Karen Jennings, Upturned earth (#BookReview)

Book coverIntroducing my review of South African writer Karen Jennings’ debut novel, Finding Soutbek, I noted that I don’t normally accept review copies from non-Australian publishers but that I will, very occasionally, make an exception if the writer or subject matter interests me. Upturned earth, Jenning’s fifth book, is set in a nineteenth century mining town. Given some general similarities between colonial South Africa and Australia, and my own, albeit youthful, experience of living in a mining town, I was intrigued to read it.

Upturned earth is set in 1886 in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of what was then Cape Colony. It’s an arid region crossing the South African-Nambian border, with its largest town being Springbok (Springbokfontein at the time of the novel). The novel commences with the arrival by boat from Cape Town of 28-year-old William Hull, who is due to take over as magistrate. On first appearances, Hull seems almost like an antihero:

Weak-willed, forgetful, Hull was a poor employee. He did as he was told, yet somehow was never able to fulfil the chores of the position with the same success as his colleagues did. He confused cases, misfiled documents, knocked over inkwells.

In fact, it seems that he is more interested in nature, than work. “He carried,” we’re told, “the droppings of animals folded in handkerchiefs, kept pink newborns warm in his hat”. However, on realising he had been given the job “because no other man would take it”, he resolves to “be firm. Punishments would be meted out. The law would be laid down.”

Unfortunately, life as Okiep’s Magistrate is not as he expects. Slowly, he learns that no-one in Okiep is independent, not even the Magistrate, because the town is unofficially run by the Cape Copper Mining Company. Its head is the Super, Mr Townsend, whose widowed daughter, Iris McBride, returns to Namaqualand on the same boat as Hull. Initially, despite hints to the contrary, he doesn’t realise the true situation, so settles down to a life of work and following his naturalist’s heart, which sees him going out in every spare moment to collect plant and animal specimens. He’s keen to contribute to scientific knowledge. But, the irony is that in “trying to understand the dead things around him”, he is overlooking the live ones.

The narrative is told through two parallel stories. Hull’s is one, the other is Noki’s. He’s a Xhosa mining labourer, one of many who come into Okiep to work and send money home to families in the surrounding regions. Noki, though, has an added concern. While he is away visiting family, his 17-year-old brother Anele is arrested for drunken and disruptive behaviour, and is imprisoned in the gaol attached to Hull’s Residence. This gaol is managed by gaoler-cum-Hull’s-manservant, Genricks. He dissuades Hull from inspecting the gaol. After all, he has it all in hand, and weak Hull, though making an attempt to do the right thing, lets himself be put off.

Given the novel is set in a colonial society, and one involving mines with white and indigenous workers overseen by an arrogant brutal man, you’ll have a picture of what this novel is about. Gradually, things come to a head and people’s true colours are exposed. It’s to his credit that Hull comes to his senses and finds a strength he didn’t know he had – but the calamity can’t all the righted, and the ending is an appropriate one. This is literary historical fiction, so it doesn’t all play out to form, opting for something a little more realistic. I’ll leave the plot at that.

The perfectly titled Upturned earth is Jennings’ third novel. Her writing is tight and expressive. She talks about indigenous workers being “broken down into acceptance”, and here is Hull’s perspective of the place after he suffers a disappointment:

… and he saw as though with new eyes what he had lived in and grown accustomed to these past months. The dull sky, the wearying streets and stained homes, the disgrace of the prison building.

Plain language, but it is all that’s needed.

Why?

The important question to ask about historical fiction is – why? The obvious answer is that there are many stories worth telling, stories that the majority of us have never heard, like, for example, Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (my review) about abortionist Rebecca Sinclair who was gaoled in Long Bay in 1909, and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) about the demolition of homes in the 1920s to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Jennings explains her reason for writing this book in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements. She was inspired John M. Smalberger’s book, Aspects of the history of copper mining in Namaqualand (1846-1931), in which she found magistrate William Charles Scully. From there she went to various other books, including Scully’s own reminiscences. This is fiction, however, so, says Jennings, her character Hull’s “weaknesses are all his own”. However, the brutality (and name) of gaoler Genricks are fact, though the events relating to him, the Super and others have been fictionalised. Then comes her main point: she sees her novel as being “a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present”.

The novel, then, is a plea for humanity, for kindness. Here is Hull, halfway through the novel, talking with Cornish miner Tregowning whom he has just met. Tregowning describes the mistreatment of the miners, and particularly the indigenous ones, but Hull can’t quite believe or accept what he is saying:

Tregowning turned to face the magistrate. ‘Are we not taught to vindicate the weak and fatherless, to help the afflicted and destitute, to rescue the feeble and needy? To deliver them out of the hands of the wicked?’

Hull looked around uneasily. His tongue felt thick as he spoke. ‘Some would call those revolutionary words.’

‘I thought they were biblical.’

Which way will our weak Mr Hull go is the question we confront as we read. But, the theme is clear from the start – man’s inhumanity to man (especially in these colonial environments) and what can be done about it. Pondering what has changed and what hasn’t is why we read historical fiction. I enjoyed this book.

Karen Jennings
Upturned earth
London: Holland Park Press, 2019
202pp.
ISBN: 9781907320910

(Review copy courtesy Holland Park Press)

Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (#BookReview)

Book coverI have reviewed (and enjoyed) two of Christos Tsiolkas’ books since blogging – The slap and Barracuda – so I was of course interested when Allen & Unwin sent me his most recent release, until, that is, I saw its subject matter. Biblical history, or historical fiction set in biblical times, are not really big go-to areas of interest for me. However, it was Tsiolkas so, finally, when its turn came, I dived in.

What did I find? I hadn’t read reviews, but I had heard that it was pretty violent, and it certainly is in places. Indeed, it starts with the stoning of a woman – but it wasn’t gratuitous or dwelt on. The actual stoning was over in a couple of sentences, and, given Tsiolkas is a serious writer, I decided to trust that he was going somewhere interesting.

Damascus – the title referencing Saul’s (Paul’s) epiphany regarding Christ on the road to you know where – uses the story of Saul, his acolytes, and people he knew, to explore the first few generations of Christians and, through them, the foundations of Christianity. The media release which accompanied my copy says that the novel “explores the themes that have obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, exile.” Class is the first one to raise its head in the book, and is the one that encouraged me to keep going, because the book reminds us of Christ’s teachings about equality. A few refrains run through the novel, but the first one that captured my attention was “The first will be last, and the last will be first”. It is this teaching, this original Christian belief, that most infuriated Christianity’s opponents. That slaves, for example, should be treated as equal, should sit down at the table with others, was an affront. Given Christianity’s problematic history, I loved being reminded of this fundamental point.

