Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Trevor Shearston

‘Hare’s Fur’ by Trevor Shearston

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 194 pages; 2019.

Australian writer Trevor Shearston is a new-to-me author, but he’s been penning novels for quite some time judging by his GoodReads author’s page which lists eight novels, a short story collection and an academic paper.

Hare’s Fur, published in 2019, is a gentle but immersive story about a man leading a relatively solitary life whose world is opened up by the arrival of three young runaways whom he takes in and shelters.

It’s set on the outskirts of Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, where 72-year-old professional potter Russell Bass lives and works. His wife died 11 months ago and he is going through a period of adjustment. He has a few close friends living nearby — including his sister-in-law, Delys, and her husband, Hugh, who is also a potter — who keep an eye on him, invite him over for dinner and make sure he doesn’t turn into a complete recluse.

He is pretty self-sufficient though and sticks to a regular schedule of work, throwing pots, sourcing clay and wood for his kiln, firing and sending his work off to exhibitions.

Hiking trip

Once a month he heads off on foot to the valley below his house to collect iron-rich rock he uses to make glazes for his pots. (The title of the novel, by the way, refers to a type of glaze, black with coloured streaks, that is said to resemble hare’s fur.)

He halted and stared through the columns of trunks. It was like peering into the gloom of a cathedral. The path disappeared among mossed boulders and ferns and pepperbush and the five or six other species that made up the understorey.

On one of these trips, he notices a Mars Bar wrapper on the path, which, in turn, leads him to discover two young children, Emma and Todd, and their teenage sister, Jade, living in a remote cave.

He befriends the trio who have been hiding from DoCS (child welfare) and the police for the past nine days. Both parents have been jailed for drug offences (possession and dealing) and there’s a fear the siblings will be split up when they are taken into care.

This presents Russell with a moral dilemma: does he tell the authorities, or does he help the children evade them, even if that means being drawn into a risky world he doesn’t quite understand? He chooses the latter.

Fragile bonds

Over the course of this beautifully written novel, we witness Russell’s relationship with the children grow and develop over a short period of time. He provides a safe haven for them, offers food and shelter, and acts as a guide and mentor. He teaches Emma to play chess, shows Jade how to throw pots on a foot-driven wheel and lets Todd watch as much TV as he wants.

A bond of trust evolves but it is as fragile as the pottery Russell creates.

There are risks associated with Russell’s decision. There’s an older sister, Kayla, who arrives with a boyfriend standing in the shadows, spinning a story about trying to find an aunt in Sydney who will take them in. And there’s a fear that neighbours, seeing Russell with children, will want to know who they are and why they are staying with him.

But while these children have effectively turned Russell’s world upside down, their arrival has now given his life new meaning. With them, he is free to be himself. When he tells them his own son died, aged eight, it’s like the “bursting of a bubble in this chest”:

There were people he’d known for years who assumed that he and Adele had been childless.

There’s a melancholy sadness at the heart of this novel, but it’s also an uplifting account of crossing a social divide to help others. It doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of life, but it shows how a gentle, empathetic and nurturing attitude can work wonders on children damaged by forces outside of their control.

And it’s filled with gorgeous detailed descriptions of the landscape and the art of pottery.

For other takes on this novel, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums and Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Laura Jean McKay, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘The Animals in that Country’ by Laura Jean McKay

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2020.

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist is due to be announced later this month and I’d like to think that Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country may feature on it.

This wholly original novel is unique in so many ways, not least of which is its premise: there’s a flu-like pandemic raging across Australia that allows those infected to understand what animals are saying. But being able to communicate with non-humans — including mammals, birds and insects — isn’t as wonderful as you might expect, for the messages, random, garbled and incessant, are frightening: the animals are calling for help.

Preposterous but plausible

I ate this book up in the space of a weekend. I would put it down and then itch to pick it up again. It’s spellbinding in a way few dystopian novels can be spellbinding. It posits a truly preposterous idea, yet makes it seem totally plausible.

