Tag Archives: Australian fiction

I for Isobel by Amy Witting

I for Isobel, and that’s a curious title with a child like ring, from Australian author Amy Witting (1918-2001), is an episodic view of the life of the heroine. This is a coming-of-age novel, a dislikeable term which implies a sort of cookie cutter simplicity that is, unfortunately, underscored by the title. In the foreword to the Text Classics edition, Charlotte Wood admits that she bypassed Amy Witting’s work because “their titles had turned me off,” and that they sounded “girlish, flatfooted, giving off a cutesy, floral whiff.” Yet there’s nothing simple and girlish about Isobel or this novel; this is the story of a young girl hated by her mother who, with some assistance from an aunt, must make her own way in the world, and what’s striking here is the insular nature of Isobel’s life–stripped of nurturing relationships, sustaining friendships and no real mention of the possibility of romance–we are left with just Isobel, a child, and later a young woman who is interesting for her remarkably self-contained ability to absorb life through the sustaining fuel of books while cloaking her nature and desires into acceptable conformity.

I for IsobelIn the case of Isobel, we see her first a child trying to establish emotional barriers against her mother’s venom, and  after crucial events, by the end of the novel, Isobel appears to have broken through some fundamental constricting membrane and is on the road to finding her own voice. There’s a sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Witting had just started a third book in the Isobel series when she died, and that’s our loss.

This wonderful book opens on Isobel’s ninth birthday, and we are immediately dropped into the toxic spite directed towards Isobel by her mother. It’s not that Isobel’s mother ‘forgets’ her birthday–no she continually reminds her of the event and the fact that there will be no celebration:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

Every year at this time she said this; every year Isobel chose not to believe it. Her mother was just saying that, she told herself to make the present more of a surprise. Experience told her that there would be no present. As soon as they stepped out of the ferry onto the creaking wharf and set out for Mrs Terry’s lakeside boarding house, where they spent the summer holidays, the flat reedy shore, the great Moreton Bay fig whose branches scaffolded the air of the boarding-house garden, the weed-bearded tennis court and the cane chairs with their faded flabby cushions, all spoke to Isobel of desolate past birthdays, but she did not believe experiences, either. Day by day she watched for a mysterious shopping trip across the lake, for in the village there was only one tiny store which served as a post office too; when no mysterious journey took place, she told herself they must have brought the present secretly from home. Even on the presentless morning she would not give up hope entirely, but would search in drawers, behind doors, under beds, as if birthday presents were supposed to be hidden, like Easter eggs in the grass.

It’s through the lack of a birthday present that Mrs Callaghan’s spitefulness is apparent, and we never know quite why Isobel’s older sister, Margaret receives preferential treatment when it comes to birthdays–although of course, in order for spitefulness to carry its full sting, there’s no better way than to concoct an arbitrary rule for one child and not for the other. As scenes from Isobel’s childhood unfold, it seems that Margaret is not loved either. There’s a father there, silent, “tired,” and “pale,” and at meal times, one of the occasions when this toxic family gather together, he keeps his head low, ignoring his wife’s tirades. Over time Isobel learns that her mother has two voices: her so-called “real voice,” (the nasty one) and the one she uses when out in society. Isobel also learns that her mother uses rage to seek some sort of emotional catharsis:

Then she saw her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.

Her father used to do that, sitting silently while her mother raged at him, chewing his food slowly, turning the pages of his newspaper deliberately–doing what Isobel was doing now, But one night he had put the paper down with a fierce thump and shown a white face, wild eyes and a mouth gaping as if his tongue was swollen. His chair had crashed over, he had picked up the knife from the bread board and run at her mother, who was cringing away with her head at a strange angle and a meek frown on her face, her hands out in front of her and the line of blood suddenly across her fingers.

But before that, when he had got up, before she saw how real the knife was and how near, there had been two little glittering points of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes, two little sea-monsters swimming up from …

Isobel’s childhood absorbs only about 1/4 of the book. Soon she’s a young woman who has learned to contain spontaneity and emotion; she won’t learn so much through her own experiences but from watching the lives of others and, of course, from reading–a habit that sustained her throughout childhood. Salvation and sanity to be gained in reading (“Birthdays, injustices and parents all vanished,”) becomes one of the central themes of the book–from Isobel as a child discovering Conan Doyle and sinking into his books and forgetting, temporarily, at least, the fact that her birthday will be ignored. Then later, when Isobel lives in a shabby boarding house under the thumb of the tyrannical Mrs Bowers, her desire to read alienates her from the other boarders. For Isobel, reading is the most important thing in life.

She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire.

Through significant episodes in Isobel’s life, events leave various lasting impressions, and it’s through these events that we see Isobel’s personality form. She passes through office life and eventually runs into some students who recognize her as a fellow reader. Through these relationships, she becomes involved, as an innocent bystander, in a side story of sad obsessive love, and again there’s the sense of Isobel observing the human zoo. As a child, Isobel is aware of the need to mask her desires and expectations as exposure only brings pain, and she manages to master these behaviors through her lack of birthday acknowledgement recognizing that not looking for a gift  “was a step towards the kind of person she longed to be but did not have words to describe–someone safe behind a wall of her own building.” It’s probably this type of strategic, deep thinking that saves Isobel from developing into a neurotic mess, but at the same time, she’s still behind that wall and has yet to emerge.

Towards the end of the novel, when Isobel mixes with a handful of students and finds some like-minded people, she is still an outsider. In one memorable scene a student named Kenneth notes the intense behaviour of a young girl who stalks a man who’s rejected her.  Although the rejected girl’s goals are very different from those of Isobel’s mother, nonetheless there’s a link there:

 “It’s amazing though,” said Kenneth, “what you can get away with if you give up caring about anything else, like self-respect and pride and all that stuff. Turning yourself into a projectile, so to speak.”

Review copy.

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The Long Green Shore: John Hepworth

When I read Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, In Certain Circles, there’s a brief mention that one of the characters has returned home damaged from a POW camp. While this aspect of the plot is just a small detail in the overall storyline, I realized how little I knew about Australia’s involvement in WWII, and that brings me to The Long Green Shore, a novel written by John Hepworth.

At just over 200 pages, this is a short, tense novel which concerns a battalion of Australian soldiers as they fight for control of the Northern Coast of New Guinea, and the book’s intensity and heart-breaking feeling of authenticity are derived from the author’s personal experiences during WWII. Post WWII, the novel was rejected and was not published until after the author’s death, and so here is this classic war novel which focuses mostly on camaraderie, moments of incredible heroism, and as the author notes, “war in its classic wastefulness.” As Hepworth explains in his note at the beginning of the book, “from the last Christmas of the Second World War until that war ended, two brigades of the Sixth Australian Infantry fought an obscure but at times bitter and bloody campaign along the savage north coast of New Guinea.” The author adds that the novel “is not, strictly, the story of this campaign,” but a “framework.” It’s not too surprising then that the novel reads like an episodic, gripping memoir.

the long green shoreIn a  third person omniscient narrator which occasionally lands on a collective ‘we,’ there are definitely some main characters here–Janos, from NSW, and his wingman Pez remain constants in the novel with secondary characters including Regan, a young man who’s afraid, Old Whispering John who stinks and has yellow teeth, Cairo Fleming, fatherly Doc, and the Laird. The emphasis is on the relationships between the enlisted men, and while the officers are present, they are remote–a different species living in another zone. The battalion is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Connell, aka Killer Connell, a man who earned his nickname by killing two stray dogs. The men hate Connell for this, and the immediate repercussions during marching exercises illustrate the enlisted men’s solidarity.

The strange duel went on. A clash between a sullen and savage man with the immense mumbo power of discipline and rank behind him and the vast, silent, stubborn anger of a thousand men who would have forgiven him many worse things but could not forgive him shooting two dogs.

By the time the incidents in the novel occurred, the Australian troops were well aware of the Japanese atrocities taking place, so our soldiers, some hardened by combat and death of mates in earlier campaigns in Greece and Egypt, others fresh young kids, are all too aware of the sort of enemy they are fighting and also the fact that it’s better to die in battle than to be taken prisoner. The Australians are also not going to take prisoners, although at one point, a starving Indian, used as some sort of slave by the Japanese, manages to escape to the Australian side.

