Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

AWW Challenge 2019 Badge

Once again I am devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge*. Last year in my opening paragraph, I wrote that I loved the sound of 2020 – and I wished you all a wonderful year to come in whatever form you would like that to take. My, oh my, little did we expect what was going to eventuate (which for me included a personal loss in addition to the impacts of the pandemic and other catastrophes). I no longer like the sound of 2020, and fervently hope 2021 turns out much better for us all. And so, may you all have a positive and fulfilling 2021.

Now, the challenge … it has continued to go very well. The full database now contains reviews for nearly 7,000 books across all forms and genres, from all periods, of Australian women’s writing. This means that the number of books reviewed on our database increased in 2020 by 900 books, which is about the same number added as last year, or just under 15%.

My personal round-up for the year

This year, for obvious reasons, was not my best Challenge year. I posted only 26 reviews relevant to the Challenge over the year, about the same as last year which was also a strange year (but differently). I feel disappointed about all this, but such is life. Anyhow, here they are, with links to my reviews:


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Short stories

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This year, fiction (including short stories) represented around 61% of my AWW challenge reading, which is a little more than last year and a bit closer to my preferred ratio. I read three Classics. Two were novels and one a memoir, and they were read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Gen 3 week and Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Thea Astley week. Thanks to Bill and Lisa for the impetus to read these books, because they added a special depth ! In terms of that problematic word “diversity”, I read two novels by Indigenous Australian women, and one translated novel by an Iranian-born Australian writer.

Chloe Hooper, The Arsonist

My non-fiction reading was eclectic, featuring biography and memoir of course, a work of creative or narrative nonfiction, a beautiful collaboration between an artist and a poet, and, unusually for me, also two books that could be seen to be in the self-help vein.

If you’d like to know more about the Challenge, check it out here. We are also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), and GoodReads. Do consider joining us. All readers are welcome.

Finally, as always, a big thanks again to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team. I (still) love being part of this challenge, partly because equating with my reading goals it is not really a challenge, and also because I enjoy working with the people involved. See you in 2021.

And so, 2021

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The 2021 sign up form is ready, so this is also my Sign Up post for next year. As always, I’m nominating myself for the Franklin level, which is to read 10 books by Australian women and post reviews for at least 6 of those. I expect, of course, to exceed this.

Do you plan to sign up?

* 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 have been one of the challenge’s volunteers since 2013. Theresa Smith (of Theresa Smith writes) now oversees the day-to-day management of the blog, but Elizabeth is still an active presence.

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard, The voice of water (#BookReview)

I had planned to post on this beautifully produced book, The voice of water, earlier in the year, but the events of the year threw me completely off track, and here I am at the end scrambling to finish off the posts I planned oh so many months ago.

Created by Tasmanians, visual artist Sue Lovegrove and poet Adrienne Eberhard (who has appeared here before), The voice of water was described by Hobart’s Fuller’s bookshop in their book launch announcement, as “a collection of 30 miniature paintings and poems which celebrate and pay homage to the beauty and ephemeral life of wetlands”. This is a good description of the content, but it doesn’t describe its exquisite production. You can tell that this book was a labour of love by two people who have both a passion for the Tasmanian landscape and an eye for beauty and design.

In their brief introduction, Lovegrove and Eberhard describe their aim as being “to reveal the fragility and fleeting nature of life in a lagoon”, to capture “the constantly shifting light”, “the soundtrack of place from frog call and scratching index legs to the tapping of grasses”, and “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Not surprisingly, they also note the threat to wetlands posed by climate change. They name the wetlands that inspired them, and describe their process:

We spent days simply sitting together or apart, amongst the banksias and tea-trees at the edges, or lying in the sedges and reeds, letting these places seep into our imagination. We waded through ponds and swamps, working side-by-side, drawing and writing, and we had many conversations.

Interestingly, there was an exhibition of Sue Lovegrove’s miniatures at my favourite local gallery, Beaver Galleries, so you can see some (if not all) of the images on their website. The images are beautiful, some having an almost Monet-esque impression of light and water, others being a little more representational, particularly of reeds and sedge. (The original images are watercolour and gouache on paper.) One gorgeous miniature pair features a pond of deep blue with overhead clouds reflected in it. Eberhard’s miniature poem is (without her spacing though I tried):

enamelled sky
where clouds mop
and soak tumbrils
of luminous blue

The words “enamelled” and “luminous” capture the colours perfectly. Other poems convey different watery effects, such as “like textured silk like ruched folds of material”.

Another miniature pair features rows of reeds or grasses in a pond. The accompanying poem is presented on the facing landscape page in portrait mode so that it looks like spikes of grass too. So much attention has been paid to the design, and how design can help convey meaning as much as the works themselves – representing, for example, “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Another poem is arranged in offset columns to encourage us, or so it seems to me, to read the lines in different orders – down one column and then the other, or leaping across the columns – producing slightly different meanings or effects depending on the order.

I’ll share just one more poem, which exemplifies the attention they also paid to the “soundtrack” of the landscape:

jostle of noise a cacophonous counterpoint to the artist’s mark-making scribble and scratch
castanet-clack the scratching of insect legs
ratcheting and tightening an orchestration that ricochets
and rasps phonetics of frog call an infiltration a metronome’s sustaining heartbeat.

The book chronicles the water cycle in the lagoons, the water coming and receding at different times – “lagoon shrinks to water lines washing through reeds” – but this is not a polemical book about climate change. Rather, it is a hymn to what we have now. At least, that’s how I read it.

However you read it though, The voice of water is a gorgeous book to get lost in and carried away by, and I’m sorry I didn’t write it up earlier in the year.

