Nigel Featherstone, My heart is a little wild thing (#BookReview)

In late May, I reported on the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing – and now I bring you my thoughts on this finely-observed book about a man’s reaching for his own life.

I’m going to start with a reflection on a question authors of books like this commonly get, which is, is the book autobiographical? In his launch, Nigel said that the book is not about him, but that things in his life – particularly the death of his mother – did inspire him. The book’s protagonist Patrick is clearly not Nigel, as those who have followed Nigel through his various social media accounts will know. Nigel, unlike the semi-closeted Patrick, has been in a committed relationship for over two decades, and Nigel, unlike Patrick, broke away from home and did forge his own life. At the launch, Nigel said that this book explores what his life might have looked like had he “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men.

This novel then, is not his life, but it nonetheless draws on much from his life. For example, like Patrick, Nigel grew up in upper North Shore Sydney and frequented that city’s northern beaches. I enjoyed this because I spent my teen years in the same area, albeit a decade or so ahead of Nigel. I am also familiar with the other two main settings in the novel, the Southern Highlands and the Monaro, and am drawn to both, as I know Nigel is. Like Nigel’s Patrick, I do not really know why I so love the Monaro except, perhaps, because the favourite landscapes of my childhood were those wide open plains of outback Queensland. There is something captivating about them, even though, as Patrick, somewhat prophetically, writes of the Monaro,

It was all wide-screen barrenness, the only embellishment the fence lines, which cut across the tussocky landscape like tripwires.

Patrick shares other interests with Nigel, particularly music. Again, if you follow Nigel, you will know how important it is to him. He has, in fact, composed his own song-cycle. So, when he describes the music created by Lewis, the man Patrick meets, these descriptions, too, feel authentic.

But, despite all these similarities which ground the book so well in lived experience, Patrick is clearly not Nigel. As I listened to Nigel speak at the launch, and as I read the book, I was reminded of a favourite quote from Marion Halligan’s wise novel, Fog garden. The narrator writes about her character Clare:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.

And this, too, is Patrick.

“a fence I had crossed”

My heart is a little wild thing starts dramatically with Patrick heading off from Bundanoon to the Monaro in a distressed state the day after he’d “tried to kill his mother”. The actuality isn’t quite as bad as it sounds but Patrick, in his mid-40s, had been pushed to the limit by his demanding mother for whom, of her three children, he had pretty much sole responsibility. He needed out, a break, and so after the incident referred to in the opening paragraph, he drives to a steading (or barn) on a place called Jimenbuen, where he had spent many happy family holidays as a child.

Nigel explained at the launch that Jimenbuen is based on a little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, on the Monaro near the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. It was when staying there that Nigel’s book finally took shape, and it is at Jimenbuen that Patrick finally takes a step towards a new life, when he decides to offer to help a man he has spied planting trees on the other side of the fence. That man is Lewis, and the rest, as they say, is history – except, of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that, because the course of true love rarely runs smooth, in fiction or in life.

However, we follow Patrick as he experiences real love for the first time in his life, and we continue to watch as Lewis returns to his life in Ireland while Patrick returns to his mother. How will it all resolve? That is not for me to share here.

The novel is about many things, but an overriding idea is that of freedom. It is signalled on the third page of the novel when, en route to Jimenbuen, Patrick describes the “odd choices” he’d made of CDs for the trip. “Perhaps”, he wonders, “they reminded me of a time when I felt free”. Three pages further on, Patrick explains that, prior to the incident, he had been planning a short getaway to Sydney, because it was a place where he “could be free”. The idea of freedom recurs throughout the novel. Nearly two-thirds through, he remembers a past conversation with his father, who had told him, “We must live our own lives”. Patrick, at the time, doesn’t fully understand this, fearing it’s “selfish”. And yet, intriguingly, near the end of the novel, Lewis tells Patrick about having seen him, when they were still boys, at a waterhole. Given how Patrick’s life had proceeded, it’s ironic, but Lewis says:

I saw you as neither male nor female, just someone who looked free. I can’t think of anyone more attractive than a person who knows how to be free, and who’s taken risks to be free.

Related to this idea of freedom are those of happiness and living life fully, all of which are encompassed in the novel’s epigraph, Verlaine’s “To live again, undying”. Through Patrick, Nigel explores just what this means – the balances, compromises, and the lines we need to draw every day to live good but true lives.

The novel explores other ideas too, including ageing, and the responsibility of children for caring for ageing parents. Nigel makes clear that this is not a one-way street. Parents need to meet their children half-way. They need to recognise that no matter how loving or dutiful their child is, that child also deserves respect and to be able live their lives. A balance must be struck. Patrick, we see, gives and gives and gives to his mother, and receives little in return.

Ultimately though, the book is about the power of love and friendship, something that is subtly underpinned by references to a favourite novel that Patrick rediscovers at Jimenbuen. The novel is – and some of you will also surely know and love it – Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, about a damaged man and the love he finds and expresses.

During the book’s launch, Nigel talked about the value of fearless writing, which he also wrote about in his essay on Christos Tsiolkas (my post). It’s about being audacious and true – to yourself, your characters and your writing. Nigel has achieved that here, particularly in the way he explores, explicitly but sensitively, the complicated relationship between sensuality and sexuality, love and desire as Patrick reaches for the life that will sustain him.

My heart is a little wild thing is another of Nigel’s warm-hearted, character-focused books that deal with the complexity of family and relationships, and how we live our lives. The heart might be a little wild thing, but this book is a little beautiful thing – and not so little at that.

