2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Poetry, Publisher, Sarah Holland-Batt, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The Jaguar’ by Sarah Holland-Batt

Poetry – ebook edition; University of Queensland Press; 144 pages; 2022.

First things first. I am not a connoisseur of poetry. Over the lifetime of this blog (19 years and counting) I have only read and reviewed three collections.

I often feel out of my depth when reading poetry. I don’t know what makes a good poem from a bad one. I never know whether to read a collection cover to cover, or to dip in and out. Should I read all the poems in one go? Or just a few at a time spaced out over the course of a week or more? I just don’t understand the **rules** for reading and critically assessing them.

Bearing all that in mind, I picked up The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt’s latest collection (she has two others to her name), on the basis it was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

And I loved it.

It’s intimate. Confronting. Emotional. Philosophical. Alive. Warm. Tender.

Life story in poetry

The collection is divided into four parts, and because the poems are threaded together to tell a narrative — the life and death of the writer’s father — their order is carefully designed to take you on a journey. I read these poems, one after the other, as if devouring a page-turning novella in which I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Right from the start we are thrown into the morass and turbulence of one man’s life. In the opening poem “My Father as a Giant Koi”, Holland-Batt writes:

My father is at the bottom of the pond
perfecting the art of the circle.

By the second poem, “The Gift”, we understand he is wheelchair-bound, “garlanded by summer hibiscus”, and that he has been waiting a long time to die:

A flowering wreath buzzes around his head—
passionate red. He holds the gift of death
in his lap: small, oblong, wrapped in black.
He has been waiting seventeen years to open it
and is impatient. When I ask how he is
my father cries. His crying becomes a visitation
the body squeezing tears from his ducts tenderly
as a nurse measuring drops of calamine
from an amber bottle, as a teen in the carwash
wringing a chamois of suds. It is a kind of miracle
to see my father weeping freely, weeping
for what is owed him. How are you? I ask again
because his answer depends on an instant’s microclimate,
his moods bloom and retreat like an anemone
as the cold currents whirl around him—
crying one minute, sedate the next.
But today my father is disconsolate.

The first section of The Jaguar continues to build on this theme, of an ill father living a tortured existence until his death. (It’s not until the very last poem in the collection, “In My Father’s Country”, that his illness is named, when Holland-Batt writes “the creeping lisp of Parkinson’s. / Indiginities compound. Language / sluices away from you, bolts / like a gelding from the box.”)

But there’s humour, too. In the titular poem, we learn that the jaguar is not a spotted cat, but a car, one that “shone like an insect in the driveway” and which her father constantly tinkered with, to the point that he “jury-rigged the driver’s seat so it sat so low / you couldn’t see over the dash”. Neither Holland-Batt nor her mother would get in it. Then, finally …

…his modifications killed it, the car he always wanted and waited
so long to buy, and it sat like a carcass
in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin—
but it’s no symbol or metaphor. I can’t make anything of it.

Grief, loss and break-ups

The second part deals with grief and loss, but it also jumps back in time to recall childhood memories of her father and more recent ones in hospital, including his diagnosis:

The neurologist explains my father’s vanishing
substantia nigra—Latin for black substance,
midnight bullet of memory.
Bleaching the size of a broadbean
is turning my father jerky, compulsive
— “Substantia Nigra”

In part three,  the focus shifts slightly to a relationship breakdown:

I laze around in French lingerie. Why not?
You’ve gone; the world hasn’t stopped
—”Classical Allegory”

And this one (in full, because it’s so good):

When it ended, he said I had never let him in—
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
scores of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons,
silver cloches ringing them in at dinner like bells—
so I said, maybe you’re right, maybe that’s how it is,
when you wanted a table I was always full,
when you want a table in the future I’ll be full then too,
I’m booked out permanently, and no, you can’t borrow
a coat, you have to bring your own, that’s our policy.
— “Parable of the Clubhouse”

By the final part, Holland-Batt’s focus has moved to widescreen as she depicts time spent travelling abroad — to Morocco, Nicaragua, Egypt, New Hampshire, Andalusia, and more.

The final destination

But it’s her trip to the Yorkshire of her father’s youth — depicted in the poem “In My Father’s Country” — that provides the collection’s final, powerful destination. In it, she reveals lingering memories, many tinged with regret:

Each car ride with you was a test—
so sorely you wanted

a mathematician. You got
a daughter instead: wilful, uninterested

in inverse relations. We drove
Bournemouth to Land’s End,

each groyne and harbour wall
pebbled with unnavigable stone

as you drily taught, blue anorak
zippered to the neck. I knew

how to disappoint, feigned boredom.
Pigheaded, I picked over tchotchkes

in seaside shops, chucked gulls
sodden chips, ignored your puzzles.

Throughout The Jaguar, Holland-Batt paints exquisite pictures, plays with language, and shows us the power of parables and metaphors and similies. In shying away from sentimentality, she highlights her father’s humanity and offers a powerful testimony to living life vividly.

The Age calls it “an affecting meditation on mortality” to which I concur.

This is my first book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Liam Davison, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Woman’ by Liam Davison

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 154 pages; 1994.

Liam Davison’s novella The White Woman is a fictionalised account of the real-life search for a woman said to be lost in the wilds of Gippsland, Victoria, in the early 19th century.

Newspaper reports claimed she had been taken by Blacks who were holding her captive. But no one really knew who she was or exactly who had taken her. A cynical person — *cough, cough* me —  might think it was merely a cover to explain why so many Aboriginals were massacred at the time.