PS I have tagged this “Nature writing”, which reminded me that I have just received advice that submissions are now open for the 6th biennial Natural Conservancy Nature Writing Prize (about which I have written here before). It’s an essay prize, and is worth $7,500 for the winner. This year’s judges are literary critic, Geordie Williamson, and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Tara June Winch. Being selected by them would be quite a feather in the cap, I reckon. For more information check the website.

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Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard
The voice of water
Published in 2019 with assistance from an Australia Council for the Arts grant
64pp. (unnumbered)
ISBN: 9780646802541

Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston, Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian women (#BookReview)

South Australia, say the authors of the beautiful coffee-table book Trailblazers, “was an early leader in women’s rights, so it’s no surprise that it has produced an army of trailblazing, inspirational women”. However, they continue, their stories are not well enough told or known, hence this book!

As with any endeavour like this, it was a challenge to limit themselves to 100, but they did. The women they chose cover “an array of fields – from vineyards to laboratories, from the judiciary and politics to schoolrooms, charities and the stage”, with their influence ranging from local communities to the international stage. They make the point that not all the women they chose were born in South Australia or, alternatively, not all those who were born in South Australia made their mark there. They also make the point that although South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election, back in 1894, “the fight for a ‘fair go’ continues today”. This means, I’d argue, that the women in this book serve as both a record of what has been achieved and as inspirations for what still needs to be done.

Book cover

The women are ordered alphabetically, which is clever as it saves the need of an index (though an index would be good if you seek other information, like writers, politicians, activists, etc. There is an excellent bibliography at the back, organised by subject, so you can quickly check what sources were used for each woman. I was pleased to see, for example, that Desley Deacon who wrote the authoritative (I’d say) biography of Dame Judith Anderson (my review) was used for the Anderson piece. The sources include primary sources, like newspaper articles, from the subject’s time. The book – a heavy tome I must say – is also beautifully illustrated with plentiful photographs.

So, who is here? There are the feminists, of course, including 19th century born Muriel Matters (who was featured in Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom) and 20th century born Anne Summers (author of Damned whores and God’s police). There are the social reformers, such as Catherine Helen Spence who was also an early Australian woman “novelist, journalist, preacher and teacher”. Born in 1825, she was, as well, an early campaigner for women’s rights. On her 80th birthday in 1905, she described herself as “an awakened woman”:

Awakened in the sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to family and the household, but to the State; to be used not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born.

South Australia has produced many women who have made significant political careers in Federal politics, such as, from recent times, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, (the late) Janine Haines, Natasha Stott Despoja and Penny Wong (listed alphabetically to avoid bias!). What a powerhouse of women. What is in South Australia’s water?

There are Indigenous Australian women, such as the activists Ruby Hammond and Lowitja O’Donoghue, Alice (Alitya) Rigney, Australia’s first female Aboriginal school principal, and Faith Thomas, the first Aboriginal woman selected for an Australian sporting team (cricket)

Australia’s beloved cook, Maggie Beer, and fashion icon, Maggie Taberer, are included, as is the Olympian, “Lithgow Flash” Marjorie Jackson, who, among other achievements, was South Australia’s governor from 2001 to 2007.

Book cover

And there are the writers, artists and performers. Mem Fox, author of the children’s classic Possum magic is an example. She was, writes the authors, “fired up over the need for more Australian stories for children”. But also included are the aforementioned actor Judith Anderson, writer Nancy Cato, artists Nora Heyson and Margaret Preston, composer Miriam Hyde, to name just a very few. I knew some of these were South Australian, others, like Margaret Preston, surprised me.

However, there are also the unsung, or lesser-known achievers. Medical workers, lawyers, educators, charity workers, activists and campaigners of all sorts, churchwomen, and more. I’ve never heard of environmentalist Barbara Hardy, or Pearl Wallace who became Australia’s first female riverboat captain in 1947 after passing “a gruelling three-day examination”. Gladys Sym Choon, described, simply, as an “entrepreneur”, was born in Unley in 1905 to Chinese parents. She opened her own store in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1923, believing herself to be the first woman in South Australia to incorporate. Doris Taylor, the founder of Meals on Wheels, was called “one of the great unsung heroines of Australia” by the late South Australian premier Don Dunstan.

There are so, so many stories here of women who have strived and achieved, often, of course, against immense odds. Because of its alphabetical arrangement, Trailblazers works more as a reference book, or one to dip into, rather than one telling “a story”, which it might have been under, say, a chronological arrangement or if ordered by spheres of activity or influence. The approach is, in a sense, encyclopaedic, providing brief biographies relevant to each woman’s reason for inclusion. This is not the place for whole-of-life, warts-and-all stories. Nor should it be, as that’s not its intention. However, the writing is bright, engaging and accessible. These authors want you to read about these women, so the pieces launch right in:

Living eight months a year on the Nullabor Plain while your dad hunts foxes and rabbits gives you a great backstory if you’re a kid with ambitions to be a country singer. (Country-singer Kasey Chambers)


When Mary Miller went to work for the war effort in 1942, she was surprised to find her co-workers at the munitions factory were more afraid of their bosses than of the explosives. (Unionist, activist and teacher)

Published just days before last Christmas, Trailblazers probably didn’t make it under many trees, but it would be a great Christmas present for anyone interested in Australia’s trailblazing women, in South Australia’s settled history, or, in fact, in that of Australia as a whole. An enjoyable read.

