ABC Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, China, Hong Kong, memoir, Mimi Kwa, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa

Non-fiction – paperback; ABC Books; 362 pages; 2021.

Mimi Kwa’s House of Kwa is a memoir like no other. Written with honesty, vivacity and humour, it marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

An epic family drama

When it opens, we learn that Mimi, a successful broadcast journalist and newsreader, is being sued by her own father, an eccentric Chinese man now living in Perth, but we don’t know what brought them to this crisis.

That’s when Mimi does something very clever: she winds back the clock to tell the grand story of her Chinese family, tracing its roots back to her great grandfather who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Emperor of China. And from here, she charts how the family moved from imperial Beijing to southern China and then, finally, Hong Kong.

She explains how her father — one of 32 children! — had his own life shaped by his childhood experiences living in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

We follow him to Australia, where he came to study engineering, and then, aged in his late 30s, married Mimi’s mother, a 19-year-old Australian with undiagnosed schizophrenia. The pair set up home in Perth, Western Australia, and Mimi was born not long after.

Because of her mother’s mental illness, Mimi was essentially raised by her maternal grandparents, but when she wasn’t in their care, her father’s parenting skills left a lot to be desired. He was running a hugely successful backpacker hostel — the Mandarin Gardens in Scarborough —  which he owned and where he put young Mimi to work. As a young teen, she was basically managing the place, meeting strange and dubious guests, and having her eyes opened to different cultures and personalities.

It was during this time that Mimi’s father developed a flair for suing anyone he could to demonstrate his cleverness and so-called grasp of the law. And so the memoir comes full circle, for now we understand how a father might come to sue his daughter. The reasons for doing so, however, don’t become clear until later on.

A book of two halves

The first half of The House of Kwa reads very much like a novel than an autobiography, but when Mimi begins writing about her own lived experience the story becomes much more personal — and heartfelt.

The product of two eccentric characters, Mimi endured a lot as a child, thrust into situations beyond her years but she got by and, regardless of such trauma, managed to carve out an impressive career as a journalist and TV anchor. But if anyone is to take credit for Mimi’s success it is her beloved Aunty Theresa, who has a starring role in this memoir, as a brilliant colourful character in her own right.

Theresa, who is the older sister of Mimi’s father, was the first Chinese air hostess for the British state-owned airline BOAC. She led a super-glamorous life during the golden age of air travel, and while she never married, she had plenty of suitors, including the man who founded the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for whom she designed some of the suites and had her own in-house fashion boutique.

During her childhood, Mimi visits Theresa often. Her aunty spoils her with treats and presents, but she also instils values and shares family history, giving Mimi a good grounding for the challenges ahead. It is this bipolar childhood — troubled and semi-neglected in Australia, privileged and spoilt in Hong Kong — that shapes Mimi’s life and outlook.

House of Kwa is an intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition.

I’d love to see the author turn her hand to a novel next. Perhaps she could fictionalise her aunty’s high-flying life!

This is my 24th book for #AWW2021. I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books,; #NonFicNov, hosted by a million different bloggers of which you can find out more here; and my own ongoing #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Perth (although she now lives in Melbourne). You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Karen Herbert, Publisher, Setting

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 256 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Karen Herbert’s The River Mouth is an impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

An old case is re-opened

It has been 10 years since local teenager Darren Davies was murdered. He was shot dead and found floating face down in the Weymouth River. No one has ever been convicted of the crime.

But now his mother, Sandra, receives some unexpected and disturbing news: her best friend, Barbara, has been found dead in the Pilbara, in the north of the state, and forensics have discovered a match — her DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails all those years ago. Did Barbara kill her best friend’s son, and, if so, why did she do it?

The story alternates between the present day  — following Sandra as she tries to make sense of the situation and the newly reopened police investigation (she refuses to believe her friend had anything to do with the murder of her son) — and the past when Darren and his friends hung out together in the 25 days leading up to his death. The case is clouded by a series of rapes (or attempted rapes) of teenage girls around the time that Darren was killed.

