Leah Swann, Sheerwater (#BookReview)

Book cover

I’ve been wanting to read Leah Swann’s Sheerwater, having read and enjoyed, a few years ago, her short story collection, Bearings (my review). However, I didn’t get around to buying a copy, so was pleased to see it available as an audio book when I was looking for listening matter for our recent Melbourne trip. I thought we’d finish it on the trip but, in the end, the sightseeing was so interesting that we listened less than we thought we would. We’ve finished it now!

But, how to write about a crime book in which the main mystery – the disappearance of two boys – is resolved for us early on. At least, resolved in the sense that we discover what has happened to them and who was involved. As it turns out, though – and we learn this quickly – there’s another story to tell, and it’s a powerful, terrifying and unfortunately only too relevant one, a story of domestic violence, of power and control that isolates those who are vulnerable.

Interestingly, the novel’s opening reminded me strongly of the unforgettable opening to Ian McEwan’s Enduring love, which, as it happens, is also about dysfunctional love, albeit a different sort. There is also an ironic allusion to Australian literature’s “lost child” motif, when Ava thinks “this was a Continent where you could still get lost”, because these children aren’t “lost” – per se!

Anyhow, the story takes place over three days, and is told in alternating 3rd person voices, primarily those of the mother Ava, father Laurence, and 9-year-old Max who is the older of the two sons. Swann does an impressive job of getting into the heads of these disparate characters. Each one feels psychologically real, and their stories are compelling – well, most of their stories. Laurence is way too chilling to be compelling, but he is scarily real.

Now, I’m not going to write my usual sort of review, because listening to a novel (particularly while driving) doesn’t provide the same opportunity for reflection (and note-taking) that reading does, and certainly not for recording quotes, though I did jot down a few when I wasn’t the driver. The novel falls into the literary crime category, I’d say, for several reasons: it’s not a traditional crime novel; it’s told from multiple points of view; and the language is highly descriptive, if not poetic.

The title Sheerwater, for example, has multiple meanings. There’s the literal one, it being the name of the town that Ava is escaping to, and a literal and metaphorical one in that shearwaters (or, mutton birds), at the time the book is set, are doing their big migration south. They start the novel and each of the three days (if I remember correctly). There’s a sense that their impressive endurance mirrors that of women like Ava, and their arduous journey that of the boys. If we push it, there could also be a play on the words “sheer water” given the multiple meanings of “sheer” (pure, perfect, precipitous) and the role of water and the sea in the novel.

“We become evil when we hide the truth from ourselves” (Mother)

Swann creates a melancholic tone early on with phrases like “no pity under its wings”, and “sea of shipwrecks and stolen lives”. The no-nonsense but ultimately supportive policewoman Ballard is described by Ava as having a face like the “impermeable slap of seawashed stone”. It’s not all completely grim though. There is a lot of love, and Ava’s comment on one person’s kindness being enough to sustain a whole childhood is beautiful albeit, in a sense, prophetic.

So, was this book good to listen to? Yes, and no. Katherine Tonkin reads it well, including bursting into little verses of song when required. I didn’t find her voice intrusive, which can be a problem with audiobooks. However, for me, such highly descriptive books are better read than listened to. Somehow, when listening, there’s a greater sense of wanting to get on with the story. The descriptions and internal ruminations got in the way of that, whereas reading it would have allowed me to better absorb the language and descriptions, to feel and consider them, so I’m sorry about that.

Still, the narrative is strong, and it grabbed our attention, forcing us to think hard about each character, their truthfulness, their motivations, and the soundness of their actions. Who would you believe, and what would you do (if you were any of the characters involved), are the questions you confront as you read. The ending is also strong, emotional – and, dare I say it, appropriate.

In Sheerwater, Swann uses fiction to put flesh on the media stories we hear about domestic violence, encouraging us to see behind the stories to feel the confusion, roller-coaster emotions, helplessness and terror that those involved experience. Sheerwater is a book that says something.

