Tag Archives: Australian fiction

Ballad of a Mad Girl: Vikki Wakefield

“I sometimes wonder if dreams are like dandelion seeds: once you blow them off they take root somewhere else, with somebody who still believes.”

In Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl, 17 year-old Grace Foley who, after the loss of the family farm, lives with her widowed father and brother in Swanston (“Swamptown”) Australia. Nothing has been the same since the death of Grace’s mother.  She was the glue that held the family together, and now Grace’s father seems unable to cope with his teenage daughter.

Grace attends school, and a rivalry exists between students from Swampie Public and the private Sacred Heart school. Swampie Public doesn’t have a library or a gym, and so they ‘share’ Sacred Heart’s facilities.

A solid, eight-foot wall separates Swanston Public and Sacred Heart. They made it arty by placing a thick Perspex panel every thirty metres or so, just to give the illusion that it’s all friendly, that we’re not segregated according to how much money our parents can afford to blow on our education. The wall keeps two castes of baboons from tearing each other apart.

This longstanding rivalry is manifested in many ways, but one of the most dangerous demonstrations of perceived superiority takes place in the local quarry when teens from both schools meet at night to compete. The dangerous goal: to straddle, shuffle or walk across a pipe that crosses the quarry, and if you slip, there’s a long fall to the quarry beneath. Grace is a Swampie Quarry champion, and when the book opens, although she’s grounded (again) she slips out of her house for another quarry challenge. This time, however, something goes horribly wrong. …

Ballad for a Mad Girl

After the failed challenge, Grace is different. Something happened to her when she sat on the pipe attempting to cross the quarry. She felt a presence, and she didn’t come home alone. Now something, someone dead, follows her, lives in the shadows of her room. Grace isn’t the same. Her friends shun her and Grace, finally, realises that the otherworldy presence, wants something from her.

Grace begins to poke around the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a girl named Hannah Holt, a girl who is rumoured to be buried somewhere in the quarry. Her search leads her away from her friends and back into the past, specifically to Hannah Holt’s room, still maintained as a shrine by Hannah’s reclusive mother.

Class, adolescence, peer pressure, loss, all add up to a mystery coming–of-age novel with supernatural elements, and the supernatural elements serve to produce that other problem of adolescence: alienation. Ballad of a Mad Girl is essentially a substantive YA book–not my usual read as I’m not the target audience. Still I appreciated the novel.

An entry in the reading Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Lovesong: Elizabeth Jolley

In Elizabeth Jolley’s darkly comic Lovesong  Dalton Foster has been “returned” to his former community. We know there are various officials involved in this ‘return’: some sort of rehabilitation centre, a prison, and “Grayhead” a prison officer. We also know that there’s been “repeated sessions of cure, rehabilitation it was called,” and that a “sentence and a cure in various institutions” have taken up half of Dalton’s life so far. So now, Dalton is back living in his old neighbourhood, just around the corner from his former home. There’s been some sort of arrangement, and he’s living in a drab boarding house, Mrs Porter’s Establishment “a Home away from Home for Homeless Gentlemen,” along with a motley assortment of lodgers: a completely potty piano teacher named Miss Mallow, Miss Emily Vales (who is always on the lookout for “Mr Right”), several painted young men who work as dancers in “the entertainment line,”  and two young men who live together–one a waiter with AIDS and TB and the other, a doorman who is “getting a bust.” 

lovesong

Dalton is alone, depressed, and let’s face: not all there.  He’s been offered a segue into so-called ‘normal life’ and society following his “cure,” through the patronage of a local family who happen to live in his old family home. He’s supposed to visit them upon occasion, but the mother, in loud telephone conversations to her sister, calls him the DP, the Displaced Person. During conditioning, the rehabilitation officer told Dalton about the need for “being sensible or being watchful,” yet Dalton is compulsively drawn to children. …

Life at Mrs Porter’s, “a houseful of discarded men and women,” is bizarre. It’s a “temple devoted to regret,” and there’s the spectacle of dear, departed Mr Porter’s hairball kept under a glass bell. Poor Dalton must wait for hours for the bathroom to be free, and he’s frequently pounced upon by the mad klepto Miss Mallow who repeatedly insists on showing him her incomprehensible references. Dalton is suspicious that Miss Vale, hunting for Mr Right, still recovering from thwarting an attempted kidnapping, is breaking into his room and reading his journals. Perhaps she is….

There’s a deep opacity to the novel. Things are seen through Dalton’s eyes, but he’s at best disturbed and damaged, at worst, deranged. He vacillates, unreliably, between the past and the present with flashes of his childhood, and it’s NOT a childhood that has been illuminated by later adult understanding.  The nomadic household was composed of his mother, his Aunt Dalton, and his father, named derisively Horsefly by his mother and aunt. What is going on between those two women as they shriek and intrigue, accompanied by the running joke that Horsefly is useless “The Excruciating Bore.”

