Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Hachette Australia, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Tanya Bretherton, true crime

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 235 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself as a chronicler of historical true crime. I’ve read a couple of her books now — The Suitcase Baby (2018) and  The Killing Streets (2020) — and found them interesting and well written.

In this new book, The Husband Poisoner, she turns her forensic lens towards women who killed in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

The title is a bit of a misnomer though because the cases that feature in this book aren’t solely focused on women who killed their husbands. Caroline Grills, for instance, did away with her stepmother, a family friend, her brother and his wife!

The thallium wave

Written narrative non-fiction style, Bretherton weaves her true crime tales with sociological insights and shows how poisoning was “fashionable” in the 1950s because it was undetectable. The poison used, thallium,  had no smell and was tasteless, so could be added to meals or a cup of tea and the person who consumed it would be none the wiser. And it was readily available as an over-the-counter poison designed to kill rats.

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions [in Sydney] were attributed to thallium. It was an alarming statistic given exposure to thallium could only be traced to one source — the product known as Thall-Rat.

The author focuses on two specific NSW cases — Yvonne Fletcher, who poisoned two husbands, one after the other, and the aforementioned Caroline Grills —  before turning her attention towards the two police detectives who made a name for themselves solving these problematic crimes.

I say “problematic” because detecting the use of poison was difficult, and murders could be “made to look like something else entirely” so that “no one even realised that a crime had been committed”. For example, poor Yvonne Fletcher’s first husband died an agonising death that stretched over years — doctors put his poor health down to various issues, including “nervous tension and anxiety”, but no one suspected his wife was adding rat poison to his food!

The inclusion of old recipes at the end of each chapter, such as split pea soup and jam roly-poly (which come from the author’s own family cookbook), hammers home the point that this crime was wholly domestic and more often than not carried out by women, who, during the 1950s, spent their lives in the kitchen. This made it even easier for a disgruntled woman to get rid of a family member in such a deadly but seemingly innocuous manner.

Police corruption

If I was to fault the book in any way it is the creative element in which conversations and feelings are “invented” in the interests of telling a good story. This is the journalist in me kicking back against this style of writing which tends to blur fact and fiction. But I understand why the author has taken this approach: it makes the narrative more compelling and it’s easier to identify (and empathise) with characters.

The segue into the police investigation near the end of the book feels slightly clunky, too, almost as if it has been added as an afterthought. That said, it’s an intriguing look at the way in which NSW Detectives Fergusson and Krahe pinpointed the role of thallium in various murders and worked out an approach to catch the killers. Such an approach, while effective, was not without its own set of ethical problems. The pair were later recognised as “key figures in the institutionalised corruption of the NSW police force from the 1940s through to the 1970s”.

The detectives postulated that thallium killing was different to other kinds of killing. It was not violent, at least in the traditional sense. Thallium murderers did not usually seek to strike one devastating blow; it was not liked taking aim and firing a weapon into lethal target zones like the brain or the heart. Thallium killers were capable of patiently exploiting the poison’s manifold secrets. Thallium was a slow burn, and killing with it required a certain kind of disposition: deceitful. In turn, efforts to catch these criminals required a certain kind of investigation: deceitful.

The Husband Poisoner is a riveting expose of the darker side of Australian life after the Second World War.  As well as looking at a series of disturbing murders, it puts things into context by providing a fascinating account of post-war social change. It’s by turns macabre and sinister, eye-opening and, dare I say it, blackly comic.

Shelleyrae at Book’d Out has reviewed this one too.

About the author¹:  Tanya Bretherton has a PhD in sociology with special interests in narrative life history and social history. She has published in the academic and public sphere for 20 years and worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney for 15 years. Dr Bretherton’s specialty is converting detailed research into thought-provoking works which are accessible to a general readership. Currently she works as a freelance researcher and writer. Her first book, The Suitcase Baby, was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, the Danger Prize and the Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award. Her second book The Suicide Bride was shortlisted for the Danger Prize and in 2020 she won the Danger Prize for The Killing Streets.  (1. Source: Hachette Australia 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.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans 
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. A talented cook and caterer, her poison of choice was arsenic.

This is my 7th 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 5th book for #AWW2021.  

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, JP Pomare, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘In the Clearing’ by J.P. Pomare

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder; 336 pages; 2020.

JP Pomare’s In The Clearing is a psychological suspense novel that poses the question: what would life be like if you grew up in a cult but escaped it as an adult? How would your life return to normal if you did not know what normal was like? And would you be forever looking over your shoulder, wondering if members of the cult were out to get you?