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Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston
Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian writers
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781743056905

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Julie Janson, Benevolence (#BookReview)

In a rather curious synchronicity, the last three books I’ve read have all had single word, multiple-meaning, titles, all relating to the colonial settlement of Australia – Gay Lynch’s historical fiction Unsettled (my review), John Kinsella’s memoir Displaced (my review), and now Julie Janson’s historical fiction Benevolence whose title drips with irony.

Recently, I commented that it would be good to see an Indigenous Australian novel responding to Kate Grenville’s The secret river. Well, it appears that Benevolence is that novel. In her Acknowledgements, Janson, of the Darug Nation, writes that Benevolence is “a work of fiction based on historical events of the early years [1816-1842] of the British invasion and settlement around the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney, New South Wales”. Protagonist Muraging, renamed Mary by the colonisers, is based on the author’s ancestor, Mary Ann Thomas, just as Grenville’s novel, set around the same place and time, was inspired by, though not exactly based on, her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman. There, of course, the similarity ends, because while Grenville’s protagonist becomes a “big” man in colonial Sydney, Muraging’s experience is very different.

Benevolence starts in 1816, when the motherless Muraging is “about 12 years old” and handed over by her father to the British to be taught English at the Parramatta Native Institution. She is, says her father (naively we now know), “to be an important part of helping their people and she must learn their language and their ways”. Thus begins Muraging’s life of being caught between two cultures. Early on “she thinks she can be in two worlds and not have to choose”. However, she is never properly accepted by the British (of course) and, while accepted by her own Darug people, it is clear very early that Indigenous culture is being dismantled by dispossession, dispersal and death (through disease, murder and massacre), resulting in Indigenous people’s lives (already) becoming one of survival rather than of living fully.

And so, as the novel progresses through the years, we follow Muraging as she leaves or escapes the British settlement to find comfort, support and/or protection within Indigenous communities, only to return for one reason or another to the settlement, with the cycle starting all over again. Each time she returns to the settlement, the brutality and humiliations ratchet up. It’s a terrible story, but a credible one based on Janson’s detailed research, part of it done while she worked as a senior researcher for Professor Peter Read at the University of Sydney. This research resulted in the creation of the History of Aboriginal Sydney website.

However, this book is not history but historical fiction, so the characters are inspired by a mixture of historical fact and Janson’s imagination – and it is her imagination that brings these characters to life as authentic beings, particularly Muraging, her mixed-up friend Mercy, the weak-if-well-meaning reverend Henry Smythe, and to a lesser degree Captain Woodrow. The grotesque reverend Masters is another matter altogether.

Muraging is established from the start as a person with agency. She does not want to be a “servant” or “a fine maid”. Rather, she wants, she says, to ‘”improve my situation” … but she is ignored’. She never gives up her search for an independent life, and, though she makes poor decisions at times, she behaves courageously, loyally (sometimes at great risk to herself), and in a way determined to be true to herself and her people.

“You have no home” (Masters)

While the personal implications of colonialism and dispossession are conveyed through Muraging’s story, Janson reinforces this with historical fact, including references to documented massacres, discussions between characters about current events, and the occasional appearance of a governor (like Macquarie, like Gipps.) Janson also opens selected chapters with specific historical information. Chapter 4 (“1818: White people things”), for example, begins with an excerpt from the Sydney Gazette reporting massacres from, of course, the settler perspective. Chapter 20 (“1835: Deerubbin, The Hawkesbury River”) commences with a statement about Governor Bourke passing “the Proclamation of terra nullius”. And so on. These occasional documentary facts anchor Muraging’s story in the historical timeline.

The biggest villain of the piece is the appropriately named Reverend Masters. He represents the worst of British power, conveying or enacting British policy with little thought for the humanity of those he deals with. Like a certain world leader today, it’s all about him.

And this brings me to the writing. Janson’s descriptions are beautifully lyrical, though not always simply so. The novel opens with:

The grey-green eucalypts clatter with the sound of cicadas. Magpies and currawongs warble across the morning sky as the sun’s heat streams down. It is eaglehawk time …

Almost idyllic Australia, except “eaglehawk” time suggests the idea of violence … of hunter and prey!

There are also wry ironic touches, such as Captain Woodrow’s comment, “I have fought savages on the Indian frontier and I know that no honour exists among savages”. Hmm, who are the savages without honour here? Or, good guy ex-convict Ferdinand, with his Darug wife, defying Masters with “This is my land. My grant.” Whose land? In such ways, Janson encourages us to think behind the words of waibala people.

I also like the way Janson used local Indigenous language throughout the novel, enough to convey (and promote) local culture and language, but not so much as to impede understanding.

I was less comfortable, however, with the writing about actions and events. It can be quite cut-and-dried, with a disjointed or staccato feel that, for me, broke the flow of my reading. Maybe this was intended, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has suggested, to convey the violence – or, at least, the instability – of that world. I can see that, though I’m not sure it fully worked that way for me.

And finally, of course, there’s that powerful title. Who thinks they are benevolent, who pretends to be benevolent, who really is benevolent, not to mention what is benevolence anyhow, are the questions that confront us on every page of this timely novel.

“You won’t win, you know” (Masters)

Benevolence, then, is a compelling and worthwhile read. The history is good, offering Indigenous readers something that more closely accords with their understanding of what happened, and non-Indigenous readers a corrective to the history we’ve been fed most of our lives. The story is engaging, with Janson treading a fine line between utter negativity and unrealistic hopefulness. I particularly liked the tone struck by the ending, but that’s for you to find out!

We need more books like this …

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Julie Janson
Broome: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936636

(Revieve copy courtesy Magabala Books)

Anna Goldsworthy, Melting moments (#BookReview)

Book cover

Melting moments is Australian writer and concert pianist Anna Goldsworthy’s debut novel, following her highly successful memoir of a decade ago, Piano lessons (my review).

