Emuna Elon, House on endless waters (#BookReview)

Book coverI’ve said before that I’m surprised by how many takes there can be on World War II, and on the Holocaust, in particular – and once again I’m here with another such story, Emuna Elon’s House on endless waters. I hadn’t heard of Elon before but, according to Wikipedia, she’s an Israeli author, journalist, and women’s rights activist. Her first novel translated into English, If you awaken love, is about life on the West Bank, where she lived for many years.

House on endless waters, however, is historical fiction – or, at least, one of those novels which flips between the present and the past. It tells the story of successful Israeli author Yoel Blum who had been told by his late mother to never go to Amsterdam, from which they’d emigrated. However, the time comes when the middle-aged and internationally successful Blum is urged to Amsterdam by his literary agent to promote his latest Dutch-translated novel. While there, he and his wife visit the Jewish Historical Museum, and here, in a little looping video, he catches an image of his mother Sonia in Amsterdam during the war. Next to her is a man holding a little girl, his sister Nettie, but the baby she is carrying is not he! Who is this baby, and where was he?

Yoel returns to Israel, but, after obtaining the incomplete information his sister is able to provide (which is not divulged to the reader), he goes back to Amsterdam, alone, to research his past and write a novel about it. The result is one of those novels within a novel, as we follow Yoel’s journey alongside reading the story he is writing as he uncovers his family’s – and his – past. How much is “true” and how much Yoel imagines is not the point. We are carried along in the horrors of war-time Amsterdam, in stories of decent hardworking people’s disbelief that life could change so horribly so quickly, of Jewish collaborators, of the hidden children, of the most difficult choices people have to make. Elon conveys viscerally the shock felt by Jewish citizenry as one by one their rights are removed and as the foundations of their lives – something they thought immutable in such a place as Holland – crumble.

Much of this story has been told before. Anne Frank comes to mind of course, and many novels have dealt with the ways in which Jewish people were gradually ostracised and betrayed by their own society (the yellow stars, the loss of jobs, the resumption of homes, the rounding up, the transporting to concentration camps, and so on). What makes this one a little different – at least in my reading to date – is its exploration of the hidden child phenomenon, within a larger story of collaboration, betrayal, resistance and difficult choices.

The important thing, however, is less this difference than that it is a deeply absorbing read. Elon’s ability to manage her two story threads, and maintain our interest in both, speaks to a practised, skilled writer. There is no rigid chapter by chapter alternating of stories. Rather, as Yoel becomes increasingly invested in the life of his mother, Elon starts to blend the two stories, with Yoel sometimes feeling himself in both stories at once. As his sense of self becomes increasingly discombobulated, the line between past and present starts to blur:

Yoel would have liked to write about the architectural significance of Amsterdam, about the implication behind the labor invested in the rows of tiny reddish bricks, about the stylized cornices above the windows and the artistic embellishments that adorn every single building. But early the next morning, Sonia is walking along the street, and across the road the police are evicting a Jewish family from their beautiful art-nouveau-design house. The members of the banished family are trying to walk proudly to the truck that has come to take them away …

For Yoel, unlike the tourists he sees blithely enjoying the sun and culture of Amsterdam, “the past is still here” and it begins to overwhelm him.

Why a story-within-a-story?

This bring me to the question of why would Elon use the story-within-a-story-device? I can think of three reasons, the most obvious being that it draws the reader into the story, engaging us in its unravelling along with the protagonist. Secondly, in this case, it also mirrors how many children of the Holocaust generation didn’t know their parents’ stories – weren’t told them – and therefore had to work out those stories piece by piece. Finally, also in this case, it enables Elon to expose the personal development of her narrator, Yoel, who is initially revealed to be decent but emotionally remote. Very early in the novel, we learn this about him:

Perhaps the day will come when he’ll even train himself to live, a day when he will walk the earth like everyone else without being overcome by the thought that in fact it’s odd , even ridiculous to be a human being …

He is, says his wife, “scared of living”. This novel, then, is partly about identity. Yoel didn’t know his past but it’s clear that the traumas of that past had unconsciously impacted him, as we now know they do. Slowly, as he comes to understand who he is, he also starts to live, to be an engaged human being.

Jan Toorop, The Sea at Katwijk, 1887 (Public Domain)

There is much to this book, with Elon and her novelist Yoel drawing on art and music to reflect both Holland’s cultural achievements and its darker side. A motif running through the book is a stolen work of art – Jan Toorop’s The Sea at Katwijk – that had belonged to Sonia’s friends, Anouk and Martin, who are implicated in what happens. Martin suggests to Sonia that the painting is more about Toorop – “every painter evidently knows only how to depict himself” – than place. However, Sonia also sees herself in it: “there she is in black, there in red, there she is borne from wave to wave, moving in the infinite.” For Yoel, this sea “is a huge finite vessel containing infinite waters”. All this contributes to the novel’s message, one which Yoel finally realises Sonia was telling him:

Whatever was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.

The trick is to know when to fight those waters, and when to let your “heart encounter the heart of the sea” and be at peace.

House on endless waters came to me out of the blue, but what a find. A Holocaust novel, it contains the horrors of that time but is also imbued with a generous, philosophical spirit that, without excusing atrocity, recognises the humanity of those who made selfish decisions and those who had to live with them. We need perspectives like this.

Emuna Elon
House on endless waters
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020 (Orig. ed. 2016)
ISBN: 9781760877255

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Melanie Myers, Meet me at Lennon’s (#BookReview)

Book coverI was keen to read Melanie Myers’ debut novel, Meet me at Lennon’s, because it is set during the Brisbane of my mother’s early teens, that is, wartime Brisbane when her school, Somerville House, was commandeered in 1942 by the Australian Military Forces and served as a US Army Headquarters for the rest of the war. I grew up knowing this story, so was keen to see what Myers made of it, particularly since not many literary fiction novels, as far as I know, have tackled Brisbane during those times. Ariella van Luyn spends some time there in Treading air (my review) and David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical novel Johnno, which I read a long time ago, covers those years. However, being five years younger than my mum, Malouf was only 11 when the war ended, so his perspective is necessarily different.

Myers’ focus is the lives of women during those strange, heady days when women experienced new freedoms through filling the jobs left by men. Added to this was the excitement and glamour of the American GIs in town resulting in increased socialising at bars, like the titular Lennon’s Hotel, and dance venues, like the Trocadero.

It’s something isn’t it? It’s hard not to get caught up in the fever of having a common purpose. Uniforms everywhere and everyone feeling what they’re doing is important and useful. And the Americans, let’s not forget them. For all their braggadocio, they’ve certainly brought a touch of glamour to our little colonial outpost. (April 1943. p. 233/4)

But it was a dark time too. It was a time of austerity and rationing. There was tension between the Australian men and the Americans whose cashed-up glamour, with their gifts of “nylons” and fur coats, attracted the women. There was racism towards black American soldiers. And there was sexual violence against women. This is the complex world that Myers explores in her historical novel, Meet me at Lennon’s.