The story is narrated by a kickass, foul-mouthed protagonist called Jean, who works as a guide at a local wildlife zoo. Jean has “issues” — she’s a hard drinker, a chain smoker and likes rough-and-ready sex with her married male friend, which she usually doesn’t remember the next day. She doesn’t normally get on with people, but she’s devoted to her granddaugher Kim, loves her wayward missing-in-action adult son Lee and has a soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.

The latter “relationship” is important, because when the pandemic hits the local area, and Lee turns up infected to “steal back” Kim and do a runner, it is Sue who provides the companionship Jean craves when she hits the road looking for her son. And it is Sue who is the first animal to communicate with her.

Half the traffic lights are out. The camper’s got low revs, takes off like a baby elephant. I plug in my phone, pull a slug of Angela’s bourbon, wind down the windows and gun it anyway. Beside me sits a dingo dog. Some wolf, some kelpie camp mutt. Her sandy behind on the shotgun seat. Panting, she draws in great gulps of the hot air. A flash of tooth.
RABBIT.
OH SHIT. (DEAD BITS
OF ME.) THAT ONE’S
FOR THE GROUND. THAT’S FOR MY
GUMS.
HOW ABOUT
THERE. AND THERE.
AND —
‘Why are you helping me, Sue? I mean, why aren’t you with your brothers?’
She peels her nose from the window. Amber eyes swirling.
ITS WHOLE FACE
A DESERT WITH WATER. IT’S
WHOLE (YESTERDAY)
MOUTH
THE SKY.

As the pandemic progresses, those infected begin to lose their minds because they can’t shut off the overwhelming babble of animal voices. There’s no quiet. Everything is noise.

Jean keeps her head while everyone around her loses theirs. Her journey is perilous and deliriously strange.

Bold and experimental

Tightly plotted, bold and experimental, The Animals in that Country does intriguing things with language (as you might have noticed from the above quote). The animal voices emerge as an unstoppable stream of consciousness, none of which makes much sense, but the way it is laid out on the page makes it appear like a brutal kind of poetry. (In places, it reminded me just a little of Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.)

But it is Jean’s obscene, audacious voice which provides the real flavour. I liked being in her company, even if I didn’t always like what she got up to or what she witnessed.

By the time I got to the end of this dazzling novel, I felt spent — but in a good way. This is a challenging and compelling read, one that makes you look at the world, and how we relate to animals, in a completely different way. I feel forever changed having read it.

The Animals in that Country was published in Australia last month. It will be published in the UK and USA in September, and Canada in October (although the Kindle version is available to buy in all territories now).

This is my 7th book for #AWW2020.

UPDATE September 2020: This is my 1st book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Children/YA, Christoffer Carlsson, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Sweden

‘October is the Coldest Month’ by Christoffer Carlsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 181 pages; 2017. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

A teenage girl unwittingly caught up in a terrible crime is the focus of Christoffer Carlsson’s young adult novel October is the Coldest Month.

Set in Sweden, it tells the story of 16-year-old Vega Gillberg, who lives with her widowed mother, a nightshift worker, and an older brother, Jakob, in a working-class community in Småland, an area known for its huge forests and bogs.

When the police knock on the door looking for Jakob, Vega knows exactly why they want to question him, but she hasn’t seen him for days and she figures he’s gone into hiding — with good reason.

As the story gently unfolds piece by piece, we come to learn of the crime, but Carlsson holds his cards close to his chest and never fully reveals the motive, nor the culprit, until the final pages. It makes for an intriguing, atmospheric read.

Teenage narrator

Told in the first person from Vega’s perspective, October is the Coldest Month cleverly shows how the world of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood opens up when she discovers that good people can do bad things — and vice versa.

It’s written in cool, detached prose but with an eye to evocative description. Here, for example, is how the place in which Vega lives is described:

If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.

Tough lives

The working-class background, depicting tough lives hardened by tough attitudes and violent tendencies, is reminiscent of the deeply reflective work of Per Petterson, one of my favourite realist writers, while the social context of the crime brings to mind Karin Fossum’s wonderful crime novels.