Inspired by a notorious cult

Taking elements of the real-life notorious 1980s Australian cult The Family — in which Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the enigmatic female leader, convinced followers she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and “stole” children to groom in her own image — Pomare spins a compelling tale about what happens when a cult member escapes to reinvent herself on the outside.

The suspense-filled story weaves two separate narrative threads together that eventually collide in an unexpected and thrilling climax — albeit one I guessed fairly early on.

In the first storyline, Amy is a young teenage member of the cult, known as “The Clearing”, who is in charge of looking after a new, recently kidnapped member to ensure she adapts to the group’s ideals. Food is in short supply, abuse (psychological, physical and sexual) is rife and anyone who steps out of line is subject to “realignment” therapy.

The second focuses on Freya, a single mother living on an isolated farm, who has a fortress-like mentality and is deeply concerned about a young couple in a van trespassing on her property. She is paranoid enough to own a big dog trained to attack on command and have several panic buttons installed in her home.

As the tale of these two separate female characters unfold we learn more about them and begin to understand that not all is at it seems and that neither is particularly reliable. Freya, for instance, has a troubled past in which she was accused of having done something terrible to her young son, Aspen, who was “lost” more than a decade ago and has never been found. When her second son, Billy, goes missing the authorities assume history is merely repeating itself — but is it?

There are plenty of red herrings in this book and lots of potential culprits — could Aspen’s father, recently returned on the scene, be responsible for Billy’s disappearance, or could it be a mysterious man from Freya’s past who has just been released from jail? Why is her best friend a police detective? And how does her brother fit into the grand scheme of things?

Fast-paced novel

In the Clearing is fast-paced, as you would expect from a thriller, but it’s not at the expense of detail — Pomare’s descriptions of the bush and small communities, for instance, are vivid and often beautifully evoked. The real strength of the novel, however, lies in the author’s ability to tap into our deepest psychological fears, which helps to ratchet up the tension. You really do fear for the wellbeing and safety of both Freya and Amy as you become immersed in their unconventional lives.

But the book isn’t just a page-turner. There’s an intelligence at work here, too, and it’s clear Pomare has done a lot of research about cults, the ways in which they use blackmail and brainwashing to indoctrinate people, and how difficult it is to be “de-programmed” once you escape. There’s a lot to cogitate on.

Admittedly, I saw the “twist” at the end coming a mile off, but from all the many Amazon and GoodReads reviews I’ve seen online, it seems to catch most people totally unaware, adding to its popularity. It’s been a best seller across the world.

Finally, if you want to know more about The Family, the cult that inspired this story, I recommend an excellent non-fiction book, ‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones, which I reviewed in 2016. There’s a BBC4 Storyville documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, to accompany the book, which was recently on iView in Australia and which has previously been screened in the UK on BBC4. It is worth watching if you can track it down.

About the author¹: J.P. Pomare is an award-winning writer who has had work published in journals including Meanjin, Kill Your DarlingsTakahe and Mascara Literary Review. He has hosted the On Writing podcast since 2015 featuring bestselling authors from around the globe. His first novel, Call Me Evie, was critically acclaimed and won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. He was born in New Zealand and resides in Melbourne with his wife and daughter. (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 5th 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 7th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle in June last year.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Cho Nam-Joo, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea, Tanya Bretherton, true crime, Viking

Three Quick Reviews: Tanya Bretherton, Cho Nam-ju & Imbi Neeme

Good things come in threes, they say.

Here are three eclectic stories, all focused on women characters and written by women writers, that I have read this year. All are highly recommended.

They include a narrative non-fiction book by Australia’s queen of historical true crime, a best-selling novel from Korea and an award-winning new release set in Western Australia.

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’  by Tanya Bretherton
Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself in Australia as a writer of historical true crime. I have previously read The Suitcase Baby and have The Suicide Bride in my TBR. The Killing Streets is her latest.

It examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s. It took a while for the police to cotton on, but eventually, the cases, in which the women’s bodies were found dumped in public places, were linked together and suddenly the hunt was on for Australia’s first serial killer.

Unfortunately, in their rush to convict someone, the police made many mistakes and got the wrong man: the killings continued regardless.

As well as being a fascinating account of (unreliable) police investigative techniques at the time, this book is also an eye-opening portrait of a misogynistic society in which women were merely the playthings of men and if they went missing or were killed it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the “wrong” kinds of clothing, pursuing the “wrong” kind of career or simply belonging to the “wrong” class. This is very much a story of a society in which victim-blaming was king,  where the police were quick to rush to judgement and where media coverage and hearsay had an entire city gripped by fear.

