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, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tim Winton

‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2010.

First published in 1988, Tim Winton’s early novella In the Winter Dark is a brilliant slice of Australian Gothic.

It builds on the myth of exotic big cats prowling the Australian bush to create a compelling tale of suspense and intrigue, one that is easily read in a single heart-in-the-mouth sitting.

Set in a deeply forested valley called Sink that has just three houses, a swamp and a river, it tells the story of four neighbours who are fearful of a mysterious creature prowling around their properties. It kills a small pet dog first, eats out the throat of a kangaroo that is found stuck in a fence and decimates a flock of Muscovy ducks and a goat. Later, a flock of 20 sheep is disembowelled.

Tension within the residents builds, not least because there are fears the creature may take a human next, but there are differences of opinion about how to handle the threat.

Old sheep farmer Maurice, who grew up in the valley and has lived with his wife, Ida, for decades, thinks it’s best to take matters into their own hands. He has a shotgun and knows how to use it.

But his neighbour, Murray Jacobs, who has recently sold his lawnmower business in the city to buy the old homestead set amongst orchards, wants to call in the authorities — someone from the shire council or maybe the police.

While Ronnie, a young drug-addicted woman who lives on the other side of the valley, just wants it sorted: she’s got other things to worry about such as the impending birth of her baby and whether her musician boyfriend will ever return from touring.

When the story begins, this quartet of diverse and distinctive characters barely knows each other; by the end, they are very well acquainted — whether they want to be or not.

Dangerous creature 

First edition

Told partly in the first person from Maurice’s point of view and the rest in the third person, the narrative flits around from character to character, sometimes feeling disjointed and confused.

I often had to re-read paragraphs to ensure I understood what was going on. But I think this disorientation is deliberate because it means you’re not sure who to trust or what to think about the dangerous creature supposedly lying in wait. Does it actually exist? Or is there a more rational explanation for the deaths of the farm animals?

He stopped, though, when something caught his eye. Something red. The wet-stiff grass seemed to shiver. Jacob reached for a stick. As he climbed through the fence, the stick snagged in the wire and he fumbled a second and left it there. From across the road, in the tall grass, he heard panting. Well, it might have been panting. He stood there in the road, wishing he could just walk away, but he was afraid to turn his back. Whatever it was, it was moving again. He could see its slow passage through the grass.

The claustrophobic atmosphere is enhanced by the setting. As ever in a Winton story, the landscape is a character in its own right. This time it’s the forest comprised of tall jarrah trees, which evoke that “big church feeling” and are shrouded in mystery thanks to “all those fairy tales […] all those stories we brought with us from another continent, other centuries”.

There’s no neat conclusion to In the Winter Dark, but it does have a dramatic ending — which is foreshadowed on the first page in which Maurice states he often feels “all hot and guilty and scared and rambling and wistful” when he thinks back on what happened 12 months earlier…

I just sit here and tell the story as though I can’t help it.

The film adaptation of In the Winter Dark, starring  Brenda Blethyn, Ray Barrett, Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto, was released in 1998 and was nominated for three AFI awards. Dark and moody, it is faithful to the book. You can watch it on YouTube:

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. 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.

A&R Classics, Australia, Author, Book review, Colin Jackson / Mudrooroo, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Wild Cat Falling’ by Mudrooroo

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 160 pages; 2001.

Mudrooroo was the pen name of Colin Thomas Johnson (1938-2019), a novelist, poet, essayist and playwright. He was once described as “the voice of Indigenous Australia” because his writing mainly focused on Aboriginal issues and featured Australian Aboriginal characters.

Wild Cat Falling, first published in 1965, was his debut novel. According to the publisher, it was held up as “the first novel by any writer of Aboriginal blood to be published in Australia”.

He traced his ancestry to the Noongar^ nation of Western Australia, but in 1996 Noongar elders rejected his claim.

Despite this controversy over his Aboriginality (of which you can read more on his Wikipedia page), I still wanted to read this novel as part of my project to read more books by First Nations Writers. From what I can gather, he was brought up as Aboriginal, thought of himself as Black and writes from personal experience.

What made this book unique at the time was the fact that it highlights how the Australian judicial system, and the wider community, was prejudiced against Aboriginal Australians, a systematic problem that still exists more than half a century later.

