20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, London, Publisher, Setting, Zoe Deleuil

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 244 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Zoe Deleuil’s debut novel, The Night Village, is billed as a thriller, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood and how we should always trust our inner-most instincts.

In this tale, Simone, an Australian living and working in London, has her plans for fun and adventure thrown into disarray when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. She moves in with her boyfriend, Paul, a relatively well-off guy who works in the City, even though she doesn’t think she loves him. But he’s the father of her unborn child and he wants to look after her and she knows her lowly wage working on a magazine won’t be enough to support a baby.

This is just back story, for when the book opens, Simone is in the hospital giving birth to her son, Thomas. The event is traumatic for her and she’d like to stay in hospital to rest and recuperate, but Paul seems oblivious to her distress and urges her to come home pretty much straight away. From thereon in Simone’s life is a fug of breastfeeding, sleeping and nappy changing.

When Paul’s cousin Rachel arrives, moving into the spare bedroom and announcing she’s here to help with the baby, Simone isn’t quite sure this is the godsend everyone is claiming it to be. There’s something about Rachel she doesn’t trust, but she can’t quite pinpoint what it is that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that Simone is sleep deprived, hormonal and finding it difficult to reconcile her old life with her new one.

The baby lay with his arms flung above his head in an attitude of complete abandon, his chest moving very slightly as she leaned closer and started stroking his head, right at the fontanelle where I knew there was no bone protecting the brain, only a layer of skin. I had only touched it once myself, by accident, and recoiled from the feeling of the ridged bone giving way to soft skin and nothing else between it and the baby’s brain, but she stroked it, again and again, her hands trembling slightly, and I had to bunch my hands into fists to stop myself from clobbering her.

The mood of the book is suspenseful, with a slight tinge of paranoia, and for the reader, you’re never quite sure if you can trust Simone as a narrator. Is she hiding something from us? Is she imagining things?

The evocative London setting, specifically the residential (and arts) complex known as the Barbican Estate (a place I know relatively well), adds to the mood. This housing estate on a former World War two bombsite is an example of British brutalist architecture which was dominant in the 1950s and is characterised by function over design, with rough edges, geometric shapes and lots of concrete. Visit the Barbican on a miserable London day, with its grey concrete turned black by rain, and it gives off a creepy Gothic vibe. It’s the perfect setting for a story like this one.

The Night Village is an intimate account of new motherhood thrust upon a young woman who doesn’t feel quite ready to embrace this life-changing event. And yet, when a stranger enters her domain and begins making claims on her baby, her protective instincts kick in. The tension lies in whether there really is something to worry about or whether it’s all in the mother’s head. This is a delicate balance to pull off but the author has done it exceptionally well.

I’m not really into books about motherhood, but I found this one riveting.

The Night Village will be released in Australia on 3 August. UK and US readers will be able to get the Kindle edition in August; a paperback will follow in November.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2021 and my 10th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a very early review copy of this from Fremantle Press having flagged it in this piece about upcoming Southern Cross Crime novels and have been patiently waiting to read the book closer to the August publication date.

And because the author is from Perth (but now lives in Germany), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, David Whish-Wilson, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘Shore Leave’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 248 pages; 2020.

Australian crime doesn’t come much more hard-boiled than David Whish-Wilson’s Shore Leave, which is set in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1989.

The fourth in the Frank Swann series (which began with Line of Sight, the only one I’ve read), it works as a standalone. All you really need to know is that Frank was once a police superintendent but now he’s working solo as a private investigator and because he’s made a few enemies in the past, he’s always looking over his shoulder for people out to get him. He’s also grappling with a debilitating illness in which he’s unsteady on his feet, losing weight and vomiting, but trying his best to ignore it!

Murder plot

The plot focuses on the murder of two women, which might be linked to the arrival in port of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. An African-American sailor is missing and thought to be the likely suspect.

Working together — and sometimes against — the US Navy Master-At-Arms and the local police, Frank finds himself drawn into a messy and dangerous game involving prostitution, warring bikie gangs and gun smuggling.

The third-person narrative expands beyond Frank’s point of view to also take in US Navy “cop” Steve Webb, gold miner Paul Tremain, terminally ill armed robber Tony Pascoe (on the run from Fremantle Prison), and sailor Devon Smith, a white supremacist trying to sell illicit M-16s to outlaw bikies.