Nigel Featherstone
My heart is a little wild thing
Gadigal Country/Ultimo: Ultimo Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781761150135

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some queer Australian writing

Well, it’s Gay (or LGBT) Pride month in the USA, and since I don’t think we have a specific national month here, I thought I’d give a little shout out to some of our queer writers. Now, I’m not sure about labelling, but Readings bookshop posted three years ago on “queer reads”, while Wikipedia has a category called LGBT Writers from Australia and the Australian Women Writers challenge has a list for Lesbian and Queer Women Writers. I have settled on queer for the title of this post, which I hope is acceptable.

That was the first decision. The next concerned how to narrow this post down to something that would be interesting but not too long. This involved some arbitrary decisions. One was to focus on fiction (including verse novels). This means no memoirs or other forms of writing. The other was to focus on content rather than the writer. In other words, I think it’s worth sharing some works that put queer people in the picture, because too often their stories are hidden. The more we see that everyone’s stories have similar truths – recognising of course that some of us don’t have to hide, or face discrimination and abuse – the better our world can be. However, even with this narrowing, there are too many books, so I’ll be focusing mostly on books I’ve reviewed here, with a ring-in!

So, here’s a small selection in alphabetical order:

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review): The most recently reviewed book in this list, Bodies of men is primarily a story about men and war, about what being a man is. But it is also a love story between two men, at a time when such relationships were taboo. However, while the relationship and its challenges are important, they are not, really, the defining issue that the two male protagonists confront in the novel.

Susan Hawthorne’s Limen (my review): A verse novel about two women on a camping trip, this focuses on issues and challenges external to the nature of their relationship, on changes and thresholds, physical and perhaps spiritual, to be faced.

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stonesMargaret Merrilees’ Big rough stones (my review): Spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, this novel tells the lives of Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. While Ro’s romantic relationships form part of her story, this book more widely encompasses the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.

Dorothy Porter’s Monkey maskFirst published in 1997, this verse novel can, I think, be called a classic. Because I haven’t, to my shame, read it, I’m going to quote for you part of the blurb at GoodReads: “Fuelled by homicide, betrayal, and a femme fatale to go to hell for, The Monkey’s Mask is an erotic mystery novel written in verse. But forget what you know about poetry. This is not a love sonnet. From one of Australia’s most innovative writers, The Monkey’s Mask drives headfirst into murder, manipulation, and the consuming power of sex, and is a thriller to make other whodunnits seem mild”.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverEllen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review): This complex book, with its three separate sections, explores all sorts of indentities, with, in the middle section, a very clever exploration of “othering”. The Readings post mentioned above describes it as follows: “Many of the characters are queer and Neerven writes about sexuality with a light touch that never feels forced.”

So, a small selection, but a varied and, I think, interesting one.

Now, before I conclude, I want to discuss what was really the first decision I made in writing this post – whether to write it at all. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do, and yet, promoting “diversity” is seen as a good thing. Diversity, in this sense, means, recognising that people vary in such ways as “race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs”. And promoting “diversity”, of course, is seen as a good thing because, historically, the majority – white heterosexual men, in particular – have controlled the stories that are told about who we are. I get this. It’s why I like to read widely. But I’m also uncomfortable labelling people, because it feels like slotting people into boxes, suggesting that that label is all they are. So, in the interests of balance, I refer you to this excellent post by novelist Andrea Goldsmith on her blog on the whole practice of labelling LGBTQI people. She makes sense to me, and makes me almost decide to pull this post. But, I’ve written it, and I’m hoping it serves a purpose, so I’ve decided to leave it here.

What do you think?

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
ISBN: 9780733640704


Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stones (#BookReview)

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stonesIn her latest novel Big rough stones, Margaret Merrilees seems to have done for Australian lesbians what Armistead Maupin did for the American gay community in his Tales of the city series. It is the story, spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, of a character named Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. In so doing, it also encompasses some of the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.

Now, Merrilees has appeared here before – with her debut novel The first week (my review) and in my post on her essay about non-indigenous writers writing about indigenous people. I’ll return to this point later …

The novel’s title comes from Miriel Lenore’s poem, “the walls of lesbos”, which is quoted at the beginning of the book. It starts:

to build a lesbian wall
take big rough stones

don’t cut to fit

The poem concludes with the idea that the strength of the wall lies in the combination of the places where the stones touch and the gaps between. This idea perfectly encapsulates the relationships in Big rough stones, because there’s a real sense of a bunch of different individuals who support each other for the long haul. There are points at which they meet. They share political beliefs, for a start, and they share their lives (sometimes as lovers, sometimes in share houses, sometimes in work). But there are also the gaps, those individual differences that either make a community stronger or break it apart. Here, they make it stronger.

Ro, we soon realise, is not the easiest person to live with, not always the most responsible or reliable person, but she’s “sturdy and energetic, descended from a Welsh pit pony and a dour Scot.” She’s idealistic, passionate, and will give things a go. She’s our focal point. The novel is told third person but mostly through her perspective. However, we also get to know several of her friends and lovers, sometimes through her eyes, but sometimes we pop into their heads for a brief while too.

Besides this occasionally shifting third-person point of view, the novel also has an interesting, almost circular, 4-part structure: Now, A while ago, A long time ago, Now. At the novel’s opening – in Now – Ro is in her 60s and learns that she has terminal cancer (so, no spoiler here). We also learn that, at this stage in her life, she wishes she still had someone called Gerry in it. We then move back in her life, eventually reaching “a long time ago” where we meet Gerry and discover why she is no longer in Ro’s life. It’s a sad story. In the final “Now”, Ro is in the terminal stages of her cancer, being cared for by her friends. We see just how strongly that wall has been built. The story reminded me just a bit of Helen Garner’s The spare room – not that Ro tries ineffective alternative medicine, but in the challenges her friends face in caring for a seriously ill person. It isn’t easy.