But all that aside, Wild Cat Falling plays an important role in the Australian literary canon because it’s a brilliant book in its own right. It’s stylish, compelling and memorable. And I ate it up in about two sittings.

Release from jail

First edition

A gripping first-person account of a young Aboriginal man’s life, Wild Cat Falling is narrated by a nameless youth who describes himself as a “bodgie” ^^. He is about to be released from Fremantle Prison where he’s been incarcerated for the past 18 months for petty criminality.

Today the end and the gates will swing to eject me, alone and so-called free. Another debt paid to society and I never owed it a thing.

His voice, intimate and forthright, is tinged with anger, the arrogance of youth and a melancholy sense of futility, that this is his lot in life and there’s no use hoping for anything better. Jail has been a refuge for him, a place where he’s been safe and accepted by others, had a decent roof over his head and three meals a day.

The story, which is split into three parts, charts what happens to him after he walks free, as he tries to adjust to life back in society as a “half-breed delinquent”.

It’s a tale of an emotionally detached man — “I trained myself this way so no phoney emotion can touch me” — who is desperate, perhaps unconsciously, to connect with others and to defy expectation.

But on his first day of freedom , there’s really only one thing on his mind, and that is sex.

An encounter on the beach

When he meets an attractive young woman, a psychology student, on the beach, he strikes up a conversation with her, explaining how his education, first at an ordinary school, then a boy’s home, followed by the Noongar camps and latterly jail, has been unconventional. And he makes no bones about the fact he has no real plans now he’s free beyond getting drunk and sleeping with women until his prison pay runs out because he’ll be put in jail soon enough even if he doesn’t do anything wrong.

The woman, June, is perplexed.

“You haven’t got a clue,” I tell her. “They make the law so chaps like me can’t help breaking it whatever we do, and the likes of you can hardly break it if you try.”
“How do you mean?” she asks.
“For one thing. We make the only friends we have in jail, but if we’re seen talking outside we’re arrested for consorting with crims.”

When she later accuses him of being lazy, of bludging on the taxpayer, he feels the “old bitter taste of resentment in my mouth”.

Nothing ever up to them. Only up to us, the outcast relics in the outskirt camps. The lazy, ungrateful rubbish people, who refuse to cooperate or integrate or even play it up for the tourist trade. Flyblown descendants of the dispossessed erupting their hopelessness in petty crime. I glare at her with concentrated hate. I want to wither her glib white arrogance with biting scorn, but I can’t find the words.

A friendly invite

Perhaps because she’s interested enough to get to know him a bit better, June throws down the gauntlet and suggests he meet her and her friends at the coffee lounge at her university the next evening, which he does. The encounter is enlightening — for it’s clear he’s there as a kind of social experiment, giving a group of white students a chance to speak to an Aboriginal for the first time. He plays up to it a bit, but his inner resentment is writ large on the page.

Maybe she thinks if she keeps it up [her racism masquerading as white empathy] I will leap out and do a corroboree in the middle of the floor.

Sick of the group’s condescension, he has a bit of fun with them by offering his bulldust opinion about a painting hanging on the wall — “a revolting mess of hectic semi-circles and triangles” — that seems to impress them. He holds his own talking about art and jazz, winning further admiration and a rare invite to an evening house party.

The narrative continues to unfurl in this kind of spontaneous manner as he goes about his business, sleeps with a couple of women, is reacquainted with his mother, hangs out with the university mob and reconnects with his former bodgie mob. But there’s trouble brewing because he’s finding it hard to suppress the memories from his troubled past that keep coming back to haunt him.

When he decides to steal a car and go on a road trip, a new, dangerous edginess creeps into the storyline — and any chance of redemption seems remote.

Dramatic ending

Wild Cat Falling is a powerful tale, of a Black man on the margins, someone who is indifferent to the two worlds in which he must navigate, a lost soul who doesn’t understand himself much less the culture and country that’s been denied him.

It has a dramatic climax, one that involves a policeman and a pair of handcuffs, which suggests the story is going to end exactly where it began — in prison.

Bill at The Australian Legend has also reviewed this book.

^ Also spelt Noongah, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah and Yunga.