The book starts off pre-combat with some down time to play cards, write letters, and the arrival of a touch of back-home:

We had received a comforts parcel the day before–you remember those parcels that a benevolent nation distributed for your cultural relaxation and entertainment on shipboard. There were a great number of inspired novelettes in gaudy paper covers with such titles as The Corpse on Fifth Avenue and the Corpse with the Missing Face and Gunfire at Rustler’s Gulch. And they tried to tell us there was a paper shortage back home.

The contents of the parcels, including toothpaste and a bar of soap,  reveal the ignorance of the situation, and this quote reveals a sense of the novel’s tone:

A grateful country looks after its men when they are going into battle. ‘Nothing,’ as Dick the Barber remarked sourly when we opened the parcels, ‘is too good for the Australian soldier.’

The men land on the Northern coast of New Guinea, and although this battalion is to replace the battle-weary Fourth, things initially move slowly and “the troops are used to this old army habit: run like hell to the start point and then sit on your backside for two hours–move two paces and sit some more.” There are rumours that the enemy–“the Nip” is pinned down and in a bad way. “The young reinforcements are cocky and elated,” while “the old hands are not so complacent” as they know that “a starving man is fierce.” The seasoned troops have developed various philosophical approaches to dealing with their situation; they know to conserve their energy, eat and sleep when given the opportunity and hope that they don’t “go Troppo.”

As the Australians arrive, The American troops are leaving the area and there’s the remains of a bulldozed-over cemetery–the American troop ship is leaving with a mountain of coffins:

The heavy, leaden grey casks of the Yankee dead are stacked over in one corner of the area. There are several hundred of them.

One of the first thing the men do is to “scrounge through” the “Yank camp” as “The Yanks always seem to have too much of everything–compared to us–and they always seem to leave half their gear behind them when they go.”

The Yank rations are so good that even their rubbish dumps have better food than we’ve got in our kitchens. Every tent is crowded now with tins of pineapple and peanut butter and assorted stews and hashes. In some of the field rations there are cigarettes and glucose lollies. At night we drink American coffee and munch American issue chocolate (made in Australia, but not for us) and puff American cigarettes.

All this occurs before the combat begins, and when it begins, it swoops in bringing swift, brutal death. As some men die, the survivors continue to their objective. During down time, there’s discussion of the lives the men left behind which include various women problems–women who haven’t waited for their men, women who’ve been involved in affairs, women who want a divorce and move to America. There’s the strong sense that even if these men survive, the lives they return to will be irrevocably altered.

For foreign readers, some of the dialogue (a relatively small amount) may be difficult to follow for its vocabulary and also for the ‘accents’ that occasionally appear in the text. For example, here’s an American speaking (and I wish writers wouldn’t do this):

‘Say, she’s sharp,’ admired the American. ‘She’s gart class.’

He dug out his own wallet. ‘No, nart that one–that’s muh wife. This other ones–that’s muh Bella.’

As a war novel, The Long Green Shore was the perfect length and conveys the sense of fatigued, sustained combat, hardened moral vision, & intense camaraderie. The moments of dark humour balance the book’s bleaker passages; this is a story that examines how men maintain humanity in a war that heightens the barbarism sparked for necessary survival. The story here feels very real, and although there are beautifully descriptive passages, the plot appears to lack any fictional or literary construct. There’s just one moment of sentimentality, but even that feels as though it’s genuine homage to the men who died. Highly recommended.

Review copy

 

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Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series The Slap–the story of what happens when a man slaps a child at a neighbourhood barbecue. The premise itself didn’t sound that gripping to be honest, but the reality, as the episodes followed the fallout, was riveting. So when Sue (aka Gummie) from Whispering Gums read and reviewed Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda earlier this year, I knew I wanted to read it. Barracuda is just one of the two nicknames given to Danny Kelly by other young boys on his swimming team. The other nickname, not so pleasant, is Psycho Kelly. Which one is accurate? Answer: well they both are.

BarracudaDanny Kelly, the son of a Irish/Scottish long distance lorry driver and a glamorous attractive Greek hairdresser mother, comes from an intensely working-class background when he’s poached from his working class school by the swimming coach of “Cunts College” as Danny likes to derisively call it. Cunts College is an elite Melbourne school and with a full scholarship, Danny transfers from his socioeconomic peer group into the school for the “filthy rich.” Just given the basic premise, this is a recipe for disaster.

It was like his two worlds were parts of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he couldn’t do it; it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged on this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.

While Danny doesn’t blend in with the boys at his new school, there’s one place he’s can’t be beaten, and that’s in the school’s swimming pool. He’s not at the school long before he feels that “only in the water did he feel like himself. Only in the water did he feel he could escape them.” While other boys have their body hair removed professionally, Danny’s mother uses an old-fashioned razor. While the other boys have “shiny new speedos,” Danny wears cheap trunks. The difference between Danny and the other boys at the school cannot be breached, and even when slight relationships form after Danny’s talent, bravado, and aggression win him a tentative acceptance, these relationships are fraught with tension and class-awareness and everything is held together by Danny’s ability to win at swimming competitions: “he knew that hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.” This makes for a high stakes situation with an Olympic gold medal as the eventual goal and his ticket to fame and success:

He hated them, he absolutely hated them, the golden boys. He hated their blondness, their insincere smiles, their designer sunglasses, their designer swimmers and their designer sports gear. They made him feel dark and short and dirty. He detested them and he couldn’t wait till he was wearing those sunglasses, till he had those brand names across his sweatshirt

The novel  begins with Danny living in Scotland and then goes back to 1994  when Danny first transfers to the posh Melbourne school. The novel concludes in 2012 for a total time span of 18 years and covers significant incidents in Danny’s life–a life in which Danny’s self-loathing coats his actions. This self-loathing is an impenetrable membrane, and it doesn’t matter who believes in Danny–his mother, his coach, his handful of friends, Danny loathes himself so much, that we know the anger summering beneath the surface will eventually explode in the most self-destructive manner possible. Danny’s coach, at one point, tells Danny that he can help him build muscles and improve technique, but that he can’t do anything about what goes on in Danny’s head, and as it turns out, this is Danny’s greatest stumbling block: not other swimmers, not other students at the school. He is his own worst enemy.

That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obey; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, not one of the pricks came close.

We see Danny make horrendous mistakes. Removed from his socioeconomic peer group, and given this fantastic ‘chance’ to train for Olympic competition there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Danny, and author Christos Tsiolkas conveys that pressure while very cleverly making Danny’s self-loathing the central issue rather than his homosexuality. The book really gets to the heart of class conflict. Danny, in a David Copperfield sort-of-way, is invited to share space with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne. Danny is made to feel inferior, and he reacts with more self-loathing and shame, but there’s also no small amount of class envy. In one great scene, he’s invited to a dinner party for the matriarch of the Taylors, a wealthy family whose members fall over themselves to pay homage to the Grande Dame who holds the family purse strings.

The old woman whispered, “Come closer.”

Danny lowered his head.

“I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always. Like us, you know exactly who you are. But look at them.” She waved a hand dismissively at the others at the table. “They have no idea how abysmal they are. Lord, how I detest the middle class.”

Danny looked into her bright shining eyes and knew he had just been given a gift, but he didn’t know how to unwrap it, could not figure out how to accept it. The old woman shrugged and rose from her chair, dropping her napkin onto the table.

Mrs. Taylor looked up. “Mother,” she blurted out, “you mustn’t smoke.”

“Oh, fuck off, Samantha,” the  old woman replied as she followed her son out to the courtyard.

Danny’s self loathing is so destructive that he lashes out at everyone who tries to help him, and there are times when Tsiolkas risks, alienating his readers from this character. He’s angry, unpleasant and yet we realize that there’s a brittle ego underneath. A deadly combination as it turns out. I found myself trying to reason with Danny at several points, but of course Danny has to hit rock bottom before he can turn his life around. On one level, the book argues well that talent and skill are not the only elements to make a champion, but there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s taking responsibility for your actions:

You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world.