Admittedly, I did not know this was a young adult novel when I bought it (from a local second-hand book shop), but it deals with very adult themes — Vega, for instance, is sexually active — and demonstrates the complexities of life, the moral codes by which we live and the ways women are often abused by men in domestic settings. What’s more, there’s no redemptive ending, but there’s enough here to make the reader think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

October is the Coldest Month is a short, sharp, powerful novel with edgy characters and an edgy setting, a compelling tale if you’re looking for an “easy” read with darker undertones. In 2016 it won the Swedish Crime Writers Academy award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers.

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Morocco, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tommy Wieringa

‘The Death of Murat Idrissi’ by Tommy Wieringa

Fiction – hardcover; Scribe; 102 pages; 2019. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

This is the kind of slim book that you think won’t take very long to read, but I found Tommy Wieringa’s short, sharp novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi, so shocking in places I could only read it in intermittent bursts. I’ve been mentally processing it ever since.

It was longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but it was this review on Dolce Bellezza that made me really want to read it. When I found it in the library I couldn’t resist borrowing it.

A fable for our times, it tells the story of two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree — somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said — to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe. The man’s name is Murat Idrissi and, sadly, he dies en route — hence the title of the book.

The women, abandoned by the men who set up the arrangement, have to figure out what to do with the body. They have next to no money — for food, for fuel, for overnight accommodation — and must make a perilous journey from the Spanish coast to their home in Amsterdam in their (expensive) hire car without alerting the authorities to their predicament.

A compelling read

This is a compelling read, gruesome in places, but Wieringa prevents the narrative from sliding into farce by the clever use of flashbacks, showing how the women got involved in the smuggling operation, detailing the fun aspects of their holiday beforehand and then contrasting this with Murat’s life of poverty. It’s easy to see how the guilt of a Western upbringing may have lead them to this situation.

But there’s an additional “twist” — for want of a better word — because the women, Ilham and Thouraya, are the children of African immigrants themselves and have spent their lives being regarded as Other. Visiting Morocco on holiday was supposed to be a way of discovering their roots, but they’re shocked — perhaps naively so — to find that their usual freedom as young Europeans isn’t available here. There are “rules” for women, and even if they’re European born, they still look like the locals.

This confusion over identity is a key component of the novella and Wieringa asks some important questions about what makes us who we are: is it our skin colour, our country of birth, our belief system, our education, our cultural traditions, our language, our parentage?

She stares out of the window. The trees flash by. It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept. It depresses her, the quick prayers whenever death is mentioned, when there are portents. All those dos and don’ts. The countless fears her mother covers up with invocations. The things you’re not allowed to say, not allowed to think, not allowed to do. Her mother is a farmwoman — she went to the airport on the back of a donkey, as Thouraya puts it; she has a certain control over the new language. She is fairly independent, but there is no use trying to combat her primitive ideas — her reply is always that her daughter is rude, and that rude girls end up badly.

It’s written in prose that mixes long, elegant sentences with short, fragmentary ones, and the descriptions — of the landscapes, of the sights seen on the road — are vivid and beautiful:

They take the new toll road to Tangier; there’s almost no traffic. The sun comes up in a wash of peach-coloured light. They pass greenhouses and plantations, the fields full of sweet, round watermelons, ready for the harvest. The melons rest nakedly beside their furrows, like eggs the earth has pressed out.

Not much is resolved in the ending, which means I’ve been thinking about Ilham and Thouraya ever since I reached the final page. What happened to them when they got back to Amsterdam? What stories have they told themselves about this incident? How have they reconciled it in their minds? And what of Murat’s family back home in Morocco? Do they know he’s dead, or do they think he’s just been too busy to get in touch?

It would make a terrific book club read for that reason — although there’s much more to discuss than that open-ended final chapter.