These multiple narrative threads are told in alternate chapters to provide a choppy, fast-paced story detailing a dark web of corruption, greed and violence.

Gritty read

Shore Leave is a gritty read, but there’s a black sense of humour running throughout to offer some light relief, and Frank’s domesticated home life, with his beloved wife Marion and their grown-up daughters, adds a softer, more humane edge to all the violent drama.

I especially loved the historical time period and evocative setting, and had fun trying to spot the Fremantle landmarks that have become oh-so familiar to me since moving here almost two years ago!

This is a complex, cleverly plotted crime novel featuring well-drawn, memorable characters and cracking dialogue. Its dark and brooding atmosphere gives it a noirish edge, perfect if you are looking for a hard-nosed crime novel about old-fashioned investigative work before the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

About the author¹: David Whish-Wilson was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, but raised in Singapore, Victoria and Western Australia. He left Australia aged 18 to live for a decade in Europe, Africa and Asia, where he worked as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. David’s first novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Line of Sight (Penguin Australia), was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award in 2012. He has since written three more in the series: Zero at the BoneOld Scores and Shore Leave. The first three books in the series have also been published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag. David wrote the Perth book in the NewSouth Books city series, which was shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award. He currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his partner and three children, where he teaches creative writing at Curtin University.   (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia and the US in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK it is available in paperback only.

This is my 10th (and final) book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 8th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie bookstore (in Fremantle) last year.

And because the author lives in Fremantle, this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Alexander Thorpe, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Death Leaves the Station’ by Alexander Thorpe

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 210 pages; 2020.

To kick off Southern Cross Crime Month I thought I’d start with the type of novel you may not normally associate with Australian crime fiction.

Death Leaves the Station, by Alexander Thorpe, is billed as “cozy crime”. It’s the type of old-fashioned mystery more commonly associated with the likes of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh (more on her later in the month) and the Crime Classics recently reissued by the British Library.

Thorpe has taken that very British construct, with all its well-trodden rules and conventions, and plonked it slap bang in the middle of the Western Australian wheat belt circa 1927 and then let things play out under a hot Australian sky. It makes for an entertaining read with a distinctively Southern Cross twist — and I loved it.

A missing body

The story begins with the disappearance of a corpse on Halfwell Station, which is about 30 miles from the nearest town of Mullewa, in Western Australia’s mid-west region.

Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes, renowned for his large moustache (which he hates but refuses to shave off because he believes to do so will cause his wife emotional harm), is called in to investigate. He describes the case as “the rummiest tale to come ringing down the telegraph wires since the Great War”. This is the nuts and bolts of what has happened:

A man is discovered on the edge of the desert, lying in a pool of his own blood, miles away from anywhere. Less than twenty-four hours later, he vanishes completely, with no apparent effort being made to either clean up or conceal the crime and nothing in the way of footprints or wheel ruts nearby. To top it off, there are no reports of anyone going missing from any of the surrounding towns or settlements and no reason whatsoever for a man of any description to be wandering around this far-flung corner of the country in the normal course of affairs, especially in the wee small hours of the morning.

The only person who saw the corpse is 18-year-old Mariana (Ana) Harris, the adopted daughter of the Sation owners, who likes to go for walks at night because she’s obsessed with the stars.

She keeps this frightening discovery to herself, but when an unexpected stranger — a mendicant monk who has no name (because he has given it up) — arrives on their doorstep en route to Mullewa, she gives him a brief tour of the property and confesses all. However, when she goes to show him where she saw the body, it is no longer there.

What ensues is a mystery of the finest order starring Ana (as the star witness) and a trio of investigators comprising the friar, the detective and an Aboriginal tracker. Their inquiries take them east to Geraldton, on the coast, and then south to Fremantle, as they try to find the missing corpse, determine his identity and work out who committed the crime.

A fun read

Death Leaves the Station is a fun read that marries an old-fashioned if somewhat quirky mystery with an adventurous road trip — by motor car and train. It’s written in formal prose — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it has to be said — but with a liberal dose of humour. The characters are distinctive and well-drawn, and the plot, albeit reliant on maybe one too many coincidences, is well thought out and believable. The historical setting only adds to the evocative atmosphere of the mystery.

