Tag Archives: Australian fiction

The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.


The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

Review copy



Filed under Fiction

The Strays: Emily Bitto

“The night that followed was a slip down the rabbit hole.”

The Strays of the title in the debut novel from Australian novelist Emily Bitto are a group of people who gather around artist Evan Trentham, his independently wealthy wife, Helena, and their three daughters: Bea, Eva and Heloise. While most of ‘the strays’ are artists, Eva’s best friend, Lily joins the group, first at age 8 just for companionship, but then as a housemate when her family circumstances change.

The strays

This is Melbourne in the 1930s, but the novel opens in 1985 with Lily, an art lecturer, now in middle age, divorced, remarried and with a daughter. We know that something went horribly wrong at the Trentham home and that whatever happened spilt the ties between Lily, Eva and her family. So it’s with a sense of impending doom that we read on…

Lily is an only child from a home that seems boringly normal when compared to the Trenthams’ home — a huge splendid house surrounded by ramshackle, yet glorious gardens–which has been in Helena’s “old money” family for three generations.

That garden. I still wander in dreams between the pale grey pillars of the lemon-scented gums, the eucalyptus citriodoras, towering out of the mist, gigantic, as they appeared to me as a child in that magical place.

Lily’s home is quiet, predictable and stable. Meals are served at the same time every day, but life with the Trenthams is anything but predictable. At first Lily begins visiting Eva’s home after school, and these visits morph into weekend stays.

Besotted as I already was with Eva, that first visit to the Trentham home threw my sense of my own life off balance. I felt as though my home, a semi-detached bungalow we had recently moved into, had shrunk since morning, and our yard was a shoebox sown with only those plants that refused the smallest taint of wildness, even in their names: sweet William, primrose, baby’s breath.

Eventually, Lily moves in with the Trenthams becoming almost a fourth daughter (there’s a great comment made by Helena that Lily is no trouble as she barely notices she’s there), but by the time Lily moves in, it’s not just the Trenthams living there–the house has become an artist colony for the ‘Melbourne Modern Art Group.’ While the young artists pose for one another, have sexual relationships, smoke pot and continue to work, the flimsy parental structure barely held in place begins to fall away. There are rumbling noises from the world outside of the colony: the vice squad, obscenity charges, and reviews in the newspapers. The four young girls, approaching adolescence are left, disastrously, to their own devices.

Through Lily’s first person narrative, Emily Bitto captures the intense closeness of the friendship between Eva and Lily, and how, as sexuality enters the picture, secrets divide the girls. There’s occasionally an edge of hysteria to the tale which echoes the excitement felt by the four girls as they spy on the adults, swig leftover alcohol and steal joints left carelessly by the ‘adults’ they live with.

It’s the beauty of Bitto’s remarkably visual writing that remains with this reader, and many scenes recall the sharpness of Lily’s memory of those years.

The room itself was cluttered with paint tins, brushes and books, and reeked of tobacco and turpentine. There was a green chaise longue behind the door, its horsehair stuffing erupting through a hole. A huge half-finished painting stood against the back wall.

While this is essentially a coming-of-age story, the novel asks some deeper questions: are artists allowed some sort of ‘pass’ for their behaviour? Can they be judged by the same standards as non-artists? Where do family and responsibility fit into an artist’s life? And I was particularly intrigued by Helena, a substantial artist in her own right.

I could look at a corner of a cloudy sky in one of her canvases, and it was if I was peering through a chink in a wall from a distance, with little revealed, but with three steps could put my eye up to the chink and see the whole panorama revealed. Helena’s images allowed you to see what was outside their compact frames, almost by the very fact of their occlusion. They invited the viewer to peer through the window of their canvas and watch the scene expand.

There’s a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of the novel, but upon reflection, for this reader, that feeling seems to be fermenting in Lily’s role as the scapegoat for the lack of parental responsibility. Almost 50 years have passed since Lily left the Trentham circle, and yet she steps back into the milieu and her role as family scapegoat is shoved upon her once more. But is it a role she can ever abandon? She hints at writing a memoir which would perhaps shed a different light on that period, and yet… she can’t commit to the project–perhaps silently confirming that everyone’s settled opinion is best left unchallenged. To expose the truth would betray those whose opinions and acceptance matter.

(The novel is “inspired by stories of the Melbourne art world in the 1930s and 1940s.”)

Review copy

For other reviews: Gummie and Lisa



Filed under Bitto Emily, Fiction

To the Islands: Randolph Stow

Randolph Stow’s novel To The Islands takes a look at the corrosive impact of colonialism through, aging, bitter missionary, Stephen Heriot, who has spent decades managing a Christian mission for ‘Indigent people’–the indigent people in this instance being Aborigines. When the novel opens, Heriot wakes up in his corrugated iron hut with its grass thatched roof. His books, detritus of his education and a reminder of his long distance past, are literally falling apart.

On the shelves of the rough bookcase, Heriot’s learning was mouldering away, in Oxford Books of this and that, and old-fashioned dictionaries, all showing more or less the visitations of insects and mildew.

