Telltale, Carmel Bird and me

In my recent post on Carmel Bird’s bibliomemoir, Telltale, I hinted that there could be another post in this book. There could, indeed, be many, but I must move on, and I must not spoil the book for others. However, given many blog-readers enjoy personal posts, I’ve decided to share a few of my particular delights in the book. I found myself frequently writing “Yes” in the margins …

“I’m glad, now, that I have always defaced books”

… because, like Carmel Bird, I have, since I was a student, “defaced” my books. Not only that, but my defacements seem to be of a similar ilk to hers. For example, I sometimes add an old envelope, or post-it notes, inside back covers to carry more notes. Like her, I love books with several empty pages at the back to accommodate note-taking.

Not enough blank pages at the end of Telltale!

Carmel Bird also loves indexes – and I love the fact that Telltale has a beautiful index, because such a book should, but often doesn’t. But, what really tickled me was her comment early in the book that “I also make a rough index on the empty pages at the ends of books I read” (or, as she also writes, “pencilled lists of key elements”). Yes! Sometimes, my indexes are more like notes, but other times my notes are more like indexes. Mostly, though, I do a bit of both, with exactly what depending on the book and on my response to it. This latter point is implied in Bird’s statement that:

In 2020, paying so much attention to books, I took particular notice of the differences in the ‘indexes’I had made at different times, how on each re-reading I had noticed different details.

Here, she not only shares her reading practice but also comments on reader behaviour, on the fact that each time we read a book we find something new. That can be for various reasons. On subsequent readings we already know the book at some level and so are ready to see more in it; on subsequent readings the world will have changed so the things we notice can also change according to the zeitgeist; and then, of course, the biggie, on subsequent readings, we ourselves have changed so we see the world differently. I love that Bird’s indexes reflect this – and that she saw it.

But, there’s a downside to all this “defacement”, which Bird also discusses. Writing about discarding books – the how and why – she says, “when I have annotated a book, it is not much use to anybody but myself, so selling it or giving it away are not possible solutions”. I know what she means, though I contest that hers would not be of use to anyone else. Who wouldn’t enjoy owning a book so defaced by her?

There is, however, a point at which she and I depart. When reading an outsize paperback becomes “too difficult … to manage comfortably” she will attack it “vertically down the spine with an electric carving knife” to divide it into manageable portions. I know some travellers tear out sections of travel guides they no longer need, but librarian-me finds destruction a step too far. Sorry Carmel, I understand, but …

“oh what a lovely word”

Like many authors, Carmel Bird loves words. It’s on show in all her work, but in Telltale, it’s front and centre. In her opening chapter, she writes that

Uncle Remus uses terms such as ‘lippity-clippity’. This is the kind of singing, onomatopoeic language I sometimes invent when writing.

And, so she does, even in this nonfiction bibliomemoir. Did it come from reading Uncle Remus “all that time ago”, she ponders. Was it “embedded” in her brain, back then, without her “even realising”? Probably.

Throughout Telltale, Bird discusses words – how they have changed over time (in meaning, for example, or in acceptability), how they look, where they come from, how they sound. As the daughter of a lexicographer, I would be interested in this. As a lover of Jane Austen whose wit and irony I adore, I would be interested in this. And, as one who loves writing that plays well in the mouth and sounds great to the ear, I would be interested in this. If you love words too, this book will be an absolute delight for you.

Other delights

As I said when opening this post, I really mustn’t spoil this book for others, so I’ll just add a few other delights:

  • her discussions of the many books and stories she chooses to share – those she found on her shelves that she felt illuminated her life and writing. I’ve mentioned very few of these because, really, this is the thing that most readers will want to discover and enjoy. Get to it … Meanwhile, I will name just two here. One is Dickens’ Bleak House which she writes “might” be her favourite Dickens. It might be mine too. The other is Marjorie Barnard’s “The persimmon tree” which she describes as “extraordinarily powerful”. Barnard’s “The persimmon tree and other stories” is one of the only short story collections I’ve read more than once. I concur!
  • silly little things like the fact that she loves green (as do I) and that she learnt that “lovely” word “tessellated” at the tessellated pavement at Tasmania’s Eaglehawk Neck (as did I).
  • she loves the internet and allowed herself to use it for this book. She was the first fiction writer in Australia to have a website. Like most of us, she prefers printed books, but she also sees the advantage of electronic books (including the ease of searching them – as an index-lover would!)

Finally, early in the book, Bird discusses memory:

As is often the case with memory, while some of physical details are clear, the principal element that has been retained is the feeling. Perhaps the feeling is the meaning.

Yes! This makes sense to me. I can rarely remember plots or denouements, but for the books that are special to me, I can remember how they made me feel – uplifted, melancholic, inspired, distressed, excited, angry, and so on. These feelings are surely associated with what the author intended us to take away, and therefore they must reflect the meaning?

Here, I will, reluctantly, leave Telltale, but I’ll do so on one of its three epigraphs, the one from her own character:

‘memory
is the carpet-bag
mire of quag
filled with light-dark truth-lies
image innation
and butterflies’

CARILLO MEAN,
Remembrance of Wings Past

How can you not love this?

Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading writing remembering (#BookReview)

Finally, I have found something to thank COVID for – Carmel Bird’s Telltale. Best described as a bibliomemoir, Telltale may never have been written if Bird had not been locked down with her extensive library. What is a lively mind to do in such a situation? I can think of a few options, but what Bird decided was to revisit the books she’d read since childhood and, through them, look for patterns in her life and, because they are intertwined, in her writing practice. She would reflect on “the working of the imagination, the behaviour of the unconscious mind”.

