Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Laurie Steed, literary fiction, Margaret River Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 250 pages; 2018.

Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here has been described as the kind of book Anne Tyler might write if she was Australian — and I think that’s a fair summation.

This domestic driven drama charts what happens to the Slater family over the course of more than 40 years. It tells us how Jen and Steven meet as teenagers in Melbourne, how they marry young, move to Perth and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the long-lasting impact the divorce has on the three children — Alex, Emily and Jay — who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

It’s a masterful account of family relationships, of the ways in which we struggle to navigate the world and the importance of love and stability to our mental well-being.

Episodic structure

You Belong Here is told in an episodic style structured in parts —1972-1984; 1985-1995; 1996-1999; 2000-2002; and 2015 — which makes for a relatively quick-moving read.

Steed does not get bogged down in details; he takes a particular episode, for example, how Steven loses his job as an air-traffic controller or how Jay’s mental health deteriorates to the point where he needs to be admitted to a psychiatric facility, and tells it from the point-of-view of a particular character. He fleshes it out so we see how that snapshot in time illuminates what else is happening within and outwith the family.

Little details, like a song or a fashion item or a brand of food, pegs the episode to a specific time in history, so you get the feeling as you move through the story that you are also moving through time, from the 1970s to the 2000s. It’s an effective literary device.

Compelling and realistic tale

On the face of it, You Belong Here might sound like a depressing read — and in parts, it is pretty miserable — but on the whole, this compelling story is written with warmth and humour. It feels realistic and, indeed, normal. There are families everywhere who confront and deal with the same kind of issues — family breakdown, single parenthood and mental health, just to name a few — that the Slaters go through.

It’s tightly written — it has to be given that Steed covers 40-plus years of one family in just 250 pages — so the focus is razor-sharp and insightful, with not a word wasted. He’s very good at drilling right down to the heart of the matter, the ways in which humans fool themselves or pretend everything’s okay because it’s easier not to confront the truth.

For all their arguments and misunderstandings, their troubles and heartaches, I did enjoy spending time with this dysfunctional family.

For another take on this novel, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

The author is based in Perth, so I read this book 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, 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’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, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Lynne Leonhardt, Margaret River Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Finding Jasper’ by Lynne Leonhardt


Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 316 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Every so often I read a book that makes me homesick because it captures the sights and sounds of Australia so very eloquently that you can practically smell the aroma of eucalyptus wafting off the page and feel the harsh summer sun beating down on you. Lynne Leonhardt’s wonderfully self-assured debut novel Finding Jasper is one of those books.

A Western Australian novel

Set in Western Australia between 1945 and 1963, the novel is divided into three parts.

It opens in 1956, when 12-year-old Gin (short for Virginia) is sent to her aunt’s remote farm while her English mother returns to London on a three-month holiday. It is Gin’s first time away from home and she is upset by the prospect of being abandoned in this manner. But she soon comes to love her stay with Aunt Attie, especially the stories she learns about her father (Attie’s brother), who died shortly after she was born.

The second part moves backwards in time to January 1945 and tells the tale of Gin’s mother, Valerie, and her first husband, Jasper, an Australian fighter pilot in Bomber Command. The pair meet and marry in England while Jasper is stationed at the (fictional) RAF base Wickerton during the Second World War. When Gin is born, Valerie emigrates to Australia ahead of her husband. But he is killed in action and never returns home.

The third and final part jumps ahead to January 1963 and largely revolves around 19-year-old Gin, whose life is still profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper, the father she never knew. While living at home with her mother, her step-father Noel and her little step-sister, Dottie, a family tragedy changes things forever. Gin must now decide what kind of path she wants to forge for her own life.

Detailed and highly nuanced

The above outline is a mere thumbnail portrait of an exceptionally detailed and highly nuanced novel which essentially shows the immediate and long-term repercussions of Jasper’s death on three women — Attie, Valerie and Gin (and to a lesser extent Gin’s grandmother).

It’s a confident and ambitious novel, written in lovely, sensitive prose, and despite the sometimes dramatic subject matter, it completely shies away from sentiment and showy flashes of emotion. It’s all rather restrained and packs a more powerful punch because of it.

The characters are all wonderfully realised — Attie is the very essence of a strong, self-reliant, independent woman who just gets on with things, running a farm in harsh terrain and a difficult climate, without any male help; Valerie is uptight, anxious, fearful (the result of having lived through the Blitz) and hugely disappointed by her lot, but is unable to share her feelings, so comes across as snooty and judgemental; and Gin is spirited and inquisitive, occasionally shy and lonely, but full of optimism for the future.

The landscape and the wildlife are also central characters, and Leonhardt writes about them so beautifully and with such a visual eye, I could easily see this novel being turned into a film or TV series. I particularly loved the way she described things through the eyes of Valerie, an outsider, who cannot fathom the heat and the dust and the isolation of her new home when she first arrives in Australia after months at sea.

‘Well,’ said Attie, ‘at least it must be a relief to be on dry land again.’
‘Yes, of course,’ replied Valerie, although the land still looked decidedly barren. She sat silently absorbing the changing Australian landscape. For a while, the rise and fall of the sand dunes offered glimpses of the ocean through the low-lying scrub. Salt lakes appeared through the trees and shrubs. Bloody hell, she thought, and closed her eyes.

Post-war Australia

While I wouldn’t necessarily label Finding Jasper an historical novel (on the basis it may put people off), it is very reminiscent of a particular time and place — that of post-war Australia. This part of the country, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian Ocean, was not isolated from the war — the Japanese bombed many parts along the Western Australian coast and there was a real fear of invasion.

And in the latter section, there’s a very real sense of a rapidly changing world, with references to the Beatles, JFK’s assassination, Communism and the “yellow peril”.

I think the highest compliment I can pay this novel is to say that certain elements of it reminded me of another great novel from Western Australia — Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, which I reviewed favourably several years ago.

On the whole, Finding Jasper is a hugely enjoyable and acutely sensitive story about love, loss and family, the kind of book that deserves a wide audience. It will appeal to those who love intelligent novels that explore the impact of war on survivors and are peopled by characters you come to truly care about.

As ever, Australian novels can sometimes be hard to source in the wider world. But for international readers, it can be ordered in paperback direct from the Margaret River Press website or in ebook form from the following Amazon, iTunes and Kobo.