As these twin narratives unfold, the author provides a steady drip-feed of new information and clues to help shape the reader’s perception of what might have happened and who might be involved. There’s a list of potential culprits, including Darren’s trio of teenage friends and his adopted father, which is only matched by a series of well-kept secrets involving everything from teenage romance to money made in illicit ways. The small-town intrigue resonates off the page.

Great cast of characters

The story is populated by a strong cast of characters — the teenage boys are particularly well-drawn and Sandra, who is a nurse at the local hospital, is a strong, resilient lead, the kind of woman who just gets on with things and sees the best in everyone.

The sense of time and place, swinging backwards and forwards by a decade, is expertly done. There’s plenty of cultural references — to movies, music and TV shows, and even the ubiquitous visit to a video store — to provide the right level of historical “flavour”.

The River Mouth also brilliantly captures the minutiae of small-town life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do).

It’s incredibly well-plotted, so much so I failed to guess the culprit. But this is not a twist-driven novel (thankfully); its pacing is gentle as the twin storylines take their time to unfold. And the resolution, which caught me by surprise, feels believable, unlike so many other crime novels which tend to tie things up in preposterous ways.

I really look forward to seeing what Karen Herbert comes up with next!

This is my 23rd book for #AWW2021. I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Geraldton on the midwest coast of Western Australia and now lives in Perth. 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.

Anna MacDonald, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Splice, TBR 21

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald

Fiction – hardcover; Splice; 201 pages; 2020.

I don’t think there was any ever doubt that a novel about writers, London, the river Thames and walking — as seen through the eyes of an Australian woman from Melbourne — would appeal to me, but I was rather more enamoured by Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide than I expected.

I first saw this debut novel reviewed on Lisa’s blog ANZLitLovers and immediately ordered it direct from Splice, the UK-based publisher. (Unfortunately, I had a long wait owing to Covid-19, but when it finally arrived, there was a lovely printed note inside offering discounts on future Splice purchases as a thank you for “your support and patience”.)

In the comment I left under Lisa’s review, I said:

This has my name written all over it! I am an obsessive walker! I have lived in Melbourne! I have lived in London, a short stroll from Hammersmith Bridge, and wandered by the Thames every single day for almost 21 years!

Cue extra excitement when I began reading the book to find that the unnamed narrator, who flies into Heathrow from Tullamarine, stays in a bedsit on Rowan Road in Hammersmith. My first job in London (in 1998) was at Haymarket Publishing, based on the corner of Rowan Road and Hammersmith Road, and later when I left that job but still lived in the area, I walked past Rowan Road almost every day en route to the tube station or the High Street. You couldn’t really get a book more local.

It also contains lots of vivid descriptions of the Thames towpath, taking in Putney, Hammersmith and Barnes, that I have walked on (and cycled along) hundreds and hundreds of times. I repatriated in June 2019, but reading this book transported me back to the place I’d called home for 20 years. It was a bit of a discombobulating experience, I must say.

Mesmirising tale

The story itself is mesmirising, written in simple but eloquent prose, and the further you get into it the more hypnotic it becomes. It’s almost like being immersed in someone’s lucid dream.

It details the interior life of a woman from Melbourne who eases her restlessness by walking.

Since my mid-teens, walking had become one way of scratching the itch, and offered a partial remedy to restlessness. I tramped the streets of the neighbourhood where I grew up, learning to read the terrain as I made repeated journeys over the same ground.

An academic, she’s working on a “project revolving around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf”. She’s already spent some time in London, but now she’s planning a second trip to finish her research at the British Library.

But when she returns to London, basing herself in Hammersmith near the river, her research expands to cover accounts of the drowned, whether by accident or intent, and includes everything from anecdotes to eyewitness accounts. This becomes an obsession, to the point where her grip on reality begins to waver.

Tale of survival

Her story is interleaved with that of a widow who throws herself into the Thames and is rescued by a returned soldier from the Great War. This is an imagined account, told in the third person, of a real life incident that is memorialised on a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge (and which, shamefully, I have never noticed despite walking across the bridge hundreds of times):

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

These two narrative threads, of a woman studying watery ends and of another who survives a near-drowning almost a century earlier, build a deeply contemplative tale rich in metaphor and symbolism, one that examines how water can be both a refuge and a danger.