Telltale, in other words, is more than a simple chronological run-through of her books, because the reading and writing life is not so easily compartmentalised. She writes that it

is composed of two different kinds of narrative.  One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface? Will the metaphors crumble into useless dust? One thread speaks of books read and sometimes of books written. And also of things that happened in my life. The other speaks of a journey of the heart, a pilgrimage through a patchy history of the world, becoming a poetic thread that runs through the whole narrative.

A complex book then, but one told in such a personal, confidential come-with-me voice, that it reads like a lovely long conversation with an intelligent friend. Like any intelligent conversations, though, it requires the participants to be on their toes, to be ready for twists and turns, for surprising connections and conclusions, to be both confronted and delighted. Bird heralds this in her opening sentence:

As a child at the end of World War Two, I was introduced to the concept of the Trickster in literature.

That trickster was Brer Rabbit, whom I also remember from my childhood, but I was of a more prosaic mind than Bird, who has proven to be a bit of a trickster herself. Yes, the dictionary uses words like “dishonest”, “cunning”, and “deceptive” to describe “trickster”, but the trickster in literature, as Wikipedia explains, “is a character in a story … who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and defy conventional behavior”. This is how I see Carmel Bird as a writer. The surface can look quite simple, but underneath there is usually something else going on. You only have to check out the epigraphs to her books, which frequently include bon-mots “written” by her own character, Carillo Mean. It’s apposite, then, that she starts her book with a “trickster”. It tells us to be ready for – well, anything.

So, Telltale. It looks like a bibliomemoir – a book about her reading and writing life – but as she explains in the excerpt above, it also encompasses “a patchy history of the world” as it has affected or appeared to her. To unite it all, she crafts her tale around a narrative heart, a loved book, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Louis Rey. She wants to write about it but can’t find it. This injects a mystery: will she find it? It also introduces a potential conflict: will she break the rule she set for herself to not buy books and only use those on her (clearly extensive) shelves. As the memoir progresses, we become party to her increasing concern about where it is and what to do.

Why of all the books, you might be asking, The bridge of San Luis Rey? But, that might be for me to know and you to find out.

“to move the heart and illuminate the mind”

Late in Telltale, Bird mentions reading Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The fly” when she was fifteen. She writes:

I suddenly saw how the surface narrative and the narratives and meanings below the surface could dance together with an electrifying elegance to move the heart and illuminate the mind. This was my first conscious lesson in style and structure.

See! It’s a lesson Bird clearly took to heart, and which is on display in all the works of hers I’ve reviewed. (As for “move and heart and illuminate the mind” – who could want more from reading?) Earlier in the book, she refers to another aspect of her style: “the pleasure I take in moving (drifting, spinning, flicking) from one topic to another”. This pleasure, she suggests, could have come from her father’s six-volume Harmonsworth’s household encyclopedia. Again, we see this approach in Telltale. It’s one of the things I love about Bird’s writing. It can be challenging, of course, but it is exciting to be so challenged – and to thus be respected as a reader.

Anyhow, the point is that while on the surface Bird seems to move or flick from topic to topic, her books are invariably held together by framing ideas and motifs. Here, it’s not only the search for The bridge of San Luis Rey, but two other narratives, which she draws together towards the end of the book. One concerns a childhood family picnic to Cataract Gorge in 1945, and the other, the gathering of American planes for the rarely-remembered firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. Woven through these narratives is another, Bird’s growing awareness of the devastating dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people, starting from her acceptance, as a Tasmanian-born child, of their “extinction” in her state.

These are the main narratives that make up the aforementioned “patchy history”, and I fear this may be sounding disjointed. In fact, however, the “threads” hold, because the relationship between this “patchy history” and the books she has read and written is strong. Not only are there the obvious and expected connections between the “history” and her reading and writing, but there are also two recurring motifs that are real, historical, and literary – bridges, which can symbolise “fragile communication and union”, and peacocks which can signify “eternal life”.

Telltale is a delicious and revelatory read, and I’m not doing it justice. I’ve not, for example, touched on the quirky, often poetic, tapered chapter ends, or the neat segues between chapters. Nor have I said much about the writing which can turn from seriously descriptive or philosophical to whimsical or poetical in a paragraph. And nor have I shared the reflections about reading and writing, about truth and meaning, about words and language, that I specifically noted down to share, because, frankly, there are too many. There may be another post in this.

I took some time to read this book, and I’m not sorry. To read Bird, if you haven’t realised already, is to agree to join her on a sometimes merry, sometimes macabre dance. If we do, what we find is a compassionate heart that, despite it all, believes in love and calls us to hope, as that peacock that has accompanied us throughout darts and dances across the sky.

Lisa also enjoyed this book.

Carmel Bird
Telltale: Reading writing remembering
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2022
274pp.
ISBN: 9781925760927

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Carmel Bird, Field of poppies (#BookReview)

Book coverThere are some writers whose personalities shine through so strongly that I have taken to characterising them in just a word or two. Jane Austen, for example, I think of as wickedly witty, and Helen Garner as heartbreakingly honest. Carmel Bird is another of these. I describe her as seriously cheeky, by which I don’t mean she is really cheeky, but that there’s seriousness beneath her surface cheekiness. The cheekiness makes me chuckle, but ruefully, suspiciously so, because I know that waiting nearby is very often a skewer of some sort. Her latest novel, Field of poppies, is no exception. Even the title is paradoxical, alluding as it does to both Monet’s pretty painting, Field of poppies in Argenteuil 1873, and the poppy fields of Flanders.

