Karen Viggers, The orchardist’s daughter (#BookReview)

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterThe orchardist’s daughter is local author Karen Viggers’ fourth novel, but the first that I’ve read. She has, however, appeared on my blog before, being the person who conversed with Sofie Laguna about her novel, The choke. It was one of the most entertaining conversations I’ve ever attended.

Now, if you haven’t read or heard of Karen Viggers before, there are some facts worth knowing about her. Firstly, she’s a vet with special training in native wildlife health – and this background informs most if not all of her novels, I believe. It certainly informs The orchardist’s daughter. Another significant fact is that she’s a best-selling author in France! How wonderful that a novelist who writes strongly Australia-centric books does so well in France! Her previous novel, The lightkeeper’s wife, was, in fact, awarded the Les Petits Mots de Libraires literary prize.

So, an interesting author, and The orchardist’s daughter is an interesting, enjoyable book. It is set in a small logging town in Tasmania, and has quite a formal structure, starting with a Prologue, followed by four parts – Seeds, Germination, Growth, Understorey – and ending with an Epilogue. It is told third person through the perspective of three characters – Miki, the titular orchardist’s daughter who is 17 years old for most of the novel; Leon, a Park Ranger, who is 25 years old at the novel’s start; and Max, a 10-year-old boy who is Leon’s neighbour. Miki and Leon are relative newcomers to the town, Miki arriving with her older brother Kurt to run the town’s takeaway shop after they lose their home, farm and parents in a fire, and Leon moving from his Ranger job on Bruny Island to the mainland. All three are outsiders and serve to illuminate the tensions existing in the town.

Around these characters is a community comprising mainly logging families, Max’s being one of them. However, there are others who round out the town a little, including policeman Fergus and his sons, Geraldine who runs the information centre, and vet Kate. The narrative develops around a couple of situations. One is a mystery surrounding Miki’s brother Kurt. What does he do by himself in the forest when he insists that Miki wait in the ute, and what does he do during his weekly solo trips to Hobart (during which he locks Miki inside their shop/home)? The other concerns logging, and the dangerous unrest that develops when a temporary ban is placed on logging around a certain ancient tree. Jobs are at risk, the loggers believe, and the butt of their anger is of course Parkie Leon. From these two situations, Viggers builds tension slowly but inexorably, with the Kurt-and-Miki story becoming the prime focus, of course, given the book’s title.

So, there is a strong plot to the novel, but this plot, while driving us on to read, is there to serve some issues that Viggers wants to explore. These concern logging and the environment, bullying and domestic violence, not to mention more personal ones like freedom. These are big issues, and not only is Viggers clearly passionate about them, but her writing about them feels authentic. The characters may be a little less complex than, say, those in Lucashenko’s Too much lip, but they are believable. Logger and vicious bully Mooney is offset against Robbo, who is equally single-minded about logging but seeks more peaceful, law-abiding means of protest. Similarly, Max’s father Shane, another logger who is violent, is offset against colleague Tobey who has a tender, caring relationship with his wife. All of this is observed by Miki from her shop-counter – and she makes her own little attempts to lighten the lives of the bullied and the ostracised, by sneaking treats into their take-away bags. Through this little subversive action, we sense Miki’s inner strength and resourcefulness, something she takes to another level when she works out ways of escaping her “prison” while Kurt is away.

Freedom is one of the novel’s underlying drivers. Miki’s imprisonment is literal, but imprisonment takes many forms – the wives who are abused but feel incapable of escaping, and young Max who is bullied to behave in ways antithetical to his nature. Some of these are resolved, but Viggers recognises that there’s no magic wand for domestic abuse. The first step is moving from passive awareness (or acceptance, even) to taking action, and this starts to happen in the novel.

In the Tarkine, NW Tasmania

The book really stands out, however, in its writing about nature. A Booktopia interview with Viggers tells us that she grew up in the Dandenongs and has been to Antarctica. She has also spent time in Tasmania (and immersed herself in Tasmanian-set books, including two I’ve read, Anna Krien’s Into the woods, and Louis Nowra’s Into that forest). All of this has given her a sure feel for the wilderness, so much so that it’s difficult to choose an excerpt to share, but here’s one:

Miki loved the trees and the birds, but what she loved most couldn’t be seen. The way she felt in the forest. The scent of the bush after the rain. The sound of bark crackling. Branches squeaking. The feeling of patience and agelessness, growth and renewal. The aura of trees. The sense of connectedness. Of everything having its place. She could stay here all day, breathing with the tree, drawing its life into her lungs.

