Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
204pp.
ISBN: 9780140089448

Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

Christine Balint’s Water music was a joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day (my review), but they are very different books. Meany’s is contemporary, perhaps even near-future, and tackles some up-to-the-minute issues regarding fact, truth and authenticity, while Balint’s is historical fiction, a coming-of-age story, albeit a very specific one.

Set in 18th century Venice, Water music tells the story of a young orphan, Lucietta, who is raised by a fisherman’s family until she’s 16 years old when she leaves to live in Derelitti Convent, one of Venice’s many musical orphanages for girls. This interested me, because when my children were young we loved listening to an audiocassette telling the story of Vivaldi teaching in a Venetian orphanage for girls, but I’d never researched it further.

Balint explains her inspiration in the Acknowledgements and on her website. The book, she says, draws on “the unique history of the musical orphanages” in Venice, which existed from around 1400 to 1797, and were run by and for women. They took in girls of any class or background, if they passed an audition, and provided them with an opportunity to pursue a professional career when this “was rarely possible elsewhere in the world”. In particular, they gave impoverished girls an opportunity “to earn an income and establish a career or save for a dowry—enabling them to forge a fruitful life”.

The obvious question is, how could impoverished girls learn enough music to pass the audition? There must have been a way, but in our Lucietta’s case, she was born illegitimately and placed in a “foundling home”. From here she was given to a wet-nurse, the woman who became her mother, but her “real” father had left instructions and money for her musical education. This sets her on the course that leads her to auditioning for and being accepted at Derelitti.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Lucietta, who has learnt the violin, is musically talented and that her parents have been conscientious about fulfilling these instructions. Her mother, Lucietta tells us, “believed that if she followed these instructions, my musical and marital future would be assured”. Notwithstanding this, the question the novella poses is, what is her future to be? A few options are available to, or possible for, Lucietta, ranging from the future her mother doesn’t want for her, being a fisherman’s wife, to one dreamed of by the orphanage girls of being married to a nobleman from the “Golden Book“.

The story is told first person by Lucietta, so we see it all through her eyes. She’s a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has loved her fishing family, which includes a brother Lionello, so it’s not surprising that she is initially disconcerted when she leaves her family to live in the convent. However, this seems to be a kind place were the nuns and music teachers are supportive and the other girls are friendly. There’s not a lot of drama here, which is counter to your typical historical fiction. Instead, we travel along with Lucietta as she absorbs the influences, ideas and life around her, as she grows and changes, and as she meets, under the eyes of her mentors Maestra Francesca and the Convent’s priora, her suitor and potential husband, Don Leonardi.

Lucietta has decisions to make … and the good thing is that she is supported in those decisions without pressure. Well, there is a little pressure, including from one of her Convent friends, the sweet but one-armed and therefore in those times unmarriageable Regina. She had been sent to the Convent by her father who didn’t want to waste money on her. This is a world, after all, where “a girl is only as worthwhile as her marriage prospects”. Through Regina, Lucietta sees all the

Unwanted, unmarriageable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building. Creating sublime music, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.

There is a little political barb here regarding all those women who created and produced in the past – but anonymously. These convent girls may have had more opportunities than many, but they were not individually remembered. Some may see it as anachronistic when Lucietta sees value in “restoring the music, in finding the music, trying to recover their stories”, but then again, why wouldn’t someone back then have thought of doing this?

Balint’s writing is lovely. She brings the settings Lucietta experiences – her fishing home and then her convent one – to life, and creates in Lucietta an engaging, believable character.

Water music didn’t excite me quite so much as Helen Meany’s book did, perhaps because it’s a gentle book that explores a familiar story, albeit in a different and thoroughly interesting historical setting. However, because of that setting, because of its feminist underpinning, and because the writing is sure, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a good – and not bleak – story.

Theresa also enjoyed this book.

