2019 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Bri Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 358 pages; 2018.

Even before I was mid-way through Bri Lee’s debut book, Eggshell Skull, I knew it was going to be the best non-fiction title I’d read all year — and that’s saying something seeing as I’d not long finished Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist, which I thought was extraordinarily good.

A memoir about working in the Australian judicial system for the first time might not sound terribly exciting, but Bri Lee’s narrative is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a really well constructed book that marries the personal with the political.

It not only provides a fierce and unflinching look at how the law, the legal system and society as a whole is biased against women, especially in matters relating to domestic violence and sexual abuse, it also provides a peek into Bri’s battles with body image and eating disorders stemming from her own dark secret.

It’s an amazingly courageous, compelling and eye-opening memoir.

Never look for justice

Bri starts her story with a seemingly innocuous anecdote from her childhood — about going to get a pie for lunch with her policeman dad, when the pair stumble upon a physical fight between a man and a woman — that sets the scene for pretty much the rest of the book. The woman, Bri explains, did not want to press charges even though she’d been brutally shoved, verbally abused and quite clearly terrified.

On another occasion, her father, who spends long hours in court prosecuting domestic violence cases, suggests…

…that I was to ‘get a man drunk’ before I married him because some men ‘become very nasty’, and you wouldn’t be able to tell until they drank.

Later, he advises that Bri should “never look for justice”, a catchphrase he often repeats, and which rubs against her decision to study law.

A bright student, she manages to win herself a coveted first job as a judge’s associate, travelling to towns in regional Queensland and the larger metropolitan area of Brisbane as part of the Queensland District Court circuit. It’s a confronting experience — the legal system is slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic. But it’s also alarmingly predictable.

Back in my office I prepared us for the coming trials. The bulk of the court list was child sex offences, and when I remarked on this to Judge he agreed and we commiserated. “Unfortunately it’s the bread and butter of the District Court”, he said, “but sometimes you get a good bit of old-fashioned violence.”

The sheer number of sexual abuse and rape cases begins to weigh on Bri, as does the difficulty associated with getting guilty verdicts, either because many cases are “he said, she said” scenarios so there’s lack of evidence, or juries are loaded with straight white males who tend to believe what straight white male defendants say.

Eventually all these cases, listening to the victims in court and seeing the alleged perpetrators walk free triggers something that Bri can’t control: her own memory of being sexually molested by a trusted childhood friend a decade earlier.

A case of one’s own

The first half of this book is largely about Bri’s working life on the District Court, the second about the court case she brings against the man who assaulted her when she was a schoolgirl. It’s a compelling account of what it is like to be on both sides of the courtroom and shows how difficult it can be to challenge an accuser, even when you know the law and the legal system inside out — imagine if you’re poorly educated or have never stepped foot in a courtroom.

It’s told with an unflinching honesty, often painful, but there’s humour here, too. And despite the seemingly never-ending examples of misogyny and abhorrent behaviour by men against women littered throughout the book’s 350-plus pages, this isn’t a man-hating story for Bri has strong male role models in her life — a caring father, a devoted boyfriend, a respectful and empathetic boss — whom she champions and adores.

What makes Eggshell Skull — the title comes from a legal “rule” in which a defendant must “take their victim as they find them” (more on that here) — so powerful is the sheer number of examples that Bri outlines of the very real dangers that some men pose to women (and girls of all ages). It’s like a contagion that has spread throughout our society; it’s so ingrained it feels like there’s nothing we can do to change it — except perhaps to educate our sons to respect women, rather than educating our daughters to change their behaviour (wear different clothes, don’t walk home alone, don’t get drunk) to avoid being raped.

Eggshell Skull is both harrowing and hopeful. It made me angry, it made me want to cry. Mostly it unsettled and unnerved me. Reading it was an almost visceral experience, and I am forever changed having turned these pages.

Please note that the book does, at times, provide excruciating, but never gratuitous, detail of some horrendous cases, but Bri holds back on outlining the specifics of her own abuse — probably as an act of self care.