These forest descriptions move into Tasmanian Gothic realms during the climactic chase. The experience is both “terrifying and surreal” for our character who crawls and runs through, burrows and squats in the forest, “slipping from the thicket and weaving though the trees, ducking under tree ferns, past the tipped-up end of a fallen tree whose buttressed roots made a wall he could hide behind.” It’s muddy and dangerous with sword grass that scratches you and bark mounds that can trip you up. Viggers knows this landscape – and how to make it terrifying.

In the end, The orchardist’s daughter is about community and compromise, and about the courage to break free. It straddles the boundary between commercial and literary fiction. It is accessible, it has a strong plot and easy-to-engage-with characters, and it is hopeful (not that literary fiction can’t be!!) But, it is also gritty in subject matter and doesn’t offer neat solutions to the important environmental and social issues it raises. I like that in my reading!

Theresa (Theresa Smith writes) also loved the novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeKaren Viggers
The orchardist’s daughter
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760630584

Review copy courtesy the author, Karen Viggers.

Washington Irving, The adventure of the German student (Review)

Washington Irving, c. 1855-60 (Copy daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, reverse of original by John Plumbe. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Washington Irving (1783-1859) is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but in fact he was a prolific writer and, according to Wikipedia, is often credited as being America’s first “man of letters”. I was fascinated to read in Wikipedia that, as well as being a writer, he worked as a diplomat in Europe. He helped other writers, promoted the writers’  rights in issues like copyright, and he was admired by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Charles Dickens. I guess Americans know all this, but I didn’t.

However, I have had a recent encounter with Irving, before the story in this post that is, because I dipped into his Tales of the Alhambra (1832) when we visited that part of Spain in 2013. I was fascinated by his description of a place that is not totally unfamiliar to an Australian:

its scenery is noble in its severity, and in unison with the attributes of its people; and I think that I better understand the proud, hardy, frugal and abstemious Spaniard, his manly defiance of hardships, and contempt of effeminate indulgences, since I have seen the country he inhabits.

And I loved his desire to travel with an open heart and mind:

but above all we laid in an ample stock of good humor, and a genuine disposition to be pleased, determining to travel in true contrabandista style, taking things as we found them, rough or smooth, and mingling with all classes and conditions in a kind of vagabond companionship.

That’s the spirit, as Son Gums would say.

Anyhow, let’s get to the story, “The adventure of the German student”, that was recently published in the Library of America’s Story of the Week program. It came from his collection, Tales of a traveller, which comprised essays and short stories published in 1824 under his pseudonym, one of several he used, Geoffrey Crayon. This collection was divided into four “books”, and our story was in the first, titled  “Strange stories by a nervous gentleman”.

Most of the stories are set in Germany and Paris, with “The adventure of the German student” being set in Paris during the French Revolution. The opening lines are:

On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of thunder rattled through the lofty, narrow streets …

The story, you may not be surprised to hear, is Gothic in tone. LOA’s notes say this is surprising because his “supernatural tales are known more for gentle whimsy and wry satire rather than the Gothic horror found in this story”. They tell us that this story predates Edgar Allan Poe “by a good twenty years” and that American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft admired it for diverging from his “lighter treatment of eerie themes”.

It’s a simply told story. After that opening, the narrator decides that before continuing he needs to tell us a bit about this German student, Gottfried Wolfgang. He was “a young man of good family” but was, perhaps, a little too sensitive and suggestible for his own good. During his studies he had “wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students” and he starts to feel that “there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition”. His friends decide he needs “a change of scene” and send him off to Paris.

There, Gottfried starts by enjoying the revolutionary spirit but soon all the blood gets him down. In true Gothic style he lives in “a solitary apartment” in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne”. He visits “the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors”, becoming a “literary goul (sic), feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature”.

However, he also has “an ardent temperament” but is too shy to approach women so, being of fanciful bent, he dreams up a woman of “transcendent beauty”. She haunts him in the way such visions do to “the minds of melancholy men”.

Now, remember, this is set during the French Revolution, so as the story progresses a guillotine appears where our student meets his dream-woman. He brings her to his home and is, of course, totally enamoured. Fortunately, these are modern times:

It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away; every thing was under the sway of the “Goddess of Reason.” Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honourable minds. Social compacts were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of a theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.

Ha-ha! Who needs “sordid forms to bind high souls together” he tells the young woman. So he talks her into immediately pledging herself to him. And here, I’m afraid I’ll leave you, but let’s just say that things don’t quite work out for Gottfried, or his dream-woman. There are several layers in which we can read the story – political, philosophical, psychological, sexual, feminist – but all point, at some level at least, to satire of the times.