“Like an officer’s boot, my dear,” Dalton’s mother screamed while they were dressing. “Like an officer’s thigh boot,” her voice intense with the pleasure of Aunt Dalton’s exquisite elegance resembling the handsome leg of a cossack, she said then, ‘”descending with virile intentions from his horse.” 

Dalton’s mother and Aunt refer mockingly to Horsefly as the Consul, but this is yet another way to humiliate the timid, gentle man who supports the family through hard, humiliating work.

“A Consul, yes” his mother would say, “but oh! why Trade of all things!” Her wailings were heard frequently from behind closed doors in either rented houses or the less fashionable hotels where they were often obliged to stay.

There are some sections which are notes taken on events within the boarding house, and in other sections depicting Mrs Porter and other guests, speech is written phonetically, so this may be a difficult novel for non-English readers.

I’ve read a few Elizabeth Jolley novels, and my favourite remains, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. Although we read blurbs of novels, reviews etc , it’s rare that we are unprepared for what’s inside the covers, but it’s always a wild ride with Elizabeth Jolley. There’s an eccentricity there that hovers dangerously close to madness. Jolley has a perceptive eye for irony, cruelty, and tragedy but laces it with human frailty and quirkiness. In Lovesong, it’s beyond eccentric, beyond quirky: it’s the Mad describing the Mad. Madness is the natural refuge for the human condition:

The last time he saw Aunt Dalton she was sitting up close to a horrible little plastic table banging a dish with a spoon and wearing a bib decorated with provocative slogans.

And kindness is the saving grace.

This novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers challenge.

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The Life to Come: Michelle de Kretzer

Michelle de Kretzer’s The Life to Come wasn’t a quick read. I found myself returning to it, reading it slowly. This wasn’t a fault of the book, but rather a need to chew things over, absorb what was happening. The story is broken into five sections which overlap as we follow Pippa Reynolds, an Australian writer, her friend Cassie, Cassie’s boyfriend, Sri-lankan/Scottish Ash, and translator Céleste who lives in Paris.  There are a handful of secondary characters who move in the same circle, people who belong and yet who don’t belong, people who are seeking something they can’t quite define.

This is a novel with multiple strands–a story that flows picking up and dropping off characters whose stories are continued later.  The novel opens in Australia in the late 90s with George who attends university, writes a novel at night and teaches tutorials for extra money. George would appear destined to be a main character (he isn’t), but then the plot circles its way to Pippa, a young woman who’s determined to be a writer.

The Life to Come

I suspect that many of us know Pippas. She’s not a bad person, but she’s shallow and thoughtless, and as the novel continues (where The Life to Come fits in) we see how she’s this nebulous self-construction, but at this point, she’s still young, working on her image:

George thought back to her essays: a stew of passionate opinion, mangled argument, atrocities of usage and grammar; that Credit had been the purest largesse on his part.

Pippa is never shy with her vacuous opinions:

“I love animals,” she went on.

“That must be why you eat so many of them,” said George. He didn’t intend unkindness but was opposed to illogic. Pippa’s fondness for broad, blurry statements twitched his nerves. “I love India,” she once announced, after watching a documentary on TV. She had never been there. George, who had, most certainly did not love India. He could also see that these declarations weren’t really about animals or India but about Pippa: what they proclaimed was her largeness of heart.

This is a circuitous narrative, with no clear central path (I’m reminded of Ali Smith’s Autumn) a panoramic frieze of various characters who inhabit the borders of Pippa’s life. Pippa’s friend Cassie lives with Ash, and while Cassie tries valiantly to please Ash with various Sri-lankan delights, she only, somewhat clumsily, manages to alienate him. These characters have flashes of insight regarding the future, and also retrospective moments when hazy incidents take on great significance. At one point, for example, Cassie, who loves Ash and works hard to build a life with him, even she “came close to seeing that he was only an instrument in her quest.”

Later in the novel, Pippa, further along in her self-invention project (at one point she sports a carefully angled beret) travels to Paris and meets Australian translator Céleste. Céleste, whose parents became inadvertently embroiled in Algerian politics in the 60s, is having an affair with the married Sabine, but it’s a hopeless affair based on use. But then isn’t that true of most of the relationships in this book?

There’s a quote which hits at the heart of the novel:

It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book. 

This is a novel that savagely bites at its characters while at the same time offering a sort of understanding and acceptance, as if the general human condition seems to be blundering through life, using others as they pass through our boundaries. Céleste notes that “Setting out from home, the Australians, like fortunate children, had expected to be loved,” but that the world, human nature, isn’t programmed that way.

