Author, Book review, Fiction, Frank Moorhouse, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘Grand Days’ by Frank Moorhouse

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 736 pages; 2018.

Grand Days, by the late Australian writer Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022), is the first in a trilogy of (chunky) novels exploring the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman making her mark in diplomatic circles on the world stage.

First published in 1993, but set in the 1920s, this novel charts Edith’s early career at the newly created League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s an enormously detailed look at office politics and corporate life through the lens of a headstrong and idealistic 20-something woman whom we might now dub “before her time”. Indeed, the novel could be described that way, too, because it takes an enlightened approach to 21st-century issues including gender fluidity, female agency and independence, sexual politics and “internationalism”.

It first came to my attention via the three-part ABC TV program ‘Books That Made Us’ (screened in 2021) when it was the only book mentioned in the first episode that I hadn’t heard of ( I had already read most of the others). I’m not sure why this one passed me by — I was working as a part-time bookseller when it was published so I must have sold copies of it — but I rather suspect that even if I had taken the time to read it I would have been too young and naive to appreciate it at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m in a much better place to value (and recognise) the richly detailed world that Moorhouse has created, with its focus on the minutiae of office life, the never-ending internal politics between rival colleagues and departments, and the failed idealism at its heart.

But the novel is much more than just a historical glimpse of “corporate” conduct: it’s also a wonderful coming-of-age story about a 26-year-old woman working out who she is, what she wants from life, falling in love and discovering sex.

A journey to a new life

When the book opens, we meet Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva en route to her new post at the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation designed to uphold world peace following the end of the First World War. (The history of the ill-fated League, which was disbanded in 1946, and later inspired the formation of the United Nations, is expertly woven into the narrative which includes real people, identified by their real names, and is largely based on documentary sources.)

In the train’s dining car, Edith meets Major Ambrose Westwood, unaware that he will become the single-most significant figure in her life, both at the League, where they become colleagues and allies, and at home, where they become secret lovers participating in a “sexually adventurous underworld” (as the blurb on my edition describes it).

In each gloriously named chapter (for example, How Edith Berry Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva, or The Tenets of Civilisation and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked Of) is like a self-contained story in its own right, which serves to move the narrative forward set-piece by set-piece. And from this, we see how Edith slowly transforms herself from a naive employee to an invaluable staff member — despite getting into various tricky predicaments with the serious potential to backfire — and inches her way up the career ladder, all the while figuring out her love life and building a solid circle of friends.

She goes through some pretty icky and challenging experiences but always manages to come out the other end stronger and more resilient than ever. But she’s also manipulative, with a head for scheming, which is probably why she is able to survive the internal machinations at work so adroitly. Not much seems to bother her. And even when her mother dies, back home in Australia, she seems remarkably unfazed by it.

Highly recommended read

Did I like this book? Yes. And no.

It’s too long and parts of it dragged. Sometimes it was a struggle to pick it up after I had put it down, and it took me the best part of three weeks to read.

But there was so much of it I enjoyed.

  • The heady idealism of everyone working at the League, including Edith’s deep belief that she’s doing important work for the world
  • The scheming and shenanigans and internal bickering in the office, which is so realistic even by today’s standards
  • The depiction of the Geneva nightlife, the glamourous parties, the seedy clubs
  • The history of the League and the people that worked there (the appendices detailing “who’s who” and some of the working practices are enlightening)
  • Edith’s transformation from a naive young woman to a woman of the world, even if she makes some dubious decisions along the way
  • The Australian abroad aspects, which will resonate if you have been an ex-pat for any length of time
  • The biting satire that underpins the storyline, but also the many wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes
  • The forward-thinking attitudes held by many of the characters

There are two more books in the series — Dark Palace, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001, and Cold Light — which I will look forward to reading in due course.

For another take on Grand Days, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

‘Grand Days’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

Alf Taylor, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Poetry, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories

‘Cartwarra or what?’ by Alf Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 156 pages; 2022.

Cartwarra is a Nyoongar word that roughly translates to “silly” or “crazy”.

In the Foreword to Alf Taylor’s book, Cartwarra or what?, the academic Anne Brewster writes: “You’ll understand the power and reach of the word by the time you finish the book.” She’s right.

This is a truly remarkable and engaging collection of poems and short stories from a widely respected and prolific First Nations writer. Despite some of the heavy themes — alcoholism, poverty and prejudice, for instance — that underpin his work, Taylor writes with a sense of mischief: humour and wry wit are never too far away.