In 1860, Irving wrote this about his stories:

I am not, therefore, for those barefaced tales which carry their moral on the surface, staring one in the face; they are enough to deter the squeamish reader. On the contrary, I have often hid my moral from sight, and disguised it as much as possible by sweets and spices, so that while the simple reader is listening with open mouth to a ghost or a love story, he may have a bolus of sound morality popped down his throat, and be never the wiser for the fraud…

An interesting, thoughtful man, this Irving.

Washington Irving
“The adventure of the German student”
First published: In Tales of a traveller (1824)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Sarah Kanake, Sing fox to me (Review)

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meBack in late 2011, I wrote a Monday Musings post on 19th century Australian Gothic. I’ve always intended to post more on the topic, including one on Tasmanian Gothic. Well, here’s a start, because Sarah Kanake’s debut novel, Sing fox to me, is a good example of modern Tasmanian Gothic. I wrote in my first post that “Australia had (and has) plenty to inspire a Gothic imagination: strange unforgiving nightmarish landscapes, weird vegetation and imaginary creatures”. I was referring then primarily to the outback, but Tasmania, while not exactly “the outback”, has plenty to excite the Gothic imagination.

Why does pretty, verdant Tasmania work so well for a Gothic sensibility? To start with it has some forbidding (albeit beautiful) landscape – remote mountains, dense bush, mist and cold – and it’s an island, which provides an added layer of isolation. Then, there’s its violent history. Tasmania had some of Australia’s most brutal convict prisons. Many escaped, many died, and there are all sorts of horror stories, including those concerning the alleged cannibal, Alexander Pearce. It’s also infamous for the near-genocide of its indigenous population. It’s a place, in other words, in which ghosts and spirits are easy to imagine. But this is not all. Tasmania is home to the world’s only carnivorous marsupial – the small but ferocious and appropriately named Tasmanian devil. And, particularly relevant to this book, it was the last home of Australia’s most famous, most controversial, extinct animal, the Thylacine aka Tasmanian tiger.

Sarah Kanake calls on these, together with the archetypal Australian lost-child story, to write a novel that’s fundamentally about loss. All sorts of loss – people, animals, homes, and love. The novel commences with a brief unlabelled prologue describing the disappearance of 14-year-old River Snow Fox on a rainy night (of course!) On the same night one man’s home is lost, another man’s leg is permanently injured by a falling tree, and the kookaburras cackle. We then jump twenty years. It’s 1986, and River’s older brother David Fox is returning to his childhood mountain home – Fox Hill or Tiger Mountain, take your pick – with his twin sons, the biblically named Jonah and Samson. He plans to leave them with his father Clancy Fox – the man with the injured leg – who is still grieving, still looking for his missing daughter. Relationships are fraught. Clancy and his son don’t get on; angry, hurt, lonely Jonah is resentful of his loving Down syndrome twin Samson; Samson, with his “extra heavy chromosome”, often feels overlooked; and Clancy doesn’t know how to be a grandfather. The scene is set …

There are three other people on the mountain: Murray, son of the indigenous George, who was Clancy’s friend and the man who lost his home; Murray’s partner, the pregnant Tilda; and Tilda’s daughter Mattie, who is deaf. Depending on how you look at it, there could be a fourth person on the mountain, because George, now dead, regularly appears to Clancy.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you were starting to think this is all laid on a bit thick – gothic setting, a hermitic old man, a ghost, a missing girl, unhappy twins, a Down syndrome boy and a deaf girl, a pregnant woman and an indigenous man. What I found though was that while my mind (my rational self) was questioning this, my heart (my emotional self) was becoming more and more engaged. It works, I think, because Kanake doesn’t play to melodrama, as the original Gothic novels did. She keeps it psychologically real, even when unexplainable things happen. She also knows of what she writes. The brief biography provided by Affirm Press says that Kanake grew up with “a brother with Down syndrome and two Aboriginal foster brothers”. This reassured somewhat my modern concern about dominant-culture writers presuming to write for “other”.

“We love a version of the tiger, and it’s not real”

So Jonah remembers his father once telling him. What’s real is, in fact, one of the book’s underlying challenges. Readers have to make a leap of faith and accept that what we read is “real” for the characters. The characters, on the other hand, need to work out their “reality” and come to terms with it.

Sing fox to me is one of those books where the structure, the narrative form in particular, supports the meaning. In other words, Kanake’s use of alternating points of view for the three main characters – Clancy, Jonah and Samson – mirrors the separation of their lives. Of course they are together sometimes, physically, but there’s little meeting of minds and hearts. Meaning is also supported by strong, sustained imagery. Nature works on both physical and metaphorical levels. Clancy’s tiger pelt, worn by Clancy and then stolen by Jonah, seems to live and breathe. The mountains, rivers and trees are similarly active.