Just as Pippa decides to become a writer before she has anything to write about, and Cassie ( a more sympathetic character) doesn’t, can’t understand Ash and his Sri Lankan experiences, things are right in front of our characters, and understanding eludes them. Yes, Australian English majors don’t read Australian books; they don’t read the very things that are in front of them, even as they pursue higher education, further knowledge, while that which is right in front of them remains ignored, of little interest, perhaps not worthy of attention. Similarly the characters here live, love and befriend other people, sharing the most intimate moments  and yet understanding eludes them. Even the title suggests looking forward, and while the plot propels us forward through the lives of its characters, there’s also the sense of these people wanting something more, waiting for what is yet to happen.

Review copy

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The Restorer: Michael Sala

It’s the late 80s and competent, attractive nurse Maryanne is back living at her mother’s Sydney home along with her two children. We know that something must have gone horribly wrong in her marriage to Roy, but when he shows up, hat in hand, all humble and hopeful and tells Maryanne about this bargain of a house he’s found on the coast… she decides to go back to him. Maryanne’s mother doesn’t mince her words and neither does she tamper down her feelings. Meanwhile 14-year-old Freya isn’t thrilled to be leaving while 8 year-old Daniel just goes with the flow.

The house in Newcastle is a disappointment. Gutted after a fire started by squatters, the family have to camp out in a few rooms while Roy slowly restores the house. Maryanne gets a job at the hospital and so the family’s routine falls back into place, There’s a surge of sexual energy between Maryanne and Roy but there’s also underlying violence, and in the case of Maryanne and her husband, the two go hand in hand….

She’d always thought, always believed that if somehow they could learn how to handle it, then everything would fall into place, and all the risks and hardships would have been worth it.

While Maryanne comes to terms with the idea that it was a terrible mistake to return to Roy, Freya begins to run wild in Newcastle, and she makes friends with a local boy named Josh, an equally lost soul. Josh is one of several secondary characters whose lives collide with Freya and Maryanne; these are people who know that there’s something wrong in the household, but they can only offer limited help–in Josh’s case his help is limited by his own youth and inexperience. There’s also Maryanne’s neighbour who can only acknowledge and advise.

The scenes between Maryanne and Roy are chillingly real with escalating violence that will end one of two ways: violent sex or just plain violence. It’s a routine with an outcome which will be decided by Maryanne’s compliance. She knows shortly after she moves to Newcastle that she’s made a horrible mistake, that Roy hasn’t changed, will never change, and yet living back home with her mother was also an acknowledgement of defeat, “every conversation was loaded with allusions to Maryanne’s past failures-the drip, drip, drip of her commentary.” Living back at home with her mother had its own set of problems:

She’d stand and stare out at the streetlight half hidden by the leaves of the tree outside, listening to the formless roar of traffic on distant roads, trapped in her childhood bedroom like she was caught in some perverse winding back of her own life. 

It was terrifying, that sense of hurtling backwards. Sixteen years since that room had been hers. Sixteen years, and now here she was again, all of the struggle and failure behind her. The posters were gone, but her bed remained, and her desk, and there was still a bookcase beside the desk, though the books on it were no longer hers. The memories here were like a smell that you only noticed when you first came in.

This novel is a slow burner; the threat of violence permeates almost every page. Roy must be ‘jollied’ away from his obsessive controlling jealousy, and although it’s something the whole family understands, it’s never talked about. And while Maryanne tries, courageously (and misguidedly) to hold things together, in “the strange mixture of hope and suffering with which she lived her life, how she never gave up in anything even when it hurt her,” Freya encounters undercurrents of violence from young males at school.

It’s an interesting decision on the author’s part to make Freya the novel’s central character. Maryanne’s choices have already been made, but Freya’s path has yet to be determined. The Restorer, a haunting, troubling story, is essentially about male-female relationships and how violence can become an integral, toxic, component.  In one of the saddest moments of this novel, there’s a moment when Freya, unobserved  sees her mother at work:

There was something about Mum, her posture her voice, that same strangeness from before, when they’d walked together to her work. Like she was wearing a disguise-not now, but when she was home. Mum looked unburdened, younger, stronger.

I puzzled a bit over the title of Michael Salas’s book: The Restorer. On one level the restorer is Roy, a man who is restoring his house and supposedly his marriage, and yet far deeper than that, the restorer is a mechanism by which Freya will move beyond male-female violence, rejecting her parents’ model.

review copy

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A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

“This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.”

In Amy Witting’s gently witty novel,  A Change in the Lighting, Ella Ferguson, mother of three adult children, is stunned when her husband of over thirty years casually and calmly announces he wants a divorce. Ella, a wonderful wife and mother, who has ensured that her husband “never waited for a meal nor wanted for a clean shirt,” is suddenly cast adrift. Not only must she come to terms with her new solo life, but she also, through her relationships with her children, discovers just how shielded her ‘old’ life was.