Field of poppies, then, has all the hallmarks of Bird’s writing – a light tone, and all manner of allusions and digressions, underpinned by a clearly-focused intelligence. If you are lulled, early on, by narrator Marsali’s chatty, friendly tone, you’d be advised to check the epigrams and preface. The very first epigram tells you, in fact, exactly what this novel is all about:

We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators. (Henry Asquith, Secretary of State for War, July 24 1914)

Can’t say plainer than that. The epigrams, which include one by Bird’s signature fictional novelist Carrillo Mean, are followed by an incisive preface which offers a vision of the modern world and where it’s heading. Mixing visions of disaster (“Crops failed, dried out, withered, died”) with those annoyances we love to comment on (“People forgot how to punctuate or spell”), it further cements the book’s intention.

The novel is told first person by retired interior designer Marsali Swift who, with her husband, the semi-retired doctor William, made a tree-change to the perfectly named, prosperous ex-goldfields town of Muckleton. I mean, Muckleton! That suggests something too, doesn’t it? However, in the opening paragraph, Marsali also tells us that she and William had given up their country idyll after seven years and now live in a high-rise apartment in Melbourne, called, ironically, the Eureka. The tree-change hadn’t met their expectations, because of two events, a robbery at their loved home Listowel, and the mysterious disappearance of local eccentric musician, Alice Dooley. The arrival of a new gold-mine doesn’t help, either, with its disruptions and environmental threat.

Now, if you know Bird’s writing, you will know what to expect, but if you don’t, let me say that this is not a book you read for plot – though there is a plot about the missing Alice. Rather, it’s one you read for the joy of engaging with a lively but concerned mind and all the insights such a mind can offer. Isn’t that, really, what we read for? As one member of my reading group described it, reading this book is like having “a conversation with a quirky, artistic, intelligent friend”. That’s exactly how I feel when I read Bird. I feel my mind engaging with hers, pondering where it’s going and what it’s trying to tell me, and really enjoying the ride. She can be so sly, such as this about the missing Alice’s Silver Sisters group of witches:

The Silver Sisters still exist, to the best of my knowledge but Alice certainly does not. I understand the SS were always a harmless lot …

Whoa? The SS, harmless? Well, of course, the Silver Sisters were, but referring to them as SS can’t help but remind us of another SS, can it? This is what Bird does – and I love it. She makes me feel alive as a reader.

“Such a state of affairs is clearly a fantasy”

Various motifs run through the novel, including the aforementioned poppies, dreamhouses, and Alice in Wonderland. Each contributes in its own way to the idea that all is not as it seems, that we may, in fact, be living a fantasy. Marsali spends some time dissecting Monet’s painting, but as she draws us into its seemingly idyllic beauty, she inserts something sinister – not only the poppies and their dark reminder, but the possibility of a gun pointing out of a window in the lovely house nestled in the background. Bird’s meaning is clear: our dreamhouses, our country idylls, may not be what they seem at all. Dreams, she says early in the novel, are dangerous. For a start, they can lure us away from reality.

Later in the novel, Marsali’s description of returning to Muckleton for bookgroup makes her meaning clear:

When I go there for Mirrabooka nights I drive past the gate to Listowel and catch a glimpse of the house itself behind the trees. It’s really so very like the house in the distance in the Monet, the dangerous fool’s gold of the old lost dream house.

For Marsali, there are glimmers like these of the truth beneath the fantasy, but will she and William – who, we must see, stand for many of us – really change their ways?

Bird also refers in the novel to several literary texts, and in particular to Alice in Wonderland. Carroll’s Alice works beautifully as a foil for the missing Alice Dooley. Without spoiling the ending too much, both disappear into the deep, but Alice in Wonderland survives while Alice Dooley doesn’t. However, this foil isn’t a case of simple opposites, because, although Carroll’s Alice survives, the world she enters is chaotic.

“This is my memoir”

Another thing Bird does in this book is play with the idea of fiction. Marsali keeps reminding us that this is her memoir. It’s dangerous, she writes, for fiction writers to include dream sequences in their narratives, but as this is her memoir, she will include some! Similarly, “it’s hard to make coincidence work in fiction”, but again, because this is her memoir, she has them since “coincidences happen quite naturally in real life”. It’s “a nice coincidence”, Marsali writes, that Alice Dooley was called Alice! She pushes our acceptance of coincidence even further by not only involving kangaroos in the two road accidents that start and end the book’s drama, but also having the second accident’s driver spending time at a pub called The Kangaroo before he sets off on his fateful drive:

Look, it was called The Kangaroo. I can’t help that. It just was.

Well, look, that made me laugh. She is so blatantly cheeky.

I’d love to go on, because this book is rich in commentary, satire and jokes about contemporary life – and I’ve barely touched them.

However, I will close here, and will do so on this from the book:

Beauty always falls in love with the Beast, who always turns out to be the Prince, but that’s only the end of the telling, not the end of the lives of Beauty and her Beast-Prince. Life goes on until it doesn’t. Cinderella died in the end, and so did Snow White.

Fantasy, fairy tales, even fiction, in other words, are just that. They do not tell the whole story. Which world are Marsali and William living in, and which, indeed, are we?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this novel.

Challenge logoCarmel Bird
Field of poppies
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2019
241 pp.
ISBN: 9781925760392

Review copy courtesy the author.

 

Carmel Bird, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories (#BookReview)

Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrix

Carmel Bird, whose latest short story collection, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories, I’m reviewing here, has to be the consummate writer. She can turn her hand to fiction and nonfiction, to short and long form writing, to formal and more informal voices, and to both serious and witty or satiric tones. She’s also an editor/anthologist in addition to being a writer. And now she’s experimenting with a digital platform. So, when she hesitantly offered me The dead aviatrix to read and review, there was only one answer, yes.

