Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kenneth Mackenzie, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Refuge’ by Kenneth Mackenzie

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 448 pages; 2015.

First published in 1954, Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Refuge is based on an intriguing premise: a newspaper reporter is tipped off about a young woman found dead in Sydney harbour, except he already knows the news because he committed the crime.

But the novel, deeply evocative of wartime Sydney and the paranoia affecting its citizens about Communism and European refugees, doesn’t live up to its promise. While it has moments of quiet brilliance, as a whole it is over-written — it contains pages and pages of purple prose — and over-wrought. This is a great shame because with some judicious editing (the novel is about 200 pages too long) there’s a brilliant story inside that is dying to get out.

That story is obviously framed around the murder — why it was committed, and how? And while those aspects are covered in a satisfying way, the narrative pacing is all wrong. So what should be a fast-paced tale riven with tension and suspense becomes a laborious, self-indulgent journey focused on the man who tries to justify what he has done. It’s billed as a mystery, but it’s not a mystery at all. It’s a literary novel with a deeply philosophical tone, but it’s uneven, patchy — and flawed.

Suspenseful start

The first chapter is compelling, fast-paced and suspenseful. Lloyd Fitzherbert, the police reporter with the Sydney Gazette, is getting ready to go home after his long shift when his contact in the CIB calls him about a woman currently lying in the morgue, who had been “netted” in the “harbour off Woolloomooloo”.

Coming in with the tide, I suppose. They tell me it’s a real beauty — a woman, and not a mark on her. Luck, eh? Only the colour’s wrong for a drowning.

The woman is Irma, a Dutch refugee, whom Fiztherbert had secretly married three years earlier and, then, as it turns out, had drugged and murdered for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the book. But why did he marry Irma in the first place and then keep it secret from everyone he knew, including his teenage son? And why did they live in separate, albeit adjacent, apartments?

To answer these questions, the story spools right back to the beginning to explain how the pair met and then charts their fledgling relationship in minute, long-winded detail. Their romance is not straightforward. Irma is young — just 19 when she first meets Fitzherbert, who is 12 years her senior — and troubled. She’s a Communist fleeing Nazi Germany and she believes she’s been tailed by three men on the refugee ship who wish to destroy her.

Fitzherbert, the handsome Australian saviour, tries to help her. It would seem he has her best interests at heart and while he’s attracted to her — there are many descriptions of her “Slavic cheekbones” and beautiful eyes and lips and figure — he spurs her sexual advances, and she ends up running away. They do not see each other for six years.

In the meantime, Fitzherbert, who is a widower, raises his son, Alan, single-handedly. (Their relationship is close and tender and one of the strengths of the novel.) He diligently works on the newspaper (the descriptions of journalistic practices are rather wonderful) and leads a quiet, respectable, drama-free life.

When he is eventually reunited with Irma and marries her (under strange circumstances, it has to be said), he is blissfully happy but somehow fails to see that she is not. She makes at least one suicide attempt which is practically swept under the carpet as if nothing untoward has happened.

The events leading up to her murder are relatively predictable, and while nothing is spelled out, the author wastes a lot of time telling us the emotional toll this is having on Fitzherbert. We never do hear from Irma, who remains an enigma throughout the entire novel.

Overtly sexist

My main issue with The Refuge is the overt sexism and objectification of women throughout. This, no doubt, is simply indicative of the time in which it was written, but the introduction by Nicolas Rothwell in this edition makes absolutely no mention of this. (Rothwell is more inclined to place the story in historical context, to explain how Communism and immigration impacted the Australian psyche still reeling from the impact of the Second World War, which is fascinating and, importantly, does help to explain some of the racism in the book.)