I especially liked the way that Thorpe has included indigenous Australians in the story and shown how attitudes of the time were intolerant and harmful without making this an explicit part of the text — the reader is left to come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think.

I’d love to see this novel develop into a series… I’d certainly read the next one!

About the author¹: Alexander Thorpe is from Fremantle, Western Australia. He has written advertising copy for pool cleaners and concrete supply companies, taught English in Joseph Stalin’s hometown, and written for news outlets, travel journals, marketing companies and educational providers. Death Leaves the Station is his first novel. (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only. You can order it direct from the Fremantle Press website.

This is my 1st book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page

And because the author grew up in Perth and lives in Fremantle, this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Emily Paull, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Madelaine Dickie, Margaret River Press, Michelle Johnston, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR2020, University of Western Australia Press

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. 

Australia, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 340 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Australian Government’s shameful policy on immigration detention has been chronicled from the refugee’s point of view (see here and here), but what of the person on the “right” side of the wire — the prison guard?

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel Spinifex & Sunflowers tells the story of a young man who takes a job as a guard at an immigration detention centre in Western Australia.

Contract job

Nick is a drifter, who has a troubled relationship with his family and needs a job to pay off a debt. Despite a lack of formal qualifications and little enthusiasm, he accepts a job with a contractor as a “refugee-prison guard” for which he is paid handsomely.

The book charts his so-called training (“Skippy could take my place at training and I doubt I’d miss much”), the relationships he develops with his colleagues — all poorly educated, with little to no passion for the task at hand and certainly no empathy for the people they’re “guarding” — and his long, monotonous 12-hour shifts at the “refugee prison”, where everything is reduced to preposterous levels of control. One of his tasks, for instance, is guarding a cordial machine to ensure prisoners don’t drink more than their allotted amount of liquid.

The tale reads like something Kafka might have dreamt up, but it’s rooted in reality, for Spinifex & Sunflowers is based on the author’s own experience working at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia for several months. (Somewhat ironically, this is where Dr Munjed Al Muderis, one of the refugees who has written a book about his experience, was held.)

Hidden world

What Avan Judd Stallard presents in this book is an eye-opening account of a hidden world filled with petty cruelties, stupid rules and a cold-hearted attitude to real people.

It’s graphic and confronting in places, written in a blunt, choppy prose style using crude language designed to reflect the narrator’s machismo. Female colleagues are sexually objectified, there are brawls in pubs and a lot of hard drinking; everything, including the desert landscape, is harsh and confronting.

But for all its crudity, the book has an empathetic heart, for Nick has a conscience, a strong moral compass and sees the refugees in his care as human beings rather than numbers. He befriends them and learns about their lives and cultures in ways that are forbidden by the powers that be.

He also begins to see that he shouldn’t judge all his colleagues by appearances alone; some are good people who have simply become trapped by bad decisions or circumstances beyond their control.

We are all human

The overriding message of the novel is that we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect; it is the system and the policies that strip away dignity and pit people against each other.

It asks important questions about the ways in which we treat people fleeing persecution from their homelands, people who have every right to safe asylum but who have become caught up in a system that treats them inhumanely and strips them of their dignity. There but for the grace of God go I.

Spinifex & Sunflowers is grunge literature at its best. It might make for uncomfortable reading, but it deserves to be read by a wide audience. It was longlisted for the 2019 Colin Roderick Literary Award. You can read a sample chapter here.

I read this as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 299 pages; 2010.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel, was first published in 1999. It tells the story of Billy, a young teacher, who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school.

Here, in a Christian mission now in decline and a government administrative outpost struggling to keep staff, Billy and his wife, Liz, find themselves thrust into an Aboriginal community that appears to be in disarray. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the astonishing landscape in which they live in ways that surprise him.

An immensely powerful read about dispossession, the clash between cultures and finding your rightful place in the world, I found True Country the perfect follow-up/companion read to Stan Grant’s memoir Talking to My Country. Both books sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were, and paint a stark, disturbing portrait of what happens when one culture tries to subjugate another.

A remote settlement

When Billy and Liz fly into Karnama this is what they see from the plane window:

We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.

