Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kenneth Mackenzie, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Refuge’ by Kenneth Mackenzie

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 448 pages; 2015.

First published in 1954, Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Refuge is based on an intriguing premise: a newspaper reporter is tipped off about a young woman found dead in Sydney harbour, except he already knows the news because he committed the crime.

But the novel, deeply evocative of wartime Sydney and the paranoia affecting its citizens about Communism and European refugees, doesn’t live up to its promise. While it has moments of quiet brilliance, as a whole it is over-written — it contains pages and pages of purple prose — and over-wrought. This is a great shame because with some judicious editing (the novel is about 200 pages too long) there’s a brilliant story inside that is dying to get out.

That story is obviously framed around the murder — why it was committed, and how? And while those aspects are covered in a satisfying way, the narrative pacing is all wrong. So what should be a fast-paced tale riven with tension and suspense becomes a laborious, self-indulgent journey focused on the man who tries to justify what he has done. It’s billed as a mystery, but it’s not a mystery at all. It’s a literary novel with a deeply philosophical tone, but it’s uneven, patchy — and flawed.

Suspenseful start

The first chapter is compelling, fast-paced and suspenseful. Lloyd Fitzherbert, the police reporter with the Sydney Gazette, is getting ready to go home after his long shift when his contact in the CIB calls him about a woman currently lying in the morgue, who had been “netted” in the “harbour off Woolloomooloo”.

Coming in with the tide, I suppose. They tell me it’s a real beauty — a woman, and not a mark on her. Luck, eh? Only the colour’s wrong for a drowning.

The woman is Irma, a Dutch refugee, whom Fiztherbert had secretly married three years earlier and, then, as it turns out, had drugged and murdered for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the book. But why did he marry Irma in the first place and then keep it secret from everyone he knew, including his teenage son? And why did they live in separate, albeit adjacent, apartments?

To answer these questions, the story spools right back to the beginning to explain how the pair met and then charts their fledgling relationship in minute, long-winded detail. Their romance is not straightforward. Irma is young — just 19 when she first meets Fitzherbert, who is 12 years her senior — and troubled. She’s a Communist fleeing Nazi Germany and she believes she’s been tailed by three men on the refugee ship who wish to destroy her.

Fitzherbert, the handsome Australian saviour, tries to help her. It would seem he has her best interests at heart and while he’s attracted to her — there are many descriptions of her “Slavic cheekbones” and beautiful eyes and lips and figure — he spurs her sexual advances, and she ends up running away. They do not see each other for six years.

In the meantime, Fitzherbert, who is a widower, raises his son, Alan, single-handedly. (Their relationship is close and tender and one of the strengths of the novel.) He diligently works on the newspaper (the descriptions of journalistic practices are rather wonderful) and leads a quiet, respectable, drama-free life.

When he is eventually reunited with Irma and marries her (under strange circumstances, it has to be said), he is blissfully happy but somehow fails to see that she is not. She makes at least one suicide attempt which is practically swept under the carpet as if nothing untoward has happened.

The events leading up to her murder are relatively predictable, and while nothing is spelled out, the author wastes a lot of time telling us the emotional toll this is having on Fitzherbert. We never do hear from Irma, who remains an enigma throughout the entire novel.

Overtly sexist

My main issue with The Refuge is the overt sexism and objectification of women throughout. This, no doubt, is simply indicative of the time in which it was written, but the introduction by Nicolas Rothwell in this edition makes absolutely no mention of this. (Rothwell is more inclined to place the story in historical context, to explain how Communism and immigration impacted the Australian psyche still reeling from the impact of the Second World War, which is fascinating and, importantly, does help to explain some of the racism in the book.)

On more than one occasion, I was reminded of all the problematic issues I had with Sophie’s Choice when I read it a few years ago. That novel was very much focused on a single character’s beauty and sexual appetite, whereas this one tends to portray women as a group of unfathomable creatures who think and act differently from men because of some innate biological makeup. This is just one of many examples:

Con used to say that women arrive at a remarkable number of correct conclusions by thinking with their livers. When I said, why their livers? he said, “Well, any of their organs that happen to be unnaturally affected at the moment.” Of course, I took the opening to point out to him that the brain is also an organ, but he said that was different — a woman never allowed her brain to interfere with what she called her thinking.