On more than one occasion, I was reminded of all the problematic issues I had with Sophie’s Choice when I read it a few years ago. That novel was very much focused on a single character’s beauty and sexual appetite, whereas this one tends to portray women as a group of unfathomable creatures who think and act differently from men because of some innate biological makeup. This is just one of many examples:

Con used to say that women arrive at a remarkable number of correct conclusions by thinking with their livers. When I said, why their livers? he said, “Well, any of their organs that happen to be unnaturally affected at the moment.” Of course, I took the opening to point out to him that the brain is also an organ, but he said that was different — a woman never allowed her brain to interfere with what she called her thinking.

That said, the book isn’t a complete dud. When Mackenzie hits his stride and focuses on showing us, instead of telling us, how Fitzherbert is feeling, he’s excellent. The historical setting is evocative — large parts of the novel are set in the lead up to the Munich agreement in 1938 — and I loved reading about the hubbub of the newsroom and the quirky characters who inhabit it.

The Refuge was Mackenzie’s last novel (he has three earlier ones to his name) — he drowned in mysterious circumstances a year later.

I read this book as part of the 1954 Club, a week-long initiative hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy of Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings in which everyone is encouraged to read books published in — you guessed it — 1954. More on Kaggy’s blog here and Simon’s blog here.

I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author was born in South Perth in 1933 and raised on a property at Pinjarra, in the Peel region about 80km south-east of the WA capital. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sumner Locke Elliott, Text Classics

‘Careful, He Might Hear You’ by Sumner Locke Elliott

Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 495 pages; 2012.

First published in 1963, Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful, He Might Hear You is a big, beautiful, bold-hearted book set in Sydney during the Great Depression. It’s most definitely a five-star read.

PS, short for postscript, is an “almost orphan”: his mother, the writer Sinden, died in childbirth and he hasn’t seen his father, the good-looking but feckless Logan, ever since he left to seek his fortune on the gold fields. Now in the care of his Aunt Lila (Sinden’s sister) and Uncle George, PS is a happy, well-adjusted six-year-old boy, adored by a big collection of crazy aunts.

But things change when his well-educated, well off Aunt Vanessa, who lives in London, returns home to Sydney to take “proper care” of him. She’s a rather snobby character, who reflects the “cultural cringe” of the time and thinks nothing in Australia, including the accents, is good enough. In her pursuit to turn PS into a gentleman, he comes into her care on week days so that he can attend a private school and take extra curricular lessons, such as music and riding. He returns to Lila and George on the weekends.

PS now finds himself caught between two worlds. His Aunt Ness doesn’t really understand children and wants him to act as if he’s very grown up. She’s needy, manipulative and cruel, forever trying to buy his affection with glamorous toys and expensive clothes. He suffers her over-bearing attitude with good grace, but he desperately misses Lila and George, who love him unconditionally and let him behave as a child.

Eventually, things come to a head when he decides he no longer wants to live with Ness. The fall-out — on him, his trio of guardians, his long-lost father and the wider family — is predictably upsetting and heart-breaking.

Emotional tug of war

Yet despite the fact this is a story about an emotional tug-of-war over a defenceless child, this is a warm-hearted, rambunctious and truly memorable novel. It’s also a lovely, heart-swelling portrait of childhood in another age. It’s said to be based on the author’s own experiences growing up, which perhaps explains its charm and authenticity.

There’s a lot going on in this book — about childhood and parenting, sibling rivalries, marriage, love and romance, death and the lies we tell children (and ourselves).

As a portrait of a big, complicated family of women — their tensions, petty squabbles, foibles, flaws and strengths — it is superb. The individual characters of all PS’s aunts — the posh one, the sensible one, the fun one, the religious one — are beautifully drawn and wonderfully contrasted with his own dead mother, the woman with an angelic reputation who had a devilish streak few people knew about.

The dialogue is witty, peppered with the vernacular of the time, and Sydney, in the heat, is captured so vividly it feels as if it’s a character in its own right. The 1930s setting is also particularly evocative.

And it makes a wonderful addition to the canon of “aunts in fiction”, which includes some of my very favourite reads, including Robin Dalton’s memoir Aunts up the Cross, David Malouf’s epic novel Harland’s Half-Acre and Graham Greene’s hilarious Travels with my Aunt.