This first impression of a beautiful, semi-ordered landscape is tarnished when the plane banks over the bush on the other side of the settlement and Billy sees that it was “littered with old car bodies, tins, plastic, all sorts of rubbish”. And perhaps that’s a metaphor for this whole, carefully structured, novel, which scratches the dark underbelly of what it is to be a forgotten people living in a community beset by problems, many of them caused by decades long interference from others who think they know better.

It’s only when Billy and Liz settle into their new lodgings and begin work that they pick up on the very real “them” and “us” mentality that exists between the whites and the blacks. Grog is forbidden for Aboriginals, but the priest has his own private supply, for instance, and all the white staff live in well-built air-conditioned housing and have access to vehicles, while the blacks sweat it out in hot corrugated iron shacks and travel everywhere by foot.

Tensions arise between these two cultures, caused primarily by a different set of values. Many of the Aboriginals living in Karnama have so little respect for education that the teachers must wake up their students and practically drag them into the classroom every morning. There is no understanding of the concept of personal property, so that if they “borrow” a car and crash it, it is simply abandoned by the side of the road, and children think nothing of going into a teacher’s unlocked house without their knowledge to rifle through their belongings. And there’s a strong (cynical) belief that the white people, whether teachers, government administrators or clergy, are there simply to make money or to further their careers, they have no real interest in helping the Aboriginal community.

There are deeper, more disturbing problems here, too: alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing is rife (to “kill the world”, as Billy puts it) and the men are violent with each other and their wives (usually after drinking too much grog).

Room for hope

Strangely, for all the shocking incidences in this book (including a violent murder committed by white men), it is not a depressing one. That’s largely due to Billy’s “assimilation”, for want of a better word, into this community, for part-way through the story you come to realise that Billy is not white: he has Aboriginal ancestry, and his reason for moving to this community is to discover that part of himself which, for so long, has remained dormant and unknowable.

There are wonderful descriptions of outings to go fishing and to learn about bush culture and to fall that little bit in love with the varied landscape around him and to appreciate the vagaries of the seasons.

This time of the year […] it is getting hotter. Late in every day the sky comes low, it sags down like it is swollen and bruised. The flies are sticky drinking your sweat. Over on the edge of the sky the lightning stabs the hills. But no rain comes yet. It will.

He strikes up a particularly lovely friendship with Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in  Karnama, who sits at his kitchen table and tells him stories that he records on audio tape with a view to transcribing them for his students. It’s perhaps telling that this form of oral history, so much a part of Aboriginal culture, never makes it into written form, for Billy realises that to do so would require too much time and too much editing and he doesn’t think he has the right to alter Fatima’s words: these are not his stories to tell.

An engaging portrait

The novel is largely structured around a series of vignettes and what I would call sketches of characters or scenes, some of which are only a couple of pages long. But this style builds up an engaging portrait of the community, so that you come to learn about the way it works and the people who inhabit it in ways a normal straightforward narrative might not have been able to do.

It’s largely written in the first person, past tense, but there are snatches of present tense to heighten tension and there are passages told in Aboriginal vernacular which lend a vivid, authentic flavour to the prose. It is that vernacular that I loved most, perhaps because much of it so wonderfully conveys the spiritual connection between people and the land:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ’round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We  got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle… every kind. Sweet mango and coconuts too.

In case you haven’t guessed, I really loved this novel. I loved the way Scott writes about confronting, often shocking, problems but in an intelligent, empathetic way. I loved his poetical use of language. I loved his characters, the whole complex range of them. I loved his descriptions of the landscape. I loved his sense of humour evidenced in descriptions of shambolic corroborees put on for American tourists expecting polished performances. And I loved the redemptive ending. But most of all I loved its big beating heart.

True Country has been widely published, so British and North American readers should be able to source a copy online without too much difficulty.

Kim Scott is of Aboriginal descent. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice — for his novels Benang: From the Heart (in 2000, jointly with Thea Astley’s Drylands) and That Deadman Dance (in 2011).

This is my 47th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott

Benang

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 502 pages; 1999.

Kim Scott‘s Benang: From the Heart is a story about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people. I had every good intention to read it for Anz LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week in early July. But when I started it I soon realised this was not a book to rush through. Indeed, I found it so upsetting in places I had to put it away for a bit, so that I could chew things over until I could summon the courage to pick it up again.