That said, the book isn’t a complete dud. When Mackenzie hits his stride and focuses on showing us, instead of telling us, how Fitzherbert is feeling, he’s excellent. The historical setting is evocative — large parts of the novel are set in the lead up to the Munich agreement in 1938 — and I loved reading about the hubbub of the newsroom and the quirky characters who inhabit it.

The Refuge was Mackenzie’s last novel (he has three earlier ones to his name) — he drowned in mysterious circumstances a year later.

I read this book as part of the 1954 Club, a week-long initiative hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy of Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings in which everyone is encouraged to read books published in — you guessed it — 1954. More on Kaggy’s blog here and Simon’s blog here.

I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author was born in South Perth in 1933 and raised on a property at Pinjarra, in the Peel region about 80km south-east of the WA capital. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 352 pages; 2014.

First published in 1960, The Catherine Wheel features all of Elizabeth Harrower’s literary trademarks: a young woman, a claustrophobic relationship, a brooding atmosphere and brilliant psychological insights.

Set in London during the 1950s, it’s a grim portrait of both the city and the troubled life of a 25-year-old Australian woman who arrives from Sydney to begin a law course by correspondence.

Clemency James moves into a boarding house and has a small circle of friends who keep her entertained. But when she meets Christian, a good-looking man with a much older wife, her quiet, stable and studious existence gets thrown into disarray.

Kind-hearted and somewhat passive, Clem cannot resist Christian’s charms even though she knows he’s trouble, for Christian, an out-of-work actor, has a gambling and alcohol problem. He’s vain, petty and narcissistic.

When Clem agrees to give him French lessons of an evening to sustain her meagre allowance she feeds into Christian’s fantasy of moving abroad and becoming successful. He wants Clem to come with him, and while she realises it’s an unlikely prospect — he’s married after all — she somehow succumbs to his ways and finds herself caught up in a claustrophobic relationship from which she cannot extricate herself.

Her friends, fearful for her welfare, find that whatever they say, Clem takes against them: she truly believes that for all her lover’s faults she’s the one who will be able to change him.

Restrained psychological drama

I’ve read several of Harrower’s books now and like her two earlier novels — Down in the City and The Long Prospect — this one is a slow burner. The author takes her time to not only build up a deft portrait of her characters, she painstakingly sets the scene so that her restrained psychological drama, which plays out in a domestic setting, feels authentic and immersive.

By the time the reader realises that Clem has got in over her head, it’s too late: she’s become blinded by Christian’s woeful behaviour and now there doesn’t seem to be any turning back because even if she does realise what’s really going on, she will have to deal with the slow-burning shame of it.

I admit that this book did try my patience at times, perhaps because it’s slightly too long for a character-driven story, but on the whole I found it a fascinating look at the intricate emotional webs that flawed humans are capable of weaving. It also proves an insightful look at unstable personalities, alcoholism and the far-reaching effects of psychological abuse.

For another take on this novel, please see Guy’s review.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2018 and 17th book for #20booksofsummer (apologies, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews; I’ve got two more to go after this one). I bought it a couple of years ago as part of a set of Harrower novels published by Text Classics. She’s promptly become one of my favourite authors and I look forward to reading the remaining two novels I have in my TBR some time soon.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sumner Locke Elliott, Text Classics

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 319 pages; 2013.

Most people know Sumner Locke Elliott for his wonderful novel Careful, He Might Hear You, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year (and which was also adapted for television in the early 1980s), about a custody battle for a young boy in 1930s Sydney. That was a thinly veiled memoir of Locke Elliott’s own life, orphaned at a young age and raised by aunts.

Fairyland was his 11th (and last) novel. First published in 1990, it is also a thinly veiled memoir. For much of his life (he died in 1991), Locke Elliott hid his homosexuality. The book explores what it is like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your real self from the world.

It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment.

From cradle to grave

The book charts Seaton Daly’s life from a young boy in Sydney to a successful writer of radio plays and theatre productions in New York.

It begins (and ends) in dramatic fashion with Seaton’s premature death, before circling back to his childhood. It then moves forward through his teenage years, his carefree (if troubled) twenties, including his stint in the Army during World War Two, and then his immigration to the States, which he believed to be the Promised Land.

It is, essentially, a bildungsroman of a gay man living at a time when homosexuality was not only considered morally wrong, it was against the law.