There were rumours of course, stories which couldn’t be discounted. She was the educated daughter of an English lord; the mother of children; a child herself. She had entered religious orders. In the end, all we had was the name the blacks had given her. Lohantuka. White woman. To be honest, I fear she was something different to each of us; mother, daughter, lover, wife. Or all of them.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of a man who participated in the search some 30 years earlier. The son of a fellow participant has contacted him, wanting to know what happened, so the narrator directs the tale at him using a second-person narrative.

His tale is intimate, with a tone of regret. He knows that the search was not actually about the so-called “virtuous woman lost in the bush, held by savages against her will” but about the men who wished to rescue her. And he knows that their view of the Blacks was prejudiced and wrong because it was simply easier to see them as “savages, brutes, the very opposite of what we are ourselves” than to seek out the truth.

That truth — ugly and dark — runs like a “heretical undercurrent” throughout the tale. It hints that the white men were the savages, the ones intent on blood thirsty acts using carbines, muskets and lengths of rope. These unsettling stories, not fully told or fully admitted to…

[…] still linger after all these years, snippets of gossip, part hearsay, part conjecture, but always with the possibility of truth behind them; things about ourselves so far outside the realm of acceptability we couldn’t hope to face them. They didn’t reach the papers. […] “The Highland Brigade”. “Sons of Scotland”. You’ve heard of them? Infamy doesn’t fade. You see, the stories still being told, their feats still grow in stature. Groups of men set out against the blacks – not spontaneous eruptions of violence, but calculated, well-planned expeditions. Sorties, hunts, call them what you want. They had a purpose.

Based on a real expedition

The book is based on the ‘White Woman Expedition’ led by Christian J. DeVilliers in 1846, a party of men who departed Melbourne for Gippsland, a treacherous journey by sea and land into wilderness not previously explored by Europeans. (You can read a bit more about the expedition in this summary of an academic paper published in 1999, which the author used as part of his research.)

It features beautiful descriptions of the bush and the waterways that are explored (including places that are well known to me such as Wilson’s Promontory and Port Albert on the South Gippsland coast). There’s a real sense of remoteness and a mild terror of the unknown. And the characters, which range from uptight to fearful, sanctimonious to petty, are depicted with great nuance. You really get to feel the tensions between rival parties (DeVilliers tried to work with the Gippsland police commissioner Tyers and the Border Police, who weren’t particularly cooperative) and even within Devilliers’ own party.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal the white woman is never found, but what the men do stumble across is horrific and stomach churning, the kind of evidence that history has long chosen to ignore. This important novella helps put everything in context and through the device of fiction reveals to us the long hidden truth. It’s a remarkable — and moving — achievement.

Lisa from ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book as part of a personal tribute to the author — Liam Davison and his wife were on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 when the Russians shot it down over disputed territory in Ukraine in 2014. There were no survivors.

Please note this book appears to be out of print. I purchased mine second hand at a charity book sale earlier in the year. 

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Thicker Than Water:  History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn: This is a travelogue-cum-historical-biography about the author’s great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837. McMillan was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland” but new evidence suggests he was responsible for massacring hundreds of Aboriginals. Unsurprisingly, he has now come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”. McMillan is the man who started the rumour of the missing white woman…

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, BIPOC 2021, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Larissa Behrendt, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.

The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).

A painful past

In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.

The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.

Twin narratives

The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.

Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time,  but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.

By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.

But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.

Grand tour

The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.

Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.

Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.

This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.

Gentle humour

But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)

Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!

The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.

For other thoughts on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Brona’s at This Reading Life.

This is my 21st book for #AWW2021 and my 9th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Adam Thompson, Australia, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, University of Queensland Press

‘Born Into This’ by Adam Thompson

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 210 pages; 2021.

Born Into This is a collection of short stories by Adam Thompson, an emerging Aboriginal (Pakana) writer from Tasmania.

Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it.

The loss and destruction of the natural world is another topic that features throughout.

But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos. There is tenderness and gentleness, too, and above all, there’s big-heartedness. Reading it is a bit like going on an emotional roller coaster in which you experience everything from anger to sadness,  guilt and shame, often within the space of a single story.

Stories of our time

Of the 16 stories in the collection, Invasion Day not only packs a hard-hitting political punch, it could be seen as a microcosm of Australia’s current situation: two opposing sides (black and white) not able to reconcile their differences in order to move forward together. This evocative story focuses on a protest held in Hobart on Australia Day. There is much jeering and name-calling from the sidelines.

The crowd booed. Someone yelled out ‘Shame’. The footpath became a bottleneck as the police blocked us from walking on the highway. Up ahead, the dancers and the kids holding the large ‘Invasion Day’ banner started crossing, moving down towards Parliament House Lawns. The march had stretched out to almost a kilometre, and I was somewhere in the middle. The chanting had ceased as we walked across the highway, but as the lawns and the gathering crowd came into view, the loudspeakers sparked up again, and the progressing throng found their second wind.

It ends with a rousing, hopeful speech from ‘stiff-legged Jack’ — who tells the crowd “There is, indeed, hope for the future” — and then the unnamed narrator takes to the microphone, pulls out an Australian flag and does something drastic.

Another story, Kite, also set on Australia Day, takes on a more humorous note.