There’s a symbolic significance to the books, for their decay matches Heriot’s decline. Physically, he’s aged and no longer accomplish the things he used to do, while mentally, he’s bitter, and he’s lost his sense of purpose. His wife died at the mission decades earlier, and now he’s facing the thought that he wasted his life. There’s the implicit idea that this once powerful man is in shambles. Looking in his broken mirror, “he saw himself as a great red cliff, rising from the rocks of his own ruin.”

How does a man grow old who has made no investment in the future, without wife or child, without refuge for his heart beyond the work that becomes too much for him?

Most of the other white men on the mission, in this “goldfish-bowl of existence,” are looking forward to Heriot leaving, and some think he’s gone “troppo.”  In many ways, Heriot is an embarrassment because he represents the old ways of handling the aborigines, and everyone would rather forget the past. While one character defends Heriot, placing him in the context of his times, Father Way says, ” a man who goes round spreading civilization with a stock whip gets no admiration from me.”   Heriot has requested a replacement from the regional council, but he receives a letter saying that he must remain as there is as yet no suitable candidate. And this brings in yet another idea–that Heriot, in his youth, had enough fervor, sense of purpose, or belief in his ‘mission,’ and that he was willing to sacrifice his entire life for what he believed in. Yet there’s no one to replace him; no one else has that sense of commitment.

to the islands

What drives people to leave their homes and take jobs in the remote area of Australia under such harsh, unforgiving conditions? Well religion explains some of it but there’s a also an excellent nurse who failed medical school; she’s “perhaps a fanatic of sorts, like a nun,” and a young teacher who “never intended to be involved. But the country had taken him in.” Bottom line these white workers are all driven by something to stay at the mission, but the reasons Heriot came to the mission are now absent. He’s been there too long. He’s ill and he suspects he’s dying.

Stow gives us a strong sense of life at the mission –both good and bad (with its pervasive attitudes towards the aborigines as ‘childlike’ or indigent).  A crisis erupts with the arrival of Rex, a man Heriot loathes, who’s a subversive influence on some of the younger residents of the mission. This beautifully written novel tackles huge themes of Shakespearean proportions through the story of the bitter aging missionary and his relationship with Rex. The mission has been existence for decades, and while the older residents seem more comfortable with the “indigents’ allowance,” there’s the idea, running under the surface of the story, that this system is inherently unhealthy, unproductive, and corrosive for all involved. With Rex’s unsettling presence, the established order of life at the mission is challenged.

Heriot watched the old women, across the grass at the meathouse, and thought of misery and hopelessness, of the wretched tribe of indigents. But it is their choice, their own choice…

Randolph Stow published  To the Islands when he was 22 years old. He’d worked for a period at an Anglican-run mission, and in the preface of my copy, he explains some of the changes he made from the original edition. Although the story addresses the cost of colonialism and the inherent wisdom of supporting a native population on an undignified subsistence way of life,  this isn’t a story about race as much as it’s a tragic tale of how we battle ourselves and our impulses.

Review copy.



Filed under Fiction, Stow Randolph

The Death of Bunny Munro: Nick Cave

What on earth can be done with a man who sneaks off from his wife’s funeral in order to have a quick wank in the bathroom? …

In Nick Cave’s novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, the perpetually libidinous travelling salesman Bunny doesn’t stop to mourn his wife when she tops herself in their small Brighton flat. Libby may be dead, and that may leave Bunny Munro in sole charge of his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, but it’s not going to cramp this Casanova’s lifestyle. He hits the road with his kid in tow “learning the ropes.”  You can’t help but feel sorry for Bunny Junior, a bright little boy who suffers from untreated blepharitis and who carries around an encyclopedia, a gift from the mother who “loved him to bits.”

the death of bunny monro

Bunny Monro is a ladies’ man–cocky, infused with “irrepressible optimism,” and happy in the knowledge that women “with no coercion step into the slipstream of his considerable sexual magnetism.” But is that strictly true? When we meet Bunny on page 1, he’s hired a prostitute and later he recalls a scene in which his wife Libby caught him with an unconscious girl. As Bunny, driving a battered Punto, hits the road with his son, he has encounter after encounter in which reality crashes into fantasy. With his life coming apart at the seams, Bunny, who fantasizes about various celebrity vaginas, continues to see women as “walking fuck-fest[s]” or available vaginas walking into his life. Somewhere deep inside there’s a recognition of what he’s become and what he’s done, but with a lifetime of avoidance, it’s easier for Bunny to carry on with business as usual. Rather than take any responsibility for his wife’s death, Bunny decides he’s “victimized ” by  circumstance.

He is afforded no insights, no illuminations, no great wisdoms but he can see immediately why the ladies dig him. He is not a toned, square-jawed lover boy or cumberbunded ladies’ man but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs. Look! There they are now! 