The book, for me, explores two main issues. One is this Christian value of equality – accepting all people as worthy of love and attention. It dominates the first part of the book. However, another issue also raises its head fairly early – through another refrain that ends with “Truly, he is returning” – the Christian belief in the Resurrection. This theological concern occupies much of Saul’s thinking and dominates the book’s ending. In Angela Savage’s YVWF conversation with Tsiolkas, he said that he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. He doesn’t believe in an eternal kingdom, but that finding how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. He therefore chose to include the character of Thomas, the doubter from the Gospel of John, to suggest another direction in which the church could have gone. His Thomas appears in the novel as the apocryphal twin of Jesus, thus giving flesh to the dichotomy between these two world views. This dichotomy is also neatly embodied in the love another of the book’s main characters, Timothy, has for both Saul and Thomas.

So, these were the two themes that kept me interested in the book, but what about the actual experience of reading it? Like many Tsiolkas’ novels, it is a multiple (or “roving”) point-of-view novel. It has a complex structure, comprising two chronologies, as you can see in the following list of the book’s parts:

  • Saul I 35 Anno Domini
  • Hope Lydia, Antioch 57 A.D.
  • Saul II 37 Anno Domini
  • Faith Vrasas, Rome 63 A.D.
  • Saul III 45 Anno Domini
  • Love Timothy, Ephesus 87 A.D.
  • Saul IV 57 Anno Domini

One chronology tells the life, thoughts and inner conflict of Saul, while the other explores the impact of Saul on others. Lydia appears in the biblical book of Acts as the first woman Saul brings to the new religion; Vrasas is his jailer in Rome and has a hatred of those he describes as “death-worshippers”; and Timothy, his companion in the Bible, had a pagan Greek father and a Jewish mother and so embodies, Tsiolkas said, “between world-ness”.

All this is rather complex, and if you don’t know your biblical history you need to concentrate hard on who is who, and where they are going, on the various belief systems and their suspicion if not hatred of each other. You also need to go with Tsiolkas’ view of Saul as a flawed man struggling with his own temptations, his lusts, pride and envy. Tsiolkas’ Saul is a man not a paragon, one who struggles even as he tries to bring the new religion to people on his travels. Here he expresses guilt over his love for Timothy:

Saul falls to his knees on the stony ground. He is sin, he is evil. The storm inside him rages and scorns. He will never conquer the serpent that coils around his loins–its poison floods his heart and mind. What arrogance to believe he is loved by the Lord! How vain to think that he has been chosen by the Saviour. (p. 264)

Inner conflicts like this are well-known, I believe, to Christians.

One of the major joys in reading this book is the characterisation. Lydia, whose first baby is abandoned on the mountains because she is an unwanted girl, is a powerful, but moving character who shares her life as a wife in a seemingly typical merchant family before she takes to the mountains herself. Vrasas, on the other hand, is a brutal character. His section is called, ironically, “Faith”. His faith is a brutal one, and his section contains some of the most brutal scenes in the book, starting with a sacrifice. The aforementioned Timothy, who loves both Saul and Thomas, is a particularly engaging character. His section, “Love”, contains another brutal scene, the punishment of a Jesus-follower by a pagan cult. Timothy, in a way, helps resolve the theological conflict between Saul and Thomas. He sees, I think, the essence of what they both believe. He comes to realise that the point is not the second coming, the cataclysm – though he believes it will come – but the love and hope that are conveyed in the Christian message.

Now, as you have probably realised, Tsiolkas, being Tsiolkas, does not hold back in his graphic descriptions of the brutality of the times. This is not a namby-pamby story but a gritty, mucky, one. It will offend some people in its physicality and viscerality, and it will offend others for its perspective on some much-loved biblical characters, but it is also suffused with one of the main metaphors of Christianity, light. When Saul is grappling with his conversion, “he marvels at the solace of light, the joy it brings him”. It’s a hard-won conversion. At one stage, conflicted by what Ananias’ group is saying, he prepares “to condemn the wicked circle” only to feel “that the light has gone.” Gradually, Ananias teaches Saul to see that Yeshua’s “words were a light” and that this light helps his followers shed darkness, hate, bitterness, cruelty. Light metaphors recur throughout the novel, sustaining characters whenever they feel its presence.

Damascus is not a novel for everyone. Its confronting exploration of the early Christians, alongside the complex history of times that many of us are no longer familiar with, make it a challenging read. However, I related to Tsiolkas’ heart, which aligns with Saul’s “misery at what the world is. At what the world can do”. If only we could recover those original Christian values of loving our neighbour, of treating every person we meet with equal respect, so much of that misery would be gone.

Christos Tsiolkas
Damascus
Crows Nest: Allen  & Unwin, 2019
423pp.
ISBN: 9781760875091

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Steven Carroll, The lost life (#BookReview)

Audiobook coverLast year, Mr Gums and I bought a new car to replace our loved but aging 15-year-old Subaru Forester. We’ve been keen to move into the hybrid world but wanted to stay with the SUV-style for various practical reasons, so, as soon as a reasonably-priced hybrid SUV appeared on the market here – the Toyota RAV4 – we were in, and so far so good. However, the real reason I’m sharing this is because another impetus for buying a new car was all the new technology, including the audio systems that enable you to play music – and books – via your phones. And so it was that I borrowed my first ever e-audiobook from our local library, Steven Carroll’s The lost life. The technology worked a treat.

Long-term readers here know that I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks, for reasons I’ve explained before. Fortunately, the reader here, Deirdre Rubenstein, did an excellent job. She was expressive, appropriately English-sounding, but read more than played the characters. That helps a lot.

So now, the book. I chose it for two reasons – it was short, making it a good test case, and it was by Aussie author Steven Carroll, whom I haven’t read yet, and whose Eliot Quartet series I’ve been wanting to read. The lost life, the first book in this series, is inspired by the poem “Burnt Norton”, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Makes sense, huh! “Burnt Norton” was published in 1935, and most of Carroll’s novel is set in September 1934. The novel is framed by the story of Eliot and Emily Hale*, who did, in fact, visit Burnt Norton manor in 1934, but their love is paralleled by that of a young couple, 18-year-old Catherine and 22-year-old Daniel. Eliot, himself, is a fairly shadowy figure in the story, with the focus here being on Miss Hale and Catherine.