Melting moments – for those not familiar with this Antipodean classic – are little shortbread-based biscuits (cookies) sandwiched together with buttercream. In titling her book by these little treats, with the added intimation of moments that melt our heart, Goldsworthy flags the tone and subject matter of her book. The tone is going to be gentle, and the subject matter domestic. The question is: does this make for an interesting book, or just a sweet one?

Overall, I’d say interesting. As a member of my reading group suggested, there is another connotation of the title, that of moments that melt away, of moments that don’t last. So, Goldsworthy’s Melting moments captures the life of a woman from the so-called “greatest generation”. Born between 1901 and 1927 (so my mother just misses it), they went though the Great Depression and World War 2. Sociologist Glen Elder suggests they came out of these experiences “with an ability to know how to survive and make do and solve problems”. This could describe Goldsworthy’s protagonist, Ruby, who marries Arthur, after a short courtship, on the eve of his heading off to the War. She might as well have the “war widow pension” he says, an idea that was, I think, behind a few marriages at the time. This social history aspect is one of the reasons for reading this book which takes us through the decades of marriage, children, empty nest, ageing parents, retirement village life, leaving us when Ruby reaches her early eighties.

This, I know, makes it sound like one of those big family sagas, but in fact it’s not, on two counts. First, it’s short, at just 230 pages, and second, it has no big dramas – just the little trials and tribulations of life.

“misplaced life”

However, this doesn’t mean the book is boring. Ruby lived in the pre-feminist world when women had few rights but many gender-prescribed responsibilities – stay-at-home, cook and house-keep, bring up the children, and keep the husband happy. Like many of her generation, she doesn’t rock boats, but knuckles down to it (using her consciously developed “resourcefulness” to help her along the way). But, she’s not blind to what all this means and, sometimes, she feels

the emptiness rush in at her, as if she were living on a road from nowhere to nowhere …

Or, occasionally wonders

whether life should be something more than a series of daily tasks, successfully dispatched.

Indeed, later in the novel, she considers a path not taken – one involving throwing it all in for the exciting man. But that way led to “briars … social condemnation; impecuniousness; the heartbreak of children”, and, anyhow, the man had removed himself. Nonetheless, she sometimes feels

as if she had missed a summons. As if she had somehow missed her life.

This situation, of course, is not unique to her generation, but it is true that making such a break in her era would have been more difficult. And, anyhow, Arthur, as Ruby recognises herself, was not a bad husband – just a “stolid” one – and their marriage was “more or less” successful.

The novel is written third person, but its focus is Ruby, meaning that the other characters are not significantly fleshed out. Most are nonetheless more than just simple stereotypes. The “stolid” but kind Arthur, for example, is more willing to accept daughter Eva’s grasping the freedom of the 1960s and 1970s than Ruby. And Eva, though frustrated with her mother’s conservatism and inability to understand the changing world, is a loving daughter who finds a balance between living her life her way and loving and supporting her mother.

Ruby’s parents have some individualised flesh on their bones too, but Arthur’s mother, Granny Jenkins who lives with them much of their married life, is rather more the stereotypical unsupportive, demanding mother-in-law. However, Ruby just gets on with that too – as most women did – organising things as much as she can to minimise the imposition .

Now, early in this post, I mentioned that this book, despite its chronological sweep, is not a saga. This begs the question of how Goldsworthy tells the story of such a long life in such few words. She does it by using an episodic structure, skilfully paced so that you always know where you are in Ruby’s life. The gaps are obvious, of course, but it’s also clear that we are getting the critical “moments” in Ruby’s life.

The end effect of all this is a quietly observed book, one unsatisfying for some, and perfectly satisfying for others, as my reading group discovered. Some of us wanted the gaps filled in. Why was Arthur released early from active service, for example. Others of us accepted that the focus was Ruby and what she thought and cared about. When the opportunity finally comes when Arthur might share his war story, she turns away and makes a cup of tea! “What’s done is done”, she says.

There is some humour in the book, and I did smile many times, but, while it felt like an Austen-ish story, it doesn’t have the sharpness of her wit. I must say that in a nicely observed story like this, I did miss that bit of bite.

Melting moments, then, did not exactly wow me, but neither did I find it trivial. Without being consciously political, it works as a reminder of those women who didn’t always identify what it was that caused their feelings of “emptiness”, but who just got on with it, and somehow managed at the same time to bring up the Evas who went on to grab the opportunities available. Goldsworthy has paid credit to them, in a warm-hearted and enjoyable book.

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Anna Goldsworthy
Melting moments
Carlton: Black Inc, 2020
ISBN: 9781863959988

Julia Baird, Phosphorescence (#BookReview)

Book cover

Much as I love watching Julia Baird on The Drum, and much as Mr Gums and I worried about her multiple cancer diagnoses and her extended journey to recovery over recent years, I’m not sure I would have read her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, if my reading group hadn’t scheduled it. However, we did schedule it, and I did read it. I found many of its ideas affirming or confirming, or, if not those, thought-provoking. In other words, although it feels like a self-help book which I usually avoid, I’m glad I read it.

Why? Her hope, which she shares late in the book, is pretty straightforward:

I wrote this book in the hope that it might be a salve for the weary, as well as a reminder of the mental rafts we can build to keep ourselves afloat, the scraps of beauty that should comfort us, the practices that might sustain us, especially in times of grief, illness, pain, and darkness. (p. 274)

She goes on to say that she understands that the things she’s shared, “stillness, kindness, the sea and ancient trees can hardly be a universal panacea for all the suffering on the planet”. This is true, but there is more to the book. In the Prelude, she describes her intention as being ‘to search for “the light within”, for what makes people shine’. What she shares, I’d say, will speak to each reader differently, according to our personal values, beliefs, and life experiences.