Banned from a number of McDonalds for life, Bunny hits the road with his “pomaded forelock” along with “new-found pulling power” and continues his job as a salesman while poor Bunny Junior is neglected in the process. Bunny claims he needs the work in order to deal with his grief, but the trip is really just an excuse to meet women and have as much sex as possible. As a mad horned killer stalks England, the killer’s continuing movement south seems to coincide with Bunny Monro’s misfortunes on his road trip which is peppered with a few ghostly visitations. Armed with a list of potential clients, Bunny tries to sell beauty products and his own questionable charms.

The first was a Mrs Elaine Bartlett, who lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Moulsecombe. Lying on the floor of its only working elevator was a bombed-out kid with a can of air freshener in one hand and a Tesco bag in the other and a Burberry cap on his head. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except the boy had emptied the contents of his bowels into his shorts and these were pulled down around his skinny, little ankles. The boy had managed, rather heroically, thought Bunny, to graffiti in green spray on the elevator wall, ‘I AM A SAD CUNT’. Bunny had stepped into the elevator, then stepped out and allowed its doors to judder shut. He contemplated momentarily climbing the four flights of stairs to Mrs Elaine Bartlett’s flat and realized, to his credit, that there was no way he was going to make it up them in his present condition, so he staggered back to the Punto.

The Death of Bunny Munro is a wickedly funny book with large dollops of the humour (often at Bunny’s expense) taking potshots at various societal taboos. One of the best scenes in the book (and it was hard to pick one) takes place as Bunny describes a girl in “gold hipster hotpants.” While reading through the oversexed sponge of Bunny’s brain is definitely raunchy, author Nick Cave never sinks to the puerile. Instead Bunny is a very real character, a retro male who deludes himself into thinking that his leering, drooling, drunken attentions are welcomed by every female on the planet.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Irvine Wells: “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton Seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with Bunny Monro.” I don’t agree, but the quote does make a point. Bunny is a morally reprehensible human being, and while he thinks he’s charming to all the ladies, the truth is that his limited appeal ensnares a certain type (comatose, mentally incompetent and/or indiscriminate are attributes that Bunny likes in his women). With this sort of character at the fore of the plot, it’s fun to just sit back and read about Bunny as he careens from disaster to disaster. But again, when a character lacks an iota of self-awareness, the plot usually aims in certain limited directions. I didn’t care for the book’s ending, but I’m not sure that the plot could have gone in any other direction.

For another take on the novel, see Lisa’s blog.


Filed under Cave Nick, Fiction

The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

“There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.”

In Mark Henshaw’s multi-layered novel The Snow Kimono, retired police Inspector Auguste Jovert is a man with an uncomfortable past he’d much rather forget. Since retiring, he’s had the “feeling that he was lost.” With more time on his hands, “fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head.” It’s Paris 1989, and Jovert, who spent some shady years in Algeria, has just received a letter from a young woman who claims she is his daughter.

It was as if, now that he was approaching the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.

The letter from the woman claiming to be his daughter is thrown away, and Jovert thinks that’s the end of the matter, but then he meets his neighbor, Japanese law professor Omura, a man with a sad past of his own. Jovert, a distinctly solitary individual, initially rejects Omura when Omura begins to be more than just a casual fixture in Jovert’s life, but there’s some thread, some commonality that ties them together, and while Jovert struggles against Omura’s friendship, he’s really struggling against coming to terms with his past. Omura’s conversations yield stories about his own life, but somehow the stories, the situations, make Jovert extremely uncomfortable.

Jovert had never liked conversations like these, conversations he did not control, which reversed the natural order of things.

But you must know, Omura said abruptly.

Why must I know? Jovert replied. It’s got nothing to do with me.

Jovert watched as a gust of wind scooped up a plastic bag lying in the gutter opposite. Its ghostly form swept up through the lamp light. For a moment, it skimmed back and forth across the façade of the building opposite, as though it was pursuing something. Then without warning, it shot up into the sky above their heads and disappeared.

Omura has a “strangely mesmerizing voice,” and he tells Jovert the story of his friend from university, the malignant, charismatic writer, Katsuo Ikeda, who has “a talent that is poisoned.” Ikeda, a user of women, a chronic seducer who left many disillusioned lovers on the way to his success is a “merciless observer of people. He had a sixth sense about a person’s weaknesses, their foibles, their fears.”  There’s tragedy in Omura’s life and as Omura, an epic storyteller, reveals his past through his stories, Jovert gradually begins to see connections with his own life, and he’s shaken to the core.

the snow kimono

The Snow Kimono is a hypnotic read, and although afterwards it feels a little contrived, Omura’s history is so well told and constructed, all contrivance is forgiven. Although both Omura and Jovert’s stories are about people who are either dead or lost somewhere in the past, nonetheless, these characters pulse with life–even in their absence. This is a complex tale–stories within stories. In one section, Omura describes the Japanese jigsaw puzzle:

Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe. Each piece of a puzzle is considered individually. No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose. Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truths about the world.

After I finished the book, that seminal quote came back into my mind. Omura’s story, after all, is a jigsaw puzzle, and its “greater” truth is finally revealed.