The Killing Streets  is a thoroughly researched and highly readable example of narrative non-fiction that puts a series of Depression-era crimes into a social, historical and economic context. It gets a bit bogged down by detail in places and sometimes the creative elements of the narrative felt overdone, taking away from the reportage of the story, but on the whole this is a good one for true crime fans.

‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’  by Cho Nam-ju
Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 176 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. 

This international bestseller from Korea, first published in 2016 but recently reissued, is a damning portrait of a contemporary society that favours men over women in almost every facet of life.

It tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, who grows up in South Korea and slowly comes to realise that she is at a disadvantage in almost everything she does simply because she was born female. Her younger brother gets special treatment by her parents (extra food and his own room), she’s sexually harassed at school by her male classmates (but is expected to put up with it because that’s just what boys do), she gets overlooked for promotion at work despite being a dedicated and conscientious employee, she’s expected to give up everything for her husband when she marries — you get the idea.

The easy-to-read narrative is dotted with footnotes relating to gender inequality in Korea — for instance, statistical information on the sex ratio imbalance at birth (116.5 boys born to 100 girls in 1990), and the ways in which women do odd jobs on the side to make money as well as raising children, running households and looking after elderly family members — which lends the story real authenticity.

I found Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 a gripping story, easily read in a day, but I’m not sure it told me anything I didn’t already know. For many teenage girls and young women, however, this novel would be the perfect introduction to feminism. It’s an important and powerful read.

‘The Spillby Imbi Neeme
Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before The Spill was published, Imbi Neeme’s manuscript won the Penguin Literary Prize — and it’s easy to see why. This is a gripping tale of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha, whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood (a car accident on a remote road in Western Australia) and who later struggle to reconcile their differences — in temperament, in outlook and the ways in which they see their divorced parents — as adults.

The story, which is largely set in Perth, is told in such an original and ambitious way — vignettes from the past interweaved with the present day, told in alternate chapters from each sister’s perspective — that it’s hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. The writing is assured and the characters flesh-and-blood real.

In its portrayal of alcoholism, Neeme shies away from stereotypes or cliches, presenting the disease and its impact on others in all its messy, complicated detail. She does much the same for the relationship between sisters, for Nicole and Samantha are tied together forever but love and loathe each other in myriad different ways. There is jealousy and anger, hurt and regret, misunderstanding and confusion on almost every page. Yet this is not a maudlin story. There are many laughs and witty asides — often at the expense of stepmothers that come into their lives at various times —  dotted throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of this tricky and tangled family. It will be very interesting to see what Imbi Neeme comes up with next…

I read ‘The Killing Streets’ and ‘The Spill’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. They form my 10th & 11th books for #AWW2020.
Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR2020, You-Jeong Jeong

‘The Good Son’ by You-Jeong Jeong

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 309 pages; 2018. Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

The smell of blood woke me up.

So begin’s You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son, a locked room mystery that morphs into something much more dark and sinister.

It tells the story of a 25-year-old man who wakes up to discover his mother dead on the kitchen floor, a deep wound in her neck and blood everywhere, including on his own hands and clothes. But did he kill her? He has no memory of the night before because he has stopped taking his epilepsy medication and that often results in massive headaches and blackouts. There is no sign of forced entry, so if he didn’t kill her, who did?

Structured in four parts, all narrated by the son, the story charts Yu-Jin’s life living under a semi-lockdown with an over-protective mother. As the narrative progresses it gets increasingly more unhinged and abhorrent. I do, in fact, wonder why I bothered to read it. But it did have some good points:

I liked the ever-changing nature of the story. As soon as I thought I knew what was going on and why Yu-Jin behaved in a certain way, the author would throw in a new bit of information that made me reassess all that had gone before. I can’t explain it very well here because that would spoil the plot, but you cannot second-guess anything in this novel. And it’s that kind of unpredictability that is probably why I kept turning the pages.

It’s a good depiction of an unhinged mind. Think Francie in The Butcher Boy or Joy Stone in The Trick is to Keep Breathing. This is reflected in a narrative voice that gets increasingly more disturbing as the story moves forward.

The use of flashbacks is done well to show how Yu-Jin’s relationships — with his mother, his late brother, his adopted brother and his aunt — shaped him. I liked the way these also fleshed out the kind of child he was, introverted and insecure, but how his great talent for swimming took him out of himself and gave him confidence.

It has a satisfying ending, albeit one that makes you grateful the story is not real life.