… he [Clancy] wanted to tell Murray that something had changed on his mountain. The boys were waking things up, stirring life back into old death. (Part 3)

The trees relaxed and the leaves swayed, almost as if they could finally breathe. The creek rushed, not because it was chasing anything, but because it longed to feel the smooth and stable rocks underneath … (Part 6)

Kookaburras act as a sort of malevolent chorus. Their “cackling” laughter resounds throughout the book as a commentary on the misguided quests going on below them. They are there in the beginning when Clancy realises River is lost – “the laughter turned to cackling as the kookaburras gathered in the branches overhead” – and they are there when he realises the futility of his obsessive twenty-year long obsessive quest:

Finally he understood the kookaburras, those buggers at the end of their fucking tethers. Those damned birds knew he should have been laughing with them all along.

“Feeling sorry was in every real Tasmanian’s blood”

Kanake packs a lot into her imagery – and I haven’t begun to tease out all the permutations. I haven’t talked about Jonah’s love of another tiger, Shere Khan, for example, or of the fox motif. There’s also a lovely portrayal of disability in the novel, which I might explore another day. Most of it does, however, come back to loss. Children go missing, parents leave, a friend and a wife have died; animals are lost or killed or extinct. These losses are personal, but there could also be a political reading. Am I being too fanciful to suggest that Clancy’s loss of River, the girl who “said she could sing the tigers to her”, and his futile, obsessive search, could be read as Tasmania’s loss of the Tiger, and the desperate hope that the next claimed sighting will be real? Or that through telling a story about loss and personal ghosts, Kanake is also calling attention to the ghosts of Tasmania’s past?

A step too far? Perhaps. But this book is such a rich read that it invites a very personal response. I’d love to hear from others who have read it.

awwchallenge2016Sarah Kanake
Sing fox to me
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781922213679

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)

Evie Wyld, All the birds, singing (Review)

Evie Wyld, All the birds, singing

Courtesy: Random House Australia

Quite by coincidence, I read Evie Wyld’s second novel All the birds, singing straight after Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. I was intrigued by some similarities – both have a mystery at their core, and both use a complex narrative structure – but enjoyed their differences. Wyld’s book is tightly focused on one main character while Catton’s sprawls (albeit in a very controlled way) across a large cast. Paradoxically, Wyld’s 230-page book spans a couple of decades while Catton’s 830-page one barely more than a year. And yet both convey, through their structures, an idea of circularity, of the close relationship between beginnings and endings. But, enough prologue. On with All the birds singing.

The book opens powerfully:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring our their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

And so we are introduced to Jake and the things that dominate her life – Dog, sheep and birds. Soon, we learn there’s another thing – fear. But fear of what, or whom, we don’t know. From this opening, Wyld tells her story in alternating chapters: the odd ones, set in England, move forward, and the even ones, in Australia, move back to what started it all. It’s an effective structure that explores the ongoing impact on Jake of whatever it was that happened. We see what’s happening now, and we slowly see how she has got to this point.

Jake, at the start of the novel, is in her 30s. She’s a loner, capably running a sheep farm on a remote British island. Her nearest neighbour, Don, keeps a bit of a fatherly eye on her, and tries to encourage her to engage with the local community, to go to the pub for example, but Jake is not interested. As we move back in time we learn snippets about various significant people in her life – a lover while she was a shearer, a controlling man whom she’d initially seen as her rescuer, a female friend and co-worker. We also learn that she’s estranged from her Australian family, and we discover that she has scars on her back, but how they were caused are part of the mystery.

Wyld’s writing is marvellous. The imagery is strong but not heavy-handed because it blends into the story. The rhythm changes to suit the mood. The plot contains parallels that you gradually realise are pointing the way. There’s humour and irony. I love the fact that our Jake, on the run from whatever it is, smokes “Holiday” brand cigarettes.

There’s a bleakness to the novel, but it’s not unremitting. Jake, always the outsider, is tough and resourceful. She sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, but she has a soft side that is revealed mostly through her tenderness towards her animals. She talks to Dog, and losing a sheep always brings “a dull thudding ache”. The imagery is focused. Black, shadows, and fire in various permutations recur throughout the novel. They provide possible clues to what started it all; they contribute to the menace she feels now; and they help create an unsettling tone for the reader. We are never quite sure whether the shadow she sees out there, watching, following her, is real or a figment of her imagination. Jake is not an unreliable narrator, but we see through her eyes, and her eyes are influenced by her very real fears. She is “damaged goods”, though not in the sense meant by the paying customer (if you know what I mean!) offended by her scarred back.