As you can probably tell, I thought The Death of Murat Idrissi was a really powerful book. Free from judgement and free from sentiment, it’s about the haves and the have nots and the risks people are prepared to take to bridge the gulf between them. It will stay with me for a long time.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Enza Gandolfo, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo

The Bridge book cover

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 384 pages; 2018.

At 11:50 am on 15 October 1970 a giant span of Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge fell 50 metres into the water below, killing 35 construction workers and injuring 18 others. It was two years into the construction project designed to provide a road link between Melbourne’s western suburbs and the city.

I was just a baby when Australia’s worst industrial accident occurred, but for many years I would travel under this bridge and see the memorial plaque erected by the bridge workers and be reminded of the tragedy. When I was a university student and living in nearby Williamstown I stopped and read the names on the plaque: most are Italian or Greek.

Melbourne author Enza Gandolfo takes this accident as the starting point for her richly written novel, The Bridge, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

A book of two halves

The book is divided into two main sections: 1970 and 2009.

In the first section we are introduced to young Italian immigrant Antonello, a rigger on the bridge, and his young bride Paolina, a teacher.

Nello, as he is known, is a bit of an introvert. He’s not particularly sociable, but will go for an after-work drink on a Friday, choosing a glass of red instead of a beer, which sets him apart from his work colleagues — even the other immigrants who drink beer to try to fit into Australian society. He also spends his spare time by the river where he draws the landscape and the bridge.

When the bridge collapses on that fateful October day Nello survives, for he’s swapped his shift with another chap, which means he’s not up in the rigging when the accident occurs.

But later, as he comes to terms with the death of so many of his co-workers, including the man who mentored him and gave him his first construction job, Nello becomes even more introverted, plagued by survivor’s guilt and what we now know as PTSD. He does not want to talk about what happened. He does not even want to look at the broken bridge. He wants them to pull the whole thing down.

Living under the bridge’s shadow

In the second section we meet 18-year-old Jo, who lives in a rundown house, between the bridge and the Mobil oil terminal, with her mother, a supermarket worker. It’s her last year of school and everything is changing. Her close relationship with best friend Ashleigh, who is more glamorous (read less working class), feels under threat because Ash is spending more time with a new boyfriend. Ash is also more academically inclined and wants to pursue a law degree; Jo would be happy working as a waitress somewhere. Ultimately, it means when school finishes, the pair will probably go their separate ways.

Jo’s story, of a teenager having to come to terms with growing up and the reality of adulthood, mirrors Nello’s — but with an even darker edge.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so please skip the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book, but Jo makes a bad decision that will have devastating consequences for many people, including Nello. What does she do? She drives her friends, including Ashleigh (who is Nello’s granddaughter), home from a party, crashing the car underneath the bridge. She walks away from the accident, but one of her friends dies. Jo had been drinking and is charged with culpable driving. The rest of the book then charts the repercussions of that wholly avoidable tragedy.

Unrelentingly bleak

I have to admit that I might have abandoned this novel mid-way through were it not for my project to read all the books on the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. I think it was the unrelenting bleakness of it all. There’s so much heartache and suffering in this novel and much of the emotion, so desolate and painful, felt claustrophobic. I wondered if the story was going to go anywhere.

But this is why it pays to never give up on a book, because by the end of this story — which has a hopeful and redemptive ending — I had tears pouring down my cheeks (I still feel upset writing this review several hours later) and I know this story, of two people a generation apart coping with terrible tragedies but doing the best they can, will stay with me for a long time.

I especially like how Gandolfo, who writes in an elegant and restrained manner, explores themes related to class and family, guilt and shame, tragedy and redemption.

She is also wonderful at capturing people’s inner-most thoughts, especially their fears and self-doubt, and showing how the tiniest bit of anxiety can spin out of control to create problems that were never really there in the first place. Her dialogue, whether that be between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives, or work colleagues, or teenage girls, is spot on: alive and believable and authentic.

In fact, the characterisation is absolutely superb in this novel whether it be a troubled teen (Jo), a guilt-ridden mother (Mandy), an angry but forgiving grandfather (Nello) or a court-appointed lawyer plagued by body image problems (Sarah).