However, this novel is not straight historical fiction because Myers has taken the increasingly-common dual narrative approach, alternating between the 1940s and the present, when protagonist Olivia Wells is struggling, not only with her PhD on the life of a now-forgotten feminist author Gloria Graham, but also with her abusive (as it turns out) boyfriend, Sam, and the reappearance of her estranged father. Just like her 1940s counterparts, Olivia meets an American man. The stage is set in chapter 1 …

You might be getting a glimmer now of why Myers chose the dual narrative approach? It serves to compare the lives of women in the 1940s with those of women now, asking us to consider what, if anything, has changed? Myers undertook extensive research into wartime Brisbane, looking particularly at police and newspaper reports of crimes against women, as well as the infamous Battle of Brisbane. She uses this research to create stories of several young women in the 1940s, stories she winds around a plot based on an unsolved crime – the River Girl murder. Through these women we learn, for example, that crimes by Americans were mostly passed to their Military Police and quietly handled, with justice rarely being obtained for the victim. Such was the River Girl’s fate. Can Olivia and her friends solve it now? There is, then, also a mystery at the heart of this novel.

Myers does a lovely job of recreating the times. Her characters not only engaged me, but they felt authentic. There’s sturdy sensible Alice, who, having worked pre-war as a house-maid for rich people, sees the opportunity, now that she’s in a well-paid job, to buy a fur coat, just like her former employer had owned. To her horror, however, she soon realises that fur coats were “the gift of choice for women whom American servicemen ‘favoured'”. There’s Gwendolyn, engaged to the uninspiring Robert, but now having fun, as the much more exciting Dolly, with the “energetic” Corporal Charles Feely. There are several more, including those in the present time. One of the book’s challenges is keeping track of the characters and clocking the clues that might connect them.

Myers plays about a bit with her dual chronologies. Chapter 4, for example, is divided into three sections, September 1942, July 1942, then August 1942. The aim, I assume, is to reduce the focus on plot tensions, by preparing us for characters’ actions and feelings. In September 1942, Alice burns the above-mentioned fur coat she buys in July 1942. She also remembers a violent act by her brother when they are children, which prepares us for meeting him in August. And Chapter 12 is set in 1993, when we meet again, as an older woman, Alice’s friend Val from 1942. It works fine – and indeed meeting the lively Val again in 1993 provides some light relief, while also moving the more serious issues on.

The writing is generally sure and expressive. Myers writes some evocative descriptions, such as “a confident early sun fixed on warming the rest of the day ahead” and “the vaulted plaster ceiling of Reckitt’s blue was badly deteriorated and hadn’t felt the caress of a paintbrush in decades”. However, for me at least, she does overdo the similes. While, individually, most are fresh, they often felt irrelevant and distracting, such as “like a starlet’s eyelids, the brownout covers …”, “unfolding like a crumpled flamingo, Clio …”, and “the details landed like clumps of pelted sand.” Too much, I’m afraid.

Meet me at Lennon’s, which won the Queensland Literary Awards’ Glendower Award for an Emerging Writer in 2018, is a good and meaningful read about a significant and little covered period in Australia’s and Brisbane’s history. Early in the novel, Olivia’s American acquaintance Tobias refers to the racist segregation of black American soldiers during the war years, and sees a wider relevance:

“A place has got to come to terms with its ugly history, is what I think. Otherwise it metastasises like a cancer cell. And from what I understand, ugly history goes back a lot further here than just the war.” (p. 10)

In the end though, it’s the lives of women which are the central concern of this novel. The final chapter commences with a letter written by Rhia (Gloria Graham) in 1975. She admits that she had hoped to “undo” what had been done to Olive, the River Girl. However, she comes to realise that “there are some evils that no art form can make better, fix or even soothe”. Perhaps she’s right, but novels like this can keep the important issues front and centre – and there’s value in that.

Theresa Smith also appreciated this novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelanie Myers
Meet me at Lennon’s
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702262616

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

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


Monday musings on Australian literature: War-time reading tastes, World War 2

Continuing last week’s brief survey of war-time reading habits…

World War 2

And then we come to the Second World War. Here’s The West Australian again, this time in July 1940, less than a year after the war had started (a bit like our 1915 World War 1 report last week.) The article is headed, “Light Reading Popular. Perth’s Wartime Tastes.” It says that:

Wartime readers prefer light humour and detective novels to political works or discussions of international affairs. This was the verdict of a Perth book-seller and librarian when asked whether the public reading taste had changed since the beginning of the war. For a long time before the war, it was stated, books on international affairs were first favourites but this was no longer so. There had been a remarkable increase among library subscribers in the demand for detective fiction.

PG Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Dreamtime

And yet, it continues, “the unexpurgated edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (royalties in which go to the Red Cross) had sold well.” Did you know that about the royalties? Anyhow, it goes on to say that booksellers in the east of the country report similar interests, with A. P. Herbert’s General cargo and P. G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the springtime being best sellers, and “historical novels and light travel books dealing with countries outside the political maelstrom” also selling well.

Another July 1940 newspaper report on wartime reading tastes comes from Launceston’s Examiner. It starts by saying that people are sick of reading about Hitler, and that one male library visitor pronounced that “All he wanted to read about Hitler now was his obituary!”

The article says that most of the Launceston public library’s users “demand ‘light’ reading” but that “that does not necessarily mean fiction.” People are also interested in “non-fiction that is easy to read, such as short autobiographies and travel”, particularly for “travel books descriptive of countries affected by the war” (which counteracts somewhat the Perth report above about travel book preferences.) As for autobiographies, it says that “those about Royalty of any country are always widely read.” Interesting!

The article says that

most readers say that with the war over-shadowing most things, they seek books that will be purely a distraction from serious thoughts, necessitating the least possible concentration. For that reason, fiction is in greater demand than ever and detective stories the most popular of all the many classes of literature handled at the library to meet varied tastes.

Douglas Reed, Insanity FairThere is an exception to the disinclination for “the ‘heavier’ political type of book” – Douglas Reed’s Insanity fair. It “is still one of the most sought books of all types. There is always a waiting list for it.” I had not heard of him or it, but Wikipedia says that “Insanity Fair (1938) was one of the most influential in publicising the state of Europe and the megalomania of Adolf Hitler before the Second World War.” (You can download it for free from archive.org.) Another exception, this time for books “avoided because of great length”, is Gone with the wind. Since being published in 1937, it apparently “has never rested on the library shelves.”