The first white man born

This deeply poignant and haunting story is narrated by Harvey, who describes himself as “the first-born-successfully-white-man-in-the-family-line”. From the age of seven he goes to live with his grandfather, who runs a boarding house mainly inhabited by alcoholic men. It is here that he is “raised to carry on one heritage, and ignore another” but as a teenager he begins to “reconsider who I am”.

In that search for self, Harvey comes to slowly understand his place in the family line — “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with aboriginal blood. This process has been overseen by his grandfather as part of a bold — and disturbing — scientific experiment in which he has been trying to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in successive generations in order to achieve “biological and social absorption”, to “dilute the strain” and to “uplift a despised race”.

His efforts mirror those of the settlements and missions in the early part of the 20th century in which Australia operated a crude system of apartheid designed to separate whites from blacks.

A blending of fact and fiction

The narrative is littered with real-life archival documents, many of them from the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, who presided over a misguided — and cruel — policy of cultural assimilation, culminating in the removal of aboriginal children from their families to be raised as “white”. This factual content — which stands on its own and is not editorialised or commented upon — serves to make the fictional storyline more compelling and heart rending.

Scott, who is of aboriginal ancestory himself, refrains from casting judgement, but it would be the coldest of readers who did not understand the deep pain, sadness — and sheer immorality — of the story presented here.

According to an article by Susan Midalia, the author wanted Benang to be “educative in both historical and emotional terms — to inform us about the shameful history of the white treatment of Aboriginal people and
also, and centrally, to ‘speak from the heart’.” On those levels, he wholly succeeds.

Memorable storytelling

He also succeeds in crafting a compelling and memorable tale. The prose is  succinct and journalistic when it needs to be, at other times it is lyrical and poetic — at all times there is never a word out of place.

Occasionally, the narrative, which loops around in non-chronological order, borders on repetitive, but I suspect this is a deliberate attempt on Scott’s behalf to show how history repeats and the lessons of the past are not learned. There are also forays into what could be best described as “magic realism” — Harvey has the ability to hover or fly — but perhaps this is merely a metaphor for “aboriginal dreaming”?

It was a white bird with bright red at its beak. […] Flying low at the edge of the rock, its wing beats regular and powerful, it arrowed straight to where the younger bird was hovering, and then arced up to join it.

I looked to my children, and  — oh, this was sudden, not at all a gradual or patient uplift — I was the one poised, balanced, hovering on shifting currents and — looking down upon my family approaching from across the vast distances my vision could cover — I was the one to show them where and who we are. […]

I told Uncle Jack and the others of what had happened, and as I was speaking I found myself suddenly aware of how they listened. How they looked at me so closely, so attentive as I spoke. “Those birds. That was the spirit in the land talking to you. Birds, animals, anything can do it. That is what aboriginal people see.”

 An emotional read

I came away from this book feeling a mixture of joy and sorrow, anger and regret. It challenged me on many levels and I’m so grateful for having snapped the book up when I found it in a second-hand store last year.

Kim Scott‘s Benang was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1999, an honour it shared with Thea Astley’s The Drylands.

For another view on this book, please see Lisa Hill’s thoughts.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Newspaper of Claremont Street’ by Elizabeth Jolley

Newspaper-of-Claremont-street

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 176 pages; 2008.

In the delightful black comedy Mr Scobie’s Riddle, which I read last year, Elizabeth Jolley had much to say about the lack of respect society has for those we brand “old folk”. In The Newspaper of Claremont Street, first published in 1981, she has a lot to say about the way in which we tend to view the working class.

Despite its title, the story is not about a newspaper but tells the tale of an old cleaning woman who is nicknamed ‘Weekly’ or ‘The Newspaper’. This is because she works in so many different houses that she picks up gossip and is able to pass it on just like a tabloid newspaper.

Though she knew of accidents and weddings, births and deaths and told the news from one house to another, she never spoke of things that really mattered. About these things Weekly held her tongue. […] Weekly knew which wives didn’t want their husbands to come home for lunch; she heard sons snarling at their mothers and ungrateful daughters banging bedroom doors. She heard the insincere voices and laughter in telephone conversations and she wondered how friends could be so treacherous to one another, so watchful over the successes and failures of each other’s children.

