5 books, Anne Enright, Arrow Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Bruce Pascoe, Fiction, History, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Hachette Australia, History, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tanya Bretherton, true crime

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 327 pages; 2018.

I do like a gruesome true crime book, especially one that is well researched and uses the device of the novel to tell the story in a compelling and authentic way. Tanya Bretherton’s The Suitcase Baby, the bulk of which I read on a 3.5-hour domestic flight between Melbourne and Perth earlier this month, ticked all the right boxes for me.

This is the story of an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week old baby in Sydney in 1923. It is, by turns, a heart-breaking and eye-opening read, not least because it is a timely reminder of what happens when society imposes one set of rules on women and another on men.

In Sarah Boyd’s case there were so few options open to her that she took the gruesome decision to kill her own baby.  She strangled and suffocated her daughter, wrapped her up in cloth, placed her in a suitcase and threw her into Sydney Harbour. Days later the suitcase washed up on a Mosman beach and was discovered by a party of children, on a Sunday School excursion, who alerted authorities.

The crime and its outfall

Bretherton, who is a sociologist and historian, charts the criminal investigation and murder trial that follows. She also looks at the family history of Sarah Boyd and her accomplice, best friend Jean Olliver, a flapper, whose life as a single woman scandalised society at the time. (Flappers, the author points out, were on the rise and often viewed as nothing more than prostitutes because they weren’t to be trusted leading lives independently from men.)

The author takes care to put the case into context, to show how gender played a role in the crime and its subsequent judgment and media interest.

The most astonishing thing about this story is that it was not an isolated incident. In the 1920s “water babies”, as they were dubbed, frequently washed up on the shore or were spotted bobbing in the harbour. Others were found in public places, such as lavatories, train stations and parks, showing the desperate lengths women would go to avoid public humiliation and condemnation for bearing an illegitimate child.

Poverty, too, played a crucial part in this situation. If you were a woman with a child to look after it generally meant you could not work. Sarah, who was an immigrant, had no immediate family to offer support, financially or otherwise. (She already had a toddler, whose father had deserted her, so with a newborn to look after she was obviously in a desperate bind.)

The historical context of a crime 

The Suitcase Baby reads very much like a crime novel. It’s not particularly fast-paced and the crime is solved within a matter of chapters, but this isn’t so much a who-did-it police procedural, but a why did she do it and was her trial and subsequent punishment fair?

It’s this look at the historical context of the crime that makes the book such an intriguing one. I very much appreciated the ways in which Bretherton carefully examines the social, economic and political frameworks of the time and the often alarming ways that men tried to control women and women’s bodily functions because “they knew best”. (Bretherton highlights some “scientific” studies that looked at the size and “floppiness” of a woman’s vagina to indicate her likelihood of going insane — yes, really.)

My only quibble is that there are no footnotes in the text and yet the back of the book has them listed — I hadn’t clocked they were there until I got to the final page. They would have been super helpful to read as I went along, because I often wondered what Bretherton was basing her statements on.

The Suitcase Baby is currently only available in the UK as a Kindle edition, but it will be published in paperback on June 28.

This is my 3rd book for #AWW2018.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage by Mark Tedeschi: an astonishing true crime book about Eugenia Falleni, a woman who had been living as a man for 22 years, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. The case is actually referenced in The Suitcase Baby because they shared the same Crown prosecutor.

Australia, Book review, Cal Flyn, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, travel, William Collins

‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn

Thicker than water by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.

McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.

Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.

But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.

A journey into the heart of darkness

Thicker Than Water  is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.

Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:

A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.

She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.

Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.

Atoning for past sins

The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.

What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)

But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?

I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.

And finally…

Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.

Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.

Book review, Glitterati, History, Ireland, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Through Irish Eyes: A Visual Companion to Angela McCourt’s Ireland’ by Malachy McCourt (foreword) and David Pritchard


Non-fiction – hardcover; Glitterati; 64 pages; 2013. Review copy supplied by publisher.

It seems appropriate to feature this lovely coffee table-style book on St Patrick’s Day. Admittedly, it’s not my usual fare, but when I was offered this for review it ticked several boxes: (1) it was Irish; (2) it was a companion to Angela’s Ashes, a memoir I remember fondly; and (3) it featured lots of old-fashioned black-and-white photographs, which appealed to the amateur photographer in me. I certainly wasn’t disappointed when it arrived — all the way from New York — and I’ve been enjoying perusing it over the past few days.

