Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Dorothy Hewett, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Virago

‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 204 pages; 1985.

First published in 1959, Bobbin Up is Dorothy Hewett’s debut novel famously written at her kitchen table in the space of eight weeks whenever her children were in bed. But it’s not really a novel; it’s more a collection of short stories focused on a bunch of diverse characters, all female, who work together at a woollen mill in Sydney during the 1950s.

It doesn’t have a lead protagonist, a deliberate decision by the author, because — as she points out in her “Introduction” to this UK-published edition — “it set out deliberately to tell the brief history of a group of women millworkers […] whose lives interconnected at the mill then separated off as they walked out the gates when the whistle blew”.

In these densely written chapters — which are alive with vivid descriptions of homes and streets and suburbs and beaches and public transport — we meet a bunch of hard-working women whose lives are dominated by their long shifts in the factory.

Gwennie joined the press of women round the bobbin boxes, pushing, shoving, clawing to grab the pitifully few decent bobbins. Bad bobbins made the work harder, the machine mucked up all the time, but there was never enough “goodies” to go round. It sickened Gwennie to join in that mad, vicious scramble. She always hung back and was left with an armful of rough-edged, half-broken fawn ones.

But it’s often what happens in their home lives that makes this book such a fascinating read, for here we are confronted with the reality of being a woman in the middle of the Twentieth Century; where working a strenuous factory job doesn’t excuse you from also having to keep a home, do the housework, prepare the meals and look after loved ones; where the lack of birth control means the threat of an unwanted pregnancy is a constant worry for anyone sexually active; and where men, often violent or abusive (or alcoholic), rule the roost.

The precarious nature of keeping a roof over your head is also a common theme. (In her “Introduction”, Hewett, who was comfortably middle-class and well educated, says that when she first arrived in Sydney from Perth she was shocked by the “poverty and sub-standard housing” in inner-city Sydney where, for the first time, she “mixed exclusively with the working class”.)

Inner-city Sydney

Bobbin Up is a fascinating portrait of inner-city Sydney at a particular point in time, with its slum landlords, tumbled down houses and dark alleyways.

Dawnie walked home through the long, asphalt lanes of factories, filled with managers’ cars, and the steady rattle of machinery. Past the little semis, with cracked plaster walls in yellow, cocoa and liver red, defending their privacy from the street with rows of murderous iron spikes.

It is also an intriguing examination of the working class and wears its politics on its sleeve. Hewett was a Communist Party member (when it was illegal) and edited its paper for a short time. She uses this experience in two chapters at the rear of the book, which focus on Nell, a Community Party member, who edits a bulletin — called “Bobbin Up” — that she distributes at the mill, informing the women of their rights. This eventually leads to a strike.

Here’s the lead story in the bulletin:

“W. H. Holler treats his two-year-old racehorses no better than he treats the women who sweat in his Alexandria mill. This week his strappers at Randwick went on strike — they said Holler was running his two-year-olds into the ground. As three-year-olds they were only fit for the scrap heap. It’s the same brand of greed that Holler uses in his spinning mills… only there it’s women, not horses he’s using up, in conditions not fit for a horse to work in.”

Today we might criticise someone from the middle-class writing about the working class because it’s not “lived experience” and because it’s not really their story to tell, but Hewett explains that at the time there was little, if any, working-class literature in Australia.

“The lives of such women remained a mystery. They could not write themselves, and they had no spokesperson to translate them into literature.”

Unfortunately, reading this through modern eyes, some of the vernacular and the working-class speech feels clunky and “wrong”, but I think the intention came from a good place. Hewett isn’t making fun of her subjects; she’s merely trying to convey them as authentically as possible.

Bobbin Up isn’t perfect, but it’s an impressive snapshot of another time and place, and the storytelling is conveyed in rich, descriptive language that often sings off the page. I really enjoyed being in the company of these complex, hard-working, vivid women, experiencing their struggles and small victories.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021, and my 1st book for #AWW2021. I also read this for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week (Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021) but ran out of time to review it in the relevant week. Better late than never, I guess.

And because Hewett was born in Perth, this book also qualifies as part of 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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Haus Publishing, holocaust, literary fiction, Monika Held, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held


Fiction – hardcover; Haus Publishing; 277 pages; 2015. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Monika Held’s This Place Holds No Fear is an extraordinarily beautiful novel — about survival, the power of love and the strength of one exceptional marriage.

It’s also about the Holocaust (fittingly, it was published on Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz just six weeks ago), but it’s quite unlike any Holocaust novel that I have read. That’s because it’s not so much about what happens to those who are sent to the death camps while they are there but explores what happens to the survivors afterwards — how do they get on with their lives after such unfathomable horror and trauma?

A love story

The novel is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior.

They meet by accident when Heiner is called to give evidence as a witness at the Auschwitz trials, held in Frankfurt in 1964, in which former SS officials and guards were tried for war crimes.

Lena is working in the court, translating evidence from Polish into German. On the 52nd day of the hearings, Heiner collapses in the hallway of the courthouse, where Lena rescues him — she wipes his brow, helps him to a chair and gets him a glass of water — forging the beginning of a love affair that endures for the next 30-plus years.

The Auschwitz legacy

As the couple’s story unfolds we learn that Heiner’s experiences at Auschwitz will forever mark him.  As prisoner 63,387,  he worked as a typist in the prisoner’s infirmary typing death records for those internees who had died.