Also in July 1940 – were these journalists feeding off each other? – was an article in Melbourne’s The Age titled “Reading in wartime. Escape Books”, with the by-line Investigator. It’s a long article – around 1000 words. It poses a number of questions: have tastes changed; should in fact people be reading at all given the “mighty effort” being undertaken “to overcome the foe”; and, if people do continue to read “what kind of books do wise and well-balanced minds recommend to thoughtful Australians?” Don’t you love the idea of “wise and well-balanced minds”?

The article then briefly mentions the challenges faced by readers, including the reduced output from publishers, irregular supply, and “the natural indisposition to spend money on expensive books.” However, Investigator says, “literate homo sapiens must be intellectually fed.” Indeed, s/he quotes Poet Laureate John Masefield, who advised that

While we must, of necessity, be deeply interested in all that is written and broadcast concerning the war, let us keep reading some quiet book to steady our minds. In other words, to preserve our poise, our cheerfulness and sanity, have on hand some quiet, absorbingly interesting book, divorced from politics, warfare, national culture and Ideologies, east or west.

Francis Brett Young, Pilgrim's restWith this advice in mind, Investigator then gives a suggested reading list from “one experimenter.” It comprises “literature of release, diversion and escape from which the experimenter had derived real refreshment since the war began to press heavily upon heart and mind.” The list is diverse, but includes:

  • Such is life, by Tom Collins (aka Joseph Furphy), the new edition with an introduction by Vance Palmer.
  • On the Barrier Reef, by S. Elliott Napier: seems like a non-fiction book about the Barrier Reef. Napier was a banker, solicitor, journalist, and author, among other things.
  • Two of J. B. Priestley’s and Angela Thirkell’s latest novels.
  • Pastoral Symphony, by Aldyth Williams: a gentle memoir, I’m guessing, given its subtitle is “a recollection of country life”.
  • Pilgrim’s rest, by Francis Brett Young: described in GoodReads as “tale of gold lust, gentle romance and the violent industrial unrest which shook the Rand in 1913.” Clearly escapist.

Our “experimenter” also lists books of essays and sketches (one described as containing “pleasant writings”), books of Australian verse, some biographies, and “the three last numbers of the Cornhill Magazine — killed by the war in December, 1939, after 80 years of placid life.” Oh dear, poor Cornhill!

Investigator goes on to say that this list may not represent Australian readers overall, because the “experimenter” has “a sensitive mind, needing release from mental strain”. In fact, Investigator says, data from two different libraries in Melbourne shows that there is “no marked swing in the direction of the literature of escape.”

Nearly two years later, however, in February 1942, Adelaide’s The mail has an article titled “Reading tastes change under war conditions”. This article too quotes a librarian’s experience, Mr CM Reid of the Adelaide Circulating Library. He says that in times of peace Adelaide readers “prefer well reviewed novels, books on current affairs, and a moderate ration of ‘thrillers'”, but that

War time, however, brings a revival of interest in spiritualism, and all kinds of books on mediumism which have never been taken down for years, except to be dusted, are asked for at the counters.

He also notes “a much greater interest in Biblical prophecy since the war began.” The writer suggests that this interest in prophecy, astrology and the occult, “seemed to indicate that some people’s minds were troubled and confused, and that they were seeking comfort rather than information.”

These readers, though, are apparently not “the more serious readers” who, Mr Reid says,

seem to be reading both better books and lighter books since war began. On the one hand they are anxious to be well informed, and all good new books on world affairs and on other countries are sought after; but the same subscribers are also reading many more thrillers, as if for relaxation and escape from world problems.’

And finally, from Ipswich’s Queensland Times in January 1943 comes a report on “people’s tastes” from a librarian. He (it is a he) said that

reading was definitely on the increase in Ipswich, and in addition there was an increase in the demand for the better class of books. More than ever inquiries were for good travel books, biographies, and the historical novel, while anything on sociology and international affairs also was readily taken.

He did admit, though, that “the demand for light fiction remained keen.”

However, supplying this increased interest in reading was a challenge because the war was affecting the output and availability of books. Normally, he would add around 250 new books a month to his library, he said, but he was now lucky to “obtain 40 to 50”, most of which came “from abroad.”

So there we have it, a view of what Australians were reading during World War 2 – from Perth across to Adelaide, then down to Launceston, back over the seas to Melbourne and finally up to Ipswich.

Did anything interest or surprise you?

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea (#BookReview)

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the seaRandolph Stow is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for the longest time – since, would you believe, the 1970s? Embarrassing, really, given his significance. My plan had always been to read his Miles Franklin award-winning novel To the islands first. However, the first I actually bought was The merry-go-round in the sea – back in 2009 when it was re-released as a $10 Penguin classic. It’s taken me until now to read it – and I read it with my reading group, which made it an extra special experience.

BEWARE SPOILERS, albeit this is a classic with minimal plot so, you know …

The merry-go-round in the sea was Stow’s fourth novel, published in 1965 when he was 30 years old. It has a strong autobiographical basis, but is, by definition, fiction. It is essentially a coming-of-age story about a young Western Australian boy, Rob, who, like Stow, was born in Geraldton in 1935. It covers eight years of his life from 1941, when his favourite cousin, the 21-year-old Rick, leaves to fight in World War 2, to 1949, when Rob is 14-years-old and the now-returned Rick is about to leave again, this time to live in London. The plot is not a particularly dramatic one, but rather a lot happens nonetheless.

It all starts in 1941 with Rob and his family moving (“evacuating” is the strange word his mother uses) to a family station in the country, due to fears of Japanese invasion. There Rob enjoys the life of a “bush kid” and is unhappy to find, upon his return to town, that he is really a “townie”. Meanwhile, Rick is at war, ending up a POW on the Thai-Burma railway. His experience is told in three or four brief but vivid digressions from the narrative’s main focus on Rob’s life. We are told enough to prepare us for a changed Rick on his return. In the second part of the novel, the focus is on Rob’s growing up, on his gradual loss of childish innocence, and on Rick’s struggles to come to terms with his life after his experience of war. Nothing is the same for Rick, and Rob worries about his idol.

Now, this is a 400-page novel (in my edition, anyhow) and can be discussed from multiple perspectives, so I’m going to hone in on a couple that most interested me.

One of these is heralded by the book’s structure, by the fact that, although the protagonist, the person through whom we “see” most of the book, is young Rob, the book’s two parts are named for Rick, “1 Rick Away 1941-1945”, and “2 Rick Home 1945-1949.” Superficially, this can be explained by the fact that Rick is a major focus of Rob’s interest. However, I’d argue there’s something more here, that these two characters represent conflicting forces – a duality – within Randolph Stow himself, one being his love of place, of the land and country he grew up in, and the other being his discomfort with that same place and his need to get away, which indeed he did. This duality was, as I recollect, discussed by Gabrielle Carey in her book Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family (my review).