There are two central mysteries to the tale concerning Jovert and Omura, and they are connected by moral considerations. Can one man learn from the mistakes of another? This is ultimately a story about the slipperiness of the truth, facing up to one’s actions, acknowledging the past, and assuming one’s responsibilities–no matter how unpleasant that might be.

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Henshaw Mark

Moral Hazard: Kate Jennings

Australian author Kate Jennings sets her short novel, Moral Hazard, in New York. My Text Classics edition states that Jennings moved to New York in 1979, married an artist and designer in 1987, but when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, Jennings gave up her freelance work and began working as a corporate speechwriter. I didn’t read these details until after finishing the book, but this certainly explains why the novel feels like a memoir of a short period of the main character’s life.

This is 93-94, New York’s Wall Street before 9-11, before the dot-com bust, before the Madoff investment scandal, before the real estate madness that gripped America for the first part of the oughts. I’d like to think that we’ve all learned something about money and finances, but I know that we haven’t. As long as there is money, people will take risks, riding that theoretical elevator to wealth and success.

moral hazard

In Moral Hazard, Cath, our narrator, gives up her freelance writing job and takes a job as a speechwriter for the investment bank, Neidecker Benecke, “whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas.”  It’s an unlikely job for someone who “disapproved of bankers on principle,” and who’d much rather be reading Sylvia Townsend Warner or Muriel Spark. But Cath needs money, so like many other people, she packs away her principles from 9-5 in exchange for a paycheck. Her husband, designer and collagist, Bailey, twenty-five years her senior, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and so this leaves Cath as the sole breadwinner, paying rent on an Upper East Side apartment, working and returning home to her rapidly disintegrating husband.

The plot follows two different paths–Cath’s care for her husband as his disease progresses and her job at Neidecker Benecke (“in the modern day equivalent of the court of Louis XVI,”) where she befriends Mike, the head of the risk-management unit, a man who’s fond of Frank O’Hara. This is a casual friendship with moments shared over cigarettes, and Cath asking questions, at first so that she better understand her job, and then, later, so that she can better understand Mike. Mike is a very intelligent man who understands the central paradox to the financial markets, and it’s driving him crazy.

Mike, though, was like a married man who falls in love with another woman and plots to kill his wife to gain freedom, when the obvious solution is to drive off down the road to another life.

There are two distinct worlds here: Cath’s dreary, surreal life in the corporate world, and her life with her husband. You come away from this book wondering how Cath kept her sanity. There’s a very definite corporate speak at Neidecker Benecke with exchanges that could very well be delivered by a dead pan Bill Murray as evidenced in a scene between Cath and her boss, Hanny:

“You can write, but you can’t handle complex arguments.”

Generous of him.

“Absolutely. You’re so right. Thank you for sharing that with me. My reasoning powers definitely need developing. I’ll work on it. I’ll work on it very hard,” I replied. Mike had taught me this trick. When someone says something preposterous, agree with them, even heighten the idiocy.

Cath initially tries to keep her husband at home, but as his disease progresses to diapers, temper tantrums and violence, she’s forced to place him in a home, and it’s here that her private misery becomes a matter for the American health system. Both Cath’s job at Neidecker Benecke and her husband’s continuing decline are madness in different forms. The madness of derivatives and the madness of Alzheimer’s–the corporate disease and the human decay.

“Once upon a time, it was commodities, then futures, now derivatives,” he’d opined, delicately shooting his cuffs. “It’s all structured finance. It’s all aimed at neutralizing risk by parceling it up, selling it to someone else.”

While this may sound all very depressing, author Kate Jennings manages to step outside her subject, looking with a wry, unsentimental eye at corporate eye and even Cath’s husband’s last months of life. Faced with corporate malfeasance and assisted suicide, Cath, who’s long since fallen down the rabbit hole, faces ‘moral hazard’ on both professional and personal fronts. Moral Hazard, by the way, has a very specific meaning in the world of finance (a rather ironic one, I’ll add) but the term has multiple instances of significance in the novel.

That first summer, after work, I took to wandering the aisles of Century 21, not shopping, only relieved to be where nothing was demanded of me. I was commuting, it seemed, between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder’s value.

This is a lean, finely sculptured novel, crafted with twin strains of the surreal feeling of corporate life and the overwhelming melancholy of watching Bailey’s inevitable decline. Various corporate employees spring to life with venomous alacrity: “enthusiastic bigot,” Hanny and Horace, the unpopular yet powerful cipher “wreathed with gossip.” And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the employees at the care home, hard-working caretakers with dreams of becoming middle class.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Jennings Kate

Hush, Little Bird: Nicole Trope

Hush, Little Bird from Australian author Nicole Trope brings together two vastly different narrative voices that are tied together by place (a low security women’s prison) and their shared pasts. One of the voices belongs to a 33-year-old woman nicknamed Birdy by her fellow inmates for her knowledge and love of finches, and her job at the prison is to maintain an aviary of Gouldian and Zebra finches. Birdy is someone we would describe as ‘slow’ and although she’s separated in prison from her small daughter, she has managed to establish a firm place for herself amongst the other inmates. There are four women to each bungalow, and one of Birdy’s housemates, the very tough Jess, has taught Birdy how to manage her violent temper. It’s also through Jess that Birdy learned the word “agenda,” and now that a new prisoner is about to arrive, Birdy understands that she has an ‘agenda’ to complete.

