and our frequent failure, for whatever reasons, systemic or personal, to provide it.

Buckle’s stories, then, explore all sorts of relationships – between couples, siblings, parents and children, friends, teachers and students, and even staff and patients – showing that none are immune from communication challenges, from silences that hide true feelings to words which do the same, from convictions that relationships are true to realisations that they aren’t, from attempts to connect to refusals to do so. Although some stories impacted me more than others, I was engaged by them all, reminding me once again why I love short stories. It’s their little nuggety insights into human nature – and Buckle’s Habits of silence provides just that.

aww2017 badgeStephanie Buckle
Habits of silence
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2017
ISBN: 9780994516534

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)


Hoa Pham, Lady of the realm (#BookReview)

Hoa Pham, Lady of the realm

Hoa Pham was one of the participants at the recent Boundless Festival (my post), so it’s rather apposite that her latest work, Lady of the realm, popped up as my next review copy. The very brief author bio on the Festival site describes the novel as “about a Buddhist clairvoyant in Vietnam”. Well, it is, but it’s about far more than that too.

Vietnamese-Australian Hoa Pham was born in Hobart after her Vietnamese parents went there to study in the 1970s. She has written several novels, children’s books, plays and short stories, but her novella, Lady of the Realm, is the first that I’ve read. It’s a slim book, a novella in fact, told first person in a chronological sequence that covers nearly five decades from 1962 to 2009. If you know your south-east Asian history, you’ll realise that this time-span starts during the Vietnam or American War (depending on your perspective.)

It’s quite a challenge to cover such a long and tumultuous period in less than 90 pages, but Pham achieves it by keeping her focus tight – to the experience of the Buddhist monk Liên. Before we meet her formally though, there is a short prologue, which is also in her voice, albeit unknown to us at that point. She prepares us for the vignette-style in which she tells her story:

Looking back over the years, it seems that time stretches and contracts, depending on my experience of each moment. Some moments are etched in my memory, like the sunlight patterning the water in the river, ethereal moments captured only by my mind. Other longer stretches of time are a blur ….

This makes perfect sense to me in terms of how we remember our lives, and hence works for telling a story that covers a long life in a turbulent place. However, if you are someone who likes to get lost in a character and the ongoing drama of life, this book may not work for you.

So, Liên. She is introduced in 1962 as a young girl who has a prescient dream that the Viet Minh will come and destroy her fishing village. This marks her as the one to succeed her grandmother Bà as keeper of the shrine and mouthpiece for the Lady of the Realm (as she calls the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Quan Ám). Unfortunately, the village head ignores the warning, and the village is attacked with most in the village killed. Liên, however, escapes, and lives to chronicle the aftermath.

The book then takes us through moments in Liên’s, and therefore Vietnam’s, life in 1968, 1980, 1991 and 2007, before finishing in 2009 when Liên is now an old woman living in a Buddhist monastery. She has experienced much violence and oppression – through the war and the “fall of Saigon”, through the Communist regime which she “naively believed” would bring peace but which brought “re-education” and more death, and through later “reforms” which were supposed to open up Vietnam but saw her beloved Prajna Monastery destroyed. Liên survives it all, sustained by hope:

Ever hidden away the Lady could still bring hope, I thought. I had found the Lady in many guises, but the strongest seemed to be the Lady I had inside. (1980)

This hope is sorely tested, however, and in the last section she says:

Sanctuaries are an illusion, only suffering is real. I know that this is not what Buddha taught, and my experience has made my own sayings out of his teachings. I believe that any safety I find is temporary, any refuge is not permanent. But my teacher would say, all things are impermanent and change. I hope that our situation will change. Some days I cannot bear another moment of being under siege. (2009)

The tone, here, is typical of the book as a whole – calm, somewhat resigned, and sometimes hopeful.

Now, how to describe the writing? There’s the tone, and there’s Pham’s simple, direct language (which is also evidenced in the above excerpt). There’s also her preponderant use of short paragraphs. And there’s the episodic form, with each episode/year heralded by an epigraph, the last four by Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Together, these create a sort of prose-poem, and with that, dare I venture, a higher (or perhaps just universal) plane of truth!

In other words, Pham has contrived to tell a personal, human story through her character Liên, while also conveying a philosophical attitude to life based on endurance, compassion and most of all hope. A moving, inspiring read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) captures the book beautifully in her review.

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Hoa Pham
Lady of the realm
Mission Beach: Spinifex Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781925581133

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangers (#BookReview)

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangersEmma’s guest Monday Musings post last week on Randolph Stow provided the impetus for me to finally retrieve Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family from my TBR pile. I’ve been wanting to read it for the longest time, but … well, those of you with big TBRs will understand.

Moving among strangers, whose title comes from a line in Stow’s novel The girl green as elderflower, is an unusual book. It’s partly a biography of Stow, and partly a memoir of Carey and her family, but Carey wouldn’t call it either. She says in her prologue:

… this book is not a biography. Neither is it a work of literary analysis or scholarly enquiry. It is more like a ‘mostly private letter’, to use Stow’s phrase, written out of curiosity, and tenderness towards a man whom I have come to think of as an almost-relative, a dear friend of my mother’s, and the ideal literary mentor.

