Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tim Winton

‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2010.

First published in 1988, Tim Winton’s early novella In the Winter Dark is a brilliant slice of Australian Gothic.

It builds on the myth of exotic big cats prowling the Australian bush to create a compelling tale of suspense and intrigue, one that is easily read in a single heart-in-the-mouth sitting.

Set in a deeply forested valley called Sink that has just three houses, a swamp and a river, it tells the story of four neighbours who are fearful of a mysterious creature prowling around their properties. It kills a small pet dog first, eats out the throat of a kangaroo that is found stuck in a fence and decimates a flock of Muscovy ducks and a goat. Later, a flock of 20 sheep is disembowelled.

Tension within the residents builds, not least because there are fears the creature may take a human next, but there are differences of opinion about how to handle the threat.

Old sheep farmer Maurice, who grew up in the valley and has lived with his wife, Ida, for decades, thinks it’s best to take matters into their own hands. He has a shotgun and knows how to use it.

But his neighbour, Murray Jacobs, who has recently sold his lawnmower business in the city to buy the old homestead set amongst orchards, wants to call in the authorities — someone from the shire council or maybe the police.

While Ronnie, a young drug-addicted woman who lives on the other side of the valley, just wants it sorted: she’s got other things to worry about such as the impending birth of her baby and whether her musician boyfriend will ever return from touring.

When the story begins, this quartet of diverse and distinctive characters barely knows each other; by the end, they are very well acquainted — whether they want to be or not.

Dangerous creature 

First edition

Told partly in the first person from Maurice’s point of view and the rest in the third person, the narrative flits around from character to character, sometimes feeling disjointed and confused.

I often had to re-read paragraphs to ensure I understood what was going on. But I think this disorientation is deliberate because it means you’re not sure who to trust or what to think about the dangerous creature supposedly lying in wait. Does it actually exist? Or is there a more rational explanation for the deaths of the farm animals?

He stopped, though, when something caught his eye. Something red. The wet-stiff grass seemed to shiver. Jacob reached for a stick. As he climbed through the fence, the stick snagged in the wire and he fumbled a second and left it there. From across the road, in the tall grass, he heard panting. Well, it might have been panting. He stood there in the road, wishing he could just walk away, but he was afraid to turn his back. Whatever it was, it was moving again. He could see its slow passage through the grass.

The claustrophobic atmosphere is enhanced by the setting. As ever in a Winton story, the landscape is a character in its own right. This time it’s the forest comprised of tall jarrah trees, which evoke that “big church feeling” and are shrouded in mystery thanks to “all those fairy tales […] all those stories we brought with us from another continent, other centuries”.

There’s no neat conclusion to In the Winter Dark, but it does have a dramatic ending — which is foreshadowed on the first page in which Maurice states he often feels “all hot and guilty and scared and rambling and wistful” when he thinks back on what happened 12 months earlier…

I just sit here and tell the story as though I can’t help it.

The film adaptation of In the Winter Dark, starring  Brenda Blethyn, Ray Barrett, Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto, was released in 1998 and was nominated for three AFI awards. Dark and moody, it is faithful to the book. You can watch it on YouTube:

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Drewe, Setting, short stories

‘The Bodysurfers’ by Robert Drewe

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2009.

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne in 1943, grew up in Western Australia and became an award-winning journalist on the east coast before he turned his hand to fiction. The Bodysurfers, first published in 1983, is a collection of loosely connected short stories and I loved it.

There are 12 in total, each around 10 pages long, and they are mainly set in the coastal suburbs of Perth and Sydney, though there’s also a story set on the Californian coast. The beach is a central theme (surprise, surprise) and there are lush, vivid descriptions of the sandhills, the surf and the dangers that lurk within.

Intrigued as I am by the ocean, I am not an enthusiastic surf swimmer. […] Surf and tides turn malign too suddenly, waves dump you, sandbanks crumble in the current, undertows can catch you unawares. […] It isn’t the waves or the undertow that worry me when I do, however — it’s sharks. I imagine they’re everywhere. In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spay on the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.

And while the stories are varied in style and point-of-view (some are third-person, others are first-person, and one — Sweetlip — is written in the style of a confidential report), the ways in which men navigate changed circumstances is a central focus. In these tales, men lose jobs, lose wives, lose their sense of purpose or pride.