 Dry humour

Take the short story “Charlie” in which a 60-year-old man is arrested for being drunk and disorderly in the WA gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. He’s thrown into jail for the night and then released without charge, the sergeant warning him that he shouldn’t pick a fight with Paddy Hannan and think he can get away with it. Paddy, it turns out, is a statue! (This one here, in fact, of Irishman Patrick “Paddy” Hannan.)

Many characters in his other short stories enjoy ribbing one another — or taking the piss, as we might say, cadging money from whoever’s lucky enough to have a few dollars and chasing others for a charge (drink). Indeed, his ear for dialogue and (sometimes crude) vernacular is spot on, bringing conversations alive and making them crackle with repartee and wit.

This humour shines through in some of his poems, too. “Nyoongar Woman and a Mobile Phone” is an example:

No more reading smoke signals
pick up mobile phone and talk —
to who? She might say
the Kimberleys, the Wongis, Yamitjis, Nyoongars,
or to any blackfella’s
got my number;

she scratches her head
in eager anticipation:
Huh, huh,
‘nother ‘lation on the line
‘Yes, my dear. Oh hello’
‘How are you?’
‘What!’
‘You want twenty dollars?’
‘But I got fuck-all!
You got your money today.’
‘Why me?’
‘Um not a big shot
Nyoongar yorgah
’cause I work for A.L.S. [Aboriginal Legal Service]’
‘No, I got nothing!’
‘Um wintjarren like you.’
‘Yeah and fuck you too!’

Sombre stories

But the flipside to the laughter isn’t far away. In the opening story, “Wildflowers”, Taylor gives voice to the pain and fear of a mother whose daughter is stolen by policemen on horseback while out picking wildflowers:

It all happened within a split second of fierce movement. But to Ada it would come to seem a slow-motion replay in her mind. Ada had just barely touched the flowers when her daughter was snatched from the ground, and the troopers held her tightly. Queenie screamed and screamed for her mother. As the troopers rode off with the screaming child, the dust lingered high in the late morning. All Ada could see were the beautiful petals falling aimlessly to the ground, amidst the red dust.

Taylor is, himself, a member of the Stolen Generations and was raised in New Norcia Mission, Western Australia. As the blurb on the back of this edition states, his work “exposes uncomfortable truths in the lives of his Aboriginal characters”.

In Cartwarra or what? we meet an underclass of Aboriginal people, many cut off from Country and culture, struggling to get by. But Taylor also highlights the strong bonds between Aboriginal Australians, their tight-knit family and kinship groups, their love, care and kindness towards one another, and their enduring resourcefulness and resilience.

I much enjoyed spending time in their company.

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, Cartwarra or what? is only available as an eBook outside of Australia. If you would prefer a paperback edition, you can order it from the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Germany, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Moon Sugar’ by Angela Meyer

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Angela Meyer’s Moon Sugar is the most original novel I have read all year.

It reads like literary fiction but contains elements of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy and crime. The blurb describes it as “genre-busting” — which is just another way of saying it refuses to be pigeonholed.

Regardless, it’s an entertaining story that addresses themes of late capitalism, desire, intimacy, grief and the pursuit of sensory experiences. Above all, it is about connection — with ourselves, the people around us and the environment.

On the road

The story is told from the point of view of 40-year-old Mila, a personal trainer, who has broken up with her long-time boyfriend and has used a sex worker website called “SugarMeetMe” to find a new, much younger, lover.

Her transactional relationship with Josh soon morphs into something more intimate, so when he dies in what appears to be a suicide during a solo European trip, her first thought is to retrace his steps to find out what happened.

Accompanied by Josh’s friend, Kyle, she goes to Germany to investigate, but her quest generates more questions than answers.

Part road trip, part detective story, Mila’s journey, which includes visits to Berlin, London and Budapest, is complicated by the mention of an “experiment” both she and Josh were involved in back in Melbourne. Did this have something to do with his death?

A page-turning novel

Meyer carefully controls the narrative, slowly revealing aspects of the experiment to keep the reader guessing. This is complemented by an additional narrative thread involving a pair of astronauts from an earlier period who discover an elixir with mystical powers. How this is connected to Mila’s present-day story does not come together until right near the end, adding to the page-turning quality of the novel.

I am being deliberately vague here because Moon Sugar works best if you go into it knowing as little about it as possible.

