Dorothy Johnston, Through a camel’s eye (Review)

When should I give up saying that I don’t read crime? In the last seven years, I’ve posted nine reviews tagged crime fiction (of which one was a guest post). Perhaps just over one a year still qualifies as not reading crime? Then again, what’s the point of saying it, if every now and then I do read crime? I think there is a point – it advises that I’m not a crime fiction expert, so my posts need to be read from that point-of-view, and it also tells readers not to come here looking for posts on crime.

So now, with that off my chest, I’ll get to Dorothy Johnston’s crime novel, Through a camel’s eye. It’s the first novel in her new crime series, Sea-change mysteries. I decided to read it for two reasons. One is that I’ve read and posted on two other works by her and was interested to see how a Miles Franklin shortlisted author might approach crime fiction. The other is that she was going to be in town last weekend and we’d agreed to meet for a quick cuppa, so I thought this would be the time to read her latest book (though I didn’t finish it in time). I didn’t plan to quiz her about the book, but I did want to show some support for a hardworking author. As with most of the crime novels I’ve read while blogging, I wasn’t sorry about my decision to expand my horizons a little.

Dorothy Johnston, Through a camel's eyeBefore I write about the book, though, I do want to mention the cover. It features a soft-edged image of a camel, lighthouse, and boardwalk. It’s gentle, atmospheric and, woo-hoo, it doesn’t have an image of a tiny man or a woman’s back as has been popular in recent times. The murder victim is, however, a woman, which, given women do not comprise the majority of homicide victims, is another issue that crops up in commentaries. The point here, though, is that Johnston does not delight in gruesome detail. We gradually discover during the course of the novel how the murder took place but the details, the victim’s emotions, the appearance and/or treatment of the body are not focused on. This is because Johnston’s interest lies elsewhere.

And now, I should get to the story. It’s a police procedural set in a small coastal community in Victoria. The police station is run by a local, Constable Chris Blackie, who returned to the town when his mother was unwell and stayed on after she died. The novel starts, though, with Anthea, a young, recently graduated constable who has been sent to be Chris’ assistant. Her country-town placement has precipitated a break with her architect lover, and she’s pining. Actually, the novel doesn’t quite start with her, either – she’s just the first police officer we meet. The novel starts with one of the town’s “characters”, the recently mute Camilla Renfrew, watching a young woman, Julie, train a young camel. As Camilla walks away, she remembers that on a previous visit she’d heard a woman’s scream. And so there we have it, we think, the crime – and yes, one of the book’s two crimes is a murdered woman, but it’s not, in fact, the first crime we are confronted with. That honour goes to the aforementioned camel, Riza. He goes missing.

From these two crimes, Johnston spins an intriguing tale that keeps us wondering whether the crimes are connected or not – but you’ll have to read it yourself to answer that question. I want to talk instead about what I enjoyed most about the novel – characters and language.

… looking for drama

Most crime novels, I think, draw on archetypes. In this case, there’s the idea of a “sea-change” – particularly for Anthea – and the basic character set-up, the reserved, loner boss, and the fresh, unsettled, somewhat disengaged offsider. Anthea is “disappointed” to have been sent to Queenscliff, and thinks she has her boss pinned:

She would like to dismiss Chris Blackie as an old fuddy-duddy, or a closet-gay; but found she couldn’t, quite.

She’s attracted to “forceful men with definite ideas” but Chris is not that sort of man. He’s barely conscious of his “maleness”, and she doesn’t quite know how to respond to such a person. For his part, Chris would have been happy to run the station solo. Nonetheless, he’d been open to the idea of a woman, but

Anthea had come looking for drama. He’d seen it in her eyes the minute she walked in. Both the anticipation and the almost instantaneous disappointment …

He wasn’t to know of course that her first sight of him, bum-up tending the police station’s lavender and rose garden, hadn’t exactly inspired her.

So, we have an archetypal “misfit” situation – two people working together, neither of whom are completely comfortable in their skins. It is the development of these two characters and their relationship, rather than in solving the crime, that I enjoyed most in the novel. Anthea may have come “looking for drama” but Johnston develops her story quietly, tenderly, rather than dramatically. She achieves this by taking us into the heads of these two unsure people, showing us their thoughts, feelings and reactions.