In this black comedy, a man flies a kite made for him by his young nephew. The centre pole of the kite sticks out further than other kites and is sharpened to a fine point to prevent the kite snapping when it hits the ground. The man goes to the beach to fly it, but other beach goers are angry at him, thinking he’s making a political point, for the kite is in the colours of the Aboriginal flag and this is Australia Day. He ignores them. He’s there to have fun, not protest.

But when the kite comes down at an incredible speed and the protruding tip kills a dog, it’s going to be hard not to associate his actions as an Aboriginal man deliberately spearing someone’s pet.

An affinity with nature

Several of the stories are set on the islands off the coast of Tasmania, where Thompson’s eye for detail brings the natural world to life. In these tales he skewers the idea that all Aboriginal people, particularly those who have grown up in cities and who have lost touch with cultural traditions, have a deep affinity with being on country.

In the opening story, The Old Tin Mine, for instance, the Aboriginal narrator is leading a survival camp for six teenage Aboriginal boys from the city, helping to get them back in touch with their heritage and the old “blackfella ways”. But he’s constantly being undermined by the white guide accompanying him who seems to know more about survival techniques and nature. To save his pride, the narrator is having to live up to a certain expectation, deemed by the colour of his skin, that he can’t quite fulfill — with disasterous consequences.

Many of Thompson’s tales also highlight the ignorance of white people who have no idea of the cultural significance of many aspects of Aboriginal life. In Honey, Nathan helps a white friend with his bee-keeping exploits, but is horrified to discover that he wants to market the honey under “the Aboriginal word for honey” because it will be a “good gimmick […], I reckon, ‘specially with the tourists”.

He’s later even more horrified, pained and appalled to discover that his friend, as a child, destroyed Aboriginal middens along the river by skimming the stones, including ancient stone tools, on the water. His uncle had told him that it was important to get rid of these — “bury ’em or throw ’em in the river” — in the mistaken belief that it would prevent Aboriginals from claiming land rights.

An extraordinarily good collection

I could go on and dissect every short story in Born Into This, but I won’t. This is an extraordinarily good collection, one that benefits from a close second reading (I have re-read the short stories named in this review, and they actually benefit from another reading).

There’s so much to discuss in them and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see things from the other side, as it were. It’s clear that the author isn’t doing this to be mean spirited or spiteful, but in a genuine attempt to show how things look through First Nation eyes, to open a discussion that will benefit us all, black and white.

This is my 1st book for Lisa’s #IndigLitWeek2021, which runs from July 4 to 11. It is also my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in February shortly after publication because I had heard good things about it and I am keen to read (and support) work by First Nations writers. This is also my 6th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book lists, Book review, Catherine Jinks, dystopian, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Fourth Estate, Heather Rose, historical fiction, literary fiction, Meg Mundelle, Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher, Setting, Text, University of Queensland Press

5 Fast Reviews: Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Catherine Jinks, Meg Mundell and Heather Rose

The past two months have been fairly hectic around here, mainly because I started a new job and I’ve had to learn a whole new role in a new industry and I’ve really not had the energy to read books much less review them.

The books I have read haven’t exactly set my world on fire — perhaps because I’ve been distracted by other things — so I haven’t been inspired to write proper full-length reviews. Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve read recently:

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 96 pages; 2017.

I’ve read a couple of Michelle de Kretser’s novels before — The Life to Come was one of my favourites last year — so I was delighted to find this novella in my local library. Billed as a ghost story, it’s not typical of the genre. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not a ghost story at all but a richly written tale about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city. The “ghosts” — for want of a better word — are the memories associated with the place you leave behind.

The story is about a married couple, Frances and Charlie, who are grappling with a move from Melbourne to Sydney. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to them. Frances spends a lot of time exploring on foot with her dog — there are lots of lush descriptions of the city’s parks and gardens coming into bloom written with de Kretser’s typical literary flourishes  — and it’s while she’s on her wanderings that she comes across a haunting sight in a neighbour’s garden. This “apparition”, which alarms her greatly, could also be seen as a metaphor for the ghosts in her husband’s past, which she is trying to decipher.

Easily read in a sitting, Springtime is about ghosts of the past haunting a marriage as much as it is about the eerie goings-on in the neighbourhood. I’d argue that it’s really only for die-hard fans of de Kretser; it felt slightly too ephemeral for me to get a real handle on the story. For a more detailed review, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 375 pages; 2011.

Originally published in 2003 under the author “anonymous”, The Bride Stripped Bare is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening. Written in diary form as a series of lessons numbered from one to 138, it tells the story of a young woman who has never felt sexually fulfilled in her marriage and then acts, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, on her impulse to take a lover.

Her relationship with Gabriel, a handsome older man who turns out to be a virgin, gives her the chance to explore her own needs and desires without fear of judgment. Intoxicated by the power of her newly developed sexual prowess, she begins to take chances she shouldn’t and the double life she’s leading pushes her perilously close to the edge.

Admittedly, this book got me out of a reading slump, probably because it’s written in a compelling tone of voice (in the second person) and surges along at an octane-fuelled pace, helped no doubt by the exceedingly short chapters, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read the two follow-ups, With My Body and I Take You. And the whole idea that you could find a willing 40+-year-old virgin hanging around London seemed too ludicrous for me to take the story all that seriously…

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019.

Shepherd tells the tale of a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840. The narrative swings backward and forward in time, detailing Tom’s old life in England, and then contrasting it with his new life assigned to a shepherd’s hut, where he helps to protect a flock of sheep with a trio of violent prisoners.

