Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

Challenge logo

Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267627

Angela Meyer, A superior spectre (#BookReview)

Angela Meyer, A superior spectreA superior spectre may be Angela Meyer’s first novel, but her already significant writing credentials, including being the author of the short/flash style fiction collection Captives (my review), and the editor of the anthology The great unknown (my review), ensure this is a confident debut. And it needed to be, because Meyer took big risks in this book – structurally, genre-wise, and with her characters.

Let’s start, however, with the title. It hints at genre, doesn’t it? And yes, this book does owe much to genre, but more to genre-bending than to simple genre. It has two storylines – which is part of the risky structure – one set in mid 19th-century Scotland, drawing on historical fiction, and the other also set in Scotland, but in 2024, making it more speculative fiction. There is also a touch of the Gothic here, with visitations, hidden rooms and madhouses, with dark thoughts and hints of perversion. But, the novel is more complex, more sophisticated than that suggested by this idea of two interwoven storylines from the past and the future. The two epigraphs that introduce the novel clue us into this complexity. The first epigraph is from Emily Dickinson and suggests that the “superior spectre” is not “external”, or “material”, but something “interior”, or “more near”, while the second, from Kafka, hints at the dark side of love and human nature.

These ideas are explored through the two main characters: Leonora, a young farm girl from the Scottish Highlands, and Jeff, a dying man who has “escaped” Australia (something that is difficult to do in his chip-controlled futuristic world) to die alone in Scotland. Leonora is poor, but well-read and resourceful; she’s a hard-worker and loves her father; she’s sensual, sexual, but not afraid to express it; and she has a mind of her own, but is independent rather than wilful. She is, in other words, easy to like and wish well for. Jeff, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, and thus a challenge for us readers. Not only does he admit to some questionable sexual proclivities, but his behaviour in Scotland, particularly towards Leonora, becomes increasingly selfish. He knows it, but in the end puts his needs and desires ahead of hers. How, though, given their different eras?

Well, let’s now turn to the structure. Meyer sets us up at the beginning with a comfortable, predictable structure in which third-person Leonora’s story alternates with first-person Jeff’s. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this, but it doesn’t last. In Part 2 (of this four-part novel), Leonora’s story also becomes first-person. It happens because, as the back cover blurb has told us, Jeff is using some experimental technology (a “tab”) that enables him to inhabit Leonora’s mind, and at the end of Part 1 he decides to change how he brings her to us. His aim, he says, is to enable us to “partly inhabit her as well” though in so doing, he warns us, our thoughts too, like Leonora’s, may be “infected” by him. I like books in which the structure itself underpins the meaning of the work. In this case, the structure unsettles us – as in, where are we now, who are we with – and mirrors the discord being experienced by Leonora, who wonders

about how powerful our thoughts can be. We might think we are sick when we truly have no ailment. But if we present the symptoms, and believe them, are we not sick anyway? . . . I wonder if a person could learn to be aware of when the mind is influencing a bodily reaction, and also when an instinct is overruling the mind.

So, in A superior spectre, we have a destabilising structure, a slippery character in Jeff who knows he doesn’t deserve our sympathy but wants to justify himself nonetheless, and a creative intertwining of genres – but to what purpose? There are several, I think, some personal, some sociopolitical. The latter is obvious. For Leonora there are the gender expectations which limit what a young girl of her class and background can do: she cannot study at university as some young women she meets are doing; she cannot marry the Laird for whom she falls; and she cannot protect herself from being deemed mad when she admits to strange visions of flying machines and horseless carriages. For Jeff, whether we like him or not, there is the lack of personal freedom that comes with living in a so-called technologically-advanced (dystopian) society. It’s not completely coincidental that Meyer wrote her final draft of this book on Jura, where George Orwell finished 1984.

But, it’s the personal – particularly the grappling with one’s inner demons or “spectres” – that gives the book its greatest power. Jeff’s selfishness, his poor self-control and yet desire to explain himself to us, recall characters like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. It’s hard to completely hate a character who is so open about his self-disgust even while he does nothing about it, and who engenders at least some sympathy from his Scottish landlady. She doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t reject either. In the end, Jeff is more pathetic than hateful, partly because his “spectres” are plain to see.

Leonora’s “spectres” come from her challenge in matching her sensual nature with the life she finds herself in, from her desire to find that freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill:

It is difficult for me to read about freedom and tyranny without relating these words to my own situation. Mill’s number one basic liberty is a freedom of thought and emotion. The individual being sovereign over his own body and mind. But what if your thoughts are being suppressed not just from the outside, but from some inner tyrant also?

She knows her aunt wants the best for her, a “good” marriage, but fears this would mean

suppressing the thoughts and emotions I have? It is the opposite of liberty; it is to put myself potentially in the hands of another tyrant. I feel I am pressing at walls all around.

Jeff’s “infection” of her (his tyranny), then, can have multiple readings: not only is it a manifestation of his selfish disregard of others, but it represents her own inner spectres, and symbolises the male control she rejects.

