Caroline de Costa, Double madness (Review)

De Costa, Double madnessI’m not a crime reader as most of you know, and in fact most of the crime novels I’ve read here have been review copies sent to me. Caroline de Costa’s Double madness is one of these. I accepted it for a couple of reasons. It’s a debut novel by a doctor, indeed a professor of Medicine at the James Cook University in Cairns, who has been shortlisted for a nonfiction work in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. And it is set in beautiful far north Queensland, my home state.

Not being an expert in crime writing, I can’t really compare it with other novels, but I’d say it’s in the sub-genre known as police procedural. According to Wikipedia, in police procedurals the detective is a police officer and the story depicts the activities of the police investigating the crime. Tick. However, Wikipedia also says that in police procedurals the perpetrator is often known to the reader, but this is not the case here, and that the novel will often deal with a number of unrelated crimes, which is also not the case here, though several references are made to one other crime. None of this matters, really thought, does it? Categories can be helpful in analysis, but in the end what counts is the work itself. I was just intrigued.

Double madness opens with the victim’s body being found, by accident, in a secluded part of the north Queensland rainforest, by a doctor and his wife who are driving home the scenic way. Finding the body is, I presume, a pretty traditional opening for a crime novel of this sort. The dating, like the setting, is also precise – 27 February 2011, which is three weeks after the category-5 Cyclone Yasi hit northern Queensland, causing significant destruction. The novel is told in almost straight chronology, with each chapter titled by a date, the last being 17 March 2011. Early in the novel, though, there are a few flashback chapters – mostly to 2009 – which flesh out a few characters for us.

Our main detective is the 30-something now-single mother, Cass Diamond. She’s of indigenous Australian background. Ah, so we have a non-indigenous writer, as far as I know anyhow, writing an indigenous character. You may remember discussions we’ve had here on this topic. I’ve quoted writer Margaret Merrilees, “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”. De Costa is writing about Far North Queensland, a place with a significant indigenous population, where it would indeed be poor form to ignore indigenous characters. My assessment is that de Costa has done it well. Cass makes some references to her indigeneity, and to some of the challenges she faces, but this is not her defining characteristic in the novel. She is “just” another police officer, and is defined as much, if not more, by being a single mother whose “fridge was a temple consecrated to convenience foods”. In other words, she’s in that band of job-jolly detectives who struggle to keep their personal life going, though Cass does a better job than most (that I’ve seen on TV anyhow). She does, for a start, seem to have a good relationship with her teenage son. Moreover, she’s not drunk, middle-aged or unduly cynical – yet, anyhow!

Back now, to the plot. Tucked into the copy sent to me was a slip of paper containing a short interview with the writer by reviewer Fiona Hardy. De Costa tells Hardy that she had “for some time been interested in the concept of folie-à-deux [share psychosis]”. Folie-à-deux translates as double madness – hence the book’s title. De Costa also tells Hardy, when describing the sort of detective she has created, that she has to write what she knows. And she knows medicine. Consequently, not only does the investigation and resolution of the crime involve some medical knowledge, but the story is set largely amongst the community’s medical fraternity. In other words, the good doctors of Cairns have been getting up to a bit of mischief with our victim, so when the murder is committed they find themselves in the frame. They are not, however, the only ones. There be a husband, and sons, and sundry other possibilities. All I’ll say is this is a tricky plot with a goodly dose of red herrings. For more, you’ll have to read the book.

I wouldn’t call Double madness a ground-breaking or particularly innovative detective novel, but it’s an enjoyable read. The writing is clear and straightforward, keeping to the point and moving along at a fair pace. There’s no unnecessary description, but where it is needed, such as to describe the bush or, say, a doctor’s experience of working through a cyclone, it feels real and authentic. Hardy, in her interview, notes that the cyclone Yasi makes an effective metaphor for the havoc wrought by the victim, Odile Janvier, on those around her. She’s right, it does.