In one story a prisoner adjusts to life outside by ogling bare-breasted women at the beach, in another a man has an affair with a woman whom he suspects is cheating on him.

In Shark Logic a man stages his own disappearance following financial irregularities at the school at which he was the headmaster and begins living a low-key invisible life by the sea;  in The Last Explorer an elderly man lying in his hospital bed recalls his past achievements — specifically crossing the continent from east to west in a 10-year-old Model T-Ford in the 1920s — and cringes when the nursing staff ask if he’s “done a wee this morning”.

The Lang family chronicles

And threaded throughout these various tales are recurring characters from three generations of the same family. We meet the Langs in the opening story, The Manageress and the Mirage, when three children — Annie, David and Max — are taken to a beachside hotel for their first Christmas dinner after their mother’s death. Their father, Rex, is keen to maintain certain festive traditions, but what he doesn’t tell them is that he is having an affair with the hotel manageress, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, who pays them too much attention and actually joins them for dinner.

She announced to me, ‘You do look like your father, Max’. She remarked on Annie’s pretty hair and on the importance of David looking after his new watch. Sportively, she donned a blue paper crown and looked at us over the rim of her champagne glass. As the plum pudding was being served she left the table and returned with gifts for us wrapped in gold paper — fountain pens for David and me, a doll for Annie. Surprised, we looked at Dad for confirmation. He showed little surprise at the gifts, however, only polite gratitude, entoning several times, ‘Very, very kind of you’.

In later stories, we meet Max and David as adults, navigating their own marital problems and affairs, and in another — named Eighty Per Cent Humidity — it’s David’s son Paul who plays a starring role:

On Paul Lang’s worst day since being extruded from the employment market he makes several bad discoveries. In ascending order of disruption and confusion rather than chronologically they are flat battery in his old Toyota, the lump on his penis and the lesbian love poem in his girlfriend’s handbag.

This loose collection of stories offers an insightful glimpse into the lives, attitudes and obsessions of white middle-class heterosexual Australian men from the mid-20th century to the early 1980s. They’re occasionally witty, sometimes terrifying and often focused on jealousy, love, lust or death.

The Bodysurfers has been adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre. I have seen none of them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Night Parrot Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Ros Thomas, Setting

‘How to Shame the Devil’ by Ros Thomas

Fiction – paperback; Night Parrot Press; 183 pages; 2021.

Book groups are going to have a field day with this novel published by Night Parrot Press, a relatively new indie based here in Perth that focuses on “experimental forms and genres outside the mainstream”. (More about them here.)

Ros Thomas’ How to Shame the Devil caught me in its grip from the start. I laughed and tittered my way through the first 100 or so pages. Indeed, it gave me a warm glow. It felt upbeat, almost joyous, the kind of story you want to press into people’s hands with a “here, read this” message. (I actually did this, prematurely it turns out, on my Instagram account.)

But then something happens and the book takes on a distinctively different feel. Darker. More confronting. And I wasn’t sure I liked it very much anymore. It made me feel icky. And I didn’t believe the central character’s reaction was authentic.

So how do I write this review without giving away key plot spoilers? I also realise that if I mention the issue at the heart of this novel not only will it spoil the plot, it may also be triggering for some readers.

So forgive me if this all sounds a bit vague. I’m just going to try to give a general flavour of the story, which is largely set in a nursing home in the Perth suburb of Shenton Park.

Nursing home resident

The protagonist, Arthur Lambkin, is 78 and has Parkinson’s, though he seems quite capable and manages his condition with medication. He claims he didn’t want to burden his two daughters with his care, hence he moved into Ashton Grange, a salmon-pink care home located just a stone’s throw from the local hospital.

Art’s main interest is penning witty letters to the daily newspaper, his “connection to the world”. It’s like a competitive hobby for him, complete with rivals — Roy Windleburn of City Beach, Bob Herriot from Palymra and John Ferranti from Scarborough — who also write letters. He keeps an unofficial scorecard and gets upset when they get more letters published than he does. The letters, it has to be said, are hilarious:

To the editor

Sir,

As a lifelong vegetarian, I am heartily sick of vegans and the amount of attention being paid to them. Veganism has become a cult populated by food obsessives who spend their non-grazing hours denigrating omnivores for their choices. Possibly because their food tastes like dirt. I suggest they take a long hard look at the water they drink. That’s a fish’s home, you savages.