^^ An informal Australian term for a teenage subculture from the 1950s, depicted as loutish and rebellious. See this Wikipedia entry for more detail.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

Please note, Wild Cat Falling is only available in Australia. International readers can order it from independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Lukins, Setting, USA

‘Loveland’ by Robert Lukins

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 344 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The ways in which a woman reclaims her past — and her power — are at the heart of this very fine novel by Robert Lukins.

Loveland tells the story of May, an Australian woman, who goes to the US to claim an inheritance: a decrepit house on the edge of a poisoned lake in Nebraska.

Going to visit the house, left to her in her grandmother’s will, for the first time offers May a chance to momentarily escape her controlling husband and the teenage son she feels increasingly alienated from.

And it’s also an opportunity to find out more about her grandmother, Casey, who never spoke about her past. What secrets did she hold? And what happened to make her emigrate to Australia all those years ago?

Dual storylines

These dual storylines, one set in the 1950s, the other in the present day, gently unfold to reveal a tapestry of love and deception and thwarted opportunities and controlling, misogynistic behaviour by the men in both women’s lives.

Over the course of the story, we get to know both women intimately. We see how May ignored the red flags and is now only coming to terms with the fact that her marriage has not been a healthy one.

On the day of their wedding, Patrick had twice gone to the toilet to cry. That’s what he said. What he told May as they stood together and waited for the celebrant to finish her speech on the sharing of joy, new discoveries, and of the couple being not perfect but perfect for each other. Patrick had whispered in May’s ear that he’d been in tears after breakfast and again just minutes before the ceremony. He’d asked if his face was puffy and if she could tell. The crying had been over his worry that May wouldn’t pay him enough attention and that he’d be ignored amid the commotion and stress of the day.

And we learn that Casey’s young life in Nebraska was also marred by an aggressive man who manipulated her to his own ends.

Not a misery novel

But this is not a stereotypical novel about domestic abuse or intergenerational violence. It’s completely free of cliché, free of pity, free of sentiment.

Lukins does not portray the women as helpless victims. Nor does he frame the story about the men or even May’s troubled relationship with them. Instead, the narrative follows May as she finds her voice, realises the truth and summons the inner strength to break the abuse cycle and begin anew.

It’s hard not to see May’s work fixing up her grandmother’s house as a metaphor for fixing herself and the fortitude and resilience required to build a new life.

Loveland is an exceptional novel. It’s eloquent, nuanced and compassionate.

And Lukins, who holds the secrets of the story close, revealing nuggets of information only when necessary, has crafted a compelling second novel, a worthy contender to his atmospheric debut, The Everlasting Sunday, which I much enjoyed when I read it in 2019.

Please note, this book has only been published in Australia. International readers can order direct from the publisher Allen & Unwin. (Shipping info here.)

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Drewe, Setting, short stories

‘The Bodysurfers’ by Robert Drewe

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2009.

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne in 1943, grew up in Western Australia and became an award-winning journalist on the east coast before he turned his hand to fiction. The Bodysurfers, first published in 1983, is a collection of loosely connected short stories and I loved it.

There are 12 in total, each around 10 pages long, and they are mainly set in the coastal suburbs of Perth and Sydney, though there’s also a story set on the Californian coast. The beach is a central theme (surprise, surprise) and there are lush, vivid descriptions of the sandhills, the surf and the dangers that lurk within.

Intrigued as I am by the ocean, I am not an enthusiastic surf swimmer. […] Surf and tides turn malign too suddenly, waves dump you, sandbanks crumble in the current, undertows can catch you unawares. […] It isn’t the waves or the undertow that worry me when I do, however — it’s sharks. I imagine they’re everywhere. In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spay on the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.

And while the stories are varied in style and point-of-view (some are third-person, others are first-person, and one — Sweetlip — is written in the style of a confidential report), the ways in which men navigate changed circumstances is a central focus. In these tales, men lose jobs, lose wives, lose their sense of purpose or pride.

In one story a prisoner adjusts to life outside by ogling bare-breasted women at the beach, in another a man has an affair with a woman whom he suspects is cheating on him.

