Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview)

For last year’s Novellas in November, Arti (of Ripple Effects) posted on a book and author I’d never heard of, Nella Larsen’s Passing. She also discussed its 2021 film adaptation. Quite coincidentally, that same month, my Californian friend Carolyn wrote positively about the film in a letter to me. It sounded right up my alley, so how grateful was I when, this month, Carolyn sent me the book. I decided to squeeze it in …

According to Wikipedia, Nella Larsen (nee Walker) was born in a poor part of Chicago to a Danish immigrant mother, and a father “believed to be a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies”. He disappeared early in Nella’s life, and her mother married another Danish immigrant. Because of Nella they were seen as a “mixed” family and were not welcome in the mostly white neighbourhood where they’d moved. Nella grew up in that difficult limbo of being neither white nor black.

Eventually, she married a Black-American* physicist and they moved to Harlem where they became involved with “important figures in the Negro Awakening”, later known as the Harlem Renaissance. I share all this because it is relevant to Passing, which was her second novel.

Passing, set mostly in 1927, tells the story of two Black women, Irene and Clare. Both can pass as white, but Irene lives in Harlem with her darker doctor husband, while Clare lives in white society, as a White, with her Black-hating banker husband. At the start of the novel, Irene receives a letter from Clare, referring to an accidental meeting they’d had in a swish hotel in Chicago where both had been “passing” as white. This meeting had been 12 years after they’d last seen each other as teens in Chicago, at which time Clare had been whisked away by her White aunts after the death of her drunken janitor father.

Two years had passed since that uncomfortable Chicago meeting, two years during which Irene had done her best to forget an occasion “in which even now, after two years, humiliation, resentment, and rage were mingled”. But now, Clare was wanting to see Irene again …

“they always come back” (Brian)

Much has been written about this book, which speaks directly to the challenges and conflicts faced by African Americans at the time. There was a new Black bourgeoisie – a professional middle class – to which Irene belongs, and in which she feels comfortable. She’s committed to the whole “uplifting the brother” project and does good works to that end. Clare, on the other hand, has turned her back on her race. The scene is set, we think, for conflict.

And there is, but if you think it’s going to encompass a simple dichotomy, you would be wrong. From the start, Larson keeps us on our toes, forcing us to see two very different ways of living as a black woman in that place and time. The story is told third person, but through the perspective of Irene. She is the conservative rule-follower who is sure of her path, while Clare, who is probably closer to Larsen herself, is more adventurous, a risk-taker. She’s lively, sensual, a breath of fresh air, but how are we to read her – and, for that matter, Irene?

As the novel progresses, we (and our allegiances) are tossed between the two, just as tensions between the two ebb and flow. Are we to approve Irene’s conscientious approach to life, or should we empathise with the “lonely” Clare who wants to reconnect with the black community? Both are flawed characters. Irene’s choice involves buying into the whole aspirational, consumerist, success-focused values of the bourgeoisie, so much so that she rides rough-shod over the wishes and needs of her husband and sons. Clare, on the other hand, might be lively but she can also be “selfish” and “wilful”, with her risk-taking being potentially dangerous or damaging to others, including her neglected young daughter. It’s clear that if her husband discovered she’d been touched by “the tar brush”, she’d be in deep trouble. It’s to Larsen’s credit that we do not see these characters as black and white (hmm!).

Irene and Clare are not the only characters in this tight novella, but the most interesting of the others is Irene’s husband, Brian, who finds himself caught between the two women after Clare inveigles herself into their lives. At the end of Part 1, just after the meeting in Chicago, Irene is preparing to return home to New York and Brian whose “old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him, that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress.”

“caught between two allegiances” (Irene)

Passing is told in three parts – Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale. In Re-encounter we learn more about these characters through their interactions, and we discover the source of Brian’s restlessness. He is, potentially, another adventurer, though different to Clare.

Early in this final part, Irene and Brian discuss Clare, “passing” and race. Brian has a more nuanced understanding of “race”, it seems. Answering Irene’s question about why those who pass “always come back”, he says, “if I knew that, I’d know what race is”. Much later, we learn that race is at the core of Brian’s restlessness. When Irene upbraids him for honestly answering their son’s question about lynching, he lashes out:

…I’d feel I hadn’t done my duty by them if I didn’t give them some inkling of what’s before them. It’s the least I can do. I wanted to get them out of this hellish place years ago. You wouldn’t let me. I gave up the idea because you objected. Don’t expect me to give up everything.

Passing is about many things, only some of which I’ve discussed. It’s about convention and security versus risk and adventure, about gender and marriage, about class and money, and about self-definition. There is much here that is universal about human nature, but, of course, race is a driving factor. As the novel draws to its conclusion, Irene finds herself

caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race? The thing that bound and suffocated her.

But, there is another layer to this novel, a foreshadowing of something darker. Half-way through the novel, Irene says to Clare that “as we’ve said before, everything must be paid for”, while a little further on, Clare says to Irene

“Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

It’s chilling, but I’ll leave it there. I was engrossed by this novel from its opening sentence to its clever, unsettling ending.