Finally, Eggshell Skull — which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize — does not appear to be published outside of Australia, but UK-based readers can order it from the Book Depository.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: True crime meets memoir in this book in which a law student interning on a death penalty case involving a paedophile is reminded about her own secret past in which she was sexually abused by a family member.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2019, which means I have completed the challenge for this year already! However, I will keep reading books by Australian women writers and tally up my final total at year’s end.

2019 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

Vicki Laveau-Harvie wins the 2019 Stella Prize

Congratulations to Vicki Laveau-Harvie whose extraordinary memoir The Erratics has been named winner of the 2019 Stella Prize.

The Erratics was the first book I read when I embarked on my project to read all the books on the Stella Prize shortlist. It was the kind of memoir I simply couldn’t put down. Fortunately, I was on holiday at the time — in Fremantle, Western Australia — so I have very fond memories of lying on a sofa and later sitting on a sun-washed balcony being completely immersed in this story.

It’s a compelling account of dealing with elderly parents — one of whom is trying to kill the other — from afar.

According to the Stella Prize Twitter account,  it’s a “sharp, darkly funny and powerful book” that “explores the universal themes of family, the pain they can inflict and the legacy they leave”.

You can read my full review here.

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers, and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in 2018 were eligible.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Brow Books, essays, Literary prizes, Maria Tumarkin, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Brow Books; 244 pages; 2018.

Writer and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin claims her latest book, Axiomatic, is NOT a collection of essays. “It is a book with chapters that are just a little unorthodox in the way they are structured and sit next to each other,” she says in an interview with the Stella Prize, for which she has been shortlisted. (You can read that full interview here.)

However you choose to describe Axiomatic, I think it’s fair to say it is not easy to box in: it doesn’t fit a genre, seeing as it’s a heady mix of storytelling and reportage. To my mind, these pieces (or chapters) wouldn’t be out of place in a “high-brow” magazine — for instance, a colour supplement that comes with a weekend broadsheet — and as such I’d class them as journalistic features.

Content-wise, each piece looks at an axiom — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether it holds or can be debunked.

These five axioms are:

  • ‘Time Heals All Wounds’;
  • ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’;
  • ‘History Repeats Itself’;
  • Give Me a Child Before the Age of 7 and I’ll Give You the (Wo)Man’; and
  • ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice’

I’m not going to review each chapter other than to say there are common themes running throughout Tumarkin’s work. She is very much focussed on time and how its passing can shape the past, present and future. She looks at its impact on the personal and the political, how it shapes our understanding of ourselves, our families, our popular culture and our institutions.

‘There is chronological time,’ Valent tells me, ‘and there is experiential, cyclical time. This time has an emotional meaning. Existential. It is like the way peasants think about harvest: time to reap and time to sow. Time to live and time to die.’

But she looks at very dark and disturbing subjects to do this — from secondary school students who commit suicide in the brilliant opening chapter, which is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long while, to a child holocaust survivor accused of abducting her grandson and hiding him in a makeshift dungeon, which reads like something that fell out of a literary crime novel — and always with a keen eye on intergenerational trauma, the moral necessity of protecting children, love, grief and survival.

This is the story sentenced to constant retelling, about how people are born into things, and fate thinks intergenerationally. Parental pain, sadness, abuse (be it suffered or inflicted), indifference, withheld love, riding and exploding over children’s lives, like tanks.

All the while Tumarkin writes in gleaming, silky prose, using a mix of short sentences and longer ones, creating a rhythm that is both hypnotic and alluring. In all cases, she inserts herself in the story, and while she’s clearly her own person, with her own style and her own voice, there are echoes of Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner in her work.

Axiomatic is the kind of book that deserves a wide audience, not only because it deals with challenging subjects in a thoughtful, considered and wholly original way, but also because it is a timely reminder of our own humanity and our own resilience. This is a five-star read for me.

This is my 7th book for #AWW2019  and my 6th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is currently available as an ebook in the UK.

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

‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo

The Bridge book cover

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 384 pages; 2018.