This fast-paced story is essentially a chase novel, for it follows what happens when Tom becomes caught up in events that may lead to his death at the hands of a vicious killer known as Dan Carver.

Initially, I really liked this tale, especially Tom’s warm, empathetic voice, his wisdom, his concern for the “blacks” and his desire to know the plants and animals of the Australian landscape, but it soon began to wear thin when I realised there was not enough show and too much tell. There was too much violence in it for me, too, and the chase dragged on for too long to sustain my interest. Without wishing to damn it with faint praise, it actually felt like a novel that teenage boys might like, so it comes as no surprise that the author has several award-winning children’s books to her name.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 278 pages; 2019.

If ever a novel was to be a nod to the shenanigans of Brexit or Australia’s shameful immigration detention policy, this is it. The Trespassers is a dystopian tale set on a crowded ship bound for Australia. Onboard are Brits escaping the disease-ridden UK. They have all been carefully screened, but midway through the voyage disease breaks out, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.

The story is told through the eyes of three different characters, all superbly drawn, who take turns to narrate their side of events in alternate chapters: there’s a nine-year-old Irish boy who is deaf, a singer-turned-nurse from Glasgow and an English schoolteacher in need of money.

By the time the ship gets to its destination several people have died and there’s no guarantee the immigrants will be allowed to disembark on Australian soil. This is a riveting story that reads like a thriller but has all the intelligence and wisdom of a literary novel not afraid to tackle big issues such as healthcare, immigration, human trafficking and politics. I really loved this book and hope to see it pop up on literary prize lists in the very near future.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 424 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tasmanian writer Heather Rose will be known to most people for her award-winning The Museum of Modern Love, a book I loved so much I convinced my book group to read it even though it hadn’t yet been published in the UK (we all bought it on Kindle). Bruny, her latest novel, has arrived with much fanfare, but it’s completely different in almost every possible way to what preceded it.

Set in Tasmania some time in the very near future, it tells the story of the bombing of a massive bridge being built to link mainland Tasmania with the island of Bruny, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The terrorist attack brings the bridge down, but it also brings worldwide attention to this usually quiet and sleepy part of the world. New York-based UN conflict resolution expert Astrid Coleman returns home to help her twin brother, the state premier, soothe troubled waters. Matters are complicated further by a dysfunctional family: her sister is the Opposition Leader; her mother barely talks to her; and her father, who is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s, can only communicate in Shakespeare quotes.

A sharp-eyed and intelligent political satire come thriller (reminiscent of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon), the book is fast-paced and written with wit and verve. But as much as I enjoyed reading it, I just didn’t buy the premise — that a massive bridge would be built in this part of the world and that terrorists would take the time to blow it up — and had a hard time taking it seriously. And even though I went to the Perth launch and heard Rose talk about the story in great depth (she was very careful not to give away crucial plot spoilers), I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is simply preposterous — but I’m sure that won’t stop it being shortlisted for awards aplenty.

These books are all by Australian women writers. They represent the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd books I have read this year for #AWW2019.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 263 pages; 2019.

Tony Birch is an award-winning indigenous writer with several novels and a handful of short story collections to his name. The White Girl is his latest.

It’s set in the fictional rural town of Deane in an unspecified state of Australia. (The capital city is always referred to as “the capital city”, perhaps in an effort to make this story a federal / universal one.)  It’s the 1960s, the height of the Menzie’s era, when Aboriginal Australians are not regarded as citizens.

Under the 1905 Aborigines Act, their freedom of movement is curtailed and they must apply for a travel licence if they wish to leave their local area. Every Aboriginal child up to the age of 16  is under the legal guardianship of the state (represented, for instance, by the Chief Protector of Aborigines) and authorities are permitted to forcibly remove indigenous children away from their families, a devastating government policy we now refer to as the Stolen Generations.

Living under this Act is Odette Brown, whose own daughter did a runner more than a decade ago, leaving her to bring up her granddaughter Sissy single-handedly. Sissy is now on the cusp of becoming a teenager and is attracting the unwanted attention of the local hoodlums. Odette fears for her safety.

Odette also fears that the new overzealous policeman in town, Sergeant Lowe, is going to take Sissy away on the basis that she’s legally under his guardianship and is fair-skinned (therefore making her easier to adopt out to a white family). Keeping Sissy safe becomes Odette’s one abiding objective, but she finds this difficult because she’s struggling with an ongoing health issue that she’s hiding from everyone. That’s because she knows that if she is hospitalised, Sergeant Lowe will step in and remove Sissy from her care.

This story of an older Aboriginal woman doing everything she can to keep the authorities away from her granddaughter is essentially the entire basis of the plot. Will she succeed or won’t she?

Commercial fiction

I must admit that I was disappointed by this book. I had pigeon-holed Birch as a literary writer (this is the first book by him that I have read), but what I got here was commercial fiction. It’s a very linear story, told in a simple manner, and did not tell me anything I don’t already know about the Stolen Generations. Its simplicity and the easy going entertaining nature of the storytelling brought to mind Bryce Courtenay on more than one occasion.

The Australian literary critic Geordie Williamson apparently labelled the characterisation of this novel as “easy binaries”, for which Lisa of ANZLitLovers took him to task in her excellent review. I haven’t read Williamson’s review (because it is behind a paywall), so I can’t say whether his criticism is fair or not. But what I can say is that the story did feel a bit — no pun intended — black and white to me. It felt too simplified and some of the characters, especially Sergeant Lowe, too caricatured.