Why are they unsure? Well, I’ve already described some of it, but there’s more – and this could be where those of you who don’t like coincidences may come a little unstuck, because there are several missing parents here. Anthea’s parents had died in an accident when she was three, while Chris’ father had drowned when he was ten. Camilla’s “cold, punitive” husband had died of a heart attack when her now adult son, Simon, was ten, something for which he seems to still blame her. And young Julie, the camel owner? Her parents had died in a car-crash when she was in her teens. Johnston doesn’t labour all this, but these losses provide background to the characters and help explain their lack of mooring. Coping with loss and resolving the past could also be seen as themes of the novel. Anthea, for example, needs to let go of her lover, while Chris needs to resolve the fears that are stunting him.

Besides these characters, there’s Johnston’s description of place and small town life. We meet the town’s denizens – farmers, teenagers, caravan park owners, retired solicitor. They are typical – they have to be for us to believe the town – but, overall, they work as individuals too. We see the pros and cons of small town living, the everyone-knows-everyone-else’s-business aspect alongside the looking-out-for-each-other part. Chris’ old cottage and Anthea’s flat, the paddocks and seascape, are all clearly, but succinctly, described, as are the characters. Here is a minor character:

His big frame relaxed as though someone pulled a peg that was holding complicated scaffolding in place.

And here is the physical environment, seen through the eyes of another minor character:

Camilla was fascinated by the thick white stalk of the lighthouse, appearing and disappearing through the fog. Behind her, the pier squatted as a vague horizontal line, a grey denser than the sky. Its verticals were lines of shadow legs, a giant centipede.

The crimes are solved, and Chris and Anthea progress in self-understanding, but enough openings are left for us to wonder where Johnston might take these characters next. Through a camel’s eye relies more on the little details of lived lives than on the big dramas to provide interest, which is exactly why I enjoyed it.

awwchallenge2016Dorothy Johnston
Through a camel’s eye
For Pity’s Sake Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9780994448521

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Dorothy Johnston, writer and Barbara Jefferis Award judge

Literary awards, their role and import, have come under frequent discussion here at Whispering Gums. So, when writer Dorothy Johnston, whose The house at number 10 and Eight pieces on prostitution I’ve reviewed and, more relevantly, who was one of the judges for this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award, suggested a guest post on the Award, I was more than happy to take her up on it.

I have never met Dorothy but I have “known” her for a long time as she was one of Canberra’s famous Seven Writers who published the anthology Canberra Tales in 1988. I became “reacquainted” with her more recently via blogging and her appearance in The invisible thread anthology edited by Irma Gold for Canberra’s centenary last year. It’s been a lovely rediscovery. Dorothy has published nine novels – literary fiction, and crime-mystery novels, mainly. Two of her novels – One for the master and Ruth – have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Dorothy blogs at her website Dorothy Johnston.

For those who haven’t heard, this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award was shared by Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts and Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. Here is Dorothy’s story about her experience as a judge.


The idea of splitting the Barbara Jefferis Award between The Night Guest and Sea Hearts did not come up before the three judges (myself, Margaret Barbalet and Georgia Blain) met at the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in Sydney, at the end of September.

LanaganSeaHeartsI enjoyed working through the 72 entries, making notes, keeping in mind the selection criteria, (a work of literary merit that showed women and girls in a positive light), starring the books I knew I would want to go back to. I had no idea whether my favourites would find favour with Margaret and Georgia.

After about 6 weeks, we exchanged our long lists. One novel was common to all three of us – Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a brilliant study of a woman who believes there is a tiger in her house. Others on my long list didn’t show up on those of the other two judges, but both had included Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I went back and re-read it more carefully, and was, as the saying goes, blown away.

These two entries stayed at the top from then on, while we emailed back and forth. Part of the reason for having 72 entries is that the award covered 2 years – 2013 and 2014 – and included self-published titles. By far the greatest number of entries came from the big publishers – Penguin, Allen & Unwin, Random House – though, as it turned out, 4 of the 7 shortlisted book were published by small, or small to medium presses.

We didn’t have to make a firm decision on our shortlist before the meeting; but once in Sydney we only had a morning to finalise it, then choose a winner, and then we had to spend the afternoon writing our report.