The narrator becomes so consumed by her work she lets the story of the woman and the lieutenant, along with the many other stories she discovers, infiltrate her own narrative. Space and time begin to lose their meaning. The stories merge and become entwined. It almost feels as if the woman needs to come up for air, to free herself from a metaphysical drowning. It becomes frighteningly claustrophobic before ending on a comforting note.

Note that there’s no dialogue in the book, next to no plot and structurally it meanders like the river Thames. It shouldn’t actually work as a novel. But there’s something about the short chapters, the literary prose and the ideas contained within that makes A Jealous Tide a compelling and beguiling read.

This is my 22nd book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I planned to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. Yes, this review is very late, because I read this book way back in April, jotted down some notes and then struggled to put my thoughts into any kind of order — and even now I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve written.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, BIPOC 2021, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Larissa Behrendt, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.

The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).

A painful past

In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.

The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.

Twin narratives

The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.

Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time,  but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.

By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.

But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.

Grand tour

The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.

Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.

Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.

This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.

Gentle humour

But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)

Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!

The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.

For other thoughts on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Brona’s at This Reading Life.

This is my 21st book for #AWW2021 and my 9th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Alice Pung, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Black Inc, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung

Fiction – paperback; Black Inc; 244 pages; 2021.

A mother’s obsessive love for her daughter is at the heart of Alice Pung’s profoundly moving novel One Hundred Days.

I have previously read Pung’s extraordinary memoir Her Father’s Daughter, a moving account of what it was like growing up in Australia with Cambodian parents who had fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, so I was keen to read this one. I was not disappointed!

In this gripping story, certainly one of the best I have read in 2021 (I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year), teenage Karuna is smothered by her mother’s desire to protect her.

Because she didn’t have many small things when she was growing up, she made me her Big Thing. It was both deliberate and accidental, the way most important decisions are. […] Until the summer I turned thirteen, I hadn’t realised that she had been narrating the story of my life, including the dialogue. Until then, I believed her fairytales, because I was at the centre of them.

The pair live together in a one-bedroom housing commission flat in Melbourne, where they share a bed, making privacy between mother and daughter near on impossible.

Karuna’s mother (referred to as “Grand Mar” throughout) is a Chinese Filipino, whose life is dictated by tradition and superstition. She once ran her own make-up business for wedding parties but had to give that up when Karuna’s Greek father moved out of the family home to live with a much younger girlfriend. By day she works as a hairdresser in a busy salon run by the indomitable but kind-hearted Mrs Osman, and by night she works in a Thai restaurant.

Teenage pregnancy

When 16-year-old Karuna, who is smart and bright, falls pregnant to “a boy I liked” she refuses to tell her mother who the father is.

I can feel her head turning on the pillow, and then she asks, “Who is it?”
When I don’t answer, she says, “Do you even know who it is? Because if you don’t know who it is, we can get the police to look for them and catch them and lock them away.” She says this to me like I am five years old and don’t know about the law. “In jail,” she adds.

What ensues is a battle of wills. Karuna wants to carry on her life as normal, going to school, hanging out with her friends, but her headstrong mother has other ideas. She gets her a job in the salon, where’s she’s paid $5 a day as an apprentice (“We’ll need every cent we can get,” her mother explains because “soon there will be three mouths to feed”) but in reality, does nothing more than sweep the floors and make tea for clients.

Later, when Karuna is a month away from giving birth, her mother begins locking her indoors as part of a 100-day confinement (hence the title of the book). She controls everything she eats and everything she does, all under the guise of protecting the baby, ensuring it is born happy and healthy. But for Karuna, it is all too much and she dreams of running away, starting afresh and maybe spending more time with her dad — if only she could find the key to the lock.