A suitable spectre is not an easy book to pin down, but this just makes it more enjoyable. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, how about that it offers an intelligent interrogation of past and future, of inner conflicts and outer challenges, through two vividly drawn, not-easy-to-forget characters?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAngela Meyer
A superior spectre
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781925183917

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

Claire G. Coleman, Terra nullius (#BookReview)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusClaire G. Coleman’s debut novel, Terra nullius, was my reading group’s third book for this year. The first two – An unnecessary woman (my review) and The sympathizer (my review) were well liked – but not so Coleman’s book. In fact that I was the only one who liked it. So, instead of my usual review, I’ve decided to tease out some of the issues my group had with the book, and see where I end up. I didn’t take notes at the meeting, so I’m relying on my memory. I may not have got all the issues down, or down correctly, but I’ll give it my best shot. In doing so, I’ll also draw on GoodReads because its users tend to be general readers, like you finding reading groups.

First though, a brief introduction for those who don’t know the book. Terra nullius starts off reading like an historical fiction novel about the colonial settlement of Australia and the concurrent dispossession of our indigenous people. Coleman’s world of Settlers and Natives, of Troopers and Trackers, of Missions to which stolen children are taken for education, of a Department for the Protection of Natives, and so on, mimics colonial Western Australia in particular, but it’s not long before hints start to appear that all is not as we’ve assumed. Before halfway, all is revealed, and we realise we are not reading historical fiction, but speculative fiction set in some near future. It is, as a result, not about indigenous Australians versus white colonists, but about colonised people of all races versus settler-colonists (“grey fellas”) from somewhere else. This realisation is unsettling, and clever, because it forces non-indigenous readers to switch identification from the colonisers to the colonised.

Now to my reading group’s response. The over-riding criticism was that it was repetitive and tedious. This is the criticism I could most understand, because partway through the novel’s second half I felt the momentum flag a little, which I put down to the structure. It’s multi-stranded, with the stories of different people or groups running parallel for a significant portion of the book. The strands include Native Jacky who is on the run; Settler Sister Bagra who runs a Mission; Settler Sergeant Rohan who leads the posse which is hunting Jacky; Esperance and her camp of free, renegade Natives; and deserter-Settler Johnny Star who is taken in by some rebel Natives. Fortunately, just as I wondered whether the separate groups – the separate strands – were ever going to come together, two things happened. A new character, Father Grark, appeared, and the strands did start to coalesce. These, along with other factors including the writing itself, were enough to prevent the book’s becoming tedious for me.

However, my reading group friends weren’t alone in their criticism. One GoodReads reviewer described it as “gratingly repetitive” and another overall positive reviewer had “some minor quibbles”, of which the main one was that “some elements of the story were repetitive”.

Another criticism made by some of my group was that they weren’t interested in any of the characters. Some GoodReads reviewers concurred. One didn’t “connect with any of the characters” and another said that “the characters, the individuals, are basic, with no complex motivations, no desires”. This surprised me, because I was interested in several of the characters, and I looked forward to their next appearance. One was Esperance, the young woman living with that renegade camp of Natives. Another was Jacky, who is the first character we meet and who, for over half the novel, struggles on alone, trying to survive and keep one step ahead of his pursuers. There are, though, a lot of characters, and I can see the argument that many of them have “no complex motivations”. However, I’m not sure that deep characterisation is always essential for speculative, dystopian fiction, such as this book is. Anyhow, regardless of this point, I can’t accept the argument that none have desires. Esperance and Jacky, for example, certainly have desires. Survival is one, and for Jacky, returning to his home, his country, is a major driving force.

One of the positive GoodReads writers said, and it reflects my response, that “importantly, Coleman’s more ‘extreme’ characters – such as Sister Bagra, in charge of a Native ‘orphanage’ – are frighteningly familiar, and it [is] these elements of the story that will linger.” She is not, in other words, a particularly complex character, but given what I know of colonial history, she is believable. I’d argue that that’s sufficient.

Then there were arguments that the book was too heavy-handed, too obvious, not nuanced enough. Again, there were GoodReads reviewers who agreed, one saying the “messaging was much too overt” and another that it could have been more subtle. However, I’m not sure that I’ve read much dystopian fiction that is subtle. On GoodReads I found a perfect example of how differently we “read” books. One criticised the chapter epigraphs, which come from various fictional “sources”, saying that “the book could have been done much more subtly without the chapter-starters explicitly comparing the colonisation to the colonisation of Australia”, while another said that Coleman’s “use of ‘archival documents’ at the beginning of each chapter gave the book rich perspective.” Again, I concur with the latter, and some in my group agreed that this feature of Coleman’s book was effective and worth exploring further.

It seems that those who are well-versed in speculative fiction’s colonisation stories – in my reading group and on GoodReads – felt that Coleman’s book didn’t offer anything new. A member in my group felt that it was so clearly Western Australia’s story that Coleman may as well have made it Western Australia. I agree that the “facts” aligned closely with the Western Australian experience, but I didn’t see that spoiling its speculative layer. In a way, it increased its effectiveness because, using the GoodReads quote above, it felt “frighteningly familiar”. There is an argument to be had, I suppose, about how “familiar” speculative fiction can be before it’s no longer speculative, but for me it worked.

Other concerns were raised in my group, but there were positives too, particularly regarding the quality of Coleman’s descriptive writing. She knows the landscape well and captures the heat and light, not to mention the weirdness of Australian desert vegetation beautifully:

He [Sergeant Rohan] did not relish another night under the alien trees, the twisted limbs, the hanging bark, the wrong colour: their waxy grey-green leaves too hard, almost glassy.