Careful, He Might Hear You won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1963.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction,, Miles Franklin, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin


Fiction – Kindle edition;; 252 pages; 2004.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was an Australian feminist and writer. If her name sounds familiar it’s because she bequeathed her estate to set up the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is given to a novel of  “the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” every year.

Her novel, My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901, is widely regarded as a fully fledged Australian classic.

Headstrong teenager

The book tells the story of a headstrong teenage girl, Sybylla Melvyn, growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. She shuns the conventions of her time and strives to become a woman of independent means. Her greatest dream is to become a writer, but not everything goes her way.

The eldest child of a large family struggling to make ends meet, she is sent away to live with her aunt and maternal grandmother. It is here that she first meets Harold Beecham, a wealthy young pastoralist, who proposes to her. But Sybilla, who believes she is ugly and undeserving of a man’s attentions, is reluctant to accept his hand in marriage.

Then life takes a turn for the worst, when she is sent away to work as a governess in order to pay off one of her father’s gambling debts. She finds this life exceedingly dull and monotonous, and falls into a serious depression. When Harold reappears on the scene, Sybilla is confronted with a dilemma: marry him and live a life of comfort, or fulfil her “fixed determination to write a book — nothing less than a book”.

Hiding her brains

Reading My Brilliant Career, I was struck by how angry I became on Sybilla’s behalf, forced to live her life as second fiddle to a man simply because of her gender. She is clearly intelligent and full of potential, but feels she has to hide her brains for fear of being misunderstood and shunned by society. Even her mother denies her the chance to pursue a career of her own, telling her she’s “a very useless girl for your age”.

And her grandmother, who is more kindly and more forgiving of Sybilla’s tom-boyish ways, believes her only goal is to get married:

My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife–not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

While Sybilla clearly understand’s society’s double standards (she makes reference to men being allowed to sow their wild oats while women must remain chaste and “proper”), there’s not much she can do about it except be true to her own self: determined to find happiness in work and a career rather than in someone of the opposite sex.

A romantic tale

Despite this emphasis on feminist values, the book does read very much like a classic romance — will she or won’t she agree to marry Beecham, will he or won’t he find her too difficult and pursue someone else? (Think an Australian version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)

And it’s written in an over-wrought style, mirroring the scattered, often unformed, thoughts of a rebellious teenager, who is quick to anger and make judgements on her seniors. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and “flabby”, and Sybilla isn’t always easy to like, but it provides an important insight into the boom-and-bust lifestyle of life on the land and the ways in which women were expected to fall into line.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will find a lot to like here. Like that classic English novel, My Brilliant Career celebrates the idea that everyone should be valued for simply who they are, not what they are or how much money they have in the bank. It’s highly emotive, frank and forthright. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, but as a glimpse of life in the bush — where danger and beauty often go hand-in-hand — it’s a hugely evocative read.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Hachette Digital, historical fiction, literary fiction, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Setting

‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 208 pages; 2011.

What do you do if you’ve just finished a hard-hitting, quite brutal and confronting, and overtly male book? You choose something completely different — in theme, tone and style — to read. So, hot on the tails of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe I picked up Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black — first published in 1993 — and what an utter delight it proved to be.

Delicious black comedy

This rather delicious black comedy is set in F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store — rumoured to be based on David Jones — during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

There is Patty Williams, fretting away because after several years of marriage, she remains childless and she fears that she may have chosen the wrong man in Frank, who prefers to spend all his spare time in the pub. There is Fay Baines, fast approaching 30 and imminent lifelong spinsterhood, who is growing sick and tired of all the hapless men she dates. There is Miss Jacobs — “whose Christian name remained a secret” — a stout and elderly woman, who has never missed a day’s work, but keeps herself to herself. There is Lesley “Lisa” Miles, the temporary sales assistant who has just finished her Leaving Certificate and wants to go to university — although her father doesn’t approve.