* I’m uncertain about nomenclature, given the language used in this 1920s novel is not what we use now. I hope I’ve made a fair call.

Nella Larsen
Passing
New York: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1929)
128pp.
ISBN: 9780142437278

Ida Vitale, Byobu (#BookReview)

Uruguayan writer Ida Vitale’s Byobu was my reading group’s second book of the year. Originally published in Spanish in 2018, with the English translation released in 2021, Byobu is Vitale’s first book of prose to be translated into English. Few, if any of us, had heard of her – and yet, this now 98-year-old woman was, in 2019, named by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women of the year. The things we don’t know!

Anyhow, Byobu is a curious book. It has no clear narrative, and only one character, the eponymous Byobu. It’s just 85 pages, and comprises 34 “chapters”. It is replete with allusions to a diverse range of writers, thinkers, musicians. In other words, it’s one of those books you can struggle with, if you don’t come up with a way of reading it. For me, this was to jettison preconceptions about what a novel is and go with the flow to see what fell out. And what fell out was a mind-opening, and sometimes witty, series of thoughts and observations about life and living. I can’t say I understood all of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.

The best way I can encapsulate Byobu is to describe it as a sort of modern Everyman story, the story of an individual in a world that can be confusing, if not sometimes downright hostile. The overall theme seems to me to be: How do you live in this world?

Before I explore this more, some basics. Byobu is set in Uruguay, and although there’s no plot per se, there is some structure. (I’d probably find more structure had I time to read it a few times). The opening chapter introduces the idea of “story” – and clues us into the idea that we are going to be unsettled:

a story’s existence, even if not well defined or well assigned, even if only in its formative stage, just barely latent, emits vague but urgent emanations. (“A story”)

The next few chapters introduce us to Byobu, conveying a general sense of who he is. These are followed by chapters that consider bigger issues in contemporary life.

However, although we are introduced to Byobu, he remains somewhat shadowy. We don’t know how old he is, but one member of my reading group suggested he was old, like his author, and that he encompasses an old person’s thoughts about life. I can accept that. Regardless, besides not knowing how old he is, we don’t know whether he is (or has been) married, has a family, is working, and so on. A family home is mentioned, and there are references to daily activities including attending a conference. All this vagueness supports the idea of him as an Everyman (albeit, possibly, an old one!)

We do, though, learn some things about the sort of person Byobu is. He can be indecisive. He has “an intractable inclination to complicate things”, and hates change. He’s not a good storyteller, but he likes nature and enjoys minutiae. Unfortunately, though,

often distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important. (“On anodyne things”)

I found him very human and engaging, to the degree I could, given his shadowiness.

I fear though that I’m not selling the book, so I’ll try now to share some of its joys and intellect. I’ll start by talking a little about the style. Many of the “chapters”, and I put them in quotation marks because some are only a paragraph long, start with what you could call truisms, but they don’t read as cliches, like:

Everything important lies below the surface. (“Terrestrial labours”)

Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending. (“Knots”)

Byobu has heard it said that ‘every mile has its rough patch’. (“Epiphanies”)

Byobu is not always able to predict how the situations he gets involved in will end. (“Dangerous misunderstandings”)

How can you be sure that the avenue, boulevard, or ordinary road you’re facing is not actually a blind alley? (“Crossroads”)

Just look at that sentence, “Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending”. So terse, so clever. “Knots”, in fact, is one of those one-paragraph chapters. It concerns Byobu’s realisation that if he doesn’t end his “trepidations” and “tepid transactions”, if he doesn’t “lay limbos aside” and “ignore everything initiated by the iniquitous” – he will have to “accustom himself” to “the cage”. But, can he recreate himself?

“Crossroads” addresses another recurrent idea in the book, the importance of the imagination, of mystery, over the mundane. Opposing mystery and imagination are “straight lines” which also recur, starting in the second chapter, “Life is not a straight line”. In “Knots”, Byobu learns that straightness “lays snares” and in “Against the Argive Way”, he is aware that “The world loves conversations in straight lines and single-minded strides. Intersections divert. Labyrinths confound.”

A few chapters in, then, it dawned on me that Byobu was about more than a man muddling through life, that it’s a commentary on modern life. Byobu pleads for the imagination, for not going in straight lines. It critiques conformity, power and authority, commercialisation, urbanisation, inhumanity, and resistance to change. “Internal coherence” explores resisting social pressure. It is “immoral”, it suggests, to accept a world “governed by the boorish authorities who rule during these evil times we inhabit”. Yet, Vitale realises resistance is not easy, so her Byobu “resists on the inside, while staying quiet and feigning surrender”.

In the penultimate “chapter”, “Byobu and the traffic light”, traffic lights are a metaphor for “supervision and compliance”. Here “the defiant … recognise the bad example of a behaviour that is a silent hymn to obedience to all authority”. Vitale goes on to suggest that traffic lights should, in fact, “innervate the pedestrians” (who are “increasingly incongruent elements in the city”) to “assume their role as essential antagonists”. This chapter is a call to defy, to rebel.