I think what I like most about this book — apart from the high-end production values and the attractive cursive fonts used throughout (I do like a good font) — is the way in which it serves to remind us of another time and place, a time when poverty was rife, a time that makes you glad you never had to live through such cruelty and horror. Look at these photographs — all of them taken in and around Limerick in the 1930s and 40s — and you are immediately transported to an Ireland of slums and deprivation. It sometimes make for uncomfortable viewing. Even though many people are smiling in the pictures — and often the children are laughing and being mischievous, as children are wont to do —there’s a part of you that wonders if they were merely playing up for the camera.

As an archive, it is refreshing in its honesty: this, indeed, is how the other half once lived.

Malachy McCourt’s foreword is particularly searing in its anger. (Malachy is, of course,  the younger brother of Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes, and is an author in his own right.) As he looked at the pictures, he says he “raged and wept and cursed at the savages, domestic and foreign, who visited such cruelty on a graceful, generous people, but then allowed the peace and serenity to fill my soul again because I am with hope and faith that those bestial days are done”.

He adds: “Look at this book carefully and keep it close, lest we and our children and their children forget.”

The stunning and often candid photographs, which are accompanied by detailed captions and literary quotes and are arranged according to theme, don’t just convey urban poverty, however. There are also pictures of the beautiful, occasionally rugged, countryside, as well as parkland and architectural landmarks. Through Irish Eyes is the kind of book you can dip into and out of at your leisure, but I found it compelling (and haunting) enough to read it from cover to cover.

Finally, I’m grateful to the publisher for allowing me to publish some of the photographs from the book — the captions, I’m afraid, are all my own:


Irish charladies taking a break from hard labour

Can you spot the weird Santa Claus in this photograph?

A nun hands out bread to a waiting line of boys

Workers in a Limerick garment factory

All photographs from Through Irish Eyes: A Visual Companion to Angela McCourt’s Ireland, copyright © 2013, published by Glitterati Incorporated. www.Glitteratiincorporated.com.

Austria, Author, Book review, Edmund De Waal, France, History, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund De Waal


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.

Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.

The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?

While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.

De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.

Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.

It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.

I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.

Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.

But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.

Author, Book review, History, Ireland, J. M. Synge, Non-fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘The Aran Islands’ by J. M. Synge


Non fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 208 pages; 1992.

At the turn of the 19th century, Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge made numerous visits to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. He had been encouraged to make his first visit in 1897 by his friend, William Butler Yeats, who told him: “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”

I wanted to read this book, because I had imagined it to be one of those oh-so authentic travelogues that would tell me what it was like to live in a remote place at a time when tourism was not commonplace. And that, my friends, is pretty much exactly what I got, along with a healthy dose of fairy stories and some wonderful descriptions of breath-taking scenery.

As Tim Robinson points out in the introduction, the book is completely self-sufficient in the sense that Synge never explains why he went to the Aran Islands nor what impact it was to have on the rest of his life. But we know now that he spent his first summer there shortly after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (then completely untreatable) and that after his final visit, some five years later, he achieved extraordinary success with his play The Playboy of the Western World first published in 1907, the same year as The Aran Islands was published. He died just two years later.

The Aran Islands records the day-to-day lives of Irish peasants living in small fishing communities on one of the most rugged and windswept islands in the world. Here’s Synge’s first impression of the island as he wanders along its “one good roadway”:

I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Whenever the cloud lifted I could see the edge of the sea below me on the right, and the naked ridge of the island above me on the other side. Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.

But while a great deal of this book is about the landscape and the terrain and the ever-present roaring sea, it is also about the people whom he befriends along the way. And here, huddled around turf fires, he not only perfects his Irish but collects stories and folklore from local residents. On his first visit he meets a blind man who believes in the “superiority of his stories over all other stories in the world”.