A change in the lighting

Professor Bernard Ferguson is (appropriately) standing in front of a mirror when he announces that he wants a divorce. Of course, there’s another woman, in this case it’s the much younger researcher, Louise. After being thrown out by Ella, Bernard stops to ask for clean socks “in a neutral tone, as if he were off to a weekend conference after a small domestic disagreement,” He’s lucky there wasn’t any violence, but then Ella hasn’t yet absorbed the totality of the situation.

Ella breaks the news to her three children: Married teacher, David, difficult, beautiful Caroline who is married to a much older man who works at the same university as Bernard, and Ella’s youngest Sophie, the only one still at home, who’s working as an assistant to a filmmaker.

While Sophie sides completely with Ella, David oversees his mother’s financial interests in the divorce with the idea that he can be some sort of emotionally reasonable conduit. Caroline, however, who’s always been at odds with her mother, strikes out to gain her father’s favour, and as a consequence, Ella’s relationship with her only grandchild becomes a casualty of the fallout.

A Change in the Lighting could have been written with a dire, desperate undercurrent. Certainly Ella finds herself in a difficult position with no job, no money of her own, and  a large, mostly empty house to maintain. In Ella, Amy Witting creates with nimble, gentle humour, a marvellous, and yet perfectly ordinary protagonist, a middle-aged woman who discovers that her sheltered life ends with the departure of her roving husband. While at first, Ella’s life seems to shrivel when her husband leaves, it also begins to expand in new unexpected ways. Sophie brings home her boss, a lesbian filmmaker, and soon there’s a reclusive writer living in the house. While all these changes take place, Bernard, with the predatory Louise lurking in the background, rants about the electric bill, and it soon becomes clear that Ella must make a decision about her home.

Amy Witting, and this is the third novel I read from this author, has a wonderful approach to female madness. I is for Isobel introduced the main character we follow into Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop.  Isobel, in isolation and damaged from a neurotic mother, must learn to accept acts of kindness. In A Change in the Lighting, Ella must accept change, but when her marriage is torn apart, she initially goes through various despondent emotional stages, acknowledging  “no wonder that deserted wives turned alcoholic.” Ella’s life as she knew it begins to disappear and, at times, feeling disoriented she realizes that it would be easy to go mad–that madness is a monster who’s moved in, waiting for her collapse:

When she had got into bed, she considered her day with the monster. Had she made any progress? There were three stages: short spells of quiescence, even moments of peace in which it disappeared altogether, long spells where they co-existed reasonably well, and moments of crisis, when somebody mentioned obsession or some other cause of pain–nothing so bad again as that moment when the thing seemed to be mocking her. It had been coincidence, a trick of the light. 

In hindsight, Ella realizes that there were clues about Bernard’s affair, and as she explains to her best friend, Pam:

“You know, when there’s a noise breaking into your sleep and you don’t want to wake up, you can dream a long, complicated dream that explains the noise away.”

In the fallout of the divorce, Ella discovers a surprising ally in her daughter-in-law Martha, and how true it is that those who marry into a family are often more competent when it comes to deciphering family dynamics. While dramas in her children’s lives spiral around her, and Ella is propelled towards making decisions about her future, she sinks into avoidance by making a complicated rug for her beloved granddaughter. It’s a gift of love and also a marvellous way to ignore her crumbling world:

“So we’re all on the move,” said Martha. “We’ll be moving, too, joining the mortgage belt now that we’ve paid off the unit. Do you have any idea where you’re going to settle? It would be nice to be close to you.”

Ella had no idea on this subject at all. As furniture for the future, she had a remnant of pale green lamé which was to form a stylised arc of sea, the base of a foam of cobweb Shetland wool knitted rather loosely in the traditional Old Shale pattern

Bernard’s desertion of Ella is cold, shift and brutal, and yet of course he gets his comeuppance. The gentle humour reminds of Barbara Pym–although Pym’s novels are, of course, set in the world of lonely academics, clergymen and spinsters. But I would say if you like Pym, you’ll like Witting and vice versa.

How easy it all was, to get drunk, to go mad, to vandalise, to commit fraud. Perhaps she had always had criminal tendencie; they hadn’t surfaced before because they weren’t relevant, didn’t suit her lifestyle. 

Absolutely on my best-of-year-list

Review copy

(Forgot to add this is one of the books read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge)

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The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

“When people open their doors for their houses to be cleaned, they open themselves.”

The Newspaper or “weekly” is the nickname for a cleaning lady who works in so many houses in Claremont Street that she knows all of the gossip.  Apart from the lower-income flats, Weekly has worked in all the houses at some time or another. She’s a fixture, and like most fixtures, her habits and private life are all taken for granted by those who employ her.