In Shark Logic a man stages his own disappearance following financial irregularities at the school at which he was the headmaster and begins living a low-key invisible life by the sea;  in The Last Explorer an elderly man lying in his hospital bed recalls his past achievements — specifically crossing the continent from east to west in a 10-year-old Model T-Ford in the 1920s — and cringes when the nursing staff ask if he’s “done a wee this morning”.

The Lang family chronicles

And threaded throughout these various tales are recurring characters from three generations of the same family. We meet the Langs in the opening story, The Manageress and the Mirage, when three children — Annie, David and Max — are taken to a beachside hotel for their first Christmas dinner after their mother’s death. Their father, Rex, is keen to maintain certain festive traditions, but what he doesn’t tell them is that he is having an affair with the hotel manageress, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, who pays them too much attention and actually joins them for dinner.

She announced to me, ‘You do look like your father, Max’. She remarked on Annie’s pretty hair and on the importance of David looking after his new watch. Sportively, she donned a blue paper crown and looked at us over the rim of her champagne glass. As the plum pudding was being served she left the table and returned with gifts for us wrapped in gold paper — fountain pens for David and me, a doll for Annie. Surprised, we looked at Dad for confirmation. He showed little surprise at the gifts, however, only polite gratitude, entoning several times, ‘Very, very kind of you’.

In later stories, we meet Max and David as adults, navigating their own marital problems and affairs, and in another — named Eighty Per Cent Humidity — it’s David’s son Paul who plays a starring role:

On Paul Lang’s worst day since being extruded from the employment market he makes several bad discoveries. In ascending order of disruption and confusion rather than chronologically they are flat battery in his old Toyota, the lump on his penis and the lesbian love poem in his girlfriend’s handbag.

This loose collection of stories offers an insightful glimpse into the lives, attitudes and obsessions of white middle-class heterosexual Australian men from the mid-20th century to the early 1980s. They’re occasionally witty, sometimes terrifying and often focused on jealousy, love, lust or death.

The Bodysurfers has been adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre. I have seen none of them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. 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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Michelle de Kretser, Publisher, Setting

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser + Perth Festival session

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2021.

Australian writer Michelle de Kretser’s latest title, Scary Monsters, is an intriguing object. It is a book of two halves and boasts two front covers — a luscious-looking cherry on one side and a pretty cherry tree in bloom on the other — and the reader gets to choose which story to start with first.

One story is set in the past — France in 1981 — and the other is set in the near future in an alternative Australian reality.

It’s not obvious how the stories are linked other than both riff on the idea of immigration and what it is to be a South Asian immigrant in Australian society.

I opted to start with the Australian section (with the cherry tree on the cover), rather than reading the book in chronological order.

Lyle’s story

Lyle is an Asian migrant desperate to fit into Australian society and to espouse “Australian values” wherever he can.

People like us will never be invisible, so we have to make a stupendous effort to fit in.

He works for a sinister Government department, is married to an ambitious woman called Chanel, and has two children, Sydney and Mel. His outspoken elderly mother, Ivy, also lives with them.

In this near-future, the country is ruled by an extreme right-wing government, Islam is banned and if migrants, or their Australian-born children, step out of line they can be sent back to where they came from.

Australian values are all about rampant consumerism, being obsessive about real estate and pursuing individualism at any cost. It is late capitalism at its very worst, but there are strong echoes of contemporary Australian life to make the reader sit up and take notice.

There is nothing subtle about this story. It’s a black comedy about ethics, morality, racism and ageism, and I may possibly have underlined at least one paragraph that resonated on every page.

“Australians are never satisfied with what they’ve got. They — we — always want more. We aim for the highest, we strive. It’s called aspiration.”
“It used to be called greed.”

Lili’s story

Lili is a young academic who migrated to Australia from south-east Asia with her family as a teenager. Now she’s moved to the south of France to take up a teaching position.

She rents a top floor flat and is creeped out by the tenant who lives below her because he wants an intimate relationship with her, but she’s not interested.

In the local town square, she watches North African immigrants being rounded up by the gendarmes. On one occasion she is also asked to prove her identity because as a person of colour in a predominately white society she’s also singled out as foreign.

This story is more subtle and nuanced than Lyle’s and examines the idea of what it is to be a “new Australian” living in Europe when your face does not match the idea of what an Australian should look like.