I enjoyed the ride it took me on, although some aspects felt uneven and a little stilted. The road trip, for instance, just felt like an excuse for the author to tell us about her own European experiences, and some of the ideas around gender fluidity, reproductive rights and what billionaires chose to do with their money felt heavy-handed.

But on the whole, the novel is a refreshing take on the human desire for deep connections — and it’s hard not to see the writing of it as a reaction to the global covid-19 pandemic when so many people endured isolating lockdowns and enforced separation from loved ones.

Lisa at AnzLitlovers has also reviewed it.

Update: For some reason, this post was not in the WordPress app and when I went to refresh it the whole post was deleted. I have rescued the copy from my laptop and republished it. Phew. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Paul Daley, Publisher, Setting

‘Jesustown’ by Paul Daley

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 364 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

How history is recorded and written, what is left out and what is exaggerated for effect, and how it is passed down, forms the central theme of this debut novel by Australian journalist Paul Daley.

Jesustown, which is set on a former mission town in remote Australia, is an attempt at post-colonial truth-telling even though it’s fiction and includes contemporary elements that feel a bit cheesy.

The author, in his afterword, says it’s “informed by some actual events that occurred across this continent, but it is not history and shouldn’t be read as such”. Even so, in its depiction of frontier wars, the ways in which First Nations’ were decimated by disease, had human remains and art stolen by collectors, and then endured the theft of their children, there’s a bright ring of truth about it.

Bending the truth

The story is narrated by Patrick Renmark, an Australian-born, London-based historian who calls himself a “story-ist” — he has made a name for himself publishing bestselling low-brow books about explorers and sportsmen and other “heroes”  — and thinks nothing of bending the truth if it serves the narrative.

When his marriage breaks down and his young son dies — a tragedy for which he is blamed and shamed — he flees to (fictional) Arcadia, in remote northern Australia, to work on a new project: writing a biography about his grandfather, who famously brokered “peace” between the Traditional Owners of the area and the local police and wore many different hats:

My grandfather — or Pa, as I called him — the feisty journalist. The great white anthropologist. The fearless explorer. The saviour of the last of the wild aborigines, as he liked to call himself. My grandfather, Nathaniel ‘Renny’ Renmark, the hero. My pa — the genius madman.

Renny has left behind an entire house rammed with disordered archival material, cassette tapes full of his spoken thoughts, Aboriginal artifacts and a published memoir, Black Men & White Lies: The Australian aborigine and me, which Patrick describes as “a self-serving and (typically) ungracious tome”.

Patrick reckons he can spin his grandfather’s story into another bestselling book but when he begins to sift through the archival material he realises it’s not quite that easy.

Jesustown includes Renny’s diary entries and transcripts of his tapes to build a picture of a complex man, who was eccentric and full of contradictions. He lived amongst the Indigenous population and grew to understand their ways and culture, defending them against those who would do them harm, but he also introduced sickness into the population and brought in some American anthropologists who were unscrupulous collectors of art and human remains.

As Patrick finds out more about the grandfather he hasn’t seen since he was a teenage boy, he tells his own story of shame and slowly reveals what happened to his marriage and his son. These two intertwined narrative threads build an interesting picture of inter-generational guilt, shame and legacy.

High ambitions

There’s no doubt that Jesustown has high ambitions to explore Australia’s complex and often violent and exploitative Black and white colonial past, but I’m not sure it succeeds.

The tone, for instance, feels off. Patrick’s voice is often satirical, ridiculing his own stupidity (mainly in relation to the sordid extramarital affair he conducts in London), but that tone jars against the heavier aspects of the story.

The earlier sections of the novel, in particular, where he lauds his career successes and sends up his own Australianness, are light-hearted and funny, but that mocking tone runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire narrative. It just feels counterproductive to the seriousness of Jesustown‘s bigger aims.

However, if you are looking for an “easy” way in to subjects as weighty as massacres, cultural theft and the entire subjugation of Australia’s First Nations people, then maybe this is a good place to start.

The novel’s exploration of history and storytelling and the ways in which the lines between fact and fiction are often blurred are also insightful.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting, Text

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2022.

With just two novels under his belt, Robbie Arnott has made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most exciting, original and acclaimed literary writers.

His debut, Flames (2018), was nominated for almost every prize going (see his publisher’s site to see all his prize listings) and earned him a Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize. His second, The Rain Heron (2020), won the Age Book of the Year award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Voss Literary Prize, amongst others.