It all started when, as her mother was dying in 2009, Carey wrote to Stow in England letting him know of her mother’s condition. It was his response, which came four days after her mother’s death, which set Carey off. She’d known there’d been a connection, of course, but she didn’t know much about it. Stow wrote that Joan’s letters from London, when he was a schoolboy and undergraduate, “were like a window on the world”. Why, Carey wondered, did her mother correspond “with a young man, an adolescent, thirteen years her junior, who wasn’t even a relation?” This question is never properly answered in the book, not because there’s something salacious to discover (in case you were wondering), but because some connections made in life don’t have explanations beyond the fact that they occur. If that makes sense.

So, as the book progresses, Carey follows a Stow trail, “like a groupie”. She interrogates his novels and other writings, and reactions to them. She reads the letters Stow wrote to members of her and his family. And she visits the places in England where Stow had lived and meets some of the people who knew him there. One of the main strands in her story concerns Stow’s unease with Australia – with his feeling rejected by Australia and/or his rejecting Australia. There is no answer to this question either, but Carey’s exploration of the issue is enlightening (particularly given all those other Australian intellectuals who left in the 1960s – some well known like Germaine Greer and Clive James, others less so like Jill Ker Conway and Ray Mathew. Each story is different but there is probably a thread that links them too?)

There are many angles, in fact, from which I could write on this engaging but slippery book. There’s Carey’s sharing of her own history – the loss of her mother, her tricky relationship with her sister, the death by suicide of her father, and so on. There’s the form of the work and how it fits into what seems to be a new breed of biography-memoirs that is popping up. And of course, there’s Stow, himself. He comes across as an elusive character, and that’s probably because he was. When she, having made connection with him, enthusiastically tries to engage him, by correspondence, in a literary discussion about his and her mutual interest in James Joyce, he shuts her down, albeit politely, explaining that he was “old and ailing” which, in fact, he was. He died the next year.

This doesn’t deter her – for which we should be grateful because although the book is not, as she forewarns us, a biography, we do, nonetheless gain insight into Stow. She paints a picture, in the end, of a man at odds with the country in which he was born though exactly why is hard to say. Did he reject Australia – with its “depressing tolerance, even worship, of the second-rate” (his words) – or did Australia reject him with its inability to understand his work. Australian critics, apparently, panned his novel Tourmaline, for example, rejecting its combination of “fable and poetry” with “realism”. A later critic, Carey says, notes that Tourmaline represented a change, a move away from “bush realism … towards something more experimental”. However, at the time, as is so often the case with innovative creators, this was not recognised and Stow’s “too truthful, too confrontational of conventional attitudes” novel was not appreciated in his own country. Stow felt the rejection.

But, Carey is wary of coming to conclusions, as she constantly reminds us. At one point, when she has questions and no answers, she tells us that given there’s no one alive to tell her “the real story”, she “can only imagine”, but a page or two later, she says

But I could be wrong. Being wrong, I realised, is how I’ve spent most of my life: misinterpreting, misunderstanding, misjudging, miscommunication. Words slip and slide, as T.S Eliot said, or as Stow put it, ‘words can’t cope’.

A strange thing for a writer to say, perhaps? And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps, it’s something only a writer could say?

You are probably getting the gist now of this unusual book – and hopefully, realising what a delightful, engrossing and stimulating read it is. It is not a long book, and is therefore not comprehensive. If you want, for example, to read about the Stow book I know best, his first Miles Franklin winner, To the islands, you won’t find it here. What you will find though is an intelligent analysis of Stow the man and of his work. You will also gain, or, at least I did, some insights into literary Australia of the mid to late twentieth century – not a list of luminaries, or even a history, but a sense of the life and times, and of how one particular writer did (or didn’t) navigate it.

Near the end, Carey returns to a theme she introduced earlier in the book, that of twinning or duality of perspectives. She concludes that, in the Essex pub where she met people who had known Stow in the latter years of his life, she found “twin versions” of him, one “content in his lifestyle, in his aloneness, who was self-sufficient and independent” and one “who was uncomfortable in his own skin, internally and perpetually in conflict over his sexuality, his nationality and his identity.”

If you are interested in Stow, in Australian literary history more broadly, and/or in Carey herself, this is a book for you.

aww2017 badgeGabrielle Carey
Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family
St Lucia: UQP, 2013
ISBN: 9780702249921

Carmel Bird (ed), The stolen children: Their stories (#BookReview)

Carmel Bird, The stolen childrenCommenting on my post on Telling indigenous Australian stories, Australian author Carmel Bird mentioned her 1998 book The stolen children, describing it as her contribution “to the spreading of indigenous stories through the wider Australian culture”. It contains stories told to, and contained in the report of, the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Bringing them home)*. She offered to send me a copy, and of course I accepted (despite having read much about the Report at the time.)

