A&R Classics, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Katharine Susannah Prichard, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 300 pages; 2012.

I came to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1929 novel Coonardoo with some trepidation. It’s an Australian classic, of course, and is billed as the first Australian novel to feature a relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman. It sparked public outrage on publication because of this. Almost a century later it still makes for uncomfortable reading — but not necessarily for the reasons that upset people in the past.

We all know that white men exploited Aboriginal women for their own sexual gratification. We also know that love doesn’t abide by class and race structures; that it is entirely normal for white people to fall in love with black people and vice versa. But the story is written through an entirely white lens and uses racist language that is unacceptable now.

And while I can see that Prichard’s heart is in the right place — she clearly wanted to pen a sympathetic portrait of Aboriginal people — it’s hard to ignore her objectification of their “exoticness”. Indeed, in her own foreword to the novel, Prichard reveals her ethnographer’s card, so to speak, by suggesting Aboriginal people were on the “lower rungs” of the “evolutional ladder”.

Bearing this in mind, and realising that she was writing in a different time and era and can’t be held to account for a mindset that is now, hopefully, clearly outdated, I found Coonardoo a compelling tale.

Life on a cattle station

It is a fascinating portrait of life on a cattle station in Western Australia’s remote northwest. It is also an insightful look at the social mores and manners of the early 20th century and the ways in which the long arm of colonisation impacted the lives of Aboriginal women.

I was gripped by its beautiful, filmic prose — Prichard’s descriptions of landscapes are gorgeously rich and vivid — and the tragic, heartbreaking arc of the storyline that demonstrates the weakness and cruelty in the hearts of even the most decent of human beings.

The moon, rising over the dark edge of the plains, was large as a dray-wheel, red-gold. It moved through a sky clear green with the glimmer of still water, extinguishing the stars, chasing them to the depths of the high dark. The stock-yards, sheds and windmills were clear in the moonlight; corrugated-iron roofs and fans of the windmill had a white radiance. Huts of the blacks, just visible, were low mounds against the earth near the creek; their camp-fires, red jewels in the distance. A subdued murmur and drift of singing, clicking of kylies [a light boomerang] came from them.

But despite the story being framed around an Aboriginal woman, the titular Coonardoo, who is trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at Wytaliba station, it is really about the station owner, Hugh Watt, who is roughly the same age. Hughie, or “Youie” as he is often called, played with Coonardoo as a child before being sent away to boarding school in Perth.

The narrative traces the arc of his life, from childhood to old age, showing his struggles and minor triumphs, the heartbreak of two failed relationships with white women, the grief that engulfs him after the death of his mother, Bess, the much-respected widow who ran the station single-handedly for decades, and his ongoing battles with his polygamist neighbour, Sam Geary, who boasts of the Aboriginal women he uses for his own sexual gratification.

And then there is the personal relationship he has with Coonardoo, a woman he loves but holds at a distance, even though it’s clear that both of them have feelings for one another.

“Coonardoo had been the one sure thing in his life when his mother went out of it. He had grasped her. She was a stake, something to hang on to. He had to remind himself of her dark skin and race. Hugh had never been able to think of Coonardoo as alien to himself. She was the old playmate; a force in the background of his life, silent and absolute. Something primitive, fundamental, nearer than he to the source of things: the well in the shadows.

It’s this denial of a joyful matrimonial partnership, of even allowing Coonardoo a voice, that turns Hugh bitter, a denial that manifests itself in one shocking outburst of brutality that puts paid to any future happiness.

A white man’s sorrow

At its most basic, Coonardoo is a tale about a white man’s sorrow and disappointment, about his failure to tame the land and to find happiness in family and romantic relationships, to be true to himself, but the narrative is underscored by deeper issues — hints of Aboriginal massacres, dispossession and exploitation.

“The blacks are like that, I reck’n,” Saul agreed. “They never kill for sport — only for food or vengeance. I’ve always treated ’em fair and honest, let their women alone — and never had any trouble with ’em. […] And the blacks has plenty of reason for vengeance, Youie. Thirty years I’ve been in this country, and there’s things I’ve seen… No black ever did to a white man what white men have done to the blacks.”

And while Hugh’s attitude towards the Aboriginals who work on his land could be said to be kind and sympathetic by the standards of the time in which it was written, it’s hard not to wince at the patronising nature of much of what he says and does today. The following statement, for instance, is racist (and sexist), which makes for uncomfortable reading:

“But these people are not servants,” Hugh told her, “not in the ordinary way. We don’t pay them, except in food, tobacco, clothing. Treat them generously, feed them well, give them a bit of pain-killer or a dose of castor oil when they’ve got a bingee ache, and they’ll do anything in the world for you. But you must never work them too hard — specially the gins [derogatory term for an Aboriginal woman]. They’re not made for hard work, can’t stand it. Look at their little hands. Coonardoo’s — I’ve never seen any woman with as pretty little hands as Coonardoo’s.”

Prichard, unfortunately, is hampered by her inability to truly know what it was like to be indigenous. She’s constrained by her own prejudices, privilege and experiences. In today’s language, we would say this was not her story to tell.

But for all its failings, Coonardoo is an important book both in terms of the Australian literary canon and Australian history. I am glad to have made its acquaintance.