So … through Rob’s third person eyes, Stow writes gloriously, authentically, about Geraldton and the surrounding areas in which he grew up. The language is lyrical, poetic, conveying an emotional intensity in addition to pure description:

By rock pools and creeks the delicate-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold-dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

There’s repetition of colours, plants, and landforms, but rather than becoming tedious they convey a deep familiarity with and love of place – and make the novel sing.

However, through Rick’s eyes – albeit eyes damaged by his war experience – we see a more conflicted, and arguably more adult, understanding of this place. At the end, he explains his decision to leave to Rob:

‘Look, kid,’ Rick said, ‘I’ve outgrown you…


‘I can’t stand,’ Rick said, ‘this – ah, this arrogant, mediocrity. The shoddiness and wowserism and the smug wild-boyos in the bars. And the unspeakable bloody boredom of being in a country that keeps up a sort of chorus. Relax, mate, relax, don’t make the place too hot. Relax, you bastard, before you get clobbered.’

Stow wasn’t the only intellectual to leave Australia in the 1960s. Others include Germaine Greer, Clive Robertson, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes.

My other issue is trickier to discuss: it concerns Stow’s references to Indigenous people in the novel. It’s complicated to tease out, and to do so properly would require a re-read, but I can’t leave the novel without saying something about it, given our heightened awareness these days. As I’ve already said, the book was written in 1965 about the 1940s. In 1957, Stow had spent three months as a storeman at the Forrest River Aboriginal mission in the Kimberleys. His biographer, Suzanne Falkiner, argued (on ABC RN Late Night Live) that this experience created some conflict for him:

‘[His family] had achieved a lot: they had been colonists in America, in the West Indies, the earliest settlers in that region of Australia,’ she says. ‘But as he grew older and as he got to know Aborigines, having worked in the Forrest River mission, I think the conflict became a real source of pain for him.’

I believe that Stow tried to convey some of this in The merry-go-round in the sea. Several times, Rob quotes his family’s racist attitudes, including here:

Rob did not mind the blackn*****s, some of the older ones he rather admired. But his mother was furious because Nan [Rob’s sister] was sitting next to a blackn****r in school. ‘They’re dirty,’ said his mother. ‘They all have bugs in their hair.’

It was funny about blackn*****s. They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian. His world was not one world.*

In other parts of the novel, he describes seeing Aboriginal art in caves, and ponders the people who made them. Not all are so sensitive or interested, however. When he’s taunted at school with having “n****r blood”, he reacts defensively, but when he’s a little older, and schoolfreinds once again express racist attitudes, he responds:

‘I like them,’ the boy said, ‘There’s some nice boong kids at school.’

A poor choice of words, but at least Rob stands up for his beliefs. If we take Rob as Stow’s mouthpiece, then it’s pretty clear that Stow is conveying in this novel some disquiet about prevailing attitudes to Australia’s Indigenous people.

There is so much more to explore in this book – including the motif of the merry-go-round itself. As a young boy Rob had been shattered by the discovery of “time and change”, leading him to cling to the idea of a merry-go-round, which revolves and revolves around a solid centre, his family, never changing. By the end, however, with Rick about to leave, he realises that this too is illusion, that the world is not quite as he’d seen it. A bittersweet ending – one that must come to us all at some time!

Several bloggers have posted on this novel in the last few years, including Lisa (ANZ Litlovers) and Kim (Reading Matters), and offer additional perspectives to mine.

Randolph Stow
The merry-go-round in the sea
Camberwell: Penguin Books, 2009
ISBN: 9780143202745

* I have blanked out this word to, hopefully, deflect the wrong sort of “hits” on this blog.

Jan Wallace Dickinson, The sweet hills of Florence (#BookReview)

Jan Wallace Dickinson, The sweet hills of FlorenceThere are several reasons why I enjoyed Jan Wallace Dickinson’s historical novel The sweet hills of Florence, the first being Florence itself. I fell in love with Italy in Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s belltower, the Uffizi and all the other gorgeous places of art and architecture, not to mention the food, combined to capture my heart. It was the first foreign place to do so, and so remains today a special memory. Dickinson, who has apparently lived and worked in Italy for many years, clearly loves Florence too, because it is described in this book with such love.

However, that’s not the only reason for liking this book. Another is the history. I’ve read many, many novels set during the second world war, but not many set in Italy, let alone in Florence. When I visited Florence way back in 1980, it was the art that drew me. I knew very little of its war history, and I don’t recollect its being much on display. Dickinson, though, tells a fascinating story, one that captures both the horror and chaos, the brutality and bravery of war, and particularly of Italy’s war, well.

In some ways, the book could be described as historical romance, except that it doesn’t fit the bodice-ripper formula that I, of admittedly limited experience, see as the definition of this historical fiction sub-genre. What I’m saying in other words, is that in this book, although the love story underpins the plot, it doesn’t drive it in a suspenseful way. This enables Dickinson to explore the main relationship in a more subtle, dare I say, more nuanced way – and to focus on other themes as well.

The story, then, concerns two cousins, Enrico and Annabelle, who are in their late teens to early twenties, during the period of war – 1941 to 1945 – covered by the book. It’s clear from the beginning that Annabelle loves Enrico, and it doesn’t take long before we realise her love is reciprocated. The story follows their lives as partisans, with the Giustizia e Libertà movement within the Italian resistance movement. It’s a story of love, loyalty and camaraderie, but also of courage, deprivation, brutality, and chaos. Dickinson writes this convincingly, though I must say that all the names and places sometimes made my head spin! Here are a couple of examples of her descriptions, describing the German occupation of Florence:

There was no shortage of good citizens ready to settle a score by denouncing someone to Major Charity. The war lifted a rock and from under it, unimaginable creatures emerged, creatures who could not survive in the sunlight, who could thrive only in the dank shady corners of a civil war.


This was the real Florence, the Florence of sobbing and wailing and tearing of hair, not the painted and decorated Florence put on show by the authorities to distract the popular, like the dance of a painted harlot before an audience of terminally ill patients in a madhouse.

Another aspect of the book which made it interesting reading is its structure. The novel is divided into 6 parts, and flips between war-time and the 2000s (up to 2008). The main war action is told chronologically through the middle parts of the novel, while at the beginning and end, we alternate somewhat between past and present. Again, this structure forces us to focus on the characters and their development, on the ideas and themes, rather than the plot.

