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. 

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.