So, the book is about relationships – lesbian ones, yes, but there’s much that’s universal here too. However, it is also about the times – about political ideals and feminist activism, about the environment and climate change. Several of the women, including Ro, work in a Shelter for abused women. They work as a collective, and we share in some of the struggles of making such arrangements work. We sit in on a collective meeting, after Ro has missed a shift without calling in. There’s discussion and dissension about Ro’s commitment, with one member suggesting this might not be the job for her. Lovely, loyal Maddie speaks up:

I don’t like this. We’ve never been into sacking people or any of that sort of patriarchal shit.’

‘Maybe that’s our problem,’ said Tilda. ‘The place would run a lot more efficiently if we were.’

But this was going a bit too far for the others.

‘No, that’s completely against what we value,’ said the oldest member. ‘People always come first, and that includes workers. It’s up to us to honour Ro’s strengths and figure out how to work with her.’

Ro herself was struck by Tilda’s echo of her own thought. We should have a few more rules, she wanted to say.

She doesn’t say it, though. Instead, she concedes that she was wrong, and offers to work on her relationship with Tilda. An uneasy truce is achieved!

Another quote from the novel that has been used in its promotion provides a good sense of what Ro and her friends were about:

‘You thought feminism would stop violence against women,’ said Julia. ‘And that would stop war. And stop people trashing the Earth. You tried.’

‘Not alone,’ said Ro modestly. ‘I had help.’


I want to end, however, with Merrilees’ concern about representing indigenous Australians in our stories. Here’s something I quoted from her in my previous post:

To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie. However, for a non-Aboriginal writer to write about Aboriginal people is to run the risk of “appropriating” Aboriginal experience; speaking on behalf of … There’s been too much of that already.

This, as I see it, relates to the issue of truth-telling. There’s the formal truth-telling – via, say, a truth-telling and reconciliation commission – but there’s also the more informal truth-telling that we can all do. Truth-telling is about all Australians coming to a “shared understanding of our history”, which includes “the acceptance of mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land and forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families”. The now standard welcome or acknowledgement of country statements are part of this.

So, in Big rough stones, Merrilees has taken a sensitive approach. She does not, here, as she did in The first week, have an indigenous character, but she acknowledges indigenous Australians by showing her characters being aware of the “truths”. For example, Alby, one of Ro’s friends gets a job at a mine. Ro is horrified, and says:

‘Shit, Alby. How could you? Mining. Probably on Aboriginal land.’

‘Certainly on Aboriginal land. The whole country is Aboriginal land. This pub is on Aboriginal land.’

True! On another occasion, after a protest in Alice Springs against Pine Gap, Ro ends up in gaol for a night. The cells are disgusting and Ro finds it hard to engage in the political debate about the US base:

The walls were covered in graffiti. The misery and degradation of the previous occupants hung in the air, a miasma, shockingly brutal. The protest about the US base lost its urgency. Here was racism, fundamental, elemental, an Australian truth most of them had never seen before. Not close up. This they should protest about.

She realises that:

She and the others had privilege that no Aboriginal prisoner ever had. They could give up their resistance and walk away any time. And eventually they did.

I think she has hit on a way of not continuing terra nullius but, at the same time, also not appropriating indigenous experience. It may not work in all situations, but here, with politically aware characters, it does.

Fundamentally, Big rough stones is a straightforward, accessible story with a lot of dialogue that keeps the story moving along – but this is not all it is. Like Tales of the city, it offers a realistic, but warm-hearted portrayal of a time and place, with all the attendant personal and political messiness. An engaging read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this novel.

AWW Badge 2018Margaret Merrilees
Big rough stones
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743055526

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.)

Ellen van Neerven (ed.), Writing black (#BookReview)

Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia is one of the productions supported by the Queensland Writers Centre’s if:book that I wrote about in a recent Monday Musings. It’s an interactive e-book created using Apple’s iBooks platform, and can be downloaded free-of-charge via the if:book page or directly from iBooks.

Title page for Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi

Ch. 16, Sylvia Nakachi (Using fair dealing provisions for purposes of review)

Writing black was edited (and commissioned) by Ellen van Neerven (whose book Heat and light and story “Sweetest thing”, I’ve reviewed here). It contains works by 20 writers, in a variety of forms, including prose by writers like Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch, and Marie Munkara; poetry by Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Steven Oliver (most of which are presented in both text and video); and twitter-fiction by Siv Parker. For each writer, there is a “title” page which provides a brief biography, and the works are illustrated with gorgeous sepia-toned photography by Jo-Anne Driessens.

In her editor’s introduction, van Neerven states that, by the time of publication, there had not been a “digital-only anthology of Australian indigenous writing”. This book addresses that gap, but with a very particular goal. It was, she writes, “moulded by possibility”, by the fact that “the multimedia and enhancements a digital publication allows lifts the imagination”. Certainly, we see some of these possibilities in this production.

Her point, though, that particularly interested me was this:

Expectations of what we write about are changing, no longer the narrow restriction of life stories and poetry. Indeed, Indigenous writers do not need to write about Indigenous issues at all, if they choose not to. With more Indigenous books and authors comes a new generation of readers — open-minded to what Indigenous writers can write about, and across new forms and experiences.

Great point – just as it’s important that we see indigenous people on television and in movies, for example, without their indigeneity needing to be referenced or be part of the story. Anyhow, we see this broadening of content in Writing black – in Jane Harrison’s “Born, still”, for example – although, not surprisingly and completely understandably, given where we are on the reconciliation journey, many of pieces do have political intent.