All his life, Derek had believed one thing about Australians, and now people like me were showing up and taking that belief apart.

As well as racism, it also explores misogyny and the difficulties young women can face when living alone.

But it ends on a hopeful note, with the election of François Mitterand on 10 May 1981, a left-wing politician at a time when the world was dominated by right-wing conservative governments.

Uneven novel

As a whole, I found Scary Monsters uneven because the two different sections are just so different in tone and style. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is that they are both written in the first person in warm, intimate voices.

And while they explore similar themes, they do it in radically different ways: Lyle’s story is essentially speculative fiction told with biting wit, while Lili’s is more akin to literary fiction and hugely reminiscent of de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.

Which story you start with may sway your overall feeling toward the novel.

Opinions online have been polarised, as reviews by Lisa of ANZLitLovers and Brona of Brona’s Books demonstrate.

The novel has been published in the UK and US but with a radically different cover design.


Session at the Perth Festival “Writers Weekend”, 26-27 February 2022

I bought my ticket to see Michelle de Kretser at the Perth Festival when we all thought the Western Australian border was going to come down on February 5, allowing writers from the rest of Australia to attend. A few days later Premier Mark McGowan announced the re-opening would be delayed and suddenly the festival’s lineup of writers from the eastern states was in jeopardy.

But organisers did an amazing job to ensure those writers could still appear, albeit via livestream. Ticketholders were offered refunds on this basis, but I figured it was still worth attending, and so this morning I rocked up to the beautiful setting of Fremantle Arts Centre, a mere two-minute stroll from my apartment, to attend Michelle de Kretser’s event.

The 11.30am session undercover on the South Lawn was hosted by ABC Radio National broadcaster Kirsti Melville, who sat alone on stage while de Kretser appeared on a giant cinema screen behind her.

I’m not going to report on everything that de Kretser said, but here are some of the more interesting points she mentioned:

  • She wanted to set Lyle’s story in the very near future rather than the distant future to make it more recognisable for readers.
  • She described it as a “black comedy verging on the grotesque” and that Lyle was “the perfect mediocre Australian man”, which elicited many laughs.
  • Asked whether it was fun to write, she responded: “It was fun.” A beat later, she added: “And it was dreadful.”
  • She set Lili’s story in 1981 and in France because she, herself, had lived there at that time and so was familiar with the region and its politics. She liked the idea of ending the story with Mitterand’s election win because it felt like a “resurgence of hope”.
  • That era was also plagued by violence against women, specifically, the Yorkshire Ripper, which is why she explored Lili’s safety fears and the ways in which misogyny impacts women’s everyday lives.
  • She wanted to write about the migrant experience, but not in a standard way because she felt she had done that before. And she wanted to change the representation of Australians in Europe, which are usually white.
  • The book’s upside down, flip-it-over style format is deliberate. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for what happens when people migrate: their lives are thrown upside down and it can take a long time to feel settled. She wanted the reader to experience that feeling.
  • She highlighted the definition of the word “monster” as something that “deviates from the norm”, which is what happens to your life when you migrate.
  • Writing the stories in the first person was something new for her as a writer — normally she only uses the third person. She has been slightly wary of it because “if your character is female, it’s immediately assumed it’s autobiographical”. She started writing the book in the third person but it wasn’t working for her.
  • Another challenge was ensuring that Lyle’s voice was interesting because he was a deliberately bland character trying to become invisible and this is partly why she uses satire to enliven his voice. She used “the language of advertising”, such as brand names for people’s names, to add humour and colour.
  • Ageism is an issue that troubles her, which is why she explored this topic through the character of Ivy. “Old women are the least valued members of society,” she said.
  • She believes the aged care sector in Australia has been dire throughout this entire century, not just during the pandemic, and she was angry that the Federal Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck was still in a job after everything that has happened in this sector during the pandemic, calling it disgraceful and shameful. She said this government’s contempt for the old was shocking.
  • She is not currently working on a new novel, describing this as her precious “fallow time”.