The story starts at Burnt Norton, a country estate to which Catherine and Daniel have gone for a romantic picnic and maybe a swim. It’s summer, and Carroll beautifully evokes the passion beating in the “ardent” young Catherine’s breast as she looks forward to further development of their physical relationship, which has not yet been consummated. But, they are interrupted by the appearance of two older people, who turn out to be, of course, Eliot and Miss Hale, and they scurry away because they are trespassing. However, they do observe, from behind the shrubs, a little lovers’ ceremony between the older couple, one that Daniel later violates, fortunately unbeknownst to Eliot and Miss Hale, but distressing to Catherine.

Here, I might pause and refer to the poem which inspired this novel. It starts:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

A little later come the lines that I remember so well from my university days:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

I don’t know what it is about Eliot’s lines that move me so, but I think it’s their almost confounding spareness and mesmerising rhythm. Putting that aside though, it’s this sense of timelessness, of past, present and future being tied to the here and now, of both stillness and movement, of almost suspended animation too, that pervades Carroll’s novel as the protagonists work through their ideas about love and life.

“a felt experience”

Now, Catherine and Miss Hale know each other, as Catherine’s summer job is cleaning the house in which Miss Hale is staying. The plot is, to a degree, predictable. However, it is not the point. The point is how the characters react and feel about what happens. This is an introspective novel in which the two women reflect on love, their own attitudes to it, and what they see, or think they see, in each other. Miss Hale sees her young self in Catherine, her eighteen-year-old self whose disappointment she does not what to see repeated, while Catherine sees wisdom but also sadness in Miss Hale. She comes to realise, in fact, that Miss Hale, who describes her love with Eliot as “a different kind of love”, is a virgin. It is this experience of love, this mystery that endows a special knowledge, that drives the plot.

There is, though, so much to this novel. The tone is gorgeously melancholic, mirroring the poem that inspired it. Carroll also uses images from the poem – sunlight, roses, light – to suffuse his book with a sense of lost time. Repetitions like “young man of whom great things were expected”, “ardent ways”, and “the woman who won’t let go long after she has any right” add to the melancholic tone, while also anchoring our understanding of the characters.

There is also a link drawn between performance and reality. Catherine sometimes feels she is in a play or story, and this contributes to the theme of “the lost life”. Literally, it is the life Miss Hale lost by waiting all those years for Eliot rather grabbing life herself, but more broadly it can encompass all those lives we never have. Even if we, as Miss Hale realises we should, “grasp our moments as they arrive”, there will always be other lives not taken or lived. As Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.

Ironically, Catherine, who delivers “a felt experience” for Miss Hale, becomes an actor who can “deliver a felt experience on cue”, offering up other lives to her audiences, while living her own moments as they arrive. It’s an inspired conclusion to a book about love, living, and the biggest of them all, time.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Steven Smith
The lost life (Audio)
(Read by Deirdre Rubenstein)
Bolinda Audio, 2010 (Orig. pub. 2009)
5:57 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781742333830

* Check Wikipedia for more on the relationship between Eliot and Hale.

John Clanchy, In whom we trust (#BookReview)

Book coverMy first question when I read a book of historical fiction is why? And so it was for John Clanchy’s latest novel In whom we trust, which is set in Victoria around World War 1, albeit is not about the war. It is, in fact, about a Catholic home for orphaned children, St Barnabas, and three people associated with it, visiting chaplain Father Pearse, and two young people, inmate Thomas Stuart and scullery maid Molly Preston. Of course, when I say “about” St Barnabas, I don’t really mean that. St Barnabas frames the novel, provides its context, but the novel itself is about something far more complex, which gets me back to my opening question, why?

Now there are, to my mind, two main responses to historical fiction. One is to see it as something in the past, something that we might learn from but that overall we can leave firmly in the past. The other is to see its relevance to the present, to look at past actions or events, with the perspective of time, in order to reflect on now. This response also brings in those universals we like to talk about, those things about us that history (or time) doesn’t change. John Clanchy’s In whom we trust demands this second response: it asks us to look at the institutional abuse of children and its long history, and to see the human factors that enabled it then right on through to now. As Hilary Mantel has said, “all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time.”

In his Author’s Note and Acknowledgement, Clanchy thanks publisher Finlay Lloyd for “taking on a difficult book such as this”. What “difficult” does he mean? The difficult content or the difficulty of its execution? Probably both. The content is, of course, difficult. We have St Barnabas run by the tortured and torturing Brother Stanislaus. He is the epitome of the old-school hell-fire-and-damnation Brother. Ravaged by the Church’s constraints (particularly abstinence), he twists the scriptures, the theology, to justify his abuse of those in his care, who include, of course, Thomas and Molly.

However, this book is also “difficult” in its construction, which is not the same as saying that it’s difficult to read, because the story flows beautifully, despite frequent changes in voice or perspective. The story is told from three main – and easily differentiated – points of view: the third person subjective perspectives of Father Pearse and Thomas, and the first person voice of Molly via her diary.

The narrative is framed by a meeting between Thomas and Pearse, at the latter’s parish in Sale, some three years after the abuse had occurred. Gradually, through their conversations and private reflections, and through the insertion of Molly’s diary entries, the back story comes out and Thomas’s request of Pearse is revealed. At this point the diary entries finish and the narrative moves into a simpler chronology as Pearse works to fulfil his promise to Thomas, who has by now enlisted and wants this thing done before he leaves. What he wants done cannot right the wrongs of the past but will hopefully help prevent them continuing in the future. And that’s about all I’ll say about the plot.

“the strange, savage world”

That Clanchy can make such subject matter both engrossing and deeply moving is down to his writing and his understanding of humanity. The novel opens in Father Pearse’s head:

‘There was a boy came while you were out, Father Pearse,’ Mrs Reilly said. And stood.
The woman wanted strangling.

I loved this. So simple, but already we’ve learnt a lot, the main thing being, as the rest of the chapter confirms, that Father Pearse is not your warm-hearted priest. He’s an impatient, easily irritated one, so, when the boy, Thomas, appears, we are predisposed to like him more than we like Pearse. As the novel progresses, Thomas firmly but gently brings Pearse around to being – to use modern parlance – the best version of himself! In other words, Pearse, who is not a bad man, just a weak, cowardly one who “means no real harm”, is brought to see the right and humane thing to do.

This doesn’t come easily though. He is suspicious of and resistant to this trouble-making Thomas. He doesn’t trust him! And here is cornerstone of the novel, trust (as you might have guessed from the novel’s title.) There are many layers of trust in the novel. Clanchy shows how trust develops between people, such as between Molly and Thomas, between Thomas and his indigenous friend from St Barnabas Benton, and, eventually, between Pearse and Thomas. There is trust in authority and institutions, such as that St Barnabas will care for the children entrusted to it. There is trust in forms and rituals, like the confessional. And there is trust that people will do what they promise or undertake to do. All of these – their successes and failures, and the nuances surrounding them – are explored in this novel. The reality of the challenge becomes clear to Pearse late in the novel:

Trust. That was the crux of it. How was anyone meant to find a path through this forest of competing trusts?