And of course, there are the birds. They’re omnipresent. Sometimes they reflect her mood (“the birds sing and everything feels brand new”); sometimes they break tension; sometimes they suggest death. There are specific birds – butcher birds, night jars, galahs, merlins, currawongs and crows – and there are birds in general. The imagery references the real and metaphorical, from the crows hovering over the dead ewe in the opening paragraph to the birds near the end that attend the defining event:

[…] and the birds scream, they scream at me, Chip, chjjj, cheek, Jaay and jaay-jaay notes, Tool-ool, twiddle-dee, chi-chuwee, what-cheer … Wheet, wheet, wheet, wheet […]

awwchallenge2014It’s deafening. But it’s the silence and the dead birds afterwards that impresses the full horror on us:

The trees don’t want me there … There’s not a single bird to make a sound.

All the birds, singing is about how the past cannot “be left alone”. “We’ve all got pasts”, the shearers’ boss tells Jake early in the novel, but for some people the past must be dealt with before they can move on. The novel is also about redemption. It’s not the first novel about the subject, and neither will it be the last, but it is a finely told version that catches you in its grips and makes you feel you are reading it for the first time.

John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante loved the book too. Thanks to my brother and family for a wonderful Christmas gift!

Evie Wyld
All the birds, singing
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781742757308

Beryl Fletcher, Juno and Hannah (Review)

Beryl Fletcher, Juno and Hannah

Courtesy: Spinifex Press

I’ve been pretty remiss in my blog regarding New Zealand literature. I have read and enjoyed several New Zealand novelists, such as Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and Fiona Kidman, but the only New Zealand writer I’ve reviewed here to date has been Lloyd Jones. And so I was both intrigued and pleased when Spinifex Press sent me Juno and Hannah by New Zealand writer, Beryl Fletcher.

I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of Fletcher, but she has some form! Her first novel, The Word Burners, won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book for the Asia/Pacific region. Juno and Hannah is her fifth novel. She has also written a memoir and some short stories. The fact that four of her five novels have been published by Spinifex Press would suggest a feminist agenda but, while Juno and Hannah certainly has an element of women being challenged by patriarchal authority, it is not a preachy or proselytising book, any more than are the other Spinifex Press books I’ve reviewed. Rather, like them, its focus is women’s experience of the world.

Hmm … that’s a long introduction. Time to get to this particular world. Juno and Hannah is set in 1920s New Zealand. The eponymous sisters are living in a religious commune, and are without parents. Despite the fact that Juno’s name appears first in the title, Hannah is the older. Two things happen in the opening pages of the book which cause Hannah to “run away” with Juno. The first is that she is punished with a month’s isolation for saving a strange man from drowning by breathing life into him – and thereby arousing fears of witchcraft, of communing with the spirits. It’s a clearly unjust punishment from (the significantly named) Abraham, who claims to adhere to “the sacred principles of Christian justice”. The second thing is her hearing that the community plans “to get rid of” 14-years-old Juno, probably to an orphanage in town. Juno, you see, requires special care as she is not quite normal – and the so-called Christian community “can’t carry a non-productive member”. This sets up what is essentially a Gothic adventure tale in which Hannah, with the help of a strange assortment of others, searches for a secure home for Juno and herself.

The novel (novella, really) is a page turner. There are good guys and bad guys (including eugenicists who have their sights on the “mentally defective” Juno), but sometimes we can’t always be sure who are the good guys. Hannah, a resilient and loyal young women but one who experienced abandonment at an early age, finds it hard to trust anyone, including those who offer help. In this mix are Hannah’s mother, her father and his mistress, the man she’d saved, and his sister. There are all sorts of Gothic archetypes here – cottages in the wood, horses pushed to their limits, storms, secrets, a sanatorium. While the story is told third person, we see much of it through Hannah’s inexperienced eyes, so when she is unsettled, so are we. And rightly so, because the world is an uncertain place.

Fletcher’s style is plain, direct, and yet also poetic. It comprises mostly short sentences, which keep the plot moving but which are interspersed every now and then with more Gothic descriptions. These are particularly effective because they are not overdone:

When the southerly blew itself out, fog crept up from the river and devoured all before it. Not one leaf moved, not one bird sang. One by one the trees melted away. The fog brought a terrible silence outside her prison that emulated the social death within.


Something had changed. The hut was withdrawing into itself; the fire had gone out, empty tins had been dropped onto the clay floor. She touched the glass chimney of the paraffin lamp. It was cold.