Review copy.

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In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

I was attracted to the strangeness of his mind as a psychiatrist might have been drawn to an interesting case. He wanted a resident analyst. Neither of us understood.”  

In Certain Circles, Australian author Elizabeth Harrower follows the intertwined  lives of four characters, two sets of siblings from vastly different economic circumstances, from youth to middle age. Siblings Stephen and Anna Quayle are orphaned after their parents are killed in a railroad crossing accident. Subsequently brought up by an intensely distracted uncle and his neurotic invalid wife, Stephen and Anna both learn that life isn’t a golden opportunity as much as a series of insurmountable obstacles. In contrast to Stephen and Anna are the Howards, siblings Russell and Zoe. The Howards, a prominent Sydney family, are educated, affluent and influential people, and Elizabeth Harrower explores the two dynamics of the Haves and the Have-nots, and shows that growing up with privilege and love cushions and cocoons, and yet sometimes can also be its own handicap in unexpected ways. In certain circlesWhen the novel begins, Zoe is seventeen, and her brother Russell is now home after some years in a POW camp. Russell, already altered by the death of two close friends in a swimming accident, returns from war and “proceeded to alarm and disappoint his parents by refusing to involve himself in any of the activities they felt him suited to.” Russell is subdued, controlled and it’s clear that there are strong emotional undercurrents hidden beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, so while he’s actually adrift, he covers this well. Outwardly Russell doesn’t present too many concerns; there are two constants in his life: his close friendship with Stephen Quayle and his relationship with Lily. The Howards approve of Lily, a lecturer in German, a woman of their social circle and a neighbor. She’s considered ‘good’ for Russell. Stephen introduces Zoe to his friends, Stephen and Anna, and he asks Zoe to befriend 15-year-old Anna. Zoe isn’t used to being around people outside of her family’s social sphere, and the “signs of want” in Anna’s cheap clothing “were repellent.” But since Zoe loves her brother Russell, she makes a few weak attempts to befriend Anna noting that “it was awkward to know people who had less money and no proper home.” Meanwhile, Zoe finds herself strangely attracted to Stephen, “a weird irascible character out of some dense Russian novel.” Zoe’s attempts to befriend Anna are reluctant and spurred by the desire to please others. In one painful scene, she attempts to give Anna some discarded clothing, and the offer backfires:

Up off the chair, Anna shot, her eyes growing larger by the second. She backed away, saying, ‘I don’t need anything.’ As if she had unwittingly fired a revolver point blank at someone she’d never seen before, Zoe’s own eyes and face opened with a sort of belated, reciprocal shock. ‘I know you don’t need anything. You’d be doing me a favour. One of my ratty ideas. Stay here while I get us some coffee. We both missed out in all the turmoil down there.’ Escaped, dropping from stair to stair, she gave a series of low groans, not having to imagine self-indulgently what it might be like to be Anna. This small blow was in addition to the rest of her life, Suffering, endurance, were things that Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art, and because of Russell. And even that, what she had seen and read that pushed her beyond her own experience, had the very impact, she realized now, of watching an experiment in chemistry, never having studied the subject.

Of the four main characters Zoe, Russell, Stephen, Anna–five if we count the neurotic Lily, only Zoe has the capacity for happiness. She’s uncomplicated and thanks to her privileged childhood, she doesn’t grasp how difficult life can be. The introduction of Stephen and Anna into Zoe’s world casts a shadow onto her simplistic view of life, and she cannot understand why Stephen has a menial job, or why he doesn’t go to university. This lack of understanding springs partly from Zoe’s youth, but also partly because she doesn’t want to leave the “pink marshmallow castle of her life.”

She was too young to be thoughtful, or interested in someone else’s problems. She felt a huge impatience at this unwarranted check to her self-absorption and happy conceit and ambition. So they had all had more troubles than she. Did that really make them superior? If two men were walking along the street and a brick fell on one, missing the other, did that make the injured one a better person? All he had learned was what it was like to have a brick fall on his head. It had happened to him. Why make a virtue of it?

The plot allows us to see both sides of the Want-Equation: Stephen’s bitterness that other people have privileged lives, and Anna’s sagacious realization that adversity doesn’t necessarily make people ‘better.’ Of all the characters in the novel, Anna seems to grasp the painful, touchy dynamics of the Haves and the Have-Nots–with one side exhibiting their largesse, and the other side showing their gratitude.

You can admire the way someone meets hard circumstances, but you can’t admire him because of them.

We follow the troubled lives of Zoe, Russell, Stephen and Anna for several decades–through marriages & love affairs, and these are lives in which duty, pity and obligation play large roles. As one character admits: “If we lived forever, there would be time to recover from mistakes of twenty years duration.” These are not happy people, and when it comes to the intelligent observations of the minutiae of marital politics, author Elizabeth Harrower has a painfully fine, unflinching eye. Conversations between those trapped in marriage are laced with the undercurrents of lashing criticism, and we see three examples of how years spent under a subtle domination directed by invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouses. Even though this sort of marital dominance is clearly seen in others (the relationship between Anna & Stephen’s aunt and uncle, is one example), other characters seem unable to avoid similar traps, and over the decades, we see misery gradually descend and dominate two other marriages. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the book’s ending which seemed to wrap things up far too conveniently for a couple of the characters after an implausible deus-ex machina event, but that’s not the part that stays with me. The part that remains is the lingering unhappiness. This is my second Harrower novel, but there will be more. For Lisa’s review go here

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Julia Paradise by Rod Jones

While Australian novelist Rod Jones’s first novel, Julia Paradise, set in 1920s Shanghai, could appear to be about the enigmatic, mysterious and deeply troubled wife of a missionary, the story is really about her Scottish physician/Freudian analyst/lover Kenneth Ayres. Given that Julia Paradise included an element of psychoanalysis, one of my pet subjects, plus the exotic allure of 1927 Shanghai, I read the blurb, and committed to the novel. Later I almost put the book aside, more of that later, but after concluding this novel, an uneasy, deeply disturbing read, it’s fair to say that author Rod Jones risks alienating his readers at one point with the very details which paradoxically entice analyst Kenneth Ayres into Julia’s intricate sticky web of deceit. Intrigued?… Read on…

julia paradiseIt’s Shanghai 1927, and physician Kenneth Ayres, age 34, a man of considerable bulk at eighteen stone, lives at the Astor Hotel and spends time at the “Shanghai Club, to which he had been given a temporary membership which never quite became permanent and never quite expired.” His hotel apartment also conveniently  serves as his consulting rooms, and it’s here he treats his female patients who seek his help for various “nervous disorders.” Ayres dominates the scene as he “propelled his bulk from the club and back to his hotel,” while on foot, he has to “stop often, panting for little rests.” This is a remarkably visual novel full of the terrifying memories of a childhood in the Duck River region of Northern Australia and the exotic sights and sounds of Shanghai. Of course, it’s exotic for the foreigners in Shanghai–not so much for the locals:

Rickshaw drivers had to struggle to get Ayres’ weight into motion in a stream of Shanghai afternoon traffic.

 Apart from this comic and yet sad image (the underfed rickshaw driver dragging around a fat Scotsman who’s too out of shape to walk a few 100 feet), we immediately gain, or so we think, a very clear picture of Ayres. A bon vivant, and a great table companion for other westerners in Shanghai, he has three favorite topics of conversation: his home town of Edinburgh, his former professor Freud (Ayres’s beard increases the resemblance between the two men), and J.M. Barrie. Ayres specializes in the “treatment of nervous disorders” and after his wife died, he sailed for Australia, but “on a whim disembarked in Shanghai and had been there ever since.”

Socially, the British there treated him with a polite and deferential suspicion. It was as though, with his appointment book full of the names of their wives and their daughters and their cases of petit mal, hysteria and the nervous collapses which followed broken love affairs, he had learned quite enough of their secrets, and they tended to exclude him.