There’s more to like about the writing than this, however. From the first page when we meet Jacky on the run, I loved Coleman’s voice. It’s direct but evocative, it’s serious but peppered with a light, cheeky touch that uses throwaway lines and afterthoughts to great effect:

Dinner was a disappointment: sure the meat was fresh but it was tough and tasted like all the other Native meats – quite unappetising, only to be relished by the desperate. Good thing they were desperate then.

So, I was impressed by this book. My heart engaged with the characters who were struggling to survive their nightmarish world, while my mind was intrigued by what Coleman was doing, by her layering of historical experience within an imaginative framework, by her grounding us in a familiar story, and then overturning it to force us to see it from a different perspective. I’m not sure I followed all her intellectual twists and turns but I certainly got the point about invasion – and about the cruelty people inflict on each other in its name.

He [Johnny Star] had learned, through his friends, that the bent, broken drugged and drunk state of those surviving near the Settlements was not the habitual state of Natives. The truth was, it was a sort of depression brought on by what they had lost, brought on by being dominated and controlled by another people. Who could not be depressed, being treated like animals in a land that had once been theirs alone.

Without giving away the details, the ending is generally what you’d expect from a dystopian scenario, but it’s not without hope, without defiance too. A great read … at least, I thought so!

Lisa (Anzlitlovers) loved the book, as did Bill (The Australian Legend).

Note: I haven’t cited the individual GoodReads reviewers, but they can be found at the site’s page for the book.

AWW Badge 2018Claire G. Coleman
Terra nullius
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2017
ISBN: 9780733638312

My literary week (7), adaptations

With Ma and Pa Gums in the process of selling house and preparing for a downsize move, my time has been taken up with many things besides reading – but I did get out at night in the last week to see a couple of adaptations of novels I’ve enjoyed in the past.

There’s still time … brother

Nevil Shute, On the beachOne of my favourite novelists when I was a teen – when my friends were reading Georgette Heyer – was Nevil Shute. He wrote more than 20 novels, and I sought every one out over a period of years until I’d read them all. His best-known novels are probably No highway, A town like Alice and On the beach, all of which were made into films (as were others too, I know). This post is about the last I mentioned, On the beach, which was his dystopian (or post-apocalyptic) Cold War novel about the end-of-the-world due to nuclear war. Something I didn’t know on my first reading is that on the title page of the first edition are lines from TS Eliot’s poem “The hollow men”. Makes sense, and you can read about it in the Wikipedia article I’ve linked to above.

I hadn’t read Shute for a few decades until the early 2000s when one of my online reading groups decided to read On the beach. How disappointing I found it. The story was still powerful, but the writing seemed so wooden and the characters so stereotyped. I was therefore uncertain about seeing the original Stanley Kramer movie last week, when it was shown at the National Film and Sound Archive as part of its season of atomic age films.

I needn’t have worried. It was great – and must have been a work of passion given how quickly Kramer got onto the story. The novel was published in 1957, and the film released in 1959. The Wikipedia article on the film adaptation provides a useful introduction to the film and discusses where the adaptation departs from the novel. Apparently, Shute was not happy with the changes, but it’s too long since I read the novel for me to comment on that. One of the changes, Wikipedia says, is that the film doesn’t detail who was responsible for the conflagration. There could be various political reasons for this, but it could also be because Kramer had a very clear message he wanted his audience to take home – one that he didn’t want diluted by people thinking it had nothing to do with them. He wanted everyone to take the dangers of nuclear weapons seriously – and wow, did the film make that point …

Towards the end, as the radiation is reaching Melbourne, the film shows crowds of people in a Melbourne street attending a Salvation Army service. Above them is a banner reading “There is still time … brother”, reminding the attendees, of course, that there is still time to “find God”. The final scene of the film shows the same street – now empty of life – and closes on the banner “There is still time … brother”. It floored me. It so neatly, so confrontingly, shifted the meaning from the religious to the political. And, the message (either narrowly or broadly interpreted) is as relevant today as it was then. That’s the scary thing.

From the Cold War to Cold Light

Frank Moorhouse, Cold LightIn the last novel of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy, Cold light (my review), Edith Campbell Berry, star of the League of Nations (well, in her mind), comes to Canberra, hoping to make her mark. It’s fitting, then, that an adaptation – in this case a play not a film – should be made in Canberra. However, it’s a big book – over 700 pages of it – with many themes. Two that grabbed my attention when I read it were the failure of idealism and the challenge of aging, so I wondered what playwright Alana Valentine would choose. The main promo line for the play’s advertising was “How far can a woman of vision go?”, which encompasses I’d say the idealism angle.

It was a daring adaptation, which used song, verse and, occasionally, dance to transition between scenes. The verse was particularly intriguing. It all came from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Rhyme of Joyous Garde and was recited by Edith herself. I grew up with some of Gordon’s more sentimental bush poetry, but I’d never come across this one. However, a Google search uncovered that the whole poem is a soliloquy by Lancelot after Guinevere and Arthur are dead. It’s about heady days, grand passions and big ideals, guilt and regret. I don’t believe it was referred to in the book, so Valentine’s using it reveals her desire to convey those grand but murky themes which closely mirror Edith’s colourful, passionate life.