I enjoyed reading this book, but am having trouble writing about it. I think this is because the themes are carried primarily through the plot. By this I mean, they are conveyed by who does what with whom, who appears and disappears, who chases whom, and who helps whom. I don’t really want to explain too much for fear of giving the story away. Briefly, though, the main themes are resilience and trust. As a young vulnerable woman responsible for an even more vulnerable sister, Hannah needs to be resilient to survive the world she finds herself in. She also needs to trust, but she must temper this with wariness because the world is not a safe place. Another theme is the responsibility to protect weaker members of our society, as Hannah does for Juno, but as was not done for her when she was “abandoned” in the religious community. In fact, “abandonment” is another theme. And finally is the theme of nurturing. Clearly, Hannah nurtures her sister, but the theme is also conveyed through the act of bread-baking, which occurs throughout the novel. Hannah is good at it, so is her mother Eleanor. Providing bread to others in need is one of the final, reassuring images of the novel.

Juno and Hannah is a compelling read. There were times when the plot seemed to be slipping from my grasp. Loose ends perhaps, or maybe just part of the uncertain world Fletcher was creating.  It was never enough, however, to stop my being invested in Hannah and her trials. There’s something about Fletcher’s direct narrative style evoking an almost other-worldly setting that drew me in. I didn’t want to put it down.

awwchallenge2014Beryl Fletcher
Juno and Hannah
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2013

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)

NOTE: I have included this review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge because Fletcher’s primary publisher is Spinifex Press (and because someone before me has also included her!). I hope Fletcher and any New Zealand readers here aren’t offended!

Louis Nowra, Into that forest (Review)

Louis Nowra, Into that forest

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Louis Nowra is one versatile and prolific writer, having written novels, non-fiction, plays and screenplays, essays and even libretti. Into that forest is his latest work. It was shortlisted for the Young Adult Novel prize in the 2012 Aurealis awards and the Ethel Turner Young People’s Literature prize in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I read this for my reading group. We don’t often do youth literature but every now and then one pops up that we think might interest us … such as a book by Nowra.

The first thing to say is that the novel is written in a unique voice. Here is its opening:

Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy-six years old. Me first thing is an apology me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again. But here’s me story and I glad to tell it before I hop the twig.

And what a story it is … this novel feeds into several Australian, and wider, literary traditions. There’s the lost child and the feral child motifs (reminding me of Dog boy). There’s Tasmanian Gothic, and there’s also a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Subject-wise it covers some significant ground: environmental issues (involving both the extinct Tasmanian tiger and the whaling industry) and what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This might sound rather mechanistic, but there’s no sense of “ticking off”. It’s not didactic, and it’s all logical within the framework of the book.

Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of two young girls, Hannah (then 6) and Becky (7) who find themselves lost in the bush (oops, forest!) after their boat capsizes in a storm and Hannah’s parents drown. They are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger pair, and live with them for four years. Meanwhile, Becky’s father, Mr Carsons, is out looking for her. Eventually they are found, but the process of re-integration is not easy. The novel has a small cast of characters, which keeps it tightly focused. Besides Hannah’s parents who die near the beginning, there’s our two young protagonists, Becky’s father, his friend Ernie, the “tiger man”, a few other minor characters – and of course, the tigers, named Dave and Corinna by Hannah.

As in Dog boy, the description of life with the tigers is pretty visceral. At first Becky resists living like a tiger – perhaps because she still has a father whom she hopes will find her – but eventually she too succumbs, if succumb is the word. It is, after all, a matter of survival. And so they shed their clothes, start to move mostly on all fours, and develop keen animal instincts (of sight, hearing and smell). They also develop a taste for raw food and become adept at hunting. The descriptions of killing and eating the prey are not for the squeamish – “I were starving and the taste of blood made me feel even more hungry” and “What were ever in that shiny pink gristle surged through me in waves of ecstasy” – but they are important to our understanding of what their lives had become. Hannah says:

God knows where me sense of survival came from. Maybe it’s natural cos humans are just animals too.

There is a bogey man here – the tiger man or bounty hunter, whom Hannah had met before, through her parents. To the girls he is more brutal than the tigers. He’s “evil”, kills tiger pups, does “stuff to himself that were rude”. But, perhaps, he’s just another survivor, albeit a not very pleasant one?

While Hannah is the narrator, Becky’s character is the more complex one. She struggles more with the change forced upon them:

She didn’t want to forget. Me? I thought it were stupid to try and remember like Becky did. I didn’t see any use for it. Me English started to shrivel up, like an old dry skin a snake gets rid of. It just lies there in the grass rotting away and then vanishes with the wind. I took to talking in grunts, coughs and hoarse barks like the tigers. This annoyed Becky no end. But it were simple – the tigers understood me. Becky warned I were making a mistake. You will forget your language. You will forget your parents. You are becoming an animal, she’d say. Why argue with her? She were right on every level.