When I read fiction, as I’ve said before, I look for some underlying messages or themes or issues being explored because I like my reading to further my understanding of humanity. Double madness is not, in this sense, a deep or enquiring book, but it is quietly subversive in the way it handles race and gender. Its indigenous characters are not defined by their indigeneity, and women detectives and medicos play important, but accepted and unremarked, roles in the investigation and resolution of the crime. Moreover, while the murder victim is a woman, she is far from the norm of murdered women victimhood. Good on de Costa.

So, if you are looking for a new crime author for your crime fan friends this Christmas – because yes, it’s that time of year again – then Double madness is well worth putting on your list.

awwchallenge2015Caroline de Costa
Double madness
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780987561565

(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)

Charles Hall, Summer’s gone (Review)

Charles Hall, Summer's gone, Margaret River Press

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

When Western Australian writer Craig Silvey set his coming-of-age novel Jasper Jones in the 1960s I was a bit surprised, as Silvey himself did not grow up in that era. I’m not so surprised, though, about Charles Hall’s debut novel Summer’s gone as Hall did grow up in the 1960s. The novel is, from my reading of the brief author biography, somewhat autobiographical, as debut novels often are: both Hall and his main character played guitar in bands, hitch-hiked across Australia, worked in labouring jobs and ended up studying at university. This, though, doesn’t mean the story is Hall’s story. It simply tells us that Hall wrote of a milieu he knows – a wise thing to do!

Summer’s gone is a part-mystery, part-coming-of-age narrative, and is told first person by Nick. It focuses on his relationship with two sisters, Helen and Alison, and another young man, Mitch, with whom he’d formed a folk band in 1960s Perth. The novel starts, however, in Melbourne in 1967 with Nick finding 20-year-old Helen dead (or dying) on their kitchen floor. What happened to her, why it happened, and Nick’s feelings of guilt about it, form the novel’s plot. The theme, though, is something else, it’s about

the trouble with dwelling too much on the past – sometimes you remember other things as well, things you don’t necessarily want to think about.

Except, of course, we do often need to dwell on the past if we haven’t resolved it, we need to think, as Nick does, about the things we did, didn’t do, or might have done differently. We need, in fact, as Nick has come to realise, “to say goodbye to things. And perhaps even to understand.”

To tell his story, Nick slips between the 1960s, the mid 1970s, the 1980s, and sometime around the present from which he is looking back. Hall handles these time-shifts well: it’s not difficult to know where you are, and it effectively replicates the way we often approach the past, that is, in fits and starts as we put together what happened.

It’s an engaging story. Nick, the young version anyhow, is a rather naive and not well-educated – but not unintelligent – young man. He’s not wise in the ways of the world, but he’s decent, and prepared to give things a go. He has a poor relationship with his Perth-based mother, and his only real adult role model is his uncle Clem in Melbourne. The relationship between the four young people is nicely evoked, though because it’s a first person story, the other three characters are only developed as far as Nick understands them, and Nick is not always the most perceptive person. I found this a little frustrating – I wanted to know the other characters more – but I suppose it’s fair enough given the narrative voice chosen.

What gives this book its greatest interest is the social history. Many of the main stories of the period are worked into the narrative – abortion, and the horrors resulting from lack of legalisation; the Vietnam War, conscription, draft-dodging, and the physical and psychological damage experienced by soldiers. Nick also spends time in a hippie commune, and other news events like the Poseidon bubble and crash, the beginnings of women’s liberation, and the release of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album also get a mention. If you lived through this era, the novel provides an enjoyable wander down memory lane. It reminds us of the hopes and ideals of a generation which felt free to explore life and love, to rebel against the constraints of their elders, even though this freedom wasn’t always all it seemed to promise. I did feel, however, that Hall could have left the social history to this era. The references to Chernobyl and mesothelioma started to feel a little forced, and not really necessary to the plot, even though the mesothelioma issue is used to tighten the noose around one character just that little bit more.

Hall’s dialogue is realistic, and gives flavour to the era, and I did enjoy his descriptions of place – of Perth suburbs, and Melbourne, of travelling the Nullarbor and of country Victoria. These descriptions are kept to a minimum, but are just enough to breathe life into the scene.