ABOUT PERTH FESTIVAL
Founded in 1953 by The University of Western Australia, Perth Festival is the longest-running international arts festival in Australia and Western Australia’s premier cultural event. The Festival has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence in its international program, the presentation of new works and the highest quality artistic experiences for its audience. For almost 70 years, the Festival has welcomed to Perth some of the world’s greatest living artists and now connects with hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Author, Book review, David Whish-Wilson, Newsouth, Non-fiction, Publisher, travel

‘Perth’ by David Whish-Wilson

Non-fiction; paperback; New South Publishing; 352 pages; 2020.

Perth is part of a series of books about Australia’s capital cities, each one written by a local author who can give us an intimate account of the city’s history and character.

This volume, by Fremantle-based writer David Whish-Wilson, is an insider’s look at what it is like to grow up and reside in Perth, the most isolated city in Australia (if not the world), sandwiched as it is between the Indian Ocean and the outback.

As most of you will know, I moved here in mid-2019. I am not from Perth (I grew up on the other side of the country, in Victoria) and had only ever been here on holiday (when I was living in the UK — Perth is a convenient city to break up the journey from Heathrow to Melbourne). But I knew from my handful of visits to Fremantle, a port city at the mouth of the Swan River, about 20 minutes drive from the CBD, that I would love to live here. It was something about the heritage buildings, the coastline, the vibrant arts culture, the pubs (and breweries) and the bright clear light that attracted me.

But more than two years after repatriation, admittedly 80% of that time during a global pandemic, I have come to know the city reasonably well and noticed, but not always understood, its distinctive quirks — the fact, for instance, that most residents are early birds, up and about at 5am, but drive through the suburbs after 7pm and it feels like the whole world has gone to bed (or died), it’s so dark and quiet, with nary a vehicle on the road.

And everyone is obsessed with the water, whether beach or river, and most own a boat (and are snobby about the model, the size and how much it cost) or is into fishing or surfing or kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding (you get the idea).

And most people live in the suburbs — indeed, the suburbs stretch along the coastline for more than 100km so that when you drive anywhere it sometimes feels like you’re out in the countryside when, in actual fact, you are still in metropolitan Perth.

And perhaps because of this quiet, suburban life, people seem to congregate in large packs every weekend to have picnics (by the river or in local parks). I’ve seen people bring their own marquees, fold-up furniture and carry all their food and drink in wheel-a-long carts. It’s fascinating. (I’ve long joked that I’ll know I’ve become fully assimilated when I buy a fold-up picnic chair or one of these.)

The inside track

The book itself isn’t so much a travel guide — it won’t reveal the best places to eat or stay or visit — but is more a journey into the heart and spirit of the city, highlighting its history (good and bad), its politics, it’s natural wonders and its achievements.

It’s divided into four main chapters — The River, The Limestone Coast, The Plain, and The City of Light — between a relatively lengthy Introduction and Postscript. Sadly, there’s no index, which makes it hard to pinpoint facts you might want to reread (for the purposes of writing this review, for instance) and even though it has been updated since the original 2013 edition was published, it still feels slightly dated.

But thanks to the healthy dollop of memoir that Whish-Wilson adds, you get a real feel for what it is like to grow up here under blue skies and constant sunshine, and with little intrusion from the outside world, a sense of perfect isolation.

I love all the literary references he dots throughout — there’s a helpful bibliography at the back of the book — to show how the city has been depicted in both fiction and non-fiction over time.

Unsurprisingly, given his background as a crime writer, the author balances the happy optimism of Perth life with darker elements, including the crime and corruption that has left its mark.

He highlights the eerie Ying and Yang feeling that I had instinctively felt when I first arrived but had not been able to articulate because I didn’t know what it was. Whish-Wilson frames it as people becoming untethered by the “silence and space of the suburbs” so that while all looks quiet and peaceful during the day, it is brimming with menace at night. He describes this as “Perth Gothic”. (It’s true there have been some hideous murders in Perth, not least the Claremont serial killings in 1996-97, the Moorhouse murders in 1986 and the Nedlands monster, who was active between 1958 and 1963, and became the last man hanged in Fremantle Prison.)