But I’ve come to the realisation that I am perhaps not the target audience for this book. It’s the kind of story that anyone could pick up, perhaps people who read infrequently or think books are a waste of time, and they would find it enjoyable and easy to read.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I actually think that it’s vital that this novel attracts as wide an audience as possible because this story, which is rooted in reality and all-too recent (and shameful) Australian history, is an important one to tell. Sue, at Whispering Gums, says it better than me in her review, claiming that “we need more novels like this [… that] are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience”.

So while The White Girl didn’t set my world on fire, I truly hope it’s a commercial success. The more readers who learn about the shocking ways in which Aboriginal Australians were treated by their colonial oppressors for nearly 60 years the better.

I read this book as part of ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, which coincides nicely with NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) here in Australia.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Lukins, Setting, TBR40, University of Queensland Press

‘The Everlasting Sunday’ by Robert Lukins

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 215 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the author.

Melbourne writer Robert Lukins’ debut novel The Everlasting Sunday is set in a boys’ reform school during the UK’s “big freeze” of 1962-63.

This cold, atmospheric setting is only matched by the chilling goings on in the school, which culminate in a shocking denouement.

But this is not a thriller, psychological or otherwise (as you might expect), but a carefully composed study of friendship, alliances, survival, betrayal and trust.

Boys ‘found by trouble’

When the book opens we meet 17-year-old Radford as he arrives at Goodwin Manor, a home for boys who have been “found by trouble”.

We do not know what trouble has found Radford, but we do know he has been driven from London to the Shropshire-based manor by his uncle, who makes the return journey as soon as Radford has alighted from the vehicle. (The pretense is that he doesn’t want to get trapped by the looming snowstorm, but the reader does wonder whether Radford might have done something so ugly and abhorrent that his uncle can’t wait to be rid of him.)

From thereon in, alone in the world, the suicidal Radford adjusts to a strange new territory, reigned over by the kindly and eccentric “headmaster” Teddy, who has troubles of his own.

The school has no real rules or structured timetable; the boys are free to attend lessons on an adhoc basis if they wish (Radford enjoys learning about “the art of electronics” presided over by a long-haired instructor called Manny), or they may prefer to help with repairs — “the manor was in a persistent state of decay” — or go for long walks in the countryside. The only female presence is Lillian, the cook.

As he settles in, Radford is drawn to West, another boy, who takes him under his wing and the pair form an alliance.

But despite the manor being a refuge from the world, where the boys’ backgrounds are left at the door and no one dares reveal what it is that sent them to Goodwin in the first place, petty rivalries and infighting bubble up.

It all comes to the fore when Teddy gets the grand idea to stage a show — featuring “humour, music, sword-fighting, flights of rhetoric and abandon” — for the local villagers, splitting the boys into groups and giving each a role to play in the performance.

A sense of disquiet

The overall mood of The Everlasting Sunday is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in that it is very much about a group of boys left to their own devices who end up turning on each other. It’s foreboding nature and sense of disquiet are palpable.

This is helped by the language that Lukins uses and the prose style he adopts; it feels like reading an old-fashioned novel, where beautiful descriptions are paramount and the sentences are often passive (there are a lot of things “coming”, for instance, such as “appeals came for dinner”; “six o’clock came”, “music came from the radio”) and objects are anthropomorphised (“the house was no pretender of authority”, “the dining room fire was in absurd spirits”).

It’s ripe in metaphor, too: a murmuration of starlings appears to represent Goodwin’s inhabitants, moving as one, by instinct, but just avoiding disaster by the merest of margins; and the aforementioned cold symbolises the emotional distance between them all.

This is an excellent novel, one that requires careful reading. It’s a story that appears gentle and delicate on the surface but hides a dark, brutal heart beating beneath. It’s subtle and complex and ever so quietly powerful.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers liked it too.

This is my 17th book for #TBR40. The author very kindly sent it to me in early 2018 after I tweeted about wanting to buy it in Australia, where it was published (and where I was holidaying at the time), but of not having enough room in my luggage to buy another book. I don’t normally accept review copies directly from authors, but on this occasion I acquiesced because I was so desperate to read it at the time. I’m not sure why it’s taken me a year to extract it from the pile…

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Melissa Lucashenko, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko

Fiction – Kindle edition; University of Queensland Press; 303 pages; 2018.

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip is a brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel about an indigenous (“blackfella”) family, deeply traumatised by past events, which is now grappling with a new challenge: saving their beloved river and Ava’s island from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.

The story is largely told through the eyes of 30-something Kerry Salter, who arrives back home — the fictional NSW town of Durrongo  — on the back of a stolen Harley Davison motorbike carrying a backpack stuffed with $30,000 cash, the proceeds of a botched armed robbery, which resulted in the imprisonment of her lesbian lover, Allie, who has now broken off their relationship.

Kerry thinks her visit to see her dying grandfather is going to be a fleeting one. She’ll pay her respects, tolerate her mother’s jibes and then return to the city, where she can nurse her broken heart and keep a low profile. But things don’t quite work out that way.

Before she can escape, her grandfather dies, so she stays for the funeral and later, when her family discovers that a place of great importance to them — Granny Ava’s island — has been proposed as the site of a new jail, she decides to stay and help them fight the development. The lure of a potential romance with a white man with whom she went to school acts as a sweetener.