I’m not going to review the play, as there are links to some excellent reviews on the Street Theatre’s site. I’m just going to comment on what I took away. The overriding theme was Edith’s indefatigable spirit, but another was its exploration of human rights – women’s rights, and freedom of expression, in particular. Edith refers regularly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Australia helped draft back in 1948, but hadn’t (and still hasn’t) fully enshrined into national law. For Edith, it represents ideals she wants (us all) to live by.

Cold light is set from 1950 to 1974, but the significant thing is that its concerns are still relevant: freedom of expression is being attacked right now; women’s rights are not safe; the nuclear threat is not over; and so on.

At the end of the play – and some of these specific words are in the novel too – Edith says

I have witnessed great events and participated in great events. I have met and talked with fascinating people who have made history. But it is only, here, now that I am in it, however briefly, making history, participating in it. One must give everything to participate. To be in it. So many, so many will want you to observe, to commentate, to support those who are in it. But you must open your palate to the right stuff. You must stare down the world and see it in a clear, cold light … It’s not what the world hands you, but what you try to wrest from it. That is all that is valuable. To act, to speak, to make. To live, to live, to live it. Your allegiance must be to the republic of the mind, not to any country or state… (from Cold light, adapted by Alana Valentine, Currency Press, 2017)

See? Relevant, right now – which made a thoroughly engaging and creatively produced play a meaningful one too.

Cold Light 
Based on the novel by Frank Moorhouse
At the Street Theatre, Canberra, 4-10 March 2017
Script: Alana Valentine
Director: Caroline Stacey
Cast: Sonia Todd, Craig Alexander, Nick Byrne, Gerard Carroll, Tobias Cole and Kiki Skountzos

Do you enjoy adaptations? And if so, do you have any favourites?

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things (Review)

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of thingsWell, I wrote this week’s Monday musings on Australian dystopian fiction as a lead in to my review of Charlotte Wood’s award-winning The natural way of things, but I wasn’t expecting to get the perfect intro for my review! In the post’s comments, author and publisher Anna Blay pointed us to an article by Maria Popova in an online digest called Brain Pickings. The article, titled “The Power of Cautionary Questions: Neil Gaiman on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity”, starts with this:

The important thing,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the cultural role of speculative fiction and the task of its writer, “is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live.” In doing so, she argued, imaginative storytelling can intercept the inertia of oppressive institutions, perilous social mores, and other stagnations of progress that contract our scope of the possible.

I would agree that the thing is “not to offer any specific hope of betterment” but to jolt the reader into thinking about what is, what might be, if we do nothing. It’s certainly how I’d see most dystopian fiction I’ve read, including Charlotte Wood’s novel, but not being a big reader of speculative fiction I haven’t sat down before and articulated it.

So, what is it that Charlotte Wood wants to jolt our minds about? For those of you – overseas readers at least – who haven’t read or don’t know of it, the plot tells the story of 10 women plucked from their normal lives and transported to a nightmarish place in the middle of nowhere – referencing the mythology of the forbidding Australian outback? – where they are imprisoned behind an electric fence and controlled, labour-camp style, by two boorish men, bruiser Boncer and the preening Teddy. The women pass from disbelief and anger, through resignation, to a sort of acceptance and attempt to make the best of their situation. There are shades of Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale here and also, perhaps of William Golding’s Lord of the flies, but not derivatively. This is very much its own work.

But now, back to my question. Wood’s target is misogyny, and specifically the way it plays out through the scapegoating of women for their sexuality – whether for assaults that happen to them or for sexual activities they may engage in consensually (think affair with a politician or the flight attendant in a “mile-high” situation) but for which the man is let off while the woman is excoriated. Early in the novel each girl is given a “nickname” which “explains” why they are there such as “army slut”, “cabinet minister’s moll”, “airline girl”, “cruise girl” and “football girl”. You get the picture, I’m sure. The girls are also named. Wood does respect and individualise her characters, beyond just being types. There is one other woman in the picture, and that’s Nancy. She’s on the staff with Boncer and Teddy. She dresses as a rather grotesque nurse who looks after the so-called “hospital” – and represents those enabling women who often feel special but don’t realise that they too are under control.

I came to this book ready to love it. Although I’ve avoided reading reviews, I’ve not been able to help hearing all the accolades, and it sounded like a book and topic that would be right up my alley. It is, and I “enjoyed” reading it, but I’m having trouble defining and articulating my somewhat uncertain response to it. I love the heart, I love the desire to attack an issue that’s absolutely critical, I love the overall narrative concept, I was compelled to keep reading, and I thought the ending was powerful. So, why uncertain? I’ll try to tease it out a bit.


There are a lot of characters – the ten captive women, plus Boncer, Teddy and Nancy – though Wood focuses on two young 19-year-olds in particular, Yolanda the “football girl” and Verla “the cabinet minister’s moll”. We get more into their heads. They are analytical about their situations and plan and act in ways to improve their situations. A cautious friendship develops between them. As well as being differentiated in this way from the rest of the group, they are also differentiated from each other by two facts: Yolanda wasn’t tricked like all the others into accepting the agreement that got them to this place, while Verla, who guiltily remembers “gratefully signing the fake legal papers”, believes that her “Andrew”, the cabinet-minister, still loves her. The other women are more problematic. We don’t get to know them well, but what we do see suggests that they have not cottoned on. They focus on finding ways to groom themselves, they reject Yolanda’s feral way of managing the situation, they fall on the fancy handbags at the end and willingly follow the new man who appears. They seem to have learnt little. But, perhaps that’s also the point. They have a right to be the young women they are. See, I’m talking myself into understanding this as I go …

And then there’s the men. They are scary, certainly, and brutal, particularly in the beginning:

So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw …

The man Boncer cast an aggrieved look at them, is if they were to blame for the stick in his hand …

But pretty soon we see that they, too, are, in a way, victims of the system. They’ve been fooled it seems into being there, on promises of bonuses, and are ultimately pathetic. I certainly don’t want to excuse them – they’ve made choices. However, as the supporting system seems to fail, they start to rely on the women’s ability to keep the show going. The women realise that these men don’t know what’s happening any more either. There’s an uneasy tension between captors and captives – and with that cracks start to show in the menace, albeit some menace remains.