Christine Balint
Water music
Lidcombe, NSW: Brio Books, 2021
119pp.
ISBN: 9781922267610

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (#BookReview)

Book cover

Not unusually, I’m late to this book that was all the talk in 2020 – and, I may not have read it at all if it hadn’t been for my reading group. I’m talking, as you will have guessed from the post title, of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

As most of you will know, Hamnet’s plot draws from the life of Shakespeare (never named in the novel) and Anne Hathaway, and the death of their son Hamnet at the age of 11. There was an older sister, Susanna, and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. O’Farrell explains her interest in her Author’s Note:

Lastly, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or ‘pestilence’, as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare, in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.

Because this book has been well-covered already online, I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this post, and focus on a couple of questions.

“She herself might tell a different story”

With all books, but particularly with historical fiction, one of my questions is, why did the author choose to write their story. O’Farrell partly answers it in her Author’s note. However, there is also, surely, a feminist reading, because, although the novel is titled Hamnet, it is primarily about his mother Agnes (as Anne is named in Shakespeare’s will). Early in the novel, O’Farrell writes “This is the story, the myth of Agnes’s childhood. She herself might tell a different story”.

The thing is, we don’t know a lot about Agnes Hathaway which makes her ripe for historical fiction. What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant. It means that importance hasn’t been placed on them. Whoever Agnes really was, O’Farrell has created a wonderful, eccentric character, who is perceptive, warm, independently-minded, a little flawed but engaged in the life of her family and community. She is fun to read about.

Besides telling a story about her, though, O’Farrell also presents, through her, a story about grief, and this, for me, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Agnes’ thoughts about burying her son, her astonishment that people can complain about their children, her utter discombobulation were so real:

Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her …

This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. … Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.

So real …

Hamlet?

Warning: Spoiler of sorts

Given the novel is titled for Hamnet, rather than for its main protagonist, Agnes, it’s worth considering why, and this leads us to the play Hamlet. The novel ends with Agnes attending a performance of her husband’s play, which confirms the significance of this play to the novel. The epigraph to the novel’s second part is a quote from Hamlet (V:ii): “Thou livest;/ . . . draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story”. But, Hamlet could scarcely be seen to be Hamnet’s story, though I did have a little laugh at the point in the novel where Hamnet chooses to die:

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Eleven-year-old Hamnet seems, here, to be far more decisive than his namesake who is known for his prevarication. This, however, is not what we are expected to take away from the novel I’m sure!

So, what else? Well, there’s the grief theme, which Hamlet can be seen to “resolve” in the novel. Agnes, devastated after her son’s death, can’t understand her husband returning to work – and writing comedies:

His company are having a great success with a new comedy. They took it to the Palace and the word was that the Queen was much diverted by it.

There is a silence. Judith looks from her mother, to her sister, to the letter. 

A comedy? her mother asks.

She is even more devastated though to learn that her husband has gone on to write a play using their son’s name – Hamnet and Hamlet being interchangeable – so she goes to London to confront him. What happens is something else. Initially, she feels eviscerated:

How could he thieve this name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? 

But then, as she sees the ghost father and living son, she starts to see something else:

He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.

My reading group discussed the question of the play a little, though we didn’t come to any particular conclusion, which I rather like. However, we did talk about how Shakespeare wrote his darkest, strongest plays, including the four great tragedies, after Hamnet’s death, which suggests that his son’s death had a big impact on him. A member also raised the play’s existential nature, seeing it exploring the fragility of life – “to be or not to be” – and how you go on in the face of bleakness.

Now, I could go on and talk about the style (language, use of present tense, symbolism), the decision not to name Shakespeare, and the dual storyline structure, as I normally would, but I’m sure they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so I’m leaving it this time. There were aspects of the novel that I question, but the truth is that I fell for Agnes and her story.

So, I’m going to leave you with two quotes, one from the husband, one from the wife.

It is so tenuous, so fragile, the life of the playhouses. He often thinks that, more than anything, it is like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat. 

Gardens don’t stand still: they are always in flux. 

These relate to their spheres of activity, but they also say something about life, don’t you think?

Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet
London: Tinder Press, 2020
310pp.
eISBN: 9781472223814

Monday musings on Australian literature: Defining the novel, in 1975?