All that aside, this is a brilliant little gem of a book. It’s jam-packed full of insights, intriguing facts and personal observation and delivered in an intimate but authoritative voice. It’s like getting the inside track on what this city is like behind the shiny glass skyscrapers and quiet, tree-lined suburban streets, and Whish-Wilson is the perfect guide.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters.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, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Wakefield Press, war, Wendy Scarfe

‘One Bright Morning’ by Wendy Scarfe

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

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

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

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

Reporter on newspaper

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

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

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

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

New life in Darwin

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

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

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

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

Gently nuanced tale

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

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

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

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Night Parrot Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Ros Thomas, Setting

‘How to Shame the Devil’ by Ros Thomas

Fiction – paperback; Night Parrot Press; 183 pages; 2021.

Book groups are going to have a field day with this novel published by Night Parrot Press, a relatively new indie based here in Perth that focuses on “experimental forms and genres outside the mainstream”. (More about them here.)

Ros Thomas’ How to Shame the Devil caught me in its grip from the start. I laughed and tittered my way through the first 100 or so pages. Indeed, it gave me a warm glow. It felt upbeat, almost joyous, the kind of story you want to press into people’s hands with a “here, read this” message. (I actually did this, prematurely it turns out, on my Instagram account.)

But then something happens and the book takes on a distinctively different feel. Darker. More confronting. And I wasn’t sure I liked it very much anymore. It made me feel icky. And I didn’t believe the central character’s reaction was authentic.

So how do I write this review without giving away key plot spoilers? I also realise that if I mention the issue at the heart of this novel not only will it spoil the plot, it may also be triggering for some readers.

So forgive me if this all sounds a bit vague. I’m just going to try to give a general flavour of the story, which is largely set in a nursing home in the Perth suburb of Shenton Park.

Nursing home resident

The protagonist, Arthur Lambkin, is 78 and has Parkinson’s, though he seems quite capable and manages his condition with medication. He claims he didn’t want to burden his two daughters with his care, hence he moved into Ashton Grange, a salmon-pink care home located just a stone’s throw from the local hospital.

Art’s main interest is penning witty letters to the daily newspaper, his “connection to the world”. It’s like a competitive hobby for him, complete with rivals — Roy Windleburn of City Beach, Bob Herriot from Palymra and John Ferranti from Scarborough — who also write letters. He keeps an unofficial scorecard and gets upset when they get more letters published than he does. The letters, it has to be said, are hilarious:

To the editor

Sir,

As a lifelong vegetarian, I am heartily sick of vegans and the amount of attention being paid to them. Veganism has become a cult populated by food obsessives who spend their non-grazing hours denigrating omnivores for their choices. Possibly because their food tastes like dirt. I suggest they take a long hard look at the water they drink. That’s a fish’s home, you savages.

Yours,

Martin Drinkwater,
Shenton Park.

A ladies’ man

He also has an eye for the ladies, which sounds charming, to begin with, but there are little asides and comments which make you wonder if he is as innocent as he makes out.

This dichotomy is fleshed out via flashbacks that take us to Art’s childhood, early adulthood and his courtship of Hazel Hopkins, a nurse, who later becomes his wife and the mother of their two daughters.

From the outset, the marriage seems incompatible because they have different ideas about sex. Art wants it; Hazel doesn’t. Art also rails against Hazel’s desire to seek conformity, stability and routine.

Art thought conformity was deadening. He’d wanted a frenzy of living: to throw each day to the wind and see what landed. He wanted his wife to be recklessly in love with him. He wanted to be admired, to feel invincible, to share the tonic of wildness. He wanted danger and excitement and the chance to sacrifice himself for love.

He makes up for a dull home life by focusing on his career. He leaves his job as a hospital orderly, where he met Hazel, and becomes a hugely successful used car salesman at Motorama, which he transforms into “Perth’s number one Holden dealership”. Later, in the heyday of commercial radio, he takes a role as an advertising salesman for Sky FM, earning big bucks and making a name for himself.

A man’s world

Reading between the lines of How to Shame the Devil, the author cleverly highlights the misogyny at work and play during Art’s lifetime.

My major issue with this novel — again, without going into specifics — is that it’s written by a woman from a man’s (imagined) perspective and it doesn’t ring true (to me). I had a hard time swallowing Art’s ability to recall events from decades earlier and the ways in which he redeems himself. Other readers, I’m sure, will disagree. And this is why I reckon it would make a great title for book groups to discuss — and argue over.