An engaging story

Told in the third person in a forthright, engaging style, Fairyland is one of those books that is a delight to read despite the repressive setting.

There are scenes of quiet joy, little moments when you realise that Seaton is making his way in the world, forging a successful career for himself and occasionally finding romantic encounters in the unlikeliest of places. But this is often underpinned by the knowledge that he is unable to truly express himself, forever on guard in case the wrong person discovers his secret, for which there will be dire consequences.

In one particularly heartbreaking scene the straight man with whom he’s fallen in love admits that he knows about Seaton’s “inclinations” but cannot reciprocate his feelings. In another scene, his female friend advises him to “be a good sport about it, darling, it’s all you can be and you might as well start getting used to it, you’re going to have to be a good sport about it for the rest of your life”.

There are failed love affairs (with men and women) and intriguing friendships, occasional scenes of drunkenness and bad behaviour, but Seaton is always honourable and principled in his relationships with others. In one furious outburst, he admonishes an ex-lover for his abominable behaviour towards a young woman:

All my life I’ve hung on to one important compensation for what I am. I’ve just loved and not expected love back because I wanted just to love and that’s saved me and made up for what people call the sin of it.

Fairyland is an elegantly written tale about living in an intolerant society; it’s about the compromises one has to make to fit in; and is embued with a deep sense of sadness for what might have been.

UPDATE

For another review of this book, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it immediately after I read Careful, He Might Hear You last year, because I loved that book so much and was keen to read more by this author. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Highly recommended.

20 books of summer (2017), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Long Prospect

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 292 pages; 2013.

First published in 1958, The Long Prospect was Elizabeth Harrower’s second novel. It is a powerful example of Australian postwar literature, the kind of meaty novel that thrusts you into the messy lives of fascinating characters (some of them unkind), and then leaves an indelible impression.

Life in a boarding house

In it we meet 12-year-old Emily Lawrence, a lonely and unpopular girl living in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother, Lilian, in the industrial northern town of Ballowra (said to be a thinly veiled version of Newcastle in NSW). Her parents, Harry and Paula, are estranged and live separate lives in Sydney.

Lilian is a domineering personality and she has few kind words to say to her granddaughter, whom she largely ignores, preferring to focus on her other interests instead — namely horse racing, gossiping with her friends and bossing around her new lover, Rosen, who also happens to be one of her boarders.

It’s only when a new boarder arrives, the fiercely intelligent scientist, Max, who works in the steelworks, that things begin to look up for Emily, for Max is a kind-hearted man and recognises Emily’s need for friendship and adult attention. He talks to her about great literature and science, treating her as an equal and encouraging her to pursue her studies and to dream big. But Lilian is not keen on their friendship and the novel’s storyline pivots on a dramatic confrontation with far-reaching consequences.

An immersive, slow burning story

Admittedly, it took me a long time to get into this story. It’s a slow burner, perhaps because the text is so dense and Harrower takes her time to build up a picture of the inner lives of this small dysfunctional family and its bitter, often cruel, self-absorbed members.

Long before we are ever introduced to Max, we come to know Emily quite intimately. We understand her love-starved existence  — the crush she had on a former boarder and career woman, Thea; the other crush she developed on a teacher, who failed to truly notice her; the disintegration of a valued friendship with a girl when she realised Emily was from a poorer, less socially acceptable class; her distant relationship with her father, Harry, whom she regards as a stranger; the lack of bond she feels with her mother, who was packed off to Sydney to earn a living when her marriage began to fail — and wish we could teach her to see beyond her troubled life.

That’s where Max comes in, for when he arrives the narrative begins to pick up speed, as he teaches Emily to try new things, to overcome her shyness, to learn about the world beyond the four walls of her bedroom.

“About people—it’s still true, Emmy. Don’t spend your nights being afraid of murderers and your days being shy, but at the same time, remember—”
He hardly knew how to voice a warning without frightening her, her reaction to his least word was apt to be disproportionate. He said, “Learn from people, but don’t be dispersed by them. And remember that the bad times have compensations. Unhappiness is not all loss. Not by any means. […]”

The Long Prospect fully immerses the reader in the domestic realm of an unconventional household. The characters are flawed, authentic, original. Harrower’s uncanny eye for detail and her descriptions of the heat and the industrial landscape make Ballowra a character in its own right, too.