The writing is good. There’s even humour, such as tempeh-loving, yoga-doing but clueless Teddy. The novel is structured by the seasons, starting in Summer, moving through Autumn and ending, appropriately, in Winter. The story is told third person, mostly focusing on Yolanda and Verla. They’re engaging, though they are also pretty slippery to fully grasp. There’s a distance that we never quite penetrate. We “see” Yolanda’s strength and Verla’s self-deception, but we don’t, I think, see “into” them.

Wood uses effective recurrent imagery or motifs, particularly smells, rabbits, horses and birds. The opening line is “So there were kookaburras here”, suggesting some sort of normality. In her interview with Annette Marfording long before this book was written, Wood discusses using kites and kite-flying to suggest “flight and escape”, and then she says “I realise I have a lot of birds”, which I assumed implies that they too suggest “flight and escape”. In The natural way of things, birds also suggest the related idea of “freedom”, but when hawks appear, we see another side, that of predator and prey. All relevant to the book.

Then there’s the irony in the title, “the natural way of things”, because there’s nothing “natural” about what the book describes. The title appears in the text once in a paragraph that occupies its own page. It’s powerful:

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched , or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls they would be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of all these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it do themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The “natural” way of things! Referring back to Ursula le Guin, I’d say that Wood has presented here a “persuasive alternative reality”. Indeed, it’s not far removed from Wood’s inspiration: the Hay Institution for Girls to which “problem” teenage girls were sent in the 1960s and 1970s, and treated with great cruelty. But, who or what is the enemy? Looking at Le Guin again, this would be “perilous social mores” (and those who uphold them) – the fact that the scapegoating of women is still “allowed” to happen. There’s (a little) more awareness now, but this behaviour is not stopping, not by a long shot. All of us, I’m sure, recognise the recent inspirations for Wood’s “girls”. Anna Krein’s Night games (my review) makes an interesting companion read.

So, where do we go from here? Dystopian novels don’t have to give answers, indeed they rarely do, they “simply” shine the light. The light Wood has shone is, though, a very complex one indeed. I think I’ll be reading this one again when my reading group does it in July.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also read it and has posted her comments plus links to other reviews.

awwchallenge2016Charlotte Wood
The natural way of things
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

Monday musings on Australian literature: Dystopian fiction

For some reason, I’m often drawn to dystopian fiction. In my younger days I read Nevil Shute’s On the beach (probably my first book of this ilk) and then, of course, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s A brave new world, moving later on to books like Margaret Atwood’s A handmaid’s tale and Cormac McCarthy’s The road, to name a few. But when I look at this list, and think about my reading, I realise that very few are Australian. Perhaps we are indeed “the lucky country”! Hmmm …

There are, in fact, Australian dystopias. Nevil Shute’s novel is set in Australia, and my latest read (to be reviewed this week), Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things, is also. But, in researching this topic, I was surprised to discover that by far the greatest number of dystopian novels written in Australia seem to be Young Adult (YA) novels, and that they’ve really gained in popularity since the 1980s. John Marsden’s Tomorrow, when the war began series – some of which I read and enjoyed with my children – is an example. But there are many others, such as Isabelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series (loved by my daughter), Victor Kelleher’s Taronga, Ruth Park’s My sister Sif, and they keep coming apparently with increasing frequency. Says something surely about the current zeitgeist.

However, while YA fiction is popular and worth exploring, I want to focus here, because it’s what I read, on adult fiction. So, I did a bit more delving and came across a few books and articles, such as Roslyn Weaver’s book Apocalypse in Australian fiction and film: A critical study and Russell Smith’s article “The literary destruction of Canberra: Utopia, Apocalypse and the national Capital”. I was only able to scan the works I found but between them, they have come up with several “types” of Australian dystopias:

  • effect of white colonisation on indigenous people
  • futuristic dystopias, including post-nuclear and apocalyptic scenarios, technocratic stories, government collapses
  • ecological thrillers (including some cli-fi fiction, I’d add)
  • fear of invasion
  • fear of the outback

RawsonWrongTurnTransitFor those who just want a quick starter list, here are a few that I’ve read, know of or have come across in my research:

  • M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and tomorrow  (1947, a controversial novel in its time, set in the 24th century, and only published in full – as Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – in 1983)
  • Andrew McGahan’s Underground (2006, commentary on the “war on terror”)
  • Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013, my review)
  • Annabel Smith’s The Ark (2014, my review)
  • Andrew Sullivan’s A sunburnt country (2003, Sullivan was – still is? – an expert in Bushfire Dynamics at the CSIRO!)
  • George Turner’s The destiny makers (1993, about overpopulation, food shortages and economic collapse)
  • Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (2014, my review, includes a dystopian longform story in its central section)
  • Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha sung (1990, Roslyn Weaver writes that “Watson has reworked the notion of a dead heart [of Australia] … by populating the land with the spirits of murdered Indigenous people and also presenting the landscape, and particularly Uluru, as the sacred setting of power and restoration”)
  • Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (2015, review coming soon)

The two main characters in Steve Toltz’s Quicksand engaged in a lot of satirical repartee. One example I quoted in my review included the statement that:

‘You know how while we’re enjoying reading dystopian fiction, for half our population this society is dystopia?’