Read for Reading Matters Southern Cross Crime Month

Challenge logo

Leah Swann
(Read by Katherine Tonkin)
Bolinda/HarperCollins Audio, 2020
8hrs 44min (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781460782354

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival

Program BannerWith information coming from every which way, I’m not sure how I heard about the Writers in Residence online festival. Organised by The Writers Bloc and inspired by Isol-Aid, its aim was to “ask some of Australia’s most exciting emerging writers to read from their new books” and share “what they’ve been reading in isolation”.

It ran from 5pm to 9.40pm on Monday, and involved 14 writers, each on for 20 minutes. All interviews were conducted by Geoff Orton, an English and Geography teacher and a founder of Writers Bloc. The format was that each writer provided some background to their book, did a 10-minute reading from the book, and shared some isolation reading.

I only managed to hear 6 properly, as 5-9.40pm is a pretty difficult time-frame, but I enjoyed what I heard. It looked like there were 50 to 75 people viewing throughout the evening. Here are the writers I watched …

5pm: Shannon Molloy

Book coverMolloy’s book, simply titled Fourteen, was published in March. It is an autobiographical coming-of-age memoir about being a gay teen. It is set in Yeppoon, in regional Queensland, in 2000. Molloy admitted that his story is harrowing, but believes it also has a strong message of hope. He wants kids “to know there is an end in sight”.

The excerpt he read described the annual coral spawn, which he sees as “the best metaphor for Yeppoon”. I understood this to mean that Yeppon is “pretty” but is also “a bit off”. (Apparently coral spawns give off a smell.)  He described how he “became a pastime for bored kids”. “I was there to taunt, to abuse, to bash”, he said.

To write his book, he drew on memories, talked with his mother and siblings, and listened to bad pop music from the era! Pop music, he said, was a way of accessing the outside world, of escaping.

5.20pm Katherine Tamiko Arguile

Book coverArguile’s debut novel, The things she owned, was published in late April. Describing herself as “from all over the place”, Arguile, was introduced by Orton as a Japanese-British-Australian artist and journalist. She explained the title of her book. The things are objects which the protagonist, Erika, inherited from her mother, Michiko. Erika is half-Japanese like Arguile, and the novel draws from her own experience. However, as she stressed, The things she owned is a novel, and Michiko is nothing like her own mother.

The novel is about Erika coming to terms with the death of her mother, which she gradually comes to accept by discovering the stories associated with the things her mother owned. Apparently, the book was the creative component of a thesis for a course at the University of Adelaide. Her research was about “grief and objects”, which is a topic other viewers, like myself, would love to have explored more.

Arguile noted that the things in the book are things she herself owns. These non-fictional objects anchored both her and the story, she said.

Orton commented on the role of the ocean in the book. Arguile replied that it hadn’t been something she’d planned but she’d realised later its strong presence. She referred to the Jungian understanding of water as “something unseen, something that lies underneath the conscious mind”. Makes perfect sense for a book about grief.

5.40pm Leah Swann

Book coverSwann’s novel Sheerwater, which was published in March, is garnering a lot of reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. (I’ve reviewed her short story collection, Bearings). The novel starts with a mother driving with her two young sons. They witness a light plane accident, to which the mother goes to see if she can help. When she returns to her car, the boys are nowhere to be found.

Journalist and speechwriter Swann said the idea had come to her during a road trip some time ago, but that, as the mother of young children at the time, she wasn’t prepared “to go there”. Understandable! When she did decide to do it, she found it easy to write the first draft. She just kept writing, seeing where it would take her. The first draft was 130,000 words, with the final book, four or five drafts later, being around 70,000 words. Like Arguile, she doesn’t plan her books. What she loves about writing is discovering things.

I did note her lockdown reading: Meg Mundell’s We are here (Affirm Press), which she described as “beautiful essays by people who have experienced homelessness”; and Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss, whose publication has been delayed until September, because of COVID-19 I believe.

