20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), An Yu, Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 226 pages; 2020.

An Yu’s novel Braised Pork is a little bit of an enigma.

I came to it with a couple of preconceptions — both of which proved to be wrong:

  • I mistakenly thought the novel would be ideal for Women in Translation month (which runs throughout August), but it wasn’t until I began reading that I realised the author, who is Chinese and was raised in Beijing, writes her fiction in English.
  • I thought it was a crime novel because in the opening pages a woman finds her husband dead in the bath.

But it is neither of these things.

Instead, this is a novel about a widowed woman coming to terms with a new future that has opened out in front of her.

Its careful blending of mythic elements — I hesitate to describe it as magic realism, but it’s certainly got some of those qualities — with real-life trauma, gives it an unusual, almost esoteric, edge.

Dead in the bath

The story is set in modern-day Beijing and is told from the point of view of Jia Jia, a young woman married to a wealthy older man.

One morning in November she finds her husband, Chen Hang, crouching facedown in the bath, his “rump sticking out of the water”, his body stiff from rigor mortis. Next to him is a piece of folded paper bearing a crudely drawn figure — a fish’s body with a man’s head — something Chen Hang had recently dreamt about while on a solo trip to Tibet.

This sets Jia Jia on a quest to discover the meaning behind the “fish man”, a quest that becomes a journey of self-discovery, one that traverses grief, loneliness, family and freedom.

Perplexing story

The “fish man”, which is a recurring motif throughout the novel, lends a perplexing element to the story. This puzzlement is further increased by a scene in which Jia Jia’s bedroom floor transforms into a watery abyss.

Looking down at the floor, she discovered that it did not exist any more, and what replaced it was the surface of a deep sea, as if she was sitting on the edge of a ship watching the reflection of the starless sky in the water. The darkness rippled like silk.

In another scene, a painting becomes a portal into a parallel world. It’s all very strange. Later, on a quick trip to Tibet, Jia Jia meets others searching for the same mythical “fish man” figure and is astounded to find a sculpture carved into a tree trunk that resembles what her husband had drawn.

Meanwhile, as Jia Jia readjusts to life without the man who provided her with everything, including a luxurious Beijing apartment, she comes to understand her marriage was loveless, and that she had been prevented from pursuing her career as an artist.

Her loneliness and cool detachment — which is mirrored only by the dispassionate prose style — is soothed by Leo, a local bar owner with whom she begins a fairly relaxed romance, and family members who encourage her to sell up and move in with them.

Portrait of a city

For all its strangeness and aching melancholia and inability to pigeonhole as a particular type of literary novel, Braised Pork is a wonderful portrait of metropolitan Beijing, with its pollution, expensive property and rampant consumerism.

The emergence of new social classes and the conflict between generations as a result of changes to long-held Chinese traditions gives the story added depth.

In one scene, for instance, a character bemoans the need to buy his children things — a soft mattress, shoe cabinets for trainers bought in New York, a tennis racket, ballet shoes  — that were unimaginable when he was young. In another, Leo is frustrated by his parents’ refusal to link their bank accounts to their phone apps “for fear of their money being stolen” and their inability to understand that opening their windows to let in what they believed to be “fresh air” was detrimental to their health — he had brought them an air purifier for this reason.

On the whole, I enjoyed Braised Pork even though I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. I loved the cool, hypnotic prose style, the main character’s journey of self-discovery and the portrait of modern-day China.

I’ve not read any Haruki Murakami (apart from his non-fiction book about running, reviewed here), but many of the reviews I have seen online draw comparisons to his work. If you are a fan, then An Yu’s novel might be worth hunting out.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from my local secondhand book warehouse in April for $15.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘England, Your England: Notes on a Nation’ by George Orwell

Non-fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 188 pages; 2021.

George Orwell’s England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a collection of five essays brought together in one volume published by Pushkin Press last year.

The subjects covered are incredibly varied but all share a common theme: English life and culture in all its peculiarities.

The essays were penned between 1931 and 1946 and showcase Orwell’s gift for observation and his masterful ability to convey the political machinations that underpin society. And everything is written in his distinctive pared-back prose style that makes it an effortless read.

Essays one and two

The first essay, Decline of the English Murder, is an almost satirical look at the tabloid press’s obsession with true crime reportage, and reading it now, more than 75 years later, not much seems to have changed.