His latest book, Limberlost, is sure to earn him more accolades, although this novel is far less experimental and more “traditional” than his earlier work. But what it does share with those books is the same magical sense of wonder for Nature and the rich, evocative descriptions of the Tasmanian landscape.

Dreams of adventure

Set on an apple orchard in Tasmania during the Second World War, it tells the story of teenager Ned, whose two older brothers join the Army, leaving him behind with a taciturn father and a bossy older sister.

While the narrative largely unfolds over the course of a summer, it also weaves in glimpses of Ned’s future life as a husband and father to show how the choices he makes as a 15-year-old have long-lasting repercussions in the decades ahead.

As a teenager, he keeps to himself but he works hard to gain his dad’s approval and his sister’s respect. He spends his spare time trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts as part of the war effort. But while he knows the rabbit fur is used to make the Army’s distinctive slouch hats, he’s not doing it as a patriotic act — he simply wants to save up enough money to buy himself a boat.

That boat, he believes, will not only give him a sense of freedom to explore beyond the orchard perimeter, but it will also allow him to sail to the mouth of the river where, as a young boy, his father took him and his brothers to see a “mad” whale that had destroyed several fishing boats and wreaked havoc with its fluked tail, an experience that has stuck with him ever since.

If he killed enough rabbits, he might earn enough to buy his own boat […] Nothing fancy, just a small, single-sailed dinghy he could run into the river. Out of the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires — all would be open to him if he had a boat. If he killed enough rabbits.

Be careful what you wish for

Most of the story charts Ned’s pursuit of his dream and then shows what happens when it is realised. The boat, of course, is not just a boat. It’s a conduit that brings him closer to his father — and, to some extent, his sister — as well as his friend Jackbird and Jackbird’s gun-toting sister, Callie, who later becomes Ned’s wife.

It’s also a metaphor for Ned determining the direction of his life, of longing to experience the adventure and excitement that his older brothers are encountering in the war, and of making tangible that emotion he felt when he saw the whale thrashing in the sea years earlier.

Emotion, it turns out, is something Ned feels keenly. He might think nothing of killing rabbits, but when he finds a badly injured quoll in one of his traps, for instance, he’s too kind-hearted to put it out of its misery: he takes it home, hides it away in a crate and looks after it as best he can.

Later, when he goes mustering as a 30-year-old man, he witnesses a cow drowning in a river and blames himself for the incident because he hadn’t been able to chase it down and rescue it. He tells himself that his brothers, Toby and Bill, would never let something like that happen and wonders when the “surefootedness” and  “the natural competence of other men would come to him”.

It’s this tendency for self-reflection, of beating himself up about things, combined with his empathy and gentleness that makes Ned who he is, but in a world of strong males (every male character in this book makes a living off the land in one form or another), he sees these as character flaws, not strengths. Even his university-aged daughters challenge him:

Ned met her gaze. Felt her condescension tear a new wound in him. He felt off-balance, disoriented, angry. His daughters had never spoken to him like this before. Nobody had.

Of course, these traits as an adult have their long roots in his teenage years, particularly that formative summer involving the boat, the quoll and his budding friendship with Callie.

Favourite read of the year

I absolutely adored this book. From the lush prose and its gorgeous descriptions of the natural world to the way Arnott taps into the rich interior world of a lonely teenage boy, it’s a truly moving coming-of-age novel about kindness, loss, love and family.

And there’s something about the passing of time and the nostalgic tone of the story — without ever resorting to sentimentality — that makes this such a powerful read. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and had a good old sob when I came to the end of it!

There’s no doubt that Limberlost will be my favourite novel of 2022.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers, Brona’s at This Reading Life and Susan’s at A Life in Books.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. It has been published in the UK and if you hurry you might be able to pick up a Kindle version for just 99p if you don’t mind buying books from that bad corporate citizen known as Amazon.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jay Carmichael, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Marlo’ by Jay Carmichael

Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 160 pages; 2022.

If we believe that one of literature’s aims is to give voice to the voiceless, to tell the tales of those unable to write it themselves, then Jay Carmichael’s novella Marlo has hit the bullseye.

This short, sharp, powerful story is set in Melbourne in the 1950s at a time when homosexuality was punishable by law and seen as a medical condition (and therefore “curable”) rather than as an identity.

Carmichael explains in his Author’s Note that “there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived as a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia”.