Toltz’s character is not talking about climate change, or terror attacks, or other apocalyptic scenarios. He’s talking about ordinary lives that are tough, lives that made the Sydney Morning Herald describe Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review) as a “domestic dystopia”. You don’t have to look hard, in other words, for dystopias!

At the 2013 Perth Writers Festival, there was a session (not that I was there) on “The Rise of the Apocalypse”. The question posed in the program was: “Is the recent increase in dystopian fiction due to our concern about what lies ahead with global warming and other environmental catastrophes or does it just make really good fiction?”

Do you read dystopian fiction, and if so, do you have favourites?

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (Review)

RawsonWrongTurnTransitThe weirdest thing happened when I put down Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists: I started imagining things! This is weird because I’m not a particularly imagin­ative or fanciful person, so it must have been this book that did it. Let me explain …

First though, I need to say that I’ve been keen to read this book for some time. It started with the cover. I tend not to focus a lot on covers but some do grab me. This one, with its chequerboard of maps, is both eye-catching and intriguing. Then there’s the title. As a librarian/archivist, I’m drawn to organisation and lists but don’t mind a little anarchy every now and then. Is that what’s going on here, I wondered? And finally, there’s its MUBA award win last year. So it came down to a case of three strikes and you’re out – or, more accurately, in – and I bought the book. Well, what a read, because …

A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a very unusual book. It traverses two places and times: Melbourne in 2030 and a sort-of imaginary San Francisco in 1997. It is, partly at least, a cli-fi* book. 2030 Melbourne is a bleak place – it’s very hot, clean water is harder to come by and more expensive than beer, soap is a luxury, and UN peacekeepers are in town. The rich survive as they do, but poverty is common, and many people live on the streets or in humpies. Bodies are regularly found in the streets. It’s a world you expect in dystopian novels, except that despite appearances, this novel is not completely dystopian.

Indeed, the novel has been described as a “genre-buster”. It is, for example, also a time-travel story, which brings me to the plot. Our protagonist is 33-year-old Caddy, who is living rough, having lost her husband and home in a heatwave-induced fire a couple of years before the novel opens. Like many in this devastated city, she survives on odd jobs – working in a bar, doing courier work, and selling her body. She has friends – an indigenous man and wheeler-dealer Ray, and bar-owner Peira. She also likes to write, and this is where San Francisco comes in because the story she is writing is set in 1997 San Francisco. It’s about two orphans-cum-childhood friends, 17-year-old Simon and 14-year old Sarah. They spend their time following a quest started by their parents in which they have to stand at least once in every 25-foot square of the USA, in order to see the whole country. With me?

At first this story of Caddy’s is told in italics within the main story, but in Part Two the narrative shifts and whole chapters are told in Sarah’s voice. Meanwhile, Caddy, with Ray who has bought some used and apparently magical maps, time-travels from Melbourne to San Francisco where they meet her creations.  Still with me? Hope so, because it gets tricksier. This “travel” involves passing through a sort of netherworld called The GAP, where we find the Office of Unmade Lists, and other sections including Tupperware Lids, Partially Used Pens, and Suspended Imaginums. Suspended Ims, as we in the know call it, is where the things that people imagine but “don’t come true” end up. I think that’s where my brief imaginings have gone!

This sounds more complex than it is – or, should I say, it’s conceptually complex but not hard to follow. Indeed it’s a hoot to read, because for all the grim, grittiness of this climate-damaged world, there’s warmth, love and humour – and a delightful sense of the absurd. I loved Rawson’s exploration of the two universes, the “real” and the “imagined”, and the way she has them meet. She messes with our minds! It made me think of Marion Halligan’s comment about her main character in Fog garden. Halligan writes: ‘She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.’ Halligan’s purpose is different, but the concerns, those to do with where imagination ends and reality begins, are similar.

That said, I’m not 100% sure of what Rawson’s purpose is, but I think she’s playing with her readers, with the idea of writing fiction, and with the meaning of fiction itself. Take, for example, her character Simon responding to Caddy telling him he’s her creation:

‘You come in here and tell us we’re imaginary, and now you’re saying you’re not even a very good writer! What do you mean? Like we’re all two-dimensional and shit, not fleshed out at all? Unrealistic? Is that what you’re saying? I don’t feel unrealistic. I feel pretty pissed off actually, which is kind of a realistic response to someone telling you you’re a shithouse imaginary character.’

Caddy looked at Ray like he might somehow get her out of this. He still had his head in his hands.

‘Sorry’, she said. ‘You’re heaps more complicated than what I imagined, if that helps.’

I love the sly, tongue-in-cheek allusion here to literary theory, to EM Forster’s notion of flat and round characters. This is just one of several references in the book to the things readers and critics talk about.