The book is divided into four main parts, focussing in turn on awe, wonder and silence; the importance of accepting and valuing failure and imperfection; the art and value of friendship; and the practice of looking and savouring, of paying attention to our inner strengths. Each of these explores its topic from three perspectives: documentary evidence from researchers, writers, philosophers; anecdotal evidence from people Baird knows or has spoken to; and, of course, her own personal experience.

It is an unusual hybrid of a book. Part book of essays, part memoir, and part quest (for “phosphorescence” or “the light within”), it sometimes felt more like a collection of random thoughts and ideas than the coherent argument I was expecting. This may be partly because several of the essays originated in previously published pieces, whose links are not immediately obvious. However, while this uncertainty was at the back of my mind as I was reading, it didn’t stop me enjoying each essay as it came along, because each had something interesting – and often heartfelt – to offer.

So, for the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the ideas that appealed to me and why.

Japanese thought, friendship, imperfection and doubt

First was the frequency with which she references Japanese thinking and aesthetics – and many of you know how much Mr Gums and I like Japan. The ideas, which are hard to put into Western words so my descriptions are loose, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); Yūgen (mysterious or sublime, perhaps, experiences of beauty); Wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection or transience, often characterised by asymmetry, roughness); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (repairing broken pottery visibly, so that the damage becomes part of its history and beauty); and Moai (the groups created among newborns in Okinawa to provide lifelong social support).

It’s not surprising that a nation that is generally known for values like stillness and stoicism, for preferring what novelist Juni’chirō Tanizaki calls “a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance”, might have ideas relevant to a search for our “inner light”.

Anyhow, Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is titled “We are walking each other home” (after Ram Dass). If there’s one image from the book that moved me it was this, the idea of “walking each other home”. It speaks of grace, tenderness and care, and of the way I’d like to think my friends, family and I are with each other. Baird’s section on friendship is beautiful .

In another evocatively titled section – “We are all wiggly” – Baird discusses failure and imperfection. Again, as in the other sections, she ranges over a wide range of ideas and examples, which are too numerous to share here, but they include honouring our failures, letting ourselves go (appearance-wise), and appreciating impermanence.

In the fourth section, Baird, a Christian, writes about faith and doubt. While I appreciated her discussion of her faith and what Christianity means to her, I most enjoyed her discussions of other forms of faith, hope and stoicism, and its corollary, doubt. Embracing doubt is valid, she argues, though she adds this aside:

(Although, seriously, if you can’t accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it’s not doubt that is your problem.)

I also enjoyed her exploration of the importance of searching for our “ert” (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin to oppose “inertia”).

In this section she also refers to Helen Garner and Tim Winton, Australian writers for whom faith is important, but whose thinking about it is personally rather than institutionally focused.

Setting a “low bar”

However, what struck me most was her articulation of a philosophy that I live by. It is, as described by psychologist Barry Schwartz, that “the secret to happiness is low expectations”. Or, at least, Baird adds, “realistic ones, erring on the low side”.

When it first dawned on me that this was how I managed my life, I was surprised. It didn’t seem to accord with my view of myself as an idealist, but I then realised that the two were not mutually exclusive. I could have high ideals of how we should all behave and treat each other but I could also not expect that we all would (all of the time). I worried that this might sound snooty, or holier than thou, but hoped not. For me, this approach encompasses the realisation that we don’t all come from the same place; we don’t all have the same experiences or values; we have not all had the same opportunities; and, perhaps most critically, many of the things that affect us are out of our control and that, to remain sane, I need to be able to accept them.

As I’ve been writing this post, it’s become clear to me that the book does, in fact, satisfy Baird’s goal of searching for “the light within” – even though, while reading it, I sometimes felt I was losing the overall plot as I followed her down multifarious paths. In retrospect, I’ve decided that this could be the book’s strength. Not only does it offer a variety of experiences and thinking, but it enables us to choose paths most suitable for us, paths that may change depending on our circumstances. I won’t be swimming with giant cuttlefish like Baird, but I’m very happy to bathe in the forest.

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Julia Baird
Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
310pp. (including 23 pages of Endnotes)
ISBN: 9781460757154

Gay Lynch, Unsettled (#BookReview)

Coincidentally, my first review after this week’s Monday Musings on historical fiction happens to be a work of historical fiction, Gay Lynch’s cleverly titled Unsettled. Consequently, I’m going to start there, that is, talking about the form.

Well, more or less, because I should at least give you a sense of its subject. It is set primarily in South Australia’s Gambierton (later Mt Gambier) from the 1859 to 1880, with most of the action taking place in the 1860s. It’s the story of an Irish family, the Lynches, who migrated to Australia in 1848. The Lynches, as you might have guessed from the author’s name, are based on her husband’s family. Unsettled explores their story primarily through two fictional characters, Rosanna and her younger brother Skelly.

… in the spirit of the story

Which brings me to the genre. In her Acknowledgements, Lynch provides some useful insights into the book. Firstly, regarding intention, she says that she specifically wanted “to materialise Lynch girls, absent from every family anecdote and official documents, church, state and school, apart from their birth documents … the girls’ lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” The challenge, of course, in “materialising” invisible characters from the past is to make them real, and avoid anachronism. This is difficult when records are few, but I think there are enough records of frontier women in general to validate Lynch’s conception here.