But is this the only reason that Ayres is held at a polite distance? There’s an early hint that there may be something else that keeps Ayres from being treated as a friend by other Europeans who live in Shanghai. Could it be his taste for pre-pubescent girls? For a Freudian therapist who is supposed to help his patients uncover the secrets locked in their subconscious, Ayres is a man whose self-awareness is remarkably shallow and righteously self-indulgent:

He knew well Freud’s remark that ‘some perverse trait or other is seldom absent from the sexual life of normal people’.

One day, Ayres observes a woman as she dashes into the hotel and just as frantically, exits. Then a moment later, she returns, a bundle of nerves, “panicky and disoriented” on the arm of her husband. The woman is Julia Paradise married to William Paradise, a Methodist minister, there to see Dr. Ayres. In the doctor’s consulting rooms, Julia’s story is told by her husband, and he describes Julia as a narcoleptic who during periods of drowsiness began spouting German, her father’s language. Sedatives were given and then withdrawn, and Julia became increasingly worse and more dysfunctional, hallucinating, swinging wildly between periods of withdrawal, and periods of creative energy during which she ran off to Shanghai with her camera to take photographs of the denizens who inhabit the seediest areas.

Initially Ayres sees Julia’s case as “common to the point of banality,” as he’s seen a steady stream of women who are “victims of  their husbands’ ambitions in the colonial services.” To Ayres, for these women “the cure was as simple as a steamship ticket home.” The details of Ayres’s behaviour as he listened to Rev. Paradise reveal that Ayres, a man of enormous appetites, is hardly compassionate. He agrees to take the case, but there’s a sense of brutality and boredom to his acquiescence–what can Julia’s story contain that he hasn’t heard a thousand times before. But while Ayres doesn’t bother to hide his disinterest (after all, he’s the only game in town, so where else is Rev. Paradise going to seek help), it’s clear that Julia’s disintegrating behaviour is rooted in some deep, dark psychological disturbance.

The root cause of Julia’s mental problems is gradually revealed through her ‘sessions’ with Ayres. If there were any doubts about the doctor’s lack of integrity, those doubts are confirmed by his completely unprofessional, exploitive behaviour as the layers of this morphine-soaked tale reveal the horrors of incest.

There was a moment when I wasn’t sure I could continue with Julia Paradise. The vibes around the incest tale were so repulsive, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read on. I mean, really… who wants to read about incest? As a subject, incest might be a deal-breaker for some readers, and while I understand that choice, I’ll add that incest is used here as a ‘tool,’ and it’s not until the novel is over that we realize exactly what we’re read, and exactly how we’ve been seduced along with Ayres.  Julia Paradise is a very clever novel, and once past the incest, something shifts, and the novel becomes a different tale than we were originally led to believe. Julia’s tale of a past full of depravity, shrouded with images of death and decay, draws Ayres into her web, and he’s attracted to her malignant childhood and finds her “the most suggestible patient he had ever come across in his life.” Ayres is entranced with Julia, and completely and utterly seduced by her tale, his ego takes him along a path where his fate awaits him.  We go along for the ride.

Julia Paradise, a tale which takes place against the upheaval of the Chinese civil war, and which examines the many layers of human exploitation, is a tale of moral redemption. Julia is a fractured human being, an enigma, and long after the tale is finished questions remain:

She was like a brilliantly-coloured jigsaw puzzle dismantled and spread across the floor of his mind. His thoughts continued to inhabit small sections of her life–or what he increasingly thought of as her ‘lives’. He talked aloud to her, pleading with her to clarify this point, to explain the apparent contradiction between this and that to make sense of the brutal pantomime he played over and over. In short, he became obsessed.

In terms of its exotic location and the theme of moral redemption Julia Paradise, reminded of Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, but for its insidious plot which examines the complexities of human sexuality, this book should appeal to fans of Jeannette Winterson.

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Amy’s Children by Olga Masters

In the novel  Amy’s Children, Australian author Olga Masters creates characters who commit appalling acts of betrayal: a mother abandons her children, a husband betrays his wife, relatives turn on each other, and an unforgiving daughter rains down retribution on her mother’s head. Yet in spite of these things, or perhaps even because of them, ultimately there’s a sense of understanding underlying these people’s actions. Amy’s Children follows the life and decisions made by one young Australian woman over the course of a few decades–through the depression, WWII and beyond in a judgmental society in which the struggle for survival creates tough moral choices.

Amy is from Diggers Creek “a hamlet of school, post office, public hall, general store and All Souls Anglican Church.” It’s the Depression, and Amy, with three small children, finds herself abandoned by her husband, Ted, who leaves to find work and fails to return. It’s a miserable, hardscrabble existence for everyone when Amy moves back home with her three little girls. The poverty of the era is tangible with Amy walking back to her parents’ home, children in tow, and one of her brothers carting her pathetic pile of belongings in the farm truck. A few years of marriage have left Amy with little beyond a kettle, two saucepans, a frying pan, an old butter box the children pretend is a pram, and of course, the three children.

amy's childrenThe restlessness in Amy begins as she watches the road for Ted’s return, and perhaps this is where it all her dreams begin:

She would dream of having a job, buying a new dress and silk stockings, and a blue band for her hair to go to the Tilba Tilba dances.

She sometimes dreamed aloud on the front veranda, sitting between Kathleen and Patricia, with her feet among the arum lilies growing thickly on either side of the front steps.

“Mummy might get a job one day, you never know,” she said once, her eyes on a car racing along the road, going south. It might stop, she said silently, a man might get out and come up to me and say, I’ve got a job for you in my big shop. There will be clothes for you very cheap, and clothes for the girls. Come on, I’ll give you half an hour to get ready. All she needed to do was to wipe their faces and go.

Unfortunately the ‘dream’ doesn’t include the children:

The car had gone but there was another coming. Perhaps this time, Amy thought. The baby cried and Kathleen took a sharp breath and watched Amy’s face.

‘Lebby’s crying,’ she said gently as if Amy were sleepwalking and she didn’t want to shock her into waking, In a moment there were footsteps inside and the crying stopped. ‘Gramma’s got her,’ Kathleen said.

Inside herself Amy said, I won’t be taking her. She didn’t either. Or for that matter the other two.

Amy eventually makes it Sydney, solo, of course, and she moves in with her Aunt Daphne, Uncle Dudley, and their two sons. It’s an agreement given grudgingly, but then almost everything given in this tale–love, attention, food, relationships and even accepting responsibility–is given under some bitter constraint or unspoken protest. Once in Sydney, Amy, masquerading as a young single woman is able, with some struggle, to find employment and improve her circumstances, but it’s only a matter of time before her past arrives on her doorstep.

This is a novel which examines individualism and moral responsibility, and no matter which Amy chooses, there’s a terrible price to pay. These days, Amy’s small materialistic desires and dreams of city life seem modest, but due to the times and her circumstances, she chooses between staying in her parents’ home and being a mother, or abandoning her children to their grandmother’s care while picking up her life as if she’d never had children. Just as Amy effectively creates a narrative for her life in order to gain employment, Kathleen, the first of Amy’s three daughters builds a narrative of her own, and we see how two generations of lives are bitterly interlocked by Amy’s choice to abandon her children. Amy sheds her children lightly, like tossing aside yesterday’s clothing, but it’s not quite that easy. Amy’s husband Ted manages to disappear, and no one seems to think this is particularly strange or hold him accountable, yet Amy’s decision to do the same is seen as a moral failing by those who know her secret. Kathleen, who possesses a sort of twisted primness, seems to have a submerged desire to see her mother destroyed while there is no lingering resentment for the father who also abandoned her.  This double standard isn’t overworked, but it’s there deep in the subtext of the story.