[…] one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer would be a little man of the professional class —  a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.

In Shooting an Elephant, he reveals his personal experience in the early 1920s when, as a policeman in Burma — then a province of British India — he was required to shoot a rampaging elephant.

He made the decision to play the hero as a way of proving himself to the locals, who had taken against him, even though he did not want to shoot the animal because he was squeamish and regarded it as murder. He has an alarming sense of self-awareness:

Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece, but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Essay three

Perhaps the most interesting essay, or at least the one that is most shocking (to this reader anyway), is Down the Mine, a look at what it was like to be a coal miner deep underground in the 1930s.

Orwell’s first-person piece, which first appeared in his book The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937), details the hardships and sheer grunt work the men do in dangerous, claustrophobic conditions in tunnels so small they cannot even stand up to wield their picks and shovels.

He marvels at the speed at which they do their work — shifting coal at around two tons an hour — and is amazed by the idea they often have to walk, or crawl, more than a mile underground to reach the coal face.

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

Essay four

The grim theme continues in The Spike, which is about life inside a workhouse. In this 1931 essay (which you can read in full online at The Orwell Foundation website), Orwell details an overnight stay when he was deliberately living as a vagrant as part of his studies for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Acting as a passive observer, he paints pen portraits of the men that eat and sleep there and contrasts life inside the institution — dank, depressing, grim — with life outside, on the road, where “the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky”.

He explains how the men are given a bath, a medical inspection, a bed to sleep in for the night and an enormous meal, but are then thrown back out onto the street and left to fend for themselves once again. In between, they are locked up inside, denied their tobacco and forced to talk to one another to pass the time.

It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.

The masterpiece essay

The book culminates with Orwell’s three-part essay on English socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn, which was first published in 1941 and outlines his opinions on the Second World War and the role that Britain was playing in it at the time.

His analysis of the British character, the class system and Empire seems remarkably on point more than 80 years later, particularly in light of Brexit and the political shenanigans currently happening in the UK.

I underlined so many pertinent sentences and paragraphs and, indeed, entire pages, that I couldn’t possibly summarise or review this essay in any meaningful or articulate way. Instead, let me share some of my favourite quotes:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.

Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled by largely the old and silly.

I could go on… but I won’t.

England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a gem of a collection: forthright, thought-provoking and an astute observation of English life from another generation but one that still resonates today.

This is my 8th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from the independent book store Crow Books here in Perth last Christmas using some money I was given by Mr Reading Matters to treat myself to “books and beer”! I love the look and feel of this Pushkin Press edition. There’s a second one in the set, “Inside the Whale: On Writers and Writing”, that I now need to hunt out.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Julie Janson, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Magabala Books; 356 pages; 2020.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence tells the story of the early days of European settlement in Australia but with one important twist: it’s told through the eyes of a young Aboriginal girl.

Written as a rebuttal to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River*, a novel that dared to talk about frontier violence from a white perspective, Janson uses a First Nations lens to tell the other side of the story.

The author, who is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation, says it is a work of fiction but is based on historical events in and around the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney.

In her afterword, she says:

The characters are derived from Darug, Gundungurra and Wonnaruah Aboriginal people who defended their lands, culture and society. Muraging is based on my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas, who was a servant on colonial estates in the Hawkesbury area. The other characters in the novel are inspired by historical figures and my imagination, except the governors who are based on historical documents.

Raised by white settlers

Benevolence spans 26 years (1816 to 1846) in the life of Muraging (later renamed Mary), who finds herself caught between two cultures.

Raised and educated by white settlers at a boarding school set up for Aboriginal children, she desperately misses her family and for most of this novel, she swings between the two: working as a servant when she needs food and shelter, heading on country to be with her people when she needs to get back in touch with her culture and traditions.

But even when she is with her own kind she stands out, for she wears European, albeit servant, clothes, can play the violin (she totes one around with her) and speaks English. In white society, the colour of her skin marks her out as different and her pretty looks attract the unwanted attention of often violent men. No matter where she is, she is “othered” and her desire to fit in is only made harder by the children she bears (with white men) and must raise on her own.