Bird said in her comment that the book is “still regularly used in schools”. This is excellent to hear because it contains a history that needs to be told – forever, alongside all those other histories taught to Australian students. It needs to be as well (if not better) known by our students as the story of The Gold Rush or Our Explorers. We need to know it, we need, as a nation, to know our dark side, our failures, as well as our big adventures and achievements.

What makes this book particularly useful is Carmel Bird’s curation of it – and I would call what she’s done “curation” because of the complexity and variety of the writings she has gathered and organised. Bird has structured the book carefully to tell a story, with introductory front matter (including a preface from Ronald Wilson the National Committee’s prime commissioner); the Stories themselves; Perspectives from people at the time, including Hansard excerpts from politicians at the tabling of the Report; the Report’s Recommendations; and end matter comprising an Afterword from historian Henry Reynolds and a poem titled “Sorry” by Millicent whose story appears in the Stories section. Bird’s curation also  includes providing introductions to each of the stories to draw out important issues or points about that person’s situation, and adding other explanatory notes where appropriate.

This careful curation ensures that the book contains all the content and context it needs to stand alone as a resource for anyone interested in the Stolen Generations.

“It made no sense”

In her story, Donna says “It made no sense”. She’s describing her train trip away from her mother in the company of a white woman, a train trip she’d been initially excited about, thinking it was to be a family trip. However, with her mother staying behind on the platform and her brothers disappearing one by one as the journey went on, it just made no sense to her.

None of the stories make sense. And they are all heart-rending. Some children were given up willingly by their mothers, who believed it would result in better opportunities, and some, most, were stolen, often suddenly, with no explanation. Some were newborn, some pre-school or primary school-age, while others were 12 years old or more. Some found themselves in loving foster homes, but many found themselves in institutions and/or abusive situations. All, though, and this is the important thing, suffered extreme loss. They lost family and they lost language and culture. Fiona, for example, who will not criticise the missionaries who cared for her, says, on reconnecting with her family thirty-two years later:

I couldn’t communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone.

Fiona also makes the point, as do several others, about the treatment of the mothers:

We talk about it from the point of view of our trauma but – our mother – to understand what she went through, I don’t think anyone can understand that.

The mothers, she said, “weren’t treated as people having feelings”.

The stories continue, telling of pain, pain and more pain. Murray says “we didn’t deserve life sentences, a sentence I still serve today”, and John talks of being a prisoner from when he was born. “Even today,” he writes, “they have our file number so we’re still prisoners you know. And we’ll always be prisoners while our files are in archives”. This is something that I, as a librarian/archivist, had not considered.

But, there’s more that makes no sense, and that’s the government of the time’s refusal to apologise, to satisfy, in fact, Recommendations 3 and 5a of the Report. This issue is covered in the Perspectives section, with extracts from speeches made by the then Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister for Aboriginal Torres Straight Islander Affairs Senator Herron who argue against making an apology, and from the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley, who made their own apologies. Crowley also says:

If ever there were a report to break the hearts of people, it is this one.

The Perspectives section also includes other commentary on the Report and the apology. There’s a letter to the editor from the son of a policeman who cried about his role in taking children away from “loving mothers and fathers”, and one from La Trobe Professor of History Marilyn Lake contesting the historical rationale for the practice of forcible removal. She argues that there had never been “consensus [about] the policy of child removal”. There’s also a long two-part article published in newspapers that year, from public intellectual Robert Manne. He picks apart the argument against making an apology, noting in particular Howard’s refusal to accept that present generations should be accountable or responsible for the actions of earlier ones. Manne differentiates between our role as individuals and as members of a nation:

we are all deeply implicated in the history of our nation. It is not as individuals but as members of the nation, the “imagined” community, that the present generation has indeed inherited a responsibility for this country’s past.

In the event, of course, an apology was made, finally, in February 2008, by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. This, however, does not mitigate the value of Bird’s book. It has value, first, as documenting our history and the voices of those involved – indigenous people, politicians and commentators. And second, it contains thoughts and ideas that we still need to know and think about, not only for historical reasons, but because in the twenty years since the Report we have not made enough progress along the reconciliation path. It is shameful.

I loved Carmel Bird’s introduction. It’s both passionate and considered, and clearly lays out why she wanted to do this book. I’ll conclude with her words:

I think that perhaps imagination is one of the most important and powerful factors in the necessary process of reconciliation. If white Australian can begin to imagine what life has been like for many indigenous Australians over the last two-hundred years, they will have begun to understand and will be compelled to act. If we read these stories how can we not be shocked and moved …

“There can,” she says, “be no disbelief; these are true stories.” This is why the stolen generations should be a compulsory part of Australian history curricula (Recommendation 8a). It’s also why, to progress reconciliation, we should keep reading and listening to indigenous Australians. Only they know what they need.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird (ed)
The stolen children: Their stories
North Sydney: Random House, 1998
ISBN: 9780091836894

(Review copy courtesy Carmel Bird)

* For non-Australians who may not know this Enquiry, its first term of reference was to “trace the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies”. You can read the full Report online.