I’d had to give up some of the books on my long list because they didn’t find favour with Margaret or Georgia, and the same went for them. One I regretted letting go was Elemental by Amanda Curtin, a terrific story of a young girl growing up in a Scottish fishing village, and what happens to her subsequently. On the other hand, All The Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld, which the others both included, and which, as readers will know, won the Miles Franklin, I thought was over-rated.

McFarlaneNightGuestIf I had to make one general remark about the books that made it onto the shortlist, I would say that each one is utterly itself. What do I mean by this? I mean that, a few pages in, I recognised the voice as original, distinct, perfect for the narrative; they fitted hand and glove. So often I found that an author began promisingly, but then could not sustain the voice. Or, right from the beginning, the author pandered to one contemporary fashion or another. When you’re reading your way through 2 years of entries, you quickly learn that following the fashion is a bad idea.

There’s no whiff of conformity amongst the shortlist. Amy Espeseth’s Sufficient Grace focuses on two young women and their difficult lives in an isolated religious community. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, introduced me to an extraordinary musician and her instrument, the theremin.

Pilgrimage, by Jacinta Halloran, is about two sisters, one of them a doctor, and what happens when their mother is diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts takes ancient selkie legends as its starting point and moves in a wholly original direction. Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is another novel that borders the surreal in an original and quite wonderful way. The First Week, by Margaret Merrilees, is, by contrast, a realist tale that cuts to the bone.

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska, an ambitious and far-reaching story of Papua New Guinea in the years since independence.

We also highly commended Laura Buzo’s Holier Than Thou.

But back to that meeting at the ASA. We already knew each other’s preferences. We’d picked the same top two and could not choose between them. There didn’t seem a hair’s breadth, or knife point to tip the balance. We called in Lucy Stevens, who was overseeing the judging process. Lucy sat at one end of the table balancing the two books in her hands while we reached the decision to award the prize to both.

The presentation was held in the renovated foyer of St Barnabas Church, Broadway, a lovely light-filled space. It was a beautiful Sydney spring evening. There was music and champagne. I realized – not that I hadn’t known it before, but it came to me suddenly – that we were here to celebrate books and their authors. Angelo Loukakis, Executive Director of the ASA, welcomed us. David Day, who is Chair of ASA’s Board of Directors, spoke about Barbara Jefferis and the bequest. Tara Moss spoke about women and the arts. I looked around me. Everyone in the room cared about, and many worked hard to foster and promote, Australian literature. When I stepped up to the podium, to give my judges’ speech, I had a big smile on my face.


Thanks a bunch Dorothy for giving us your insider’s perspective on awards judging. I can see it wasn’t an easy job and love that you’ve shared your thoughts with us.

Dorothy (I’m sure) and I would love to hear your thoughts – on awards, on judging, on these particular books, or on anything else her post has inspired you to think about.

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution (Review)

Dorothy Johnston, Eight pieces on prostitution book cover

Lifted, with approval I hope, from Johnston’s website

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the Australian Society of Authors’ digital publishing initiative, Authors Unlimited e_Book portal. At the time I decided to try it out and bought Dorothy Johnston‘s collection of short stories, Eight pieces on prostitution.

The collection comprises 7 short stories and a long story or novella. One of the stories, ‘Mrs B’, I read earlier this year in Meanjin‘s Canberra edition. Some of the other stories have been published before too: ‘The Man Who Liked To Come With The News’ (The State of the Art, 1983), ‘Commuting’ (Island, issue 52, Spring 1992, and elsewhere), and ‘The Studio’ (Southerly, Winter 1996).

The first thing I should say about this collection is that it is not salacious reading. That is, it’s not erotica. Johnston’s interest is the lives, the experience, of prostitutes as people. Who are they? Why are they doing what they are doing? How do they negotiate their relationships, professional and personal? How do they live the life they’ve chosen and are they happy?