Muddying this path are competing – or, shall we just call a spade a spade and say twisted – values and priorities. These include the age-old issue of abstinence and the inviolability of the confessional, and the need, as Pearse’s Bishop makes perfectly clear, to protect “our Mother Church”.

Through all this, Clanchy weaves a compelling, painfully true story about human beings – weak ones, arrogant ones, damaged ones, wise ones, loyal ones. Of all these people, it’s the young Thomas who has the clearest vision. He has, recognises Pearse, the

trick of putting his finger on truths so obvious that most other people, in search for something which redounded more to their own credit, looked right past.

And now, before I conclude, something about the writing, because it is this, alongside Clanchy’s understanding of human motivations and relationships, that make this “difficult” book also a pleasure to read. Clanchy’s ability to nail his points with a few words can take your breath away:

… then Thomas Stuart was equally checked by the massive theological boulder which the priest now rolled into his path.

AND

The crimson cloth of the Bishop’s patience was rapidly becoming threadbare.

The vernacular he creates for Molly’s diary – including words like “tumple” and “fumply” – gives her colour and character. There’s also some clever word play and light ironic touches, not to mention the little biblical in-joke about doubting Thomas, because in this book it’s the priest who doubts Thomas more than vice versa. Indeed, it’s the careful, sure way Clanchy develops the see-sawing doubting-trusting relationship between Pearse and Thomas that provides the novel’s backbone and interest.

There are of course no simple answers to the dilemma facing Father Pearse, and the ending we get is the only one it could be. It’s to Clanchy’s credit that he doesn’t opt for the easy feel-good fix. There are wins along the way but Clanchy knows, and we know, that it would be morally suspect and historically inaccurate to provide the ending we’d like. In whom we trust is a powerful and wonderful read.

John Clanchy
In whom we trust
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2019
251pp
ISBN: 9780994516558

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Melanie Myers, Meet me at Lennon’s (#BookReview)

Book coverI was keen to read Melanie Myers’ debut novel, Meet me at Lennon’s, because it is set during the Brisbane of my mother’s early teens, that is, wartime Brisbane when her school, Somerville House, was commandeered in 1942 by the Australian Military Forces and served as a US Army Headquarters for the rest of the war. I grew up knowing this story, so was keen to see what Myers made of it, particularly since not many literary fiction novels, as far as I know, have tackled Brisbane during those times. Ariella van Luyn spends some time there in Treading air (my review) and David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical novel Johnno, which I read a long time ago, covers those years. However, being five years younger than my mum, Malouf was only 11 when the war ended, so his perspective is necessarily different.

Myers’ focus is the lives of women during those strange, heady days when women experienced new freedoms through filling the jobs left by men. Added to this was the excitement and glamour of the American GIs in town resulting in increased socialising at bars, like the titular Lennon’s Hotel, and dance venues, like the Trocadero.

It’s something isn’t it? It’s hard not to get caught up in the fever of having a common purpose. Uniforms everywhere and everyone feeling what they’re doing is important and useful. And the Americans, let’s not forget them. For all their braggadocio, they’ve certainly brought a touch of glamour to our little colonial outpost. (April 1943. p. 233/4)

But it was a dark time too. It was a time of austerity and rationing. There was tension between the Australian men and the Americans whose cashed-up glamour, with their gifts of “nylons” and fur coats, attracted the women. There was racism towards black American soldiers. And there was sexual violence against women. This is the complex world that Myers explores in her historical novel, Meet me at Lennon’s.

However, this novel is not straight historical fiction because Myers has taken the increasingly-common dual narrative approach, alternating between the 1940s and the present, when protagonist Olivia Wells is struggling, not only with her PhD on the life of a now-forgotten feminist author Gloria Graham, but also with her abusive (as it turns out) boyfriend, Sam, and the reappearance of her estranged father. Just like her 1940s counterparts, Olivia meets an American man. The stage is set in chapter 1 …

You might be getting a glimmer now of why Myers chose the dual narrative approach? It serves to compare the lives of women in the 1940s with those of women now, asking us to consider what, if anything, has changed? Myers undertook extensive research into wartime Brisbane, looking particularly at police and newspaper reports of crimes against women, as well as the infamous Battle of Brisbane. She uses this research to create stories of several young women in the 1940s, stories she winds around a plot based on an unsolved crime – the River Girl murder. Through these women we learn, for example, that crimes by Americans were mostly passed to their Military Police and quietly handled, with justice rarely being obtained for the victim. Such was the River Girl’s fate. Can Olivia and her friends solve it now? There is, then, also a mystery at the heart of this novel.

Myers does a lovely job of recreating the times. Her characters not only engaged me, but they felt authentic. There’s sturdy sensible Alice, who, having worked pre-war as a house-maid for rich people, sees the opportunity, now that she’s in a well-paid job, to buy a fur coat, just like her former employer had owned. To her horror, however, she soon realises that fur coats were “the gift of choice for women whom American servicemen ‘favoured'”. There’s Gwendolyn, engaged to the uninspiring Robert, but now having fun, as the much more exciting Dolly, with the “energetic” Corporal Charles Feely. There are several more, including those in the present time. One of the book’s challenges is keeping track of the characters and clocking the clues that might connect them.

Myers plays about a bit with her dual chronologies. Chapter 4, for example, is divided into three sections, September 1942, July 1942, then August 1942. The aim, I assume, is to reduce the focus on plot tensions, by preparing us for characters’ actions and feelings. In September 1942, Alice burns the above-mentioned fur coat she buys in July 1942. She also remembers a violent act by her brother when they are children, which prepares us for meeting him in August. And Chapter 12 is set in 1993, when we meet again, as an older woman, Alice’s friend Val from 1942. It works fine – and indeed meeting the lively Val again in 1993 provides some light relief, while also moving the more serious issues on.

The writing is generally sure and expressive. Myers writes some evocative descriptions, such as “a confident early sun fixed on warming the rest of the day ahead” and “the vaulted plaster ceiling of Reckitt’s blue was badly deteriorated and hadn’t felt the caress of a paintbrush in decades”. However, for me at least, she does overdo the similes. While, individually, most are fresh, they often felt irrelevant and distracting, such as “like a starlet’s eyelids, the brownout covers …”, “unfolding like a crumpled flamingo, Clio …”, and “the details landed like clumps of pelted sand.” Too much, I’m afraid.