To fill that gap he has imagined what it was like to live in fear of being branded a “sexual pervert”, of being outcast from family and friends, of being beaten up by strange men, of police entrapment, and “of arrest, exposure, infamy, and disgrace”.

Anonymous city life

The story is told in the first person by Christopher, a young gay man, who has fled his small repressive town in rural Gippsland — the Marlo of the title — to try living in the city where no one knows his name — or his preference for men.

But Chris is shy, quiet, not particularly sociable and far from worldly-wise. He moves in with Kings, an old school friend, who has no idea of Chris’ sexual orientation, winding him up about “birds” and “sheilas”, and begins working as a car mechanic.

When he meets Morgan, a young Aboriginal man, in the Botanic Gardens, a renowned gay beat, he befriends him and escorts him home on the train. An exchange of correspondence occurs over a few weeks and the pair fall in love.

Finding his place in the world

Meanwhile, Chris is introduced to a homosexual cafe, hidden away in downtown Melbourne, where he struggles to find his tribe — “these aren’t my people” — and continues to feel out of place and out of step with the rest of the world.

For Morgan, an Indigenous gay man, the struggle is even more difficult. Originally from NSW, he must carry ID papers with him, to prove he’s exempt from the Aborigines Protection Act, because he has a white father and can move freely about. He calls this a “dog tag” and is embarrassed by it, never more so than when he courts Christopher at the zoo and the pair are accosted by a policeman who orders them to leave but not without first checking Morgan’s papers.

The zoo visit was meant to be so raucous, with children chasing pelicans and mothers chasing children and fathers sweating by the snakes, that Morgan and I would be invisible. Our invisibility would have allowed us to wander, to find common ground. But common people […] disliked two men like us walking across their ground; even worse, when one of us was even less like them.

Quiet dignity

Marlo is written in beautiful, restrained prose and conveys a mood of poise and quiet dignity. The text is accompanied by striking black and white photographs, many of them courtesy of the Australian Queer Archives, which evoke a certain mood and capture time and place so magnificently.

I really enjoyed this evocative novella. In reclaiming a previously untold history, the author has created a bittersweet story that is as much about growing up and navigating a complex world as it is about living an authentic life under constant fear of exposure.

For other takes on this book, please see Lisa’s review at Anzlitlovers, and Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

The title will be released in the UK  in paperback on February 9, 2023; a Kindle edition is currently available in the UK and US.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott: a thinly veiled memoir based on the author’s first-hand experience struggling to keep his homosexuality secret while growing up in Sydney in the 1930s-40s.

‘Gents’ by Warwick Collins: an unusual tale about three West Indian janitors working in a central London toilet block that is frequented by cottagers. It explores many big themes, including homophobia, racism and religion.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. And because it’s by an Australian writer, it also qualifies for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A Brief Affair’ by Alex Miller

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The self and how we reveal different parts to different people is the central theme in Alex Miller’s latest novel.

The title, A Brief Affair, might suggest a romantic dalliance, and while that does form an element of the story — indeed, it’s a brief affair that acts as a catalyst for all that follows — it’s not the heart and soul of the book.

Instead, this rather gentle story focuses on two women, a generation apart, who must deal with the unintended consequences of forbidden love.

Twin narratives

For married academic and mother of two Dr Frances Egan, a one-night stand with a handsome stranger while on a business trip to China has long-lasting repercussions on her inner life. For Valerie Sommers, the forced separation from her female lover, at a time when same-sex couples were outlawed, lands her in a mental hospital.

Fran’s story is set in the present day using the third person with an emphasis on inner dialogue, while Valerie’s is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is told in confessional style through diary entries, which include prose and poetry.

The link between the two women comes when Valerie’s long-lost notebook is discovered at Frances’ workplace, which was once an asylum. But as Frances reads Valerie’s writings and begins to discover intimate details of this stranger’s life, she seeks to find a more personal connection and strives to find common ground even though she knows Valerie’s suffering has been immeasurably different from her own.

She wanted a definite connection between herself and Valerie. She knew, her instincts knew, that such a link existed if only it could find its way through her tumult to an expression of itself. She needed time to think. Time to reflect. There was never any time. Then the simplicity of it would unfold. Valerie’s poetry would become her own moment in a landscape of real reality.

Their twin narratives are interleaved, but the focus is mainly on Fran who is grappling with the intense afterglow of her own affair, a marriage that has hit a rocky patch and troubles on the career front thanks to a sexist boss who is demanding and condescending by turns.