Please also see Lisa’s thoughtful and considered response to this novel, for she has taken the time to put it into context by reading other people’s opinions about it.

Because the author spent a large chunk of her life in Western Australia (she moved to Greenmount, on the edge of the Darling Scarp, in 1920, where she lived until her death in 1969, aged 85), this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

This is also my 26th book for #AWW2021. 

Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Book lists, Book review

7 books for NAIDOC week

In Australia it is currently NAIDOC^ Week, where we celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Normally the week is held in July, but this year, because of Covid-19 it has been moved to November (8-15).

To mark the occasion, I thought I would put together a list of books I’ve read by Aboriginal writers. As ever, links take you to my review in full.

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch (novel, 2019)
Set in the 1960s, this easy-to-read novel tells the story of Odette, an Aboriginal woman, who is trying to protect her light-skinned granddaughter from being stolen by authorities to be raised by a white family.

Too Afraid to Cry

‘Too Afraid to Cry’ by Ali Cobby Eckermann (memoir, 2012)
A brilliantly evocative and heart-rending memoir, told in verse, by a poet of indigenous heritage who was taken from her Aboriginal family and raised by a white one.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant (memoir, 2016)
A heartfelt and deeply personal memoir by one of Australia’s most respected journalists and broadcasters. about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (novel, 2018)
An award-winning brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel about an indigenous family that has been deeply traumatised by past events and 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.


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (autobiography, 2016)
A gorgeous autobiography of two Aboriginal sisters, this short book is also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Taboo by Kim Scott

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott (novel, 2017)
Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, this novel focuses on plans to open a modern-day Peace Park, not far from the site of a brutal massacre of Aboriginal people in the late 19th century, as a form of reconciliation.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (novel, 2020)
This year’s Miles Franklin winner is a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but also gently examines what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

^ NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’ but it’s now just the name of the week itself. The ‘always was, always will be’ strapline refers to land – ie. that Australia always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

This post nicely ties in with Australian Literature Month hosted by Brona at Brona’s Books.

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‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

Australia, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cees Nooteboom, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Lost Paradise’ by Cees Nooteboom

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Cees Nooteboom’s Lost Paradise, which is split into two seemingly unconnected parts that eventually come together in a not particularly convincing way.

Nooteboom is a Dutch writer with a hefty body of work, spanning poetry to travel writing, to his name, as well as a slew of literary awards. Lost Paradise, his 12th novel, was first published in 2004 and translated into English in 2007.

Unusually (for a Dutch writer), the story is largely set in Australia.

A novel in two parts

The first part focuses on two young Brazilian women, (the confusingly named) Alma and Almut, who are obsessed with Aboriginal Australians. They travel to Australia to learn about this ancient culture and to make their dream of visiting the “Aboriginal Sickness Dreaming Place” come true.

Toward the end of their journey, which takes in Adelaide and Alice Springs (among other places), they arrive in Perth, where they take part in an international arts festival event called The Angel Project. (This, apparently, was a real art installation, staged across 13 sites for the Perth International Festival of the Arts in 2000. It has also been held in London and New York.) Here, they are required to dress as angels and remain as still as statues in places dotted around the city.

The second part is about a middle-aged literary critic, Erik Zondag, who travels from Amsterdam to Austria to stay at a remote spa resort on the advice of his girlfriend who wants him to return a changed man. While there he encounters a woman with whom he once spent the night in Perth many years earlier, a woman he still occasionally thinks about, a woman who was, at the time, dressed as an angel.

And hence, you have the unlikely connection between these two seemingly disparate halves of the one book.

An outsider’s view

One element of Lost Paradise that works is the outsider’s view of Australia, the realisation that the outback is inhospitable — and completely alien — if you are unfamiliar with it. Here’s how Alma describes it:

We get out of the vehicle beside a river. The silence is broken by unknown sounds. ‘CROCODILES FREQUENT THIS AREA. KEEP CHILDREN AND DOGS AWAY FROM THE WATER’S EDGE.’ I stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type. There is very little traffic on this road, so we are alone in our cloud of dust. The few cars coming towards us can be seen from miles off, like clouds or apparitions.

Similarly, Erik’s sudden awareness of the sheer size of the country is brought vividly to life in this passage:

It had been summer when he arrived in Perth. He had never been cooped up in a plane fror so long. The 18 hours to Sydney had been followed by a flight across a Continent with a population only slightly larger than that of the Netherlands, though it was nearly as big as the United States. Much of the land was empty: a rocky, sunburnt, sand-coloured desert, where the Aborigines had led their unwatched, automomous lives for thousands of years. The others — the sheep ranchers and the wine growers — lived on the periphery.

But this slim volume also explores bigger — and more complex — themes related to why we travel, what we hope to escape from and what we wish to find. There’s an emphasis on literature and art. Angels are a recurring theme — “Angels do not exist and yet they are divided into orders much like the hierarchy in an army” — and there are many nods to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The prose style is sparse and elegant, beautifully translated by Susan Massotty, and reading it feels very much as if you are caught up in a dream. It’s sad and lonely and haunting.

But for all that, there’s no doubting this is an odd book. I came away from it unable to decide whether it might be just an old white man’s self-indulgent fantasy or a slice of understated genius. And weeks after having finished it, I still don’t know…