But she’s also incredibly perceptive about the psychology of people and what makes various “types” tick (especially prepubescent girls, in this case), and her dialogue, complete with barbed comments and little cruelties, is brilliantly believable.

This deftly written story about family ties, cruelty, heartache, friendship and coming of age only confirms my opinion that Elizabeth Harrower is one of Australia’s most important writers. I can’t wait to read the rest of her back catalogue.

This is my my 9th book for #AWW2017 and my 8th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it at the start of the year when I decided to purchase all of Harrower’s back catalogue and read them in the order in which they were written. I read Down in the City, her debut novel first published in 1957, in January and absolutely loved it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sumner Locke Elliott, Text Classics

‘Careful, He Might Hear You’ by Sumner Locke Elliott

Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 495 pages; 2012.

First published in 1963, Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful, He Might Hear You is a big, beautiful, bold-hearted book set in Sydney during the Great Depression. It’s most definitely a five-star read.

PS, short for postscript, is an “almost orphan”: his mother, the writer Sinden, died in childbirth and he hasn’t seen his father, the good-looking but feckless Logan, ever since he left to seek his fortune on the gold fields. Now in the care of his Aunt Lila (Sinden’s sister) and Uncle George, PS is a happy, well-adjusted six-year-old boy, adored by a big collection of crazy aunts.

But things change when his well-educated, well off Aunt Vanessa, who lives in London, returns home to Sydney to take “proper care” of him. She’s a rather snobby character, who reflects the “cultural cringe” of the time and thinks nothing in Australia, including the accents, is good enough. In her pursuit to turn PS into a gentleman, he comes into her care on week days so that he can attend a private school and take extra curricular lessons, such as music and riding. He returns to Lila and George on the weekends.

PS now finds himself caught between two worlds. His Aunt Ness doesn’t really understand children and wants him to act as if he’s very grown up. She’s needy, manipulative and cruel, forever trying to buy his affection with glamorous toys and expensive clothes. He suffers her over-bearing attitude with good grace, but he desperately misses Lila and George, who love him unconditionally and let him behave as a child.

Eventually, things come to a head when he decides he no longer wants to live with Ness. The fall-out — on him, his trio of guardians, his long-lost father and the wider family — is predictably upsetting and heart-breaking.

Emotional tug of war

Yet despite the fact this is a story about an emotional tug-of-war over a defenceless child, this is a warm-hearted, rambunctious and truly memorable novel. It’s also a lovely, heart-swelling portrait of childhood in another age. It’s said to be based on the author’s own experiences growing up, which perhaps explains its charm and authenticity.

There’s a lot going on in this book — about childhood and parenting, sibling rivalries, marriage, love and romance, death and the lies we tell children (and ourselves).

As a portrait of a big, complicated family of women — their tensions, petty squabbles, foibles, flaws and strengths — it is superb. The individual characters of all PS’s aunts — the posh one, the sensible one, the fun one, the religious one — are beautifully drawn and wonderfully contrasted with his own dead mother, the woman with an angelic reputation who had a devilish streak few people knew about.

The dialogue is witty, peppered with the vernacular of the time, and Sydney, in the heat, is captured so vividly it feels as if it’s a character in its own right. The 1930s setting is also particularly evocative.

And it makes a wonderful addition to the canon of “aunts in fiction”, which includes some of my very favourite reads, including Robin Dalton’s memoir Aunts up the Cross, David Malouf’s epic novel Harland’s Half-Acre and Graham Greene’s hilarious Travels with my Aunt.

Careful, He Might Hear You won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1963.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 290 pages; 2014.

Elizabeth Harrower is an Australian writer who has recently been rediscovered thanks largely to the efforts of Text Classics, which has republished all of her novels from the late 1950s and 60s, including one she withdrew from publication in 1971.

Last year I read her newly published short story collection, A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. I was enamoured enough to want to explore more of her work, so I went right back to the start and purchased her debut novel, Down in the City, which was first published in 1957. I liked it so much, I promptly ordered the rest of her back catalogue. I think I might have discovered a new favourite author.

Domestic life in post-war Sydney

Down in the City is one of those moody, atmospheric novels that brims with menace and has a frisson of danger running just underneath the surface.

It’s set in Sydney one hot summer and tells the story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Esther Prescott is 33. She comes from a rich respectable family. She’s pretty, intelligent, calm and measured, but has led a fairly sheltered life, cosseted in a Rose Bay mansion with three brothers to protect her and a loving stepmother as her best friend.