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

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

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

A book of two halves

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

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

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

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

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

Living under the bridge’s shadow

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

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

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

Unrelentingly bleak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Added extras

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

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

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

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.

2019 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

2019 Stella Prize shortlist

Stella Prize badgeIt seems fitting that today, on International Women’s Day, the shortlist for the 2019 Stella Prize has been unveiled.

This relatively new prize, which is worth $50,000 to the winner, was set up in 2013 to champion women writers in Australia. Both fiction and non-fiction is eligible.

I would normally have posted the longlist, but I was travelling (in Australia) at the time of the announcement so never quite got around to it. (But if you are interested you can see it on the official website.)

As usual, I plan on reading everything on the short list (I made sure to buy pretty much the entire longlist when I was home), which comprises the following titles:

Please keep popping back here as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner will be announced in Melbourne on Tuesday 9 April.

* These books are available in the UK as ebooks.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Canada, Finch Publishing, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vicki Laveau-Harvie

‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Finch Publishing; 217 pages; 2018.

Vicki Laveau-Harvie is a retired academic and translator whose memoir The Erratics won the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize. Last month the book was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

It’s a compelling account of dealing with elderly parents — one of whom is trying to kill the other — from afar.

A memoir about a dysfunctional family

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario.

You grew up in Canada, on a big sprawling isolated property on the prairies of Alberta, with a younger sister, and a mother who had a vibrant, mercurial, some might say challenging, personality and an easy-going, hen-pecked father.

You now live in Sydney, Australia, where you have raised a family of your own. You have been estranged from your parents for a long time. In fact, they have disinherited both you and your sister, and your mother goes around telling everyone that she only has one daughter and that she died many years ago. Or sometimes she says that her two daughters disappeared decades ago and despite hiring investigators on several continents they have never been found.

Then you get a call to say your mother has been hospitalised unexpectedly. She has broken a hip.

4th Estate edition

When you fly to the other side of the world to visit her, you discover she’s as cantankerous and difficult as ever. But you are shocked to see that your father is all skin and bones. You think he might have a terminal disease. Then it slowly dawns on you that your mother has been starving him deliberately and that he has a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. It is a disturbing and frightening realisation.

What do you do? You (and your sister) do whatever you can to ensure your mother is kept in hospital for as long as possible so that you can plan your father’s “escape” — the last thing you want is your mother returning  home to continue her abusive treatment, for he will die at her hand. But how do you convince the authorities that your mother is crazy and hellbent on killing her husband when she’s got such a forceful personality and a long track record of telling lies? How do you get them to understand that you have your father’s interests at heart and not your own?

A compulsive read

That is essentially the scope of this gripping memoir, one that I read in one, long compulsive sitting, unable to tear my eyes from the page.

Laveau-Harvie writes in an easy-going style that feels light as air despite dealing with dark and troubling issues and emotions. There’s no self-pity. Instead, there’s lots of honesty, pragmatism and self-deprecating (often sarcastic) humour. It’s heartbreaking and frightening by turn. Occasionally, it almost feels like a story that American TV producer and comedy writer Larry “Curb Your Enthusiasm” David might have come up with, it really is that funny and the family so dysfunctional.

But underpinning the narrative is a quiet strength and an almost ruthless quest to sort things out even if it means revisiting the horrors of the past. The Erratics is a brave and sometimes harrowing book, one that deserves a wide audience, but it’s also a testament to family love and the ties that bind.

UPDATE: Kate, who blogs at Books are my Favourite and Best, has also reviewed this book. She has a slightly different take on it to me.

This is my my 1st book for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist and my 2nd book for #AWW2019. It took some effort to track it down in Western Australia, where I spent two weeks last month. It hasn’t been published outside of Australia so, sadly, it will be even harder to source if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. The publisher ceased trading at the end of 2018, but I believe the book has since been picked up by 4th Estate in Australia where it will be republished in mid-March. To purchase a copy outside of Australia, your best bet would be to place an order with Readings.com.au — sadly, it won’t be a cheap exercise.