A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a fun, absurd, clever book in which Rawson somehow marries her very real concerns about the future of our earth with a belief that human compassion and ingenuity will survive, and wraps it up in an exploration of the complex relationship of imagination to reality. Imagination, Rawson seems to be saying, is the real stuff of life.

So, my recommendation is: Don’t worry about the book making complete sense. Suspend your disbelief, enjoy the ride, and realise that here is a lively intelligence you don’t want to miss.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.


Jane Rawson
A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2013
ISBN: 9781921924439

* Jane Rawson was, and maybe still is, Editor of Energy & Environment at The Conversation

Annabel Smith, The Ark (Review)

SmithArkSelfPubI must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same.

The Ark is, for want of a better description, dystopian speculative fiction presented in the form of a modern epistolary novel with interactive options. I say “modern” epistolary because the story is told through a variety of textual communications – emails, a blog, memos, reports, minutes of meetings, and news articles. It is divided into two books, of which the first is told, sequentially, through four characters, one on the outside followed by three inhabitants – Kirk Longrigg, CEO of SynBioTec Australia which established the Ark; Ava, a wife, mother and deferred PhD student-expert on despots; Roscoe, the 15-year old son of futurologist Mia; and Pilot, a botanist. At different points in the book we are invited to investigate the Ark via links though which we can tour the bunker, hear the inhabitants, add our own contributions or fan-fiction. I liked the graphics used to depict the Ark, but didn’t spend a lot of time exploring these interactive elements. I suspect different readers, depending on their interests, will behave very differently in this regard. Perhaps game-players will engage more with the interactive features? The good thing is that the book is flexible. It’s not necessary to engage in these digressions, but it can, I’m sure, enhance your enjoyment if you are so inclined.

Roscoe's Blog

Roscoe’s Blog

Not surprisingly, an important element of the book is its design. Each different type of communication has its own visual style – the “dailemails”, the more private person-to-person “Gopher”, the supposedly secure “Headless Horseman”, Roscoe’s “Kaos Kronikles” blog, BLiPPs, and so on. Once these become familiar, they signpost the context in which each communication is occurring. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Smith must have had coming up with all the names and acronyms (like GARDEN, the Growth Apparatus for Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment) used in the Ark.

But please, I hear you asking by now, what is it all about? The story is set between 2041 and 2043, but commences with a brief newspaper report in 2093 announcing that:

Seventeen people have been recovered from a bunker built into Mount Kosciuszko in south-east Australia, where they have been living in total isolation for almost five decades, since the government collapse in the wake of the post-peak oil chaos in 2041.

There is more to the Ark than that though. It was not principally about saving people – as the presence of the botanist may clue you into. The Ark was in fact a seed bank or “National Arboreal Protection Facility” aimed at preserving seeds for an uncertain future. This aspect of the novel reflects Smith’s concern about climate change, something that is reinforced when we discover that the Mount Kosciuszko area in Australia’s high snow country is now rife with sandstorms! But, there is another theme to this novel, besides this specific climate change one. It’s a more universal one to do with charismatic-cum-despotic leaders. Consequently, it is Ava, the expert in despots, who is the first of the inhabitants to carry the story after Kirk’s opening section which concerns a disagreement between him and the Ark’s project manager, Aidan Fox, regarding Aidan’s unauthorised lockdown of the site for security reasons. For some time, we don’t know who to believe. Smith complicates the issue by Ava’s possibly being unreliable due to having suffered mental problems in the past.

Anyhow, the plot thickens. There’s adultery, a few deaths, and some excursions outside. As more things start to go wrong, conflicts arise regarding freedom and human rights versus security… It’s clever, but believable, and fits comfortably with other dystopian novels about people trapped in isolated locations or in alien futures, and it also draws on what we know about the experience of people in religious cults.

This is a plot and ideas-driven novel rather than a character-based one, which is partly due to Smith’s goals and the genre she is working in, and partly a factor of the multi-voice epistolary form which does not lend itself to in-depth characterisation. I say this, though, not as a criticism. It’s a good read, and doesn’t suffer for this lack of character focus, much as I love character-driven novels. It’s just that the characters are generally more “types” than fully realised individuals – the conniving henchman, the willing nurturer, the trusting hardworking followers, the loyal but open-minded offsider. There is, too, an opening for a sequel that could explore, for example, how the seventeen members engage with the world they enter (or reenter) in 2093.

As regular readers know, I’m not a keen e-Book reader. I’ve read a few books on my Kindle, but this was the first complete book I have read on my iPad. It was fine, partly because the form did not mean pages of dense text to confront on a glary screen, but I was disappointed that although I could bookmark pages of interest, I could not make notes on the text as I can on the Kindle or on “regular” books on the iPad. I do like my marginalia, but I guess it’s dependent on how the content is generated. Oh well.

Have I told you enough? I hope so. It’s well worth a read if you like dystopian fiction and/or if you are interested in experiencing different ways of telling stories in our digital world. I’d never want straight prose novels to disappear – and I don’t believe they will – but the arts should also be about experimenting and playing with boundaries, and this is what Smith has done here. Good for her.

awwchallenge2014Annabel Smith
The Ark
Self-published, 2014
ISBN: 9780646923109

* Glen Hunting’s story “Martha and the Lesters” appeared in Knitting and other stories, which I reviewed a few months ago.