The introduction provides some background information on Olga Masters (1919-1986). The mother of seven children, she worked part-time as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and her career as a writer came late in life–in her 50s. It’s clear that Olga Masters wants us to treat Amy, a young woman who wants very little from life, with generosity. The introduction mentions the Misses Wheatley, Heather and Grace, two spinster sisters in their sixties, as unpleasant characters. Somehow I think that Olga Masters would want us to take the same generosity that we show to Amy and spread it to the Misses Wheatley. These two spinsters lead a fragile marginal existence on a monthly allowance. Their brother Henry takes over the family’s wheat & sheep ranch, and when he marries a widow with two children, he wants his sisters to have an “independent life.” There’s no share in the family sheep ranch for the Misses Wheatley; instead they’re shipped to Sydney, live in a boarding home and exist on ten pounds a month. They’re a postage stamp from disaster:

Heather, eating her half of the apple carefully because an unsteady tooth at the rear of her upper jaw, looked keenly at Grace, wondering if her pallor meant she was coming down with the bronchitis she had suffered all her life, and how she would cope with the expense of a visit to doctor if this were necessary. Their cheque was due to arrive at the end of the week, but it could fail to arrive should an emergency like floodwaters keep Henry from getting into Dubbo to the post office. Heather automatically and foolishly looked out the window to the sky, clear and blue, and hoped for the same for Dubbo.

The Misses Wheatley provide all the judgment on Amy’s behaviour that she’s managed to escape from her own relatives, and it’s through the behaviour of the Misses Wheatley, and their Victorian attitudes (they must have been born in the 1880s), that we see how toxic judgment is. These two women have never had to make the choices Amy faced, and because they’ve never been in Amy’s position, they feel free to judge her. Through the Misses Wheatley, Olga Masters shows the slippery ease with which judgment falls into place as these two sisters extend the lack of options in their own narrow sterile lives towards Amy. At least Amy never uses anyone as a moral crutch which is a great deal more than can be said for Kathleen. And yet Masters even gives us pause to understand and forgive Kathleen. Kathleen is Amy’s daughter, and yet her appearance, her existence causes Amy to feel threatened, and when she must sacrifice for Kathleen, she sees Kathleen as a resource sponge:

I won’t let her see that perfume, she will want it. And Amy slammed the drawer shut and shut out the angry picture of Kathleen eating a sandwich she didn’t want, while Amy’s throat craved for one. She saw herself drinking water for the rest of her life while Kathleen ate.

Olga Masters paints a quietly savage portrait of suburban Australian life: in the grab for limited resources, children step over their parents and siblings shove aside siblings; spouses depart to feed themselves, and parents begrudge the food and necessities their children require. This all sounds quite glum, and yet, miraculously, somehow Amy’s Children isn’t glum at all. It’s a wonderful, rich, life-affirming book, for we understand that while Amy makes new choices and her life heads in one direction, Kathleen’s adventure is just beginning…

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Fairyland by Sumner Locke Elliott

“Some people, he thought, and I am one of them, are servitors without knowing it, and go through their lives implementing other people’s fates.”

Author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991) is best remembered for Careful, He Might Hear You, the story of an orphaned Australian boy who becomes the subject of a custody battle between his two aunts.   Fairyland is acknowledged as “largely autobiographical,” and if there’s any doubt about that, just re-read the introduction after reading the book, and you’ll find that significant signposts match. The introduction written by Dennis Altman includes a short biography of the author, who like his fictional creation Seaton Daly, moved to New York. Fairyland, published the year before the author’s death is his “coming out novel.” The story follows the life of its homosexual protagonist from early childhood through to adulthood, and Altman states that “remains one of the most striking records we have of camp life, as it was then referred to, in Sydney of the 1930s and 40s.”

Australian Seaton Daly grows up in post WWI Sydney under the baggage of a particular myth concerning his parents. His father is a fallen WWI hero, and his mother, a valiant war widow wrote “Australia’s most sacred patriotic song, Just a Little Soldier Woman.”  The truth about this myth, when it arrives, serves as a stunning revelation, but then almost everyone in Seaton’s sphere seems to have constructed myths, in one form or another, about their lives.  While a child, Seaton understands that he’s attracted to members of his own sex, and although he’s not confused about his sexuality, he is constantly and repeatedly confused by other significant people he meets in his life. Part of this can be explained, of course, by the fact that during the period in question, homosexuality was illegal and many of the homosexual men Seaton meets have created surface heterosexual lives. But this cannot fully explain Seaton’s confusion as he missteps repeatedly, sometimes with painful results, throughout the novel. Various characters, including Seaton’s mother, cherry pick their pasts and their present, creating a version of life that they can accept and deal with while other characters exhibit a strange duality of behaviours.  This effectively creates a subtext of schizophrenia, a “fairy tale” that rends Sydney society with pretense on the surface and reality behind closed doors, and Sumner Locke Elliott makes it quite clear that this is a troubling facet of Sydney society that our hero, Seaton Daly, never quite comes to terms with.

FairylandSince this is a novel that encompasses Seaton’s childhood and on through several decades, the plot includes the most significant people and events in Seaton’s life. Orphaned and then brought up by Essie, Seaton initially is sent to the expensive private Prince Albert Day School courtesy of Essie’s eccentric wealthy employer. Essie is Miss Dalgarno’s “loving servant,” who “once in  great while” is granted a day off.

Essie, his cousin on his father’s side, cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, baked, stewed, peeled, polished, got up at six in the morning and often wasn’t in her bed until after eleven. At times Essie looked fagged out and so pale she might not have seen sunlight in months, which was not far from the truth. Once in a great while Miss Dalgarno awarded her a day off, and she and Seaton went to the pictures at the Crystal Palace or Hoyts in Double Bay. Not that Miss Dalgarno was draconian–it was merely that nothing occurred to her until there was a dramatic confrontation. Not until you fainted across the vacuum cleaner did it occur to her that you might be overworked.

There, as the poorest child in the school, unwanted by Miss Peel, the school owner, a heavily powdered “ageless virgin,” he makes one single friend, Hilary, a serious little girl with the ethereal goodness of Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns. Hilary is one of the few people Seaton meets who has a calm, sincere, cohesive core. There are no games, no misunderstandings, just acceptance of one child of another. It’s a short, significant relationship; “He would remember her in years to come somewhat like a river.” 

Still in childhood, Seaton moves from Point Piper, the affluent area of Sydney to the “unenviable workingman’s suburb” of Arncliffe with a view of Botany Bay, and there he sees the wild swings of class levels within Sydney society.

There was only one barefaced word for Arncliffe–common. It was the common denominator. It was the omnipresent Monday morning washing on every clothesline in every similar backyard, the unadventurousness of hydrangea and cosmos and lantana, the pretentiousness of plaster storks holding up bird-baths. It was the waxed fruit on the dining room table and the wedding photographs arranged on the piano and people’s never used hand embroidered guest towels as pious as their teetotalism. It was the dull nasal voices expecting nothing new, the men all wearing collarless shirts but showing the collar stud at the adam’s apple, the women in curlers and carpet slippers wet-mopping the veranda tiles “of a Saturday morning,” the plaintive twangy voices of the children. It was hearing for better or worse the steely pianolas playing “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” and knowing that the Sunday roast with two vegetables was as certain as birth, marriage, and death and that there was nothing else to look forward to and, worse, their unheeding of their dreadfulness of not caring. It was the common bond of their common-place assurances that held them together, and although at twelve years of age he was not yet able to digest the significance of this, he had become quietly aware, perhaps ashamed, of his knowledge of growing secret antlers, possibly wings. That among these people he was a changeling.

But not even to Essie, not even in a whisper or a dream, did he ever voice it. “I am different.”

While Seaton has various homosexual relationships, he also has several significant relationships with women. Cousin Essie is one of those, and Hilary, of course, but then there’s also the darkly neurotic Gin, and Betty Jollivet who “burned with an incandescence.” But there’s also Seaton’s mother, a woman who remains a mystery until Seaton, in maturity, can finally understand her behaviour.

Not until he was a grown man, and it became necessary for him to go through Her papers before he left the country forever, did he discover what it was that She was composing behind that shut door as blank as her face; when he discovered the dozens of patriotic stories and poems she had written for long-ago defunct magazines with names like Digger and Battalion Bulletin. Reading them he was flushed with outraged pity for Her and shame for his priggish parsimoniousness toward Her. They were, patently, all about herself and they had titles like “The Little Subaltern” and “Doing Her Duty” and the heroines were always slips of girls standing bravely up to  Cruel Huns behind the lines and rescued by big gentle lieutenants who took their tiny hands into their great paws and gazed into their liquid eyes. He now was able to see Her against the background of Armageddon that She had created for herself after his father was killed and that for Her the war which had brutally taken from Her the source and reason for Her living had been adjusted or rather She had rearranged it into a singular compassionate glory.