There’s also paralleling of Annabelle’s love for Enrico, with Clara Petacci’s love for Benito Mussolini. I enjoyed this too. Dickinson spends some time describing Clara and Ben’s relationship. In her Acknowledgements she describes them as “fictionalised characters constructed from my interpretation of diaries, reports and histories.” Clara and Ben’s story serves a few purposes in the novel besides being a focus for Annabelle’s thinking about love. It humanises the two characters, for a start; it encourages us to consider the complexities of their relationship; and it makes the manner of their deaths all the more shocking.

We have no choice, do we?

In the end though, the ideas and themes were what I most enjoyed about the book, particularly those regarding the brutality of war and the lessons learnt or, to be more precise, not learnt. Dickinson makes very clear several times through the novel that there are no saints in war – and that Enrico and Annabelle themselves were capable not only of “justifiable” killing but of more brutal acts:

We cross a line. We decide killing os justified. We have no choice, do we? After that, nothing is taboo. Nothing is unthinkable. We are Freedom Fighters. We are heroes. We have rights on our side. Then wars end. We sleep and try to forget. But beneath it all we are still killers. We stand on the other side of the line. (from Annabelle’s diary)

Dickinson’s main theme, though, concerns the lessons of war. Annabelle’s reaction on the brutal death of Mussolini and Clara, and the subsequent way the bodies were treated, was

I wept for what we have become. Have we learned nothing?

Then, late in the novel, she makes a similar comment, quoting a partisan colleague who’d said:

“Italians … do not learn from the past. They live in the continuous present.”

There were times when I wondered about the reason for the epic nature of this novel, for its spanning so many decades and for, something I haven’t mentioned before, also spanning two countries, Italy and Australia to which Enrico went after the war. Dickinson, through Annabelle and her beloved niece Delia, consider the differences between Italy and Australia, seeing, for example, the former as kinder and the latter as more free. I’m not sure I agreed with all their conclusions, and I’m not sure what these discussions added to the novel, but …

… what did add to the novel were the references to the leering Berlusconi’s re-election in 2008 despite his increasingly fascist tendencies. Seen by a horrified Delia and Annabelle as “a leap back into the past”, it leaves us with, indeed, the question, “have we learned nothing?” The sweet hills of Florence, then, is an engrossing read if you like a strong story about “real” characters, that asks the important questions.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book – I promise I hadn’t read her review when I wrote my introduction, which is suspiciously similar!! I decided not to change it.

AWW Badge 2018Jan Wallace Dickinson
The sweet hills of Florence
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2018
ISBN: 9781925272840

Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Grateful Brits send books to Aussies

As I was searching Trove for another topic, I came across some articles that I just had to share, particularly given my recent posts on bookswapping and bookselling for charity.

These articles date from post-World War 2 when Britain was living under strict rationing, which continued for a long time – until 1954, in fact. To help the struggling Brits out, Australians – often through CWA (Country Women’s Association) groups – sent food parcels. The British people were very grateful, as an article from the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser (Wednesday 14 January 1948) conveys. Molong, a small town in central New South Wales, was one of the many towns to send food across the waves, and in this article, the editor writes that “almost daily, the Town Clerk (Mr. E. H. Scott) receives letters of appreciation from British people for gifts of food from the Molong municipality. The writers range from all walks of life — from hospital matrons to mayors and old age pensioners.”

Mr Scott, he continues, provided some of these letters for the paper to publish. Here’s a selection:

I wish to thank you and the residents of Molong for the generous gifts of food to our people. I wish you could have seen the gratitude of the old people  … Some of them could not express their thanks for tears, but so many said “Thank the dear people of Australia for me.” …  Mayor of Blackburn


We thought it was really very kind of you to send us such wonderful food parcels, and, although we know that you have been thanked by the authorities here in England, we felt obliged to send you a personal letter of thanks. To people like us who have only one ration book, it is a little difficult at times, although, of course, we are not grumbling. We thank you very much for your kindness …


We have today received at the hospital … a gift of tinned jams, marmalade and tinned rabbit from Australia … I felt that I must write, and tell you just what that thought means, for us. Not only are we extremely grateful for your kindness, but the thought and spirit behind the gift means perhaps more to us when we think that you, so many miles away, have spared such a lot of time and have given, so much that we may share the good things of your country. I am afraid it is beyond my powers of expression to make you realise exactly what we feel, but I do want you all to accept our most sincere and grateful thanks. With all good wishes and much happiness to you all, I remain, yours sincerely  … Matron, Liverpool.


I have just been presented with two tins of jam, one tin of powdered soup, one tin of casserole rabbit and 2 lb. of dried pears, being a present from you … there is no name on the tins to go by, only “From the residents of Molong, N.S.W.” I address this letter to thank you very much … Hardly a week passes without a cut in our food ration, and a little extra food is very welcome. The extra food is for my wife and myself — both old age pensioners … may God bless you …

I guess it’s only right that we sent back to England some of those pesky rabbits! Seriously though, what wonderful letters. They would surely have encouraged continued kindness from the citizens of Molong. (And doesn’t your heart go to Eva Wood who says, “Of course, we are not grumbling”?)

That’s the background to this post!

“Book parcels for food”

Early on in this process of Australians sending food to Britain, the British wanted to reciprocate in some way. As London-based R. G. Lloyd Thomas wrote in The West Australian (7 September 1946):

For long the people of Britain have been rather worried by the one-sided traffic in gifts from Australia. They have received very gratefully enormous quantities of food parcels and found no tangible method of appreciation which would satisfy their independent spirit.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

But then, the “Women’s Institute, the equivalent in this country of the C.W.A.” lit upon an idea, that of reciprocating with parcels of books for distribution “to the people of the outback and the nearer but still amenity-remote areas which lack public libraries, and find it difficult to obtain an adequate supply of books”. What a wonderful idea, eh?

Not all the books would be new, Thomas writes:

Collections are being made of books regarded as suitable, some new, some from the bookshelves of the donors, and others purchased secondhand. They are being cleaned and repaired when necessary and made up into parcels which will be sent to the people and organisations who have been sending gift food parcels to Britain. The first consignment of books to Western Australia will be sent from Lancashire and Yorkshire Women’s Institutes.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald (27 July 1946), describes the geographical arrangements a little more: “the Yorkshire and Lancashire institutes will send books to Western Australia, South Wales to New South Wales. Cheshire and Staffordshire to South Australia, Cambridgeshire and adjoining counties to Tasmania, Surrey and Middlesex to Queensland, and Essex and Bucks to Victoria”.

Lloyd Thomas, noting that “one of the few things here off the ration is books”, says that the women hope to reach every person and organisation responsible for sending food parcels. He comments on “the joy and humiliation these food parcels have brought to the women of England”, and that

the naturally proud independence of the people has been disturbed by the one-sidedness of the gesture. The majority could and would willingly pay for the parcels – but to do so would destroy the fundamental requirement of admission of these parcels, that they are unsolicited gifts.