Afterward he told me how one of his children had been taken by the fairies.
One day a neighbour was a passing, and she said, when she saw it on the road, ‘That’s a fine child.’
Its mother tried to say, ‘God bless it,’ but something choked the words in her throat.
A while later they found a wound on its neck, and for three nights the house was filled with noises.
‘I never wear a shirt at night,’ he said, ‘but I got up out of my bed, all naked as I was, when I heard the noises in the house, and lighted a light, but there was nothing in it.’
Then a dummy came and made signs of hammering nails in a coffin.
The next day the seed potatoes were full of blood, and the child told his mother that he was going to America.
‘That night it died, and believe me,’ said the old man, ‘the fairies were in it.’

Synge also records the harsh conditions in which the island’s tiny population lives and the difficulties that confront them in terms of feeding and clothing themselves adequately. His description of poverty-stricken villagers is, at times, heartbreaking.

But he also enjoys experiencing the primitiveness of the culture, such as sailing on the ocean in a curagh — “a rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went on the sea” — and using handmade articles from natural materials — cradles, churns, baskets and the like — which “seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world that is about them”. I particularly loved his descriptions of the island’s fashions:

The simplicity and unity of the dress increases in another way the local air of beauty. The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted around their chests and tied at the back. When it rains they throw another petticoat over their heads with the waistband around their faces, or, if they are young, they use a heavy shawl like those worn in Galway. Occasionally other wraps are worn, and during the thunderstorm I arrived in, I saw several girls with men’s waistcoats buttoned around their bodies. Their skirts do not come much below the knee, and show their powerful legs in the heavy indigo stockings with which they are all provided.

Because Synge makes several visits over a five-year period he is able to notice small changes to the culture with each visit he makes. Take this example, written during his fifth and final visit, in which he realises that progress has made its mark, and not necessarily in a good way:

I am in the north island again, looking out with a singular sensation to the cliffs across the sound. It is hard to believe that those hovels I can just see in the south are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend. Compared with them the falling off that has come with the increased prosperity of this island is full of discouragement. The charm which the people over there share with the birds and flowers has been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain. The eyes and expression are different, though the faces are the same, and even the children here seem to have an indefinable modern quality that is absent from the men of Inishman.

The Aran Islands is a fascinating account of another culture in another time confronted by development, or, as the blurb on the back of my Penguin edition so eloquently puts it, “the passionate exploration of an island community still embedded in its ancestral ways but solicited by modernism”. Not necessarily an easy read, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, a free version is available online at Google Books.

Author, Book review, Druin Burch, England, History, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Digging Up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon’ by Druin Burch


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 276 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have read some interesting and unusual books in my time, but Druin Burch’s Digging Up the Dead must be the most interesting and unusual book I have ever read. Indeed, when I was offered it for review, I had initially been drawn to the dark, Gothic nature of the subject, but hadn’t quite clocked the fact it was a non-fiction title. So when it popped through my door I was slightly taken aback to discover that it was actually a biography. But what a biography it turned out to be!

Digging Up the Dead looks at the life and times of arguably the world’s first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), whom Burch — himself a medical doctor — describes as vain, egotistical, nepotistic and “rather wonderful”.

Astley was born into a highly educated family — his father was an Oxford-educated vicar, his uncle was senior surgeon at Guy’s Hospital in London — but he showed little interest in books or study but specialised in pranks and adventures. When the family moved to Yarmouth he began training under a local apothecary, who also doubled as a surgeon, in the hope that he might learn enough to follow his older brothers into university and perhaps a physicianship, or his uncle to a hospital and career as a surgeon. He did well and moved on to become an apprentice to a surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

When he was fourteen-and-a-half he witnessed a problematic, but successful, operation to remove a stone from a man’s bladder. This was to have a profound influence on him, because it was not long after that he decided to embark on surgical training in London, much to the delight of his family.

In London, his early career got off to a shaky start. He boarded with one of his uncle’s colleagues, Henry Cline, in a “a grand detached residence with stables and outbuildings” at 12 St Mary Axe in the heart of the City of London, and spent much of his newfound freedom running wild instead of knuckling down to his studies. His superiors regarded him as lazy.

Cline, sick to the back teeth of his charge’s reckless nature, came home one evening with a human arm and challenged Astley to dissect it then and there.

The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished both the apprentice and the teacher. Astley was transformed. The fraudulent military uniform was gone, and in its place was the dress of a surgeon. For the first time in his life he found himself taking an interest in work.