Her hesitation related to its e-book form. She feared that we Gums’ people aren’t much interested in ebooks, but, she wrote, “they are a growing part of the literary landscape”. Then, using a very Bird-like expression, she continued, “so maybe one day you will write a bit about them, and if and when you do, The Dead Aviatrix will be idling on the tarmac.” Well, how could I resist, even if I had wanted to, an aviatrix idling on the tarmac? And anyhow, as you know, I do read and write about e-books. Annabel Smith’s The ark (my review) is a good example, but I’ve reviewed several e-books here including Dorothy Johnston’s Eight pieces on prostitution (my review).

Like Dorothy Johnston’s book, which was a digital publishing initiative of the Australian Society of Authors, The dead aviatrix is the first Capsule Collection, a new platform by digital publisher Spineless Wonders. Subsequent titles in the series will, the book’s “About” says, include works “selected from The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award”. You clearly can’t keep a good writer down. I love that this doyenne of the Australian literary scene is still exploring and experimenting.

However, it’s all well and good to explore and experiment with form, delivery platform, and so on, but in the end you need to produce the goods, and this Bird has done with her eight stories. I should say, before discussing them, that all have been published before – in publications like Southerly, Island Magazine, and Review of Australian Fiction.

So now, at last, the stories themselves. They are a wonderful lot. Bird regularly makes me laugh, and she does so again here. It’s not empty laughter though, because her targets are serious. It’s just that she frequently presents her ideas with a cheeky, often satirical approach.

The first story is “The dead aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate”. It’s written in the sort of style Bird used in Fair game, her memoir of Tasmania (my review). By this I mean it digresses or, as she says, becomes “productively sidetracked”. However, as “The dead aviatrix” is “a publishing story”, the opening digression about the prolific Edward Stratemeyer – creator of a childhood favourite of mine The Bobbsey Twins – is relevant in a way (of course!). Actually, it’s very relevant because she finds a quote about an aviatrix in a Stratemeyer book, and uses it to springboard her story. Oh, she’s a character! The tone of the story, like several in the book, is chatty. She talks directly to us, the reader, leading us along, often lulling us into a false sense of security. In this case, it’s a little satire on the publishing industry – on proofs going astray, on distracted publishing interns – but along the way it invokes or references all sorts of ideas, including the Australian aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton who “unlike the great and mysterious Amelia … did not disappear in the skies.” Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Bird (our Bird, I mean!) but I love trying. This story is, partly, about the art of writing stories.

The second story, “The Whirligigge of time brings its revenges”, draws from a Shakespeare quote, and is also a publishing story, this one more satirical about first and second novels, the notion of “literary” novels, awards, and not using agents. Again, it has a similar, chatty story-telling tone. Here’s an example:

The history of this novel (The Heat of Summer) is the real subject of my tale. That, and the wheel of fortune and the quirks of fate. The book takes its first inspiration from Camus’ famous L’Etranger, and its content is drawn from the aforementioned history of Joseph Tice Gellibrand, the disappearing Attorney-General of Van Diemen’s Land. Well, you can see that what Frankie was doing here was risky. It was what is often described as literary fiction.

There’s more delicious satire about publishers and their slush piles, but I’ll finish with a quote about promotion:

The media hype for The Heat of Summer is huge, what with the glamour of Frankie’s Paris life, and the deep fascination with gothic Australian bush stuff and so forth. Based around the tragic life of her ancestor. Smash hit. Frankie turned out to be a publicist’s dream, having, as well as the attributes I have alluded to, long legs, a face that could sell cosmetics and airline tickets, and an engaging lisp.

Delicious isn’t it?

And so the stories continue, addressing issues like missing children (“Cold case”), dying towns and New Age shops (“Cactus”), shallow suburbanites and their prejudices (“The matter of the mosque”), surrogacy (“Surrogate”), and species extinction (“Letter to Lola” and “The tale of the last unicorn”). All the stories could be lessons in writing – in tone, in varying form, in how to make words and language work for you, in being absurd without being absurd (if you know what I mean), in addressing serious matters with a light but pointed touch. I enjoyed every one.

While several stories are written in the chatty, satirical tone of the first two. Not all are. “Dear Lola” takes the form of a love letter from a Spix’s Macaw to his lost mate. It’s sad, and pointed, but the whole idea of a bird writing to its lover gives it a whimsical touch too. “The matter of the mosque”, on the other hand, is written in little scenes, comprising mostly dialogue between two mothers in which it’s clear that whether to use hairspray or mousse is more important than opening their minds to different ways of being. Bird’s control of language and narrative here, together with her use of repetition and recurring ideas or images, makes this a little gem.

Now, I know many of you aren’t short story readers, because you want to get lost in character. These stories won’t give you that. However, what a mind, what ideas, what fun and, ultimately, what heart, you miss by ignoring a book like this. It’s only available in e-format and costs a whopping $4.99! Why not give it a go?

AWW Badge 2018Carmel Bird
The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories
Spineless Wonders, 2017
50pp.
ISBN (e-version): 9781925052343

(Review copy courtesy the author, but available from Spineless Wonders)

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
188pp.
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.