And finally there is Magda — “no one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname” — a Displaced Person from Slovenia, who runs the Model Gowns department in super-efficient and glamorous style.

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, god-awful and ghastly snake woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined.

Written in a style reminiscent of the delightful Muriel Spark, The Women in Black charts the ups and downs of these women as they struggle to find their place in a rather male-dominated world. And while there’s no real solid plot, there’s a decidedly fairy-tale element to it in which Lisa is taken under Magda’s wing and transformed from a shy, bookish and naive young schoolgirl into a confident young woman intent on following her dreams.

Fun and frothy, but never simple

And while the story is good-natured and fun and perhaps just a tad “frothy”, there’s some important issues underpinning it, not least the way in which women are treated by the men around them. I  don’t think it is any coincidence that all the Australian men in this book are depicted as rather insensitive or chauvinistic — or both (which, funnily enough, ties up nicely with my previous read, even though that was set a decade or so later). And it is only the “Continental” men — specifically Magda’s husband Stefan and his Hungarian friend Rudi — who are cultured and sophisticated and who treat women with respect and courtesy.

Indeed, St John writes these refugees — or “reffos” as they were pejoratively called at the time — who settled in Australia after the Second World War with acute sensitivity and insight, presenting them as well educated and “cultivated” — everything that an ordinary Australian at the time was not. This is nicely summed up by Magda when she denounces Rudi’s plan to find a nice Australian girl to marry as “madness” because all the cultivated girls have gone abroad. “You will hardly ever find one here; if you do she is saving her fare to London, I can guarantee it,” she says.

Although The Women in Black — the title refers to the uniform the ladies wear at work — is slight and can easily be read in a couple of sittings, it is hugely intelligent and acutely perceptive about human relationships and the way in which “Continentals” began to transform Australian society — for the better. It’s an utterly delicious read — heartwarming, life affirming, funny and sad, all at the same time. I found it rather joyful and fun, as did Victoria Best who reviewed it so beautifully on Tales from the Reading Room last year. Whispering Gums also has a lovely review on her blog.

The good news for British and North American readers is that you don’t have to order it from Australia to read it — there are two editions (one by Abacus and one by Text Classics) readily available.

Australia, Author, Book review, David Ireland, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland


Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 1976. But the book — and Ireland himself — fell into a kind of obscurity. It has only recently been brought back into print thanks to Text Publishing’s Text Classics imprint, where, I am sure, it has found an entirely new audience.

But let’s be frank — this is a confronting book, probably one of the most confronting I’ve ever read, because it presents an entirely male world, one which revolves around alcohol, violence, sex and sexism. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor is it for those who are easily offended, especially by outdated and misogynistic attitudes to women.

The world inside a pub

The book is set entirely in a pub —  The Southern Cross hotel, situated in Northmead, western Sydney, to be precise — which is described as follows:

It was home. The world and history passed by on wheels. Life stayed outside. Babies were started, and born. Weddings, shootings, promotions, dismissals, hungers, past and future — all were outside.

So the pub is seen as a refuge, a home away from home. But it’s not a place of comfort — indeed, it’s a kind of metaphor for a different, more sinister, kind of world.

At night the Southern Cross often looked, even to me, an illuminated tomb. A sort of past solidified in masonry. The traffic tried to run by all the faster to stay in the present or the past might grab them. But to us, our tomb was where life was: outside was a world fit only to die in. The dark, a live monster, leaned on the roof and tried the glass doors. Its eyes were black, fathomless as death.

It is narrated by Lance, better known as Meat Man (a nickname which refers to the size of his penis — I told you this was a very male book), who lets us in to this secretive world inhabited by Australian males from the early 1970s, most of whom are poor, working class types who “drink to erase everything”.  He does this by recounting dozens of stories about the men who frequent the pub as well as his own adventures in drink and lust.