Letter to an unborn child

Told entirely from Karuna’s point of view, and written as a letter to her unborn child, the narrative is fast-paced (I ate it up in a day) and not without humour. We often get glimpses of Karuna’s rage and frustration, but we can also imagine her rolling her eyes when her mother subjects her to another bit of Chinese quackery.

It’s set in the 1980s and the ongoing references to Labyrinth, a film about a Goblin King who persuades a teenage girl to swap her baby half-brother for her dreams, has parallels with Karuna’s own situation: her mother wants to raise Karuna’s child as her own so that she can go on and do other things with her life beyond motherhood.

It’s those kinds of layers of meaning, and the ways in which Pung teases out the delicate line between parental love and psychological control, that elevate One Hundred Days to a very fine novel indeed. I loved its examination of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, the wonderful voices of both characters, and the understanding that soon grows between them when the baby finally arrives.

This is my 20th book for #AWW2021 

This review was featured on Twinkl as part of their Literary Lovers campaign.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Heidi Everett, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ultimo, Wales

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett

Non-fiction – memoir; Ultimo Press; 182 pages; 2021.

Depression is commonly referred to as the ‘black dog’. In Heidi Everett’s memoir, My Friend Fox, her mental illness is essentially a ‘fox’, a wild, misunderstood animal often viewed as an outsider, a creature of terror and beauty.

In this evocative book, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the author, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules.

Everett, who was born in Wales but emigrated to Australia with her working class parents as a child, has a complicated diagnosis:

I am psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age: 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, ? juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.

She spends her time in and out of psychiatric institutions. On one occasion, safe at home where she lives with her beloved dog Tigger, she goes on the run, believing she’s being spied on by cameras in the wall. It’s the middle of winter, cold and dark, and she’s dressed in nothing more than jeans and a light shirt.

I’m not dressed to go out tonight but I can’t go back. This is an emergency; I’ve got to get away. I quickly walk up to the end of the road, turn left and keep walking. Tigger and I won’t stop walking for the next two weeks.

Interspersed with Everett’s terrifying account of running from her own paranoia and her adventures in and out of psychiatric care, are her memories of a happy childhood in rural Wales contrasted with her troubled adolescence in suburban Australia (when her illness began to manifest itself).

She often speaks of her love of the countryside and her admiration for foxes, in particular, the urban foxes she comes across in Melbourne. She wends the tale of a suburban fox on the run throughout her narrative, a metaphor for her own life, misunderstood and never quite able to mix with other people.

She also writes movingly of the love she has for her dog and of her obsessive hobbies — music and drawing — and the ways in which they give her life meaning and take her outside of her illness.

Her lyrical prose is filled with original, occasionally breathtaking, descriptions — a fox she meets has “gemstone eyes”, for example, while the wind blows “a vomit of sea in its mouth” and “the trees begin a free jazz session of syncopated dripping” after a rainstorm.

My Friend Fox is quite an astonishing read — short, powerful and fable-like. The depiction of mental illness and the impact it has on one person’s life is arresting and illuminating. And despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with optimism — and hope.

This is my 19th book for #AWW2021 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 306 pages; 2004.

Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book is a novel inspired by the work of Australian ex-pat writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who moved to the Greek islands in the 1950s (and which is depicted so beautifully in Clift’s twin memoirs Mermaid  Singing and Peel Me a Lotus) to concentrate on their creative lives while bringing up a young family.

I read it hot on the heels of Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, another novel that uses the Clift-Johnston story as inspiration, but found Johnson’s novel more eloquent, more literary — and more heartbreaking.

Multi-layered story

The Broken Book is complex and multi-layered. It reimagines Charmain Clift as a would-be writer called Katherine Elgin who is working on a manuscript called ‘The Broken Book’.

‘The Broken Book’ is about a character called Cressida Morley who falls pregnant at a time when unmarried mothers were frowned upon, bringing great shame upon her family, which is headed by a local newspaper editor.

Cressida Morley, as it turns out, is the name of a character that pops up in George Johnston’s novels and is said to be based on Clift. (And for those who don’t know, Clift had a secret child who was adopted out before she married Johnston, so everything in this extraordinary novel mirrors real life albeit with a creative spin.)