Grunge-style novel

On the surface, this novel could be seen as fairly fickle fair, a kind of grungy chick-lit novel, where the protagonist is seemingly sex obsessed and doesn’t mind speaking her mind, even if it gets her into trouble.

Too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger. Give the arseholes a blast, then stand and defend, or else run like hell.

But Too Much Lip is strangely subversive, for Kerry is on the wrong side of the law — in fact, she’s running from it.

For the straight world, crime was a problem or an abstraction, but for people like her, crime was the solution. Not that she called it crime; she called it reparations.

But it’s also a deeply confronting read for those readers who are not indigenous. In its portrayal of an aboriginal family struggling to keep it together, Lucashenko shows how generations of trauma, from dispossession to massacres, aboriginal missions to the forced removal of children, have played out in all kinds of negative ways, including alcoholism, violence, poverty and social injustice.

Dugais [white people] had no idea. No fucken clue what was at stake when you walked out into the world wrapped in dark skin. And if you told them the truth it was always boo hoo, poor me.

This reality, of what it is to be indigenous living in a deeply prejudiced white society, is reflected throughout the text. I make no apologies for including a whole bunch of quotes to illustrate this point. There are references to poverty…

But the crew in Trinder mostly ate bread and chips when they ate at all. Meat was strictly for pay week, same as shop-bought grog and smokes were. Off-pay week was hungry week, sniffing around friends’ and rellos’ houses for someone who’d scored a food parcel, or a job, or had had a win at bingo. She looked down into her lap. It was a shamejob to go explaining how blackfellas lived. Even if dugais believed you, they were full of useless fucking genius suggestions on how to climb out of poverty. Like it was simple. Like it didn’t suit the powers that be to keep poor people scrabbling in the shit, keep their attention off the rich world’s sparkling goodies in case they got any bright ideas about grabbing some for themselves.

… and dealing with the government department responsible for social security…

‘Centrelink,’ she said sourly. ‘I don’t wanna go see them mob. Standover merchants! On the phone for nearly two blooming hours and then it cuts out! Now I got no pay ’n no credit! Person could starve to death for all they care!’

… and the institutionalised racism in the criminal justice system:

She had no idea how long they would need the QC. Every court case she’d ever seen was done and dusted in under half an hour.

There’s also an interesting twist, a reverse logic if you will, in which white people are seen as the thieves and the barbarians…

The dugai can flap their jangs as much as they like, Pretty Mary had reported him saying, but us mob got the law of the land and that’s that. We’s in everything: the jagun, the trees, the animals, the bulloon. It’s all us, and we’s it too. And don’t ever let the dugai tell ya different. They savages, remember.

An immersive read

I have to admit that I wasn’t too sure about this novel when I first began it (perhaps because it was so confronting and because I didn’t feel much empathy with Kerry), but the further I got into it the more I warmed to it. It’s a truly immersive read, taking you deep into the bosom of a complicated family peopled with highly opinionated, colourful characters, all flawed but oh-so human — and with wonderful names, such as Pretty Mary, Grandad Chinky Joe and Black Superman.

It’s very much a plot-driven story and Lucashenko does an exemplary job of bringing together Kerry’s storyline with a second narrative thread involving greedy developers, including a Sydney real estate agent.

And while the novel deals with big issues, there’s an undercurrent of snarky, but clever humour running throughout to lighten the load.

‘Everyone on the planet’s got a culture, Mum, even if it’s The Footy Show and Southern Cross tats – it’s still a culture. Just a shit one. And anyway, why do that mob any favours now?’

Too Much Lip is definitely the most thought-provoking book I’ve read so far this year presenting as it does a perspective rarely shown in contemporary fiction.

This novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize and has been positively reviewed at ANZLitLovers and Whispering Gums.

This is my 5th book for #AWW2019 and my 4th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is available as an ebook in the UK, though expect to pay a hefty price for the paperback edition.

Alan Collins, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘A Promised Land?’ by Alan Collins


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 418 pages; 2001.

The Jewish immigrant experience has been much explored in British and American fiction. In Australia it’s a different story. Despite being a nation of immigrants, this is the first book I’ve ever read focusing on the Jewish in Australia.

A Promised Land? is actually three novels in one: The Boys from Bondi (first published in 1987), Going home (1993) and Joshua (1995). It is also known as the “Jacob Kaiser trilogy” because it follows the life of Jacob Kaiser, an Australian-born Jew, from his childhood in Sydney during the Great Depression to his early 40s during the Vietnam War era.

It’s clearly a semi-autobiographical work, because there are many similarities between Alan Collins’ early life and his fictional creation, Jacob Kaiser, as both were born in the 1920s and raised in a children’s home for Jews. This lends the story, in particular The Boys from Bondi, a truly authentic feel.

The first two novels, which cover the years 1935 to 1948, concentrate on Jacob’s search for identity. The third, set in 1967, addresses similar concerns, but it focuses more on Jacob’s son.

Reviewing this collection of novels is difficult without giving away crucial plot spoilers, because ultimately what happens in the first book impacts on everything else that follows. So if the outline feels vague, forgive me.

When we first meet Jacob he is 10 years old. It is 1935. His family, feeling the effects of the Great Depression, have come down in the world, moving from their stately home in Bellevue Hill to a boarding house, known as The Balconies, overlooking Bondi Beach.