Early in the novel, Hall refers to chaos theory and the butterfly effect, to the idea that “a minor detail has the power to change everything”. That’s probably true but I’m not sure it tells us anything we don’t already know! There are many minor details in our lives, and we could go mad worrying about which is the one that will (or did) change everything. Fortunately, I think Nick eventually agrees.

This is not a difficult novel, but it is warm, readable, and sings to us of summers past when the world seemed golden, but when in fact there was, as there always is, much more to it than that.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book also for its evocation of the era.

Charles Hall
Summer’s gone
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780987561541

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)

Richard Rossiter (ed), The trouble with flying and other stories (Review)

The trouble with flying book cover

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

The trouble with flying and other stories is the second collection I’ve read from the Margaret River Short Story Competition. I greatly enjoyed last year’s collection, Knitting and other stories, so was very happy to read this one. I’m pleased to see Margaret Press maintain its commitment to publishing stories from the competition, and hope that annual publication will help both the competition and the press, itself.

There were apparently 218 entries for the 2014 competition, which is somewhat fewer than last year’s 260 entries. Stories came from every state in Australia, as well as one from New Zealand. They include both new and experienced writers, many of whom have won awards and/or been published in some of Australia’s best literary journals. I was pleased to see that four of the 24 writers included in this volume, appeared in last year’s collection.

Last year, 20 of the 24 stories were by women, and the trend continues this year with 21 being by women. Presumably this roughly reflects the gender ratio of the overall entries. I wonder why this is? Is writing short stories something women who want to write feel they can juggle more easily with other responsibilities? Or? I’d love to know whether this is a common pattern, and why it might be.

Finally, before I get to the stories, I should say that of course the collection includes the winner, runner-up, and five highly commendeds, as well as the winner and two highly commendeds in the special award for writers from the South West (where Margaret River is located). They didn’t all accord with my favourites, but that’s the subjectivity of reading isn’t it?

Like last year’s collection, the title comes from winning story, Ruth Wyer’s “The trouble with flying”. In the bios, we are told that Wyer is “a fledgling writer from south-west Sydney”. Fledgling she may be, but she has a delightful way with words. It’s a story about transitions, about Rita, an unconfident young girl, moving from high school to TAFE. Intriguingly, Rita doesn’t appear until a few paragraphs in, which disconcerts the reader somewhat as to who this story is about. It is in fact quite an unsettling story, combining humour with pathos and a sense at the end that Rita may not break free of “the loosely bound fog” that she feels envelops her. Flying, in other words, is not easy. It’s a bit cute to say, I suppose, but in many of the stories the characters struggle to fly, to escape the concerns that mire them – and, in fact, some don’t.

One who doesn’t is the immigrant mother in Linda Brucesmith’s “A bedtime story”. Ridiculed by her husband one too many times, she leaves the house after midnight. Another mother in trouble is Annika in Cassie Hamer’s “A life in her hands”. Overwhelmed by a colicky baby – and oh, how I related to that – she decides that “escaping together would make them both much happier”. So, like the mother in “A bedtime story”, she heads to the sea. There, the kindness of one young man and the near tragedy of another shocks her to her senses and she feels “the euphoria of a lucky escape, a second chance”. Life for some, we realise, can often hang on little chances that determine the decisions we make.

A mother of a different kind is Tara in Lauren Foley’s entertainingly titled “Squiggly arse crack”. This is a bright, breezy story about an older single mother enjoying her “staycation”, that is, a brief shopping expedition away from her beloved child, Squig. To ensure she doesn’t change her mind about leaving him with her friend, she “sashays” out the front door without looking back, “pretending her neck is in an Elizabethan collar or pet lampshade”.

This is just one of the stories that departs from the resigned or melancholic tone that seems to be more common in short stories. Another upbeat story is Chinese-born Australian writer Isabelle Li’s “Red Saffron” about a feisty woman prepared to go after love. No shrinking violet, she. Announcing at the beginning of the story that

If poetry is language making love, then cooking must be food making love

she tells us that she’s cooking for Walter. She’s a poet and editor of a poetry magazine, and her aim is to seduce fellow poet Walter while her current lover, Richard, is away. This is a woman in charge of her destiny:

I know how sweet I am, in men’s eyes that follow my movements. I look younger than my age, with my dense hair and lustrous skin. I know they want to taste me on their tongue. But they are wrong: I’m no honeysuckle.