Carmel Bird, Family skeleton (Review)

Carmel Bird, Family skeletonI love a cheeky writer, and Carmel Bird must be the doyenne of cheeky writers, so it goes without saying, really, that I thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel Family Skeleton. The cheekiness starts with the epigraph, which, as she is wont to do, is a quote from her fictional character Carillo Mean. As Bird has said in an interview, “he always has something interesting to say”. But that’s just the start of the cheekiness. The story is narrated by “the skeleton in the wardrobe”. Now, I know many readers don’t like what they see as cute or contrived narratorial devices – like girls in heaven or dead babies – but please don’t let that put you off here, because in the hands of a skilled writer such a device can lift a story to a whole new level.

So, when I tell you that the novel’s framing idea is an obsession with family history, you might start to understand where our narrator comes in – except that the story is not really about the skeleton, whose identity is never divulged, nor is it about family history. What it’s about, really, is family secrets and betrayal, and the tipping point. It’s about the recently bereaved and well-to-do Margaret O’Day, whose family, through her husband, has been involved in the funeral business for generations. Such a setting is, of course, ripe for black comedy and that’s what we get in this novel. But, back to Margaret. Her husband Eddie, “a philistine” according to our skeleton, was also a philanderer and died in the arms of his mistress. Margaret had been betrayed – more than once, in fact – but she knew this, and even accepted this last mistress, and her children with Eddie, at the funeral.

From this set up, the story progresses, mostly chronologically but with a couple of significant time-shifts along the way. It is mainly told by our omniscient skeleton, but Margaret starts a journal, which she calls – hmm, note this – “The Book of Revelation”. Her entries in it form some of the book’s chapters. This title, “The Book of Revelation”, is another of Bird’s jokes, for the novel is about things revealed and not revealed – particularly the latter, because as the story progresses Margaret discovers an even bigger betrayal than her husband’s, and she is desperate to hide it from visiting O’Day family historian Doria Fogelsong.

The novel, then, as I said, is about secrets and betrayals. For the “virtuous” Margaret, who has put up with much throughout her marriage and who has become very good at “concealing her true feelings from people”, this lately discovered betrayal is the last straw. It takes all her resources to keep going. The family history motif compounds the tension. Will the story come out? Will Margaret be able to keep Doria (“with her iPhone on her left, iPad on her right”) from finding it out.

There’s satire here, surely, on the current obsession with family history. Our skeleton tells us

I happen to know that one of the little violinists was the son of Eddie O’Day and a gorgeous Hungarian dress-designer. Evan didn’t realise that, not that it makes any difference to anything, although it is a nice detail for a family tree. Doria missed out there.

So cheeky, these little jibes dropped in. Bird also skewers fashions in family history – such as how it is now a positive thing to uncover a convict or an Indigenous ancestor – while also exposing its underbelly, that is, the pain discovery can cause. The obvious question, of course, is whether it is better to know the truth or not.

However, it’s not only family history which catches Bird’s eye, but the pretensions and self-absorption of contemporary middle-class life, from designer clothes to electronic devices, from shallow parties to theme park cemeteries. It’s all here, providing background to the main fare.

But there’s more to the novel too, because it is also about writing and reading fiction, a storytelling masterclass in a way. The skeleton does more than narrate. S/he engages with the reader, reminding us of things we’ve already read, making sure we are keeping up with any plot hints or twists. Oh, how I loved this. I felt Bird was right there, having fun, playing games with us, while at the same time teaching us about how writers write and, more significantly, how we should read. Early on, for example, our skeleton presents us with a future auction advertisement for Margaret’s house, Bellevue, and says:

I realise that the eye of the reader can easily slide carelessly across such elements of the text. However, I suggest you take your time and study this document carefully.

The joke, though, is on us because at this stage in the story we have no idea what “secrets” are contained within. (At least, that’s my reading of what Bird is doing.) At another point, after telling us that “nothing bad ever happened at Bellevue these days”, the skeleton teases us with, “I trust you are alert enough to hear a faint bell ringing”.

Bird also plays with the archetypes of popular fiction – the betrayed wife, the philandering husband, and “the archetypal stranger who rides into town … the harbinger of fate” – but she gently subverts our expectations. The betrayal that most disturbs Margaret is not her husband’s, and it’s not Doria, the stranger, who brings the news that so distresses Margaret, albeit, given Margaret’s discovery, Doria can certainly ramp up the pain.

And then there’s the writing, with its gorgeous descriptions, pert sentences, delicious irony, entertaining word-plays and its smart, cheeky tone which leaves you in no doubt about who or what is being targeted but is good-humoured rather than bitter. Here is Margaret preparing to have Doria for lunch:

When Margaret asked for just a plain omelette, Lillian [her housekeeper] understood that the guest was someone who gave Margaret no joy, and who was to be more controlled than entertained. It was control by omelette. A sliver here, a sliver there, and a quiet soft squashing with the tongue against the palate. Desultory conversation, meaningless smiles. Plain omelette.

What more can I say? Family skeleton delights on so many levels. It is in fact quite a shocking story, but one told with a spoonful of sugar that has just the right amount of spice. I can’t help thinking that Bird chuckled and chuckled as she wrote it. I certainly did reading it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the novel.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird
Family skeleton
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2016
228pp.
ISBN: 9781742588902

Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White (Literary) Award

I was thrilled to hear on the radio this morning that Carmel Bird had won this year’s Patrick White (Literary) Award. Bird is such a worthy winner for this award, but more on that anon.

The Patrick White Award* is named, obviously, for one of Australia’s most significant writers and only, to date, Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, more than this, it was established by the man himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. White, for all his famed grumpiness, was a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award, established a few years later, continues this desire to support his fellow writers. David Carter, writing in the Australian Book Review, says this about it:

White was no friend to literary prizes and, in some ways, no friend to Australian literature, but he proved himself a friend to Australian writers. The ‘Patrick White’ is in many ways a writer’s award, created by a writer for other writers, and highly valued by them even if it hits the headlines less than the Miles Franklin.