Yet, for all that, there’s no denying The Good Son is gruesome and bloody and repugnant in places. It is definitely not one for the squeamish. It takes a lot to shock me, but I found this book a little too much to handle. Read it with caution.

This is my 12th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it last year from the Dymocks $10 table, attracted by the marketing blurb on the front cover declaring it as a “Number One International Bestseller”. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Czechoslovakia, Favel Parrett, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘There was Still Love’ by Favel Parrett

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes you read a book and it becomes a total balm for the soul. This was the exact feeling that was evoked when I read Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize and recently won the Book of the Year at the Indie Book Awards.

This gently told tale in sparse prose is about the impact of the Cold War on one family. Twin sisters, Eva (Babi) and Máňa, are separated by hemispheres — and political ideologies — for one remains in Prague after the Second World War and the other immigrates to Melbourne, Australia.

In a narrative that swings between time periods and locations  —  Prague, 1938; Prague 1980 and Melbourne 1980 — the family’s history is revealed through the eyes of the twins’ grandchildren, Luděk, in Prague, and Malá Liška (“little fox”), in Melbourne.

Their voices, naive and innocent, are wonderfully realised, for there are things that the children do not understand about politics and economic systems and the real reason why the adults around them behave as they do. This makes for a bittersweet read, because you become emotionally invested in the characters, but it’s also an effective device for showing how children see the beauty in the smallest of things and how their worlds are shaped by the adults around them.

A story about grandparents

Perhaps during this time of coronavirus lockdown when grandchildren are separated from their grandparents, this book proves a timely reminder of the bonds that can be created between the generations (the author dedicates the book to her own grandparents “who were the very best of people”).

But this is also a tale about immigration, specifically what it is like to immigrate, to recreate a home away from home and of the dislocation one feels when you do not truly belong to one place or another, of the heartache of leaving loved ones behind and of knowing that you can never truly be together anymore, of the casual racism experienced in an unfamiliar culture.

It also reveals the sacrifices and compromises that are made along the way, the stories we tell ourselves to get through the day, and of the way we cling to traditions and cultural props.

But this is also a story that brims with love and laughter. It’s full of beautiful imagery and lush descriptions of food. In fact, food is a constant theme in this book, because it is food which — aside from family left behind — ties you to your homeland more than anything else:

A feast.
Bottles of beer and bottles of wine — lemonade for me, sweet and fizzy. Chicken schnitzels, fried potato, cucumber salad.
That was my favourite — cucumber salad with cream and vinegar and black pepper, chilled from the fridge so all the cucumber juice got sucked out of the cucumber slices and mixed in with the cream. The salad bowl still had some of the cream left in the bottom and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I wanted to grab the big bowl up in my hands and drink the cream down.

The UK edition is published by Sceptre

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved There was Still Love. It brims with love and charm, the perfect antidote to the strange times we are currently living through.

But don’t take my word for it. There have been lots of great reviews of this novel by other bloggers, including Lisa at ANZLitLovers, Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and Susan at A Life in Books.

I have previously reviewed Favel Parrett’s When The Night Comes, which I also loved.

This is my 5th book for #AWW2020.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 266 pages; 2018.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel The Lebs is a hard-hitting look at what it is like to grow up in Australia as the Muslim son of Lebanese immigrants.

Set in an all-boys school in Sydney in the late 1990s, it’s a potent mix of profanity, sex, lust, religion, racism, misogyny and hypermasculinity.

It’s not an easy book to like. There are many confronting scenes and the language doesn’t pull its punches. Women are largely seen as sexual objects and there’s a dark undercurrent of racism running underneath it.

But this feels like an authentic world, a world in which teenage boys are full of bravado and hormones, where being different is to become an outcast, where bullying, peer pressure and tribal violence is the code by which everyone lives.

Trying to fit in

The narrator, Bani Adam, tries to fit into this world but even though all the students at Punchbowl Boys School are of Middle Eastern extraction like himself, he is uncomfortable being seen as yet another “wog boy”. He believes he is better than everyone else around him, more romantic, more academic, more akin to being Australian than Lebanese.

They’re calling me a house nigger again. I feel no shame in such names. The only shame is that I look like them, I have black eyes and black curly hair and a flat nose; I am not born with the blond hair and the blue eyes and the small, sharp nose of the man inside the television, this man who uses the alias Brian Spilner.

This is a world without parents but whose influence is everywhere, in their cultural reference points, their religion, their views on women, the ways in which they’re expected to live their adult lives.