The book conveys the difficulties of negotiating homosexual life in the 30s and 40s “knowing that just the shadow of a wrong move could bring on catastrophe,” as Seaton walks through the minefields of hidden sexual orientation and becomes a bookbinder working for a lustful, married, pretentious bookseller, joins the Drury Lane Players, works as a copy writer and eventually lands in radio. Along the way Seaton has various disorienting, hilarious sexual encounters; he is always the prey and is targeted by the pompous, predatory actor Byron Hall,  and Seaton’s employer, the lascivious Mrs. Dick. She’s  “on a strange sort of antiquated anti-queer crusade” and has a convenient arrangement with her accommodating, apron-sporting spouse, Minty Milton Dick who found his wife “working in a fish-and-chips place and took a girlish fancy to her and more or less adopted her and made her over into the lady he would have liked to be .”

Other memorable relationships include Seaton’s slow, teasing courtship of an opportunistic young man who works in the men’s department of a clothing shop, and unexpected, surreal wartime passion. All of these relationships–with both men and women, sexual and non-sexual, underscore the schizophrenia of Sydney society–a world in which no one is quite what they appear to be. Optimistic, life-affirming, generous, full of wonderful characters and amusing in tone, this is the story of a man who yearns to live a one-stranded life, a life without the schizophrenia of deception. His dream is to live in America, “that land of cars and movie stars and night baseball, where, according to some recent survey, somebody was fatally shot every eight minutes.”

Highly recommended.

From ANZ LitLovers Litblog, here’s Lisa’s review

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The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston

“In small and large ways, Sophie felt herself adjusting, and wanted only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days.”

With the finer weather, prostitutes are now appearing in the dozens. Well they are, at least, whenever I look out of the window. Most of them seem to live in the cut-rate motel down the street, and at about 11 in the morning, the early birds appear in the motel parking lot–some stroll a block or two until they are picked up and whisked away in cars. The returns, which occur thirty to forty minutes later are always interesting–the cars don’t seem to stop; they just slow down. The prostitute steps out, sometimes a bit wobbly on outrageously high heels, and the car speeds away. The drivers can’t seem to get away fast enough, and as for the prostitutes, they never look back but stalk away. The space between these two, the prostitute and her client grows, and there’s the sense of contempt, a disavowal of what just happened in the air.  

All these observations ran through my head as I read Australian author Dorothy Johnston’s novel The House at Number 10–a book recommended to me by Gummie over at Whispering Gums. The story takes place in Canberra with legalization of prostitution looming and concerns a young woman named Sophie who has just been abandoned by her self-absorbed husband, Andrew after six years of marriage. He left “not for another woman, but a floating open-ended freedom.” When he offers her the old marital home, she refuses, “thinking of him floating through these rooms designed for a family on his raft of girls.” This motif of space, literal and figurative occurs frequently throughout this quiet, subtle novel–literally, in the way we define space through architecture, and figuratively through Architecture of the Self.

the house at number 10Sophie joins Elise and Kirsten working in a bordello owned and operated by a man named Marshall, who seems to find his role hip, and cutting-edge rather than exploitive. Marshall has a long-term relationship with Elise, a woman whose prickly nature keeps everyone at a distance. The third woman in the bordello is world-weary, chain-smoking Kirsten who schools Sophie, in her trial period, about sticking to limits with johns: a strict thirty minute rule (which Sophie learns to enforce), and the mandatory use of condoms.

With no clear time demarcations, the story manages to convey a pervasive sense of drifting,”this pressure of suspended animation”--not only Andrew is floating on his figurative raft. Similarly Elise’s space within the bordello, between customers is spent stretching and meditating on her yoga mat while Kirsten chain smokes in a large armchair which faces the window. Sophie cast adrift from her former life and role as a wife, initially nervous about becoming a prostitute, but fueled by curiosity, adapts to her new employment. She gathers a few regulars, tosses away the occasional offering of flowers but keeps the chocolates, and learns how to control the sexual encounters.  Although Sophie has made a very deliberate choice to become a sex worker, there’s the sense that her life is in a holding pattern, and when she leaves the “house at number 10,”  she sheds the experiences like an extra skin.

The motif of architecture is cleverly weaved into the novel; Marshall and Elise want to make the bordello a little smarter, more welcoming to customers, and they employ Sophie’s friend, Ann, an architect to draw blueprints modifying the small house in suburban Canberra. Similarly, the garden, a blank space is ear-marked for renovation. Meanwhile Sophie, who finds herself without the clear lines of her marriage to Andrew, must arrive at some point of self-knowledge in order to redefine herself. Working as a prostitute doesn’t encourage Sophie to redefine herself or her new life, as once she steps inside the house at number 10, she becomes the fetish object for the men that she encounters as they define her for their own needs. Again there’s the sense that Sophie is drifting along through life, and that having survived the detonation of her marriage, she has yet to select her new course, her new design. Andrew has the gall to produce pamphlets for university courses, telling her, a woman he’s abandoned in order to begin a life, “you should go back to study.”  No small amount of patronage and guilt there. Sophie doesn’t tell him where to stuff his pamphlets but instead, perhaps due in part to the way in which she’s learned to simulate feelings, she even manages a ‘thank-you’ when Andrew takes umbrage at her lack of gratitude.

It takes a crisis for Sophie, the mother of a small  daughter, to take control of her life, stop drifting and make some decisions.

I’m not a writer, but as a reader, writing about prostitution is a tough subject as we bring our assumptions, fantasies and prejudices to the subject. The prostitutes in this Canberra suburb with their regular customers are a different breed from the streetwalkers I see daily. Elise, Kirsten, and Sophie’s lives seem positively tame compared to the bottom-feeders of the prostitution world. The novel doesn’t dwell on the sexual encounters–rather the plot emphasizes how Sophie copes with various situations, and how she manages the men who come to her for sex.

We learn that Sophie is drawn to prostitution by the “enticement of making some fast money behind her ex-husband’s back,” revenge and at one time thinks that it ‘serves him right.’ But the transition from abandoned wife to prostitute occurs so swiftly that while this may be explained by numbness and a desire for revenge, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Sophie as a character. But the author doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the novel, and at one point, grabby Marshall shares my thoughts when he tells Sophie  that she doesn’t “look the part.

Particularly interesting is how the author uses the motifs of design of space and the design of the self. Do we design our spaces or do they define us? All of these characters inhabit their own spaces in the world, Andrew, his “raft of girls,” Elise her yoga mat, and Kirsten sequesters the ancient armchair. The encounters between prostitutes and their clients, although intimate, remain fundamentally business like; the psyches of these women are inviolate and impenetrable. In these cases, physical intimacy heralds the terrifying gap of the emotional void, a vast empty space between two people, breached only by money. A simple transaction, and yet immensely complex. The bordello, like a cheap motel, is functional, but blank, bland and anonymous. Sophie finds that the “walls and the curtains of the side room would not give her away. … The homely, unfashionable room, with its few simple props, became her silent ally.”

Sophie felt the pressure of suspended animation in herself as well, as her nights spent at the house increased in number, as she sought her level and her place there, as the past before Andover Street began to slip behind her, not only into another time frame, but another life as well.

The House at Number 10 is a thought-provoking, provocative read for its topic and what’s not overtly stated–is Sophie’s decision to become a prostitute, for example, a reaction to her earlier sexual exclusivity? Prostitution is, for Sophie, a means to designing a new Architecture of the Self. Through becoming the “Sophie of the Kingston house,” she learns what she is capable of.

 Sophie knew her face was a blank. Sometimes, clients, when she turned to face them, willing them to get off the bed, get dressed, had a look of apology, sometimes they even apologized in words, and this she could not bear. The ones who became quickly, simply, self-sufficient, wanting nothing more from her ever now the agreed exchange had been completed–these ones Sophie recognized, though she did not respect them. They answered her desire for clean lines of division, endings that were neat.