One day Stan Peterson comes barging into her life. He’s flashy, loud, full of vim and vigour and quite unlike anyone she’s ever met before. Two weeks later she’s married him and moved into his King’s Cross flat.

Portrait of a marriage

The book charts their marriage as it morphs from an exciting new one to a troubled and obsessive one. It occasionally makes for uncomfortable reading, for it soon becomes clear that Esther’s domestic situation is an abusive one.

At first, keeping house is fun and she is eager to please her husband in whatever way she can. At all times she is kind and tolerant and thoughtful, prepared to befriend Stan’s neighbours (even though they are from a lower class than her) and to do whatever she can to make their living arrangements pleasant and comfortable.

But Stan is the type of man who is never pleased — and always selfish. He’s moody, evasive, cruel and sly. He is fond of the drink and likes to gamble. He’s never quite honest about how he makes a living and yet he’s always rolling in cash and has plenty to throw about. Women think he’s a boor and even his small circle of golfing buddies talk about him behind his back.

Stan was a man of grunts and nods and silences. If he could avoid an eye or a question, he did, his expression enigmatic. Nevertheless, after a few drinks at the club house he had given enough away — hints of grandiose schemes, not caring how his listeners interpreted them — to indicate that whatever his business might be, it was not legal.

It takes a little while for his true colours to come out, but when they do Esther is shocked and embarrassed and ashamed. She hides their domestic troubles from family and friends, and does a stirling job of keeping up appearances. But it’s heartbreaking to see her poise and grace and inner resolve begin to crumble.

A lightness of touch

Despite the rather heavy subject matter, Harrower writes such effortless, almost frothy, prose that the story moves along at a cracking pace without ever feeling oppressive. Yes, there’s a menacing undercurrent, a sense of creeping paranoia and a deep unease, but because the story is also told from Stan’s point of view, his actions are never that surprising. You know that he’s a manipulating, resentful, immature oaf; you just wish Esther knew it too.

It’s testament to Harrower’s skills that she can write such wonderful characters without turning them into caricatures or stereotypes. Esther’s naive and Stan’s a rogue, but their relationship is not entirely black and white: this is a delicately drawn and highly nuanced portrait of two people whose motivations, desires, hopes and dreams are simply not compatible. As the pair’s relationship changes over time and as Esther comes to realise her husband is not who — or what — she thinks he is, the reader comes to appreciate Harrower’s talents for emotionally acute observation.

Stan’s troubling behaviour, primarily his repeated, random and habitual use of intimidation to control Esther, is a textbook example of domestic abuse. Given it was written in the late 1950s, Down in the City seems decades ahead of its time. Back then, men went to work, women stayed at home, and what happened behind closed doors stayed there.

Its rather brilliant insights into psychological “warfare” on the home front makes this an important and compelling read. But its strong sense of time and place adds another level of interest, making it a truly rewarding read.

This is my second book for #AWW2017.

 

 

 

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kenneth Cook, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘Wake in Fright’ by Kenneth Cook

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 224 pages; 2012.

Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright, first published in 1961, is a true Australian classic.

Billed as the first outback horror story, it brims with menace and suspense. In the introduction to this new Text Classics edition, Australian crime writer Peter Temple says it “probably set Australian tourism back at least twenty years” for the picture of outback life depicted here is a hellish and frightening one.

It tells the story of a young school teacher who travels to a rough outback mining town called Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba” as the locals call it) and gets trapped there for five horrendous days.

It all starts with a simple ice-cold beer in a pub. This soon descends into a drunken escapade involving a gambling den and before he knows it John Grant, a teacher at a one-man outback school six hours up the road, has lost everything except the clothes on his back and eleven cigarettes. His plan to fly to Sydney, 1200 miles away, to spend six weeks by the sea before the new school term begins, is suddenly thwarted.

All right, now it had to be faced: what was he to do?
He had nobody he could borrow money from, certainly nobody to whom he could explain that he had lost all his money gambling.
And, in any case, how much did he need to borrow? Just to stay alive until his next pay cheque was due would cost at least a hundred pounds.
If he got to Sydney there was just a chance that he could spend elongated periods with somewhat dim relatives, but what a chance with two and sevenpence to spread over six weeks.
And, in any case, how to get to Sydney? The train fare one way would be about ten pounds even if he felt like facing a forty-hour journey without any money for food.