When she went into the houses she saw what people were trying to do with their lives and she saw too what they did not try to do. Some things simply happened to them. The mess made by living did not bother her. People’s efforts to clear up their mess were touching, their dead flowers drooping in stained, treasured vases and crumbs left in the bread tin made her shake her head and feel sad, not because she had to throw away the flowers and clean out the tin. It was the picking of the flowers in the first place and the buying of the bread and bringing it home to eat, they were the symbols of their efforts to live. Weekly made great efforts herself and was not unaware of the efforts of others. She noticed everything there was to notice about people and their houses; she could not help it.

Weekly is a creature of habit, and she’s spent a lifetime of joyless toil cleaning houses while secretly gathering a nestegg. She dreams of owning a place in the country, a place of her own, with fruit trees, and that dream is so strong, it actually pains her to spend any money. She takes cast off clothes from her employers, lives rent-free in a sparsely furnished room exchange for cleaning services, and eats the most frugal diet possible. But it’s in cleaning, that “her mind found a freedom that might be quite unknown in any other kind of work.” 

The Newspaper of Claremont street

Weekly cleans one house after another, and while she knows “which wives didn’t want their husbands to come home for lunch; she heard sons snarling at their mothers and ungrateful daughters banging bedroom doors,” she only carries the benign gossip and “never spoke of the things that really mattered.” She knows everything there is to know about the people on Claremont Street. She sees people age, become ill, marriages go wrong, children misbehave and disappoint their parents. She’s seen all sorts of domestic tragedies over the last thirty years. Nothing surprises her, and nothing will stop her cleaning. She’s a steamroller of domestic industry:

She was used to people being in bath towels or in bed at all hours of the day. The intimate things which she could not help perceiving did not interest her much. If at the time of cleaning, various sexual or alcoholic activities of the householders were in the way, she simply cleaned round them. She was acquainted with, and quite unmoved by, their experiments with drugs and had tidied up on one occasion, quite calmly after a murder. 

On one level, Weekly would seem to be the low person on the Claremont Street totem pole. The shop girls make fun of her, and to the people who employ her, Weekly isn’t so much a person as a machine. “Everyone tried to get as much work from her as possible,” and yet her middle-class employers don’t want to be seen ‘less generous’ than the others on the street, so they care about the opinions of their neighbours, and treat Weekly accordingly.

Elizabeth Jolley’s novella, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, at 116 pages, is tightly written and peppered with flashes from Weekly’s past. Off-kilter memories laced with dark comedy pop up unbidden, and Weekly pushes them back down. She’d rather not think the death of her mother (“she simply refused to understand that motor traffic could not always stop for the pedestrian“) or about Victor, the brother she loved so much that she would have slaved for him. Gradually we learn, well sort of, what happened to Victor and why Weekly is ashamed of her role in his betrayal.

Weekly’s relationship with Victor goes a long way to explaining her reluctant relationship with Nastasya, a Russian emigré who dreams of the glories of her pampered past and demands that Weekly step up to fill the empty roles of servant, caretaker, banker, nurse, and general dogsbody. It’s through the tortured relationship between Weekly and Nastasya we see how people fall into familiar relationship grooves, and also how those who want to be pampered need someone to slave.  With Nastasya hanging around Weekly’s neck, will she still move to the country?

There were a few passages which described the raw countryside, and show the magnificence of Australia:

Black cockatoos left the tree tops in twos and threes and then in their numbers and came swirling in ever widening circles, screaming and calling in their flight. The shallow ravine of trees and the endless stretches of trees and scrub on either side of the piece of land seemed full of these birds. Their heads were round and determined and black fringes edged their wings and, as they flew round and through the trees, they brought to the place a quality of strangeness, of something unknown, as if they had some other knowledge, something to do with another kind of life.

There’s a macabre twist to this tale that is signature Elizabeth Jolley. I tried reading The Newspaper of Claremont  a few years ago, but gave up after a few pages, so thanks to Gummie for encouraging me to try this novel again.

My favourite novel from this author is Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, a truly hilarious tale.

Note: unwanted kittens are drowned in one passage .

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The Dyehouse: Mena Calthorpe

Australian Mena Calthorpe wrote just three novels in her lifetime; The Dyehouse was her first novel, and I’ll tag it a ‘social conscience’  novel. But while the novel centres on working life in a Sydney textile factory, it’s also about the trials of the people who work there: their poverty, loves, and struggles. So while we see the structure of the factory with its workers, and how humanity is sacrificed for profit, we also see the private lives of those workers beyond the dyehouse.

The Dyehouse

It’s 1956, and a very calm, prim Miss Merton arrives at the Southern Textiles Dye Works to apply for a job. The factory is run by Mr Renshaw, and when the novel opens, the biggest dilemmas facing the factory are the drop in production and the sudden popularity of nylon. Behind Mr Renshaw is the Chairman of Directors, the General Manager, and the Company Secretary who each approach the factory differently.  Through the plot we see the layers of management, upper, middle and all the way down to the workers who struggle with various problems, personal and professional.