Frontier wars

But this is not just a tale about one indigenous woman’s experience, it’s a larger tale about the frontier wars, which rage on in the background, and of the violence committed on First Nations people by white settlers determined to keep the land for themselves, declaring Australia terra nullius and treating the original inhabitants as nothing more than vermin to be shot and exterminated.

From the start, Mary is aware of the danger that white men pose to her race because she has heard the rumours circulate at  school:

Days go by and Mary hears other children’s stories whispered in the night. Many have seen, and still see, the bodies of their parents shot and hung on trees with corn cobs in their mouths. They still watch in horror as crows peck out living eyes and black beaks pick brains.

Later, as an adult, she knows about the Bells Falls Gorge massacre, north of Bathurst, in which women and children jumped to their deaths after white settlers opened fire on them — and she is terrified she could be caught up in something similar.

She’s also increasingly aware of the destruction white people are causing and the implications this poses for local tribes. When she’s on country, for instance, the women in her tribe struggle to gather enough food to eat because “the white hunters have massacred all the local kangaroos” and there is little game nearby. The new settlers are also wreaking havoc in other ways:

The men discuss the thousands of newcomers arriving in ships in Sydney Town and how they crash through the bush smashing the fragile undergrowth, cutting down the oldest, tallest and most sacred trees – even carved burial trees. Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.

Throughout the story, we see how Mary’s Christian upbringing — supposedly designed to deliver her from sin — simply entraps her. It’s a feeling that never quite goes away, messes with her sense of identity and makes her reliant on white settlers who don’t always have her best interests at heart.

An important novel

Benevolence is an important book because it puts a human face to an Aboriginal perspective, a perspective that has previously been ignored or written out of history.

At times, I felt it lost momentum, perhaps because it is just so detailed, covering every aspect of Mary’s life, which includes time on the run in the bush, various jobs as a servant, a lusty romance with a white reverend and a short stint in jail. But on the whole, it’s a comprehensive account of all the many challenges and tragedies to which Mary must bear witness.

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


* The Secret River is based on Grenville’s ancestor Soloman Wiseman, a Thames waterman who was transported to Australia for theft, and who later settled on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wisemans Ferry. He is mentioned in Benevolence as follows:

Wiseman’s Ferry is a large raft where loads of flour are winched across the river by a metal wheel driven by a horse. The old ferryman and innkeeper is Solomon Wiseman. His inn is called The Sign of the Packet; he is an ex-convict and lighterman from the Thames in London. Along the riverbank, the convict road workers are dressed in torn, dirty shirts, their skins tanned from the sun and hunger etched on their faces.


This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it in July 2020, began reading it and then got distracted by covid lockdown shenanigans and never returned to it. I also read it this year as part of my project to read more books by First Nations writers. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, essays, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sean O'Beirne, Setting

‘On Helen Garner’ by Sean O’Beirne (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 138 pages; 2022.

On Helen Garner is the latest volume in an ongoing series about Australian writers written by Australian writers. There are ten in the series so far (see below) and this is the latest to be published.

Sean O’Beirne is a Melbourne writer, so it seems fitting that he would write about Helen Garner, who is also a Melbourne writer. I’m not familiar with O’Beirne’s work, but according to the blurb, he wrote a satirical short story collection, A Couple of Things Before the End, which was shortlisted for several awards. He also works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria.

In this essay, it’s clear he is a deep thinker and not afraid to write intimate details about himself, traits he shares with Garner.

His main thesis is that Garner writes a “closeness to self” that allows her to be completely honest and open, to say the things that others may think but never say, and in doing so this allows her to get closer to the truth.

He argues that she does this in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her fiction, he says, is particularly close to the truth because much of it is based on her first-hand experiences or people she knows, and, indeed, Monkey Grip, her debut novel, was basically her diaries just with the names of people and locations and dates changed, something to which she confessed later on in her career.

He compares this approach with other writers, including himself, who may get to the truth but only by using fictional characters as a foil to say the things the actual writer would be too guarded to say in non-fiction. He puts it like this:

And I notice too that in this whole book I haven’t given you one specific incident, telling as me, about my family, my dad, my mum. About Mr and Mrs O’Beirne. I can’t, I can’t give them to you. But ‘Mr and Mrs O’Dingle’ — I’ll tell you what those people did. As soon as I make some new names, as soon as I get the freedom of some substitution, it is remarkable, I get a feeling in my head like all the lights coming on, my own lit-up feeling of permission.

