Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Wakefield Press, war, Wendy Scarfe

‘One Bright Morning’ by Wendy Scarfe

Fiction – paperback; Wakefield Press; 228 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Books set in Darwin are so rare I was keen to read Wendy Scarfe’s One Bright Morning which arrived unsolicited from the publisher at the start of the year.

A World War Two novel, it follows the exploits of Xenobia ‘Zeny’ Haviland, a young Australian woman, who flees Malaysia after the fall of Penang in December 1941 and lands in Darwin shortly before the Japanese bombed the city.

The novel charts her escape, her new life in Australia and the romance she develops with a shell shocked veteran, and includes graphic detail of the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, a real-life event that is the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia, resulting in around 250 fatalities (The figure is disputed, for various reasons. You can read more about the attack via this Wikipedia entry.)

Reporter on newspaper

When the story opens, we meet Zeny, a bright young reporter on an English language newspaper. She writes pieces “mostly to do with women’s life in Kuala Lumpur” where she has been based for three years.

Her job was arranged by her father, a medical missionary in Burma, with whom she is particularly close (her mother died when Zeny was seven). Because her father went to boarding school with the editor of the Morning Star, he arranged for  Zeny to be hired as an office worker on the understanding that if she showed any talent, she could have a shot at writing articles.

While she’s a great writer, Zeny doesn’t like the insular ex-pat lifestyle with its “tea parties, gossip and endless complaints about servants”. She moves out of the English colony and into the Chinese quarter, a decision that shows her independent spirit and fearlessness, character traits that hold her in good stead when the war arrives on her doorstep.

Fiercely loyal to a friend who is getting married, she makes the fateful decision to stay behind to attend the wedding, meaning she misses the first train out of the city. So when it comes time to get out of Kuala Lumpur safely her options are cut short, and by a stroke of good fortune, she finds herself on a boat with two kindly men disguised as Malyan fishermen who are, in fact, coastwatchers (Wiki entry). They help smuggle her into Darwin, where her new life begins.

New life in Darwin

Here she is taken in by Olive, a local Quaker, who rescues waifs and strays. She gains a job as a reporter on The Northern Standard, the local newspaper, becomes friends with a small circle of local women and falls in love with Robert, a young man who fought in the Spanish Civil War and now suffers from debilitating night terrors.

When it becomes clear the Japanese are going to advance on Darwin and launch an attack, civilians are urged to leave the city and head south, but Zeny refuses. Even when her boss says he will sack her so she has no job to keep her in town, she holds her ground:

‘You know I told you, I’m not leaving,’ I burst out. ‘I have never had a permanent home. I lived in Melbourne at boarding school and that was not my home and neither was Burma nor Kuala Lumpur. It seems I have always been moving, always transient. I want Darwin to be my home now. I feel this is where I belong and no wretched Japanese is going to drive me out.’

Of course, the attack, when it arrives, is devastating, but Zeny survives and it is only through her tenacity and ability to use morse code, a skill she learned from her father, that allows her to get the word out to the rest of Australia.

Gently nuanced tale

One Bright Morning is a gently nuanced novel, full of spirit, friendship and light romance, featuring an inspirational lead character. It is a timely reminder of the value of community and selflessness, of working together against a common foe.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

Please note, the book is published by a small indie press in South Australia and if you wish to support them can be purchased online. If you live abroad, try readings.com.au as their flat-rate international delivery fee is much cheaper. Alternatively, you may be able to source via the Book Depository.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press

‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr

Fiction – Kindle edition; Wakefield Press; 260 pages; 2015.

Every now and then I pick up a book and within a matter of pages — or perhaps sentences — I know this is exactly the right kind of book for me. That’s how I felt when I started reading Stephen Orr’s The Hands: An Australian Pastoral, which was longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The mood of the story, coupled with the great characters and economical prose style, hooked me from the start and I read it in one (very long) sitting. I rather suspect that come 31 December, it will prove to be my favourite book of the year.