During one of my forays into Trove, I came across an intriguing little piece by Canberra artist-educator-reviewer, Malcolm Pettigrove. Pettigrove was a regular arts reviewer in The Canberra Times through the 1970s and 1980s, but it was his article published on 31 January 1975 that particularly caught my attention.

It starts:

NO issue in the issue-filled business of literary appreciation has had as much wind and ink spent on it as The Definition of The Novel. Ironically, few issues are of less importance.

I like this, because I think definitions are fun, but ultimately unimportant. Actually, fun is not quite the right word. What I mean is that discussing definitions is a worthwhile exercise because it helps hone our ideas about form and can inform our understanding of creative works, but in the end, the important thing is the work, regardless of what category/form/type critics or reviewers slot it into.

So, with that understanding, let’s look at what Malcom Pettigrove had to say – in his review of three Australian historical fiction novels, Nancy Cato’s Brown sugar; Maslyn Williams’ Florence Copley of Romney, and Thea Astley’s A kindness cup.

He starts, in fact, by saying a bit more about the novel:

Whatever theorists might make of it, the word “novel” remains in reality nothing more than a convenient label for those fictional works of narrative, descriptive, expository, dramatic, or didactic prose which no other label will fit. […] No more comprehesive [sic] definition has ever been coined, and it’s quite likely that none ever will.

Now, I’m not going to engage much more with this. Wikipedia’s writers simply describe the novel as “a relatively long work of narrative fiction, typically written in prose and published as a book”. I could check my various books, but I think I’ll find variations on this theme, so let’s move on. Pettigrove says that this says nothing about a “lack of imagination on the part of the definition-makers”. Rather, “it indicates that the novel has a life and a mind of its own and is determined not to surrender to the definition-makers until it has exhausted all the variations of form, content and style that are available to it”.

The Australian novel, he says, is no different. He writes:

Most novels, whether Australian or not, are conservative, courteous, sociable things, with established habits, moderate expectations, and only a limited inclination to experiment. The bold innovation, being rarely understood and seldom well received, is left to the adventurous minority, some of whom die in the attempt leaving the successful ones to proliferate their own image in more or less conservative, courteous and sociable offspring which are established in their habits, and given to moderating our expectations by being limited in their inclination to experiment further.

I do like this description of how innovation leads to the next “standard” – until, of course, the next innovation comes along. It happens in all the arts, doesn’t it? Of the three novels he’s reviewing, you won’t be surprised to hear that he says that Cato’s and Williams’ novels belong to the majority, while Astley’s is an “offspring of the minority”.

He then discusses the three novels. Nancy Cato has appeared in this blog a few times. Her historical fiction, Brown sugar, is a “novel” he says, and also “a foreshortened saga”, a “history of the rise and fall of the north-coast sugar empires”, and “a romantic tale”. He sees limitations in this novel, particularly in terms of depth of characterisation. The extent of her historical research is evident, he says, but “in the hands of a Martin Boyd this material would undoubtedly have given rise to characterisations of considerable depth and subtle complexity.”

Maslyn Williams’ novel, Florence Copley of Romney, he says, shares with Brown sugar, its “contrast of values”. Overall, though, this story is “pleasantly romantic” rather than offering something interesting and challenging about the Australia in which it is set.

Book cover

Then, he comes to Thea Astley’s A kindness cup (for which there are reviews by Lisa, Bill and Lou on Lisa’s Thea Astley page). Astley is described on the book’s fly-leaf, Pettigrove says, as “a prose stylist”. It’s clear he’s not a fan – or not entirely a fan – of Astley’s “prose-style”, for which he gives examples, but he writes that:

If this brief and bitter tale succeeds — and I believe it will — it will be in spite of its prose-styling, not because of it. When Miss Astley drops the prose of the stylist and begins to function simply as a writer with a tale to tell her work becomes stark, tense, and most effectively dramatic.

Astley’s writing, he says, would intrigue “the reader who enjoys examining the intricate and often unfathomable relationships between a human action, its setting and its motive”. She evokes her cane-country town setting “with potent economy” and the motives of its characters “are exposed with the precision of surgery”. Indeed, he says,

The total impact of the book is considerably greater than its brevity might suggest possible.