This brings me to one of the appealing aspect of this production, which is its variety, not only in form as I’ve already mentioned, but in tone and content. The pieces span moods from the intensity of Tara June Winch (“Moon”) to the cheeky humour of Marie Munkara (“Trixie”), from the anger of Kerry Reed-Gilbert (“Talking up to the white woman”) and the frustration of Steven Oliver (“You can’t be black”) to the melancholy of Bruce Pascoe’s (“A letter to Barry”). Many of the pieces speak to loss of country and identity, and the emotional impact of these. What makes them particularly powerful is that they come from all over, from the tropical north to country Victoria to various urban settings.

Another appealing thing, which stems from its being an e-Book, is that we can hear poets perform their own work, as well as read the text ourselves. One of these is the new-to-me Steven Oliver. He has four poems in the collection – “Real”, “You can’t be black”, “Diversified identity” and “I’m a black fella” – with video of him reading each of them. He (or his poetic persona) is an urban dweller who regularly confronts questions concerning his indigenous identity. In “Real” he describes a discussion with another who refuses to accept he’s “black”, who produces those crass arguments like he’s “more of a brown” and “not really a full”, but who suddenly turns when our poet responds that his English name suggests he’s not “from here”. Oliver writes:

Listen here Abo, you know-it-all coon
It seemed that my friend has spoken too soon
Just moments ago I was not the real thing
Yet now by his words my heritage clings

This is a long-ish poem, but is accessible. Its use of rhyming couplets provides a light touch that keeps the reader engaged while the actual words drive home a serious point about Aboriginal identity. I hope it’s taught in schools.

Another poem of his, “You can’t be black”, also addresses assumptions others make about what being Aboriginal is:

You can’t be black
When the media shows Aborigines they live on communities
And struggle with petrol, poverty and disease
So you can’t be black
If you’re black you wouldn’t have nice clothes on your back.

Oliver’s poems are made to be performed, as are those of the next poet Kerry Reed-Gilbert.

She also comes out fighting, with five poems. She writes of being in a bar, waiting for the racist slurs (“A conversation and a beer”), or of being exploited by people who only want to know her to further their own aims (“Talking up to the white woman”). She speaks in the voice of a white racist in “Because my mum said so” to show how racism is learnt through families. This is a particular concern of mine. I’ve seen schools trying their hardest to teach tolerance and respect – but that role-modelling at home is mighty powerful stuff.

Another well-established poet who has been politically active for decades is Lionel Fogarty. His two poems in this collection focus more on caring for country, on sharing the land, on passing knowledge on.

The prose pieces are, overall, more diverse. There’s Tristan Savage’s cheeky short film script, “Gubbament man” about Freddy the indigenous “discrimination prevention officer”. Siv Parker’s twitter-fiction piece “Maisie May” was originally released as tweets over several hours on, note, 26th January, in 2014. It tells of a trip to country for the funeral of Aunty Maisie May who “could tell you about country and our ways that we lost over the years.” Marie Munkara is here too with her particular brand of humour to tell about “Trixie” who takes revenge on her ex. There’s also Tony Birch whose “Deep rock” clearly draws from (or fed into) his novel Ghost River (my review). And there’s David Curtis whose “What kind dreaming” tells of three young indigenous men, two already becoming familiar with the life and law of their country and the other a greenhorn from the city, who go bush. Our greenhorn soon learns a few things from the other two, who respect “them old people”.

In an interview in Sydney Review of Books, Ellen van Neerven comments briefly on why she wanted to do this “digital collection”:

For me it’s as much about audience and access. There is a really hungry international audience for Indigenous writing but also lots of roadblocks in getting the books out there. Being able to access work online is definitely an advantage and we’ve had a lot of feedback and contact from people overseas who have been able to find out about Indigenous writing and read content from 20 different authors that way.

And that’s exactly it. This oh-so-rich collection introduces readers to many of Australia’s current significant indigenous writers, not to mention the range of issues that interest them. And it’s free to download. That we should be so lucky! A big thanks to if:book and the Queensland Writers Centre for supporting such innovative and sophisticated projects as this one.

aww2017 badgeEllen van Neerven (ed.)
Writing black: New indigenous writing from Australia
State Library of Queensland, 2014
ISBN: 9780975803059

Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music (Review)

Emma Ayres, CadenceAlthough Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence had been passed around my reading group with much enthusiasm over the last year or so, I wasn’t intending to read it – not because I wasn’t interested, but because there were other books I wanted to read more. However, when I found the audiobook at my aunt’s house while we were clearing it out, Mr Gums and I decided to listen to it on our trips to and from Sydney. It proved to be a great car book. However, a warning: we listened to it intermittently over two months, so this will be more a post of reflections than a coherent review.

Emma Ayres is probably known to most Australian readers of my blog, but perhaps not to others so let’s start with a potted bio. Born in England in 1967, Ayres is a professional musician – a viola player in fact – who has also worked as a radio presenter. She lived in Hong Kong for eight years, playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, but in 2000 she rode a bicycle, fundraising for charity, from Shropshire, England, through the Middle East and central Asia, to Hong Kong. She moved to Australia in 2003, and worked as an ABC Classical Music radio presenter for eight years, from 2008 to 2014.

Now to the memoir. Cadence is ostensibly a travel memoir, but it covers a lot of ground within its seemingly narrow construct of chronicling her year-long bicycle journey. The ground it covers, besides the story of her travel, which is exciting enough given the regions she rode though, includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, and her analyses of classical music. Some of her technical descriptions went over my head, but I found her discussions of composers to be not only accessible and eye-opening, but deeply interesting. And it’s all told with a thoughtful philosophical underpinning.