Johnston’s prostitutes are neither glamorous nor tarty, and most work for themselves or in small establishments. They are not the prostitutes of popular imagination. That is, they tend not to work in fancy parlours under control of a madam nor in that sleazy underworld borderland managed by pimps. They are, instead, either ordinary employees or small businesswomen. Some are career prostitutes, others are university students or single mothers who need to support themselves, while still others, like Eve in ‘The Studio’, are a little more mysterious:

She lives in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide.
Johnston’s characters are often wistful or even a little sad, but they are never pathetic. They are intelligent, and Johnston respects not judges them. They are not powerless, either, though sometimes the power they have is limited to their domain and can be tenuous. They can be a little lost, or perhaps just at a cross-roads in their lives. Maria in ‘The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry’ is uncertain about the world and her place in it. She thinks, when she moves and loses a client:
Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’s been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company, that understanding had been no more than a breath away.
Sandy in ‘Names’ admires university student Gail’s strength and resilience:

She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.

There is a continuity between these characters and the three women in her novel The house at number 10 which I reviewed earlier this year. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Johnston is not afraid to re-use or develop characters across her oeuvre. I rather like that.

The pieces are set in places known to Johnston – Canberra and Melbourne. We get a clear sense of those cities, but even more we are let into the rooms the prostitutes inhabit – the ones they work in, the ones they relax in between clients. We learn about the things that are part of their daily routine. Sophie, for example, in ‘Commuting’, finds that when she steps outside work
petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath.
The final piece is the novella ‘Where the Ladders Start’. The title comes from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

It concerns a three-woman brothel established by Sue, who’d been dreaming for years of a “better system”. It’s “a co-operative … Tough that word, but they’d risen to its challenges”. Now though, the dream is being severely tested as they cope with the death of a client, on the first page, from erotic asphyxiation, “the choking game”.  The story explores the “one for all, all for one” ideal. Are there limits to trust, and how far should you take loyalty, particularly when it starts to be to your own detriment? Johnston sets the story at the beginning of the new millennium adding an ironic overlay to the situation confronting the women. What sort of millennium are they setting up for themselves by their response to the death?

As in all her stories, Johnston’s view of human nature here is warm but realistic, clear-eyed. She pits the “never let a chance go by” attitude against the desire to protect, care and trust, and then tests that against the need for self-preservation.

Johnston’s language is a delight to read. She’s precise but expressive, using imagery with a light touch:

The freedom to ask each other questions danced and shimmied in the air.

She can be quietly ironic:

Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who’d left her mind someplace and forgotten to go back for it.

Is Laura simple or not is the question we ponder through most of the story.

In dealing with a mysterious death, “Where the Ladders Start” introduces us to that other string on Johnston’s writing bow, the crime novel. It’s a clever story, well-plotted, nicely maintaining a tension between mystery and clarity. Like most of the stories, there’s no simple resolution. Life, Johnston shows, is a messy business.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. While there is a commonality between the women, giving the collection a lovely coherence, there is also difference. Each character is unique, each story engaging. If there’s an overall theme, it is one of survival, or perhaps more accurately, resilience. Her women get on with life. They make decisions, some good, some bad, some we are not sure about, but, and here’s the important thing, they don’t stand still. Do read it. At $9.95, I reckon this is a steal.

Dorothy Johnston
Eight pieces on prostitution
Australian Society of Authors, 2013
Availability: Online download for $9.95 from the ASA site

Dorothy Johnston, The house at number 10 (Review)

Johnston, House at Number 10 bookcover

Courtesy: Wakefield Press

Dorothy Johnston‘s The house at number 10 has one of the cheekiest opening sentences I’ve read for a long time … but I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you are interested you’ll have to find out for yourselves – and tell me if you agree.

I decided to read this novel for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’d known of Dorothy Johnston since the 1980s but have only read some short stories (specifically, those in the recent Canberra-focused anthologies, The invisible thread and Meanjin’s Canberra Issue.) Secondly, I chose this particular novel because it is set in Canberra and this Centenary year I’m focusing a little, though not exclusively, on books set in Canberra or by Canberra writers.

Dorothy Johnston was a founding member of the Seven Writers, a group of women writers in Canberra who met for many years to share and critique each other’s writing. They have become the stuff of legend, at least to Canberra readers. Johnston has written several novels including four crime novels set in Canberra. She has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award – twice. But The house at number 10 is not one of her crime novels, nor one of the shortlisted novels. It is, though, a good read … and it’s time I got to it!