All three books, he concludes, discuss the nature of man in their own way – though their understanding “is wonderfully simplified when the men depicted inhabit the philosophical no man’s land that nineteenth-century rural Australia has become in the minds of so many contemporary novelists”. “Philosophical no man’s land”? A discussion for another day, perhaps?

As for defining the novel? He suggests these novels provide no answers … just, the implication is, more questions. In fact, his piece peters out in terms of its opening salvo, but I did enjoy his perspective on these three writers.

Thoughts, anyone?

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate (#BookReview)

Steven Conte burst on the scene in 2008 when he won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award with his 2007-published debut novel, The zookeeper’s war. I always intended to read it but somehow it never happened. Jump to 2020, and Conte’s second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, was published. That’s a big gap, but what he’s produced is a well-researched, carefully-crafted, thoroughly absorbing novel.

What intrigues me more than this gap, however, is that both his novels are set during World War 2, and both deal with Germany in the war. The zookeeper’s war is about how the Berlin Zoo’s owner and his Australian wife managed to keep it going through the war. I wonder what it is about war and Germany that attracts Conte? Or, is it just coincidence?

So many paths to follow

The Tolstoy Estate’s plot is not complicated. Most of the story takes place over the six week period – November-December 1941 – during which a German army medical unit established and ran a hospital in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. Arriving at the estate, the Germans, including doctor Paul Bauer, meet the site’s curator, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as its commanding officer Metz’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

Sounds straightforward enough? Yes, but as one of my reading group members said, the novel has so many paths to follow, so many ideas to think about, that it’s impossible to follow them all. I agree, so, here, I will focus on just a couple of them.

I’ll start, however, with a few comments about the style and structure. The novel is primarily told in third person through the perspective of Paul, so our understanding of what happens, our assessment of the characters and their relationships, come through his thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, he is quickly established as a humane, considered person, so we can trust him, as much as we can trust anyone.

SORT OF SPOILER (though not the ending)

Half-way through the novel we jump to 1967, and a letter from Katerina to Paul. This introduces a second chronology which covers nearly a decade from then. Most of it, until the last chapter, is conveyed though a few letters between the two, interspersed with the main wartime narrative.

Why does Conte do this? This is the question I always ask when an author plays with their narrative structure like this. My usual thought is that the author wants to de-emphasise the plot to encourage us to think about something else, but then the question is, what? I suspect that this is partly the case here, and I’ll talk about the “what” soon. Regardless of the “what”, however, the impact of revealing that Katerina and Paul have survived the war, is to slow us down. It encourages us to focus on the development of their relationship against the backdrop of this cruel war, rather than rushing to turn the pages to see what happens next.

As for the paths, the “whats”, there are many. The Tolstoy Estate is about war of course. The history part of this novel is true, in that Tolstoy’s estate was indeed occupied by the Germans for a military hospital, so there is that. And, there’s the exploration, through our two protagonists, of two unappealing regimes, Nazism and Stalinism. I could write more about the nuances of that, but I won’t. Then, there’s its evocation of how humans behave during war, of how some will and some won’t behave with humanity across the enemy divide. We see this in many war novels, so I won’t dwell on that, either, except to say that I liked Conte’s appreciation of the continuum of humanity’s behaviour from the worst to the best. One of the questions on Steven Conte’s website concerns whether we can forgive what we come to understand. I’ll leave that one with you too!

Love is an excellent motivator (Katerina)

Now, though, I want to turn to two paths that particularly interested me – love and literature. Let’s do love first. The Tolstoy Estate is a love story. Both our protagonists have lost their spouses, meaning both are currently free but have experienced love before. However, they are also, of course, technically, enemies, belonging to opposing regimes, both of which can be brutal to those who cross the line. This tests their love.

Love is not one-dimensional, as Conte knows, so he sets their love against other sorts of love, including master-race proponent Metz’s dutiful but ultimately sexless marriage because of the “physiological costs imposed by sexual congress”; the Soviet Government’s conservative, sexist attitude to romantic relationships, evidenced in its reaction to Katerina’s novel; a German officer’s homosexuality that brings about his demise; the bawdy conversations and behaviour of many soldiers. There’s also Bauer’s brief but pointed reference to the soldiers he treats:

Loves or is loved“, he thought constantly as he amputated, concerned less about the truth of the incantation than its usefulness to keeping him alert.