Cadence is an excellent title for a musician’s memoir, and she plays with its meanings throughout, referring, for example, to a “perfect cadence”, or a “slow cadence”, or more frequently to  “interrupted cadences … moments when the direction is changed”. Indeed, the memoir could be seen as comprising almost continuous interrupted cadences because, although the bicycle trip provides her memoir’s chronological backbone, she skips around frequently, going backwards to her childhood and early years as a musician and forwards to her life after the trip when she briefly toyed with being a cellist. It can take a little concentration to keep track of exactly which part of her life she is writing about at any one time, but it’s not too hard. After all …

Cadences are waypoints in the music, places where you can take a breather, readjust your instrument and hurtle on to the next bit of the adventure.

I greatly enjoyed Ayres’ reflections on life and travel. The book is full of her insights, many learnt on the road. For example, regarding the challenge of deciding whether to do the trip she says:

If you are not sure whether or not you should do something, ask your ninety-year-old self.

At another point she discusses how much she loved Pakistan despite all the nay-saying she had received when she was planning her trip. She was treated, she writes, almost without exception, with kindness and generosity everywhere she went. “Do we make our own welcome?” she wonders, and goes on to suggest that before we criticise another country, we should perhaps look at ourselves first.

Being a woman cycling alone is risky business, particularly in some of those male-dominated countries through which she travelled. She frequently took advantage of her androgynous look, helping it along by keeping her hair very short and wearing non-feminine clothes (where she could). Consequently, she was regularly taken for a man. She discusses gender often, commenting on how we are ruled by it and its associated expectations. She sees herself as “a border dweller in the world of gender”, writing:

I do admire people who are by birth penumbral but have the courage and desire to be firmly one or the other and go through a sex change, but I like the fluidity of being able to float around the middle. I really to think that the basic this or that of male and female is shallow and limiting. How simplistic to think, with all those opposing hormones flowing in each of our bodies, that we are one and therefore not the other. And how much better in countries like India and Thailand that they recognise more than two sexes. More variations in the octave, more variations in gender.

Another theme that runs through the book is the idea of being in the moment. She tells the story of being taken to task for reading Anna Karenina when on a bus in Pakistan. Her young seat-mate is mystified by her passionate rendering to him of the story, saying to her “but you are here!” She genuinely sees his point, and puts the book down. Later in the trip, she regrets not spending more time with a fellow-traveller who crosses her path because “I was too focused on destination and again forgot the importance of the here and now”.

Cadence is a generous, warm-hearted book which abounds with travel anecdotes to delight any lover of travel literature. There are scary moments, and funny ones, and others that are just plain interesting. It also contains intelligent, considered insights into music, some of which I plan to share in a follow-up post. For now, I’ll conclude with a comment she makes early in the book:  “Travel”, she says, “goes inwards as much as outwards”. That is exactly what she demonstrates with this book. I can see why all those in my reading group who read the book urged it onto the next person.


Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir
Sydney: ABC Books (by HarperCollins), 2014
ISBN: 9780733331893

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir (audio)
(read by Emma Ayres)
ABC Commercial, 2014
8 hours (approx) running time (on 7 CDs)

Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven in Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4)

Review of Australian FictionI have been wanting to write about the oddly titled Review of Australian Fiction for some time. I say oddly titled because, contrary to what it might sound like, this does not contain reviews but short fiction. Established in 2012, it is published, electronically (or digitally), every two weeks. Each issue contains two stories by Australian authors: one by an established author, and the other by an emerging author, chosen by the established author. Funnily, in the issue I’m reviewing here, it’s the emerging author, Ellen van Neerven, whom I’ve read before, not the established one, Tony Birch. But, I’m so glad that Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week has given me the opportunity to a) finally read something by Birch, and b) finally read Review of Australian Fiction issue.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”

Birch’s story is told first person by a young indigenous boy, the 11-year-old Noah Sexton. He’s dirty, smelly, poorly dressed, and no-one wants to know him – except the new girl, Heather, who invites him to sit next to her. She’s “the cleanest person I’d ever seen” with “no pox rashes, bites or scars like I had”. At lunchtime, Heather offers the hungry Noah a sandwich and engages him in conversation. She asks him why he sits alone, and he gives the classic reply:

‘I sit here because I’m a Sexton.’

She doesn’t know what that means of course. When he discovers that her father is the policeman “in charge of the station”, he assumes:

Our mob was well known to the police, and I knew straightaway that as soon as her father got the story on the family name, she wouldn’t be sitting under any tree offering me a vegemite sandwich.

But, it doesn’t quite work out the way he expected. When he explains to the friendly Heather that he’s from “the only abo family left in town”, she tells him that “abo” is “a dirty word” and that “people like you, we call them half-castes. It’s more proper”. Noah disagrees, telling her that “an abo’s an abo, no matter how black or white he is … Far as whitefella is interested, the shit smells just the same.” Heather shows discomfort at this language, but Noah doesn’t care. He’s “beginning to think she was only another do-gooder”. He tells her about how his people have been treated in town, but Heather tells him her father will be different, that “he’s always fair, to both sides”. Not surprisingly, Noah is (silently) sceptical. Nonetheless, this little bit of kindness from Heather brings out a new sense of self in Noah – he doesn’t wolf down the sandwich, pretending he has a few manners, and when he gets up to go into school after that first lunch he dusts his pants off “for maybe the first time in my life”.