Meet me at Lennon’s, which won the Queensland Literary Awards’ Glendower Award for an Emerging Writer in 2018, is a good and meaningful read about a significant and little covered period in Australia’s and Brisbane’s history. Early in the novel, Olivia’s American acquaintance Tobias refers to the racist segregation of black American soldiers during the war years, and sees a wider relevance:

“A place has got to come to terms with its ugly history, is what I think. Otherwise it metastasises like a cancer cell. And from what I understand, ugly history goes back a lot further here than just the war.” (p. 10)

In the end though, it’s the lives of women which are the central concern of this novel. The final chapter commences with a letter written by Rhia (Gloria Graham) in 1975. She admits that she had hoped to “undo” what had been done to Olive, the River Girl. However, she comes to realise that “there are some evils that no art form can make better, fix or even soothe”. Perhaps she’s right, but novels like this can keep the important issues front and centre – and there’s value in that.

Theresa Smith also appreciated this novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelanie Myers
Meet me at Lennon’s
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
265pp.
ISBN: 9780702262616

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Dominic Smith, The electric hotel (#BookReview)

Book coverI admit to a brief feeling of déjà vu when I started Dominic Smith’s latest novel, The electric hotel, because it starts by telling us that its protagonist 85-year-old Claude Ballard has been living in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles for over thirty years. Not another man living in a hotel like our gentleman in Moscow? Very quickly, though, I realised that this was a very different book. Towles was inspired by the idea of people living in hotels, while Smith was inspired by something completely different, the idea of lost films. The Library of Congress, he says, believes that over 75% of silent films have been lost forever. A figure familiar to retired film archivist me.

What’s the hotel got to do with all this? Well, apparently, the 1929-built Knickerbocker was, for much of its life, closely connected with the film industry. As Claude remembers in the novel, costume designer Irene Lentz committed suicide by jumping from the 11th floor, and silent film director DW Griffiths collapsed in the lobby. Moreover, at least one person, the character actor William Frawley, did live at the hotel for thirty years. However, Smith’s story, unlike Towles’, spends very little time in the hotel. Instead, it follows the life and career of fictional silent filmmaker Claude Ballard, focusing on his most famous film, The electric hotel, which sent him, and the production team, bankrupt, not because it was a failure but because the film inventor Thomas Edison threatened to sue for illegal use of his patented film stock. While Claude and his film are fictional, Edison was a shrewd businessman who did try to control the film industry. Smith’s research, then, looks good, and while I’m not an expert in the silent era or its technology, I felt pretty comfortable with the history – right down to the concerns about the vinegar smell in Claude’s room, although I don’t think the term “vinegar syndrome” was much used in the early 1960s.

For a (retired) film archivist like me, The electric hotel offers a step down memory lane. Indeed, the framing story is that film historian Martin, who is writing his dissertation on innovation in early American silent film, has become interested in Claude’s career. We are neatly given the shell of Claude’s career in the first chapter via his first meetings with Martin. This segues to Chapter 2 and the largest portion of the novel which takes us from the young Claude’s meeting the pioneering Lumière Brothers in the mid 1890s, through to the heyday of his career when he worked with American producer Hal Bender, French actor Sabine Montrose, and Australian stuntman Chip Spalding, and which peaked with the release of The electric hotel in 1908. They are artists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and together they make something quite astonishing. Gradually, however, and for various reasons that I won’t spoil now, they go their separate ways. We follow them through to the end of World War 1, with a couple of forays back to the novel’s original time setting, 1962, where we also end up.

It’s an engrossing read. Smith creates vivid characters, and conveys well the excitement and energy of the early film industry pioneers – Claude’s early fin-de-siècle days in Paris, his travelling around the world with the Lumières’ cinématographe, the development of his career in New York with Hal and Chip, and the war years. It’s a complex story, with a fair share of twists and turns, about art and money, success and failure, and, yes, an artist (Claude) and his muse (Sabine).

What, though, is the book really about? Besides being inspired by the idea of lost films, I mean? Smith himself says, as quoted in the press release, that his ongoing interest is “the gaps and silences of history”.  What does he say about these gaps and silences? I’m not sure, really. I think that perhaps he’s not so interested in commenting on the gaps, as dabbling around in them and bringing them to our attention. This is what he does for silent film, anyhow, but in doing so he also explores the increasing realisation of the power of this new movie medium. Early on Claude tells Sabine that “it turns life into moving pictures”, and a little later, Sabine’s coach and devotee of naturalism, Pavel, says that Claude had “managed to trap real life”. It’s in the war, though, that film’s darker potential becomes obvious, as German soldier Bessler forces Claude to produce the perfect propaganda movie, The victor’s crown. Claude, however, manages to subvert it to his own ends, proving to Bessler’s detriment that, indeed, “the camera sees the truth”!

The book is also an ode to the drive, the obsession, to produce art – and to the price paid by those who have this drive. Claude, who never goes anywhere without his camera, keeps his most personal negatives undeveloped because “until that second they hit the chemical bath, every image is perfect in my mind”. I’m sure many creators understand this.

But the book also has a personal dimension. It’s about love and loss, about escaping, hiding, and stalling. Claude’s personal life is peppered with loss, from which he never really recovers. He tells Martin, “I had every intention of starting over. It was like an errand I meant to run for fifty years.” And, late in the novel he says:

… the past never stops banging at the doors of the present. We pack it into watered suitcases, lock it into rusting metal trunks beneath our beds, press it between yellowed pages of newsprint, but it hangs over us at night like a poisonous cloud, seeps into our shirt collars and bedclothes.

It’s good writing – expressive, but controlled, and never overdone.

The smug German Bessler tells Claude that “art is art wherever it blooms”. The electric hotel explores that in all its glorious messiness.

Dominic Smith
The electric hotel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2019
349pp.
ISBN: 9781760528621

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol. 1 (#BookReview)

I admit it, I’m defeated – not because I’m not enjoying it, but because it needs more attention than my distracted brain can give it right now. Consequently, I am posting on just the first volume of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I read it for my Jane Austen meeting last weekend. We did Scott for two reasons: he was highly impressed by Austen’s writing, and Austen liked his!

Waverley was published in 1814, and Austen mentioned it in a letter to her niece Anna Austen that year (which was just three years before she died). She said, in her inimitable Austen way:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must… (28 September 1814)

And I must too, really, I must, notwithstanding my decision to not continue!