I learned that word from Jess. She told me an agenda is a plan that you have to keep secret. Sometimes your agenda can make you do things that no one else understands. Whenever anyone is cranky with her, Jess says, ‘Tell me, love, what’s your agenda?’

What’s your a-gen-da?

The new inmate is a wealthy woman in her 50s, Rose Winslow; she’s the mother of two adult daughters, Portia and Rosalind, and she was married, for 40 years, to Simon, an “icon” of Australian television. Most of the other inmates have been transferred to ‘the Farm’ for their extended good behaviour at other institutions, but Rose’s lawyer managed to pull some strings to get her sent there while he lodges an appeal.

hush little bird

When the novel begins, we don’t know the details of the crimes Birdy or Rose committed, but we’re told that Birdy is there for some act of violence and that Rose claims that whatever she did is ‘an accident.’ While Birdy recognizes Rose, and plans some sort of terrible revenge,  Rose, due to the passage of time and Birdy’s weight gain, doesn’t recognize Birdy. These two women’s stories are gradually parceled out in alternating chapters with tension created by Birdy’s ever-encroaching plan for revenge, and the gradual revelation of each woman’s past.

This is one of those books where to discuss the plot will ruin the experience for other readers, so that’s as far as I will go. As always with alternating narratives that form the novel’s central puzzle, the author must balance tension with information. Sometimes this structure, especially when the reader is deliberately thrown red herrings, can be annoying. Here, in author Nicole Trope’s hands, the structure worked well. The biggest problem I had to overcome as a reader was believing that Rose wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops when it came to her murder trial, but then this book, while it is the story of two women, is fundamentally Rose’s story–how she must come to terms with not just some horrible truths about her life, but also some ugly truths about her passivity, her malleability, her gullibility.

“hindsight–oh, the delights of hindsight–“

This book was recommended to me by Kim at Reading Matters, and her review is here

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Trope Nicole

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop: Amy Witting

“You can get to be like those prisoners who don’t want to leave gaol.”

Earlier this year, I read and loved Amy Witting’s novel I for Isobel, a novel with a oddly-childlike title that did this clever, subtle book no favours. The novel begins with Isobel in miserable childhood, follows her through early years into troubled adulthood and ended somewhat optimistically with the idea that perhaps Isobel would heal and overcome her emotional problems. This brings me to Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, the second Isobel novel–another book with a curiously childlike title which in no way mirrors the book’s subtle emotional exploration of the main character’s inner life.

Isobel on the Way to the Comer Shop, finds Isobel in terrible straits. She’s unemployed (for that story, read I for Isobel,) working temp jobs for a pittance, and living in a squalid boarding house. But it’s not all bad news. She’s managed to have a story published so those literary ambitions are beginning to pay off. But when you’re living on the edge of poverty, cold, depressed and ill, those conditions aren’t conducive to the creative spirit. The book opens with Isobel in her attic room facing a typewriter, living off baked bean sandwiches, and asking herself how she can write about love when “her own researches into the matter had been disastrous.” Unable to solve or understand the complications of love and sex and just how the two are connected, Isobel takes off for a ‘literary evening’ where she’s clearly unwelcome, and with growing paranoia that may be a descent into madness, she cruelly rejects the kindness of a young male friend. A few days later, close to starvation she decides to make a trip to the corner shop but never arrives….

Isobel on the way to the corner shopIsobel is diagnosed with TB and ends up in at Mornington Sanatorium where she, and scores of other patients, undergo months of treatment. Chronic illness peels back the patina of the social self, and leaves, exposed, our true natures, so there are compliant patients, willful patients, and difficult patients all tossed together with the same diagnosis, in the same institution. Some patients wallow in self pity and peevishness while others, and Isobel is one of these, emerge from the crucible of illness, much better human beings for the experience.

At first, probed and examined, an unwanted, contagious patient in a general hospital, Isobel feels like a “parcel. Parcels can be opened and inspected,” but eventually, for the first time in her life, she learns to accept acts of kindness. This begins with the kindness of a volunteer worker, continues with various staff members from the sanatorium and a visit from someone from her past hammers home the lesson that she does matter to people.

She had taken for granted always that when she closed a door behind her, she disappeared entirely from the minds of those behind it. That this was not so was disconcerting: it created a responsibility she did not wish to bear.

There’s a poignancy lingering in Isobel’s story–here’s a young woman who’s never felt that she mattered to anyone, with no loving relationships in her life, she feels valueless, and what irony that it takes a diagnosis of TB in order for Isobel to finally accept that people care about her. Stuck in forced confinement in a hospital bed, she can no longer retreat into her shabby attic, and she’s forced to observe and confront relationships she has with various patients and staff members.