And so Heather spends most lunchtimes with Noah, because she’s a Christian and it’s “a sin to turn away from those in need”. Noah doesn’t like being seen as a “charity case” but is so enamoured of Heather that he’ll “put up with anything”. Understandable, given his treatment at school before.

I won’t describe any more. This is a clever story about do-gooders. Birch has astutely chosen for his protagonist a young boy on the cusp of puberty. Noah, straddling that line between childhood and adulthood, has a sense of his agency, and yet not quite the experience, nor the resources, to insist on enacting it. It’s a story about confused emotions, and about smugness and self-satisfaction. It’s about the right to dignity, and, of course, about power.

Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”

awwchallenge2015Unique, original, fresh are words I avoid when writing reviews, not only because they feel cliched but because they can be contested by anyone whose reading experience is wider than mine. So, instead, I’ll just comment on Ellen van Neerven’s capacity to surprise. I found it in her Heat and light which I reviewed earlier this year, and in “Sweetest thing”.

“Sweetest thing” is a third-person story about Serene, the child of an indigenous mother and the town’s Dutch baker. She is addicted to having her breasts suckled. It all started in puberty (“that pertinent time of a woman’s life”) with her first experience of having a man suckle her breast occuring with a male tutor when she’s nearly fourteen. He lifts up her shirt:

Beautifully out of herself, she was open and messy and dislocated like a bouquet being readied for a vase, flowers, stems, spores spread everywhere.

Nothing else happens besides this suckling, but Serene feels “bliss” and “knew then that this was what she had been programmed to need”. Slowly, as Serene schemes and positions herself to have her need met, we learn about loss. We learn, for example, about the Kedron pub, which “had refused Serene’s grandparents entry” but which is now

a haunt for women of her mother’s ilk: divorced, discarded, with loose threads of long silent and secret relationships carried under their shirts.

Under their shirts. A reference to their breasts? We learn about the gradual withdrawal of her father as he starts to focus on his “real daughter”. Serene feels anger at “the silence in her life, at his hypocrisy”.

Born into this in-between world – not quite rejected as her grandparents were, but not fully accepted either – Serene believes she deserves “comfort, worship, devotion. Trust and understanding”, but fears “hollowness”.

And so, her life progresses through school and early womanhood into mature adulthood. She has friends, she experiences casual sex, she becomes a masseuse – but still there’s the need for suckling, to have “the most basic of her needs met”. Again, I’ll leave the story here. It’s longer than Birch’s and spans a few decades of Serene’s life, which includes a meaningful relationship and a successful career.

“Sweetest thing” is an edgy story. Serene’s unusual addiction works as a rather confronting metaphor for what all humans need – love and acceptance. What I like about Van Neerven, here and in Heat and light, is that her indigenous characters are not “types”. Their indigeneity is part of who they are, and is fundamental to the challenges they confront, but her characters are also “universal” – that is, they are needy, flawed characters who muddle along, just as the rest of us do, in the lives they find themselves in. It’s powerful stuff.

ANZ_ILW2015Read for ANZLitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”
Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”
in: Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4), May 2014

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light (Review)

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverIt’s silly I know, but I had a little thrill at the end of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light, because not only was the last story set in a place where I spent six of the formative years of my childhood – Sandgate on the northern edge of Brisbane – but one of the characters learnt to swim in the same pool there that I did, and her brother has a beagle, just as we did. Ah, childhood. Enough, though, of readerly nostalgia. Time to properly discuss the book.

Heat and light won the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writer in 2013, and has been on my TBR for several months. I hadn’t prioritised it for reading, but its longlisting for the Stella Prize last week convinced me to squeeze it in before two works I had to complete by 21 and 24 February. I hope I won’t regret it. No, let me rephrase that: I know I won’t regret having read it, but I hope I don’t regret my decision to read it right now!

The first thing to say is that Heat and light isn’t a novel. It has, in fact, an intriguing form, something that’s not unusual with writers from an indigenous background. Simplistically speaking, it comprises short stories organised into three sections titled Heat, Water and Light. However, each of these sections is quite different. Heat comprises interconnected short stories (5) about three generations of the Kresinger family, while Water is longform short fiction (54 pages in my edition) in the speculative fiction genre. Light, on the other hand, is more like a “traditional” collection of short stories (10). Together, the three sections, including the future-set Water, create a rich picture of contemporary indigenous life and concerns.

And here I confront again the challenge of being a non-indigenous Australian reviewing a work by an indigenous Australian featuring indigenous people. It always makes me a little anxious: I fear sounding earnest or, worse, patronising; I fear making what’s different sound exotic; and, I fear missing the point. And yet I love reading indigenous writers, because their perspective is different and because they (see, I’m generalising, aren’t I?) tend to be adventurous in their story-telling, often taking risks with voice, form, chronology, genre, and more. Van Neerven, as I’ve already implied, is such a writer.

The titles of the three sections – Heat, Water, Light – make me think of the elements. They are not quite the classical elements (fire, air, water, earth) but they convey, it seems to me, the essence of what’s needed for life. The focal character in Heat, though we don’t see a lot of her, is Pearl, the grandmother of the narrator of the first story which is titled, in fact, “Pearl”. Pearl is a bit of a free spirit – earthy, hot (in its sexual meaning, with “her siren eyes”), and likely to appear or disappear with the wind. Over the five stories in this section we learn about Pearl, her sister Marie, and the two succeeding generations. Van Neerven’s writing is confident, moving comfortably between first and third person narrators, all of whom are members of a complex extended family. Loyalties – to their indigenous background and to their blood relationships – are tested. As the narrator of “Pearl” says:

So much is in what we make of things. The stories we construct about our place in our families are essential to our lives.