Several times a day the SS man brings us a list with names and numbers of the dead. We don’t know how these people died. We can choose from thirty different illnesses. According to my typewriter people die of heart failure, phlegmons, pneumonia, spotted fever and typhus, embolisms, influenza, circulatory collapse, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and kidney failure. Under no circumstances is anyone tortured, beaten to death or shot at Auschwitz. No one starves, dies of thirst; no one is hanged, no one is gassed.

On a daily basis, Heiner witnessed great brutality and unspeakable acts of cruelty and inhumanity by the SS officers and guards, but he knew that he had to survive in order to be a witness. But life was cheap and at any point he could be the next to die:

That was the first lesson he’d learned: You can die. For looking too curious, too horrified, too bold, too submissive or not submissive enough. For walking. Too fast, too slow, too casually. You can die for saying your number wrong. Too softly, too loudly, too hesitantly, too slowly, or too fast. You can be killed for not knowing the words to a song. If a person wants to kill, any reason will do.

But after liberation there were new challenges to overcome— “He’d survived — but what was the point? The perpetrators were convicted and would serve their sentences without remorse, without understanding, without any shock over what they’d done” — and no one understood what he had gone through:

 At home people had looked at him mistrustfully: How come you’re still alive? We thought there was only one way to freedom at Auschwitz: through the chimney. Their eyes asked: What did you do? Were you a Nazi stooge? At whose cost did you survive? If only they had asked him directly. He found their secretive looks repugnant.

His first marriage, which is mentioned only in passing, falls apart when his wife and young child are unable to cope with Heiner’s ongoing suffering and his inability to escape from the shadow of Auschwitz that continues to loom over him.

By the time Lena meets him — almost 20 years after liberation — Heiner is still in the grip of that shadow. Their marriage works, not because Lena helps Heiner to overcome his pain — he can never overcome it — but because she accepts that it is part of his character, part of his being. As she tells Heiner’s friend, Tadek, who is also a Holocaust survivor, “it’s like living with a singer who can’t stop singing the song of his life”:

He sings it in the morning, he sings it at noon and in the afternoon, evening and night. It has many verses. You have to like the song or you’ll go crazy.

Marriage governed by trauma

This Place Holds No Fear offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds.

It particularly comes into its own in the second half of the novel when the couple travel to Poland, now under Communist rule, to deliver relief supplies to other Holocaust survivors. Here, Lena listens into conversations that deeply move her, because in meeting Heiner’s comrades she comes to understand that they all share a deep need to tell their (disturbing) stories. Yes, they are psychologically damaged men, but they have managed to stay sane not by forgetting what happened to them but by remembering their unnatural pasts.

The novel is based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — so it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling. And when I finished it, the first word that sprang to mind was not “depressing” or “traumatic” but quite simply this: “beautiful”.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Estonia, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sofi Oksanen

‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen


Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 356 pages; 2010. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers.

There’s a Gothic, fairytale quality to Purge, the first novel by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen to be translated into English. The novel has already been a bestseller in Europe and won three prestigous literary awards: the Finlandia, in 2008; the Runeberg, in 2009; and the Nordic Council Literature Prize, in 2010. I picked it up by chance while browsing in Foyles a couple of weeks ago, partly attracted by the stunning cover, but more enamoured of the writer’s credentials and the book’s unfamiliar setting.

And it is that setting — Estonia — which gives the story an unusual and decidedly different flavour to anything I’ve read before.

The story is a dark and disturbing one, hence the Gothic feel, and the two central characters — an elderly widow living on the edge of a forest, and the dirty, dishevelled woman she finds in her garden — have shades of Cinderella and her wicked step-mother about them.

But this is a story rooted in harsh reality, intertwining, as it does, the tale of the two women with Estonia’s troubled past. The narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, focusses on key points in Estonian history: its occupation by German forces during the Second World War; its post-war Soviet occupation; and its eventual independence and entry into the European Union.

And so while the story lurches between war and peace, occupation and liberation, Communism and Socialism, we follow the paths of two women, 40-years apart, who are victims of horrendous crimes: Aliide Truu, the elder of the two, was brutally raped by Communist militia in the 1940s as part of an interrogation; Zara is on the run from the sex traffickers who have tortured and raped her in Berlin.

How have these women being shaped by their pasts? And why is Aliide a virtual prisoner in her own home, beset by villagers who pound her roof with stones every night? And is it true that Zara sought her out deliberately, and for what reason?

The story is littered with shame, small acts of cruelty and large, unforgivable betrayals.

What makes it such an effective and powerful read — aside from the themes of love, survival and treachery, and Oksanen’s brilliant characterisation —  is the way in which the narrative is told in non-chronological bite-sized chunks, so that you have to hold fragments in your head in order to work out what is going on. This gives rise to moments of astonishment as pieces click into place and you begin to see how the events of the past are shaping the future.

I’m conscious of not giving too much away in this review, because it is one of those stories that needs to be read with as little background information as possible. All you really need to know is that these two women have tragic pasts, which collide in unexpected, unforeseeable ways. And while I don’t think it is a perfect novel — there are too many co-incidences to be believable, and Zara’s tale of escape tends towards the implausible — it is brimming with enough dark secrets to make it a real page turner.

And if you need further incentive to give this one a try, do read Savidge Reads‘ review — by sheer coincidence we both seem to have read this book at the same time.