Yours,

Martin Drinkwater,
Shenton Park.

A ladies’ man

He also has an eye for the ladies, which sounds charming, to begin with, but there are little asides and comments which make you wonder if he is as innocent as he makes out.

This dichotomy is fleshed out via flashbacks that take us to Art’s childhood, early adulthood and his courtship of Hazel Hopkins, a nurse, who later becomes his wife and the mother of their two daughters.

From the outset, the marriage seems incompatible because they have different ideas about sex. Art wants it; Hazel doesn’t. Art also rails against Hazel’s desire to seek conformity, stability and routine.

Art thought conformity was deadening. He’d wanted a frenzy of living: to throw each day to the wind and see what landed. He wanted his wife to be recklessly in love with him. He wanted to be admired, to feel invincible, to share the tonic of wildness. He wanted danger and excitement and the chance to sacrifice himself for love.

He makes up for a dull home life by focusing on his career. He leaves his job as a hospital orderly, where he met Hazel, and becomes a hugely successful used car salesman at Motorama, which he transforms into “Perth’s number one Holden dealership”. Later, in the heyday of commercial radio, he takes a role as an advertising salesman for Sky FM, earning big bucks and making a name for himself.

A man’s world

Reading between the lines of How to Shame the Devil, the author cleverly highlights the misogyny at work and play during Art’s lifetime.

My major issue with this novel — again, without going into specifics — is that it’s written by a woman from a man’s (imagined) perspective and it doesn’t ring true (to me). I had a hard time swallowing Art’s ability to recall events from decades earlier and the ways in which he redeems himself. Other readers, I’m sure, will disagree. And this is why I reckon it would make a great title for book groups to discuss — and argue over.

I’m itching for other people to read it, so I can talk about it with them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author grew up in Perth and has worked in national and international current affairs for more than 20 years. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Jacqueline Wright, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Red Dirt Talking’ by Jacqueline Wright

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 352 pages; 2012.

Life in an outback Aboriginal community in the northwest of Western Australia comes alive in this impressive — and totally immersive — debut novel by Jacqueline Wright.

The manuscript for Red Dirt Talking won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award* in 2010 and later, upon publication, it was longlisted for both the Dobbie Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.

It’s set in 1994 and focuses on what we might now call “white saviour syndrome” in which an educated white woman goes to a remote community to help give its Black inhabitants a “voice” on the international stage. But she goes about it completely the wrong way, not only because she’s naive but because she lacks cultural understanding outside of her own experience.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of an eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who goes missing, believed to have been “stolen” by her white uncle and removed to Perth, but there are rumours she might actually have been murdered. A body, however, has not been found, and the police don’t seem to be particularly interested in locating the girl in the first place.

The novel is told from two perspectives in two different time frames: Maggot, the local garbage collector, whose first-person account explores what might have happened to the girl after she is reported missing; and Annie, a 39-year-old anthropology graduate from Perth, who becomes friends with the girl before she disappears and whose experiences are recounted in the third person.

While these two different narrative threads are intertwined, the novel features at least twice as much of Annie’s story than Maggot’s. And probably with good reason: as a character, there’s more room to develop Annie, to take her on a “journey” from the innocent do-gooder to a much more experienced, sympathetic and understanding person who has grown and changed — for the better.

Remote Aboriginal community

The story is set in the fictionalised community of Yindi, outside the (fictionalised) town of Ransom, at least two days’ drive north of Perth. (The Aboriginal language is Muwarr, which I believe is spoken in the Pilbara, a region that is twice the size of the UK, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact location, although it does appear to be somewhere near the coast.)

Annie has received funding to research a “massacre story” on the condition that she will present her findings at the United Nations South Seas Forum for Indigenous Peoples in just over three months’ time. She plans to record the oral history of what happened at a local cattle station by interviewing Aboriginals who were there or know what happened. She wants to use this knowledge to “advocate for those who do not have a strong enough voice of their own”.

But, of course, no one wants to talk to a white academic, who doesn’t understand their ways and doesn’t speak their language — even if her intentions are wholly honourable.

It’s her housemate Mick who warns her that she needs to change her working practices if she’s to make any headway at all:

“It’s not what you’re doing that’s the problem here, Annie,” Mick says gently. “It’s how you’re going about it.”