He explains how it isn’t just as simple as the use of first-person narratives, of inserting an “I” in the story, to get to this truth. The use of “I” is to act as an eye witness, to give a “sort of limited verification” of being present, that “I was in the room, these things happened, I saw them”.

But for many writers, including Janet Malcolm whom he references (and whom I love), this is a device used to suggest that the writer is a “participant observer” and that they know about the subject and are reporting it with a level of intelligence.

But what Garner does, argues O’Beirne, is to go one step further and not be afraid to admit that she’s confused or frustrated or angered or is out of her depth in situations in which she is reporting. And in doing that, the veil of objectivity, of being a passive observer, is lifted.

The book looks at Garner’s novels and short stories as well as her non-fiction books to make these points. Anyone who is familiar with Garner’s back catalogue will enjoy the references.

I have not read much of Garner’s fictional work so these did not resonate as much as her narrative non-fiction, including The First Stone (read pre-blog), Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and her diaries. It does make me keen to explore those works of fiction, though.

Writers on Writers series

The 10 books in the series are as follows:

And there’s a new one forthcoming: ‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks, which I will look forward to reading when it is available.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it earlier this year because I am a Garner fan and thought this would make for an interesting read.

Ashley Goldberg, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Abomination’ by Ashley Goldberg

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 280 pages; 2022.

Ashley Goldberg’s debut novel Abomination is a wonderful examination of orthodox religion in a modern setting and how its rules, conventions and traditions can be used to protect people who do wrong.

Set in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it tells the tale of two friends who go to school together in the late 1990s but drift apart as adults.

Childhood friends

Ezra is the working class Jewish boy who gets a scholarship to the Jewish Yahel Academy, while Yonatan comes from a devout Jewish family and is expected to follow in the footsteps of his rabbi father.

When the book opens we meet the men as adults who have gone their separate ways. Ezra is a bored public servant with a lacklustre love life who is no longer a practising Jew, while Yonatan is still deeply embedded in the ultra-Orthodox community, is happily married with a child on the way and has become a respected rabbi who teaches at the school at which he and Ezra were both educated.

The story contrasts their two strikingly different worlds — secular versus religious — but brings them both together again when they attend a rally demanding that an Israeli-based teacher from their past be extradited to Australia to stand trial. That teacher had been accused of sexually abusing students at the Jewish Yahel Academy in 1999.

But while neither Ezra or Yonatan were direct victims, they recall the scandal that erupted at the time and hold strong beliefs that the accused must be brought to justice.

Closing ranks

Like the Catholic Church which has protected its priests from accusations of committing child sexual abuse, Goldberg’s novel shows how the Jewish faith has followed suit.

The author claims the story is a work of fiction but that he drew inspiration from the 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Reading the novel, I could clearly see parallels with the Malka Leifer case in which the headmistress of Melbourne’s Adass Israel School between 2001 and 2008 fled to Israel when she was accused of child sexual abuse.

That said, Abomination is not really a book about sexual abuse — there are no lurid descriptions, for instance, and it doesn’t feature any victims. Instead, it looks at abuse of power and the ways in which the Jewish community closed ranks and protected the teacher in order to protect themselves. It’s a fascinating account of how faith and religion are not immune to moral failings or errors of judgement.

It’s also a brilliant portrayal of male friendship, loyalty and faith, of two men coming to terms with their own frailities, memories and values while trying to figure out what makes a meaningful life.

The novel’s glimpse into a rarely seen world — that of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Melbourne — is riveting, while the careful pacing and intertwined storylines that switch between past and present gives the book a compelling, page-turning quality.

I ate it up in the space of a weekend and highly recommend it.

Abomination was shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award 2020. The striking cover design is by Alex Ross at Penguin Random House Australia.

Book review, Literary prizes, News

2022 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner named

Congratulations to Jennifer Down whose novel Bodies of Light has been named the winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

I haven’t actually read the book myself but according to the blurb from the publisher, it sounds intriguing.

I didn’t really follow the award this year and only made a passing reference to the longlist in this post which I wrote at the end of May.