A rich inner life

There’s not much of a plot, but the story is a compelling one because of the way it charts Fran’s inner life, her views on motherhood and marriage, and the intimate details that make up her personality, including her hopes, dreams, desires and fears.

Miller is exceptionally good at nuance and his well-drawn female characters are authentic, flawed and believable. He has incredible insight into the female psyche and the issues with which women grapple on a day-to-day basis:

When you have children you are no longer free to do as you like with your life. Does everyone know this before they have children? Or does it come as a surprise? Margie was born during the night. An easy birth. Out she came. Pink and ready to make a go of it. And three days later Tom drove us both home. It took a couple of weeks — or was it months? Then I woke up one morning knowing I had paid with my life for the privilege of motherhood.

A Brief Affair is a beautifully told tale that explores the self we present to the world, the self that changes over time and the secret part of ourselves we keep hidden from the world. It’s a story about memory and experience, the compromises we make along the way, the relationships we form and the paths we navigate as life unfolds.

I really enjoyed this quiet, subtle book, the perfect balm for these unsettled times.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. Please note it is currently only available in Australia, but his novels generally do get published worldwide, so you might just need to be patient. If you can’t wait, you can order direct from the publisher.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries Volume II, 1987-1995’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

I think I might burn all these diaries. What if I died and people got hold of them and read them? Their endless self obsession, anecdotes, self-excuses, rationalisations. Meanness about others.

One Day I’ll Remember This is the second volume in Helen Garner’s diaries, of which there are currently three. (I have reviewed her first volume, Yellow Notebook, here.)

This one covers the period 1987 to 1995 and begins with the news that Garner, now in her mid-40s, is splitting her time between Melbourne, where she lives, a rural retreat called Primrose Gully, and Sydney, where her lover, the writer dubbed “V”, resides. She later marries him — her third marriage —  but it’s not all smooth sailing.

In her richly detailed prose, she pours out her heart and shares her innermost thoughts about life and love and friendship and the creative urge — and everything in between.

A writer’s life

And, because she is a writer, we find out what she’s reading —  John McGahern, Janet Malcolm, Slyvia Plath, Patrick White, old copies of the TLS, Sally Morgan’s My Place, among others — and get a ringside seat as she works on her own screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous and, a little later, her novel Cosmo Cosmolino (which I haven’t read).

Towards the end of this volume, she’s penning The First Stone, a non-fiction book (about a sexual harassment case) that turned out to be especially divisive — even before it was published.

A friend called: ‘Listen, the shit’s really going to hit the fan with this book. The street word is you’re running the line that women get raped were asking for it.’

Self-aware but fearless

Not that Garner is too worried about what anyone thinks of her. Throughout this volume, it’s clear she’s her own harshest critic.

I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?

She’s plagued by self-doubt, not only in her work but in her life as well, both as a mother and as a wife.

I say, ‘I’m no good at marriage. I think I’d be awful to be married to.’

She spends a lot of time beating herself up about things — she has a falling out with a close friend, frets about her adult daughter leaving home and no longer needing her, wonders what it would be like to confront her lover’s wife to tell her about the affair — but she’s also good humoured and drops many witty one-liners.

My front tooth is dead. I have to have a root canal. But I swam eight laps of the Fitzroy Baths.

Gorgeous writing

Her powers of observation are extraordinary, and the way she paints scenes in just a few words is dazzling — particularly when you know she’s not writing for an audience; these were personal diaries never intended to be published.

Late summer morning. Swam. Pool very beautiful. Sun giving out long, oblique rays of pink and gold.

Similarly, in just a line or two, she is able to transport us to a different time and place —  the “miracle” of receiving a fax message, the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the joy of the Berlin Wall coming down — and yet these diaries don’t feel dated.

That’s because the writing, at all times, is alive and wonderous, full of daring thoughts and brimming with heartfelt emotion and honesty. Thank goodness she never did get around to burning them.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I rushed out and bought it as soon as it was released at the tail end of 2020, where it remained in my TBR for longer than I planned. In fact, it was lying in my TBR for so long, the publisher had enough time to publish a third volume  — which has been sitting in my TBR for more than six months now!

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

‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

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

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

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

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

In her afterword, she says:

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

Raised by white settlers

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

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

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

Frontier wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An important novel

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

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

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


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

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


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