And this is true, whether or not the stories so constructed are “true”. The implication is you need to know what you are doing. Colin, for example, finding himself, through his own actions, disconnected from his indigenous heritage, wants to return, but

she told me if I was going to make my way home I’d better do it soon before the dust had covered my tracks.

The third section, Light, explores similar issues to those in Heat, but through ten separate stories, ranging from 2 pages to 30. The characters in both sections both move between city and country, but, while Heat is set in southeastern Queensland, the stories in Light are set in Sydney, Western Australia and Queensland. The protagonists tend to be young, and female. They also tend to be in formative stages of their lives, or at crossroads; they are sorting out their relationships, their sexuality, their identity. They confront racism and face conflict, but they also experience and give love. There’s humour, some of it wry, such as the young girl noticing that the tag on her pants states that “this colour will continue to fade”.

Water, the longform story that occupies the middle of the book, is very different. For a start, it’s set in the near future, the 2020s, when Australia is a republic with a female president. There’s a new flag and Jessica Mauboy’s song “Gotcha” is the national anthem. There’s also a social media ban! I reckon Van Neerven enjoyed imagining this. However, life isn’t perfect. Our narrator Kaden has a new job as a Cultural Liaison Officer and was initially pleased because she thought she’d be working with “other Aboriginal people” which would provide a “way of finding out about my culture and what I missed out on growing up”. But, she discovers she’ll be working with “plantpeople” who are sort of mutant plants with human features created during “islandising” experiments. Kaden’s job is to evacuate them in preparation for the Australia2 project.

I don’t want to give any more of it away, but you’ve probably guessed that it’s a story about how we treat other, about segregation, discrimination and dirty politics. It’s also about connection to country and about the importance of controlling one’s own art. Artist Hugh Ngo says:

I don’t make art for galleries. Or for money. I make art that speaks the truth.

This is a clever (and true!) book. The bookending sections Heat and Light present stories of Australian people going about their lives, and most of them happen to be indigenous. Their indigeneity is evident, and it affects the issues they confront, but there’s no specific advocacy. The middle section, on the other hand, is more overtly political. It picks up issues that appear in the shorter stories and provides a coherent, ideological context for the whole.

Heat and light is one of those really satisfying reads: it combines engaging writing with stories that make you feel you’ve got to the things that matter. So no, regardless of whether I meet my other deadlines, I’m not sorry I bumped this book up in my reading priorities.

awwchallenge2015Ellen van Neerven
Heat and light
St Lucia: UQP, 2014
ISBN: 9780702253218

Note: One of the stories in Light, “The Falls”, is available on-line at Kill Your Darlings

Nigel Featherstone, The beach volcano (Review)

Courtesy: Blemish Books

Courtesy: Blemish Books

Back in 2010, Featherstone spent a month, on a writer’s retreat, at Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge, Launceston. He writes on his blog that he left Launceston with sketches for three novellas. The beach volcano is the last of these, the other two being Fall on me (my review) and I’m ready now (my review). Before I talk about the novella, though, I must compliment Blemish Books on the production of these three books. They are gorgeous – they have appealing, stylish cover designs; they are a perfect size, fall open easily and have lovely, clear print; and together they look like a set. Well done Blemish, I say.

Now, to the book itself. Featherstone has appeared a few times on this blog, via my reviews of the first two novellas, a guest post in 2012, and a five-part interview that I ran over the summer of 2012-2013 when the magazine it was destined for, Wet Ink, folded. Through all of these, one particular idea or theme has been consistent – and it is, as he formally stated in his guest post, that “family is the guts of the contemporary Australian story”. He mentioned several writers, such as Kate Grenville, Craig Silvey and Gillian Mears, for whom this is clearly true, and then turned to his own work:

My main characters are usually men and women (always a good start!) who have children, who want to be parents, who struggle to cope, who feel the pressure of internal and external expectation, who fail and fall into a heap but pat themselves down and have another crack at it.

And so, Fall on me centres on father and teenage son, Lou and Luke, while I’m ready now is about a fifty-something mother and thirty-year old son. In The beach volcano, we’ve moved on again in age. The father here is 80 years old, and the son 44. I’m not sure whether this age progression drove the order in which the books have been published, but it does have a certain neatness. Luke, the teenager in the first book, is pretty wise for his age but he is still a young man sorting out his identity and his separation from his father. Thirty-year-old Gordon, on the other hand, is confronting turning 30 and, not comfortable with what this implies, embarks on a risky “Year of living ridiculously”. This brings us to 44-year-old Canning (aka successful rock musician Mick Dark) who has returned home for the first time since he was 17 to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. He has come primarily because he wants to discover the “full” truth about a story told to him by his aunt, the estranged sister of his father. I should add here, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that the first two books don’t focus solely on the son, whereas The beach volcano is very definitely Canning’s story.

The thing about Featherstone’s books – at least these three – is that there’s potential in each for high drama, or, to put it more crudely, for violence and/or death. But, Featherstone is not a writer of crime or thrillers. He’s interested in family and human relationships, and so, while dramatic things happen, the drama never takes over the story. In The beach volcano, terrible things involving abuse of boys by men have happened before the novel starts. They resulted in family secrets to do with a false alibi – and who knows what else, we wonder as we read. This is what Canning has come home to discover.