Becky initially fights against the brutality of the hunt – there’s a horrific description of the tigers attacking seals – but then surprises Hannah by rather fearlessly exerting some dominance in the pack. She was of course desperately hungry by then, but it shows Hannah that:

she were really stubborn if she wanted something. She were brave, she were stubborn, she were smart, she were tough.

Unfortunately, Becky is not as tough – or as adaptable – as Hannah thought, and consequently precipitates the novel’s rather shocking conclusion.

It’s a pretty bold novel – but less so than, say, Lord of the flies. There’s plenty to discuss, particularly regarding the subjects I suggested at the beginning of the post. The big theme, though, the one common to feral children books, has to do with defining our nature. What separates human from animal? What would you do to survive – and what would that say about the essence of humanity? Good stuff for young adults, and a gripping read too for we older readers.

Louis Nowra
Into that forest
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311646 (Kindle ed.)

Barbara Baynton, A dreamer (Review)

Barbara Baynton.

Presumed Public Domain: via Wikipedia

Finally, having reviewed three stories in Barbara Baynton’s collection Bush studies, I start at the beginning with the story “A dreamer”.

This story is a little different to the three* I’ve reviewed to date, primarily because men do not play a significant role in the action or denouement of the plot. The plot is a simple one: a young pregnant woman arrives at a remote railway station, at night, expecting to be met by someone with a buggy. When that proves not to be the case, she decides to walk “the three bush miles” despite the windy, rainy night because it was “the home of her girlhood, and she knew every inch of the way”. Except …

… as it turns out, on a dark rainy night, she doesn’t. Baynton recounts the drama of the young woman’s walk – a wrong choice at a fork, near drowning on a creek crossing – and in the process idealises the mother-child relationship against hostile nature:

Her mother had planted these willows, and she herself had watched them grow. How could they be so hostile to her?

How indeed? This story is another example of Baynton’s gothic, of her non-romantic view of the Australian bush which is, for her, alienating and forbidding, particularly for women. If the language of the opening paragraph is unsettling – “night-hidden trees”, “closed doors”, “blear-eyed lantern” – it only gets worse as nature seems to conspire against the woman. The wind fights her “malignantly” and the water is “athletic furious”, but the woman sees “atonement in these difficulties and dangers”. Atonement for what is not made quite clear but it might simply be that the young woman has been away for some time: “Long ago she should have come to her old mother”. Visions of her mother and memories of her childhood keep her going: “soft, strong arms carried her on”. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave the plot here. You can read the story at the link below.

In my last post on Baynton, I wrote briefly on reading short story collections in the order they are presented, rather than in the ad hoc way I’ve done with this collection. Mostly, I do read collections from beginning to end. Had I done so with this collection, I would have had, with this story, an effective introduction to Baynton’s style and themes without being confronted with her full fury. In other words, “A dreamer” is the perfect first story in a collection which ends with “The chosen vessel”*.

Barbara Baynton
“A dreamer”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

This review will count towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

*For my first three reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: Scrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Gothic (19th century)

A few months ago I wrote a post on Horace Walpole‘s The castle of Otranto which is regarded as a pioneer in the Gothic novel tradition. I thought then that it would be good to explore how the Gothic translated to Australia where we have no castles in which the supernatural can rattle and clang. Australia though had (and has) plenty to inspire a Gothic imagination: strange unforgiving nightmarish landscapes, weird vegetation and imaginary creatures. Moreover, Australia was colonised by the British in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, the time when Gothic novels were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Consequently, many of Australia’s 19th century writers did incorporate the Gothic into their writing, and today I’ll list just few (but it will be little more than a list as I’ve been away the last two weekends and am playing catchup in pretty much every aspect of my life.)

The following are just some of the authors whose writings are regularly included in Gothic anthologies or in discussions of an Australian Gothic tradition:

  • Barbara Baynton
  • Marcus Clarke
  • Henry Lawson
  • Rosa Praed (who, like Ada Cambridge, is not as well known as she should be, which is something I have been planning to – and will –  rectify)
  • Price Warung.  I reviewed his Tales of the early days, a couple of years ago. One of the tales, “The Pegging-Out of Overseer Franke”, is commonly included in Australian Gothic anthologies. It tells the story of revenge against a cruel overseer of convicts … and explores the fine line between definitions of man and beast when cruelty and revenge become the modus operandi.