Lynch also addresses where she has changed Lynch family “facts”, such as their and their employers’ names. She also says that her two main characters, Rosanna and Skelly, “exist only in [her] imagination”, but “her lived experience as Lynch wife and mother, verifiable historical events, and historical Lynch antecedents” offered her “the connective tissue” needed for their fictional lives.

She goes on to say that “in the spirit of historical fiction” she has kept close to official records so that the characters drawn from life are as “true” as she can make them, but that “in the spirit of story, some events may not be verifiable”. That, of course, is historical fiction; it’s about fleshing out lives and times with story, where the facts are not known or are minimal.

Finally, she addresses her inclusion of the local Boandik people, an issue we often discuss here. She writes that they “tell their own South-East story – they still live on that once dangerous frontier, on land they never ceded – of their attempted eviction and genocide”. She says she “benefitted from knowledge shared by Boandik custodian Ken Jones”, conversed “with Boandik linguist linguist David Moon”, and was supported in addressing “important questions about voice and Indigenous historicity”. As I’ve said before, it’s really up to the Boandik people to say whether they agree with their representation, but Lynch has, it seems, done the right thing: she has included them in her narrative (in an appropriate way) and has conferred with the people she ought about doing so.

I’ve spent a bit of time on this I know, but it’s important with historical fiction to be very clear about what it is we are reading. I’m not an expert in South Australian settler history, but I feel Lynch has provided me with enough here, in addition to the knowledge I do have, to reassure me that her story is a valid one, so let’s get to that …

“now that the country is settled”

Nearly halfway through the novel, Rosanna converses with her employer, the hard, English station-owner, Mr Ashby. He is searching for some local Indigenous people who, he believes, have been “filching” from him. Rosanna, who has befriended the young local woman, Moorecke, tells him that Moorecke “belongs on this land”. She adds, hoping to throw him “off the scent”, that she rarely sees “Blacks, now that the the country is settled.”

Here, and throughout the novel, Lynch layers meanings in brief exchanges. Implied in this little scene, for example, are multiple power imbalances – between settlers and the original inhabitants, between the landowning English and the oppressed Irish, and between man and woman. And of course, overlaying this is the fraught idea of being “settled” and all its connotations, political and personal, physical and emotional. “Now that the country is settled” implies of course that it was “unsettled” before. This novel, with its title, “Unsettled”, keeps this foundational wound front and centre in our minds, which, dare I say, “unsettles” us.

This layering of meaning is one of the reasons I found the book an enjoyable read, because I enjoy such thoughtful, provocative writing, but the enjoyment here is compounded by the characters, particularly Rosanna and Skelly. Both are well individualised, with the novel’s third person perspective shifting mainly between them.

Over the course of the novel, Rosanna is our guide to what happens on the frontier. She works for the landowning Ashbys; she spends time with and learns from Moorecke of the Boandik people; she rides with the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and confesses to Father Tenison Woods. She falls in love naively, makes many mistakes big and small, can be mean and tender, but she is a warm, courageous young woman who is determined to make her way authentically through a world which pays little attention to the dreams, let alone rights, of women. A world, in fact, in which “men are dangerous creatures if thwarted”.

Skelly, her sensitive and somewhat frail younger brother, is both foil and support to Rosanna. Their relationship contains the typical sibling tensions, but love and loyalty underpin it. It is what happens to Skelly at a school in Melbourne that propels Rosanna’s actions which provide the novel’s opening drama.

As is common in historical fiction, Lynch uses a family drama to drive the narrative forward and engage our emotions and interest. Lynch also imbues her story with references to both Australian and English literature of the times. For keen-reader Rosanna, Anthony Trollope’s Irish heroine Feemy Macdermot, from his first novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran, offers lessons to heed.

The main work that threads through the novel, however, is Edward Geoghegan’s play The Hibernian father, which was a popularly performed tragedy in mid- to late-nineteenth century Australia. It tells a tragic story of the Lynches of Galway, whence our own Lynches had come. The tragedy distresses our young Lynches, and threatens to destabilise them as they struggle to forge their lives without failing in the same catastrophic way. Rosanna’s father Garrick Lynch reassures his family that “it’s an ancient story … from bloody times”, but the irony is that “bloody times” are still with them.

In the end, all of this has one goal, to serve the real point of Lynch’s story, the complicated politics of settlement, oppression and dispossession, the injustices of colonialism. As Rosanna becomes aware, during an interaction with her employer Mrs Ashby, “living on the edge of civilisation unsettles everyone”. Gay Lynch’s book does the same – and that, I’m sure, was her intent.

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Gay Lynch
Balmain:, 2019
ISBN: 9781925883237

(Review copy courtesy the author.)

Carol Lefevre, Murmurations (#BookReview)

Book coverMurmurations is a beautiful, evocative word, and Carol Lefevre’s latest book, titled Murmurations, does beautiful, thoughtful justice to it. It is though an unusual book. Styled by its author as a novella, it reads on the surface like a collection of short stories, except that the stories are not only connected by the various characters who pop in and out, but by an overarching mystery concerning one of them, Erris Cleary, whose funeral occurs in the first of the eight stories.

Murumuration is, you may know, the collective noun for a flock of starlings, something I discussed in my 2016 post on Helen Macdonald’s essay “The human flock”. She says starlings flock for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. Lefevre provides, as an epigraph for her book, an image of a murmuration and the following quote from a paper on starling flocks:

The change in the behavioural state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is.

These ideas are all reflected, in some way, in Lefevre’s book. But, the book also has another idea as Lefevre explains in her acknowledgements, and that is that each story was inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. If you know his paintings – like “Automat” which inspires the first story – you will know that although they are set in real places, they have a certain paradoxical other-worldliness, which entwines bleakness with a sort of dreamy expectation. This tone also pervades Lefevre’s book.