While Isobel is at the sanatorium to cure her body of TB, her confinement and its “enforced intimacy,” effectively brings an emotional cure, and this is partly due to sharing a room with Val, a peevish unpleasant woman, who, in spite of her glaring character deficiencies, receives constant visits from her long-suffering husband, Geoff and daughter, Pauline. Val is oblivious to her own behaviour, but nonetheless makes a canny observation regarding a nurse and her relationship with a patient’s husband. Isobel finds it curious that “Val, who could hunt down unhappy lovers with whom she had no connection, did not seem to notice the” feelings of others. Isobel’s relationship with Val, whose random peevish cruelty, is a faint echo of the behaviour of Isobel’s mother becomes both the bane of her existence and a hurdle for emotional healing. Val’s inchoate frustration with Isobel begins when Isobel starts a knitting project to help pass the time during enforced bed rest. Val takes umbrage at Isobel’s choice of wool, and frustrated and miserable beyond all reason, she won’t let the subject rest:

Is it possible to cause so much misery to another human being, simply by being  oneself? she wondered, feeling a reflection of that misery. No help for it; she must continue to be herself. 

Isobel accepts that she’s an emotional ‘illiterate,’ but to do something about that means taking risks “stepp[ing] out in space,” and not clinging to the safe and familiar. The Sanatorium becomes a refuge for many patients who’ve chosen to remain there and work, and as Isobel becomes more comfortable at the sanatorium and forms relationships with a host of highly memorable characters, she has a difficult choice to make…

In the book’s introduction, Maria Takolander writes that for Witting the “Isobel novels were autobiographical, that it was the ‘terrible truth of fiction’ which helped her ‘to conquer the truth of that situation.’ “ So it should come as no surprise to learn that Witting (Joan Austral Fraser) suffered from TB at one point in her life and drew from these experiences when writing this book. If you are at all interested reading Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop which is going to make my best-of-year list, you read I for Isobel first. Sadly, there’s a third Isobel novel that Witting did not finish before her death.

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Filed under Fiction, Witting Amy

The Refuge: A Confession by Kenneth Mackenzie

This thought brought my mind back to the vision of night stretching ahead, as certain and as mysterious as a wet and unknown road stretching beyond the delimiting headlights of a car driven by a stranger. It led somewhere”

Kenneth Mackenzie’s novel The Refuge, set in post WWII Sydney, is narrated by middle-aged crime reporter Lloyd Fitzherbert who is working late one evening, reluctant to go home because he’s expecting a call from the police regarding a body that will be found in the harbour. While the body will be identified and thought a suicide, Fitzherbert knows the truth; as the murderer, post crime, pre-discovery of the body, he tells us he “had waited for that hour, with, as I thought, no feelings whatever.” Fitzherbert with cold calculation, has murdered a young woman he loved named Irma–a refugee from war-torn Europe who sought ‘refuge’ in Australia. Recalling the crime, he “felt again the terrible emotion of triumph mixed with and outweighed by black and utter despair.”

The RefugeThere’s no small amount of irony that Irma, a very slippery, beautiful and exotic young woman who joined both the Communist and the Nazi parties pre-WWII, making deadly enemies of both, should find a different type of final ‘refuge’ in an Australia which proves to be more deadly than the Communist agents that pursue her. This is a tale of an unhealthy bond between two people who appear to be in perfect control of their emotions, and yet when it comes to passion and love, there is something dead or missing in both Fitzherbert and Irma’s emotional make-up. He’s opted, after the tragically early death of his wife, to lead an emotionally sterile life and devote himself to his only son, Alan, who’s raised by his grandmother. Fitzherbert carefully maintains a distance from his son, but his devotion towards him includes morbid thoughts. Here he worries about 8 year-old Alan  growing up in a world at war:

how profound had become my mistrust of a world in which wars could still come into evil flower, and in which individuals could play with and brutally alter the myriad personal fates of whole nations of men and women. In such a world I thought I could find plenty of cause to be concerned for Alan; in such an insane, dangerous world, where the very soul, unawares, was vulnerable, I could impersonally imagine a father willingly and painlessly ending the life of a son before that life should fade and fray into the common background pattern of greedy passions and deliberate violence which is also the pattern of inevitable self-destruction.

Irma, part of the chaotic detritus of pre-WWII Europe floats into Fitzherbert’s sterile existence and he falls in love with her. Irma is a very young woman who’s led a life using her body for political gain and also for survival. When she meets Fitzherbert, he’s the next male stepping stone, and while common sense should tell him to tread cautiously, there’s a magnetic attraction which he cannot resist even though he’s initially repelled:

What I did feel was a sense of shock and disappointment, that so much youth and vitality and feminine beauty should have been so well-schooled in the mouthing of spiritless clichés; for I could not then and cannot now believe that the passion for their maggot-eaten homelands which these people so readily put into words is a real passion of body and mind and spirit, and not largely a guileful parade of perfected artifice. What I did believe is that they were profoundly glad Australia did exist and was there unguarded for their exploitation.