7pm Pip Williams

Book coverThe dictionary of lost words, published in late March, is Pip Williams’ debut novel, though she has written other books. She was one of the reasons I was keen to register for this event as I gave this book to my mother for Easter. She, a retired lexicographer, loved it.

If you’ve heard of the book (see Lisa’s review), you won’t be surprised to hear that she was inspired by Simon Winchester’s The surgeon of Crowthorne. Williams said that she saw that the OED (Oxford English dictionary) was a completely male endeavour, that the lexicographers, contributors, and workers were mostly men, and most of the literature they referred to was by men. It made her wonder whether “words mean different things to men and women, and if they do what does that mean for the OED?”

She talked a little about the OED, and her research (which included reading a lot of the OED). After her reading, Orton asked whether she’d found any “hilarious” words. She had, of course, but decided to share some interesting ones. For example, “teen” used to mean “vexed”, “irritate”, and “teenful” meant “causing trouble or sorrow”. Has this played a role in our word “teenager”, she wondered! She discussed the word “bondmaid”, which went missing from the dictionary, and she shared the word “anythingarian”which describes a person with no belief in anything. Perhaps I, a self-described wishy-washy person, is an “anythingarian”!

Her lockdown reading included another Affirm Press novel, Rachael Mead’s upcoming novel The application of pressure.

7.20pm Sophie Hardcastle

Book coverArtist and writer Hardcastle’s novel Below deck, was published in March and is her first novel for adults. It is divided into four parts, with the last being set in Antarctica. Hardcastle had had, she said, an artist’s residency in Antarctica. She wanted to write a work that explored “climate change and our relationship with the natural world.” She thought that a story of the body being violated could work as a metaphor for the environment being violated. The rest of the conversation, however, didn’t really discuss this aspect further.

Asked, whether the story changed as she was writing it, she said that the bones of the story stayed the same, but because it’s a book about trauma, about the way the body remembers trauma, this did come out more during the writing. She wanted, also, to explore, the myths around rape culture. Orton briefly mentioned synesthesia, which both Hardcastle and her protagonist have, but there was no time to discuss this.

Hardcastle’s lockdown reading included Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Jenny Offill’s Weather (which reminded her of Max Porter, she said.)

7.40pm Laura Jean McKay

Book coverMcKay’s novel, Animals in that country, was published in late March. It’s another I had bought as an Easter gift, because, not only did it seem appropriate for the times, given it involves a flu pandemic, but it sounded innovative and feminist. Right up Daughter Gums alley! The novel does have talking animals, including a dingo called Sue! McKay had spent time in a Northern Territory wildlife park as part of a writer-in-residence program, and got to know some dingos here. Sue was apparently inspired by an actual dingo.

McKay read from the part of her book where the human protagonist first hears the animals talking, which happens just as a flu is whipping through the country. At the time she was writing it, she feared her idea was a bit too speculative, but as her publication date drew nearer, well, she realised not so much!

McKay’s lockdown reading included Ling Ma’s Severance (which is about a pandemic) and Ronnie Scott’s The adversary.

A well-conceived COVID-19 event. The writers I saw were thoroughly engaging, and Orton managed the technology with aplomb. Will these sorts of events continue post COVID-19?

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival
4 may 2020, 5:00 PM – 9:40 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Writers Bloc


Leah Swann, Bearings

Bearings bookcover, by Leah Swan

Bookcover (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

When I read a collection of short stories, I look to see whether there is an overriding theme. It’s not essential that there be one, of course, but it can add to the satisfaction, if only because looking for a theme forces me to think a little more about what I’ve been reading. Well, I didn’t have to look too far with this most recent collection, as the title pretty well gives it away. Bearings, by Leah Swann, is a collection of seven short stories and a novella and, as the back cover blurb says, is about “challenging the course of our lives and keeping a foothold during unpredictable times”. That’s a pretty good description and, I must say, it’s appealing, for a change, to have a short story collection whose title is not that of one of the stories within.