The book doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the novel — it’s a series of short fragments and episodes, some of them less than a page long, each one a separate tale in its own right. It feels disjointed at first, but there are common threads and themes running throughout, so that Ireland builds up a rich tapestry, albeit focused on action, not plot.

And the intimate nature of the prose — almost as if Lance is confiding his darkest secrets to you, and you alone — makes it a compelling read.

Adventures in alcohol

The Glass Canoe — the title, by the way, refers to a beer-filled glass  “and after however many glasses it took, the glass got bigger and bigger, we stepped into the glass and claimed our freedom to float away” — might be set in a pub, but it does not glorify drinking. If anything, it shows how alcohol dependence ruins lives and livelihoods.

It presents the drinker as a kind of underclass, even if Lance can’t quite identify with that view himself. Indeed, he thinks it quite humorous when his old school friend Sibley starts hanging around the pub studying the clientele for a university thesis. When he asks him how his investigations are going, Sibley says “I’m finding all sorts of things. This is another dimension here.”

‘They [drinkers] can’t survive in our world and in the future, Lance,’ he said
kindly. ‘The non-drinker is a member of the civilised races: the
drinker, no matter the language he speaks, belongs to one identifiable
inferior race spread throughout the planet. But to go on, some past
authorities say that to speak of intelligence in respect of drinkers is a
misnomer; they present hardly any of the phenomena of intellect. They
are unreflective and averse to abstract reasoning and sustained mental
effort.’ ‘You’re describing a drunk.’ ‘Lance, baby, that’s when a
drinker’s a drinker for Christ’s sake.’

Outdated attitudes to women

Lance also struggles to see how his misogynistic attitudes to women are anything other than normal — although he does warn the reader that “if this is not your style of thing, skip this paragraph” when he describes a trip to a strip club, so he clearly has boundaries. And while he appears very much besotted with “his Darling”, he still sleeps with other women whenever the opportunity presents itself. For Lance, and all the other randy blokes in this book, it is all about quantity, not quality.

Indeed, women are generally sneered at — “Did you know that on a golf course the ladies hit off from different tees, closer to the hole? They haven’t protested yet at the inequality” — unless, of course, they work behind the bar and/or look and behave like men.

But lest you think this book sounds rather hard-hitting, I have to confess I got quite a lot of laughs out of it. There’s a laconic sense of humour that keeps it from becoming a juggernaut of angst. And Lance, for all his faults, is a likable character — he might be sexist and enjoy a fight, but he stands up for the underdog, feels sympathy for the old men in the pub, appreciates Sibley’s attempts to better himself through education.

In short, even though The Glass Canoe is essentially about men drinking, fighting and shagging, I’m glad I read it. In its depiction of another time and another place it is very good, but as a raw glimpse of a macho mindset it is exceptional.

For another female take on this novel, please do read Lisa at ANZLitLover’s brilliant review.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Henry Handel Richardson, literary fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Project Gutenberg, Publisher, Setting

‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson


Fiction – Kindle edition; Project Gutenberg; 209 pages; 1910.

Henry Handel Richardson was the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, an Australian author who was born in 1870. The Getting of Wisdom, her second novel, is probably her most famous book, and a century later it remains in print.

Its enduring popularity is probably due to the universal story it recounts: an unworldly young girl from the country goes to boarding school in the city and tries desperately to fit in — with mixed results.

The story is supposedly semi-autobiographical — aren’t they all? — and is based on Richardson’s own experiences at the prestigious Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne, where The Getting of Wisdom is set.

The protagonist, Laura Tweedle Rambotham, is a likable character but she is completely hapless and, at times, annoyingly unable to learn from her mistakes. She is 12 years old when she is sent to school from her rural backwater home.

She’s an outsider as soon as she arrives, because most of her fellow students come from well-off backgrounds. Laura, by comparison, comes from a one-parent family (her father, a barrister, has died) and her mother makes ends meet by taking in embroidery and other sewing-related jobs.