One of Miss Merton’s tasks is to process the necessary forms in order to give the employees sick pay. The term “personal illness” has to be redefined

“Cuthbert says that personal illness could be the personal illness of wife or child. Sick-pay applies only to the personal illness of the employee.”

“I suppose he means Barney Monahan.” said Miss Merton.

“Oh, well,” said Renshaw, “we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Some of these blokes know a thing or two.”

“Yes.” Miss Merton pressed her lips together.

“Don’t need to take it to heart,” said Renshaw. “Just watch them for that ‘my personal illness ‘ angle, and the rest is up to them.”

Miss Merton sat tapping her pen on her desk.

“It seems heartless,” she said. “Wife sick. Everything at odds. And this form waiting for ‘due to my personal illness.’ There’s not much margin for the joys and tragedies in people’s lives, is there?”

Working at the dyehouse isn’t morally easy for Miss Merton, and Renshaw can tell that she disapproves of policies. To him she’s a “sentimentalist,” and if that means she sees that workers as part of a factory ‘family,’ then she’s guilty as charged. Miss Merton also observes Renshaw’s predatory behaviour towards the female factory workers. Patty, Renshaw’s flavour of the week, is foolish enough to believe Renshaw’s tin promises that he’ll marry her. Everyone else in the factory knows that Patty is being used, but she’s the last one to get it.  My favorite character is Oliver, a man who sees the bigger picture.

Author Mena Calthorpe was a communist and worked in a textile factory, so both her beliefs and her experiences are engaged here. Over the course of a year, we see how the factory runs and the lives of a handful of characters: Hughie Marshall “Leading Hand on the vats.” Hughie is a stellar worker but lacks credentials, and Renshaw intends to replace him in spite of the devotion he’s shown to the company. Then there’s Patty who lives with her invalid mother, a young woman who doesn’t need the trouble that a relationship with Renshaw will bring. We also follow the story of Barney, whose youthful enthusiasm is lost in the “treadmill” of work. It’s easy to tell the author’s politics here, but she doesn’t sacrifice characterization for message, and that’s what makes The Dyehouse an engaging read.

For some reason, Australia in the 50s holds a special fascination.

Lisa’s review

Gummie’s review

Review copy

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Our Tiny, Useless Hearts: Toni Jordan

“You should be locked up.”

Toni Jordan’s novel Our Tiny Useless Hearts is a frenetic domestic farce which focuses on the ugly breakup between Caroline and her husband Henry. The entire debacle is monitored and commented upon by Caroline’s younger divorced sister, Janice. As Caroline and Henry’s marriage spectacularly combusts, Janice recalls how her mother was disappointed in Caroline’s choice:

this big, blond rugby player with thighs like legs of ham and sharp blue eyes and a degree in electrical engineering who drove a fourth-hand red BMW with enough dents to make it ironic instead of pretentious. 

Caroline and Henry’s marriage is now 15 years old, and Henry is soft, flabby, and “the blond hair is mostly a memory.” Our first sight of Henry is his clumsy attempt to break it to his two daughters that he’s running off with their teacher, Martha.

“Marriage, girls, is hard time, that’s what it is. Monogamy, monotony. Mangoes. They sound the same, right? That’s no coincidence.”

“Henry,” I say.

“Seeing the same face every morning, every single morning, day in, day bleeding out. If I took a sawn-off shotgun down to the 7-eleven and waved it in Raju’s face and spent the contents of the cash drawer on crack and hookers I’d get less than fifteen years.”

We hope, of course, that real fathers don’t talk quite that way to their children, but that should give the reader a sense of the over-the-top quality of this book. It’s a farce. As a play, this would probably sit better, but since it’s a book, there are times when the comedy is too much.

Our tiny useless hearts

Henry leaves for Noosa with his paramour, and wife Caroline (after mutilating Henry’s trousers) follows in hot pursuit. Meanwhile annoying neighbours Lesley and Craig jump into the action with their opinions. Sometime in the middle of the night, Craig sneaks into bed with Caroline, only to find her sister instead. And just at that moment, Janice’s ex shows up. ….

From the plot description, you should be able to see what I mean about this making a good play: the setting (a house) and just a handful of characters. The domestic farce and over the top speeches became too much at times, although there were some good comic moments. But far more interesting than the comedy are the thoughtful moments from Janice, and it’s in these sentences that we see the author’s quieter, more reflective voice:

And then it’s all over Henry’s face, the expectations of how middle age would unfurl. How much money he imagines he’d have, how he thought he’d spend his free time, the places he’s always wanted to see. Perhaps he dreamed of a cycling holiday around France or a handicap under thirty. As I watch, Henry’s best imagining float before him in that tiny space between an inhalation and an exhalation. How tenuous our plans are. How heavily we rest on something so gossamer-thin. 