And her descriptions of Melbourne’s western suburbs — of Yarraville and Williamstown (which have both played important parts in my own life) in particular — are pitch perfect. Indeed, it almost feels like these places are characters in their own right, as is the bridge that forms the central focus of this extraordinarily moving novel.

I know that Lisa from ANZLitLovers and Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest admired this novel a lot, too.

Added extras

You can find out more about the bridge collapse via this short news report:

This survivor’s account is also worth watching, because it highlights how the whole tragedy was wholly avoidable and how far the trade union movement has come in terms of worker safety:

This is my 6th book for #AWW2019  and my 5th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is currently available as an ebook in the UK and will be published in paperback in November.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hwang Sok-yong, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, South Korea

‘Familiar Things’ by Hwang Sok-Yong

Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong

Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Just as the recent Grenfell Tower fire here in London has highlighted the enormous disparity in the conditions under which the rich and poor live cheek by jowl in this city, Hwang Sok-Yong’s Familiar Things shows the same inequality — albeit a little more extreme — in modern day South Korea.

Set on a massive landfill site on the outskirts of Seoul, the story gives voice to the city’s marginalised population. It is told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy known as Bugeye. His father has been arrested and taken to a re-education camp, so now his mother, a street vendor, must support them.

When she finds a job as a “trash picker” sorting out recyclables at the dump, they move from their existing hillside slum in the city to the ironically named “Flower Island” and live in a shack made of plastic, reclaimed wood and styrofoam in a shanty town on site.

The shifts his mother works are long and dangerous, but she makes more money than she did as a street vendor and they have plenty to eat, even if some of it is recovered from the waste they sort through on a daily basis. Yet Bugeye knows this is not a good life.

A month has already passed since Bugeye and his mother moved to Flower Island. She had tried to console Bugeye at first by saying that people lived there just like anywhere else, but he knew it was a garbage dump filled with things used up and tossed aside, things people had grown tired of using, and things that were no longer of any use to anyone at all, and that the people who lived there were likewise discards and outcasts driven from the city.

Over the course of the novel Bugeye makes friends, including the ancient spirits who once lived on the island before it was turned into a landfill site, and slowly adjusts to his new situation.

Evocative tale about inequality

Familiar Things is a truly evocative, haunting tale, expertly translated by Sora Kim-Russell. There’s a silky, dreamlike quality to the prose, which captures beauty where you would least expect it.

The blurb on my edition makes much of the magic realism of the story, something that would normally turn me off. But in a society that is steeped so much in the spiritual, it works beautifully. It’s done with such a lightness of touch it feels a wholly appropriate part of the narrative, highlighting the connections between the past and present, and showing that when you throw things away there are consequences — for the environment, for the economy, for society and for the people left behind.

I loved the subtle message of the story too, the way in which it conveys the idea that every life has a value and that too rapid urbanisation comes at a cost. But despite the fact that this is — at its heart — a political book and probably written from a place of anger, it has the feel of a light, easy read. It certainly makes me want to explore more by this author, whose own life story seems as intriguing as the tale he tells in this novel.

For another take on Familiar Things, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

2017 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Fiction, Georgia Blain, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Between a Wolf and a Dog’ by Georgia Blain

Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain

Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The late Georgia Blain’s last novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize. The author died in December 2016, just a few days before her mother, the broadcaster (and “Omo lady”) Anne Deveson, passed away.

A domestic novel set in Sydney on a single rainy day, it is undercut with a back story (told flashback style) set three years earlier.

It’s largely told from the viewpoint of Ester, a therapist, who is estranged from her older sister, April, a one-time pop star who has lost her mojo. Ester is also estranged from Lawrence, the father of her children — twin daughters Catherine and Laura — but is close to her mother, Hilary, a widowed film maker, who has decided not to tell her children she’s dying of a brain tumour.