Murmurations starts with “After the island”. Here, young doctor’s secretary Emily considers the funeral of her employer’s wife, the 53-year-old Erris Cleary. She remembers some mysterious messages that had occasionally broken through the doctor’s patient note recordings, messages that implied Erris was in danger. The book ends with “Paper Boats”, in which two neighbours, Amanda and Magda, discuss Erris’ death, with Amanda going on to write a short story about it. Erris Cleary, then, is the link that joins the stories.

The six stories that come between these opening and closing ones are all, like the two just mentioned, told third person from different characters’ perspectives. All are women except for the titular (and penultimate) story, “Murmurations”, which features a young man. His, Arthur’s, story is the only one in which we finally “meet” Erris as a living woman. Four of the remaining five stories feature women who moved in Erris’ circle – Claire, Fiona, Jeanie and Delia – with the fifth one featuring Lizbie who had a complicated and ultimately tragic relationship with two sons from this circle. She is also the daughter of the final story’s Amanda.

Each story focuses on the dark little accommodations or disturbances in its protagonist’s life. Marriage breakdown, looming dementia, suicide and other events threaten to – and usually do – destabilise the characters. There is a sense of quiet desperation in the stories, even in those that look to be alright on the surface. Claire (“Little Buddhas everywhere”) clings to the husband who has remarried. She relies on his sense of responsibility, not to mention her faith in her inherent lovability, to keep him looking after her as well as his new family, while Jeanie (“The lives we lost”) is thrown by the fact that the man she married admits years later that he hadn’t loved her then, though he did now. Delia (“This moment is your life”) is starting to lose her mind. She appreciates her second husband but seems to have married the same sort of controlling man she had the first time. And so on.

These are, mostly, the quiet little tragedies of life, the ones that never make the newspapers but that are all around us – if we only knew what questions to ask. As one character or another appears in the story of another, we see the possibilities for impacting each other – as in a murmuration. The overarching tragedy is that for all their apparent connections, no one seems to really see what is happening to the others or to have the time, or even the desire, perhaps, to genuinely care. This is beautifully illustrated in Jeanie’s story. She moves in with her cousin but they can’t connect:

Neither cousin understands what the other is saying. Though they speak the same language, words, sentences, turn opaque when they attempt to describe their lives.

The implication seems to be that this little murmuration of women is a surface one only, with little protection or warmth afforded to the individual members.

The exception is the mysterious Erris who, in the titular story, speaks to the young Arthur, working in her garden. She offers him the chance to fly:

… and a note, addressed to him, scribbled on a page torn from a blind notebook: Fly away, Arthur. Fly far, be free. Erris.

Around the edges of the paper, cloud shapes were filled with dozens of small, dark, pencilled birds.

The book is beautifully structured to suggest complex layers of links between the stories and characters, layers that would only multiply, I suspect on multiple readings.  The first story’s Emily, for example, is a young girl from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home. Then, after five stories about women linked through neighbourhood lives to Erris, we come to the aforementioned young Arthur. He also comes from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home and was a friend of Emily’s. Will these two, despite lacking the opportunities the others have presumably had, make a better fist of their lives?

The final story adds another dimension. In converting Erris’ death and the mystery surrounding it into a short story that she submits to The New Yorker, Amanda hopes to achieve her writing goal:

to hit one true note. A note that will make sense of something, perhaps of everything, a note that will crack the obliterating silence once and for all.

Can fiction, Lefevre seems to be asking, make the difference? Can we, through fiction, see the connections that we don’t always see in the real lives around us? If it’s fiction like this, written with such clarity and heart, I believe it can.

Challenge logoCarol Lefevre
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2020
ISBN: 9781925950083

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Australian Women Writers 2020 Challenge completed

I’m very late with my traditional completion post for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge – it’s been a weird and difficult year all round. As always, I will continue to contribute until the year’s end, and do a final round-up then, but I do like to get the completion admin done!

I signed up, of course, for the top-level, Franklin, which involves reading 10 books and reviewing at least 6, and of course I’ve exceeded this. In fact, by June 30, my usual marker for my completion post, I’d contributed 13 reviews to the challenge,

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

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I don’t set myself specific reading goals, but I do keep in mind a wish to read more indigenous and diverse writers, more classics, and more from my TBR pile. As I wrote last year, these continue to be my non-goal goals. So, how did I go? Well, I read just one Indigenous Australian writer, an Iranian Australian writer, two classics (thanks to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 week), and four (Hooper, Park, Thirkell and Azar) from my TBR*. This is not too bad out of 13 books (I think!), particularly given this weird year. However, I’d like to do more. Let’s see how I go by the end of the year.

Book coverNot included in the above list is Heidi Sze’s book Nurturing your new life, which I have not specifically reviewed. However, I have read a significant proportion of it, and did write up the author event I attended.

Watch out for my 2020 AWW Challenge wrap-up post for the year’s full story!

* All books I read are, by definition, on my TBR, but in terms of my book management, I define my TBR pile as those I’ve had for more than 12 months!

Griffith Review 68: Getting on (#BookReview)

Book coverI love reading the Griffith Review, though have mostly only reviewed individual articles on this blog. It’s a meaty quarterly, with each edition being devoted to a particular theme. Edition 68’s theme, Getting on, seemed apposite for my reading group and so was our August selection. Although it was confronting at times, it was a universally approved choice, and our discussion was lively and engaged.