These books, he says, will have special bookplates which will identify the donor and recipient, and it is hoped that the books will “form a valuable link of friendship between Britain, the Dominions and the Colonies who have shown such a spontaneous and generous attitude.”

Interestingly, Lloyd Thomas concludes by noting that while the food recipients are too grateful to offer suggestions, certain items are particularly appreciated:

Rich fruit cakes travel well in tins and provide an exceptional luxury these days. Tinned meats and milk are always welcome and (provided it is packed only with tinned food) soap of any sort. Jam (with special emphasis on marmalade) is a much-appreciated supplement, and, if Australians themselves can obtain any, tinned fruit. Dried fruits, sweets and nuts are welcome rarities. In fact, outside coffee (plentiful and unrationed) tinned soups and meat extracts, any foodstuff is welcome. Honey and dripping, provided they are melted into tins to ensure transport through the tropics, are other precious commodities for the English housewife.

Such a lovely insight not only into rationing, but also the food and cooking culture of the time. I mean, dripping! (But this just shows my fortunate life, doesn’t it?)

I apologise for the heavy use of quotations in this post, but in stories like this, there’s nothing like the expression of the times. Anyhow, I’d love to know how successful this reciprocal program was …

Susan Varga, Heddy and me (Review)

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

Susan Varga’s biography-cum-memoir, Heddy and me, was first published back in 1994, so why am I reading it now? By a rather circuitous route, as it happens. Lesley Lebkowicz, whose The Petrov poems I’ve reviewed, read my post on Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and suggested to Susan Varga that she might like to send me her book to review. Varga apparently liked the idea and consequently I received an email from her personal assistant offering it to me. I had heard of it, and am interested in the subject matter, so I said yes. That was, embarrassingly, over four months ago, for which I apologise, but eventually its time came and here, finally, is my review.

I’ll start with the judges’ comment when they chose the book to win the 1994 Christina Stead Award for Biography, Autobiography or Memoir*. They described it as “the front rank of autobiographical writing in this country”. That’s a big call but, having read it, I agree, because it is an engrossing book which intelligently negotiates two usually opposing forms, biography and autobiography/memoir. In it, Varga tells the story of her Hungarian Jewish mother Heddy – her life in Hungary, her experience of World War 2, and her subsequent emigration with her extended family to Australia. But, in telling this story, Varga, as the title conveys, also tells her own. She was born, mid-war, in 1943 and was just 5 when the family migrated. Hers was a complicated growing up in which she struggled to find self. She finally realised, late in her research, that she straddles two generations: the first (those who migrated) and the second (the children of those migrants).

Now, I can see why Lebkowicz thought I might be interested in this book, because both books involve a daughter not only telling the Holocaust-survival-and-migration story of a mother, but also working through her understanding of and relationship with that mother. Like Blay after her, Varga captured much of her mother’s story via tape recorder:

… the room itself is imposing, with its long oak table and chairs covered in embossed velvet. Imposing but not unfriendly, which is very much Mother’s style.

I switch on the tape-recorder. She talks, I listen. She [unlike Blay’s mother] doesn’t need much prompting; she’s telling me her life story, which she knows will be raw material for a book. In the past when people have said to her, ‘Heddy, you should tell your life story,’ she has said, ‘I’m waiting for Susan.’

I’ve told her it won’t be her life story, not properly. It will be filtered through my reactions and thoughts, my second generation eyes.

And Varga’s eyes are complicated, sometimes testy ones, as she strives to comprehend her strong-willed mother. So, like Blay’s book, Heddy and me is an amalgam of biography and autobiography, thereby neatly sidestepping David Marr’s injunction for biographers to get out of their story! Like Blay’s book, too, Heddy and me is a story of survival – of a peculiar combination of luck, resourcefulness and judgment – and it’s a story of the lasting impacts of the war. For both families, one of those impacts is an ongoing sense of fear:

… the fear of impermanence, the readiness to flee, takes the form, among others, of a deep conservatism running through the older generation, as if any change at all could result in their lives being uprooted again. They are over-protective, still prone to buy their children a diamond, something portable, just in case.

And we children feel a pervasive fear that we do not know how to express. Impermanence and insecurity lurk in the shadows behind this all-Australian red-brick security.

I found this analysis, this explanation of conservatism, enlightening – and helpful.

However, despite similarities with Blay’s book, Varga’s is different. For a start there are the obvious departures. Varga’s family is Hungarian to Blay’s Polish one, and Varga’s mother was married with a young child when the war started while Blay’s mother was still a teenager. Moreover, Varga’s mother managed to avoid, through various subterfuges, being sent to a concentration camp. She didn’t suffer the ghetto and concentration camp terrors and depredations of Blay’s mother, but Heddy and her colourful mother Kató, whose story is also told here, did suffer, including being raped multiple times by their Russian liberators. There are deeper differences too, speaking to the different psychologies of the two families, their individual wartime experiences, and how these subsequently played out in their post-war lives. And there’s the structure. Varga interweaves her own story and her reactions to her mother’s story within the one narrative flow, while Blay carefully differentiates her voice from her mother’s and aunt’s.

A particularly fascinating part of Varga’s book is the picture she paints of Hungarian society before, during and after the war. I learnt a lot, for example, about Budapest – its vibrant pre-war culture and life, albeit a life that, for its Jewish inhabitants, had its paradoxes. They lived, writes Varga, an outwardly normal life, “clinging to continuity while awaiting upheaval”. Varga chronicles the trajectory of anti-Semitism, from pre-war to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation in which Hungary’s Jews found themselves post-war, when Nazism was replaced by Communism. Indeed, having survived the war, Heddy, Kató and family were prepared to stay in Budapest until it became clear to Heddy “that the noose was tightening again, like Hitler, except then it was against the Jews, now against everyone.” So, Heddy, ever attuned it seems to the political nuances around her, worked on her family until they agreed to move to “the New World”. Later, as part of research for her book, Varga returns to Hungary with her mother, and becomes aware of the increasing (or, really, continuing) anti-Semitism:

As I begin to grasp the subtleties of political life in the post-Communist world, I find it awful that the Jews should once again need friends and protectors, I think of 1943, when Hungary’s Jews still thought themselves safe because Kállay, or some other prominent politician, was their friend.

Once again, I am astonished, though I suppose by now I shouldn’t be, at how deeply anti-Semitism seems to run, particularly in Europe.