And so begins a torturous and transformative journey into the unknown for Grant. While the strangers he meets over the next few days save him from the unpleasant prospect of sleeping out on the street, they present new, untold dangers, the likes of which he’s never confronted before.

For all his “sophistication” and education, Grant is now out of his depth. He is a “coastal Australian, a native of the strip of continent lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing Range, where Nature deposited the graces she so firmly withheld from the west”, and now he’s living among Barbarians, macho Australian men who spend all their time hunting, drinking and gambling, in a hot, inhospitable landscape where it hasn’t rained for a year and the “sun had withered every living thing except the saltbush”.

Dealing with them on their terms — and not his — is a somewhat claustrophobic ordeal for Grant, who has to constantly readjust his opinions and expectations. In one horrific chapter, out of his mind on beer and benzedrine, he gets caught up in a sordid orgy of violence and destruction that seems without end.

But when he eventually escapes — gun in hand — he’s reduced to an almost primitive state: the veneer of civilisation has quickly been shed and you can’t help but fear for his safety and sanity. The moral of the story, it would seem, is don’t drink beer in the outback.

A compelling tale of suspense

Wake in Fright is not so much a horror story, but a suspense tale brimming with a dark, almost Satanic menace. It’s terrifying, but not in the same way as Cook’s Fear is the Rider is terrifying. It’s terrifying because it taps into our fears of what happens when you leave the safety and security of your known world — in this case, the so-called civilised Australia — and enter a foreign land where the people are crude, uneducated and brutish.

Its power to disturb is helped in part by Cook’s uncanny eye for detail, for the way he breathes life into the colourful people Grant meets, the distinctive landscapes he traverses, the way he makes the heat-haze practically shimmer off the page. Indeed, you can almost feel the beads of condensation dripping down a glass of beer. And yet the prose is not weighed down by literary flourishes — it’s fresh, clean and effortless. Coupled with a super-fast narrative pace, it makes for a compelling, page-turner of a read.

Finally, Wake in Fright was adapted into a feature-length film (also known as Outback) in 1971, then remastered for a contemporary audience in 2009. It stars Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty and, in his first screen role, Jack Thompson. It is widely acknowledged as one of the seminal films in the development of modern Australian cinema. This Text Classics edition includes an afterword about the movie written by film critic David Stratton.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Robin Dalton, Setting, Text Classics

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

Non-fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 160 pages; 2015.

My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.

So begins Robin Dalton’s Aunts Up the Cross, setting the scene for an often outrageously funny — and always delightful — memoir about her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. The Cross of the title is Sydney’s Kings Cross, a rather dubious area known as the city’s red-light district, but with a distinct bohemian flavour.

Dalton, who became a leading literary agent in the UK in the 1960s (her clients have included, among others, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Drabble and Tennessee Williams), grew up in an unconventional household: her grandparents on the ground floor, her parents on the top floor, and a succession of eccentric aunts, uncles and house guests filling up the spare rooms.

A pair of characters

Her father, a Northern Irish Presbyterian, was a doctor who ran his surgery from the house and seems like quite the character: he did not speak to his mother-in-law for the 35 years that they shared a house. When Dalton asked him about this much later on, this was his response:

“I found early in my married life,” he said, “that I could not take my trousers off without turning around and finding your grandmother watching me.”

Her mother, a Polish-Australian Jewess, caught between the warring factions of her handsome husband and her meddling mother, seems to have been quite a character too: she smoked 100 cigarettes a day, cooked lavish and extravagant meals, thought nothing of inviting strangers in to stay if they had nowhere else to go (“there was always a current ‘lame dog’ of my mother’s in the house”) and sometimes did not sleep in a bed “for weeks at a stretch” the house was so full. And then there was the time she killed the plumber:

One summer morning the servants were busy elsewhere, the house was for once empty, and my mother emerged naked from her dressing-room en route to take a bath. At that moment the plumber (he was a new one) came up the back stairs and met her on the landing. He promptly had a heart attack from which he never recovered. My mother always felt that the fact that death was not instantaneous detracted from the impact of her nudity and the dramatic possibilities of the story.