Much of the story revolves around Laura’s painful attempts to fit in. Although she is accepted socially by her peers, it is a constant balancing act to keep it going without anyone detecting the flaws in her background.

When, in “a moment of weakness, she gratuitously gave away the secret that Mother supported her family by the work of her hands”, her standing within the school community begins to slide.

Work in itself was bad enough — how greatly to be envied were those whose fathers did nothing more active than live on their money! But the additional circumstance of Mother being a woman made things ten times worse: ladies did not work; someone always left them enough to live on, and if he didn’t, well, then he, too, shared the ignominy. So Laura went in fear and trembling lest the truth should come to light.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I did begin to wonder what the point of it was. In most coming of age stories the protagonist goes through some kind of “test” and emerges all the stronger for it, but in The Getting of Wisdom Laura merely gets sucked into the cruel games of her peers. Instead of standing up to them — defying them — she lowers herself to their standards and offers them what they want, even if that means she has to lie or carry on a charade to do so.

And by the end of the story, as Laura gets ready to leave school for good, she feels that she still doesn’t fit in:

She went out from school with the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into none of the round holes of her world; the wisdom she had got, the experience she was richer by, had, in the process of equipping her for life, merely seemed to disclose her unfitness.

Despite this failing, the book is an evocative read, particularly of another time and place. It has a distinctive Australian feel — I loved the descriptions of Laura’s holidays on the beach and her excursions into the city — which ensures its place in the Australian literary canon.

And I rather suspect girls in their early teens would enjoy it, seeing as it is filled with callous, often bitchy, characters with which every girl has to contend when she is growing up. There’s also plenty about what it is like to negotiate the unfamiliar world of boys when you don’t quite know what is expected of you…

Australia, Author, Book review, D'Arcy Niland, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 257 pages; 2009.

D’Arcy Niland was an Australian author who wrote six novels, several short story collections, some poetry, radio and television plays, and an autobiography between 1955 and his untimely death in 1969. He was married to New Zealand writer Ruth Park of The Harp in the South trilogy fame.

He was best known for his first novel, The Shiralee, first published in 1955, which went on to become an international bestseller. It was turned into a film, starring Peter Finch, in 1957. But I largely knew it as a TV mini-series, produced in 1987, starring Bryan Brown. I didn’t watch the series, because I remember the promotional adverts made it look like mawkish sentimental claptrap, and sadly that put me off ever wanting to read the book.

Turns out that was my loss, because The Shiralee, recently re-issued as a Penguin Modern Classic, is an absolute gem, one of those delicious reads that transports you to another time and place, and makes you hungry to read more of the same thing.

Life on the road

The story is set during the Great Depression (I think — it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure). Macauley is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). He even stores his money in “a travelling branch of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company — an empty golden syrup tin”.

As he crosses the byways and highways of rural NSW, Macauley is accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, when Macauley discovered his wife in bed with another man. Taking Buster was supposed to be a form of punishment, but it seems to have backfired, and his quiet, frugal lifestyle has now become tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down.

And yet, while it’s slowly dawning on him that Buster’s mother doesn’t want her daughter back, Macauley is getting used to the company — even if he may not want to admit it.

They had walked for two hours, and Macauley couldn’t help but observe, as he had been observing, the growing endurance of the little girl. It dragged from him some slight sense of gratification. He wasn’t paying out tribute to the child: he was merely feeling the small but positive diminution of responsibility. But it wouldn’t be long now. At the end of the third hour and a steadily maintained pace, Buster’s feet were scuffling, and she was whinging to be carried.
‘Don’t kid me,’ Macauley said. ‘You can go on a bit yet.’
‘I can’t. I can’t,’ the kid whimpered desperately.
‘Come on.’
Macauley took her hand, and kept going. He felt the tugging weight. It got heavier and heavier. It was not brutality, but purposeful tactics. He stopped them short of the verge of exhaustion. When the child was swaying, leaning back from the mooring of his hand, the legs wobbling, the voice dreeing mournfully while the tears flowed unattended down the crumpled face — that was when Macauley picked her up.
She was asleep in five minutes, her head on his shoulder.
Pity crept like a little flame into the smoulder of his resentment, but the resentment was too strong for it and it was smothered. Macauley told himself this could not go on. He was vehement.
Yet when he saw emus he had a wish that she could see them; when he saw the wild pigs had been rooting up ground he had an inclination to point it out; and when he came upon a goanna disgorging at his approach a kitten rabbit he had an instinct to wake her up and show her the sight.