War and love, by definition, make strange bed-fellows. War heightens emotions of all sorts, and forces those who love to think seriously about it, as Paul and Katerina do. Paul’s bawdy but romantic colleague Molineux says that Paul and Katerina’s bond “transcends race, it transcends law”, and yet both Paul and Katerina are aware that the practicalities of love can spoil even a strong bond – which provides the perfect link to the literature path …

Writers document, great men do (Metz)

Contemplating the value and practice of literature underpins the novel, with Tolstoy’s War and peace, of course, providing the pivot. It links to the love path, because Paul and Katerina frequently consider Tolstoy’s evocation of love in the novel. In a letter to Katerina, Paul writes that War and peace reminded him

that love doesn’t always conquer but that, arguably, it’s better that way – that thwarted love is stronger, more enduring than the domesticated kind.

But, beyond love in Tolstoy, Conte’s characters also think about the value of literature. Again, here is Paul in a letter to Katerina, telling her that War and peace had restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar.

This counteracts Metz’s argument to Katerina early in the novel that

with his rifle our humblest “Landser” shapes the world in a way your Tolstoy never did.

The old “pen is mightier than the sword” discussion I suppose, but oh so engagingly told!

There are also discussions about the craft of writing – some of which reflect wryly on Conte’s interest, such as Katerina’s research focus being narratology.

But I will end with Katerina’s concern about the fading of the novel in the later 20th century:

Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love.

Love … and the novel. A good place to end my post on this compelling and intelligent novel.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved this novel.

Steven Conte
The Tolstoy Estate
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
410pp.
ISBN: 9781460758823

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (“BookReview)

Craig Cormick is a Canberra-based writer whom I’ve seen at various literary events around town, but not read until now, so I was especially glad when Allen & Unwin sent me this book to review. Titled On a barbarous coast, it was written collaboratively with Harold Ludwick, “a Bulgun Warra man whose traditional lands lie west of Cooktown”.

On a barbarous coast offers something a bit different for reviewers. Besides its collaborative nature, there’s its form or genre, which is that sub-genre of historical fiction called alternate (or alternative) history. In this case, it involves looking at a period of Australian history and asking “what if things had happened differently?” Those things, for Cormick and Ludwick, relate to Captain Cook’s exploration of Australia.

The story springs, then, from Captain Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage to Australia to observe the Transit of Venus. During that expedition, in late 1770, the Endeavour was seriously damaged around the Great Barrier Reef, but managed to limp on to Batavia. However, Cormick and Ludwick posit a different scenario, suggesting that the Endeavour was shipwrecked and that only a small number of the crew survived – including Cook, though he remains comatose though much of the story. The survivors make their way to land, and … the question is, as the cover states, “What if there was an alternative ending to Captain Cook’s story?” Would Australia’s history have been different, and how?

While I’ve not read many, I do quite like alternative histories. They encourage us to look at the past from different angles, which can illuminate the implications of decisions made and actions taken.

So, this is how it goes …

The story is told in two alternating first-person voices, Cormick’s being that of American Midshipman James Magra, and Ludwick’s being the young Indigenous boy, Garrgiil.

Magra chronicles the actions and fates of the shipwreck survivors, who very quickly break into two antagonistic camps, while Ludwick shares the thoughts and actions of the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. For the bulk of the narrative, the two cultures remain apart. There is quite a bit of humour in watching Garrgiil’s people trying to decide whether these strange “spirit things” are ancestors or just men. Initially, they feel they must be ancestors, but the way they stumble around, starving while “walking past food every day”, not to mention behaving incorrectly in sacred or special areas, suggests that this may not be the case.