Life in the outback

The story, which takes place in 2004 to 2006, is set on an isolated cattle station, overseen by Trevor Wilkie, in outback South Australia. This is how Orr describes it:

Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man—following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor—had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.

Here, three generations of the Wilkie family live side by side, not always in unison. Trevor runs affairs with the help of his wife, Carelyn, and his 11-year-old son, Harry, who is educated at home via School of the Air. (Elder son Aiden is at boarding school, but comes home whenever he can.) Also living on site is Trevor’s aunt Fay, her disabled middle-aged son, Chris, and Trevor’s father, Murray, a curmudgeon who owns the title deeds but isn’t prepared to hand them over just yet — even though he’s too old to be much use around the farm any more:

The word was with Murray and Murray was the word. Not for the first time, he [Harry] could feel himself starting to hate his grandfather. There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.

Tensions and tragedy

The story follows the Wilkie family over the course of a few years, during which everything seems to go wrong. There is tension — and later tragedy — at every turn, particularly between both sets of fathers and sons. Aiden, for instance, doesn’t see the point in continuing his education and wants to begin farming with his dad, but Trevor keeps insisting he must finish his final year or he will regret it later. Meanwhile, Murray, angry, embittered and haunted by the ghosts of the past, won’t relinquish control of the farm, even though Trevor’s been running it almost single-handedly for years.

These familial disputes are played out against a backdrop of ongoing drought (six years and counting), of ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debt, which makes the pressure on the Wilkie’s, in particular Trevor, almost unbearable. There is a very real sense of despair just hovering in the peripheral vision of most of these characters; they know it’s there but refuse to see it. Instead, they blindly plough on, distracting themselves with the routine of running a farm and trying not to think too much about the future.

And yet, with every farming family, the future is paramount, for it is the children of farmers who are expected to carry on the business and, unusually, in this case, there is one father (Murray) who is reluctant to pass his legacy on and one son (Aiden) who is desperate to do what so many of his generation do not want to do — to make a living on the land. And there’s also concern about what to do with Chris if anything happens to Fay, who is now in her 70s: should the family continue to look after him or put him in a nursing home?

Yet despite the drama that propels the narrative forward, this is not a heavy book. Orr writes with a skilful lightness of touch, punctuating his quietly subdued prose with understated humour and restrained emotion.

Brilliant characters

The characterisation in this book is its real strength — the story is told from multiple, mainly male, perspectives across three generations, and each strong, distinctive voice, whether it be an 11-year-old’s, a teenage boy’s, a middle-aged farmer’s or an angry, bitter grandfather’s, seems palpably real and authentic. You get a real sense for each individual — and you are either charmed or irritated by them. Even Chris, a “forty-six-year-old man-boy”, is given enough quirky detail  — a flair for taking off his clothes, a penchant for watching old war movies, a willingness to use the garden shears — to give the reader a vivid portrait of someone who could so easily have been drawn as mere caricature.

But, of course, it’s how the characters develop, change and grow over this rather turbulent few years that gives the book its momentum and its compelling, page-turning quality. There was something about this book — the all-encompassing portrait of one family living in rural isolation — that transfixed me from start to finish, almost as if I had accompanied them on this emotional journey, perhaps sitting in the farm truck as it made its rounds fixing fences or checking on cattle. I love it when you get so involved with the characters you forget you are actually reading a book.

Anyone who is a fan of the late American writer Kent Haruf (who is one of my favourite authors) will find plenty to like here, because the style — restrained and elegant — and the theme — of farming families doing it tough — is similar, albeit with an Australian outback twist. I was especially reminded of Haruf’s debut novel The Ties that Bind and his bestselling Plainsong. If that’s not an incentive to check out Stephen Orr, I don’t know what is…

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

Update 31 October: French blogger Emma, from Book Around the Corner, has also reviewed it.

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral has only been published in Australia, but UK readers can buy the (pricey) paperback edition, via the Book Depository, or the Kindle edition, via Amazon, for less than a fiver.  US and Canadian readers can only buy the Kindle edition, via Amazon.

This is my 44th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.