The novel charts how Annie slowly becomes “integrated” in the community, building trust with local men and women, learning about their art and their language, and helping out in ways that have nothing to do with her research. Her three-month deadline passes, a romance with Mick develops and she begins to see herself as a “local”, not an outsider. This change in her perspective is abundantly clear when she is introduced to Johanna, a white lawyer, who says:

“They’re fascinating peoples, wouldn’t you say, Annie?”
Her comment catches Annie off guard. She looks at Johanna blankly.
Johanna must be used to blank looks because she continues without missing a beat: “An ancient and extremely complex culture. If anyone can get a chance to get close to Aboriginal people, they should, because it’s a life-changing experience.”

It’s only when Annie really opens up with the women she befriends, admitting she’s a single mother who has lost custody of her teenage daughter, that proper inroads are made. Her insightful interviews with community members are included in the narrative as transcripts, helping to add flavour to the story.

Life in the remote northwest

Red Dirt Talking is a wonderful evocation of life in the northwest. From its major weather events, such as cyclones, to the unreliability of water, power and fresh food supplies, it’s all brought to life on the page in vivid prose.

More thorny issues, such as poor health, violence, gambling and family breakdown, are also explored, but in a sympathetic way.

It’s the kind of novel, with its ring of authenticity and wry sense of humour, that you can really get lost in, learn from and emerge feeling as if something within you has irrevocably shifted — in a good way.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

* The City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award is given biennially to a full-length manuscript of fiction or narrative non-fiction by a Western Australian author previously unpublished in book form.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author has been a teacher/linguist in the northwest of Western Australia working on indigenous  Australian Aboriginal language and cultural programs. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 132 pages; 1997.

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely — and it’s framed around a grandmother who has a relatively large property in the outer suburbs of Perth.

It’s also an insightful tale about grandmothers — in particular, the love they hold for their children and their grandchildren — and what it is like to grow old, to look back on the past and to fear for the future of the people you will leave behind.

Pausing still outside the door, the grandmother wanted to go into the room. She thought of kneeling down beside the children. She longed to brush their soft hair with her lips. Sometimes she prayed inside herself that they would stay small and clean and good. Wholesome was a better word. For ever.

A tale in three parts

In The Orchard Thieves, the unnamed grandmother lives with her eldest daughter (who is dubbed “the aunt” throughout), who we might unkindly call a spinster. The youngest daughter is married and lives nearby (her two sons regularly stay over), while the middle daughter lives in London with a young daughter.

The story is divided into three parts — Three Miles to One Inch, The Orchard Thieves, and Three Times One-Third — but they could easily be seen as Before, During and After the arrival of the middle daughter who turns up and disrupts the pattern of everyone’s lives.

This daughter is pregnant but doesn’t have a partner and hasn’t told her family that there’s a baby on the way (her mother, the grandmother, has all kinds of theories including the possibility her daughter is a lesbian because she isn’t aware of any man on the scene). The daughter expects she can move into her old childhood bedroom, but neither her mother nor her older sister like the idea. The grandmother would prefer it if her daughter lived elsewhere and to perhaps go back to England if necessary.

But the middle daughter is a schemer and she thinks it might be a good idea to sell the property and to divide the proceeds between the three siblings. She tells the older sister, the aunt, it’s about time she talks to their mother about death and dying. “Old people need to be helped to let go,” she insists.

“There’s a fortune here, right here under our feet,” the middle sister said. “Once this house is knocked down, there’s enough space here for several units and a swimming pool.” The middle sister wanted a sale, she said, and she wanted — needed — one-third, a one-third share. Surely they both wanted what she wanted.

But this idea gets put on hold when the middle daughter gives birth to a baby in the house and then succumbs to what is likely to be neonatal depression (although this term is never used). The grandmother must then step in to look after the baby as well as the little granddaughter, all the while fearing for her grandsons, who she hopes will “not continue to be robbers”, and her older daughter, who she fears is lonely.

Eventually, things come to a head and everything gets more or less resolved. The grandmother realises that what happens to her loved ones is largely beyond her control, that her grandsons, during their lives, will “do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling”, and that her daughters will get on with the business of living. And this is all nicely summed up in the last line:

The grandmother, putting the baby up to her shoulder and feeling the softness of the baby’s cheek against her own, remarked that there was really only one week between a bad haircut and a good haircut.