Glen Hunting’s Martha in “Martha and the Lesters” is spirited too. The story is told by Martha’s lodger, who is – no, not Lester. The Lesters are the spiders which proliferate in elderly Martha’s rather untidy home. Our narrator Roland, for that’s his name, describes the Lesters going about the business of life – reproducing, eating, sometimes other insects, sometimes each other. They play a complex role in the story. Martha feels blessed by their presence, and yet, as we see, their lives represent “gluttony and violence writ small”. Perhaps that’s the point. Unlike Martha’s children, they accept her, don’t judge her, and don’t pretend to be other than they are!

Continuing in the vein of positive stories is Kate Rotterham’s “Potholes” about a rather curmudgeonly, recently retired husband and father, Les, “who was surprisingly confident in diagnosing a range of mental disorders” in those around him, but who, delightfully, does a complete about-face at the end.

There are, though, some devastating stories such as Bindy Pritchard’s second-prize winner “Dying” about a rural mother with terminal cancer, and Leslie Thiele’s portrait of a man with dementia in “Catching trains to Frankston”. The challenge of ageing, in fact, appears several times in the collection. I enjoyed Kathy George’s story, “Walking the dog”, about a lonely old widower who, like Martha in Hunting’s story, is confronting the limits of his independence.

Not surprisingly, the collection encompasses many concerns currently facing Australians, with issues like ageing, cancer and fire appearing in several stories. Indigenous issues and our multicultural make-up also appear, albeit way less frequently, reflecting I’m guessing the backgrounds of the writers. It would be good to see more diversity here – but that is another discussion methinks.

And now for the apology. I would love to comment on every story in this collection, not only because each has something to offer but because I know writers (like all of us) love feedback. I can imagine, if I were a writer, coming to a review like this wondering whether my story would be featured. All I can say is that many of the stories, besides those I’ve chosen to write about here, touched me. I’m sorry I couldn’t mention them all.

“Practise senseless acts of beauty” is one of the instructions Harry (“Potholes”) reads in Ten Ways to a Happier Life. I’m so glad the writers in this volume had a go at their own “acts of beauty”. They’ve given me much to ponder.

Richard Rossiter, with Susan Midalia (Eds)
The trouble with flying and other stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition 2014
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780987561527

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)

Richard Rossiter (ed), Knitting and other stories (Review)

Richard Rossiter, Knitting

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

Short stories, I’ve decided, are the ideal reading matter for breakfast, so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been engrossed in Knitting and other stories, which contains a selection of stories from this year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition. The competition is new, having been offered for the first time last year. According to the Margaret River Press’s website, there were 260 entries. This book contains 24 of them, including of course the winner and runner-up, and four highly commendeds.

The collection takes its title from the winning story, Knitting, by Barry Divola. Divola is one of the only two names I recognise in the book, the other being Jacqueline Wright whose first novel, Red dirt talking, was published last year. Knitting is a rather apposite title because most of the stories are about characters whose lives are unravelling – or have unravelled – in some way. And not all manage, by the end of their stories, to knit themselves together again, which is realistic even if it makes us readers feel a little unravelled ourselves!

As I was reading the stories a few things became apparent. Most of them are by women (20 of the 24 in fact). Does this represent the gender ratio of stories entered? Not that it matters, but it’s interesting, partly because it also means that, with a few gender-crossing exceptions, most of the stories focus on women. I noticed some recurring themes, about which I’ll write more below. And, I became aware, through connections between theme, character and/or setting, that the order of the stories had been crafted. Rossiter’s introduction, which I read after finishing the book, clarified that he had indeed grouped stories together. I think it enhanced the reading. There is always a jolt when you move from story to story, particularly if you read them without a break. Grouping them not only lessens the jolt but somehow encourages the brain to think beyond the immediate story. Karen Lee Thompson who has also reviewed this book feels quite differently about “contrived” ordering.