Lest this all sound rather bleak, let me say there’s beauty here too. There are, for example, some lovely descriptions of nature:

In the garden, jasmines reign supreme. At night the star jasmine is a vertical Milky Way, delirious with aroma. (“Seasons”)

And, there is quite a bit of humour. Much is of the quiet, understated sort, but it made me laugh. “It’s true”, thinks Byobu, “there were three Wise Men; not quite a battalion” or “They’d better not count on him. He’s not an abacus”.

I hate leaving this book, but of course I must, so, I will leave you with two ideas. The first comes from one of the two epigraphs. Neither were translated, but the second is by Henri Michaux, and it roughly translates as “In case of danger, joke”! Joking is part of this book, but it is also deadly serious. Speaking of “story”, the opening chapter exhorts Byobu (our Everyman) not to “underestimate its flexible, disordered density”. And neither should we, because this novel has much to offer those willing to go with its flow.

Ida Vitale
Byobu
Translated from the Spanish by Sean Manning
Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021 (Orig. Pub. 2018)
85pp.
ISBN: 9781913867023

Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

Christine Balint’s Water music was a joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day (my review), but they are very different books. Meany’s is contemporary, perhaps even near-future, and tackles some up-to-the-minute issues regarding fact, truth and authenticity, while Balint’s is historical fiction, a coming-of-age story, albeit a very specific one.

Set in 18th century Venice, Water music tells the story of a young orphan, Lucietta, who is raised by a fisherman’s family until she’s 16 years old when she leaves to live in Derelitti Convent, one of Venice’s many musical orphanages for girls. This interested me, because when my children were young we loved listening to an audiocassette telling the story of Vivaldi teaching in a Venetian orphanage for girls, but I’d never researched it further.

Balint explains her inspiration in the Acknowledgements and on her website. The book, she says, draws on “the unique history of the musical orphanages” in Venice, which existed from around 1400 to 1797, and were run by and for women. They took in girls of any class or background, if they passed an audition, and provided them with an opportunity to pursue a professional career when this “was rarely possible elsewhere in the world”. In particular, they gave impoverished girls an opportunity “to earn an income and establish a career or save for a dowry—enabling them to forge a fruitful life”.

The obvious question is, how could impoverished girls learn enough music to pass the audition? There must have been a way, but in our Lucietta’s case, she was born illegitimately and placed in a “foundling home”. From here she was given to a wet-nurse, the woman who became her mother, but her “real” father had left instructions and money for her musical education. This sets her on the course that leads her to auditioning for and being accepted at Derelitti.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Lucietta, who has learnt the violin, is musically talented and that her parents have been conscientious about fulfilling these instructions. Her mother, Lucietta tells us, “believed that if she followed these instructions, my musical and marital future would be assured”. Notwithstanding this, the question the novella poses is, what is her future to be? A few options are available to, or possible for, Lucietta, ranging from the future her mother doesn’t want for her, being a fisherman’s wife, to one dreamed of by the orphanage girls of being married to a nobleman from the “Golden Book“.

The story is told first person by Lucietta, so we see it all through her eyes. She’s a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has loved her fishing family, which includes a brother Lionello, so it’s not surprising that she is initially disconcerted when she leaves her family to live in the convent. However, this seems to be a kind place were the nuns and music teachers are supportive and the other girls are friendly. There’s not a lot of drama here, which is counter to your typical historical fiction. Instead, we travel along with Lucietta as she absorbs the influences, ideas and life around her, as she grows and changes, and as she meets, under the eyes of her mentors Maestra Francesca and the Convent’s priora, her suitor and potential husband, Don Leonardi.

Lucietta has decisions to make … and the good thing is that she is supported in those decisions without pressure. Well, there is a little pressure, including from one of her Convent friends, the sweet but one-armed and therefore in those times unmarriageable Regina. She had been sent to the Convent by her father who didn’t want to waste money on her. This is a world, after all, where “a girl is only as worthwhile as her marriage prospects”. Through Regina, Lucietta sees all the

Unwanted, unmarriageable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building. Creating sublime music, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.

There is a little political barb here regarding all those women who created and produced in the past – but anonymously. These convent girls may have had more opportunities than many, but they were not individually remembered. Some may see it as anachronistic when Lucietta sees value in “restoring the music, in finding the music, trying to recover their stories”, but then again, why wouldn’t someone back then have thought of doing this?

Balint’s writing is lovely. She brings the settings Lucietta experiences – her fishing home and then her convent one – to life, and creates in Lucietta an engaging, believable character.

Water music didn’t excite me quite so much as Helen Meany’s book did, perhaps because it’s a gentle book that explores a familiar story, albeit in a different and thoroughly interesting historical setting. However, because of that setting, because of its feminist underpinning, and because the writing is sure, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a good – and not bleak – story.

Theresa also enjoyed this book.

Christine Balint
Water music
Lidcombe, NSW: Brio Books, 2021
119pp.
ISBN: 9781922267610

Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (#BookReview)

Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day is the third Viva La Novella winner that I’ve read and posted about on my blog, the other two being Julie Proudfoot’s The neighbour (my review) and Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). All are memorable reads, and do this award proud – and no, I am not being paid to say this.

