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, essays, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sean O'Beirne, Setting

‘On Helen Garner’ by Sean O’Beirne (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 138 pages; 2022.

On Helen Garner is the latest volume in an ongoing series about Australian writers written by Australian writers. There are ten in the series so far (see below) and this is the latest to be published.

Sean O’Beirne is a Melbourne writer, so it seems fitting that he would write about Helen Garner, who is also a Melbourne writer. I’m not familiar with O’Beirne’s work, but according to the blurb, he wrote a satirical short story collection, A Couple of Things Before the End, which was shortlisted for several awards. He also works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria.

In this essay, it’s clear he is a deep thinker and not afraid to write intimate details about himself, traits he shares with Garner.

His main thesis is that Garner writes a “closeness to self” that allows her to be completely honest and open, to say the things that others may think but never say, and in doing so this allows her to get closer to the truth.

He argues that she does this in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her fiction, he says, is particularly close to the truth because much of it is based on her first-hand experiences or people she knows, and, indeed, Monkey Grip, her debut novel, was basically her diaries just with the names of people and locations and dates changed, something to which she confessed later on in her career.

He compares this approach with other writers, including himself, who may get to the truth but only by using fictional characters as a foil to say the things the actual writer would be too guarded to say in non-fiction. He puts it like this:

And I notice too that in this whole book I haven’t given you one specific incident, telling as me, about my family, my dad, my mum. About Mr and Mrs O’Beirne. I can’t, I can’t give them to you. But ‘Mr and Mrs O’Dingle’ — I’ll tell you what those people did. As soon as I make some new names, as soon as I get the freedom of some substitution, it is remarkable, I get a feeling in my head like all the lights coming on, my own lit-up feeling of permission.

He explains how it isn’t just as simple as the use of first-person narratives, of inserting an “I” in the story, to get to this truth. The use of “I” is to act as an eye witness, to give a “sort of limited verification” of being present, that “I was in the room, these things happened, I saw them”.

But for many writers, including Janet Malcolm whom he references (and whom I love), this is a device used to suggest that the writer is a “participant observer” and that they know about the subject and are reporting it with a level of intelligence.

But what Garner does, argues O’Beirne, is to go one step further and not be afraid to admit that she’s confused or frustrated or angered or is out of her depth in situations in which she is reporting. And in doing that, the veil of objectivity, of being a passive observer, is lifted.

The book looks at Garner’s novels and short stories as well as her non-fiction books to make these points. Anyone who is familiar with Garner’s back catalogue will enjoy the references.

I have not read much of Garner’s fictional work so these did not resonate as much as her narrative non-fiction, including The First Stone (read pre-blog), Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and her diaries. It does make me keen to explore those works of fiction, though.

Writers on Writers series

The 10 books in the series are as follows:

And there’s a new one forthcoming: ‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks, which I will look forward to reading when it is available.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it earlier this year because I am a Garner fan and thought this would make for an interesting read.

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.

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Jacqueline Maley, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 356 pages; 2021.

The summer after I wrote the story that killed Tracey Doran, I had just stopped sleeping with two very different men, following involvement in what some people on the internet called a ‘sex scandal’, although when it was described that way it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that happened to me.

So begin’s Jacqueline Maley’s The Truth About Her, a story about a newspaper journalist whose work — and messy sex life — comes back to bite her.

Journalist in trouble

This literary-novel-cum-psychological-thriller is set in Sydney and follows the pursuits of Suzy Hamilton, a hardworking investigative journalist who normally writes about politics. Indeed, when the novel opens, she discovers that she’s being sued for defaming a retired media mogul in a 400-word piece she wrote covering a former prime minister’s funeral.

But she steps outside her normal reporting expertise when she gets a tip-off that Tracey Doran, a local wellness blogger, organic food expert, social media influencer and podcaster, isn’t all she’s cracked up to be. The story is too good to ignore, so she writes one that exposes the truth behind Tracey’s lies.

Tracey, it turns out, hasn’t cured herself of cancer, as she claims, because she never had cancer in the first place. (If this sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because it borrows heavily on the Belle Gibson scandal in which an Australian wellness guru was found guilty of fraud. You can read more about that on Wikipedia or watch the documentary ‘Bad Influencer’ which is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and ABC iView in Australia.)

