Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Children’ by Charlotte Wood


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 319 pages; 2008.

I read Charlotte Wood’s The Submerged Cathedral about this time last year and enjoyed it enough to want to explore more of her work. The Children, her third novel, is set over six days in February 2006.

Taken to hospital

Geoff Connolly, a retiree, falls off the roof of his home in rural New South Wales and is taken to hospital with severe head injuries. As he lays like “a mechanically breathing corpse” in the newly opened intensive care unit, his wife and three adult children — war correspondent Mandy, civil servant Stephen and artist Cathy — gather around his bedside to keep vigil.

But this is not a happy family. The siblings nurse decades-long petty grievances and bitter rivalries. Stephen has kept himself apart from the family for years and only keeps in intermittent touch with Cathy. Mandy, shell-shocked and hardened from too much time reporting from the world’s war zones, is unable to keep a civil tongue in her head — at the expense of her now crumbling marriage to Chris. While Sydney-based Cathy, the youngest, plays the role of dutiful daughter, failing to understand why her older brother and sister are always at loggerheads.

But while Geoff is oblivious to the tension and strain around him, so, too, is his wife Margaret, who is bewildered by events and the behaviour of her adult children. Her family is coming apart at the seams, but is it still her role, after all these years, to keep it together?

You bring your children up to escape sorrow. You spend your best years trying to stop them witnessing it — on television, in you, in your neighbours’ faces. Then you realise, slowly, that there is no escape, that they must steer their own way through life’s cruelties.

Dual storyline

If that’s not enough, there’s a separate drama unfolding around them: Tony, a warden at the hospital, has developed an unhealthy obsession with Mandy that threatens her safety — perhaps more so than at any other time in her life, including her stints in the Balkans and war-torn Iraq, she just doesn’t know it yet.

Wood maintains this narrative tension throughout the novel by interspersing short chapters, from Tony’s point-of-view, that demonstrate his childlike, creepy tendencies. But even without this subsidiary storyline, the main thrust of The Children — a family collapsing in on itself at a time of great distress — is a page-turning read.

The characters are so well drawn that you feel as if you’ve known them all your life. Mandy is particularly believable as the embittered, contrary and “superior” war correspondent and I like the way Wood fleshes out her back story in order to contrast Mandy’s inability to readjust to ordinary civilian life.

Authentic dialogue

The dialogue, too, is absolutely spot-on. There’s one stand-out scene in an RSL restaurant — a quintessential element of life in small town Australia, I must say — where the siblings have a spat over the menu. This deteoriates into a ding-dong battle in which Stephen delivers some hard (and painful) truths to his older sister while Margaret frets about keeping up appearances:

But Stephen is aflame. ‘You just hate ordinary people, Mandy. You hate ordinariness. But the poor bloody people overseas you are always going on about, that you make your famous living out of? You know what they want? Ordinariness. They want exactly what it is about this place that you despise!’
Mandy is silenced. She puts a cigarette to her lips, staring at her brother. She has never hated anyone so much in her life.
‘You can’t smoke in here!’ Margaret cries.

Wonderful family drama

The Children is a wonderful family drama — on an equal to anything that loads of famous white American males churn out and for which they get lauded — that puts “normality” under the microscope. It is closely observed and so beautifully nuanced that I’m sure you could read this book a dozen times and come away with new things you missed earlier.

My only quibble is the too-quick and overly dramatic ending — in which Tony and Mandy finally come head-to-head — because it lets down an otherwise superbly crafted novel.

The Children was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards literary fiction award in 2008. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be available outside of Australia or New Zealand.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Peggy Frew, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘House of Sticks’ by Peggy Frew


Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 275 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read what I would term a “domestic novel”, one that concentrates on marriage, family and friendship. It’s not that I have been avoiding these types of stories, it’s just that everything I have picked up lately has been focused on bigger, more “worldly” themes. And yet there’s something universal about the domestic novel, something with which we can all identify, that I enjoy reading.