For the record, the titles on the shortlist were as follows:

  • The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Hachette Australia)
  • Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  •  Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down (Text Publishing)
  •  One Hundred Days by Alice Pung (Black Inc. Books)
  •  Grimmish by Michael Winkler (Puncher and Wattmann)

You can read more about the winner via this article published on The Guardian.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Affirm Press, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Omar Sakr, Publisher, Setting, Turkey

‘Son of Sin’ by Omar Sakr

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 288 pages; 2022.

Sydney-based Arab Australian Omar Sakr is a prize-winning poet who has turned his hand to novel writing.

Son of Sin, his debut published earlier this year, is an eloquent, fierce and tender coming of age story about a queer Muslim boy coming to terms with his sexuality.

Written with a poet’s eye for detail and sublime imagery, it charts Jamal Smith’s life from his mid-teens to his mid-twenties.

It reveals how Jamal, the product of a Lebanese mother and a Turkish father, spends his adolescence and early adulthood grappling with the idea of being a good Muslim while all around him he sees his extended family — a motley collection of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents — being violent, smoking dope and getting into trouble with the law.

His unconventional upbringing creates additional challenges. Until the age of seven, he was raised by his mother’s sister (whom he still regards as his real mother), a cruel and abusive woman, and believed that his cousins were his siblings. He never really knew his father.

Bookish and gay

As an adolescent, Jamal is a square peg in a round hole. He loves books — “as long as he was reading, he was invisible” — and is sexually attracted to his male friends. He knows that both traits mark him out as different and that the latter must be hidden at all costs, for homosexuality is the “ultimate taboo” for Muslim men, something he is reminded of by family members — of both sexes — who often express anti-gay sentiments.

On top of the homophobia, Jamal must also navigate racism. He lives in the multi-cultural western suburbs of Sydney and experiences first-hand the racial profiling and vilification that people of “Middle Eastern appearance”  were subjected to following 9/11, the Cronulla race riots and, later, Trump’s Muslim ban.

When, as a young adult he drops out of university and fails to find a job he enjoys, he heads abroad to meet his estranged father. During his two years in Turkey, things begin to fall into place — he comes to learn of his family history and begins to reconcile his race and identity in the knowledge that it’s okay to not fit in.

Grace and humour

Despite these heavy subjects, Son of Sin isn’t an oppressive read; it’s written with grace and good humour and there’s a sense of hope and optimism, too. Jamal does find his tribe — his school friends are all outsiders like him from different ethnic backgrounds but have shared interests — and has sexual encounters that are tender and joyful.

As you would expect with a typical bildungsroman, there’s not much of a plot. Instead, the book is essentially a character study of an introspective young man trying to navigate his way in a world beset by prejudice, racism and complex family histories.

It seems fitting that my edition features a cover quote by Christos Tsiolkas because the book is highly reminiscent of Tsiolkas’ own work, in particular his debut novel Loaded. It shares similar themes — what it is to be a first-generation Australian of immigrant parents, hiding your homosexuality, toxic masculinity and violence — and is just as powerfully written, but it’s far less hard-hitting, nihilistic and grungy.

Fans of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel The Lebs will also find a lot to like here.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it not long after it was published in March this year. I have heard Omar talk at a few live-streamed book events over the past couple of years and he always comes across as a deep thinker with a lot of interesting things to say. I figured his book would be more of the same. I was right.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 104 pages; 2021.

Natasha Brown’s novella Assembly could be described as the tale of a woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside, but it is so much more than this. On a much deeper level, it is also a scathing examination of institutional racism and the colonialist structure of British society.

Portrait of British life

It’s written in a series of eloquent vignettes from the perspective of a successful Black British woman who has climbed the career ladder in banking and done well for herself, but at every stage of her life, from school to job to buying her own home, she has had to keep her head below the parapet to avoid the naysayers who might suggest she doesn’t deserve it because of the colour of her skin.

As she prepares for the visit to her white boyfriend’s family home, she thinks about all the events in her life which have led her to this point. She feels complicit in aspiring for a life of “middle-class comfort” without challenging the institutions — the universities, banks and government — which have limited her choices because she lacked the prerequisite connections or money to venture into anything other than the financial industry.

Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? […] The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities: I felt I couldn’t waste mine.