Another thing I noticed was that the majority of the stories seemed to be told in first person. Fifteen of them in fact. One is told in second person, making eight in third person. Does this matter? Probably not. First person can provide a level of intimacy that you don’t quite get with the other voices and I enjoy that. But, when you read one after another, no matter how well written they are, all the I, I, I can feel a bit tedious, a bit self-involved. This is not a comment on the individual stories so much as on the impact of the whole. Fortunately there are some lovely third person stories in this collection to break up the I-ness! And Amanda Clarke, in “The girl on the train”, uses the second person effectively to convey the dissociation experienced by a woman grieving over her daughter’s death. Describing her grief as “a vicious sort of cling wrap”, she is both trapped in and standing apart from herself. The “you” voice captures this beautifully.

Now to that old problem of how best to review a collection. For this one, I think the best approach is through its themes, and I’ll start with the one that stood out for me – grief, grief for people who have died, or for broken relationships or lost opportunities. Kristen Levitzke’s “Solomon’s Baby” about a baby’s death is particularly wrenching, but there are stories about grandchildren and grandparents (Vahri’s “I shine, not burn” and Louise D’Arcy’s “Down on the farm”) and people grieving for lost time and opportunities (Jacqueline Winn’s “The bitter end”), to name just a few.  Other recurring themes are memory, growing up, ageing and, either explicitly or implicitly, time. Jacqueline Winn’s “The bitter end” starts:

Let’s not fool ourselves, time is not something to be negotiated. Time passes through us or we pass through time. No second thoughts, no second chances.

Family and family relationships are common subjects. In many stories, a parent is missing – either through death, or separation – creating a gap that can have lasting ramifications. One of my favourite stories in the collection is JS Scholz’s “Focus” about a young boy who’s on the run with his mother from his abusive father. Seen as a “hopeless” student who can’t “focus”, he uses his initiative to carry out a subversive action which shows his true character. In another favourite story, Kathy’s George’s cleverly named “A bend in the road”, the temporary absence of the father creates a tension between a mother and son. The daughter, though, sees the real issue:

“The family is a board game, a game with a missing piece … and nobody can play the game without the missing piece. Not properly anyhow.”

In some stories, it’s the chance meeting of strangers which throws light on the protagonists’ situations. Amanda Clarke’s second-person-story is one of these. In Kerry Lown Whalen’s “Notes in a scale” and Bindy Pritchard’s “The bees of Paris” the strangers are also neighbours.

While most stories are about character and family relationships, not all are. One such is John Dale’s “Expressway” which satirises the need to believe. It’s the story of a smudge on the wall of the Cahill Expressway which Francesca Lombardo believes is an image of the Virgin Mary. This sets in train a series of events including the removal of the section of the wall to Darling Harbour “which had better facilities and all day parking”. The government, talk shows, scientists, and social media are all targeted in this fun but pointed story about, at best, our desire for miracles and, at worst, our gullibility.

There is some lovely writing here, but I’ll just share two short examples. Dorothy Simmons describes the bush in her story, “Off the map”, about a young girl who is an orienteering champion:

All the little movements: lizard flicker, goanna slither, leaf rustle, sleek silvery trees posing beside slouching shaggy grey ones; cicada hum, magpie trill, whip bird …

The other is Paulette Gittins’ description in “Playing with Ramirez” of a gang of children coming down a Melbourne suburban street:

Down the street towards me a vaulting, whooping gang in stripes, red and black, blue and white, shrilling, colliding, hilarious; black-haired, scrawny, curly and nimble, they poured past.

As with any collection, some stories touched me more than others, but all have something to offer, something to say, about living and surviving in a world that for many, as Divola writes in the title story, “is too sharp [with] edges everywhere”. A most enjoyable read.

For other reviews of this collection which highlight some different stories, check out Karen Lee Thompson (in her review mentioned above) and Anne Skivington.

Richard Rossiter (Ed)
Knitting and other stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition 2013
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780987218087

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)