… their presence gives our people great stories of their stupidity and clumsiness to tell around the fire at night. Like the one who stood in the river and let Gandhaar [crocodile] eat him …

Meanwhile, we watch Magra and his co-survivors bickering amongst themselves, trying to plan a solution to their predicament, and sensing the “natives” are out there but not seeing them. The stage is set for a meeting. The question is: how will it go? You will have to read the book for yourselves to find out.

So, how does it all come together?

Magra gets the lion’s share of the story, which could be seen as giving the invaders the upper-hand (yet again) in story-telling. However, I’m going to assume that this was all discussed and agreed between the two authors. Also, I think we could argue that the unequal number of physical pages doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional impact of the two narratives is similarly unequal. Garrgiil’s voice is strong enough, and compelling enough, to be in our minds, even when he’s not centre-stage.

In the Authors’ Note at the end, Cormick says they “tried to stay as close to known history as possible, both within the known and imagined paths of the story”, which requires a bit of mind-bending but I get what they mean. They drew upon “many existing knowledges” including several journals, such as those of James Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and an anonymous journal believed to have been written by James Mario Magra, whom Cormick uses as his narrator. They also looked at the work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, journalists and academics, and at historical accounts of several shipwrecked individuals who had lived with Indigenous people. Cormick notes that while their story divides easily into the two narratives, “it is not so easy to unpick how each of us influenced each other’s work”.

Ludwick adds that his aim was to pull readers into “the world of Guugu Yimidhirr language (which was first recorded in 1770 by Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks)”. He says that many of the practices and knowledge he describes in the book are still used by his people. He also says that he wove Dreamtime stories into his narrative to help readers understand his people’s traditional explanations of how the land became what we see today.

The end result is the sort of book I like to read, one that entertains me with its story, while also engaging my mind as I consider what the authors (plural, in this case) were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and whether they pulled it off. It is an earnest book. Sometimes this comes a bit close to the surface when we are “told” things to make sure we get it (such as “I know the Captain controlled how the stories of our journey would be told”). This – and the strange though interesting little “magical realism” interludes where Magra talks to Gandhaar, the crocodile – creates a little unevenness in the narrative. Also, the use of parenthesis to translate the local language used by Garrgiil felt clunky. Yet, I applaud the book’s extensive use of this language. We need more of it in contemporary Australian literature. As Gandhaar tells Magra:

You create the landscape in your own words. If you don’t know the right words, you will never know the land properly.

But these are minor “picky” things. Cormick and Ludwick have attempted something significant in terms of story, intent, and process, and they pulled it off in a way that engaged me, right through to their considered ending which suggests possibilities, while being realistic about probabilities. Without irony, we could call this book “a grand endeavour”. It is certainly exciting to see such Indigenous-non-Indigenous collaborations happening in our literary sphere.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also found this book intriguing.

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
On a barbarous coast
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
309pp.
ISBN: 9781760877347

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Julie Janson, Benevolence (#BookReview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have no home” (Masters)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You won’t win, you know” (Masters)

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

We need more books like this …

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Julie Janson
Benevolence
Broome: Magabala Books, 2020
345pp.
ISBN: 9781925936636

(Revieve copy courtesy Magabala Books)

Anna Goldsworthy, Melting moments (#BookReview)

Book cover

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

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

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

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

“misplaced life”

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

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

Or, occasionally wonders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anna Goldsworthy
Melting moments
Carlton: Black Inc, 2020
230pp.
ISBN: 9781863959988

Monday musings on Australian literature: Modern sensibilities and Historical fiction

Book cover

Following last week’s Monday Musings, and my recent review of Gay Lynch’s historical novel, Unsettled, I thought it might be worth teasing out the fraught issue of “modern sensibilities” in this genre.

By teasing out, I mean that this will not be a thorough analysis of the topic so much as my sharing a few ideas and thoughts for you to respond to with your own.

I was inspired, of course, by Bill (The Australian Legend) – who wouldn’t be! – when he commented on my review of Unsettled that “I’m glad that she included the Boandik people and that they had some input. I suspect though that Rosanna has modern sensibilities when it comes to Indigenous relations.”