Announcing Meany’s win, Books and Publishing quoted the prize organisers who said that “at the intersections of art, politics, identity and representation, this darkly funny novella shows us a world that is weird, disturbing and all too familiar”. Previous Viva La Novella winner, Jane Rawson, calls it “a fresh, funny and delightfully weird take on authenticity and the people who manufacture it”.

Both use the word “weird”, but if you don’t normally do “weird” please don’t let that put you off because this novella is just weird enough to jolt us into thinking about its ideas, but it’s not that far-fetched – unfortunately.

Every day is Gertie Day concerns a new small house museum in Sydney commemorating a reclusive woman called Gertrude Thrift who had died and not been found until well decomposed. She had been the subject of a series of paintings by an artist called Hettie P. Clarke. This series, formally called the Girl with Greyhound series, is popularly known as the Elf Ears paintings because Gertie is depicted in them with pointy elf-like ears. This isn’t particularly weird, but what is weird is that there are people who have adopted Gertie as their inspiration, their role-model and have had their ears modified to emulate those in the paintings. The problem is that there is no evidence in the museum that Gertie herself had such ears.

The story is told in the first person voice of Nina, a guide (or Public Education and Engagement Officer) at the Museum. That this book was going to interrogate contemporary cultural and political trends and tensions is clear early on. As a retired librarian-archivist invested in the heritage sector, I was hooked when Nina notes that

getting people through the door of any museum anywhere was enough of a challenge, and the professional consensus, though no one would publicly admit it, was that it didn’t matter how you achieved it.

Nina continues that if anyone voiced “any sort of distaste, or ethical concerns, or accusing State Heritage of cashing in on a tragedy” they were to say that the museum endeavoured “to be as respectful as possible”. Thus the stage is set for conflict between the Gerties (mainly the Truthers but also the Regular Gerties), the museum staff, and State Heritage over the authenticity – the truth – of their displays. What follows is a story about a tussle for the “truth” in which the actual “truth” seems less important than what people want to believe and why, and what State Heritage and the Government think is best to do and say about it.

While Nina’s voice is the prime one, we are also given excerpts from the artist Hettie’s diaries, which may, or may not, be the “truth”, and, as the conflict escalates, we see some transcripts of social media commentary from various Gerties and their opponents. It is all so real, and delicious to read in the wake of contemporary controversies about “truth” and our tendency, desire even, to make it suit our own purposes and world-views. Nina is as reliable a narrator as we could hope for in this environment, but she has her own needs and perspectives. Mainly, she wants a quiet life and a job to support her family.

There is an element of dystopia in all this. A parallel story concerns Nina’s husband Benj, his recyc-u-pay job and the plight of the unemployed Trolley People (Trollos). These Trollos earn a living sorting through other people’s rubbish to feed into recycling machines that may be poisoning the air. Has Benj been affected? Who is caring about the Trollos, while the Gertie business garners all the attention?

And then there’s the State Museum, where Nina had previously worked. It had closed because of the “controversial Hall of Extinction”. The truth, it appears, was unpalatable. People had stopped coming because no one wanted to be reminded of all the lost species that could now only be seen “stuffed and mounted or on large video screens”:

Dwelling on the past was no way to move forward, it only made people unnecessarily depressed and angry. At least they were the government’s main arguments for defunding the museum.

There are many angles from which to explore this book – cult, identity, and politics; who controls the narrative and what can get lost in the melee; not to mention, art, and its creation and meaning. How ever you look at it, in Every day is Gertie Day, Meany has astutely tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that extends where we are now just a little bit into “weird”, but not beyond our ability to accept its – hm – truth or, worse, its inevitability. Have we got to the point where people are simply “allowed to believe what they want” or, where authority is so distrusted that all we have is belief (with or without evidence)? The ending is perfect.

Read for Novellas in November, and AusReading Month.

Challenge logo

Helen Meany
Every day is Gertie Day
Lidcombe: Brio Books, 2021
213pp.
ISBN: 9781922267627

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Novellas

Yes, I know, novellas aren’t really a genre, but when I started this sub-series I couldn’t find one word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I might end up covering, so we are all going to have to live with “genres”. OK? Many of you will know why I’ve chosen novellas as my next in the series: it’s because one of the several blogger memes running this month is Novellas in November.

Regular readers here will know that I love a novella – and it’s not because they are short, per se, but what the shortness implies. You know that I love short stories, so you will probably know what it is that I love about novellas – it is the ability to condense a story to its essence, while still engaging my heart and mind. In an interview post on my blog, author Nigel Featherstone who has a few novellas under his belt said this:

If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point.

Featherstone, Fall on me

Of course, as he goes on to say, definitions like this “are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it”. True, but I do like the idea that novellas offer “succinctness and sophistication”. Kate Jennings’ Snake, on which I posted last week, is a perfect example.

I should, I suppose, discuss definition. The problem is that novella definitions tend to be based on word count, but we readers have no idea of the number of words in the books we buy. Consequently, we tend to go by number of pages, which has to be rough because the number of words per page can vary significantly from book to book. However, my rule of thumb is the same as that offered by the Novellas in November crew, which is “150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages”.