Following the publication of the story, Tracey commits suicide. (This, by the way, isn’t a plot spoiler — it happens in the first chapter. The novel is about the outfall of this event, not the event itself.)

Suzy, shocked by the news, tries not to take it to heart — everyone, after all, keeps telling her it’s not her fault.

But when she starts receiving intimidating messages and items in the post reminding her that Tracey is dead, it’s hard to ignore the consequences of writing the story. When Tracey’s mother starts pursuing her, demanding she write Tracey’s story the way she wants it to be written — a form of redemption, if you will — it all gets a bit messy and stressful.

While all this is going on, Suzy is juggling single-motherhood, worrying about her financial situation and anxious that the house she lives in rent-free, courtesy of an aged uncle, is about to be sold out from underneath her feet. Then there’s her judgemental mother, alcoholic (but kindly) father and two different lovers to worry about.

All of Suzy’s anger, guilt, shame, frustration, anxiety and stress resonate off the page.

UK edition (published by Borough Press)

Densely written story

The Truth About Her is a densely written novel, and despite the suspenseful nature of it — is Tracey’s mother, for instance, going to wreak violent revenge, and what is “the incident” Suzy keeps referring to which brought about the end of her marriage — I found my interest waning in places. There are too many detailed scenes and conversations, which help develop the characters but don’t do much to move the story along.

I sometimes felt that the author couldn’t make up her mind as to whether this was a book about mothering or a book about the consequences of a journalist’s actions. Trying to do both just made for a long, not always absorbing, tale — for this reader anyway.

That said, I did like the way the novel explores the ethical dilemmas faced by journalists, including the “ownership” of stories (and images), the boundaries between subject and story, and the difficulties associated with telling the truth. Ultimately, this isn’t a book about journalism, but a book about power: who has it, how it’s acquired, how it’s lost and why it’s important.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 132 pages; 1997.

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely — and it’s framed around a grandmother who has a relatively large property in the outer suburbs of Perth.

It’s also an insightful tale about grandmothers — in particular, the love they hold for their children and their grandchildren — and what it is like to grow old, to look back on the past and to fear for the future of the people you will leave behind.

Pausing still outside the door, the grandmother wanted to go into the room. She thought of kneeling down beside the children. She longed to brush their soft hair with her lips. Sometimes she prayed inside herself that they would stay small and clean and good. Wholesome was a better word. For ever.

A tale in three parts

In The Orchard Thieves, the unnamed grandmother lives with her eldest daughter (who is dubbed “the aunt” throughout), who we might unkindly call a spinster. The youngest daughter is married and lives nearby (her two sons regularly stay over), while the middle daughter lives in London with a young daughter.

The story is divided into three parts — Three Miles to One Inch, The Orchard Thieves, and Three Times One-Third — but they could easily be seen as Before, During and After the arrival of the middle daughter who turns up and disrupts the pattern of everyone’s lives.

This daughter is pregnant but doesn’t have a partner and hasn’t told her family that there’s a baby on the way (her mother, the grandmother, has all kinds of theories including the possibility her daughter is a lesbian because she isn’t aware of any man on the scene). The daughter expects she can move into her old childhood bedroom, but neither her mother nor her older sister like the idea. The grandmother would prefer it if her daughter lived elsewhere and to perhaps go back to England if necessary.

But the middle daughter is a schemer and she thinks it might be a good idea to sell the property and to divide the proceeds between the three siblings. She tells the older sister, the aunt, it’s about time she talks to their mother about death and dying. “Old people need to be helped to let go,” she insists.

“There’s a fortune here, right here under our feet,” the middle sister said. “Once this house is knocked down, there’s enough space here for several units and a swimming pool.” The middle sister wanted a sale, she said, and she wanted — needed — one-third, a one-third share. Surely they both wanted what she wanted.

But this idea gets put on hold when the middle daughter gives birth to a baby in the house and then succumbs to what is likely to be neonatal depression (although this term is never used). The grandmother must then step in to look after the baby as well as the little granddaughter, all the while fearing for her grandsons, who she hopes will “not continue to be robbers”, and her older daughter, who she fears is lonely.