We all live in households, are in relationships, and it is here, in our private realm, that most of our personal dramas, traumas, tragedies and triumphs take place. And no one household, or family, is the same as another. Here, then, is a rich seam of material for the novelist to mine.

Australian writer Peggy Frew does just that. She sets her debut novel, House of Sticks, in what appears to be the rather cosy domestic world of suburban Melbourne, but — just like the house of sticks of the title — the fragility of the marital home is threatening to fall apart.

Tension at home

Bonnie is 34, her partner Pete is 42, and they have three children — four-year-old fraternal twins Edie and Louie, and five-month-old baby Jess. Pete is a furniture maker who works from home and Bonnie has given up a successful music career as a guitarist in a rock band to be a stay-at-home mum.

But their happy household is rife with unspoken tensions, compromises and resentments. These come to the fore when Doug, an older school friend of Pete’s, insinuates himself into their lives after a year’s absence. He’s a drifter with no real home, no income and no responsibilities — Bonnie describes him as a “lost soul” — so Pete employs him to do odd jobs in his workshop.

But there is history between them. (Doug once worked for Pete and cocked up an order that left Pete substantially out of pocket. And Pete puts up with Doug out of a sense of misplaced loyalty — and guilt — resulting from a violent incident which happened in their youth.) That history, however, does not apply to Bonnie, and she finds Doug’s presence worrying and creepy.

Here’s how she describes him to her mother:

‘Well, he’s driving me crazy. He turns up at seven-thirty, sits around the kitchen eating porridge that Pete makes for him. And I’m trying to get the kids organised and he just keeps playing with them and — Oh, it doesn’t sound that bad when I say it, but…’ She pushed back her hair. ‘It’s not what he does, it’s just him — he’s really intrusive. You know, watches everything you do and has some comment ready. Makes these jokes that are actually jibes at me, and… or, I don’t know, maybe I’m just paranoid. Maybe I’m sensitive to everything he says now, ’cause I’ve tuned into it.’

Effectively, Doug makes Bonnie feel uncomfortable in her own home. If she’s been out and returns to see his van parked in front of their house, she will drive off again and occupy herself elsewhere — take the kids to a park, visit the supermarket — in order to avoid him.

On top of this, she is feeling overwhelmed by motherhood and is resentful of friends who have better support networks in place. Bonnie’s mother, Suzanne, is very hands off and despite living close by only sees her grandchildren for an hour a week — at the swimming pool. There’s an unspoken tension between mother and daughter that resonates off the page.

And there’s tension between Pete and Bonnie, too. Neither has the gumption to confront Doug and to put boundaries in place — Bonnie writes her feelings off as meanness and admires Pete’s generosity in helping a friend. But by never addressing the issues at hand, the issues continue to simmer unabated.

They only threaten to boil over when Bonnie takes up an opportunity to play in her old band for a one-night-only performance — in Sydney. Here, back up on stage, doing the thing she loves, and then celebrating at a boozy after party, Bonnie must weigh up her current life as a stressed-out mother with her past life as a free spirit. Has she made the right choice? Is motherhood — and her relationship with Pete — worth the effort?

Mothers and music

Frew’s depiction of both motherhood — messy, chaotic, overwhelming — and the music business — chaotic, exciting and fun — are exceptionally authentic, probably because she has experience in both: she was formerly a bassist in the indie band Art of Fighting and later left to have children.

Her prose style is effortless, although some of the dialogue occasionally feels stilted and over-explained. And the third-person narrative brims with tension as the sense of dread builds and builds. It works because you’re never quite sure if the paranoia is all in Bonnie’s head or whether her concerns — about her mother, Doug and her marriage — are legitimate.

The characters are all well drawn, believable and flawed. As they cruise on through life in their impassiveness — “It was easier just to press on like this, to retreat into wounded distance” — Frew demonstrates how quickly normal life can unravel before anyone realises the damage that has been done.