Twin narratives

These two narrative threads — Katherine’s story, which spans three decades and includes her time living in Sydney, London and Greece, and the half-written manuscript she’s working on about Cressida — are interleaved to create a complex tale that explores what it is like to pursue a creative life, how difficult it can be to balance marriage and motherhood, and how a woman’s beauty (and sexual agency) can stifle all else.

It is written in elegant prose dripping with metaphor and meaning, the kind of writing that isn’t afraid to explore emotional truths.

I used to believe there was a pattern to life, or at least you could see in retrospect where a particular life had twisted itself into the wrong shape, buckled by rogue bad luck. I used to think my moment came when a handsome young man who smelled like Sunlight Soap burst like a firework inside me, turning me incandescent. Now I don’t think there is any pattern, any shape whatsoever. All is randomness, chance.

2006 edition

I ate this book up in a matter of days. There’s something about the mood of it  — romantic, melancholy, nostalgic — that is hard to pin down but which envelopes the reader even after this extraordinarily wise and passionate novel has been finished.

I realise I haven’t really explained much about it, but it’s a difficult story to describe. The joy of the book is just letting the dual narratives, which inform one another as they jump back and forth across decades, wash over you.

The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. It can be ordered “print on demand” via the publisher’s website.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2021 and my 19th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it secondhand earlier this year having read, and loved, many of Susan Johnson’s previous novels.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, London, Publisher, Setting, Zoe Deleuil

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 244 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Zoe Deleuil’s debut novel, The Night Village, is billed as a thriller, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood and how we should always trust our inner-most instincts.

In this tale, Simone, an Australian living and working in London, has her plans for fun and adventure thrown into disarray when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. She moves in with her boyfriend, Paul, a relatively well-off guy who works in the City, even though she doesn’t think she loves him. But he’s the father of her unborn child and he wants to look after her and she knows her lowly wage working on a magazine won’t be enough to support a baby.

This is just back story, for when the book opens, Simone is in the hospital giving birth to her son, Thomas. The event is traumatic for her and she’d like to stay in hospital to rest and recuperate, but Paul seems oblivious to her distress and urges her to come home pretty much straight away. From thereon in Simone’s life is a fug of breastfeeding, sleeping and nappy changing.

When Paul’s cousin Rachel arrives, moving into the spare bedroom and announcing she’s here to help with the baby, Simone isn’t quite sure this is the godsend everyone is claiming it to be. There’s something about Rachel she doesn’t trust, but she can’t quite pinpoint what it is that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that Simone is sleep deprived, hormonal and finding it difficult to reconcile her old life with her new one.

The baby lay with his arms flung above his head in an attitude of complete abandon, his chest moving very slightly as she leaned closer and started stroking his head, right at the fontanelle where I knew there was no bone protecting the brain, only a layer of skin. I had only touched it once myself, by accident, and recoiled from the feeling of the ridged bone giving way to soft skin and nothing else between it and the baby’s brain, but she stroked it, again and again, her hands trembling slightly, and I had to bunch my hands into fists to stop myself from clobbering her.

The mood of the book is suspenseful, with a slight tinge of paranoia, and for the reader, you’re never quite sure if you can trust Simone as a narrator. Is she hiding something from us? Is she imagining things?

The evocative London setting, specifically the residential (and arts) complex known as the Barbican Estate (a place I know relatively well), adds to the mood. This housing estate on a former World War two bombsite is an example of British brutalist architecture which was dominant in the 1950s and is characterised by function over design, with rough edges, geometric shapes and lots of concrete. Visit the Barbican on a miserable London day, with its grey concrete turned black by rain, and it gives off a creepy Gothic vibe. It’s the perfect setting for a story like this one.

The Night Village is an intimate account of new motherhood thrust upon a young woman who doesn’t feel quite ready to embrace this life-changing event. And yet, when a stranger enters her domain and begins making claims on her baby, her protective instincts kick in. The tension lies in whether there really is something to worry about or whether it’s all in the mother’s head. This is a delicate balance to pull off but the author has done it exceptionally well.