Eventually, things come to a head and everything gets more or less resolved. The grandmother realises that what happens to her loved ones is largely beyond her control, that her grandsons, during their lives, will “do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling”, and that her daughters will get on with the business of living. And this is all nicely summed up in the last line:

The grandmother, putting the baby up to her shoulder and feeling the softness of the baby’s cheek against her own, remarked that there was really only one week between a bad haircut and a good haircut.

Fable-like writing

There’s something about the prose style and the telling of the story that lends The Orchard Thieves a fable-like quality. No names — of people or places — are used throughout the text, except when the grandmother looks at her maps from her old life in England and she traces the contours of rivers and towns with which she was familiar in her childhood.

This is further evoked by references to Ceres, a Greek goddess of fertility, motherly relationships and the growth of food plants, and Demeter who wished to make her grandson immortal by placing him in a fire, an action his mother did not understand and prevented. When the middle daughter runs a bath for her baby that is far too hot, it’s hard not to see the parallels that Jolley is making between Greek mythology and the life of the grandmother.

The Orchard Thieves is a rather beautiful book, rather different to other Elizabeth Jolley novels I have read, but one that explores common themes in her work about isolation, ageing and family ties.

I could write much more about it, but I won’t. I urge you to read it if you can find a copy. I suspect it is long out of print — I picked mine up second hand and lo-and-behold it’s a signed edition, something I didn’t realise when I bought it and only noticed when I sat down to read it on the weekend.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this novel.

I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 4 Week, which celebrates women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

And because the English-born author settled in Perth, this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book lists

27 books by women: completing the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

For the 6th year in a row, I signed up to do the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2021. My aim was to read 20 books; I ended up reading 27.

Here is a list of all the books I read arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review).

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt (2021)

A charming novel about two Aboriginal Australians — a mother and daughter — embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton (2021)

This historical true crime book turns a forensic eye toward women who murdered men in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

‘Mermaid Singing’  and ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser (2021)

A story about racism, freedom of movement and the Australian way of life, this novel is split in half —  one half in France in the 1980s; the other half in Australia in a dystopian near-future — and the reader gets to choose which to read first. [This is yet to be reviewed on this blog, but I will add a link when I’m done.]

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil (2021)

In this quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood, a young Australian unexpectedly falls pregnant in London then finds her paranoia kicking in when her boyfriend’s cousin becomes possessive of the baby.

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett (2021)

Beautifully written and illustrated memoir explaining what it is like to be a resident on a psyche ward and to live with a complicated mental health condition.

‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald (2021)

Billed as a “disaster thriller”, this novel revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert (2021)

An investigation into the murder of a local teenage boy is reopened when new evidence comes to light in this impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett (1959)

A richly told collection of interconnected short stories focused on a bunch of diverse female characters who work at a woollen mill in 1950s Sydney.

‘Moral Hazzard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

This brilliant novella set in the 1990s recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson (2004)

A complex, multi-layered and compelling story inspired by the life of Charmain Clift, and almost impossible to describe in an 800-word review let alone a single sentence!

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson (2021)

An epistolary novel composed of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa (2021)

An intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition, and marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

‘Revenge: Murder in Three Parts’ by S.L. Lim (2020)

A beguiling tale of a Malaysian woman whose parents treat her like a second class citizen on the basis of her gender.

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey (2020)

A deeply contemplative novel about a woman who builds a labyrinth by the beach as a way to deal with the knowledge that her son committed a brutal murder.

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald (2020)

In this debut novel, a woman from Melbourne eases her restlessness by walking along the Thames while she is in London working on a research project about Virginia Woolf.

‘The Ruin’ by Dervla McTiernan (2018)

A  compelling police procedural set in Galway, Ireland, in which a jaded Detective Inspector must confront a crime that has haunted him for 20 years.

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe (2021)

Narrated by the Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles, this highly original novel tells the story of the artwork, which was controversially purchased by the Australian Government in 1973, and the equally controversial artist who created it.

‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald (2021)

A crime novel about a family GP who decides to take the law into her own hands after dealing with one too many domestic violence victims.

‘The Second Son by Loraine Peck (2021)

An action-packed gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women who have married into it.