The story is told, first person, through a traditional linear narrative, with flashbacks to fill us in on relevant background. It starts with Canning’s arrival on Friday, late, for the pre-birthday dinner for the immediate family, and continues to the end of the weekend when all has been revealed, to Canning at least, and he is able to make some decisions about where to from here. Throughout the weekend, Canning has one-on-one conversations with different members of his family, his parents, his two older sisters, a brother-in-law, and a nephew. We to-and-fro between love and hate, welcome and aggression, as this family tries to keep conflict at bay, while threatened by a secret that they refuse to openly confront. Family secrets, gotta love them! But, Canning wants truthful relationships with his family now:

I’d come to Sydney to tell the truth, but it was important to be selective about the truth, and to have good timing in the telling, to be cautious. Because the truth, I thought, was a disturbance. The truth took things apart and put them back together in a different but better shape. But what exactly was a better shape?

This is the question Canning needs to answer, and is why he bides his time. He needs (and wants) the truth to be a positive force, not a destructive or simply life-sustaining one.

Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative, with lovely descriptions of coastal Sydney and realistic dialogue. Canning’s voice feels genuine, if a little inclined at times to over-explain. The “beach volcano” of the title works on both the literal level as an activity that Canning and his father share, and that he then wants to pass onto to his newly-met nephew, and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. You’ll have to read the book though if you want to know what erupts and how. It is, in its measured way, quite the page-turner.

In a sense, this is a reworking of the prodigal son story, except that in this version the son returns as a success and is, perhaps, the one who extends the greatest generosity. Like the original, it is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme – one that Featherstone explores in the three novellas – of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future.

The beach volcano makes a fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set. I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent with his unique but real families and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Nigel Featherstone
The beach volcano
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2014
ISBN: 9780980755695

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

Krissy Kneen, Steeplechase (Review)

Krissy Kneen, Steeplechase

Cover: WH Chong (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Darn that Australian Women Writers  Challenge! It has introduced me to a bunch of Aussie women writers I hadn’t heard of previously, one of whom is today’s author, Krissy Kneen. I may not have read her quite as soon as I have – there are so many I want to read – if it hadn’t been for Text Publishing sending me Steeplechase. It’s Kneen’s third book but first novel. She has also written Affection: An intimate memoir, which was shortlisted in 2010 for the non-fiction prize in the (now-defunct) Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and Triptych a work of literary erotica. Steeplechase, the frontmatter tells us, is Kneen’s first non-erotic work.

It is a contemporary novel about two sisters, told in first person by the younger, Bec. Both are artists, but while Bec is an art teacher who also paints and exhibits, her sister Emily is a wildly successful artist whose works have been sold for astronomical prices by Sotheby’s. Bec, 40, lives in Australia, and Emily in China. They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for 23 years when, out of the blue, at the beginning of the novel, Emily calls Bec and invites her to Beijing, telling her she has already bought the plane ticket. So the novel begins, and gradually the cause of their separation, “the terrible thing”, is revealed. It involves madness … Madness and art. An irresistible subject.

Kneen plots the story well, interspersing the present chronology with flashbacks. The sisters’ mother, we’re told, was mentally ill, and the three of them – mother and daughters – lived in the country with their grandmother Oma, an art conservator. She’s a strong woman, a matriarch, is Oma. The steeplechase metaphor is introduced in the first chapter, through imaginative play directed by Emily in which the girls pretend to be horses galloping and jumping through a course designed by, yes, Emily. “The steeplechase is dangerous”, Emily explains to Bec.

At first it seems that Emily is the typical bossy big sister, who likes to control and scare her little sister. And Bec is the typical younger sister, adoring and long-suffering. Gradually though it becomes clear that something is not quite right with Emily, that she is going the way of her mother. Around this time we “meet” Raphael who may, or may not, be Emily’s lover and who, on one dramatic night, seems to also become 15 year-old Bec’s lover. But, is he real? (According to the 16th century art historian and biographer, Vasari, the artist Raphael died prematurely due to a fever brought on by a night of excessive sex! I suspect the choice of name isn’t a coincidence.) Kneen teases us throughout with questions of reality and fantasy, drawing us into a world where it’s hard to know where “madness” may start and end.

Meanwhile, in the present, the novel starts with Bec recovering from gall-bladder surgery. She returns to work where we meet, among her students, 23-year-old John who is her lover. Bec, “the good girl”, feels guilty about this, recognising the ethical dilemma it creates.

But, that’s enough of the plot … It’s certainly more than I usually provide in my reviews but this is, largely, a plot-driven book. How is Emily now? Will Bec go visit her? What was “the terrible thing”? Why is Bec signing paintings in Emily’s name? Does John really love Bec? Is Bec a good artist? And, even, is Bec herself sane? These are some of the questions that arise as the novel progresses.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeSteeplechase is compelling. It’s well-written and surely structured, with the shifting between present/life and past/memory all but coalescing at the climax. Kneen draws clearly but not slavishy on the traditions of the Gothic and mad-women. She teases us with paradox – Emily’s calm ordered room versus Bec’s messy chaotic one – and irony. Are they really “safe, protected, locked up tight” when Oma closes up the house at night?

I enjoyed her sensitive depiction of sisterly relationships, of the rivalry that runs parallel to unconditional love. She explores what happens when two sisters end up in the same career, one successful and the other not obviously so, and the lack of confidence that can ensue. We believe Bec’s self-assessment that she’s lesser, though there is a hint partway through the novel that she may be better than she thinks. Kneen weaves this though a story that explores madness, art, and memory that threatens to derail. My only reservation is that for a book which ponders the complexity of love (sibling and romantic), the nexus between madness-sanity and art, and the role of memory in constructing self, the resolution is just a little too neat. But that may just be me! It is, for all that, a darn good read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book.

Krissy Kneen
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079879

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)