And here, I’m going to insert some personal connections with Varga’s story. I mentioned in my review of Sister, sister that I’d spent some time in my Sydney youth with Jewish people – eastern European Jews – who were business friends of my father’s. Blay’s and now Varga’s books consequently ring true for me, Varga’s particularly, because her parents did exactly what many of these people did – they set up business in the rag trade, and then handbags. I still have some handbags to prove it! But, my connections with Varga are more than this, because I went to the same high school she did, albeit a decade later. Unfortunately, Varga’s experience was not as positive as mine, partly due to her increasing sense of disconnection with her family and partly to the fact that by my time in the mid-to-late 1960s society was becoming less rigid (even in strict government girls’ schools). It was at that school that my understanding of civil rights – particularly, then, relating to racism and anti-Semitism – was honed. This is rather ironic given Varga found it “a school of endless strictures and platitudes”.

Anyhow, enough about me, and back to the book. Heddy and me was, I suspect, groundbreaking when it was first published, not so much for its portrayal of personal experience of the Holocaust, because such stories started appearing soon after the war, but for Varga’s intensely personal exploration of women’s experience and identity across three generations, before, during and after the war. Since then, similar stories have been written – Blay’s, for example, and another I’ve reviewed, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. However, these later books don’t minimise the power of Heddy and me, which not only illuminates the personal and familial costs of the Holocaust, but also provides an historical perspective on that mysterious thing we call human behaviour. This book deserves a continued life.

AWW Logo 2016Susan Varga
Heddy and me
Abbotsford: Bruce Sims Books, 2000 (2nd ed.; Orig. ed. Penguin, 1994)
ISBN: 9780957780033

(Source: Susan Varga)

* Unfortunately FAW’s awards website only goes back to 1999. This comment is on the front cover of my edition, and is credited to “Christina Stead Award”.

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see (Review)

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot seeJust when you thought that there couldn’t possibly be another angle to writing about World War 2, up comes another book that does just that, like, for example, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the light we cannot see. I had, of course, heard of it, but it wasn’t high on my reading agenda until it was chosen as my reading group’s September book. I wasn’t sorry we chose it, because I do, in fact, like World War 2 stories, and Doerr’s turned out to be an engaging one – warm, generous but not sentimental, and highly readable despite its alternating time-frames, locations and characters.

I’ve read several and reviewed some World War 2 novels and memoirs. Many have been about Jews and the Holocaust, such as Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, Hans Bergner’s Between sea and sky, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and two memoirs, Halina Rubin’s  Journeys with my mother and Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister. A couple have been about the fighters, such as Alan Gould’s The lakewoman and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. Some have drawn on the perspectives of children and young people – Zusak’s The book thief, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river and, of course, Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl. Doerr’s book fits into this last group, but is different again. Zusak’s and Hegi’s girls are non-Jewish Germans, and Anne Frank is of course a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. These books focus on the Holocaust. Doerr’s does not. His interest is the personal experience of his young people – a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, born around 1928, and an orphan German boy, Werner, born around 1927. Their stories – Marie-Laure’s birth in Paris and flight with her father to Saint-Malo after Paris is occupied, and Werner’s childhood and youth in Germany followed by his war experience in Russia, Central Europe and France – are told in parallel until they inevitably meet.

Marie-Laure and Werner are nicely realised characters. They are ordinary young people trying to make a life for themselves in terrible times, but are extraordinary too. Marie-Laure’s childhood-onset blindness makes her initially helpless but she becomes a resourceful and imaginative young girl. Werner, the orphan, is a clever boy who develops a fascination with radios and things electrical. This leads him to a particular role in the war – tracking down partisan-resistance transmitters – that is different from most “soldier” stories.

All the light we cannot see is a big book. It has a wide, but not unwieldy, cast of characters, and a complex structure comprising two chronological sequences, within each of which the stories of our two young people alternate. This might sound difficult or confusing to read, but Doerr handles it well.

I’m not going to write a thorough review of this. Being a top-selling prize-winner, it has been reviewed widely. Instead, I’d like to share some of its themes, or ideas, because these are what interests me most. Before that though, I want to raise one issue. One review I read and some in my reading group expressed irritation at Doerr’s use of American idiom (such as people going “to the bathroom in their pants”). For some reason this sort of issue rarely worries me. Does that make me a bad reader? Perhaps. But it’s difficult, I think, to write in the language of another place and time, and when writers try to do it, it can feel forced. Some manage it (like Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang) and some compromise by relying on some well-placed words from an era. Generally, I’m happy for the author to use contemporary-to-them expression.

What you could be (Volkheimer to Werner)

What interests me most as a reader is not whether authors get these sorts of details right but questions like why is the author writing this, why has the author structured the story this way, what does the imagery mean, and so on. It is to the first of these that I’ll turn now. The novel’s overall subject matter is the obvious one – the tragedy of war, the way war destroys people’s lives – but within this are some interesting ideas.

One relates to logic and reason. Early in the novel, Marie-Laure’s locksmith father believes (or, perhaps, wants to believe) in logic:

Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock its key.

This idea is reiterated in the book Marie-Laure is given by her father, Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea:

Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.

The opposing view, however, is put by Werner late in the war when he is tracking resistance transmitters:

Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk. Hubris, like the oldest stories. They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.

Logic and reason may work well enough in “normal” life, but during war they can stand for very little.

Somewhat related to this are the discussions about curses and luck. A major plot line concerns an ancient gem, the Sea of Flames diamond, which is said to carry a curse. It’s surely not by chance (ha-ha) that Doerr hides this stone behind the 13th door in the museum, and that his novel has 13 sections! Anyhow, here is Marie-Laure’s father on curses and luck. There are, he says:

no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.


Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.

Later though, when her father has been arrested and Marie-Laure is scared and alone, she conducts an imaginary conversation with him:

You will survive, ma chérie.
How can you know?
Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.
All it has done is put me in more danger.
Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?
It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?
You are alive.

In almost every story I’ve read about war – fiction and non-fiction – luck has played a significant role. It’s one of the things that makes war so scary. You cannot expect reason to prevail.

Finally, related to these two ideas is that of choice:

Frederick [Werner’s friend at Schulpforta, the Nazi training school] said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices …

Frederick, in fact, chose to exercise his choice by refusing to follow orders and he suffered the consequences, while Werner did as he was told – at school and later in the field (“they do as they’re told”) and suffered the consequences in a different way. Late in the novel, Werner meets Marie-Laure:

He says, “You are very brave.”
She lowers the bucket. “What is your name?”
He tells her. She says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” 

These and similar discussions thread through the book. They remind us that in war survival is largely a matter of “luck”, that reason and logic will only get you so far when you confront the chaos of war, and that, perhaps paradoxically, you do have choices even if they are between two unappealing alternatives. The ultimate tragedy is that war destroys “what you could be” – all those talents, all those dreams, are subsumed into the business of survival.