Lisa’s review

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The Puzzleheaded Girl: Christina Stead

“Once I wrote to an asylum to take me in.”

The Puzzleheaded Girl from Christina Stead is a collection of four novellas, all of which explore that tangled, complicated relationships between men and women. Stead seems to aks if one gender will ever understand the other, and the resounding answer is  …. NO. The first novella in the collection, The Puzzle-Headed Girl is the story of a man, Debrett, an idealist who employs a young woman named Honor Lawrence as a filing clerk. He offers the young woman a job out of pity as she obviously needs money and is poorly dressed. Over a number of years, Honor drifts in and out of Debrett’s life, always with some strange story, sometimes cadging meals or money. Debrett, “a married bachelor,” thinks she has “principles” and admires her, even as he scripts her life with wrappings of romanticism, but as she repeatedly inserts herself into his life, it becomes clear that Honor is unbalanced. Debrett rather dimly asks himself,“Was she just a child; or a free soul?”

For its tone and pacing, The Puzzle-Headed Girl reminded me of A Little Tea, A Little Chat although of course the subject matter is entirely different.  In both books, Christina Stead shows the separate worlds of men and women. Particularly enjoyable is the idea that a lower-level of craziness can pass for quirks or principles in the young (or wealthy).

The puzzleheaded Girl

The Dianas is the tale of Lydia a rather giddy young woman who’s unleashed in Paris. We first see her in a hotel juggling dates with various men and contemplating marrying a Frenchman. While she says she can’t make up her mind which man to go out with that evening, she spies Russell, “someone she recognized, a middle-aged American with a half-bald sandy head and fat sandy face, an upstate professor of psychology,” a friend of her mother’s. Lydia decides to torture and humiliate Russell. It’s fairly easy to see Russell as Lydia’s victim. Perhaps Lydia is giving Russell a taste of his own medicine, or perhaps she’s just practicing on someone she can easily outclass.

The third novella, The Rightangled Creek, is quite different from the rest of the stories: it’s the tale of a ramshackle cottage which is inhabited by a number of couples over the course of a few years. When the story opens, Sam Parsons returns to America and visits Laban and Ruth Davies, a couple he met in Paris. Laban is a writer and a raging alcoholic and the idea of stashing him in the cottage out in the middle of nowhere is essentially to ensure that he will stay dry.

They had been lodging in artists’ colony but spotted this farm and rented it for $12  a month. Laban is writing a book, “a history of European culture,” drinking three or four pots of coffee a day while Ruth grows their food. They invite Sam and his wife Clare to join them. The Davies’ plan is for Laban’s book to sell which will enable them to buy the farm and send their son, Frankie to Princeton.

Ruth is mother, wife, caretaker, nurse,  housekeeper, jailer and general drudge to her husband Laban, and while she realizes his weakness when it comes to alcohol, she will go to any lengths, sacrifice everything, for this man.

“We save money here, I do everything,” she said in her warm round voice in which there was a strident note.

Over the course of the novella, some past incidents reveal how insane Ruth’s relationship is with Laban.

The fourth novella, Girl From the Beach, is the story of a man named George, a womaniser who blames all of the women in his life for his actions. Again his rants led me back to the character of Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat. Robert Grant and George are two slightly different versions of the same man. George has a number of ex-wives, a “swarm of little-girl gadflies.” And it’s not easy to nail down how many ex-wives there are but he admits to “three in this country.”

“I wanted to get married. I fell in love with each; and each one,” he said, getting red and shouting, “did not love me; or only as children love. Marriage was an outing. Papa would buy the candy and the ride on the loop-the-loops. I can pay. Don’t worry about my health.”

And:

American girls are bloodthirsty. Their honour is in sucking a man dry; then they throw out the corpse. Why, I have known women here who destroy a man’s happiness and faith in himself, ruin his career, divorce him, turn his children against him, blacken his name to all his friends, suck him dry, and then marry him again to show they own him.

And, of course when George rants about the venal nature of women, he’s trying to persuade another victim to take a trip down the aisle. George eventually meets another woman, Linda who seems to be a prototype of Lydia in The Dianas.

Putting all four novellas together and examining them as a whole, I was struck by the significance of a few things. 1) Paris appears in all four novellas. Stead uses Paris rather as Forster used Italy: people go wild there. Take the saying “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and in Stead’s novels it becomes “what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.”

Oh, Paris is an obsession; I feel it like paprika. And then the men fluttering round, so aimless and asking you to decide. 