 

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Writing is Easy by Gert Loveday

“He would get her to write the kind of novels women loved, about families and children and losing weight and finding themselves. Joanna Trollope for the younger woman.”

One of the strangest questions I remember from my days of ‘higher education’ came from a very confused man who asked: “where do poets go to live?” How does one answer such a question? Should the reply have been the knee-jerk response? : If you have to ask you’ll never be a poet, moron. Or is the true question to be found in why he thought poets had to go anywhere? After all, it’s not as though poetry  (and talent) rubs off through proximity or collective subconscious. But hold that thought…. What about writing workshops?

writing is easyGert Loveday’s hilarious novel, Writing is Easy, is set at a writer’s workshop–a workshop conducted by two published authors who occupy opposite ends of the publishing spectrum. On one end, there’s sturdy, bossy Lilian Bracegirdle, a showy, pretentious performance poet with a “couple of impenetrable experimental novels” to her credit, and on the other end is Marcus Goddard, a man who broke into the literary scene with a brilliant first book, and ever since then he’s churned out a series of salacious “unspeakable potboilers.” According to one hostile critic, Marcus’  latest novel Never Turn Backreads like a hack version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles with a spot of Lawrentian stallion-business thrown in.” Both Lilian and Marcus are haunted by their fabricated pasts. Lilian, whose real name in Lois Hoggett, would really like to be some sort of ethereal creature, but in reality, she’s from “a sturdy farming family in New Zealand,”and she can’t ever seem to shake off the influence of T.S. Eliot. Lilian’s hidden past, however, seems only trivial next to Marcus’ secrets.

Arch-enemies Lilian and Marcus, both frauds in their own way approach the workshop with a separate agenda. Marcus has some nasty secrets from Lilian’s past he intends to amuse himself with, but mostly he just wants to lounge around and booze for 8 days and leave the work to Lilian. So with Lilian and Marcus setting the pace for the 8-day writer’s workshop, a handful of would-be writers pay the big bucks hoping to get advice, have their mostly horrible work critiqued, and with any luck at all, land a hook-up in the publishing world. Lilian and Marcus are both accompanied by their assistants: the long-suffering, stalwart Marjorie (with her “fetching little moustache,“), general dogsbody and companion for Lilian, and the sly, opportunistic Lester who works for Marcus.

But what of the hopeful, would-be writers, those poor sods who scraped up the money for an eight day workshop thinking that they might actually learn something useful? There’s Desma Brooks, a perennial attendee who’s trying to write a family history and  “hadn’t worked out by now that no one would ever, no one could ever, want to read her family saga based in meticulous research into every last packet of biscuits of the shelves of her great grandfather’s grocery store.” Then there’s Rex Random, an accountant who compensates for his hum-drum life by writing a cheesy crime novel, Broads and Booze, and imagining that he’s the next Raymond Chandler.  Also attending is housewife Marilyn Boots, writer of sentimental crap, who has managed to escape her abusive husband for 8 days. Attractive Helen West, protégée of mousy Trader Cheeseman (author of Sicko Psycho and Hangmeat) is also attending the workshop thanks to the grant she’s received, and the final attendee is John Brow, a fitness fanatic who only eats raw vegetables, who’s given himself a week to write his book, and who refuses to sit down as he believes that this is against primal man’s natural state and “blocks the intestines.”

The workshop is held at Gagebrook, an exclusive Australian country resort run by husband and wife team, Andrew and Mandy. Andrew rules the kitchen dreaming up gourmet meals for guests who don’t appreciate his talents, and while Andrew throws a few fits about his kitchen and his cooking, Mandy, Andrew, and worker Janie are the ‘normal’ people who are appalled by the behaviour of the writers and the workshop attendees.

One of the first things Lilian does after gathering the workshop attendees is to establish the hierarchy through her authority and reputation as a published author. Here’s Lilian Bracegirdle giving one of her performances about the “pathos of beginnings” and “the confusion of identities” which seems to be more a precursor to a séance:

The students shifted in their seats and exchanged glances as Lilian, her back to the audience began to make peculiar huffing and hissing noises. Janie stood near the door so she could hear Mandy if she called her. Lilian hurled her body down on the floor. Lying on her back, she closed her eyes and raised her arms at right angles above her head. She let out a long howl, “Aaaaaaahhhhh, oooooohhhhh, aaaaahhhh.” Her voice rose and fell, deafeningly loud, then  a tiny whisper. She kicked her legs. Janie thought she might be pretending to be a baby, but her voice was more like a siren. She went on and on. Janie’s ears were ringing. Lilian’s dress was riding up over her knees showing long pink knickers over the top of her tights. Just when Janie thought she couldn’t bear it any longer Lilian turned over onto her hands and knees, crawled to an armchair and dragged herself to her feet. She stood swaying, her arms held out in front of her like a sleepwalker. What did it mean? It was like a kind of charade. Lilian began to speak very quickly.

“Are you there, are you there, are you there, number please who are you number please are you there no don’t know don’t no don’t.”

She was really getting going now. It was like a steam engine getting started then going faster and faster and all the time Lilian was babbling.

“No oh no are you there no number please who whom who.”

Some words were very loud, Now she was marching up and down. Janie worried she would knock over a table. Helen and Rex had their hands over their mouths. John was looking at his watch, Marilyn had her mouth open in amazement, and Desma was nodding. Janie couldn’t take her eyes off Lilian. She kept on chattering more and more rapidly until it all sounded like one word, “Areyounumberwhononowho?” and her voice sank to a whisper. Then she opened her eyes put her arms by her side and let out an earsplitting shriek.

Apart from a short section post-workshop which follows the lives of the characters, most of the book covers the chaos which ensues at the workshop with Lilian trying to get Marcus to work, Marcus trying to avoid work, John Brow deciding that fat, out-of-shape authors make great guinea pigs for his fitness regime, and the workshop attendees who try their best to actually get their work critiqued. Throw into this mix blackmail, rivalry, really bad writing, and a few attempts at murder, and the result is a hilariously funny book.

As the days continue, tension mounts, behaviour disintegrates, and every evening the group gets together over dinner, there seems to be some sort of rampage; the fondue for example, brings out the very worst in everyone. While the book is consistently very funny (and it’s no easy feat to maintain humour over the course of a book), there are two specific elements to the book that go beyond humour and are psychologically intriguing: Marcus and Lilian are held in a position of respect by the workshop attendees and by their hosts at Gagebrooke. This currency goes a long way, and Lilian and Marcus’ impressive history of publication offer them a layer of protection. So the set-up alone, without a word written, is a segue into the expectations we place on writers, who just because they write well don’t necessarily behave well.  As one of the attendees says: “I know writers like to think of themselves as bohemians,…, but that doesn’t mean they can’t behave decently.” Author vanity, a main target of the book’s humour, is just one of many poor character traits our published authors possess:

Several people opened notebooks and took out pens. Marcus began.

“Lilian tells me you have asked for a session on register today. This is an excellent starting-point. You may well have asked yourself, reading a novel, perhaps, indeed, even one of my own, what it is that gives this work such an authentic voice, such a sense that truth itself is speaking? One becomes oblivious to the fact that there is a writer’s mind behind it. Have you had that experience?”

“Oh yes,” said Desma. “That one of yours, you know the one about the crippled girl who falls in love with the neurosurgeon even though he’s responsible for her being crippled, honestly. I lived every second of that book.” She looked around at the others.

“I love that one, too,” said Marilyn, “and that book by Clough Gryffyd about the nun in Saudi Arabia.”

“I don’t believe I’ve read that,” said Marcus.

Author Gert Loveday isn’t afraid of playing with these characters, and there’s a no-holds-barred approach which approaches farce but yet manages to avoid it as the action at the workshop spirals out of control. Soon there’s “the prospect of an insurrection,” as the characters behave badly with marvelously funny results, but the genius here is while there are some very cruel truths revealed about workshops and their attendees, the author still manages to show generosity to her characters. We don’t completely dislike selfish Lilian or vain, pompous cheating Marcus even though they’re happy to take the money for the workshop while they secretly poke fun at the writing of the attendees. The reason we don’t dislike these two characters is that the author exacts revenge on them both through her plot. These two suffer, and we have a good laugh and a very satisfying read at their expense. I laughed out loud many many times, and while the fondue scene is a serious contender for the funniest part, Lilian reading as ‘inspiration’ I Drag My Way, the true story of how a woman dragged a sled with provisions across the desert for an insane explorer takes a close second place.