And Walter Scott is worth liking, because he liked Austen! Here are three references he made to Austen in his journal a decade after she died:

Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early! Journal, 14/3/1826)

AND

The women do this better – Edgeworth, [Susan] Ferrier, Austen have all had their portraits of real society, far superior to anything man, vain man, has produced of the like nature. (28/3/826)

AND

Wrote five pages of the _Tales_. Walked from Huntly Burn, having gone in the carriage. Smoked my cigar with Lockhart after dinner, and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable. (Journal, 18/9/1827)

Waverley

Waverley book coverWaverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction. Its subtitle, “Or, Sixty years since”, tells us its historical setting, which is, specifically, the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The plot concerns Edward Waverley, an idealistic, impractical young man who joins the army, and is sent to the Scottish Highlands. He meets passionate Scottish patriots, Fergus and his sister Flora, who support Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), and is attracted to their cause. Not a wise move! Initially published anonymously, Waverley was a big success, marking, says Penguin’s blurb, “the start of his extraordinary literary success”.

So, why do I like it, and yet am not planning to finish it? I like it for its humour and Austen-like observations on human nature. I like the way the novel starts with Scott, as first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character Waverley’s name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”), and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – including Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:

By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on  his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.

Examples of his Austen-like observations, include:

Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure; (Ch. 4)

AND

There is no better antidote against entertaining too high an opinion of others, than having an excellent one of ourselves at the very same time. (Ch. 5)

There are many satirical or humorous comments made in this first volume, such this to the modern “soft” education methods:

I am aware I may be here reminded of the necessity of rendering instruction agreeable to youth, and of Tasso’s infusion of honey into the medicine prepared for a child;

Unfortunately, this method, he argues, did not serve our young hero well:

With a desire of amusement therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books, like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder.

Don’t you love that image, “like a vessel without a rudder”? Anyhow, he then elaborates on the ills of unstructured, uncritical reading.

Later, he describes Waverley’s arrival in the Highlands:

Three or four village girls, returning from the well or brook with pitchers and pails upon their heads, formed more pleasing objects, and with their thin short-gowns and single petticoats, bare arms, legs, and feet, uncovered heads and braided hair, somewhat resembled Italian forms of landscape. Nor could a lover of the picturesque have challenged either the elegance of their costume, or the symmetry of their shape, although, to say the truth, a mere Englishman, in search of the comfortable, a word peculiar to his native tongue, might have wished the clothes less scanty, the feet and legs somewhat protected from the weather, the head and complexion shrouded from the sun, or perhaps might even have thought the whole person and dress considerably improved by a plentiful application of spring water, with a quantum sufficit of soap. The whole scene was depressing, for it argued, at the first glance, at least a stagnation of industry, and perhaps of intellect.

This paragraph has so much in it: the cheeky reference to the mania for “the picturesque“, the “dig” at the English (and their preference for comfort, and, by implication, for “niceness”), and the social commentary regarding the poverty of the peasants.

Now, I know some people don’t like authors who talk to you. I understand it destroys their engagement – the fantasy that what they are reading is “real” – but I don’t feel that way. It could be argued, I think, that this style particularly suits historical fiction because it can remind us that this is someone telling us a story and that we need to think about what we are being told? Anyhow, I did start Volume 2, which opens:

Shall this be a short or a long chapter?—This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences; just as probably you may (like myself) have nothing to do with the imposing a new tax, excepting the trifling circumstance of being obliged to pay it.

Haha, eh?

However, the book is slow reading. There are so many long descriptions, and, in my Kindle version, the frequently appearing blue-links to footnotes kept distracting my eye, regardless of whether I decided to click on them or not! I just can’t love it enough, right now, to finish it.

So, I’ll leave you with Penguin’s praise that “with its vivid depiction of the wild Highland landscapes and patriotic clansmen, Waverley is a brilliant evocation of the old Scotland – a world Scott believed was swiftly disappearing in the face of a new, modern era.” Scott’s heart was in the right place. He treated his oppressed characters (peasants, for example) with respect, and he recognised that defeat was often accompanied by loss of culture. He is worth reading!

Sir Walter Scott
Waverley, Vol. 1
Penguin Classics, 2004 (Orig. pub. 1814)
388pp.
ASIN: B002RI9IQU
ISBN: 978-0140430714

Tony Birch, The white girl (#BookReview)

Book coverWe need more novels like Tony Birch’s The white girl and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip. This is not to say that we don’t need all the wonderful Indigenous Australian literature I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but some of the books, as excellent (and as beloved by me) as they are, can be more challenging to read. The white girl and Too much lip, on the other hand, are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience, but will they? I sure hope so, because the truths they tell are crucial for all Australians to know if we are to ever become a more mature and united nation.

In other words, it’s not only for their page-turning quality, that I paired these two novels. They have some other similarities, which I’ll briefly address before focusing on The white girl. Both novels are set in rural areas, though Birch’s novel also spends some time in the city, and both have female protagonists, though Birch’s Odette is a grandmother while Lucashenko’s Kerry is a 30-something, not-yet-settled woman. Most importantly, though, both reference long-term issues (the aforementioned truths) that have affected indigenous lives for generations, including, of course, the stolen generations, dispossession and powerlessness, past atrocities, and entrenched institutional discrimination.

However, beyond these, the novels are very different. For a start, Birch’s The white girl, being set in the 1960s, fits into the historical fiction genre whilst Lucashenko’s novel is contemporary. Moreover, Lucashenko’s is more complex and has more humour, albeit of the black sort, than Birch’s more straight drama, so let’s now get to it. Unlike Birch’s previous novel, Ghost river, which is set in Melbourne, The white girl, is set in a fictional town, Deane, and an unnamed city. This effectively universalises the story to suit any part of Australia, making it difficult to shrug off the issues as not relevant to our own places.

The basic plot of The white girl concerns Odette’s determination to save her grand-daughter, Sissy, from falling under the control of white authorities, because this novel is set at a time in Australia when indigenous people came under the Act, an act which meant they could not travel away from where they lived without permission. It also meant that the state was legal guardian of children like Sissy. Things come to a head for Odette and Sissy when a new and more officious policeman, Sergeant Lowe, comes to town to replace the alcoholic, and generally more laissez-faire Bill Shea. Odette feels the time is ripe to reunite Sissy with her mother, Lila, who had left soon after Sissy was born, and who, Odette realises some way into the story, had good reason to disappear.

Birch has set his novel at a time of transition. It’s well into the Menzies era, and indigenous people are becoming more actively engaged in fighting for their rights. Sergeant Lowe, though, is not impressed. When Odette approaches him for the necessary permissions to travel, he refuses, telling her (with the about-to-retire Shea also in his hearing):

‘The whole business of native welfare has been neglected in this district for many years. I will not allow it to continue. Your people need certainty, just as we do, as officers of the Crown. None of this is helped, of course, by those trouble-makers arguing for citizenship of behalf of your people.’