However, I do want to make the point that for me – and for all serious definitions I’ve read – a novella must be fiction (despite Griffith Review’s including creative nonfiction in its criteria!)

Publishers

There is a sense that publishers are loath to publish novellas because they believe readers equate length with value and feel cheated paying a book price for something that’s 150 pages versus, say, 300 pages. However, some publishers do actively support novellas. They are often the smaller independent publishers. Most of the Australian-published novellas that I’ve reviewed on this blog have come from, in no particular order, Spinifex, Wakefield, Hybrid, Xoum, Scribe, Text, UQP, Blemish (no longer in existence), and Inkerman and Blunt (which published Nick Earls’ acclaimed Wisdom Tree series). Classic novellas, and novellas by “big” names are, of course, published by the big publishers like Penguin.

One publisher which has been actively promoting and supporting novellas is Griffith Review. Primarily a literary journal, Griffith Review has, since issue 38 in 2012, devoted one issue a year to novellas, which they call The Novella Project. Introducing the project, then editor Julianne Schultz discussed the changes that were happening in publishing, and said,

In this context we believe that the time is right for the revival of the novella – of those stories that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.

They have a page on their website titled Notes on the novella. It comprises a collection of “notes” from contemporary Australian novella writers, including those published in the Novella Project editions. If you are interested in what writers think about the form, here is a good place to start. Holden Sheppard, for example, sees it as a “very pure form of storytelling”:

Novellas promise readers a direct flight to their destination – no layovers in Singapore or Dubai. 

Love it …

Competitions

Who would have thought there’d be a prize for novellas but, it seems, where there’s a form or genre, there’s likely to be a prize. Here are three for novellas:

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbour
  • Griffith Review Novella Project is a competition that commenced in 2012, and sees winning entries being published in an edition of the journal. Entries can be fiction or creative non-fiction, ranging between 15,000–25,000 words. Winners have included established writers like Nick Earls, Cate Kennedy, John Kinsella and Stephen Orr. Catherine McKinnon worked her Novella Project III winner, “Will Martin”, into a novel, Storyland (my review).
  • Viva La Novella Prize was also established in 2012 – by Seizure – with the first winner announced in 2013. It’s an annual prize awarded for works of 20,000-50,000 words. Seizure is “a social endeavour which runs under the auspices of Xoum Publishing“. Since the award’s inception, Brio/Xoum has published 20 short novels, meaning there’s been more than one winner per year. I’ve read two, and have a couple more on my TBR. It’s another wonderful initiative.
  • Storyfest National Novella Writing Competition is an annual competition for high school students, that seems to have been running since 2018. The entries have to be between 8,000 and 20,000 words. You can see and read the overall and state winners on the Somerset Storyfest website. Lovely to see such encouragement for student writers.

Lists

Just search “novellas” in your browser and you will find a multitude of lists, but for a useful list of Australian novellas, check out Brona’s blog.

Are you a novella fan? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime.

S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

Trevor Shearston, Hare’s fur (#BookReview)

While I want to, I often don’t manage to follow up books recommended by Lisa but Trevor Shearston’s Hare’s fur particularly caught my attention. He was an Australian author I didn’t know; the novel is set in the Blue Mountains; and the protagonist is a potter, which sounded intriguing. So, I bought it – over a year ago, in fact, when I had a bookshop gift voucher to spend – but have only just managed to squeeze it into my schedule.

It’s a lovely read. However, I was surprised to discover that Shearston has published several novels, and a short story collection. His 2013 novel Game, about bushranger Ben Hall, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead and Colin Roderick awards. Hare’s fur is quite a different book – at least, ostensibly, as I haven’t read Game to know its style or underlying concerns!

So, Hare’s fur. It tells the story of Russell Bass, a recently widowed 70-something potter living in the beautiful Blackheath area of the Blue Mountains. Unlike his potter son-in-law, Hugh, Russell sources the rock for his glazes in the canyons below his home. On one of his forays – to a remote creek that he thinks only he visits – he hears voices, and, on further investigation, discovers three children living in a cave, teen Jade who is looking after her younger sister Emma and little brother Todd. They are, he discovers, hiding from child welfare (DoCS) and the police. What would you do? The novel – novella, really, I’d say – tells the story of the relationship that develops between these four, and how Russell navigates this tricky human, legal and moral territory.

Now, before I go further, I was interested to see in Trevor Shearston’s GoodReads author page a book called The impact of society on the child: Proceedings of the inaugural annual meeting. I can’t find what his role was. It doesn’t seem he was editor or assistant editor, but, assuming he was involved, it suggests a formal interest in children’s well-being. Certainly, that is the essential theme of this novel. It’s about deciding what’s responsible and being generous, in the face of justifiable fear and lack of trust.

From Govett’s Leap, Blackheath

What’s lovely about this novel is that the adults involved – not just Russell, but, peripherally, his daughter and son-in-law who live 30-minutes walk away, and his neighbour – are open to solving this problem. They recognise the very real risks and challenges of Russell’s desire to protect the children, but they don’t resort to black-and-white solutions. I will leave what happens there, because one of the joys of the novel is following the various characters’ decisions and actions as they navigate this tricky situation.