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1929)

This notorious Australian classic was the first Australian novel to feature a loving relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman — and created a scandal upon publication.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat in Melbourne is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann (2020)

A fast-paced eloquently written literary crime novel in which a woman on the run from her abusive husband loses one of her children en route — but did he just wander off or was he kidnapped?

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts (2021)

A coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman working as an emergency call dispatcher at a time of unprecedented ecological disaster.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

You can see all my wrap-ups for previous years of the Australian Women Writers Challenge as follows: 2020 here, 2019 here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.

In 2022 the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is switching focus to help raise the profile of women writers from the 19th- and 20th-century who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked. Visit the official website for more info. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Ella Baxter, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 240 pages; 2021.

Ella Baxter’s New Animal is one of the best books I have read all year. And I have read a lot of great books in 2021, so many in fact I’m wondering how on earth I am going to choose just 10 for my best books of the year post, which I generally publish on New Year’s Eve.

If I had to sum up in one word what this novel was all about, it would be this: grief.

This doesn’t make it sound all that interesting. And this may be why the blurb makes it sound like it’s a novel solely about sex. While sex — specifically one-night stands and BDSM — does feature heavily in this story, that’s not the prime focus. Indeed, sex is used by the narrator, 28-year-old Amelia Aurelia, as a displacement activity, a way to feel something with her body while her emotions remain very tightly held in check, but there’s more going on below the surface.

This is a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally — for Amelia works in a funeral parlour, where she’s employed as a beautician: she applies make-up to those bodies that will lie in an open casket.

I hold up a few of the foundations next to Jennifer’s face so I can see which one will suit, and settle on two. It’s good practice to use the client’s personal make-up mixed with some industry standards. For an undamaged face like Jennifer’s, you can just use an oil-based, full coverage foundation. Chemist brands are highly pigmented and do the job well. Most of us are already using the make-up that we will wear at our funerals, unless something severe happens.

 

UK edition

Despite most people thinking Amelia’s job is creepy, she loves it, not least because she gets to work with her beloved mother and step-father, who owns the business, and her brother who is in a live-in relationship with two other people. (It’s a proper family business, in that sense.)

But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Amelia is thrown into disarray. She does not want to attend the funeral, so books herself a ticket to see her father, who lives in Tasmania. It is here, holed up on his rural property, that she takes her sex life up a level by attending a bondage party with a bloke she meets online.

What ensues is horrific, but it doesn’t seem to put Amelia off. Instead, the pain and humiliation seem to be something she begins to seek out, begging the question: why is she doing it?

Quirky and humorous

This might make the story seem oppressive, but it’s not. It’s quirky, blackly funny and features some terrific one-liners and brilliantly humorous dialogue.

And while the characters are unconventional, they’re not caricatures. In fact, they are well-drawn, alive and believable.

The BDSM scenes are outrageously funny, although they’re also rather concerning because they indicate that Amelia is acting out in an attempt to obliterate past traumas. In as much as I never like to medically diagnose a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder if Amelia might be suffering from PTSD of some form.

Millennial angst

It could be argued that New Animal fits into that new genre of “Millennial angst” (see Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan et al), but it’s nowhere near as navel-gazing as most of those stories and is highly original. I’d go as far as to argue that Amelia is relatively happy. She has a job she loves, a supportive family and doesn’t dream of bigger, unattainable things.

Her problem is that she’s unable to emotionally process her feelings (or lack thereof), especially in relation to all the dead bodies she deals with in her job, many of them the result of suicide or accident, and uses sex as a means of escape.

What I needed was to be flattened, squashed and folded under another person. I can’t just remain all stretched out from the day. Like all the people I see in the late afternoons, or evenings, or early hours of the morning, he [her latest hook-up] was going to move me out of my head and into my body. He was going to fill me up with physical feeling to the point where emotions and thoughts were wrung out. And then, sayonara, thank you very much.

US edition

New Animal will be published in the UK by Picador and the US by Two Dollar Radio next February. (For the record, I much prefer the Australian cover.)

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessica Tu: This Australian novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams: Set in modern-day south London, this compelling debut novel follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom.

This is my 25th book for #AWW2021.