The Canberra Times reported on the creation of this award in October 1973, stating:

Professor Geoffrey Blainey, of the University of Melbourne, said in a statement yesterday that the prize would be awarded annually to “a distinguished Australian writer — preferably an older writer whose life’s writings have not received adequate recognition or reward”.

David Foster, who won the award in 2010, said that White had intended it as ”as a kind of literary loser’s compo”! I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, of how you define “loser”, but it is good to have an award which goes to those writers who, though I wouldn’t call them losers, have fallen into the gaps. Carmel Bird is one of these.

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan at the NLA

Before I talk about Bird, though, I’d like to share a little anecdote from Patrick White’s memoir/autobiography, Flaws in the glass. It is about a dinner party he was giving for the second winner of his award, the poet David Campbell:

It was again the evening of a dinner party, this time in honour of David Campbell the poet, who had won the award I set up with the money from my Nobel Prize. I was drudging away in the kitchen about five o’clock when I switched on the radio hoping for distraction from the boredom brought on by chopping and stirring. Like a stream of lava, out poured the news of what was happening in Canberra: that the Governor-General [Sir John Kerr] has dismissed the Government elected by the Australian people …

White goes on to say that he then rejected the Order of Australia that Kerr had recently persuaded him to accept, despite his professed antipathy to such awards, by saying his refusing it “would ruin everything”. Awards, then, are tricky beasts, and I know there are readers of this blog who are not keen on them. I understand their reasons, but I also understand that for many writers the money, regardless of any kudos that may or may not accrue, is very important.

(BTW Note the timing. White wanted his annual Award announced in the week following the Melbourne Cup, which occurs on the first Tuesday in November, “to give literature a brief chance of ousting sport from the nation’s mind”. The dismissal occurred on 11 November, suggesting that in 1975 the David Campbell announcement had been made in White’s time-frame. However, given this year’s announcement date of mid-October, White’s wish seems to have fallen by the way-side.

POSTSCRIPT: This point re timing has caused some discussion in comments and behind the scenes. I have now received in writing from the Trustee’s PR that “Perpetual as Trustee of The Patrick White Literary Award confirms that there is no stipulation in the Trust Deed in regards to the timing of the announcement of the winner.” It seems like it may have been something White talked about but never actually enshrined, which is good really. I believe that the fewer restrictions the better. Times change and donors can never be sure that what they stipulate in their times will have the desired result in later times.)

So now, Carmel Bird. Her Wikipedia article provides an excellent list of her literary output – her novels, her short story collections, the anthologies she’s edited, her non-fiction, and so on. It’s an impressive output ranging across a wide variety of forms and styles, over a long period of time. And yet, under the list of awards and nominations, you’ll see that she’s been shortlisted several times but hasn’t won any of Australia’s major literary awards. Now, at last, she has!

I last saw Bird at the Canberra Writers Festival when Marion Halligan launched her latest novel Family skeleton. On the back of my copy is a quote from the Australian literary critic, Peter Craven:

Carmel Bird is a literary artist to her fingertips … She writes prose that has the precision of poetry and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak.

I agree, but the thing that I really like about Bird is the way her mind works. At the risk of sounding cliched, which she never is, she is fresh, original, unafraid to follow the connections her mind makes and certainly unafraid to depart from the expected. You just have to attend a live event involving her to realise this. I mean, this is an author who creates characters who then take on lives of their own, like Virginia O’Day who writes letters of advice to authors in Dear writer. And this is the author who creates a writer, Carrillo Mean, whose work she then uses as epigraphs for her novels! Have you got all that? I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to read that another idiosyncratic writer on the recognition-fringe of Australia’s literary firmament, Gerald Murnane, has described one of her books, The woodpecker toy fact, as “my kind of book”.

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird’s Fair Game

I’ve reviewed here her cheeky fl small Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir, and I’ve read other work of hers before blogging. I also have the revised ebook edition of her book on writing, Dear writer revisited (featuring the aforesaid Virginia O’Day)I’m not a writer – that is, I have no ambitions to write fiction – but I often dip into this book because the advice is applicable to all writers.

For example, Letter Two discusses “the use of adverbs and adjectives”. Although she is referring to a piece of fiction, Bird’s advice works for any sort of writing. This, for example:

Perhaps you thought that you, as the writer, were the one who had to do all the imagining, and that the reader was to get every detail of the picture from your words. The reader of fiction takes pleasure in doing some of the work, and will more readily believe you and trust you if there is work to do. Strangely enough, the strength of fiction seems to lie as much in what is left out as in what is included, as much in the spaces between the words as in the words. This is one of strange powers at the heart of good writing. The writer’s skill likes perhaps as much in creating the spaces as in finding the words to put down.

Now, when I write my posts I regularly bother about adjectives. I seem to feel that I need them but I rarely like the ones I use. Perhaps I don’t need them at all! The other reason I like to check this book out is for the examples and advice she includes from other writers – from the likes of Helen Garner and Fay Weldon, David Foster Wallace and Frank Moorhouse, to name just a few.

She also quotes Ernest Hemingway:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Oh dear. This is from Letter Fifteen, “Writers are different”. I think they are – but too often we take them for granted and do not give them the recognition they deserve for the ways they enrich our lives. I’m so glad Bird has received this award and I sure hope she is too.

* I am not sure what this award is called. In some places, including Wikipedia, it is the Patrick White Award, while in others it is the Patrick White Literary Award. Take your pick it seems.