Along with her discrete nature, Weekly is a hard worker. Even before she’s left her room in a local boarding house, she’s scrubbed and cleaned and made everything spic and span. She then spends the rest of the day, and often the evening, cleaning the homes of the doctors, lawyers, architects and millionaires who live on Claremont Street.

Her strong work ethic is only matched by her ability to save her pennies. Indeed, Weekly is motivated to keep working — despite the agonising hours, the exhaustion and her aching bones — by the promise of creating an “exquisite cone-shaped mountain made entirely of money, with a silver scree of coins on its steep sides”. She plans on using this money to buy a second-hand car and then, a little later, a property of her own in the country.

Of course, the story wouldn’t work without some narrative tension, and this arrives in the form of a Russian widow, who Weekly “adopts” and memories of an older brother with whom she had a troubled relationship.

Told in simple, elegant prose, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, feels like an easy-to-read fable with a comic touch. But underneath the spareness lies a macabre streak. Weekly might be hard-working and slightly eccentric, but she cannot be taken at face value…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Ron Elliott, Setting

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott

Spinner

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 472 pages; 2010.

If I said this was a book about cricket, I suspect many of you would have absolutely no interest in reading it. But even if you hate the sport, there’s plenty to love about this story. Even Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers, who is not a cricket fan, found herself enthralled by this one. (I’m grateful to Lisa for sharing the love and buying me a copy of my own…)

This novel is the first by Ron Elliott, who is also a television director and screen writer based in Western Australia. It’s apparent that he has probably written it with an eye towards the big screen, because Spinner would make a terrific kid’s movie. It’s got brilliant dialogue, for a start, but it’s also packed with plenty of drama and is peopled with richly drawn characters. And there’s enough plot surprises to keep people on the edge of their seat throughout.

The story is set between the wars. Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression and there’s not much to smile about. Even the national cricket team is experiencing a slump and losing out to its great cricketing rival, England, which has brought out a killer team for the latest test series.

That’s where our hero enters the story. David Donald is a 12-year-old orphan whose father died in the battle fields of France during the Great War. His mother drowned in a dam on the family farm, where David is now being raised by his maternal grandfather, George Baker.  George, a “Scottish calvinist”, was once a spin bowler for the state side, and is now training his grandson in the fine art of spin bowling.

David, who has especially long fingers, has a real talent for it, particularly as he seems able to use finger spin and wrist spin techniques when delivering the ball. (Here’s your first cricket lesson: spin bowlers usually use one of these techniques, not both.) In fact, David is so impressive as a spin bowler that he catches the eye of the Australian Cricket Board, and — you guessed it — he becomes the youngest ever member of the national team.

Initially, I thought the story was preposterous (a kid who plays Test cricket at international level!!), but it somehow works because of Elliott’s understated writing style. On the surface this is a simple tale about one boy’s rise to national hero. But underneath there’s a whole lot more going on about the Australian psyche, the way men relate to one another and the redemptive power of sport to cheer up a nation.

Because Spinner is told in the third person, we get an overview of events to which David is not privy. He’s a child after all and much of what happens goes over his head.

And while he’s being ferried around the country in the care of his Uncle Michael, we see that Michael is a spinner of a different variety. He’s what Australians would call a bullshit artist, a man who likes to spin the truth in order to earn a bob or two. When David begins to understand that his uncle is not all that he seems, you really feel his pain — and bewilderment.

While Spinner is fiction, Elliott has clearly based some of the characters on real cricketing heroes from the past and simply changed their names. The fun, if you are a cricket aficionado, is trying to work out who’s a thinly veiled version of who. (I spotted English cricketer Douglas Jardine from the 1932-33 Bodyline series for a start.) It’s also worth reading to try and spot which ball delivered by David Donald is based on Shane Warne’s “ball of the century”.

If you don’t know anything about cricket there is a useful glossary of terms at the back, along with a diagram explaining field positions.

As a love letter to the game of cricket Elliott has certainly hit a six!

Spinner is aimed at a younger audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The book is not available outside of Australia, but you can order the paperback direct from Fremantle Press website or purchase an digital version from eBooks.com

UPDATE: According to the publisher, who kindly left a comment below, the book is now available to British readers via Amazon.co.uk and American readers via the Independent Publishers Group website.