Male-female relationships dominant here, and it isn’t pretty. One character in The Puzzleheaded Girl brags about his spouse: “My wife’s as good as two hired men”–shades of the much abused Ruth in The Rightangled Creek. I was also struck by the reoccurring character of  Robert (A Little Tea, A Little Chat) George (Girl From the Beach) and even, if we stretch it, Laban (The Rightangled Creek)–men who want the women in their lives to be all aspects of the feminine ideal while they are … well …dickheads.

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A Little Tea, A Little Chat: Christina Stead

“He had suffered too much from women.”

In Christina Stead’s comic novel,  A Little Tea, A Little Chat Robert Grant, a middle-aged businessman, a dealer in cotton, is a despicable, opportunistic predatory male who is always on the lookout for the next sexual encounter. This bombastic braggart spends most of his time scoping out likely women he can invite up to his New York apartment for the euphemistic “a little tea, a little chat.”

The novel opens in 1941, with an introduction of Grant and his repulsive male circle of friends, all “birds of prey” and “each of them loved money and lechery, above all,” so between these men, stories of ripping off widows or seducing them makes good cocktail talk. It’s hard to say which of these men is the most revolting, but the novel concentrates on the philandering career of Grant, and how he subsequently meets his match.

A little tea a little chat

Robert Grant isn’t an interesting man. He’s shallow and “had no hobbies. He could not read more than a few consecutive sentences in any book or newspaper unless they referred immediately to himself or his interests.” Grant’s relentless, pitiless modus operandi geared towards women is the compelling fascination here. He’s a pig, picking up women, stringing them along with false promises, assessing whether or not they’re worth bedding, buying them the cheapest meals possible. and then dumping them when he’s bored or if thing gets complicated.

He had little pleasure out of his real hobby, libertinage; and he gave none. Women fell away from him, but he did not know why; and he retained only the venal.

He claims to be afraid of women, irreparably damaged by a femme fatale in his past. He poses as a free thinker, a “bit of a Marxist,” but considers a woman goes too far when she dances with a “negro fellow.” He’s learned to pose as a Leftie and has convinced himself that he really is one. Again this is just a role for sexual benefit.  Leftist women seem to want to give it away free.

usually his radicalism made his girls trustful and either cheap or for nothing: a radical girl should not take money for love. 

Grant is a practiced seducer who always plays the victim to his prey. Here he is on his wife:

That ‘ooman in Boston, my wife, is no good to me. Never loved me. Now when it’s too late, she tries to make me come back. Just like Barb. It’s a type-stupid. A woman like you could keep a man. I’m looking for an oasis in my desert, a rose on a blasted heath. 

And here he is on what he’s looking for in a woman:

I’m looking for romance. My heart needs a home, a cradle, eh? I’ve used myself up, played too hard. Now I need a woman, a mother, a sister, a sweetheart, a friend. That’s what that cow in Boston doesn’t realize. I need a mother now. She could have me back. But it’s too late now.

Discarding woman as casually and frequently as if they were paper underwear, he finally runs into a woman called Barbara Kent–a woman he eventually nicknames  The Blondine. At first she seems a little drab, no big deal, but he becomes intrigued even though he knows “she’s possessive, she’s greedy, she is from the Land of Grab.” Barbara’s friend, Paula (another of Grant’s conquests) calls Barbara a “tramp.”

She got sick of men so soon. I don’t think she really cares for them. She’s not a gold-digger at heart, but she finished up gold-digging. She has too good a head for figures. She can always calculate the chances. What’s the use of marrying somebody with flat feet, some jerk, and so dying of old age at thirty?

In this darkly, cruelly funny novel, we see Grant perplexed by the languid Barbara, who’s really every bit as boring as he is, and as she slips his grasp, he becomes obsessed with her. Setting, at no small expense, private detectives on her trail, sightings of Barbara with various men serve to fuel his obsession, and eventually, comically, he discovers, or thinks he discovers, Barbara’s secret life.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is an intense character study of the male predator. After a certain point in the novel, we don’t really learn anything new about Robert, his methods or his tastes, but nonetheless, we follow him through his obsession with Barbara Kent. Grant is a bore, and like most bores, he won’t shut up, has the same speeches, and the same beliefs which he trots out in company. Grant’s speech about how he’s been done wrong by women appears repeatedly, for example, although it’s modified at times to fit his audience. At one point, for example, he has an idea for a book, called All I Want is a Woman, and in another scene he meets a woman “just back from Reno,” who wants to write a thinly veiled novel about her marriage. This meeting morphs into a duel for attention as Grant and the woman wax on about their respective experiences. Both egomaniacs, neither listens to the other. Some readers may be disappointed in the repetitiveness of Grant’s behaviour, but Grant’s boring repetitiveness and insatiable rapaciousness is all part of his shtick.

This is not a perfect novel, and at times Grant’s constant rants can be bludgeoning. But in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book thoroughly for its portrayal of a type who finally meets his match.

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