3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

Last year I decided to embark on a project to read books from my adopted state of Western Australia. And then my plans flew out the window when I started a new full-time job in a new career just a couple of weeks later!

Alas, six months on and my working life is now (slightly) more manageable, giving me more bandwidth to get on with my reading life.

Here are three excellent books I’ve read recently by women writers from Western Australia. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Red Can Origami is a brilliant, politically motivated novel about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general. But it’s also a deeply personal story about living in a tiny tropical town, adapting to a new lifestyle and remaining true to yourself.

It’s narrated in the second person by Ava, a journalist, who works on the local newspaper. She later takes a job as an Aboriginal liaison officer for a Japanese firm that that’s big into nuclear power. That firm is going head to head with a Native Title group in a bid to begin mining uranium on country. As the fast-paced plot races its way towards an inevitable showdown between the local community, the white do-gooders and the mining company, Ava finds herself out of her depth — and in love with a local Aboriginal man.

The novel is set in Australia’s tropical north and is as much a love letter to that landscape and climate and remote way of life as it is an exploration of morals and principles and the importance of cultural understanding and awareness. It’s written in rich, vivid language, has a cast of strong, well-drawn characters and covers some pertinent issues without being too heavy-handed. It’s a wonderfully authentic Australian story told with insight and sensitivity.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 306 pages; 2018.

Dustfall is set in Wittennoom, the asbestos mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which was classified as a contaminated site and then degazetted in 2006/7. Its deadly legacy, in which hundreds of miners developed terminal mesothelioma, is the lens through which this delicately rendered story is told.

Split into two distinct time frames — one historical, one current — it looks at two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. For Dr Raymond Filigree, working in the town’s small hospital is a way for him to rebuild his confidence, but instead, he finds himself at war with a mining company that has no respect for human life; while for Dr Lou Fitzgerald, the now-abandoned Wittenoom, full of eerie silence and empty buildings, offers a refuge from a career-ending error, but it also opens her eyes to much bigger crimes from the past when she discovers the town’s ruined hospital.

These twin narratives tapped into my own long-held fury about Wittenooom’s deadly blue asbestos mine which has been with me ever since I read Ben Hills’ Blue Murder, circa 1990, and heard Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine at around the same time. Another politically charged novel, Dustfall is eloquently told but brims with slow-burning anger. It’s absorbing, intelligent — and powerful.

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 242 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Well-behaved women seldom make history, so the saying goes. And that’s pretty much the theme of this collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.

Many of the characters in these succinct tales live quiet lives with little fanfare, they know their place and don’t seek the limelight, they simply get on with the business of doing what they do. They are the kind of people that go unnoticed, even in death, such as the free diver in “The Sea Also Waits” who goes missing at sea during routine training and whose absence only appears to be noted by her adult daughter, or the female skeleton in “From Under the Ground” who has been buried under a lemon tree in a suburban backyard for so long even the police hold little hope of figuring out who she might be.

Then there are characters who ensure that other women don’t get above their station, such as the bitter and twisted television soap-opera-star-turned-drama-teacher in “Miss Lovegrove” who cruelly convinces her starry-eyed young hopefuls that they will never achieve acting success. “My job is to tell you that the world is sometimes a dirty, ugly place,” she tells one of her charges.

It’s hard to believe that Well-behaved Women is a debut because the writing — in the tone, the prose style and the range of subjects covered — feels so accomplished. There are some real gems in this book and it will be interesting to see what Paull comes up with next. She’s definitely a talent to watch.

I read these books as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

These books are all by Australian women writers. I read Michelle Johnston’s novel for  #AWW2019 (I just never got around to reviewing it last year). The remaining two books represent the 3rd and 4th books I have read this year for #AWW2020 and the 6th and 7th books for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

11 thoughts on “3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

  1. Your adopted state is lucky to have you. Some of us who have been here longer are doing less well at local reading. I’ve been to Wittenoom, it’s on the road into FML’s Solomon iron ore mine. It’s a pretty place, on the edge of the Karajini National Park, but you can’t imagine why people would live there and breathe in asbestos.

    WA has so many buildings with asbestos cement cladding and mines where asbestos is a significant contaminant that you can only imagine that lung cancer statistics conceal a lot of mesothelioma.

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    • Thanks, Bill. My understanding is that lung cancer statistics and mesothelioma stats are recorded separately and that — surprise, surprise — Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. I found this sheet online: https://www.cancerwa.asn.au/resources/2017-06-28-mesothelioma-statistics-fact-sheet.pdf
      It looks like rates peaked in WA in 2007, the legacy of all that mining / building before the dangers of asbestos were heeded. (Note I didn’t say “known” – the companies knew about the dangers but chose not to do anything about it until they were forced to.)

      Also, I read somewhere recently that the Woolstores building here in Freo can’t be renovated because the fabric of the building contains so much asbestos.Pity. It’s such a big building it’d be great for housing / retail development. Instead it has to stand empty and all boarded up.

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  2. Nice post kimbofo. I have read Red can origami, and completely agree with you. I have a review copy of Well-behaved women in my pile and am slowly getting closer to it. Dustfall sounds like a worthwhile read. I haven’t been to Wittenoom, but my brother has, and in fact donated to the NFSA while I was working there, images of the old cinema there. It’s always stuck in my mind as a place of beauty and sadness.

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    • Thanks, Sue. I really enjoyed Red Can Origami… I read it on the plane to Darwin and when I got off the other end into 35 degree tropical heat (my phone app said the temp “felt like” 47C – and I wouldn’t argue that) the story of living in the tropics seemed to resonate more.

      I’ve long been fascinated by Wittenoom, but not sure I’d want to visit.

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  3. I love reading politically charged novels like Dustfall and Red Can Origami and I’m always on the lookout for more. At the moment a lot of new books are focussed on the politics of feminism and violence against women, and that’s fair enough, but there are lots of other issues that need an audience too, and to me, authors like Dickie and Johnstone are showing that they have an awareness of other things that matter as well, in excellent novels. More power to their pens!
    BTW I can’t remember, have you read Dickie’s Troppo? That’s great too.

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    • I’ve not read Troppo but want to now. I saw a secondhand copy the other day; should have bought it.

      Re: books on feminism/violence against women. Yes, there’s plenty at moment but that’s just redressing the balance because these kinds of books haven’t been written before. That said, I tried to read the one about domestic abuse that has been shortlisted for the Stella and abandoned it because it didn’t seem to be saying anything new. Surely people know about coercive / controlling behaviour and the signs to watch out for ? Or maybe I’ve just read too many novels about such characters so understand the “type” 🤷🏻‍♀️

      Are there any other politically charged novels you’d recommend? I can only think of Emily Maguire’s “crime” novel, but that, too, had a feminist slant, and Elliott Perlman’s books…

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