Bani, keen to break free of the shackles of his ethnicity, discovers that his love of literature can earn him the attention of the female teacher whom he’s got a crush on. It can also help him escape the predictable working class life proscribed by his background. But when he gets a piece published in a literary magazine he keeps the news to himself in the mistaken belief that “real” writers shouldn’t have to promote themselves.

Escape from his peers

In his late teens he discovers boxing, which helps channel his aggression in a positive way, but sets him further apart from his fellow students.

The day after the fight [his first amateur boxing bout, which he wins] I run into Osama on the corner between Haldon Street and The Boulevard, right in front of the African hair salon where I once conked my black curly hair into White straight. Osama’s cheeks bulge when his gaze locks onto me. My fists tighten, dry blood along my knuckles ripping open, and I step up into his chest. A drop of sweat runs down the centre of Osama’s forehead — he knows there is something different about me, that if he speaks I’ll punch a hole through his face. And then he just nods his head and walks on. It’s over. I am free. Free at last. Allahu Akbar, I am free at last!

He finishes school but doesn’t get the grades to get into university. His contact at the literary magazine hooks him up with some community arts work and he accepts immediately, thinking it’s “the first real opportunity in my life to associate with a different race and class of people than Lebs: White writers and actors — and artists — who are progressive and civilised like me!”

But the role — creative development work for a yet-to-be-written play about “Arabs and Muslims and men” — is just a means to mine his ethnic background. And the people he is working with are far from civilised…

Comparisons to Christos Tsiolkas’ work are pretty spot on: both writers craft bold, daring and controversial fiction. Not everyone will like Ahmad’s work, but I found this a dizzying, vividly alive and thought-provoking look at an unfamiliar world.

The Lebs has just been shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

This is my 2nd book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 21st for #TBR40. I purchased this book on my trip to Australia last year after a few people recommended it to me as a title that was getting a bit of publicity. Sadly, that copy is still in London as I couldn’t bring my entire TBR with me to Western Australia, but I borrowed this one from Fremantle Library when I joined it last week in an effort to buy fewer books and read more borrowed ones!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Mark Brandi, Publisher, Setting

‘Wimmera’ by Mark Brandi

Wimmera

Fiction – paperback; Hatchette Australia; 260 pages; 2017.

Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera had the unusual honour of winning the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger in 2016 before the author even had a publishing deal.

Not long later Hatchette Australia picked it up and it was released in Australia last year. It has since been acquired by Legend Press, here in the UK, where it will be published next March.

Billed as a crime novel, I think it’s more accurate to describe Wimmera as literary fiction that just so happens to have a crime in it. The focus is really on two boys coming of age in rural Australia in the 1990s and what happens to them in one seminal year that changes their lives forever.

Body in the river

The book’s prologue sets the scene: two youngsters out looking for yabbies find a green wheelie bin stuck near a tree in the river of a small country town. The lid has been bolted down securely, suggesting that whomever closed it up “didn’t want what was in there to ever come out”.

The opening chapter spools back 20 years, to the same country town, where we meet Ben and Fab, two young boys, on the cusp of adolescence, who are best friends. Their lives are dominated by school and football and playing by the river.

Their carefree existence is hampered only by the violence of Fab’s Italian father, who lashes out with his fists, and troubled memories of Daisy, a local 14-year-old who hanged herself on the family’s clothesline. Later when Daisy’s family move away and a new neighbour, the mysterious Ronnie, moves in, Ben takes a summer job mowing Ronnie’s lawn hoping this will help him figure out who this strange man is: Fab has a theory he’s a secret agent.

In part two, the narrative returns to where it started and we find out that Fab is still living in the same town, working a dead-end job in the local supermarket, desperately unhappy and wanting to do something new with his life.

A knock on his door adds a frisson of excitement he doesn’t need. It’s a police detective:

“Mr Morressi, we think you might be able to help us with something. Something we found in the river.”

Southern Cross crime

Written in the third person, but largely told through the eyes of Ben, Wimmera is part of a new wave of internationally successful Australian crime novels dubbed “Southern Cross Crime”. (Think Jane Harper’s novels, The Dry and Force of Nature, Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, and Emily McGuire’s An Isolated Incident — and they are just the ones I have been lucky enough to read.)

But it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. It’s not a police procedural, though there are snippets of police interviews in the final part of the novel, and it’s not so much a who did it (though you do have to read the entire book to discover the culprit), but a why did it.