Adam Johnson, The orphan master’s son (Review)

Adam Johnson 2006

Adam Johnson 2006 (Courtesy: Roms69, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Given my current reading preferences, I probably wouldn’t have read Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The orphan master’s son, if it hadn’t been for my reading group, but I’m rather glad I did. It’s a confronting novel, not only because of its brutal content, but also because it is an outsider’s critique. I always feel more comfortable if criticism comes from within, free of external agendas. However, criticism from within is scarcely possible in a totalitarian regime, so I admire Johnson for taking it on.

Now that’s off my chest, let’s get to the book. Most of you probably already know what it is about. It is set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during the reign of Kim Jong-il (who died in 2011) and explores the lives of citizens living under his repressive, authoritarian rule. The novel is divided into two parts: The Biography of Jun Do, and The Confessions of Commander Ga. The first part is told in third person voice, in a linear chronology. The second part, however, is more complex. As well as continuing the third person narrative, there is a first person strand by a new character, an unnamed interpreter, and an “official” strand told via loudspeakers. While each has a linear chronology, they are told at different rates resulting in the overall chronological sequence being somewhat jagged. This structure reinforces one of the main themes of the novel which has to do with stories, lies and truths, and shifting identities.

The structure is one of my reasons for liking the book. I like it when authors use technical aspects of their work, like the structure, to reinforce their intention. It adds challenge to the reading, making me think about what the author is doing and why. It also, in this case, helped distract my mind from much of the brutality of the content. In the interview with his editor David Ebershoff at the back of my edition, Johnson said that he had “to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea”. Wow, is all I can say to that.

Anyhow, I’ve written three paragraphs without saying anything about the story or plot. The first thing to say is that Jun Do (a play on John Doe, neatly suggesting hidden or uncertain identities) and Commander Ga are the same person. In the first part, Jun Do, the titular orphan master’s son, takes part in many “adventures” on behalf of the state, including working as a tunnel soldier, kidnapping Japanese, gathering radio information on a fishing boat, and representing North Korea on a delegation to Texas after which, because they fail their assignment, he is sent to Prison 33, a prison mine. In this first part, Jun Do learns the art of survival and, importantly, the importance of stories to that survival. In the second part, Jun Do has survived the prison, killed the hated Commander Ga, and emerged, with the state’s sanction, to take his place, including moving in with Ga’s wife, the beautiful actress, Sun Moon.

It is in this part that Do/Ga’s life comes together and then starts to “unravel”, though not without his complicity and not without doing some damage of his own. The novel is beautifully plotted so that seemingly random or bizarre occurrences – such as Jun Do hearing radio signals from the “girl rower”, his chest being tattooed by a boat captain with an image of Sun Moon, and his being given a DVD of the film Casablanca – all find their place in the latter part of the novel.

“there is nothing between the citizen and the state” (interrogator)

But now I want to get back to stories. In the first part, the fishing boat crew concoct an improbable story involving Jun Do to explain the disappearance of the Second Mate, who has defected, and thereby protect themselves from retribution. In Texas, when Jun Do expresses uncertainty about repeating this story, the delegation leader, Dr Song, tells him:

Where we are from … stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly he’s be wise to start practising the piano. For us the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.

This is what Jun Do does throughout the novel. He changes to suit the role he finds himself in. He has to, to survive. In the second part of the novel, we are presented two versions of his story – the third person narrated one which we take as the “truth”, and the propaganda one broadcast over loudspeakers to all the “citizens” of Pyongyang.

Alongside these two narratives is that of our first person narrator, the interrogator, who works in Division 42, the department which extracts information from enemies of the state. A self-styled biographer, he eschews the thuggish techniques of the “rival interrogation team”, the Pubyok, although his apparently benign story collecting methods conclude with a brutal pain (electric shock) machine which aims to create

a rift in the identity— the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing. In a few weeks, he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective […]. There’s no way around it: to get a new life, you’ve got to trade in your old one.

He is, in a strange way, a voice of conscience, as he starts to question what it’s all about. Indeed, at one point he asks his father “Is it just about survival? Is that all there is?”. This question recurs near the end when Do/Ga, our interrogator’s last case, imagines a life that “would no longer be about survival and endurance”.

In most of my reading, multiple viewpoints are used to convey the idea that there are different ways of seeing things. It’s usually pretty benign, even if some of the individual perspectives are not. But in this novel, there is something sinister going on, so sinister that if you are caught out in the wrong perspective you will very likely find yourself at a prison farm (or worse). You need to make sure, in other words, that your identity matches the one the regime has for you. And this brings me to the scariest thing about the society Johnson depicts – the precariousness, or uncertainty or, even, the randomness of existence. To survive, you must believe what you are told or, as Jun Do learnt early in his life, do what you are told.

“no beginning, an unrelenting middle, and ended over and over” (Do/Ga)

I’ve said nothing, though, about the experience of reading this book. It may sound silly, given what I’ve written above, but this novel takes you on a wild ride. Besides the inevitable brutality, it has tender moments, some very funny ones, and is more than a little absurd. It asks us to accept, and believe in, Jun Do as our guide. It’s a dystopian novel with a touch of romance, adventure and mystery/thriller.

The success of a book like this rests on its authenticity, on whether we believe the truths that lie beneath the fabrication. Unfortunately, I do.

Adam Johnson
The orphan master’s son
London: Black Swan, 2013
ISBN: 9780552778251