But this doesn’t sit well with her. She believes she’s become someone who knows her place in society and understands the limits to her ascent. She does not want the younger generation to have to deal with this too.

And she’s conscious that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her because they are “good, socially liberated” people, but she knows that it’s all an illusion, that they think it’s just a phase their son is going through and it’s not the kind of relationship that would ever develop into anything serious. If it did, it would threaten “a purity of lineage” — though not in “any crass racial sense” but in the family’s “shared cultural mores and sensibilities” — and it would “wreck the family name”.

But this is a microcosm of what she’s experienced her whole life, trying to fit in and be accepted but knowing that if you scratch the surface it’s next to impossible:

Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still never from here.

And interwoven through all these negative thoughts is an unwanted medical diagnosis that she is refusing to deal with perhaps because she’s suffered enough and more suffering does not faze her.

Compelling read

Assembly is a challenging and at times confronting read, and it is relentless in its dissection of racism, but it’s written with such eloquence (and fury) that it’s compelling and hypnotic.

It doesn’t paint a particularly nice portrait of modern British life. It is littered with examples of micro-aggression and sexism in the workplace, the lack of social mobility opportunities, the “hostile environment” adopted by the government and the ways in which the ruling classes are geared towards preserving a certain way of life.

And the ending, uncertain and undefined, is a pitch-perfect reflection of a country on the precipice of choosing which direction to go: backward or forward?

Brona liked this one too (review here) and so did Annabel (review here)

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from Collins Booksellers in Cottesloe last year. It’s the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, there is just so much in it, so I’m glad I purchased this one rather that borrow from the library.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Anita Heiss, Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On’ by Anita Heiss

Non-fiction – memoir; Vintage Books Australia; 384 pages; 2022.

Dr Anita Heiss’ Am I Black Enough for You? should be required reading for every Australian.

First published in 2012, it has been updated and subtitled “10 Years On”.  I haven’t read the original (which has been eloquently reviewed by Lisa at ANZLitLovers), so I’m not sure how much it diverts from the first, but I found it an entertaining and educational read and it made me rethink and reassess my own views on what it means to be an Aboriginal in this country.

It’s billed as a memoir but it’s much more than that. It’s an account of a range of issues affecting Aboriginal Australians as told through Heiss’ own intimate and personal lens as a successful author, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal literacy and a high-achieving public intellectual. Just last month, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to tertiary Indigenous Studies & the Arts.

Rejecting the stereotypes

A proud Wiradyuri woman from central NSW, Heiss was raised in suburban Sydney and educated at her local Catholic school. Her father was an immigrant from Austria and her mother was Aboriginal and she cheekily describes herself as a “concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming” because she lives in the city and loves shopping!

This is my story: it is a story about not being from the desert, not learning to speak my traditional language until I was fifty years old, and not wearing ochre. I’m not very good at playing the clap sticks, either, and I loathe sleeping outdoors. Rather, my story is of the journey of being a proud sovereign Wiradyuri yinaa, just not necessarily being the Blackfella — the so-called ‘real Aborigine’ — some people, perhaps even you, expect me to be.

The book essentially breaks down the stereotypes and myths surrounding what it is to be a First Nations person in Australia. It also shatters the expectation that just because Heiss identifies as an Aboriginal, she does not have to be “all-knowing of Aboriginal culture, or to be the Black Oracle”.

I’m Aboriginal. I’m just not the Aboriginal person a lot of people want or expect me to be.

It’s written in a friendly, light-hearted tone but Heiss isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues head-on. She writes about the Stolen Generations (her grandmother was removed from her family in 1910 and lived a life of servitude until 1927, when she got married), racism, why she doesn’t celebrate Australia Day, the black lives matter movement and poor literacy rates in remote Aboriginal communities.

Writing about writing

But she really hits her stride when talking about literacy, which is a clear and demonstrable passion, and there is an excellent chapter (“Writing us into Australian history”) about the importance of including Aboriginal voices, perspectives and  characters in books. A successful and award-winning author in her own right (she has seven novels to her name, as well as a handful of children’s books), Heiss believes her work has a role to play in “placing Aboriginal people on the overall Australian national identity radar”:

With all my books I receive feedback, written and in person, from mobs around the country who tell me that they have had the same experience of discrimination or racism, or that they were moved by a story or poem. I also have a lot of non-Indigenous people (the largest part of my audience because of population size), who tell me that they have been challenged by what I have written and have learned from the experience of reading my work.

