Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)
I even get nervous when I open a book, you know, for the first time. It’s the same thing, isn’t it. You never know what you’ll find, do you? Each person, each book, is like a new world … (from Mark Henshaw’s Out of the line of fire, in The invisible thread)
At last, you may be thinking, she’s going to review the whole book. At least, I hope that’s what you’re thinking, because this book deserves a dedicated review rather than the scattered posts I’ve done to date. The book I’m talking about is, of course, Canberra’s centenary anthology The invisible thread.
The aim of the anthology is a little different to that of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue, which I recently reviewed. While its editor, Sanders, wanted to offer “a taste of Canberra”, Gold’s aim was to present “literature of excellence” from writers, past and present, who have had a significant relationship with Canberra. For her, Canberra is “not the headline act” but provides “the invisible thread” linking the writers to each other and to the rest of Australia. In her foreword, Robyn Archer, the centenary’s Creative Director, puts it this way:
Many of the pieces are not about Canberra, but they reveal a diversity of interest and style among writers in this region, and thus reflect the unique nature of a city which is located rurally, but positioned nationally.
In other words, The invisible thread is not a parochial apologia for Canberra but an intelligent presentation of the city’s and thence the nation’s cultural, political, social and interpersonal life. The nation’s concerns are Canberra’s concerns – at both the macro (war, indigenous-non indigenous relationships, the environment, and so on) and the micro (birth, marriage, death, and everything in between) levels. You would be hard-pressed as an Australian, or even as an international citizen, not to find something in this book to interest and move you.
Reviewing an anthology is tricky though, and this is particularly so with The invisible thread because it comprises highly diverse pieces – poems, short stories, essays, and excerpts of novels and non-fiction works. The pieces are not grouped by form, like the Meanjin issue, but in a more organic way intended to take us on a journey in which, editor Irma Gold writes in her Preface, “each work is allowed to converse with those beside it”. And so, in preparation for my reading group’s discussion, I went back to the start and read the book in the order presented. What a pleasure that turned out to be because I did indeed discover added meanings that weren’t necessarily apparent from the dipping-in-and-out approach I had been using.
Let me give an example. The anthology opens with an excerpt from war historian CEW Bean’s Anzac to Amiens, itself a condensation of his Official history of the first world war. I knew of Bean but had not read his history. I was surprised by his use of imagery, such as this:
And out on every beautiful fresh morning of spring come the butterflies of modern warfare – two or three of our own planes, low down …
After another war-related non-fiction piece, the anthology segues to a short story (“The Good Shoppers”) by Lesley Lebkowicz, which is about her refugee parents, now old and shopping in the supermarket but still affected by the Holocaust, and then to two poems about age (Judith Wright‘s “Counting in sevens” and AD Hope‘s “Meditation on a Bone”). The “conversation” encouraged by this sequence is complex and, I expect, different for each reader. For me, the juxtaposition suggests an irony: “war” steals “age” from many of the youths sent to it. This is just one small example of the sorts of “conversations” Gold has set up in the anthology. Considering them as I read the book added another layer to an enjoyable reading experience. I like reading that challenges my brain on multiple levels.
Compiling an anthology involves, obviously, selecting what to include. It must be hard enough to choose poems, short stories and essays, but what about writers who are best (or only) known for novels or non-fiction books? They can only be represented through excerpts, but there is the risk that these cut-down pieces will be less satisfying to read. Alternatively, of course, they might encourage us to locate the full work and read it. The Bean example above is an excerpt. There are many others, including those from Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill, Jack Heath‘s Third transmission, and Roger McDonald‘s When colts ran. I have noted many to follow-up, which tells you how I found the excerpts overall!
A trickier challenge, probably, is that of representing diversity – not just regarding chronology, subject-matter, tone, and form or genre, but in terms of the writers themselves, such as their gender, or whether they are of indigenous, migrant or other minority background. What emphasis should be given to these in the selection process? And, anyhow, should the writer’s background be highlighted? I’m not sure what Gold and her committee decided about this but the anthology, while primarily representative of the majority culture, is not exclusively so and probably reflects the writing community it drew from.
This is not the last you’ll hear from me on the anthology. It is much too delicious, much too rich, much too full of “luminous moments”* for me not to continue to draw from it. I’m possibly – probably? – biased, but I believe this book should be on every Australian bookshelf and, without disrespecting Irma Gold’s hard work, I’d say it doesn’t really matter whether you read it in its original order or just dip into it as the spirit moves you. What would matter would be to not read any of it at all.
Irma Gold (ed)
The invisible thread: One hundred years of words
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2012
* from Marion Halligan’s essay “Luminous moments” which concludes the book.