Carmel Bird, Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir (Review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

As I started reading this next fl smalls offering, an essay this time, I was reminded of one of my favourite Australian writers, Elizabeth von Arnim. Von Arnim was a novelist, but she also wrote several pieces of non-fiction, including her delightful non-autobiography, All the dogs of my life. The similarity stems from the fact that both writers play games with the reader regarding their intentions or subject matter – “This not being autobiography, I needn’t go much into what happened next”, writes von Arnim at various points – but this similarity fades pretty quickly because Bird’s piece, despite its similarly light, disarmingly conversational tone, has a dark underbelly.

I thought, given its subtitle, that Fair game was going to be a memoir of Bird’s growing up in Tasmania. But I had jumped too quickly to conclusions. The subtitle “a Tasmanian memoir” means exactly what it says, that is, it’s a memoir of Tasmania. Her interest is Tasmania’s dark history – “the lives of convict slaves, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples”. The title Fair game, you are probably beginning to realise, has a deeply ironic meaning.

However, getting back to my introduction, Bird does start by leading us on a merry little dance. Her essay commences slyly with a discussion of epigraphs – hers being taken from one of her own books – and the cover illustration. She doesn’t, though, identify the illustration at this point, but simply describes it as “an image of a flock of Georgian women dressed as butterflies, sailing in a glittering cloud high above the ocean”. She then takes us on all sorts of little digressions – about birds, and gardens, and collectors, about her childhood and such – but she constantly pulls up short, returning us to “the story”, or “rural Tasmania”, suggesting that the digressions are “not relevant to this story”. Except they are of course, albeit sometimes tangential, or just subtle, rather than head on. Indeed, she even admits at one stage that:

I have wandered, roving perhaps with the wind, off course from my contemplation of the butterfly women of 1832, they roving also with the wind. It must be clear by now that frequently in this narrative I will waver, will veer off course, but I know also that I do this in the service of the narrative itself. Just a warning.

I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind? One of the easier digressions to follow – and hence a good example to share – is her discussion of a 1943 book published by the Tasmanian government, Insect pests and their control. Need I say more? Bird does, though – quite a bit in fact – and it makes for good reading.

Anyhow, back to the image. A few pages into her essay she tells us more. It’s an 1832 lithograph by Alfred Ducôte, and it is rather strangely titled “E-migration, or a flight of fair game”. On the surface it looks like a pretty picture of women, anthropomorphised as butterflies, flying through the air with colourful wings, pretty dresses and coronets. However, if you look closely, you will see that what they are flying from are women with brooms crying “Varmint”, and what they are flying to are men, one with a butterfly net, calling out “I spies mine”.  Hmm … I did say this was a dark tale, didn’t I? The illustration’s subject, as Bird gradually tells us, is that in 1832, 200 young women were sent from England to Van Diemen’s Land on the Princess Royal. They were the first large group of non-convict women to make the journey, and their role was to become wives and servants in a society where men significantly outnumbered women. As Bird says partway thought the book, “it is not a joyful picture; it is a depiction of a chapter in a tragedy”.

I’d love to know more about Ducôte, and why he produced this work, but this is not Bird’s story. Her focus is the history of Tasmania, and these particular women – who are they, what were they were going to? It appears that Bird has been interested in this story for a long time, since at least 1996 when Lucy Halligan, daughter of Canberra writer Marion Halligan, sent her a postcard with the image. Since then Bird has researched and written about the story. In fact, as she tells us, her research led to the creation of a ballet by TasDance in 2006. They called it Fair Game.

Finally, she gets to the nuts and bolts, and the so-called digressions reduce as she ramps up the story of how these women were chosen, their treatment on the ship, and what happened on their arrival. It is not a pretty story, but represents an important chapter in Australia’s settlement history. I commend it to you – for the story and for the clever, cheeky writing.

awwchallenge2015Carmel Bird
Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir
(fl smalls 7)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
63pp.
ISBN: 9780987592965

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Carmel Bird launches Marion Halligan’s latest at Paperchain

Sometimes blogging brings you little thrills, and I had one a few days ago when Carmel Bird, one of Australia’s literary luminaries, emailed me with the offer to post her launch speech for Marion Halligan’s latest book. Was this out of order she asked? As if! So, I attended the delightful launch, and received the text from Carmel Bird’s hands. Here it is …

Carmel Bird launches Goodbye Sweetheart

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered.

Marion Halligan, Goodbye Sweetheart

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

For a writer, the so-called literary world is made up, as are many worlds, of friends and enemies. Marion and me, we are friends. You don’t invite your enemies to launch your books. Goodbye Sweetheart is Marion’s twenty-second book, and it’s the first one I have had the honour of launching. I can tell you this is a great pleasure.

Margaret Atwood says she thinks that all narrative writing is motivated by a fear and fascination with mortality. I agree with her. This doesn’t mean the details of the plots are necessarily going to focus on death. But sometimes they do. The publisher’s advertising for Goodbye Sweetheart begins by telling you the main character has just drowned, that the novel is going to explore the mourning of his family. And clearly there is going to be plenty of that other important topic, sex. In fact the two key subjects of fiction – sex and death – are entwined in the title Goodbye Sweetheart.

The blue, blue cover of the book is soothing, until you connect the shadow at the top with the information about the drowning. The story begins and ends with water – William drowns in the luxury pool of a fancy hotel, and ultimately his ashes are scattered in the sea, becoming ‘part of the shredding of the water on the rocks below’. When I talk fancy here, I’m quoting the book. His son and one of his wives then watch the moon on the water – a benign and hope-filled image that lulls the reader as the book is closed.