When Jacob is 13 and his brother Solly is nine, tragedy strikes. They come home to find their step-mother, Carmel, has done a runner and are then told their father has died — he has “fallen off a cliff”  while working in a road gang, although we never learn if it is an accident or suicide. Now orphans, Jacob and Solly, are taken in by a Jewish charity, the Abraham Samuelson Memorial Home school.

It is while at the children’s home that Jacob gets his first taste of what it is to be Jewish. As a third-generation Australian Jew, he feels more Australian than Jewish because the Kaisers have never been religiously observant. He hasn’t even taken his bar mitzvah.

But now, surrounded by European Jews fleeing prosecution in Nazi Germany (“The survivors of destroyed Jewish communities in countries that he knew only as blobs on a map of Europe”), he realises that he has little in common with other Jews. Their language, their rituals, their well-to-do European backgrounds feel foreign to him.

This is a common thread that runs throughout Collins’ triptych: where does an Australian-born Jew fit into the grand scheme of things? And what does it mean to be Jewish in a secular, supposedly egalitarian society?

Later, when Jacob leaves the children’s home, this search for meaning continues. He gains work in a printery as an apprentice, where he confronts anti-semitism from his boss, who calls him an “Ikey” and a “Yid”, and blames him for the fighting in Palestine over the formation of a Jewish state. But this casual bigotry is everywhere. Even his Gentile girlfriend, Peg, a student nurse from Bathurst, wonders why he hasn’t got a big nose?

“How many Jews do you know, Peg?”
“Well, there’s, um, Doctor whatsisname in Casualty. A really nice bloke. He gave me some pills for my hayfever. And then there’s–”
“Okay, that makes two — one has and one hasn’t. So you’re only half-right, aren’t you?”

It is at about this time, living in a house with his Jewish landlady Mrs Rothfield, that Jacob becomes politicised. Desperately lonely, with no immediate family of his own, he discovers the local library, works his way through countless classics and then stumbles upon Robert Tressall’s book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. His eyes are opened by the concepts of worker’s rights and of Socialism. Later, Peg, introduces him to Communism via the Eureka Youth League, and another female friend, the beguiling Ruti whom he went to school with, invites him to join the Zionist group to which she belongs.

Of course, a book about Jewish identity could not fail to mention Palestine, and it is here that Jacob eventually goes to explore his Jewish roots. There’s a particularly telling scene in the second novel in which he looks out the window of the kibbutz and sees “forlorn clusters of refugees” standing about waiting for direction.

One looked up and beckoned to him. Jacob was seized with terrible indecision. He did not want to be associated with these remnants; Jews they may be but what else did he have in common with them? In yet another guise it was the same problem that he had confronted so many times. Jews, he knew to his own longstanding confusion, came in so many varied and wildly disparate personae that one had ultimately to realise that Jewishness was their only common factor. And that Jewishness could not be definied merely as religion. The one thing that Jacob had learned was that the rituals of belief were only the externals of Judaism. It was the five thousand years of history that daunted him, which he carried on his back like the old man of the sea, unable to discard it even if he had wanted to.

In Jacob’s struggle to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile aspects of his life, we see that where we come from influences who we are and where we are going. In many ways this is a book as much about Australian identity as it is Jewish identity — and some of it, including the bigotry, prejudice and ignorance, makes for uncomfortable reading.

It’s particularly interesting to see the ways in which the attitudes to Jewish refugees (also known in a derogatory manner as “reffos”) changed during the 1930s and 1940s.  Initially they were welcomed with open arms but later, when the Anzac’s began to return from war, they were scorned for taking jobs that Australians felt that their soldiers deserved. By the same token, the Vienna Wald coffee shop set up by Jewish refugee Mitzi Strauss, once regarded by locals as a place they would not be seen dead in, becomes popular with the coffee-drinking set in the 1960s.

I loved A Promised Land? despite my initial misgivings that the story didn’t sound particularly exciting going by the rather wan blurb description. The presentation of the book, with its uninspired cover image and the poor binding quality, also let it down.

But from the very first page, I was swept away by the tale of Jacob’s troubled life. Collins has an amazing gift for story-telling. The three novels are filled with drama, intrigue, adventure, grief and joy. There’s plenty of warmth, humour and poignancy too.

And his prose has that old-fashioned effortlessness to it, which makes eating up the pages very easy. It’s the characters which really make this book, though. I loved them all, especially Jacob’s undesirable Uncle Siddy, with his nefarious money-making schemes and eye for the ladies; Peg, the nurse from Bathurst, is a feisty, tell-it-as-it-is sort; and Mrs Rothfield is motherly and kind, even if she does warn Jacob to stay away from the Gentiles!

A Promised Land? is only available in Australia. For details of where you can buy it visit Alan Collins’ official website.

Finally, many thanks to Lisa from ANZLitLovers for giving me this book; I would never have read it otherwise. I would urge you to read Lisa’s review for another take on it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Randolph Stow, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘To The Islands’ by Randolph Stow


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 208 pages; 2002.

Randolph Stow was an Australian writer who achieved great literary success in his early years. When he was just 22 he won the the 1958 Miles Franklin Award for To The Islands and the ALS Gold Medal, for the same book, in 1959. In 1978 he won the Patrick White Award. But ask the average Australian who he is or, better still, ask them to name the title of one of his books and you will probably be greeted with a blank face.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that Stow only wrote a handful of novels and that he emigrated to the UK circa 1970, effectively turning his back on the Australian literary scene. But it seems such a shame that a man who could craft such amazing fiction, including his mesmirising The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (which I read twice last year I loved it so much) could fall into relative obscurity so quickly.