Other joys of the novel include the writing, and particularly the descriptions of the landscape. Here is part of Russell’s walk down to his creek:

Tea-tree and lomandra had grown across the opening of the abandoned lookout. He pushed through the clumps of blades to the apron of lichened concrete and found the faint pad that only his feet maintained, skirting to the right of the platform through wind-sculpted casuarinas and hakea and more tea-tree to the cliff edge. There he stopped and removed his beanie and took the sun on his face and scalp. It was the last direct sunlight he would know until he stood again on this spot. …

He describes the birds and flowers, the colours and the misty coldness of the mountains, so beautifully.

The characterisation is good too. Told third person but from Russell’s perspective, we are privy to the feelings of this man who is still grieving his wife but is getting on with it. His daughter and son-in-law, and his neighbour, invite him over for dinner or drop meals on his doorstep, but he’s not helpless. He’s sad and a bit lonely, but he has his work. His relationship with the children is gentle, thoughtful and respectful. His response to Jade is wise,

She lacks education, he told himself, not intelligence. Don’t talk down to her.

Then there’s the title – hare’s fur. Hands up, if you know what it means? I didn’t, but it’s a special kind of brown glaze. Jade asks him how he turns the rocks into glaze. He tells her

… when it’s heated to a high enough temperature it’ll melt again. And, having lots of iron in it, that gives a black glaze. If I’m lucky, with streaks of dark blue, or red, or sometimes little brown flecks that look like animal fur.

One of Russell’s most treasured possessions is a valuable, 900-year-old hare’s fur tea bowl bequeathed him by a collector. Why the novel is titled for this is not obvious, but presumably part of it relates to the fact that this glaze is precious and rare, and needs to be nurtured like the children he has found. There’s a point where he shows Jade this bowl and lets her hold it. He tells her she can go look at it in his room any time, but asks her not to pick it up. Trusting her like this, with an object precious to him, is significant – but not laboured in the novel.

Hare’s fur is a positive book about the importance of trust and respect, and of being open to others. It’s also about how lives can be remade. Russell is as lucky as the children that they found each other.

Trevor Shearston
Hare’s fur
Melbourne: Scribe, 2019
194pp.
ISBN: 9781925713473

Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler, Black cockatoo (#BookReview)

Black cockatoo is a young adult novel written by Indigenous Australian author, Carl Merrison, and his non-Indigenous collaborator, Hakea Hustler, and illustrated by Indigenous Australian illustrator, Dub Leffler. It is a beautiful, little (in size, not value) book that made quite a splash when it was published. It was shortlisted for several children’s literature awards in 2019, including those by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Readings, the Australian Book Industry Association, and the Queensland Literary Awards. However, it is not the sort of book that I would normally post on here, so I plan to keep this review short.

I say this for a few reasons. For a start, children’s and young adult literature are not my main interest, though I do occasionally make exceptions, as I am making here. My main reason, however, is that not only am I not the typical age demographic for this book, but I am also the wrong cultural demographic, which makes me two steps removed from its target audience. But, I ordered this book from Magabala because I was intrigued about what was being written for young Indigenous readers, and it is on that basis that I’m posting on the book.

The story is set in a remote community in Australia’s Kimberley region, and focuses on 13-year-old Mia. She is disturbed to see her 15-year-old brother, Jy, becoming increasingly alienated from his community and culture, but feels powerless to do anything about it. In the book’s first chapter she rescues a young black cockatoo (dirrarn) which had been injured by Jy who had been target practising with his shanghai. The dirrarn is her totem animal.

What makes this book interesting for someone like me to read is the way it conveys the issues that I, an outsider, am aware of through my reading. One of these is the issue of family breakdown in Indigenous communities. Mia and her brother are being raised by their mother and grandparents, and haven’t seen their father or his family for many years. It’s clear that this is a tough gig for the grandparents. Mia overhears her grandfather (her jawiji) tell her grandmother that he’s “just tired”, and that:

I’m not sure I have it in me to teach him the right ways anymore. He’s just so headstrong.

In one way, of course, Jy is a typical teenager – stubborn and defiant – but concern about this behaviour is magnified in Indigenous communities where disconnection from culture can leave young people, young men in particular, highly vulnerable. In this story, the grandparents, like many in Indigenous communities, do their best to inculcate knowledge of and respect for culture, while also supporting their grandchildren’s need to make their way in a world they don’t know themselves.

This brings me to the main subject of this story, Mia. Her angst stems not only from her concern about her brother, but from having to make a decision about whether to take up her place at “a fancy school down south”. She’s confronting that conundrum faced by young Indigenous people that I’ve also gleaned through my reading, the challenge of straddling two cultures. There is a lovely sense here of Mia being supported and encouraged by her family, but also of her having some agency in what she does:

“You live in both worlds,” her grandmother added. “You will be strong in both ways.”

Black cockatoo is a short story but Merrison and Hustler pack a lot in here about the warmth and humour within extended Indigenous families, which lightens the more serious concerns they confront. The tone is not heavy, which is appropriate given the aim of this book being presumably to support young Indigenous people in making good choices rather than to demoralise them with the challenges they face!