I could research the journals and letters of women at the time to see what discernment there might have been among those women, but most likely women from oppressed groups like Rosanna’s are not well represented in the papers held in libraries and archives. For a start, many may not have been able to read, though Rosanna could. Those who could read would have, like Rosanna, struggled to afford paper. Writing journals and letters was probably rare for them.

Consequently, I’ve decided to tackle the wider issue, rather than try to prove this particular one.

Why do people write historical fiction? I quoted HNSA in last week’s post as saying that historical fiction presents “an authentic world which can enrich a reader’s understanding of real historical personages, eras and events”.

Lynch made it clear in her Acknowledgements, as I wrote in my post, that she wanted to “to materialise Lynch girls” who were absent in all meaningful ways from the record. She noted that their “lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” So, how to do this without documentation? And how are we to assess this?

Let’s start with what we want from historical fiction? What I want is light to be thrown on issues relevant to now. Sure, stories can be fun for their own sake, but I like my stories to have something more. I want to be challenged to think about how things were, and how they affect or reflect how things are. In other words, I want to get at the “truth” of history. The thing of course is that the “truth” of history does change with the times, whether we like it or not.

Right now, in Australia, historical “truth” includes issues like the invisibility and powerlessness of women, and the dispossession of Indigenous people. It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when historical “truth” focused on what many of us now view as the ANZAC myth. There was a time when the story of early settlement was only about the hardship faced by and the achievements of the white settlers. And, so on … history may be based on facts but how those facts are interpreted, which facts are interpreted, who is interpreting them and why, makes all the difference.

In a past post, I included the following from novelist Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey (2008):

It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

The novelist, then, can explore “truths” that society may scorn (reject) as not being “historical” or, I would add, that is not readily available on the historical record. However, how do you convey historical “truths” in situations where they come with a lack of record, with minimal evidence or facts. If you are powerless and dispossessed you are unlikely to leave a verifiable mark. How, in this circumstance, do you convince your readers that your characters and/or story are authentic as well as true?

Authors, I’d argue, have to start by presenting the times and characters in ways that feel authentic; they have to get enough of the “facts” right that we are happy to go along with what might be less easy to verify. Then, they have to present an interpretation of the facts that makes sense according to what we believe or know to be true.

I have been interested in this issue for some time, and have shared on this blog the thoughts of various novelists expressed at events I’ve attended. I thought I’d reiterate some here.

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader, who has written two mediaeval historical novels, The anchoress (my review) and Book of colours (my review), spoke of her interest in ordinary women and how they “managed to find value in their lives within the constraints” of their times. She spoke of the challenges of making these women’s gains and achievement believable for those times, of not wanting to “damage” them “by presenting them differently from what they are”.

Rachel Seiffert, who has written historical fiction about the Third Reich, spoke about how her character in A boy in winter doesn’t know the Holocaust is proceeding. Her challenge was to show that he had to make choices not knowing the full story, which the readers do know.

(Seiffert’s point here is relevant to the idea that we should only read fiction written at the time it is about. As she says, people at the time do not “know” their whole time. They cannot therefore provide the perspective we gain in retrospect, and which historians and historical novelists offer us.)

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Barbados to Mansfield Park

Historian and historical fiction novelist (Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park), Ros Russell, spoke about ethical responsibilities, saying that historians must not distort what they find. They must be true to their sources, but she always looks out for things that might say something different to the prevailing narrative.

In the end, the issue of “modern sensibility”, particularly where the author has rendered the period authentically, comes down to the reader. We have to decide whether that authenticity includes the novel’s characters sounding just like prevailing views of their era, or whether we accept that there were always people who “bucked” that prevailing view.

As you probably know, I’m with the latter group. So, if I’m happy with the overall authenticity, I’m prepared to give novelists the benefit of the doubt if their characters express views that seem to be “modern”. So-called “modern” ideas don’t pop out of nowhere, after all …

Now, over to you … where do you stand on this issue?

Gay Lynch, Unsettled (#BookReview)

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

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

… in the spirit of the story

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

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

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

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

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

“now that the country is settled”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gay Lynch
Unsettled
Balmain: ligatu.re, 2019
421pp.
ISBN: 9781925883237

(Review copy courtesy the author.)