As a crime novel, I don’t think it is particularly strong. There are too many holes in the plot and it doesn’t feel truly believable to me. And the impetus for the crime is too vague. Perhaps the author didn’t want to go into detail and didn’t want to sensationalise it, but sometimes subtlety doesn’t always work.

I think the narrative is better when the author focuses on small town life, particularly what it is like growing up in a rural town in Australia in the 1990s, which he conveys with affection and through clever cultural references tied to that period in history, including schoolboy obsessions with Nike Air Maxes, Australian cricket heroes — Dean Jones, Merv Hughes et al — and TV shows such as Knight Rider, Wide World of Sports and Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday.

The first part of the novel reminded me a little of Jasper Jones (a book I actually hated), but with a more robust prose style.

On the whole, Wimmera is an interesting tale about boyhood friendship that reverberates through the decades. It’s a strong debut novel, flawed in places, but one that marks Brandi as a talent to watch.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer. (Yes, it’s taking me forever to write these all up!) I purchased it when I was in Australia on holiday earlier in the year. I’d not heard anything about it at the time; I was just attracted by the cover image and liked the sound of the blurb on the back.

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.

2017 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Hachette Australia, Literary prizes, Maxine Beneba Clarke, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Hate Race’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Hate Race

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 272 pages; 2016.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her memoir, The Hate Race, tells the story of what it is like to grow up black in white middle-class Australia. It has recently been shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize.

This unflinching account charts Clarke’s experiences at school, where she was routinely bullied for the colour of her skin and where teachers and other people in authority turned a blind eye. “It’s just a bit of teasing,” the school counsellor tells Clarke, who, by the time she was a teenager, had been subjected to endless  “teasing” for almost a decade. The ongoing verbal abuse had manifested itself in a rather alarming physical way: Clarke would scratch her face in her sleep, a psychological attempt to claw her way out of her skin, a form of self-harm that would leave her with nasty facial bruises.

At five and a half, racism had already changed me.
After a while you start to breath it. Another kid’s parents stare over at your family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid. When you have to choose working partners in numbers, you discreetly shuffle over to the opposite side of the room. You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.

Clarke and her two siblings — an older sister and a younger brother — were born in Australia. Her dad was born in Jamaica but emigrated to the UK in the late 1950s, where he gained a PhD in mathematics. Her mother, from Guyana in the West Indies, was a stage actress living in London. The married couple emigrated to Australia after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech made them want to live somewhere more welcoming. They chose Australia on the basis Clarke’s dad had worked alongside a young Australian couple at Nottingham University who had recently returned home.

But from the get-go Clarke admits that her family were the only black people in the community and were regarded with a mixture of fascination and suspicion. It is only when Clarke goes to school and learns about Australian aboriginals that she realises the country has a long-established black community that has been usurped (and often massacred) by the whites.

Every day racism

A large part of the book documents Clarke’s experience of casual and not-so-casual racism, mainly in the classroom but also out in the real world, where less talented peers were often granted privileges for which she was overlooked.

In one instance, Clarke relates the story of how she missed out on winning a top award for a public speaking competition. The prize went to a less confident white girl whose father was greatly respected within the community. The father, to his credit, tells Clarke that she was the best speaker in the room — but he does nothing to change the outcome.

That’s one of the messages that runs throughout this story: that standing on the sidelines and saying nothing when wrong is being done makes you complicit in the act. This realisation comes early to Clarke, when her and her younger brother are confronted on their new bikes by a gang who call them names and start throwing stones at them. Clarke’s friends don’t help or defend them — they simply run away:

But the scene at the bike park just kept looping in my head. Her silence. The way they’d suddenly disappeared. I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we. My friend’s silence hurt more than the names we’d been called — more than seeing my brother’s bloody, grazed knee.

While The Hate Race is essentially a collection of anecdotes from Clarke’s childhood, all told in an entertaining and forthright style (and not without a smidgen of humour to lighten the despair), this catalogue of abuse makes for a damning indictment on Australian society in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it any better now, I wonder?

In her acknowledgements, Clarke states that she loves Australia but believes people could be kinder to one another:

I wrote this book because I believe stories like these need to be written into Australian letters. Stories like mine need to be heard, and seen, both by those outside of them and those with similar tales. I wanted to show the lasting impact of living in a brown body in Australia in the eighties and nineties on one child. I want to show the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all.

This is my third book for #AWW2017.

If you liked this, you might also like:

  • Talking to my Country by Stan Grant: a heartrending account of what it is like to be an indigenous person in Australia.
  • Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (not reviewed on this site, but I read it in 2014): an eye-opening read about racism in sport.