Warmth and wit

As you can probably tell from that quote, there are a lot of funny laugh-out-loud scenes in this book. In fact, I tittered my way through it, and when I wasn’t tittering I was reading out large extracts to my Other Half because he wanted to know what was making me laugh so much!

It is, indeed, a really lovely, happy, feel-good read, helped in part by the cast of peculiar characters in it (including Dalton herself, who is precocious and self-deprecating throughout), but largely by the gorgeously vivid prose style, which is littered with stop-you-in-your-tracks sentences about outrageous things Dalton’s relatives have done. It’s the marriage between farce and tragedy, nostalgia and social commentary that make it such a delightful — and insightful — read.

First published in 1965, this edition was republished by Text Classics in 2015 and includes a wonderful introduction by Clive James, which is worth the cover price alone (he thought Aunts Up the Cross sounded like “a feminist tract about capital punishment in ancient Rome”), and the author herself, who claims most of her aunts would hate this book and that she wrote it as a diary for her small children, following the untimely death of her 33-year-old husband, in case she should die young, too. (In fact, the story of how this memoir came to be published is almost as interesting — and as gently humorous — as the actual book.)

All in all, this is a highly recommended read — and will certainly feature in my top 10 of the year! Chances are you’ll feel the same way if you read it too.

This is my 39th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 25th for #AWW2016.

Author, Fiction, Gerald Murnane, literary fiction, Publisher, Text Classics

‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane

The Plains by Gerald Murane

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 192 pages; 2013.

When I first embarked on my project to read exclusively Australian literature for a year, I was excited by the prospect of discovering some intriguing — and perhaps unusual — titles lurking in my tottering TBR pile. What I hadn’t expected, when I picked up Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, was to find the Australian equivalent of Kafka on my shelf. Indeed, this novel, which was first published in 1982, took me on such a surreal journey I’m still not quite sure if I fully “got” what it was about. And I suspect each person who reads it comes to a different interpretation of events.

An unusual story

The Plains was Murnane’s third novel — he’s written eight more since then and has recently published his memoir — but this was the first of his that I had read, so I have no idea if this story is typical of his style or subject. It’s essentially an allegory, which is neatly summed up by the opening lines:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

In it, the unnamed narrator ventures to inland Australia, where he plans to make a film about the people who live there. He stays in a hotel in a remote town and spends most of his time drinking with the locals as part of his research. He does not tell them his real reason for visiting because he doesn’t want to scare them off or to prejudice their behaviour towards him: he wants to study the “real” plainsmen and find out about their cultures and customs.

When he discovers that there is a chance to petition some of the richest landowners in the region for patronage, he throws his name in the hat and wins funding from a wealthy plainsman. And then he spends the next two decades living on his property without once filming a single frame…

A curious and playful novel

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this curious novel is the playful way in which Murnane turns many ideas about Australia on their head. I don’t think you have to be Australian to appreciate that most of the population lives on the coastal fringes and rarely, if ever, ventures into the interior (or outback), which is regarded as a cultural wasteland. But in The Plains, Murnane suggests that the reverse is true: the fringe-dwellers live on the “sterile margins of the continent”, where the culture of the capital cities is “despised”, while the plainsmen comprise a varied assortment of intellectuals, artists, musicians, poets and writers who lead rich and stimulating lives, not without their own cultural “spats” and feuds.

Murnane also challenges the notion of the “cultural cringe” — where Australians dismiss their own culture in the belief that it is inferior to the Old Country — by portraying the culture of the plainsmen as being just as sophisticated, if not more so, than anything Britain could offer. And he plays with the idea of high culture influencing the nation’s politics and sense of self:

The Brotherhood of the Endless Plain devoted themselves to an elaborate scheme for transforming Australia into a Union of States whose seat of government was far inland and whose culture welled up from its plains and spilled outwards. The coastal districts would then be seen as a mere borderland where truly Australian customs were debased by contact with the Old World. The League of Heartlanders wanted nothing less than a separate Republic of the Plains with manned frontier-posts on every road and railway line that crossed the Great Dividing Range.

And, of course, he also debunks the myth that the great open spaces of the landscape are empty: if you look closer “what had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of wildlife”.

Languid prose style

This might make the book sound a bit “stuffy” and “intellectual” and hard work, but it’s not. It’s playful and often humorous — there’s certainly a lot of poking fun at the pomposity of Australian cultural snobbery — and it’s written in such a languid, almost limpid style, that it feels effortless to read.