I’m not really into books about motherhood, but I found this one riveting.

The Night Village will be released in Australia on 3 August. UK and US readers will be able to get the Kindle edition in August; a paperback will follow in November.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2021 and my 10th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a very early review copy of this from Fremantle Press having flagged it in this piece about upcoming Southern Cross Crime novels and have been patiently waiting to read the book closer to the August publication date.

And because the author is from Perth (but now lives in Germany), this book also 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.

20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Madeleine Watts, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Pushkin; 256 pages; 2021.

Madeleine Watts’ debut novel, The Inland Sea, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s yet another (fashionable) coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman grappling with the complexities of the modern world — think Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Niamh Campbell, Sophie Hardcastle et al —albeit with a distinctive Australian twist.

This one marries personal accountability with ecological disaster, misogyny and sexual agency.

There are recurrent themes about the foolishness of colonial exploration (in search of the rumoured inland sea, hence the book’s title) and uses the mining and exploitation of the Australian landscape as a metaphor for the ways in which women continue to be dominated and used. Which is a roundabout way of saying this is not a novel about navel-gazing: it looks at the bigger picture and puts the central character’s life into a societal and historical context — and is all the more rewarding for it.

Life in a call centre

Set in Sydney, The Inland Sea charts a year in the life of an unnamed narrator with red hair who is striking out on her own after graduating from university. She takes a job as an emergency call dispatcher — “Emergency, police, fire or ambulance?” — and discovers that the outside world is a very dangerous place. She puts emergency calls through to the relevant first responders for everything from domestic violence incidents to car accidents, bush fires to heart attacks.

I had always been told that cars were more dangerous than planes, and had never really taken the idea seriously, but the first weeks at Triple Zero taught me to reconsider their dangers. Cars flipped over. They started smoking. They ran down children. They veered off the road, they smashed through houses in the middle of the night. They poisoned their passengers. I did not know how to drive, but if I had, I would have stopped. The calls made me walk along footpaths as far away from the road as I possibly could.

Her own life is full of emergencies, too, including, but not limited to, an unplanned pregnancy, chlamydia, anemia, low liver function and a tendency to blackout from drinking too much alcohol. Against her better judgement, she is also sleeping around and having a rather lust-filled affair with the boyfriend of a friend, and part of her hopes they are discovered, if only so things are out in the open.

A climate emergency

This tendency towards self-destructive behaviour is told in parallel with an ecological emergency that is unfolding in Australia — extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, there are bushfires raging and even an earthquake.

The news said that January was of hottest-ever days and broken records, 123 by the end of the season. Some days, the heat was so powerful that people died simply sitting in their own homes. The newspapers had started calling it the “Angry Summer”.

And further to this, terrible things are happening to women. There are references to notorious murders, including Gillian Meagher, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a pub in Melbourne in 2012, and the narrator is becoming increasingly aware of the sheer number of domestic violence incidents she must respond to in her call centre job.

This dovetails seamlessly with her own experience of domestic violence as a child. While the reader is spared any specific detail, we get an overall picture of her mother living in fear of her husband and then taking drastic steps to whisk away her daughter to a place of safety, of her father being unhappy about it and then moving south to Melbourne, rarely to be seen again.

Life on the edge

While the book doesn’t have a strong plot, it sustains interest through the narrator’s experiences, her tendency to live life on the edge, her seeming inability to take care of herself and flashbacks to her childhood. Interleaved with this very personal storyline, are anecdotes about John Oxley, a 19th-century colonial explorer, who went in search of an interior body of water but never found it, which adds interest. Occasionally, some aspects — about history, ecology and news events — do feel a bit shoehorned in, but this is a minor criticism.

On the whole, The Inland Sea is an eloquently written story about finding refuge in a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe, one that highlights the chaos and fear around us, but demonstrates that we all need to take personal responsibility for our own actions and our own safety. It’s a powerful read.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2021 and my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it shortly after it was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award because it sounded like something I would enjoy.