The Refuge is Fitzherbert’s confession, and that leaves the reader as the judge and jury. The tale moves backwards from the discovery of Irma’s body, back ten years before when Fitzherbert met Irma for the first time and, as her savior of the hour, became involved in her life. Neither Fitzherbert nor Irma are particularly sympathetic or attractive characters, and once involved, it’s clear that they are both out of their depth. In spite of warning signals, Fitzherbert plunges deep into this relationship with a much young woman who trades her body for favours, and Irma treads dangerous waters when she begins a relationship with Fitzherbert, a type of man she’s never known before.

In the introduction, Nicholas Rothwell addresses the novel’s flaws and asks, “Can a work of genius, a masterwork–a classic–be imperfect, flawed in its essence? Can a great book be made from unbalanced or ill-fitting parts, and can those flaws and quirks actually be the crux of its strength?” These are good questions which ultimately, each reader will ask as they read The Refuge. It is a stunning book, full of the most incredibly beautifully written sections in which Fitzherbert’s lonely, painful observations ooze through the pages. While I found myself highlighting quote after marvelous quote, I also experienced no small amount of frustration with Fitzherbert’s wordy, unfocused confession/justification of his crime. In the final judgment, however, the power of Mackenzie’s heart stopping writing overrides the novel’s flaws, and his narrator’s meandering approach towards his confession grants insight, arguably more than Fitzherbert intended.

The novel’s structure is unusual–presenting a crime committed by the narrator who then proceeds to languidly detail select parts of the ten years before the murder and the events that led up to this act. Fitzherbert is in no hurry to wind up his tale, so, for example, he’ll spend pages describing the structure of his son’s face, and pages recalling discussions he had with a workmate–although that may seem to have little to do with the tale. But Fitzherbert is telling his tale his way, and explaining, with painfully long detail at times, his emotional justification for his crime. Fitzherbert’s idiosyncratic method of telling his story allows the reader glimpses inside the mind of obsessive man whose morbid thoughts dominate his actions. Fitzherbert methodically builds his case that his actions are justified and ultimately the only option available, but the reader knows that that simply isn’t true. Of course, one intriguing question must be asked: Is Fitzherbert, always in control of the narrative, as honest with himself as he appears to be? When the book opens, he presents himself as a man who has adjusted to the brutal nature of the world, but there are some vital components missing, and this absence floats to the surface when he falls into a one-sided love affair with Irma:

No one would describe me as a nervous man. Years of police reporting give necessary control of all emotion, not merely a command of the show of it. I have seen men hanged, and the raped and mutilated bodies of young women, and children’s bodies that fire has burned, and drowned people on whom fish have been feeding; and for such sights great calmness of spirit is essential One does not even allow an inward weeping for pity, or for shame at being oneself a man. One looks, and makes notes, and forgets. Nervousness does not come into it.

Rothwell describes The Refuge as a tragedy, and if we accept it as such, then Mackenzie’s approach to what may seem like a crime novel, makes much more sense. Fitzherbert is a murderer–an Othello without Iago, and he’s murdered the woman he loves. Now, in the lonely post-mortem of his crime, he explains and dominates the back story of the rocky, fateful path that led, inevitably, to this point.

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Filed under Fiction, Mackenzie Kenneth

The Catherine Wheel: Elizabeth Harrower

In Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, The Catherine Wheel, it’s the 1950s, and twenty-five-year-old Clemency James is an Australian lodger living in a grim London boarding house belonging to spiritualist landlady, Miss Evans. Clem’s tiny, bleak attic room has “a diagonal view of bare black avenues and paths and empty seats and grass,” but in spite of the room’s lack of appeal, to Clem, the space represents her “square yards of freedom.” That freedom is about to be swept away when a peculiar couple insinuate themselves into Clem’s life.

Clemency earns a marginal living teaching French to private students while she studies, by correspondence, to be a lawyer. With her father dead, her stepmother, Mimi, back in Australia, and a small legacy to help her survive, Clemency doesn’t have much time for frivolity–in fact she’s on a treadmill alternating between teaching and studying. There’s little to no fun in between, and so perhaps that makes her vulnerable.

The Catherine wheelChristian Roland,  a very good-looking young man, is first introduced to Clem as the new window cleaner, and soon he and Olive, a much older woman he calls his wife, are well established features in the building. Before long, Christian, by using a suave combination of guilt and pressure, manipulates Clem into giving him free French lessons. At first Clem, who already resents teaching and “the draining off of that much energy–but [I] needed the money,” resists and while there are hints that she could give free lessons, Clem initially responds negatively:

And where was the obligation to be heart and soul with everyone who importuned attention? And, really, was graciousness my aim in life?