From then on Astley became rather enamoured with dissection, working long hours in St Thomas’s hospital, hunching over stinking corpses, learning everything he could about human anatomy. Because the study of anatomy was in its infancy at the time, there was no other way for surgeons to learn their trade and so this is where Druin’s book delves into the gruesome nature of body-snatching, that peculiar illegal practice of stealing freshly buried bodies or — worse still — murdering people to satisfy the medical profession’s need for corpses to study.

Indeed, Astley is often so desperate for fresh corpses he steals neighbourhood pets and dissects them at home while they are still alive, something that turns the stomach today but which, at the time, taught him much that was not known by the surgeons of the day. (Readers with weak stomachs will find much to disgust them in this book, not least the descriptions of vivisection but also the many and varied operations that are performed without anesthesia. But it would not be fair to say they have been included merely for their shock factor; they are necessary for the reader to put Astley’s life into context.)

Eventually, of course, Astley becomes a hugely successful surgeon and lecturer, has studies published in The Lancet, wins the Royal Society’s highest prize and tends to the Prince Regent and Queen Victoria. All the while, he manages to travel abroad (he gets caught up in the French Revolution), marry, have children and teach surgeon-soon-to-be-turned-poet John Keats (yes, that John Keats).

The picture of Astley that emerges from this rather in-depth but beautifully written biography is an enormously complicated man, arrogant but caring by turns, who loved to take risks but made sure to cover his tracks when it counted most. Living at at time of great political, social and scientific change, he seems to be one of the leading lights in almost every field, not just medicine, and was loathed and loved in equal measure.

Digging Up the Dead is a truly fascinating account of a fascinating man who lived in fascinating times.  Druin Birch has done much to bring him to life by not only capturing the man so vividly but by illuminating the narrative with his own experiences as a medical doctor working more than two centuries after Astley first trod the London cobblestones. It’s a slow-burn of a read, one that requires concentration and diligence, but it’s well worth the effort, especially if you are fascinated by science, medicine or history.

Author, Book review, essays, Germany, Gitta Sereny, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The German Trauma — Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001’ by Gitta Sereny


Non-Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 382 pages; 2001.

Gitta Sereny is probably the best investigative journalist writing today and certainly one of the most insightful experts on the Third Reich. The German Trauma is a collection of her writings during her long career looking at World War II and its aftermath, particularly on the German people.

She has prefaced many of the chapters with her thoughts and recollections of writing the original piece, helping to put the stories into context and giving the readers a brief glimpse of her life as a journalist. From Albert Speer, Hitler’s right hand man and architect, to Franz Stangl, death camp commandant, Sereny often goes to extraordinary lengths to gain access to her subjects.

Her research is impeccable. In her quest for truth, Sereny treats her subjects with compassion and sincerity. She is the voice of reason in a world which is normally quick to judge and condemn.

While not Sereny’s best piece of work, its importance cannot be underestimated revealing, as it does, the tragic legacy of Hitler’s regime.

Australia, Author, Book review, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Vintage

‘Australia: A Biography of a Nation’ by Phillip Knightley


Non fiction – paperback; Vintage; 384 pages; 2001.

To mark Australia’s centenary of federation, Phillip Knightley, himself an expat Australian, set out to write a book about the country of his birth, to explore the idea of what it is to be Australian and to analyse what it is that has made Australia such a successful nation despite the fact it was set up by convicts and their jailers. Why is it that Australia and Australians turned out so differently from America and Americans given that both countries were settled in similar ways?

Knightley’s Australia: A Biography of a Nation not only answers these questions (and more), it is a superb exploration and thought-provoking warts-and-all account of Australia’s recent history.

As an Australian who has spent the past three-and-a-half years living in London, Knightley’s main question has often plagued my thoughts: what is an Australian, and, more recently, why is it that we seem to be taking over the entertainment and sporting world (Kylie, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Peter Carey, et al)?

Through a clever combination of historical anecdotes and personal memoir, Knightley’s “biography of a nation” is a superb, hard-to-put-down story that spans everything you thought you knew about Australia and everything you didn’t. If you’ve never been Down Under or don’t know who Gough Whitlam is or have never heard of Mabo, this book will expand your knowledge and have you dying to get on the next plane to Sydney. And if you’re Australian you might just find out something you didn’t know about your country or had forgotten you knew.

This book is a must read for potential travellers and citizens alike. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.