As a portrait of domestic bliss tinged with paranoia, House of Sticks is a top-class read.

Australia, Author, Book review, Deborah Forster, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 304 pages; 2010.

Deborah Forster is a long-time journalist and first-time novelist based in Melbourne, Australia. The Book of Emmett first came to my attention via its long-listing (and subsequent short-listing) for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. When I saw a very positive review of it on Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog I was convinced I needed to read it.

The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family.

Written in the present tense and using a third person narrative, it opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. It’s one of those scorching summer days (40.4 degrees) and everyone’s fanning the “slow thick air around their hot faces with funeral programs”. Emmett’s widow, Ann, is there along with her four adult children: Rob, Louisa, Peter and Jessie. From the outset we learn that the loss of their father isn’t the devastating blow one might expect:

In the moment of being held by Peter there in the yard at Gilberts [the funeral home], Louisa understands this as the purest relationship she will ever have. Brothers and sisters want nothing from you. They know who you are and they love you anyway. These are the ones who know and in the war against Emmett, they’d been in the trenches with her.

But we also learn that Emmett, while loathed and feared by those closest to him, is a rather complicated character. He never knew his own father, was dumped by his mother and was raised in an orphanage. Despite a lack of education, he nursed a love of the arts, particularly literature and even ballet, and “kept diaries on and off for most of his life”, stating at the age of 42 that if he were to die he didn’t want “any mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing hypocrite talking bullshit about me”.

“I just want my mob and I want them to cry for me. Cry for me, but not too much and, please, I ask you all now to forgive me for doing some of the wrong things I did. Remember me and laugh about the funny times. Laugh about me. Laugh at me. Doesn’t matter. Remember, I was nothing but a drunken old bum.”

The rest of the book charts the Brown’s lives from the late 1960s to the present day. Through a succession of vignettes, it details the brutal and miserable childhoods of Rob, Louisa, Jessie and Peter, including the death of Peter’s twin, Daniel. The narrative is quite fast-paced so it doesn’t take long before they’ve grown up and are forging their own Emmett-free lives. And yet despite their luck at emerging physically unscathed from their father’s unpredictable heavy-handed temper, their difficult upbringing hangs around their neck like a weight they can never quite escape. It seems particularly telling that Rob proclaims he will never have children because he does not want to turn into his father.

It’s also interesting to see how their relationship with Emmett develops and changes over time, how they begin to see him in a different light when he gets old and sick. Forster charts the inner turmoil of each of Emmett’s children superbly, showing how their feelings of pity for their father cannot be reconciled with the abuse they suffered at his hands when they were too young to defend themselves.

And while all this might sound like quite an unrelenting misery memoir, for want of a better description, it is never dreary, helped in part by a dry sense of humour. In fact, Forster has such an acute sense of people’s inner dialogue that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their lives, to feel their pains and fears and little triumphs as if you were experiencing them yourself. What I most admired was the complete lack of sentimentality in the story, and yet I found it a profoundly affecting read. You feel for these characters, every last one of them, including Emmett, which is surprising given how easily he could have been reduced to a mere caricature.

I suspect that I particularly liked this book because of its Australian flavour. Lisa has already pointed out in her review that Forster hasn’t shied away from using Australian idioms and peopling it with footy players and politicians no self-respecting Melburnian could fail to identify. But this is not your typical Australian bush setting: this is a rough-and-ready Western suburb of Melbourne, the same one where my father was educated, and there are various references to Footscray High (where he went to school), the Western Oval and Australian Rules football legend Ted Whitten (with whom I share a birthday — my dad was pretty pleased about that) that made me nod in recognition.

If nothing else The Book of Emmett is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be (an outdated version) of a “fair dinkum Aussie patriarch”, wanting to do the best by his family but falling short because of his weakness for booze, gambling and the use of his fists. I’ll be intrigued to see how it fares when the Miles Franklin Award is announced next month.