The divisive language (“your people”) and the assertion of absolute power (“I will not allow it to continue”) reflect classic colonial behaviours that ramp up the level of threat felt by Odette. This threat is exacerbated by the presence of a brutal white family in the district, the Kanes, comprising a father and two sons. Lowe is somewhat aware of their trouble-making, but only insofar as it affects another white person in the district, the gentle, brain-damaged Henry who owns the local junkyard. To some extent the book’s characters are stereotypical, but Birch’s story-telling is such that they don’t become – at least not unreasonably so – caricatures. This is partly because they are fleshed out with back-stories. It’s not particularly complex story-telling – the back stories, for example, are common ones – but the novel is believable, perhaps because they are common.

As Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Birch also references traditional culture and its ongoing role in people’s lives. Odette, like many indigenous people, listens to messages from birds (“a morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”) and to the “old people” from whom she believes her strength comes. Birch also beautifully conveys indigenous people’s resourcefulness in the face of a dominant white culture. For example, Odette’s father tells her, when she’s a young girl, why she should sing in the mission church even though they don’t believe in “their God”:

‘Because it’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.’

And Odette’s response, when asked for her “tribal name” by a patronising white woman who offers her piece-work employment as a card artist, provides a typical example of indigenous response to such self-interested nosiness:

It never failed to surprise Odette how white people were always going on about uplifting Aboriginal people, yet they would demand information about the old ways when it suited them. She looked over to the honey jar sitting on the bread board and read the label to herself. It sounded tribal enough. ‘We’re the Bilga people, ‘ she explained. ‘That’s my tribe. The Bilgas.’

What Birch shows, then, is that survival for indigenous people was (and mostly still is) quite a cat-and-mouse game. It involves “taking a chance with these white people”. This is a risk, Odette and her friends realise, but is often all they have. And that, I think, is the main message Birch wants to leave with his non-indigenous readers. The question is, can we rise to the challenge, and be trusted? Are we prepared to heed the truths being shared? So far, I’d say, the jury is still out.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book. Read for ANZLitLovers ILW2019.

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Tony Birch
The white girl
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
265pp.
ISBN: 9780702260384

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of men (#BookReview)

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone’s latest novel, Bodies of men, is a brave book – and not because it’s a World War 2 story about love between two soldiers at at time when such relationships were taboo, though there is that. No, I mean, because it’s a World War 2 story that was inspired by Featherstone’s three-month writer-in-residence stint at the Australian Defence Force Academy, in 2013. That’s not particularly brave, you are probably thinking, but wait, there’s more. What’s brave is that this novel, this story inspired by that residency, is about some darker sides of war – it’s about deserters, and violence from your own side, for a start … It’s certainly not about heroics, or, to be accurate, not the sort of heroics you’d expect. Courage, it shows, comes in many forms.

Here is what self-described pacifist Featherstone wrote in his blog two months into his residency:

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’ …  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

So, what did Featherstone actually write? It’s the story of two Australian soldiers from Sydney. William is from a conservative, well-to-do North Shore Sydney family, with a Member of Parliament father, while James comes from a poorer working class family, with a widowed mother who runs a shop but who’s also a socialist, a pacifist, and committed to helping homeless people. The boys had met and spent a few times together in their youth, but had lost touch for some years – until they find themselves in Egypt in 1941.

The novel opens with a reconnaissance that turns into an ambush. At an important moment, William, just off the boat, prevaricates, but James, there with a different military section, takes the initiative, and saves the day. The men vaguely recognise each other – “The officer”, thinks James, “does look familiar … but no it can’t be” – but have no opportunity to follow up, each returning immediately to their sections. From here the narrative, told third person from the alternating perspectives of William and James, follows the two men on their different paths. William, soon to be a lieutenant, is sent to manage a training camp in the desert. Believing he needs to redeem himself from that first experience of action, he sees this as an opportunity. He excels as a leader of men, finding the right balance between toughness and friendliness, but is dogged by his cold father’s voice, and worries about his ability to be the man his father expects. However, his mind is on that young man he glimpsed. Meanwhile, James goes AWOL on a military motorbike, which he crashes. Luckily, a family takes him in, a family which has its own tricky background and secrets, but James is just the right person to not rock their boat, so a warm relationship develops.

It’s not long before William works out a way of tracking James down. The story is told chronologically, but with frequent flashbacks which fill in that boyhood friendship. It was short, but intense. Both felt it, but William, in particular, struggled to understand it. It is therefore James, who, upon their renewed acquaintance, takes the lead – and the novel becomes, in part, a love story. Featherstone finds the right balance, here, conveying their tenderness and warmth, without sentimentality. We are never allowed to forget that this is war-time, and that both William and James are taking serious risks in their desire to be together.

However, this is not simply a boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy-finds-boy again story. As mentioned above, Featherstone’s goal was to explore what it means to be a good man, against the backdrop of war. We do see some action, besides that opening scene, and there is an over-riding sense that something sinister could happen at any moment, but the main theme concerns men and their reactions to their circumstances – soldiers, men in hiding, men displaced, men in resistance. Each of these men provides the reader with a perspective on how men might choose to be. Courage and risk-taking, passion for a cause, recklessness, fear, commitment to helping others, tenderness and kindness – all of these come into play as the story progresses. And, as in all good novels, there are no simple answers. A love story this might be, but a genre romance or war-story it’s not.

How does Featherstone achieve this? Well, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint these things, isn’t it? In a later post on his blog, Featherstone says that he wrote 38 drafts. You can tell this, and yet you can’t tell. You can tell, because you can feel the craft in the book. You can’t tell, because it also feels organic, not overworked. There’s skill in that. This skill includes the characterisation. William and James are sensitively fleshed out, well individuated, and grow through their experiences. But there are other characters too, including two strong women characters. James’ grounded, supportive mother is one, and open-minded Yetta, the woman who cares for James after his accident is another. It is she who articulates some of the novel’s main messages, including:

‘People must care for people. It’s not more complicated than that.’

There’s skill also in the narrative structure. The novel has a lightly episodic touch, with little breaks marked on the paper between “scenes”, but the story nonetheless flows. These breaks simply provide a way for the narrative to be progressed without unnecessary explication.