But underlying all the fun is the question whether or not writing can be taught, and certainly by the end of the novel all of the characters have come to various conclusions regarding whether or not the workshop was a waste of money.

The way I see it is, you can either write or you can’t.

Author Gert Loveday, in reality is writing team, Australian poet Joan Kerr and her sister, Gabrielle Daly, and Writing is Easy is the first novel they’ve published. Please let there be more….

 

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The Little Hotel by Christina Stead

“Not to explain further, the Mayor began to do a striptease in order to dance an apache dance with Lola, although Lola told him over and over, and I believe this, that the male apache does not have to be naked to dance. She does a strip-tease at the club and ends her dance in nothing but a few beads, as my father used to say.”

Loitering over on Whispering Gums, I became inspired to try a Christina Stead novel, and for the occasion I selected The Little Hotel–mostly because I have a soft spot for stories set in sleazy boarding houses or hotels. These types of settings always throw diverse characters together in interesting ways, and that is certainly true in the very amusing novel, The Little Hotel, and while it’s not considered Christina Stead’s best work, it certainly convinced me to read more of this author.

the little hotelThe setting is a seedy Swiss pension post WWII, and various people have washed up at the Hotel Swiss-Touring which is ostensibly run by a husband and wife team. The husband’s real interest, however, may be a striptease dancer at the Zig-Zag club; he stays mostly in the background while all of the work is left to his patient, tolerant and long-suffering wife. The Hotel Swiss-Touring is almost the cheapest place to stay in the area and is priced only just above various lodgings for workmen. This alone dictates the type of guests and the attitudes of the staff, and that leaves the proprietor stuck in the middle negotiating as she tries to convince the guests to be more reasonable and the staff to not be quite so peevish and vindictive. The opening immediately illustrates how the proprietor becomes dragged in to the personal lives of the hotel guests:

If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself. I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated. The first time, she talked about her son Gerard. Later, Gerard married. There was something; for she used to telephone from Geneva, crying and saying she had to talk to a friend. I was looking for a friend too.

The narrative goes back and forth from the proprietor’s first person narration to the third person as the novel follows the various relationships established between the guests who come and go. Given that the Hotel Swiss-Touring attracts a certain clientele, some of the guests are questionable, but there are also those living on a budget, and also some who’ve seen better days. Our sympathies are with the proprietor who has to juggle all the complaints, the pettiness, the quibbling, the eccentricities, and must wrestle with those who don’t want to pay their bills. If anyone who picks up this book had any romantic notions of starting a dreamy little B&B on the coast, then this book will probably annihilate that idea.

Since the guests of the hotel are out of their natural habitats, we can only suspect what their circumstances and positions in life really are. Some appear to be down on their luck, while others, putting on airs, express loudly that they are used to better accommodations. Most of the guests treat the hotel staff like servants. Miss Abbey-Chillard demands “invalid dishes” but expects them to be cheaper since she’s a vegetarian, while the Admiral, a particularly peevish elderly Englishwoman who is very cheap with the staff, makes peevish demands. This makes her unpopular and because she brings out the worst in the staff, they get their revenge in very subtle ways.

She was poor, yet she complained. She did not like it that the same woman who cleaned her room put her soup in front of her.

Much of the book’s focus is on the bad behaviour of the guests, and how that bad behaviour impacts the other guests and also the proprietor and her husband, Roger, who resorts to “spying,”  using hotel maintenance as an excuse for loitering outside doors and eavesdropping on guests. Many of the hotel guests are either long-term or repeat customers, and because some of these people more or less live at the Hotel Swiss-Touring, they establish relationships with each other. As the book continues, these relationships, rooted in propinquity, lead to  ‘friendships’ that are inherently false and laced with elements of nastiness. Madame Blaise, for example, a “very cunning” woman according to the proprietor, is ‘best friends’ with the British, very troubled  Mrs Trollope, who shares a room with her “cousin” Mr Wilkins. Mrs Trollope is desperate to maintain the fiction that they’re related, but everyone knows the truth. Mr Wilkins is from a middle-class Yorkshire family and is “snubbed and ignored by the resident English, even those drunk or in debt.” There is some underlying issue between the wealthy Madame Blaise and her physician husband who visits every weekend from Basel, and by the time the book concludes, we see Madame Blaise’s friendship for what it really is in a very funny episode when Mrs Trollope and Mr Wilkins host an anniversary dinner.

Then there’s the Mayor of B, obviously a complete lunatic who’s there to attend a clinic and receive shock treatments. He can only behave for a limited amount of time before he explodes into bad behaviour. The Mayor imagines that he see Germans everywhere, but he also wants to avoid Belgians.  One day he walks around the dining room shaking hands with all the guests, and the second day “he began to complain about Germans in the dining room, though there was no one there resembling a German.” Afraid of “germ contact with Germans” he insists on being served in his room. The Mayor makes frequent trips to France bringing back loads of champagne which he drinks with the staff, and the proprietor has to break up impromptu parties in the Mayor’s room where he’s “insisting” the staff stay, drink champagne and watch him do “balancing tricks.” He’s always submitting “memorandums” and numbered “Documents.” Then he begins writing on the towels:

If this is a sample of the towel you give guests in the Hotel Swiss-Touring (and his writing was arranged to take in the woven name, you see) it is no wonder that guests who are short of writing-paper use it; for there is no writing paper supplied in the Hotel Swiss-Touring; so that if guests want to write letters or complain about the GERMANS in the place, they will be sure to look for material and to write on the towels and tablecloths, so take notice. Signed the Mayor of B.

Even though the war is over, shock waves of the aftermath still rock the hotel residents. While the Mayor sees Germans everywhere, other guests are paranoid about the Russians. An elderly American guest advocates dropping the atom bomb on them and when the touchy subject of politics is raised starts shouting: “There are communists even in this country, in Switzerland. Why don’t you get busy and stand them all up against a wall.” Due to the war and the subsequent displacement, it’s not possible to tell if Madame Blaise is telling the truth about the millions she claims she’s fighting the banks for, and in the hotel environment, she could be just another storyteller. The proprietor suspects that Madame Blaise has “enemy alien” property belonging to a German “entrusted” to her. 

The Little Hotel is not a perfect novel. It suffers from a certain lack of focus, but in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed this social comedy very much for its spot on observations of human behaviour. Stead creates a microcosm in a hotel setting, and here we are in the cheapest hotel in the area with the hotel guests mostly behaving very badly. When they’re not complaining about each other, they’re complaining about the staff. It seems to be human nature to complain and pick fault simply because one can, but we also see temperamental staff members fight back in this chronicle of human nature.

I told Papa that nothing can be done when servants have made up their minds to get rid of someone. You see she gave no tips: she paid her ten per cent service, but nothing extra. The servants are very poor and need the little extra. As it is, on their days out, you will find them sitting each y himself eating a roll perhaps, on the seats along the promenade getting a little fresh air and waiting to go home to sleep. We do not feed them on their days out. Very often too they spend the day in bed, eating a little bread or fruit. You see most of the send money home to their families, and their families think of them as the rich ones. Well it is not the business of the guests to worry about that and not mine either; we must all live and eat, and out of the same pot. The way they see it is, there are people living in comfort, doing nothing and eating all day, who deny them a few extra pence. Yet I have seen them very kind to certain guests who do not pay extra; it is a question of luck and personality.

Christina Stead shows the layers of society within the hotel and the clashes of class and culture between the servants and the guests. We also see a world in flux: refugees, people who no longer have homes, collaborators who don’t want to return home, an affluent British couple terrified to return home due to the Labour Government, another who believes her money will only be safe with a dictator in control and people still broken and sensitive to the hostilities between nations.

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