I’m itching for other people to read it, so I can talk about it with them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author grew up in Perth and has worked in national and international current affairs for more than 20 years. 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, Fremantle Press, Jacqueline Wright, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Red Dirt Talking’ by Jacqueline Wright

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 352 pages; 2012.

Life in an outback Aboriginal community in the northwest of Western Australia comes alive in this impressive — and totally immersive — debut novel by Jacqueline Wright.

The manuscript for Red Dirt Talking won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award* in 2010 and later, upon publication, it was longlisted for both the Dobbie Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.

It’s set in 1994 and focuses on what we might now call “white saviour syndrome” in which an educated white woman goes to a remote community to help give its Black inhabitants a “voice” on the international stage. But she goes about it completely the wrong way, not only because she’s naive but because she lacks cultural understanding outside of her own experience.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of an eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who goes missing, believed to have been “stolen” by her white uncle and removed to Perth, but there are rumours she might actually have been murdered. A body, however, has not been found, and the police don’t seem to be particularly interested in locating the girl in the first place.

The novel is told from two perspectives in two different time frames: Maggot, the local garbage collector, whose first-person account explores what might have happened to the girl after she is reported missing; and Annie, a 39-year-old anthropology graduate from Perth, who becomes friends with the girl before she disappears and whose experiences are recounted in the third person.

While these two different narrative threads are intertwined, the novel features at least twice as much of Annie’s story than Maggot’s. And probably with good reason: as a character, there’s more room to develop Annie, to take her on a “journey” from the innocent do-gooder to a much more experienced, sympathetic and understanding person who has grown and changed — for the better.

Remote Aboriginal community

The story is set in the fictionalised community of Yindi, outside the (fictionalised) town of Ransom, at least two days’ drive north of Perth. (The Aboriginal language is Muwarr, which I believe is spoken in the Pilbara, a region that is twice the size of the UK, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact location, although it does appear to be somewhere near the coast.)

Annie has received funding to research a “massacre story” on the condition that she will present her findings at the United Nations South Seas Forum for Indigenous Peoples in just over three months’ time. She plans to record the oral history of what happened at a local cattle station by interviewing Aboriginals who were there or know what happened. She wants to use this knowledge to “advocate for those who do not have a strong enough voice of their own”.

But, of course, no one wants to talk to a white academic, who doesn’t understand their ways and doesn’t speak their language — even if her intentions are wholly honourable.

It’s her housemate Mick who warns her that she needs to change her working practices if she’s to make any headway at all:

“It’s not what you’re doing that’s the problem here, Annie,” Mick says gently. “It’s how you’re going about it.”

The novel charts how Annie slowly becomes “integrated” in the community, building trust with local men and women, learning about their art and their language, and helping out in ways that have nothing to do with her research. Her three-month deadline passes, a romance with Mick develops and she begins to see herself as a “local”, not an outsider. This change in her perspective is abundantly clear when she is introduced to Johanna, a white lawyer, who says:

“They’re fascinating peoples, wouldn’t you say, Annie?”
Her comment catches Annie off guard. She looks at Johanna blankly.
Johanna must be used to blank looks because she continues without missing a beat: “An ancient and extremely complex culture. If anyone can get a chance to get close to Aboriginal people, they should, because it’s a life-changing experience.”

It’s only when Annie really opens up with the women she befriends, admitting she’s a single mother who has lost custody of her teenage daughter, that proper inroads are made. Her insightful interviews with community members are included in the narrative as transcripts, helping to add flavour to the story.

Life in the remote northwest

Red Dirt Talking is a wonderful evocation of life in the northwest. From its major weather events, such as cyclones, to the unreliability of water, power and fresh food supplies, it’s all brought to life on the page in vivid prose.

More thorny issues, such as poor health, violence, gambling and family breakdown, are also explored, but in a sympathetic way.

It’s the kind of novel, with its ring of authenticity and wry sense of humour, that you can really get lost in, learn from and emerge feeling as if something within you has irrevocably shifted — in a good way.

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

* The City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award is given biennially to a full-length manuscript of fiction or narrative non-fiction by a Western Australian author previously unpublished in book form.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author has been a teacher/linguist in the northwest of Western Australia working on indigenous  Australian Aboriginal language and cultural programs. 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.