Interestingly, since the original edition of this book, there has been an explosion in First Nations writers being published in Australia, and Heiss is particularly proud that the BlackWords database she helped establish now has more than 7,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and storytellers listed on it.

There’s an excellent chapter near the end (“20 reasons you should read Blak”) — adapted from the keynote address she gave at the inaugural Blak & Bright festival at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne in 2016 — which outlines why we should all be reading First Nations writers. (As if I need any excuse.)

But it’s really the last chapter (“The Trial”), about her successful racial discrimination class action case against News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt (you can read her take on it in this piece published on Crikey), which acts as a resounding “take that!” to anyone who thinks they can say what they like about Aboriginal Australians and get away with it. Not only does it highlight the values by which Heiss lives — to call people out who perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes and to ensure the world she leaves behind is more equitable and compassionate than it is today — but it also makes Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On such an excellent and important read.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. It is one of the books sent to me as part of my monthly First Nations book subscription from Rabble Books & Games.

This subscription service ties in nicely with my own project to read more books by First Nations writers, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

And finally, this is my contribution to Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week (July 3-10, 2022), which coincides with NAIDOC Week, an annual event to celebrate and recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Wintering’ to ‘Dirty Tricks’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI’m not sure where June went (I’m still trying to figure out what happened to May) and so this month’s Six Degrees of Separation — a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest —  caught me a little unawares. But at least I remembered: last month it completely passed me by! (Did anyone notice?)

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Wintering’ by Katherine May (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but now having looked it up online I can see why: it holds absolutely no appeal to me. It supposedly “offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat” via “a moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world”. So, given this isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, it makes it difficult to know what to link it to, so I’m going for a seasonal theme and choosing…

Minds of Winter

‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin (2016)

This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps over two centuries and is jam-packed with everything you would ever want to know about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. It also interleaves a modern-day storyline about the “Arnold 294” chronometer, an important marine timepiece, thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic. However, when it reappeared in Britain 150 years later disguised as a Victorian carriage clock people began to wonder when and how it had been returned…

Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan (2008)

Sir John Franklin appears in this historical novel about a young Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who was “adopted” by the Franklins in Tasmania as a kind of experiment to prove that the “savage” could be “tamed”.  Sir John was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843 before he went on his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage. Charles Dickens, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration, is also another real life character in this novel.

‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’ great-granddaughter, and this comic novel — one of my favourites — is largely based on her time as a journalist working on an English provincial newspaper in the years after the Second World War. It reads very much like the diary of a young reporter learning the ropes and is filled with hilarious moments as Poppy tries to convince her editor that women are not a nuisance in the office. Poppy’s experience living in a boarding house ruled by a strict take-no-prisoners landlady is also very funny.

‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)

Life in a boarding house features strongly in this blackly comic novel by Muriel Spark. The story focuses on a forthright young woman who works for a struggling book publisher. She deeply offends a purple-prosed author by calling him out on his bad writing and from there, things escalate into farce.

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Bad behaviour is the central focus of this novel, another black comedy, in which Matt, a 30-something brand-obsessed businessman, loses his grip on reality. While he’s obnoxious, self-centred and absurdly funny, Matt is not what he seems. The author scatters little clues here and there which allow you to build up a picture of the real Matt — and it isn’t exactly pretty.

‘Dirty Tricks’ by Michaele Dibdin (1999)

A troubled character who is also unreliable and unscrupulous stars in this wickedly funny novel. The unnamed narrator justifies his behaviour in outlandish ways. Initially, it’s easy to pity him but as the narrative unfurls you begin to get a better sense of his strange, skewed outlook on life. He not only has an inflated sense of his own importance, but he is also so lacking in empathy for anyone around him that he can only be described as a psychopath. His behaviour is so bad that the book is laugh-out-loud funny!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a self-help book about self-care to a black comedy about a psychopath, via novels about polar exploration, taming a “savage” in Tasmania in the 19th century, being a woman reporter on a provincial newspaper in the 1940s, life in a 1950s London boarding house and bad behaviour by a businessman in the 2000s.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.