Novels often pose a question for the reader. Goodnight Sweetheart asks not only how you would behave if you were part of William’s family, but how, in your heart, you would mourn.

The narrator suggests that there are enough births, deaths and marriages, enough anguish here for half a dozen nineteenth century novels. This is a bit of a challenge for the writer. But Marion is up to it of course. The rhythms of her sentences, the precision of her words. One of the wives is advised to seek the joy of grief, the gift of sorrow, but she thinks these are just the threads of words all plaited together making a pattern but having no meaning. Later on she realizes that the true thing is that William loved her, and this will always be true. So there is the ‘true thing’, the good thing, the meaning. And fiction may be motivated by death, but its aim is usually to seek out meaning. To unravel the tangles of lives and to present the reader with a pattern that makes some sense of it all. Another character says ‘Meaning is what we make for ourselves.’ Marion takes a pretty big cast of characters and weaves them – I am inclined to say she stitches them up – into a pattern, and the meaning – the true thing – emerges and stays in the reader’s mind.

Now this is getting to sound rather philosophical and serious – have I forgotten about the sex and death thing? No. I have not. The story unfolds in present-day Australia, in the domestic lives of an extended and muddled family. Early on, a character points out that some of the great traditions of literature had a domestic beginning. This story is going to be domestic, not epic or anything like that. But it will frequently spin the focus round to someone such as Milton or Browning or, in particular George Eliot. For one of William’s sons is a great admirer of Middlemarch. The narrative refers back to the dense narratives of myth and poetry and fiction.

Now a lovely thing, speaking of the domestic again, is the way the titles of the chapters keep bringing you back to the very ordinary everyday. Like no chapter headings you have ever seen. There’s a list of them in the front – ‘The gym is busy’ – ‘Lynette plans a sale’ – ‘Jack goes fishing’. They play so sweetly against the grand themes of death and love and betrayal. Love might be the true thing, but the fabric of everyday life is made up of things such as ‘Helen comes home late’ – and ‘Aurora drinks vodka’. Watch out for ‘Barbara drinks the last of the wine’, though. Of course, people are often drinking things – and eating nice stuff too. Marion never lets a good story get in the way of a fine meal.

Now I want to talk about coincidence. It is such a joyful thing that happens really quite frequently in everyday life. It also happens quite a bit in literature – think of the works of Dickens, for one. It isn’t always easy to make coincidence smooth and acceptable in fiction. But at the end of Goodbye Sweetheart there is a delightful one, and it is part of the melody of the novel, is a graceful gift offered to one of the nicest characters. It will put a smile on your face. Not only is there love, there is hope. Even the title of the chapter in which it happens is a joy – suggesting as it does that the young man is at last on the right path – it’s called ‘Ferdie takes the bus’.

There are also a few ghosts involved along the way, and a rich vein of fascinating short narratives, one in particular that appealed to me – the tale, legend, of a boat that came, once upon a time, into the bay at Eden. It had picked up smallpox in India when it took on a cargo of silk. The infected silk was buried with the bodies of the dead. Then guess what – people dug up the infected silk and sold it, and the ladies of the town made it into dresses. The complex everyday lives of the main characters are threaded with mysterious narratives such as that one. And these narratives form a subtle, dark undertow to the everyday problems of the characters. So while the surfaces of lives are followed in meticulous detail, from the clothes people wear to the food they eat, the wines they drink, the glasses they drink from, the landscapes they contemplate – a darker undertow works away in the depths.

So, William dies. His wife, his two ex-wives, his children, his mistress – I think I’ve got it covered – gradually gather, revealing their own stories, discovering parts of the story of William, until William is ashes in the sea, and the moon moves across the water.

You are going to love reading this novel. You are going to love having it alongside all the rest of Marion’s books. It is my honour and joy to launch it on its way to the open arms of your lucky bookshelves.

– Paperchain Bookshop, Canberra, April 14, 2015

PS Carmel has what she calls a “sleepy blog”, Blue Lotus. She plans to post this speech there also. Do go check her out because there you will find her short story, “When honey meets the air”, which I featured in my review last year of Australian love stories. It’s one of those pieces that has you chuckling, marvelling and puzzling all at once. Carmel’s next book, a collection of short stories titled My hearts are your hearts, will be published by Spineless Wonders later this year.

Marion Halligan’s reponse

No, I don’t have her speech too, but I did make some brief notes! Mostly, of course, she thanked various people – publisher and editors, family, and Carmel. However, she did say a few other things. Responding to Carmel’s comment on chapter titles, she said she has to name, not number, her chapters, because she doesn’t write them in order and needs to recognise them when she comes to shuffling them around! Don’t you love it? I can see why Halligan and Bird are such friends, they such have a wonderfully confident cheekiness about them. (I’m sure you detected some cheekiness in Bird’s speech).

Marion also commented that reading about death isn’t necessarily miserable. Death is something we all have to face up to, some sooner than later, she said (!), so we may as well get used to it. Must say I agree with her. I’m not one to shy away from books that deal with grief and death. I know many people love Joan Didion’s beautiful memoir, The year of magical thinking, but Halligan’s novel, The fog garden, is an equally beautiful book, a novel, about the loss of a loved partner.

Finally, Marion praised the book’s designer, Sandy Cull, who also designed Valley of grace and Shooting the fox. She’s right – I have all three now – and they are all, simply, luminous. It was a delightful launch involving two special Australian writers – and I now have a signed copy of Halligan’s book in my hands, and Bird’s thoughtful speech about this book and fiction in general preserved on my blog for posterity. Thanks Carmel. Thanks Marion.