The book is illustrated by Dub Leffler, with stylish, sometimes realistic sometimes more subtle, black-and-white images opening each chapter. Words from Jaru language are lightly scattered through the text:

It had been a proper long barranga dry weather, so to hunt we didn’t have to travel far to find big fat bin.girrjaru bush turkey.

There are two small glossaries at the end, one of Jaru words, and the other of Aboriginal English/Kriol words, that are used in the text.

While not all issues are resolved by the end, as you would expect, the novel’s conclusion, as you would also expect, is positive, with Mia coming to realise both her own inner strength and that she has the ongoing support of family and culture. It’s a good message in an accessible book, it seems to me, but the real proof is whether it works for its target readers, and that, of course, I don’t know.

Challenge logo

Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler
Dub Leffler (illus.)
Black cockatoo
Broome: Magabala Books, 2018
62pp.
ISBN: 9781925360707

Carol Lefevre, Murmurations (#BookReview)

Book coverMurmurations is a beautiful, evocative word, and Carol Lefevre’s latest book, titled Murmurations, does beautiful, thoughtful justice to it. It is though an unusual book. Styled by its author as a novella, it reads on the surface like a collection of short stories, except that the stories are not only connected by the various characters who pop in and out, but by an overarching mystery concerning one of them, Erris Cleary, whose funeral occurs in the first of the eight stories.

Murumuration is, you may know, the collective noun for a flock of starlings, something I discussed in my 2016 post on Helen Macdonald’s essay “The human flock”. She says starlings flock for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. Lefevre provides, as an epigraph for her book, an image of a murmuration and the following quote from a paper on starling flocks:

The change in the behavioural state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is.

These ideas are all reflected, in some way, in Lefevre’s book. But, the book also has another idea as Lefevre explains in her acknowledgements, and that is that each story was inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. If you know his paintings – like “Automat” which inspires the first story – you will know that although they are set in real places, they have a certain paradoxical other-worldliness, which entwines bleakness with a sort of dreamy expectation. This tone also pervades Lefevre’s book.

Murmurations starts with “After the island”. Here, young doctor’s secretary Emily considers the funeral of her employer’s wife, the 53-year-old Erris Cleary. She remembers some mysterious messages that had occasionally broken through the doctor’s patient note recordings, messages that implied Erris was in danger. The book ends with “Paper Boats”, in which two neighbours, Amanda and Magda, discuss Erris’ death, with Amanda going on to write a short story about it. Erris Cleary, then, is the link that joins the stories.

The six stories that come between these opening and closing ones are all, like the two just mentioned, told third person from different characters’ perspectives. All are women except for the titular (and penultimate) story, “Murmurations”, which features a young man. His, Arthur’s, story is the only one in which we finally “meet” Erris as a living woman. Four of the remaining five stories feature women who moved in Erris’ circle – Claire, Fiona, Jeanie and Delia – with the fifth one featuring Lizbie who had a complicated and ultimately tragic relationship with two sons from this circle. She is also the daughter of the final story’s Amanda.

Each story focuses on the dark little accommodations or disturbances in its protagonist’s life. Marriage breakdown, looming dementia, suicide and other events threaten to – and usually do – destabilise the characters. There is a sense of quiet desperation in the stories, even in those that look to be alright on the surface. Claire (“Little Buddhas everywhere”) clings to the husband who has remarried. She relies on his sense of responsibility, not to mention her faith in her inherent lovability, to keep him looking after her as well as his new family, while Jeanie (“The lives we lost”) is thrown by the fact that the man she married admits years later that he hadn’t loved her then, though he did now. Delia (“This moment is your life”) is starting to lose her mind. She appreciates her second husband but seems to have married the same sort of controlling man she had the first time. And so on.

These are, mostly, the quiet little tragedies of life, the ones that never make the newspapers but that are all around us – if we only knew what questions to ask. As one character or another appears in the story of another, we see the possibilities for impacting each other – as in a murmuration. The overarching tragedy is that for all their apparent connections, no one seems to really see what is happening to the others or to have the time, or even the desire, perhaps, to genuinely care. This is beautifully illustrated in Jeanie’s story. She moves in with her cousin but they can’t connect:

Neither cousin understands what the other is saying. Though they speak the same language, words, sentences, turn opaque when they attempt to describe their lives.

The implication seems to be that this little murmuration of women is a surface one only, with little protection or warmth afforded to the individual members.

The exception is the mysterious Erris who, in the titular story, speaks to the young Arthur, working in her garden. She offers him the chance to fly:

… and a note, addressed to him, scribbled on a page torn from a blind notebook: Fly away, Arthur. Fly far, be free. Erris.

Around the edges of the paper, cloud shapes were filled with dozens of small, dark, pencilled birds.

The book is beautifully structured to suggest complex layers of links between the stories and characters, layers that would only multiply, I suspect on multiple readings.  The first story’s Emily, for example, is a young girl from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home. Then, after five stories about women linked through neighbourhood lives to Erris, we come to the aforementioned young Arthur. He also comes from the Star of Bethlehem children’s home and was a friend of Emily’s. Will these two, despite lacking the opportunities the others have presumably had, make a better fist of their lives?