This sounds melodramatic, right? It’s not. The emotion is restrained, almost aloof, in this novel; Blain is careful to keep things in check, yet it’s full of dramatic moments. Indeed, the story is a chronicle of grief and anxiety, betrayal and strained relations — and that’s just the troubled patients that Ester listens to day in, day out in her therapy room; her own family has its own problematic, complicated past, and her ex-husband is in crisis having twiddled the numbers in his lucrative job as a pollster.

Slow going

I admit that I struggled with this book. Mid-way through I began to wonder if it was ever going to end.

I’m not much a fan of domestic novels, though I do like explorations of the human heart — and this one does that superbly. Blain beautifully captures the stresses and strains between siblings, parents and children, and married couples.

But I was never able to fully lose myself in the story because the writing, which is too self conscious, too laboured, kept getting in the way. The prose style is showy and too heavily reliant on back story (for the smallest of details) and everything is over-explained. The endless references to rain also wears thin.

Outside, the rain continues unceasing; silver sheets sluicing down, the trees and shrubs soaking and bedraggled, the earth sodden, puddles overflowing, torrents coursing onwards, as the darkness slowly softens with the dawn.

The strong characterisation keeps the story afloat, however, even if no one appears to be terribly likeable or worthy of sympathy. These are artistic middle-class types, affluent, secure, complacent and a little bit annoying. Blain’s perceptive eye focuses on their every day sorrows and anxieties, and questions the role of forgiveness in easing heart-ache and pain. But for much of the time, I read this book wishing I could knock a few heads together. Get over yourselves, I wanted to yell, it’s not bloody worth it!

This is my fourth book for #AWW2017.

Andrew Hankinson, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, true crime, UK

‘You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat]’ by Andrew Hankinson

You could do something amazing with your life [you are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 224 pages; 2016.

Back in the summer of 2010, Northumbria Police launched one of the biggest man hunts in British history to find Raoul Moat, a former body builder with a grudge against the police, who had gone on the run, taking two “hostages” with him (who later turned out to be his friends and accomplices).

Over the space of two days he shot three people with a sawn-off shotgun. The first victim was his ex-girlfriend’s new partner Chris Brown, whom he shot dead. His ex, Samantha Stobbart, was also shot, but survived. A third victim, police constable David Rathband, was shot the next day while parked on the side of a busy motorway whilst on traffic duty. He survived but was permanently blinded.

The ensuing manhunt, which lasted seven days, ended after a six-hour stand-off in which Moat shot himself in the head. He died in hospital a short time later.

In his own words

You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson tells Moat’s version of events from his point of view and is written in his own words thanks to the vast archive of material he left behind. This included audio recordings and a 49-page confession, both of which he made on the run, as well as correspondence, suicide notes he left in his house and various recordings of phone calls he made while he was in Durham prison, where he served a short sentence for assaulting a child.

The material was edited for legal and editorial reasons, then rearranged and reassembled for the sake of comprehension and coherence, sticking where possible to Raoul Moat’s phrasing and vocabulary, and trying to emphasise the subjects that Moat emphasised.

The resulting narrative is a masterpiece of journalistic research, curation and editing. It reads as a seamless whole and provides a rare glimpse inside a killer’s head.

It’s written in the second person in the present tense, which gives the story a page-turning immediacy, and is broken into seven short chapters, one for each day that Moat was on the run.

What soon becomes clear is that Moat was a deeply troubled man — but he knew it and tried to seek help on numerous occasions. But after initial psychiatric and medical consultations, he would never bother to attend follow-up appointments.

There’s a paranoid streak running through most of his commentary — he believes the police have it in for him and mistakenly thinks Samantha’s new boyfriend is a policeman (he’s not), hence the decision to shoot him dead.

I wish I could have been a better bloke for Sam. I’m an intelligent kid. I could have done so many amazing things with my life. I could have made her life so much better.

You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] is not your average true crime book. Its experimental nature makes it an original read and shows us in a very effective way the ordinary face of a troubled man who committed a horrendous crime. There’s no authorial distance and no expert interpretation — the reader is simply left to make their own judgements.