Bearings is the fifth book in Affirm Press’s series, Long Story Shorts. (I reviewed the fourth one, Having cried wolf, a few months ago.) It’s a gorgeously produced series. The books are a little more squat than the usual paperback, and each has a cover designed by Dean Gorissen. They are books you want to hold (fondle even) and look at.

Anyhow, on with the show. This is a varied bunch of stories. Some are told in first person, some third, and the first story is told in the less common second person. The subject matter includes broken families, suicide, grief, foster children, and motherhood. That is, all those things that happen in people’s lives to challenge them. However, as the title suggests, the stories are not totally depressing. Sad at times, yes, but not hopeless. They are more about finding ways to survive the challenges.

The stories grew on me. It’s not that I didn’t like them from the start because I did, but I think the writing got surer and more interesting, less predictable, by the end. Whether, of course, they are presented in the order written I have no idea. Probably not, but that’s how it feels. Of the first few stories, I especially liked “All the mothers”, a first person story about a foster child. He starts off as a naive narrator, not quite understanding what is happening as he moves from “mother” to “mother”. Take, for example, Mr Gordon who sometimes gives him an Eskimo Pie “especially if I have a cuddle”. When Mrs Gordon catches him on Mr Gordon’s knee one day, she pulls him off but he’s mystified: “I keep saying I’m okay, but she doesn’t believe me. Or maybe she’s not listening”. Gradually, of course, he becomes less naive and, more angry. It’s a well realised, psychologically real, slice-of-life story.

The central novella, “Silver hands”, is a little predictable. You can see most of it coming before you get there, but it’s nonetheless a good read because the characters are engaging and the language is fresh. I enjoyed descriptions like this:

His laugh goes up and down the scale like a hammer on chimes.

And this one on a woman starting to see signs of aging:

My skin is drying like the pages of a manuscript lettered with childbirth, lovemaking, nicotine and alcohol, and under it all the bones are losing density. But the letters of my true being are not written here. I am not only my body. I’ve never believed that yet here I am mourning it, sucked into that great big lie, measuring myself by flesh more than ever.

This is (obviously) a first person story. The set up is a marriage in the process of breaking down, but it’s more about how experiences in our past can come back to bite us if we don’t properly address them at the time. There are some “mysteries” for the reader to uncover and Swann plots them nicely. An enjoyable read.

My very favourite stories though are the last two, “The Easter Hare” and “The Ringwood Madonna”. Many of Swann’s protagonists are artists – potters, musicians, painters, writers – and this is so in these two stories. “The Ringwood Madonna” is about an artist who is struggling with motherhood, about how she meets a homeless tagger and engages in her own little act of rebellion. She creates a Madonna poster which she pastes like graffiti on a railway cutting wall. It attracts a lot of attention but an art expert says that holy images should not be sprayed around town. However,

Her graffiti Mary was  – to her – a beautiful lamp in suburban ugliness. A gift. Subconsciously she’d hoped that by creating Mary she would create beauty inside herself, she could see that now. And she had felt warmth when she was creating. Yes. Even joy.

The story’s conclusion nicely resolves some of the conflicts in her life while also making a comment on art as being not only about expression but communication too.

“The Easter Hare” takes place over Easter (of course) and beautifully reflects on the Easter story of death and redemption through a loose parallel describing a suicide and the response of strangers to it. It’s a finely told tale, and its conclusion brought tears to my eyes.

Swann describes the mother in “The Easter Hare” as wanting to write an Easter story for her children that is not “bloody and harsh” like the Crucifixion story, as wanting, rather, to “create something gentler for them”. This seems also to be what Swann wanted to create for us. She chronicles the challenges, sufferings and miseries of life but, as her title suggests, her worldview is a positive one, one that believes we can all find our “bearings” if we just take the time to look for them. This collection would be a good place to start.

Leah Swann
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 5)
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780980790429

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)