And, of course, there’s the writing. It’s spare, and yet perfectly evocative – of life at William’s desert camp, of the nervous busy-ness of war-time Alexandria where wells of quietness can also be found, and of William and James’ love. Here’s an example showing the edgy sort of tone Featherstone creates:

But now, something new: he was – he and James both were – sliding into the back seat of a car. They were being driven along one of Alexandria’s palm-lined boulevards; before long they were surrounded by blackness. William wound down his window and was about to yell, BUGGER THE WAR! – the night was getting away from him – but he managed to drag the words back down to where they belonged, in the pit of his gut.

Bodies of men, then, is a war novel that questions war. But, it is told with a generous touch that doesn’t undermine or betray those who choose to go. It’s a page-turner, underpinned by a fundamental understanding of humanity. It’s a very good read.

Nigel Featherstone
Bodies of men
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019
324pp.
ISBN: 9780733640704

 

Janet Lee, The killing of Louisa (#BookReview)

Book coverI started reading Janet Lee’s historical fiction The killing of Louisa straight after reading Amor Towles’ A gentleman in Moscow (my review), which is also a work of historical fiction. They couldn’t be more different. Not only is one about a real historical figure in late 19th century Australia, while the other is about a fictional one in 20th century Bolshevik Russia, but one is told first person present tense, while the other is third person past tense.

Now, when first person present tense started appearing on the contemporary literary scene as the style-du-jour, I rather liked it. I liked its freshness, and the sense it gave of speaking directly to me. But then it started to wear a bit thin. This is not to say that I don’t like it – ever – just that it can be overused and not necessarily add to the experience. I loved the measured, sometimes wry, third person voice in Towles’ novel. It suited a book that seemed to be critiquing both human nature and an historical period. Did the first person voice suit Lee’s novel?

Well, let’s see. The novel is about Louisa Collins who, in 1889, was the last woman to be hanged in New South Wales. Her story is a horrifying one: she was tried four times for murder, with the fourth trial convicting her after the three previous ones failed to come to a decision. There’s more to it though, in that the first two were for the murder, by poison, of her second husband. When the juries could not agree, she was charged with the murder, also by poison, of her first husband. When that too failed, they returned to the first husband, and finally a guilty verdict was achieved, largely using the testimony of Louisa’s 11-year-old daughter May who admitted to seeing a box of “Rough on Rats” in the kitchen. The novel tells this story from Louisa’s point of view.

Formally, the story takes place over six weeks, from 26 November 1888, when she is in gaol waiting for her fourth trail, to 8 January 1889, when she is executed. However, of course, we want to know the full story of Louisa’s life and how she got to be where she was. Lee does this by having her tell her story to the prison chaplain, Canon Rich, while she awaits her execution.

It’s a moving story – of course. Born to a poor family in a country town, Louisa, when still a young teen, is found a job in the home of a lawyer by, it seems, the mother of a wealthy young man who fears her son is becoming too close to the girl. Louisa’s employer is good to her, and she’s happy, but at the age of 18, she is married her off to a man around 15 years her senior whom she barely knows. Charles is a butcher with his own business, and they both work hard, but, more through bad luck than bad management, the family, which seemed to be making a go of it, ends up living in Sydney, and poor. They take in boarders to supplement their income. It’s a world, of course, where women had no rights and little power, though Louisa does stand up for herself within her marriage, exerting a right to wrest some enjoyment out of her life. Things, however, become complicated when the flashy, confident Michael appears on the scene.

All, or most of, this Louisa tells Rich, with a fair degree of self-knowledge about her own failings but also with some insights into human nature (such as how recollections can change!) and how the world works. On her mistress spending years in mourning for a dead baby, Louisa says to Rich:

But the Missus had become like this because she was allowed to dwell upon her sadness for so long. Sometimes folk who suffer a tragedy can pick themselves up and dust themselves off and keep going on through life, and it is often the poorer ones who do this because they don’t have the luxury to stop and mourn […]

Mourning and feeling feeble is a luxury, and it is my observation that only the rich have that luxury, sir.

Louisa is not speaking from theory here; she has learnt the truth through her own experiences of loss.

However, hers a tricky story to tell, because, ultimately, we don’t know whether she was guilty or not, and Lee is not about producing a work of romantic fiction. So, she needs to tread a fine line. Using the primary resources available to her which comprise some letters, court and parliamentary records, and newspaper reports, she tells Louisa’s story.

And Louisa’s story is worth telling for several reasons. First, there’s that reason why many of us enjoy historical fiction, which is to learn, to feel, the social history of a period. Louisa’s first person voice conveys perfectly the lives of poor working women of the time – the hard work, the dust and grime, the worry, the powerlessness. She also conveys her increasing awareness of the need for representation for women in parliament. Knowing where we’ve come from and why we should do all we can not to go back there is a good reason for reading books like this.

But, unfortunately, the book also reminds us of how far we still have to go. One of the features of Louisa’s case is that old story of women being tried by society and the media for not behaving with the propriety expected of them. Louisa likes to have a good time, so she would dance and drink when an opportunity arose, and she argues for her right to do so. Worse though, she appears “cold” after the deaths of her husbands. She doesn’t wear mourning and she doesn’t cry and wring her hands. Heard that before? (Australians will immediately recall the Lindy Chamberlain case.) Louisa’s awareness of this issue is supported in the text by well-placed excerpts from primary sources, such as the snide remark in Parliament, comprising all men of course, about her “method of procuring divorce by means of arsenic”. The problem is that, still, even after Lindy Chamberlain, things haven’t changed, or not changed enough … we still have trial-by-media and women are still excoriated for not behaving in a so-called “womanly” way.

Janet Lee’s is not the first book about Louisa Collins. In 2014, journalist Caroline Overington published her history, Last woman hanged, after researching the case for some years. I haven’t read that, but I understand that she too presents an “open” story, that is, one that leaves it to the reader to consider the rights and wrongs of the case. And that, I think, is the right way to handle this story. What is wrong, though, is capital punishment! It is wrong for so many reasons, but one of the greatest of these is the risk of executing innocent people.

But now back to my original question regarding voice. As I started The killing of Louisa, I felt I wanted a third person omniscient voice telling this story. I wanted a considered voice giving me the pros and cons of the case. However, as I read on, I became engaged by Louisa’s voice, particularly by the tone Lee achieves which, while containing an element of sorrow and self-pity, is neither pathetic nor whiny. By adding excerpts from the sources, Lee provides some of that overview I wanted.

The killing of Louisa, then, is not only an engrossing story about a shameful case from the past, but one that intelligently grapples with the challenges of presenting such a case through historical fiction.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJanet Lee
The killing of Louisa
St Lucia: UQP, 2018
268pp.
ISBN: 9780702260223

(Review copy courtesy UQP)