19th century Australian writers didn’t always need the supernatural to convey horror, evoke fear and portray disjunction between desire/hope and harsh reality. They had the forbidding Australian landscape, the threat of becoming lost in or being destroyed by that landscape, and the harsh unyielding authority of colonial male power. Who needed castle ghosts in this situation? This is not to say that the supernatural never appeared in Australian writing, but that this writing could, and often did, convey a Gothic sense of horror and dread through the concrete realities of 19th century Australian life. It’s fascinating to see what happened to the Gothic tradition in the second half of the 20th century (in, say, the work of Elizabeth Jolley) but that is a topic for another day.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

Tower of Horace Walpole's own Gothic house, Strawberry Hill

Tower of Horace Walpole's own Gothic house, Strawberry Hill (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Would you believe the issue of fact and fiction is consciously raised in yet another novel I’ve read? In his preface to The Castle of Otranto Horace Walpole suggests that it’s possible the story – which he tells us that he “found” and translated – is based on fact. And he concludes that:

If  a catastrophe, at all resembling that which he [the original author, that is!] describes, is believed to have given rise to this work, it will contribute to interest the reader, and will make the “Castle of Otranto” a still more moving story. (Preface to the 1st edition)

Hmm … moving is not quite how I’d describe this Gothic tale but perhaps that’s because I’m a cynical 21st century reader and not a mid 18th century one? I did though enjoy the book, which I read as part of my local Jane Austen group’s preparation for our discussion of Northanger Abbey next month. I had planned to read a Gothic novel by a female author – such as Ann Radcliffe – but time got the better of me and so I settled on The Castle of Otranto which is a novella, but which is also interesting for its pioneer status as the first Gothic novel.

The first thing that entertained me about the novel was the preface and Walpole’s (rather postmodern-like) attempt to pass it off as a story he’d found and translated. He suggests the text had been written in medieval times during the Crusades (between 1095 and 1243). This first edition was well-received by the reading public as well as by some contemporary critics. And so in the second edition Walpole identifies himself as the author, and in its preface claims that the novel was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success…”. This builds, in fact, on an argument he makes in the first edition’s preface that if we ignore the “miraculous” (read “supernatural”) aspects:

the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation.

Hmm again … I think he errs on the improbable side of the pendulum, but the characters do, I accept, exhibit a reasonable level of psychological realism.

This change from the first to the second edition is interesting in itself and would be fun to research further … but it’s not something I plan to pursue in this review. I will, though, take up the issue of “the novel” further when I review Northanger Abbey in a month or so since it is in this novel that Austen argues the value of reading fiction.

This brings me to the second thing I enjoyed about the novel, and that was simply experiencing the introduction of the Gothic. Wikipedia says Walpole “introduces many set-pieces that the Gothic novel will become famous for. These includes mysterious sounds, doors opening independently of a person, and the fleeing of a beautiful [usually virginal] heroine from an incestuous male figure”. It also includes the sorts of features that we find in soap operas today – which one could argue are a continuation of the Gothic without the supernatural horror aspect. These features include mistaken identities, people returning from the dead (or, at least, when they are least expected), and love triangles (which are, of course, not only the province of the Gothic). The Castle of Otranto moves at a cracking pace. There’s a lot of dialogue, a good deal of action (human and supernatural), and not too much description.

Another thing that fascinated me is why readers enjoy such over-the-top stories. To prepare for my group’s discussion, I read a critique by Jerrold E. Hogle*. He argues, to put his academic thesis more simply, that the Gothic allows readers to “displace” real fears onto something more fictive. In Walpole and Radcliffe, these fears, he suggests, are somewhat paradoxical: a desire for and rejection of aristocracy and old Catholicism, by the middle class. My group’s discussion raised other reasons too. One is the “excitement” (sexual titillation) roused by these novels, particularly for the young women of the era like, say, Catherine Moreland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. Were Gothic novels that generation’s young adult novels? Another is the idea that, like crime novels, Gothic novels are about the restoration of order: “This is a bad world” says the hero earlier in the novel.

Anyhow, that’s enough of that I think. I haven’t really done a review have I? I haven’t even mentioned the plot. It’s pretty much the usual stuff. There’s Manfred, the lord of the castle, who needs to continue his line to maintain ownership of the castle, but his only son dies on his wedding day. This sets off a train of events in which Manfred decides to divorce his wife, Hippolita, to marry his son’s intended in order to, hopefully, produce more heirs. His plan is intercepted by the appearance of those who claim the castle is theirs. The story includes knights and friars, loving mothers and loyal daughters, helmets and portraits with minds of their own (“the portrait … uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast”), and, of course, caves and tunnels. The interesting thing about the plot though, in terms of that restoration of order argument, is that not quite the perfect order is restored … but I won’t spoil the story further than that.

As for the opening quote, I’ll leave that for you to ponder …

Horace Walpole
The Castle of Otranto
Originally published 1764
Kindle edition

* Hogle, Jerrold, W “Hyper-reality and the Gothic affect: The sublimation of fear from Burke and Walpole to The Ring“, in English Language Notes, 48 (1): 163-176, Spring/Summer 2010.