Like all Griffith Reviews, this edition contains essays, reportage, memoirs, fiction and poems, some from writers who have previously appeared on my blog (like Helen Garner, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, Kathy Marks, and Charlotte Wood); some from writers known to me but not (yet) on my blog (Melanie Cheng, Leah Kaminisky, Sam Wagan Watson among others); and some new to me. The edition opens with editor Ashley Hay’s introductory piece, “The time of our lives: Senescence, sentience and story”. She frames the volume’s overarching subject matter by saying that ageing in Australia:

has been largely framed by intersections between a Royal Commission and its revelations of institutional shortfalls and betrayals; the urgent need for reform; the conditions we place under the umbrella designation of ‘dementia’; an increasing awareness of under-reported ageism; the seemingly intractable gap in life expectancies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; the day-to-day experience of some 200,000 older Australians who live in residential-care facilities; and an emphasis on the ‘costs’ of an ageing population rather than any framing of the potential benefits of longevity.

However, while these practical and political issues underpin the volume, it also includes some more philosophical and personal reflections which provide breadth and life to the discussion. And so, the edition proper starts with established writer, 77-year-old Helen Garner (“The invisible arrow”) who provides a personal perspective on the experience of ageing, on losing hearing (necessitating hearing aids) and failing sight (requiring cataracts). It’s also about the quandary of being a writer challenged by ageing, an issue somewhat addressed, from a different angle, by Charlotte Wood (“Experiments in the art of living”).

Because my life over the last couple of decades has involved elderly people, I was particularly interested in the essays on aged care practice and policy, especially Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Magical thinking and the aged care crisis” and Beth Mohle’s “System failure”. Both these provided detailed analysis of the current failures of the system – including the multiple reviews with their multiple ignored recommendations – and offer some ideas for improvement. The problem is also taken up provocatively by Gen Xer Ingrid Burkett in “Bold rage” and more calmly but also passionately by another Gen Xer, Charlotte Wood. I did laugh, though, when Burkett suggested one of the ideas discarded by Holland-Batt as “magical thinking”, the “geriatric co-op” or, as Burkett wrote, “buying a large house or building a purpose-built dwelling where we could all live together as we age”. It’s not a new Gen X idea. My Boomer friends and I posited this idea too in our youth!

Policy discussions also take up other issues, like euthanasia and assisted dying (Andrew Stafford’s “Dying wish”) and the disturbing problem of increasing homelessness among older women (Therese Hall’s “Almost homeless”).

Then there are the pieces specifically about the science of ageing (such as Bianca Nogrady’s “Longevity, science and, about medicine and about dead” and David Sinclair’s “Live long and prosper”); about how science may help ageing and aged care in the future (Leah Kaminsky’s intriguing discussion of AI in “Killing time”); and about personal experiences of chronic illness (Mark Aarons’ “Solving my medical mystery”) and death (Gabbie Stroud on her brother’s suicide, “In an unguarded moment”). In this personal vein too is the moving poem, simply titled “Andrew”, about the family’s experience of the terminal illness and death of writer, Andrew McGahan. Niece Anna McGahan writes:

He cannot carry our projected burdens
When he still has heavy gifts
Three glorious, painful months to fill

There are, in fact, several moving pieces – some personal, some professional. Melanie Cheng writes about being an unempathetic intern and what turned her around (“The human factor”) while palliative care specialist, Frank Brennan (“Contemporary loss”), details the practice of palliation. The fiction and poems that are interspersed amongst the non-fiction pieces provide personal perspectives on the information presented. Sam Wagan Watson’s short story “The elsewheres of Charlie Bolt”, for example, powerfully illustrates the isolation and loneliness that many of the contributors identify as serious problems of ageing. The line –

The only songlines Charlie Bolt knew were in the curdling of crow gargles on the street.

– conveys the dislocation Charlie experiences from his culture, as well as from life in general.

It’s impossible to list all the pieces, so I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of my responses to this volume (besides frustration with our policy-makers’ failure to properly address aged care). One relates to the discussion of older people as elders, because this suggests a more positive understanding of ageing. It’s discussed in depth by Jane R Goodall (“Joining forces: The wrath of age meets the passion of youth”) who says “there is little or no public discussion about what it means to be an elder rather than just a senior” and teases out what being an elder might look like. It’s also part of the conversation between Ruth Ross, Jay Phillips and Mayrah Dreise about making “Acknowledgement of Country” statements more meaningful (“Listening to elders: Wisdom, knowledge, institutions and the need for change”).

My other main response concerns denial about ageing and its consequences. I’m with Ailsa Piper (“Old growth: On luck, appreciation and acceptance”) who says “I like saying I’m old”, because, as she says, many never get to. Associated with this denial are people’s claims that they won’t go into aged care, that they’ll leave their home “feet first”, that they will not give up their independence. My experience of watching people age is that the situation is less that you are forced to “give up” your independence, and more that your independence leaves you!

How we handle this situation is up to us, of course, but, as Charlotte Wood reports:

Palliative care nurses have told me people almost always die as they live. A person who has lived with acceptance and gratitude will die in gracious acceptance.

She wonders when it might be time to “change one’s default state”! She then quotes an 84-year-old aged care resident:

Ageing, writes Peter Thomson of Ivanhoe, ‘is inevitable, inexorable and interesting. AAA rating for ageing: Anticipate, Adapt, Accept’.

Now that, rather than “I won’t”, seems to me to be a better default state to take.

Getting on is informative, as you’d expect, but it is also inspirational and challenging. Recommended for adults of all ages!

Note: Links on names are to posts in this blog on those writers. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote up a panel discussion on this volume at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.

Challenge logoGriffith Review 68: Getting on
(edited by Ashley Hay)
South Brisbane, Qld. : Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2020
287 pp.
ISBN: 9781922212498