I read To The Islands not long after I heard that Stow had died of liver cancer, here in the UK, in late May. (The news story of his death, published in The Australian, is very touching, but the comments are particularly telling of how dearly he was held in the affection of so many.)

It’s an astonishing read, not least because he was just 22 when he wrote it (and this, I have to point out, was not his first novel, but his third). It’s not only ambitious in scope, but there’s a wisdom to the story that belies his years. That the book is largely told through the eyes of an ageing Anglican missionary confronting his own inner demons seems a remarkable work of imagination and daring for one so young.

Stow’s carefully studied observations about the relationships between white Europeans and Aboriginals are also particularly perceptive. That may not be too surprising given he did spend some time working as a storeman on an Anglican mission in the far north of Western Australia immediately after graduation, but even so, he has captured the fear, violence and misunderstanding between blacks and whites incredibly well, and he has not been afraid to cast a light on some of the darkest, most gruesome events, in Australian history.

The story, as you may have gathered, is set on a remote mission in the Western Australian outback in 1957. Here, the Church of England provides lodging, employment and medical care for aboriginals, a race which has few civil rights  (“Someday we all be citizens, eh, brother?” quips one aboriginal to one of the brothers in an early scene) and is forbidden to drink alcohol. (In the preface to my edition, Stow points out that alcohol did not become a problem until the 1970s.)

An ageing missionary, Stephen Heriot, has ruled the mission for decades. One of the younger missionaries, Helen, describes him as “stone and iron” and “impassive, accustomed through decades to deal with wooings, marriages, disputes”.

But when Rex, a troublesome aboriginal, returns to the mission, Heriot is determined to have him banished. Younger members of the mission are less sure about sending him away (“It begins to look a bit like victimisation,” Way warns him; “He not a bad man, Rex. You don’t give him no chance,” says a fellow aboriginal, Richard.)

But one wild night, in the middle of a storm, Heriot believes he may have killed Rex. Full of remorse, he flees the mission on horseback, taking a rifle and a box of cartridges with him. What follows is a kind of adventure story, in which Heriot, confronted by the enormity of the unexplored wilderness around him, begins to experience a spiritual awakening. Meanwhile, his fellow missionaries try to track him down, convinced that Heriot plans to kill himself…

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a quintessential Australian story. Stow’s descriptions of the landscape are always beautiful and, for this expat Australian, homesick-inducing. But even if you have never been to Australia, Stow has a way of conjuring the beauty of the surroundings that will make you feel like you have walked the terrain, smelt the eucalyptus, swum in the creeks and billabongs, seen all the amazing wildlife around you.

From the water flagged with lily leaves, lilies flowering among them, birds rose in sudden stages with a clatter of wings. Ibis and white cranes climbed slowly, wild ducks wheeled, and returned, and flew off again. Geese trailed their long cry over the plain, a single black jabiru following.
Before they had gone the children were already in the water, floundering among the lilies, crying to one another of the coolness of it and of its richness in ducks and flowers. The small children danced naked in the shallows with shining skins. The others, in brief pants, some girls in their dresses, dolphined among the lily stems.

It’s interesting, too, to see how prescient Stow’s views are on race relations given he penned the novel more than 50 years ago. I particularly liked this exchange between Heriot and one of his fellow missionaries, Way:

“As they [the aboriginals] lose simplicity they lose direction. So, what are we going to do with them? Who’s going to teach them trades, give them confidence in themselves? Drive them out of this inertia they fall into now their pride’s grown enough to make them want above everything to have some sort of competence. I don’t know the answers.”
“We’re promised a technical school, some day, somewhere within a hundred miles.”
“I wish it well,” said Heriot. “And you. Because you’re coming to the most heartbreaking phase in the history of this problem.”
“We’ll do our best, I hope.”
“I hope,” echoed Heriot, and looked at Way, that capable middle-aged man, reflectively and approved him. “You’ve time, I think, to see enormous changes, perhaps the end of physical misery among them, as the old ones die out in the way we old ones do. But in the end you’ll have something else to face – misery of the mind. And that will be the hardest, Way.”

This is a fascinating novel, one that can easily be read in one sitting, although I think it probably requires at least two read-throughs to fully come to grips with all the ideas presented. Many literary critics have dubbed it a “masterpiece” and I can see why.

As an aside, I read the “very slightly abridged” 1982 edition (which was republished by UQP in 2002) and not the original. Stow says he revised it because it contained “many faults, due partly to immaturity, but more to the fact that my technical competence was not equal to my ambition, which in retrospect makes me realise how horizons narrow in middle age”. (The great Irish writer John McGahern did much the same with his 1974 novel The Leavetaking for similar reasons, so he’s in good company. And, if I’m honest, there’s much about Stow’s work that reminds me of McGahern.)

Stow also claims to have cut out some of the Christian mission-station propaganda involving a “good deal of talk by the white characters about their difficulties and hopes, and even a very tepid love-interest, introduced not for its own sake but to suggest that at least two Europeans would remain committed to the Mission”.

Sadly, To The Islands seems to have fallen out of print, although you might score a very cheap second-hand copy on Amazon Marketplace if you are lucky.

For another take on the same novel, please read Lisa Hill’s review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.