I came away from it believing that Moat wasn’t evil; he was just unbalanced, angry, confused and unable to readjust to life without his girlfriend when she left him for another man. That doesn’t excuse him of his abhorrent behaviour, but helps explain why he did what he did. That so many people were harmed or had their lives irrevocably changed by his behaviour just makes it all the more tragic…

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Johnston, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Rosie Jones, Scribe, Setting, true crime

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“She is skeletal and pale, 95 years old and living in a nursing home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. There are dense layers of secrecy surrounding her, as there have always been. Her followers have been told since the beginning to protect her, and never betray her. To these followers, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is a reincarnation of Jesus, a living god.”

So begins The Family, a powerful work of investigative journalism, by newspaper journalist Chris Johnston and documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones, which looks at the cult Anne formed in the 1960s. Known simply as “The Family”, this cult hit the headlines in 1987 when police raided its property in the hills outside of Melbourne and rescued dozens of children who lived there.

The children, who had all been adopted by Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill, reported serious crimes of physical and psychological abuse. They had been raised to believe they were all siblings (they weren’t) and that Anne was their real mother. Their hair was dyed blond and they wore old-fashioned clothes — think frilly dresses and buckled shoes — hugely reminiscent of the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.

When it came to answering her accusers, Anne was nowhere to be found. It took police on three continents more than five years to track her and Bill down. The couple was then extradited to Melbourne (from their home in the Catskills in New York State) and charged with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets. They were fined $AU5,000 each after they both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of making a false declaration.

Their lives barely changed, while “their” children’s lives were left in tatters, none of them entirely sure who their birth mothers were or why they had been subjected to so much cruel and unusual punishment throughout their childhoods.

Painstaking police investigation

The book is essentially a police procedural. It follows Operation Forest, which was set up by Victoria Police to locate the Hamilton-Byrnes and to seek justice for the children.

It also traces the roots of the cult — how it came into being, the major players and the crimes they perpetuated to enable The Family to function — as well as Anne’s rise from obscurity to notoriety. As one of very few female cult leaders in history, she managed to wield a mysterious hold on all her followers, even when she was living thousands of miles away in the UK and the US.

Somehow she hoodwinked fine upstanding citizens to join her “spiritual group” and built a network of “insiders” — doctors, midwives, social workers and lawyers — to help her steal newborn babies and register them in her name (adoption in Australia in the early 1970s wasn’t highly regulated). A similar network of scientists and psychiatrists also helped her “treat” cult members, including her children, with LSD in a bid to make them believe she was Jesus reincarnated as a woman.

And on top of this she recruited a series of “Aunties” who lived with the children, looked after them and educated them. But they also mistreated them and doled out punishment — hitting the children, locking them up and starving them.

No justice

When I read this book — which has been pieced together in exacting detail and based on interviews with the children, Aunties, current cult members, journalists and police, and drags on slightly too long — the first question that sprang to mind was “why did the children not get the justice they deserved?” The Aunties who were brought before the courts got fined more than the Hamilton-Brynes, but no one did jail time for child abuse. Essentially, Anne got away with it.

“There was no justice. There was no acknowledgement that the children had been mistreated. The children saw the Aunties go to jail for fiddling the social security ‘but they didn’t go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us for three days at a time,’ says Sarah [one of the children]. ‘No one got in trouble for that.'”

Detective Lex de Man, the policeman in charge of Operation Forest, says the police deliberately did not charge the Hamilton-Brynes with child abuse because it would be too difficult to make the charges stick — there was no evidence, just reports by the children which couldn’t be legally verified — and he was wary of making fragile, psychologically damaged children testify in a court of law. It was safer to take a more oblique approach: to get Anne on fraud and perjury charges, which they were able to achieve thanks to Anne’s own solicitor turning whistle bower.

Lex claims his investigation, which took years of painstaking work and struggled to get the resources it required, was able to debunk the mysticism around Anne to show that she “was no one special”.