This is not a perfect book. It’s a bit sprawling, trying to do a lot with imagery that I haven’t been able to completely untangle. And I wonder about the necessity of the final decades-later chapters. However, it is a page-turning read and produced a lively discussion in my bookgroup. I’m glad I read it.

Anthony Doerr
All the light we cannot see
London: Fourth Estate, 2014
ISBN: 9780007548682 (eBook)

Anna Rosner Blay, Sister, sister (Review)

BlaySisterHaleSome of the most vivid memories of my Sydney-based late teens and early twenties relate to spending time with Jewish people, business friends of my father. We went to parties in their homes, to weddings and bar mitzvahs. These were always happy, family-oriented occasions. I had crushes on the sons. I knew that most of these people had come to Australia after the war, had suffered during the war, many in concentration camps, but I knew little more than that. The war was back then and this was now. I have no idea what those sons knew or thought about their parents’ pasts. Anna Rosner Blay’s biography-cum-family-memoir, Sister, sister, has reminded me of those days and made me wonder, yet again, about the lives whose paths I so airily crossed.

Around that time, I also started reading “Holocaust literature”. I’ve read memoirs about surviving the war, including most recently Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother (my review), and novels about survival, such as Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless (my review), but Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister adds new ground to my reading. Not only is it about two sisters, Polish Jews, who survived the war from the early restrictions, through ghetto, concentration camps, death marches and factories, to their eventual emigration to Australia, but it also exposes the longterm effects of Holocaust experiences, particularly on the next generation. It’s a moving book.

Three voices

Blay presents the story in three voices: those of her aunt Janka and mother Hela, and her own. Janka and Hela’s voices are clearly identified interview-style, while her voice is conveyed via italics without her name being appended. An interesting decision, but it works. Blay captured the sisters’ stories via tape-recorder and notebook, and then “transcribed and rearranged” them, primarily, I’m assuming, to get them into chronological order, given the stories came out in fits and starts, late in the sisters’ lives. Towards the end of the book Blay writes:

My mother’s accounts are often disjointed, abbreviated, shreds that veer away from the painful reality. But at other times they are laid out before me, complete and pulsating with life, precious jewels that I must handle very carefully.

She has, indeed, handled them (and her aunt’s) memories very carefully to produce a story that is horrifying, horrifying as a personal story, but also because it is clearly representative of a more universal experience of the millions of Jews who suffered under the Nazi regime, which just compounds the horror.

I’ll start with the universal. A survival story, Sister, sister describes the brutality, degradation and humiliation which the Germans visited upon the Jews during the war. You’ve heard the stories before, but, oh dear, to read yet again of the utter inhumanity is appalling. I couldn’t possibly quote the most brutal, so here’s a minor example. Both women ended up separately at Auschwitz. Both were stripped, shaved, sent into showers (that were – what a relief – real showers) – and then tossed random clothing and mismatched shoes. Hela received two left clogs causing blisters, while Janka’s pair comprised “one with a high heel and the other flat. I therefore walked with a limp.”

Surviving this war was, Janka tells, “a macabre game of chance”:

We hardly ever knew what would turn out to be good for us and what should be avoided, possibly by subterfuge. Sometimes being led to a train could mean being sent to a small camp with a factory, and easy work; other times it could mean being sent to death. Sometimes you could save your life just by lingering, which was dangerous in itself. There was no way of knowing how to survive …

And this brings me to the personal, because while the sisters’ experiences are universal, they are also deeply personal. One of the things that Blay does very well is capture Janka and Hela’s individual personalities. Janka tends to be more expansive, telling more stories in more detail. She is also “braver”. She lingers (drawing her sister or friends back) when she thinks to go forward means death; she lies about her skills when she thinks that will get her a better “job” and/or keep her with people she knows; she negotiates black market deals (to swap her mismatched shoes, for example); and so on. She identifies these, and other situations she survives, as “miracles”. The younger Hela – just 18 years old when the war ends – is, by her own admission, less brave, more fearful. She relies on her sister and later, a friend, to keep herself together when times get tough. She’s lucky to end up, towards the end of the war, as a Schindlerjuden, through her musician husband. But this is not to say she’s a wuss. She’s a hard worker, a skilled seamstress, and she survived. You had to be strong as well as lucky to survive. Janka, ten years Hela’s senior, says:

When we were girls Hela was like a flower that had opened too early, its fragile petals still crumpled and sheltered from the ways of the world. But she also had the strength to persist in harsh times, and to continue to flourish even in a storm.

Through directly presenting the sisters’ personal voices, Blay brings them alive as individuals in addition to representing them as survivors in general.

But, there’s a third prong to this story, the one that apparently forms the crux of Magda Szubanski’s recent memoir Reckoning. I’m talking the impact on the next generation. This is where Anna’s voice comes in. Again Blay handles this well, with Anna’s italicised reflections appearing intermittently in response to comments by one or other sister. Her voice is mostly gentle, without histrionics, but we are left in no doubt as to the longterm impact of the experience on the sisters and the way this has transmitted to the next generation. There are losses galore – losses of people and connections, for a start. Anna describes visiting a school friend who shows some of her “treasures” – a war medal, photos, some family jewellery. Anna writes:

She asks if I like the treasures; I nod, unable to speak. The tightness grows to a hollowness, an empty feeling that can’t be filled. The threads that link Linda to her past are strong, glowing. They are made manifest by the treasures before me, and I sense that it is not the objects themselves that have so taken my breath away. It is not their beauty or value that tugs at me, but the world of significant connections that surrounds them.

So, not only are there no grandparents, but there no objects to provide a link, a sense of history. Other losses are deeper, more psychological. Hela’s fear of hunger, of death, of fear itself, are also transmitted, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so, to her daughter:

My mother is always anxious at mealtimes. She coaxes me to eat more and checks how much I am putting in my mouth.


I never trust strangers.


My earliest nightmare is of a narrow cobblestoned lane. Fences on both sides crowd me in. As I walk along, alone, I realise I am being followed. An old man comes behind me with a sack, and grabs me …

Anna’s comments are not chronological, because they respond more organically to the sisters’ experiences, but together they convey how experiences – even when the telling of them has been withheld until late in life – carry through to the next generation. Anna’s stories, though, never overwhelm her aunt’s and mother’s because they are the main game. Anna sums it up best late in the book:

the enormity of the injustice and of the horror defies expression … [yet] … The power of the human spirit to survive, despite everything, is limitless.

Sister, sister was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Award in 1998. It’s not hard to see why.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also read and admired this book.

awwchallenge2016Anna Rosner Blay
Sister, sister
Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger, 1998
ISBN: 9780868066479

(Review copy courtesy the author)