The final story adds another dimension. In converting Erris’ death and the mystery surrounding it into a short story that she submits to The New Yorker, Amanda hopes to achieve her writing goal:

to hit one true note. A note that will make sense of something, perhaps of everything, a note that will crack the obliterating silence once and for all.

Can fiction, Lefevre seems to be asking, make the difference? Can we, through fiction, see the connections that we don’t always see in the real lives around us? If it’s fiction like this, written with such clarity and heart, I believe it can.

Challenge logoCarol Lefevre
Murmurations
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2020
108pp.
ISBN: 9781925950083

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (#BookReview)

Book coverConvenience store woman, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, is Sayaka Murata’s 10th novel, but her first translated into English. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. A rather unusual book, it elicited a stimulating discussion at my reading group last week.

The convenience store woman of the title is 36-year-old Keiko Furukawa. She isn’t “normal”, and her family worries she will never fit in to society. However, when 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened Smile Mart convenience store, and quickly feels comfortable, undertaking routine daily tasks, and following the store’s rules. Eighteen years later, she’s still there. This is not seen as a valid situation for a woman of Keiko’s now mature age. Why isn’t she married? And why doesn’t she have a better job? Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems by having him move in with her.

It’s a short book, at just 176-pages in the print edition, and is told first person. Now, for those of you who remember my recent discussion of first person voices, Convenience store woman is a perfect example of an effective use of first person. The main theme is the push for conformity, the push to follow the expected narrative of a life, but our narrator, Keiko, is not, for whatever reason, able (or willing) to conform. This theme is particularly relevant to Japan, which has a reputation for conformity and group behaviour, but it’s also universally relevant, because many societies, my own included, are not good at coping with people who stray from the “norm”.

So, Keiko is different. She’s been different all her life. She knows it, and she’s mystified. She’s particularly mystified by the way people often behave which seems counter to logic, and also by the way people cheer up when they think she’s behaving “normally”. An example of the former happens in her childhood, which she tells us via flashback. There’s a schoolyard fight. The kids call for the fight to stop, so she goes to the toolshed, gets a spade and bashes one of the kids with it. Everyone is horrified,

“But everyone was saying to stop Yamazaki-kun and Aoki-kun fighting! I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it,” I explained patiently. Why on earth were they so angry? I just didn’t get it.

An example of the latter occurs after she invites Shiraha to live at her place. Everyone assumes they are in a relationship. “They were all so ecstatic”, she wondered, she says, “whether they’d lost their minds”. Listening to her friends “go on”, she says,

was like hearing them talk about a couple of total strangers. They seemed to have the story wrapped up between them. It was about characters who had the same names as we did, but who had absolutely nothing to do with me or Shiraha.

There it is – the expected story or narrative of life!

Of her convenience store colleagues, she says:

I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?

As you can see there’s a good deal of humour in this book. You can also see why this story could only be told first person. Any other voice would risk undermining Keiko’s authenticity, her reality.

So, for Keiko, it’s “convenient” having Shiraha at her place. Everyone is happy for her, and she likes that “they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business”.

However, while Keiko, for all her strangeness, is a likeable character, Shiraha is not. He has no desire to work, and takes advantage of her wish to appear “normal”, even though it satisfies his need for the same. He excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men:

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

Worse, he’s arrogant and cruel:

“I did it! I got away! Everything’s okay for the time being. There’s no way you’ll be getting pregnant, no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you, after all.”

Actually, he only “got away” because Keiko had the idea of his moving in. Fortunately, she has no interest in sex, so his comment falls on flat ears – but we notice it.

The novel, then, hinges on the idea of normality, with the word “normal” recurring throughout the novel. Early on, Keiko realises that “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects”. This is why, it dawns on her, her family wishes to “cure” her. She is therefore grateful for the convenience store, where she can operate as “a normal cog in society” – until her age makes it no longer “normal”. The charming Shiraha has his own take:

“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know. But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around.” Shiraha gave a thin laugh. “I always did want revenge, on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women. I always thought to myself that I’d be a parasite one day. That’d show them. And I’m going to be a parasite on you, Furukura, whatever it takes.”

Shiraha shows us that Murata’s understanding of deviations from the norm is nuanced, not simplistic.

Anyhow, later in the novel, after her sister asks “How can we make you normal?”, Keiko comes to recognise that her sister is happier seeing her as “normal”, albeit with “a lot of problems”,

than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.

In the end, Keiko does resolve her conundrum regarding how to live in a way that is true to herself. It is inspired, in fact, by the convenience store, which I think we can read as a microcosm of society. She suggests that “a convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like”. She can play a role in that.

Convenience store woman is a wonderful read. Perfect in tone and voice, and fearless in its exploration of the confining nature of “normality”, it forces us to look beyond, and imagine other lives and ways of being.

Sayaka Murata
Convenience store woman
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
London: Portobello Books, 2016 (trans. ed. 2018)
eISBN: 9781846276859