Christian and Olive make a strange couple. He’s a former actor, strikingly good-looking, with a history of finding a series of women to ‘take care of him’ whereas Olive is much a much older, plain, “large round shouldered woman” who initially treats Clem with embarrassing and unnecessary obsequiousness. There are moments when Clem receives warning signals about Christian and yet these moments fade and then vanish as she’s swept up by his relentless pursuit and charismatic personality. Gradually, Clem is seduced, mesmerized, manipulated, and beguiled into Christian’s chaotic world of poverty, debts, endless menial jobs, drunken binges, and violent arguments. And as Christian slowly dismantles Clem’s defenses, Olive becomes violently jealous of Christian’s relationship with Clem–or so he claims. Yet since Christian loves being in the position of having women fighting for him, and since he is constantly acting a role with himself as the star, it’s impossible to tell just where the truth ends and the lies begin.

Christian, who has a massive chip on his shoulder about class, money and the standard of living he thinks he’s entitled to, is out for what he can get from Clem. There’s the sense that his goal is to overcome Clem’s reservations about his character with conquest as pure ego gratification. Occasionally Clem wavers between fascination and revulsion yet gradually melts under the constant assault of his dominant, narcissistic personality:

I felt myself withdraw, withdraw mentally, from his proximity, I didn’t like him! All at once his earnest pleasure in himself was alarming.

‘Then after they’ve asked me to do their income-tax returns–one actually did the other day–they tell me how poor they are. They get out the old purse and try to kid me along. Can’t afford! They can’t bend their fingers for diamonds some of these old bags!’

As a student of the theatre, I saluted him. As a student of human nature I felt an unprecedented inclination to come down heavily on both sides at once. He was awful! Why did it seem irrelevant?

As Clem becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of Christian and Olive, she isn’t always honest with herself. She’s not honest about her motives for ‘helping’ Christian, and as she sinks deeper and deeper into his delusional, volatile, narcissistic web, her friends become alarmed only to find that they are powerless to help her. Clem sees Christian, with “his bitter, private, despairing intensity,” as noble and someone who deserves a chance. Everyone else sees Christian for exactly what he is–trouble, a user and destroyer of any woman foolish enough to get involved with him. Christian lives in a world in which he manufactures his own reality as evidenced by his scheme to learn French and move to Paris. Given his volatility and sordid past, it’s a ludicrous idea, yet as the novel wears on, and Clem is seduced into Christian’s delusional world, she begins to accept that his fantasies of a glorious future are entirely reasonable and deserved. Trying to talk sense to Clem about Christian is rather like trying to persuade the ardent heroin addict to pass on the syringe already stuck in an arm.

This was no place for me, yet I was held to the room–far from fascinated now and the reverse of curious–by something I did not believe in: necessity, compulsion.

Elizabeth Harrower only gives us a few slices of information about Clem’s past, but there are darker hints of some emotional trouble in her past.

Then, all my life I had been ill of emotion, had been much gobbled, prodded. […] To be left alone, I wanted! Not to have people or things, not to be had by them. My very survival, it seemed, had hinged in the absence of feeling in my life. How pure was freedom and isolation!

Does this explain why Clem enjoys a safe platonic friendship with Lewis? He’s already spoken for, and yet he too is in a safely impossible relationship with a married woman.

While Harrower builds a convincing case of how a normal, hard-working, sensible woman can be gradually taken over by a dominant, psychotic personality, at the same time, Clem is a frustrating character–a woman I wanted to shake out of her stupor and passivity. She imagines, at least initially, that she’s an objective, interested observer speculating about Christian’s life and his strange relationship with Olive. Her best friends, Lewis and his sister Helen, can see what a destructive influence Christian is on Clem, but they are powerless (as we are) to stop her descent. There are several scenes when Christian plays both Olive and Clem as if he’s written the script for some tawdry domestic melodrama–scenes in which Clem realizes just how she’s being played.  I wanted Clem to knee him and shove them both out the door….

Emma recently made a comment regarding a novel needing to say something new, and I thought about that as I read The Catherine Wheel. This is the story of an obsessive, destructive  relationship, and how many books have we read on that subject? Yet here Elizabeth Harrower achieves something quite different. She very convincingly shows us a main female character who appears to be very calm, steady and sensible, who is gradually beguiled by a disturbed, charismatic young man, and slowly, gradually, she’s seduced by his dominant personality. His world of chaos, explosive passions, violent jealousy, and financial fecklessness becomes her reality. If you’ve ever had a front row seat to this sort of takeover of one personality by another, then you’ll know that Harrower is a keen observer of human nature.

In Certain Circles, through a handful of characters, Harrower tells the story of marital dominance, and we see how things such as invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouse. The Watch Tower also deals with domestic tyranny, and how abusers create false worlds and then imprison their victims within invisible destructive marital restraints. The Catherine Wheel’s Clem and Christian are not married, but nonetheless, the theme here is dominance and the gradual stripping of power and independence of the underdog in the relationship. While there’s a range of psychotics, bullies and neurotics in these three novels, married or not, Harrower seems to argue that there’s a struggle for power in any relationship, with the more neurotic or psychotic partner gradually eroding the willpower and independence of the other.

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Filed under Fiction, Harrower Elizabeth