“She was basically a very cunning crook. […] She is the most evil person with the most evil set of crimes that I have ever investigated in my 18-year career with Victoria Police. If you want to know the definition of evil, you look at Anne Hamilton-Byrne.”

A one-hour documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, has been made to accompany the book. You can find out more about it on the BBC4 Storyville website and the official documentary website. It’s definitely worth watching if you get the chance.

This is my 52nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 35th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting, Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016.

“What does it feel like to be an indigenous person in Australia?”

This is the question journalist Stan Grant wrestles with in a radio interview upon his return to Australia after a decade working overseas. It’s the same question he wrestles with in Talking to My Country, a heartfelt and deeply personal memoir about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

His response?

I tell Richard [Glover, the interviewer] how vulnerable we can be. I tell him of the little boy I once was who felt so ashamed of his colour that he tried to scrub it off. I tell him of the ache of poverty and how my family had roamed the back roads looking for a home in a land we had lost. I tell him of how a sideways glance or a snickering child could steal our souls. I tell him how we learned to measure our words and lower our voices for fear of being howled down. I tell him that even now despite carving out a place for myself I could so easily be crushed by rejection.

But Talking to My Country is more than just a memoir. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. If, as Grant argues, Australia is a “great country”, it should also step up to the mark and be “held to great account”. He has a point.

Sobering facts

Here are some of the sobering facts peppered throughout Stan’s frank and eye-opening narrative:

  • Aboriginal people represent fewer than three per cent of the population, yet they represent a quarter of the prison population
  • Half of those in juvenile detention centres are indigenous
  • One in five indigenous prisoners try to kill themselves
  • There were 99 deaths in custody in nine years in the decade before 1987. Despite a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody, this figure has increased by 100 per cent in the past two decades
  • Acute depression affects one-third of indigenous people over the age of 15
  • Aboriginals are three times more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts
  • 50,000 aboriginal children were stolen from their families by the federal and state governments in a misguided attempt to assimilate them
  • Since 2008, when then Prime Minster Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology about the Stolen Generation, the number of aboriginal children removed from their families has increased by 400 per cent
  • Compared with white Australians, Aboriginal Australians have a much lower life expectancy, much higher levels of unemployment and a higher infant mortality rate
  • Six out of 10 white Australians have never met an Aboriginal Australian

But while Grant paints a shameful portrait of a nation divided, he is quick to point out that he is one of the lucky ones. He left school early, but he managed to find a route out of poverty through further education and journalism.

Many of you may know him as a broadcast journalist — he was a correspondent for CNN for a decade covering all kinds of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, but I mainly remember him as the host of the current affairs program Real Life in the mid-1990s. He was the first Aboriginal journalist to be on mainstream TV.

I’m not sure his book offers any solutions to Australia’s troubled past, but what it does do is show how we got into this mess. Grant does not point the finger at white people per se, but at the “system built on white privilege”. He shows that it is only by understanding our past — the shared history, the massacres, the unjust treatment of his people — that we can reconcile what has happened and move into the future together as one united people. Grant states that Aboriginals are constantly told to let it go, but he says it’s not quite as easy as that:

… our history is a living thing. It is physical. it is nose and mouths and faces. It is written on our bodies. […] It is there in the mental scars you often cannot see.

It doesn’t help that Grant, having grown up in the margins of society, still feels a stranger in his own country. “When an anthem is played and a flag is raised we are reminded that our country is no longer ours,” he writes.

Sadness and shame

I came away from this book feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness — and shame. It’s the exact same reaction I had when I read Kim Scott’s confronting novel Benang: Straight from the Heart, about a man who realises he is “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with Aboriginal blood.

Talking to My Country is eye-opening and informative. It’s fuelled by anger and shame. I read it feeling my heart breaking with every turn of the page. It’s exactly the kind of book that every Australian should read, but it has wider appeal in showing what happens to people when they are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. In the current political climate, its message seems more important than ever.

This is my 46th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.