The story covers Macauley’s and Buster’s adventures on the road. To write much more would spoil the enjoyment for others, but it’s safe to say there’s a few brawls, a run-in with the police and a lot of miserable weather. In fact, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, and I was surprised, on more than one occasion, at the turn of events. (Note, there are no chapter breaks, so it’s almost impossible to put this book down, because there never seems to be a natural point to stop reading.)

A bygone way of life

It’s interesting to get a glimpse of a bygone way of life, particularly given that allowing a child to live such a rough and ready lifestyle today would be tantamount to child abuse.

There’s a wonderful sense of friendship and camaraderie in this book, too, not only between father and daughter, but between the many old friends Macauley meets along the way, as well as the new people he bumps into who think nothing of sharing their food and their shelter. It’s certainly a less suspicious era, where people are trusted at face value, and no one thinks twice about picking up strangers wandering along the roadside.

Obviously, The Shiralee is a product of its time, and there’s a very light smattering of racist terminology throughout.

But the book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving. It is never mawkish, never sentimental.

I wanted the book to go on forever because I so enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully smart and good-hearted people, but when it didn’t, I felt like having a good, long howl: it’s got a cracker of an emotional ending.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says the book is about the “responsibility of fatherhood” but I like this description best, because it sums it up perfectly: “Niland’s writing reveals a man who was profoundly aware of the paradoxical burdens and vitality of the shiralees which all human beings must carry.”

I can’t praise The Shiralee enough and look forward to hunting out Niland’s back catalogue, sadly all out of print, in the weeks to come.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solid Mandala’ by Patrick White


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 316 pages; 1977.

In Jungian psychology a mandala is a symbol that represents the effort to reunify the self.

In Patrick White‘s novel twin brothers, Arthur and Waldo Brown, cannot seem to reconcile the fact that they once shared a womb, the two of them being so different in temperament and personality. And yet, there’s a strange kind of reliance on one another, especially in old age, when the two share a bed and often walk about town holding hands.

Even their lack-lustre love lives (neither of them get married) are remarkably similar, when, as teenagers, they both fall for Dulcie Feinstein and then, as adults, when they strike up a close friendship with their neighbour, Mrs Poulter.

But despite their differences and their tendency to secretly loathe one another, they cannot escape their lifelong familial bond. It is their ongoing struggle to find a balance between intimacy and independence that marks the lives of these two very different men.

Arthur, the older of the two, is good-natured, if a little simple, and is content with his lot in life, working as an assistant to Mr Allwright, the grocer. But Waldo, the bookish one who works in a library, has literary aspirations and thinks himself superior to most people but lacks the confidence to chase his dreams.

First published in 1966, The Solid Mandala is Patrick White’s seventh novel (he wrote 12 in total, along with two short story collections, a memoir and a bunch of plays) and is set in Sydney, Australia, in the early part of the 20th century.

The Browns are recently arrived immigrants from England and the twins are already marked out as different by the mere fact that the family refuses to go to church like every other good Australian citizen. This effectively sets a pattern for the rest of their lives, because neither Waldo or Arthur ever really fit in. Even as retired gentlemen their appearance on the street, walking their dogs and holding hands, causes a stir.

“I never saw two men walkin’ hand in hand,” Mrs Dun murmured.