Admittedly I was about a quarter-way through the book before I clocked it was a fable, and then I suddenly began to see the metaphors and little digs at preconceived notions of how landscape and location marks out certain Australians from other Australians. I can’t pretend I understood everything Murnane was alluding to, but it certainly tickled my brain matter in a way I hadn’t expected when I plucked it from the shelf.

It felt like something Kafka might have cooked up with Magnus Mills if the two of them spent some time Down Under.

For other takes on this novel, please visit Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.

This is my ninth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

This book is published in both ebook and paperback format and is available in the UK, US and Canada.

Australia, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Martin Boyd, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Cardboard Crown’ by Martin Boyd

Cardboard-crown

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown is the first part of a quartet exploring the secret history of an  upper-class Anglo-Australian family.

It’s an amazingly vivid and absorbing saga supposedly based on Boyd’s own family —  in his author’s note he claims the plot is factual, but “the characters and certain episodes are fictitious”.

Unsurprisingly, for a book that is so gripping and entertaining, it became a bestseller in the UK when it was first published in 1952. But Australian audiences didn’t agree. It wasn’t until it was reprinted almost 20 years later, in 1971, that it garnered critical acclaim in Boyd’s homeland. Now it has been reissued again, this time by Text Classics, for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.

A story set in England and Australia

The story revolves around the independently wealthy Alice Verso, whose marriage to Austin Langton forges a dynasty that spans two continents. But at the heart of this alliance lies a shocking secret kept hidden from the world for three generations.

The secret is discovered by Alice’s grandson, Guy Langton, some 50 years after her death. Guy, who narrates the novel, finds her diaries in the Melbourne home he has inherited. By going through the diaries and talking to his uncle and a cousin about the family’s history and mythology, he is able to piece together his grandmother’s amazingly privileged if somewhat tragic life.

The tale he tells swings between England and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the Langton family leads two very different lives depending on which country they happen to be living in.

A rootless existence

In Australia, the Langtons are well regarded and socially pre-eminent with connections in all the right places, and their newly built home, in native bushland 30 miles outside of Melbourne, becomes a home away from home for a vast array of family and friends.  In England, they have less social standing, but life is gentler and more cultured, and their surroundings at Waterpark, the traditional family home, are far more pleasant with grand gardens and plenty of land upon which to go hunting. England also has the benefit of being much closer to continental Europe, specifically France and Italy, where the family can experience high culture, art and travel. (I should point out that quite a bit of this novel is set in Rome.)

But despite having the good fortune to be able to reside on either side of the world as and when they feel like it, there is a downside to this inability to put down permanent roots. Alice, for instance, never feels truly at home in either country and a restlessness develops that can not be cast aside. This is how Guy describes the dilemma:

A Cornishman once told me that when he was a boy he caught a seagull, and clipped its wing so that it could not fly away. After a while the feathers grew and he forgot to clip them again. It flew back to its companions who killed it. In its captivity it had acquired some human taint which they sensed was hostile. My family were captive seagulls, both at Waterpark, and even more, as time went on, in Australia.

A story about love, money and class

I will admit that it took me a little time to get into this story. I think that’s largely because it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done and what appears to be a complicated cast list to get your head around. But once I got into the nub of the story — Alice’s marriage to Austen — things really took off and I found myself completely hooked on this story about love and money and class on two sides of the world.

It’s quite witty in places and terribly sad in others. Indeed, the narrative is full of light and shade, a reflection, perhaps, of the two very different countries in which the book is set.

But what I liked and appreciated most was the way in which Boyd portrays Alice as a woman before her time — a matriarch with plenty of money who did not flaunt her riches but used her wealth to keep family and friends in comfortable circumstances. And while she seemed to always put others before herself, she was not afraid to do her own thing and to forge her own path even if that meant upsetting social conventions of the time.

As an exploration of Melbourne’s colonial past and Australia’s early history, The Cardboard Crown is a fascinating read. But what this book really excels at is capturing that terrible sense of dislocation when you’re never quite sure which country to call home.

Note that the three other books in the Langton Quartet are A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing. All but the latter have been republished by Text Classics. Do visit the publisher’s website for ordering information.

To read about the author’s extraordinary life (and family) check out the entry on Wikipedia.