The novel is set in the early 1990s, on the cusp of the legalisation of the sex industry in Canberra. Its protagonist, late-twenties-something Sophie, has been left by her husband, Andrew, not for another women but for “a floating, open-ended freedom”, for “a raft of girls”. They are sharing the care of their four-year-old, rather self-possessed daughter, Tamsin, and Sophie, now living in the garden flat at the back of the old widow Mrs B’s home, needs to support herself. So she applies for a job in a small, newly established and rather shabby brothel in the suburb of Kingston, at 10 Andover Street. Hence the novel’s title. The novel explores Sophie’s various relationships – with Elise and Kirsten who work in the brothel, with Marshall the brothel owner and Elise’s partner, with her landlady, with her old friend (and architect) Ann, with a couple of her clients, and of course with her estranged husband and her daughter.

There is a little bit of the “oh what tangled webs we weave” about this novel as Sophie strives to keep her two lives separate – but Johnston is not so much interested in mysteries and intrigues here as in how we navigate complicated relationships and cope with betrayal. It’s a surprising set-up but it works, because she keeps the story grounded in the relationships and not in its potential for salaciousness.

And the relationships are what keep you reading, as Johnston slowly draws the various characters into Sophie’s new life. Ann designs a renovation for the brothel, Mrs B takes over fixing up its garden. Characters look out for each other – Kirsten deflects Marshall who is keen to try out this new “girl”, while Sophie looks out for Kirsten through a long illness; Ann and Mrs B accept Sophie’s choice, supporting her while also offering advice. Not all is rosy though. Elise is suspicious and prickly, and Ann has a little fling with Andrew, albeit with Sophie’s not-overly-happy knowledge.

Underpinning all this is a tension stemming from Sophie’s grief and anger at her abandonment. She doesn’t rant, and she holds it together in front of her daughter, but her feelings are made clear when she meets her first client:

She handed him a condom and he rolled it expertly. Now, she thought, now, as grief at her failed marriage made barriers transparent, each one constructed of material so thin she could burst through it at will. Anger welled up, and resentment and self-pity. Blame struck out and swam through the lamplight towards this stranger who wore Andrew’s hair.

It’s a dangerous game she’s playing, particularly when she takes on Jack, who is into bondage, something the brothel has not offered before. For Sophie, though, it provides an opportunity to enact revenge on Andrew, displaced though it is to Jack. She knows he’s not Andrew, but she can imagine so – and this works for a while. However, you can’t of course maintain a secret or divided life forever. Eventually the crunch comes, and Sophie risks losing what matters to her most …

Besides her sensitive characterisation, Johnston also does place well. Canberra is rightly depicted as a place in which ordinary people live and go about their business, but she also captures its particular beauty – the “flat, clean” sun which has a “greedy kind of clarity”, and the light and colours of the changing seasons that are so marked in Canberra. The house at number 10 has a character of its own – shabby, but somehow warm with its worn out armchair and cosy kitchen. Not quite what you’d expect for a brothel – though how would I know – and yet it feels true. And there’s Sophie’s garden flat with its comforting garden:

There was the dark green garden, watered to the gills, and the sense it always gave her of luxury, repleteness, a deep satisfaction with its own existence.

Johnston uses imagery lightly but effectively. Sophie’s divided life is represented by her living on one side of the lake and working on the other. We often drive with her over the lake, making the transition clear. As the novel builds to its climax, the colour “red” and words like “fire” and blood” start to appear, suggesting anger, violence (real or imagined), and revenge. Contrasted with this are references to water, primarily via the lake and a Cupid fountain bought for the brothel’s garden, implying something more female, perhaps calming but also a little mysterious. And then, throughout, there’s gardening and its association with nurture and growth, with vision and imagination.

So what really is it about? Revenge is the motive for the plot, but it is not really the theme. Rather, it’s about facing life bravely and taking risks even if you “draw blood”, about friendship and the things you do for your friends, and about love in all its guises. A quiet book, despite its subject matter, and well worth the read.

AusLitMonth2013Dorothy Johnston
The house at number 10
Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2005
ISBN: 9781862546837

Read for Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month.