“They are old.” Mrs Poulter sighed. “I expect it helps them. Twins too.”

“But two men!”

“For that matter I never saw two grown women going hand in hand.”

The Solid Mandala follows the day-to-day lives — from cradle to grave — of these seemingly unremarkable men. Both twins have a chapter each in which to narrate the story. This makes the relatively drab subject matter come alive by showing how alternative perspectives on the same events and incidences can be vastly different from one person to another and how those said perspectives are coloured by individual prejudices, personalities and beliefs.

Ruthless and brutal in places, the prose is also illuminated by White’s distinctive literary flourishes — the tendency to drop punctuation when he wants to convey a character’s excitement, for example — and wonderfully descriptive passages about Australian life and landscapes:

It was really the grass that had control at Sarsaparilla, deep and steaming masses of it, lolling yellow and enervated by the end of summer. As for the roads, with the exception of the highway, they almost all petered out, first in dust, then in paddock, with dollops of brown cow manure — or grey spinners — and the brittle spires of seeded thistles.

There is much grace and beauty here and plenty of laughs, but in places I felt overwhelmed by the sadness that effuses the story, the sense of loss and regret and the inability to escape the past and to truly grasp life by the horns. And the near-perfect ending, I have to say, came as somewhat of a shock, so much so it’s taken me a month to write this review, because I wanted to think about this book before I put pen to paper.

Ultimately, The Solid Mandala is a very human book about how two people living one life can grow apart but never grow away from each other. I very much enjoyed it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Vivisector’ by Patrick White


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 617 pages; 1989.

First published in 1970, The Vivisector by Patrick White details the life of Hurtle Duffield, an Australian artist, from a four-year-old up until his death as an elderly man living as a recluse in Sydney with Rhoda, his hunch-backed step-sister.

A clever, all-knowing kind of boy, Hurtle shows early signs of creativity, drawing on walls and being attracted to old paintings and leather-bound books. His poverty-stricken parents — a laundry woman and a bottle collector — are convinced his intelligence mark him out as a genius and sell him to a wealthy family in the hope he will get the education he deserves.

Thanks to the nouveau-rich Courtneys he enjoys an oh-so comfortable lifestyle and gets to travel abroad.

But there is a part of Hurtle that cannot engage with people on any emotional level — perhaps because he sees himself as a loner that doesn’t fit in  — and as a young adult cuts himself off from his step-family, finding comfort in the life of a struggling artist.

Later, with the help of a mysterious benefactor, he becomes a comfortably rich artist, but he never seems to take any consolation in his success. In fact, he seems almost embarrassed by his accomplishments, as if it’s something shameful to hide away.

All the while he carries on a series of failed love affairs, using women as muses to inspire his painting.  He never invests much of himself into these relationships until, at the ripe old age of 55, he falls in love with a teenage girl — it is this Lolita-like relationship that serves to shape the rest of his creative life.

I read The Vivisector as part of the Patrick White Readers’ Group and enjoyed the stimulus of a reading schedule and regular discussions. The book deals with some big themes, including sex, art, identity, love and how difficult it can be to seek balance in our creative and personal lives.

Overall I found it surprisingly readable — perhaps because of its rather old-fashioned straightforward narrative — despite the fact the main character is highly sexed, not particularly likable and emotionally distant.

The early chapters feature some of the most moving and articulate descriptions of childhood that I have ever read, and for that reason alone The Vivisector is worth exploring.

But the momentum in these early chapters is not sustained throughout the rest of the book. Some of the chapters border on being too languid for their own good. This is not so much a reflection of the writing style, which is rich and evocative, but of the characters, which are tedious and boring, and the lack of any sustained plot.

Fortunately, the final chapters, which pick up the thread of Hurtle’s previous life, inject a bit more vigour into the storyline. I was truly sorry when I came to the last page as I had grown to love this old curmudgeonly character and his funny, crude ways.