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.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), A&R Classics, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Peter Goldsworthy, Publisher, Setting

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy

Fiction – paperback; A&R Australian Classics; 156 pages; 2014.

Originally published in 1981, Maestro was Peter Goldsworthy‘s debut novel written by an author in total control of his craft. Without wishing to exaggerate, it’s a minor masterpiece — in tone, style and subject — and was named on the Australian Society of Authors’ list of top 40 Australian books ever published back in 2003.

Top End tale

Set in tropical Darwin, where the weather — whether Wet season or Dry season — is a character in its own right, it’s a lush, wholly absorbing tale that explores the long-lasting impact of a piano teacher on a young, aspiring student.

The time is 1967, and Paul Crabbe, who narrates the story, has moved to Darwin with his happily married (if poles-apart) parents, a medical doctor and a part-time librarian, from the more cultured south (Adelaide).

My father loosened his tie. In those first weeks he still clung to the Southerner’s uniform. Then he wiped the sweat from his brow.
‘The arsehole of the earth,’ he declared, loudly.
He dropped the piano lid with a thud.
‘A city of booze, blow, and blasphemy,’ he said, in the tone of voice he reserved for memorable quotes.
‘Shakespeare?’ my mother wondered.
He shook his head: ‘Banjo Paterson’.

Fifteen-year-old Paul has shown promise as a pianist, so lessons are arranged with Eduard Keller (the maestro of the title), a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past who has emigrated to Australia and now lives in rooms above a busy pub.

Keller is not particularly warm or welcoming. He’s gruff, bad-mannered and doesn’t let Paul touch the piano for weeks, preferring to instruct him on the importance of each finger on the hand before letting him loose on the keys.

Keller waggled a forefinger in front of my nose. It was our second lesson? Our third?
‘This finger is selfish. Greedy. A … delinquent. He will steal from his four friends, cheat, lie.’
He sheathed the forefinger in his closed fist as if it were the fleshy blade of a Swiss army knife and released the middle finger.
‘Mr goody-goody,’ he said, banging the finger down on middle C repeatedly. ‘Teacher’s pet. Does what he is told. Our best student.’
Last came the ring finger.
‘Likes to follow his best friend,’ he told me. ‘Likes to … lean on him sometimes.’

Paul is not sure that these lessons are very rewarding, but over time there’s a slow thawing in relations and while the pair never truly become close, he is intrigued enough to want to know more about his teacher.

Did he do bad things in the war? Is he a Nazi, or perhaps related to one? Would that explain why he’s so mean-spirited, cruel and unemotional? Why he is missing a ring finger? And why he drinks so much? To forget? To drown his guilt?

Paul embarks on some research and discovers that Keller’s own music teacher was supposedly trained by 19th-century Hungarian composer Liszt, that his wife was a renowned contralto and Wagner specialist, and that he supposedly died in 1944. This piques his interest even further.

Coming-of-age story

Running alongside this narrative about Keller’s mysterious past is another involving Paul’s coming of age. He’s bullied at school and the only friend he makes is a similar outcast, Bennie, an English boy who collects butterflies and is not liked. It’s only when Paul joins a rock’n’roll band, as the keyboardist, that his peers begin to accept him.

But then he discovers girls and falls in love, first with the untouchable Megan and then Rosie, his teenage sweetheart who later becomes his wife, and this burgeoning interest in sex complicates matters even further.

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Paul, a music teacher who has travelled the world, looking back on his life and recalling the ways in which Keller changed him. There’s a scene towards the end when he realises that the one time Keller wanted to talk about his past, Paul was too busy thinking about the girl waiting for him outside to pay his teacher the necessary attention — he was too focused on the promise of sex instead of listening to his Keller’s long-awaited admission.

This shame-filled sense of nostalgia infuses the story with meaning and emotion. It’s actually the tone of the book, deeply reverent with a touch of humour, that makes it such a terrific read. The last time I read a novel with the same kind of emotion, of a man reminiscing about times and possibilities that will never come again and mourning their loss, is George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, my favourite book of all time.

Maestro really is a wonderful gem of a novel, a beautiful story about love, loss and learning. I will no doubt be reading this one again.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitlovers and Simon’s at Stuck in a Book.

Note, it doesn’t appear to be in print outside of Australia, so check bookfinder.com for secondhand copies.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from my local independent bookshop earlier this year.