Fable-like writing

There’s something about the prose style and the telling of the story that lends The Orchard Thieves a fable-like quality. No names — of people or places — are used throughout the text, except when the grandmother looks at her maps from her old life in England and she traces the contours of rivers and towns with which she was familiar in her childhood.

This is further evoked by references to Ceres, a Greek goddess of fertility, motherly relationships and the growth of food plants, and Demeter who wished to make her grandson immortal by placing him in a fire, an action his mother did not understand and prevented. When the middle daughter runs a bath for her baby that is far too hot, it’s hard not to see the parallels that Jolley is making between Greek mythology and the life of the grandmother.

The Orchard Thieves is a rather beautiful book, rather different to other Elizabeth Jolley novels I have read, but one that explores common themes in her work about isolation, ageing and family ties.

I could write much more about it, but I won’t. I urge you to read it if you can find a copy. I suspect it is long out of print — I picked mine up second hand and lo-and-behold it’s a signed edition, something I didn’t realise when I bought it and only noticed when I sat down to read it on the weekend.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this novel.

I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 4 Week, which celebrates women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

And because the English-born author settled in Perth, this book 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.

A&R Classics, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Katharine Susannah Prichard, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 300 pages; 2012.

I came to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1929 novel Coonardoo with some trepidation. It’s an Australian classic, of course, and is billed as the first Australian novel to feature a relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman. It sparked public outrage on publication because of this. Almost a century later it still makes for uncomfortable reading — but not necessarily for the reasons that upset people in the past.

We all know that white men exploited Aboriginal women for their own sexual gratification. We also know that love doesn’t abide by class and race structures; that it is entirely normal for white people to fall in love with black people and vice versa. But the story is written through an entirely white lens and uses racist language that is unacceptable now.

And while I can see that Prichard’s heart is in the right place — she clearly wanted to pen a sympathetic portrait of Aboriginal people — it’s hard to ignore her objectification of their “exoticness”. Indeed, in her own foreword to the novel, Prichard reveals her ethnographer’s card, so to speak, by suggesting Aboriginal people were on the “lower rungs” of the “evolutional ladder”.

Bearing this in mind, and realising that she was writing in a different time and era and can’t be held to account for a mindset that is now, hopefully, clearly outdated, I found Coonardoo a compelling tale.

Life on a cattle station

It is a fascinating portrait of life on a cattle station in Western Australia’s remote northwest. It is also an insightful look at the social mores and manners of the early 20th century and the ways in which the long arm of colonisation impacted the lives of Aboriginal women.

I was gripped by its beautiful, filmic prose — Prichard’s descriptions of landscapes are gorgeously rich and vivid — and the tragic, heartbreaking arc of the storyline that demonstrates the weakness and cruelty in the hearts of even the most decent of human beings.

The moon, rising over the dark edge of the plains, was large as a dray-wheel, red-gold. It moved through a sky clear green with the glimmer of still water, extinguishing the stars, chasing them to the depths of the high dark. The stock-yards, sheds and windmills were clear in the moonlight; corrugated-iron roofs and fans of the windmill had a white radiance. Huts of the blacks, just visible, were low mounds against the earth near the creek; their camp-fires, red jewels in the distance. A subdued murmur and drift of singing, clicking of kylies [a light boomerang] came from them.

But despite the story being framed around an Aboriginal woman, the titular Coonardoo, who is trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at Wytaliba station, it is really about the station owner, Hugh Watt, who is roughly the same age. Hughie, or “Youie” as he is often called, played with Coonardoo as a child before being sent away to boarding school in Perth.

The narrative traces the arc of his life, from childhood to old age, showing his struggles and minor triumphs, the heartbreak of two failed relationships with white women, the grief that engulfs him after the death of his mother, Bess, the much-respected widow who ran the station single-handedly for decades, and his ongoing battles with his polygamist neighbour, Sam Geary, who boasts of the Aboriginal women he uses for his own sexual gratification.

And then there is the personal relationship he has with Coonardoo, a woman he loves but holds at a distance, even though it’s clear that both of them have feelings for one another.

“Coonardoo had been the one sure thing in his life when his mother went out of it. He had grasped her. She was a stake, something to hang on to. He had to remind himself of her dark skin and race. Hugh had never been able to think of Coonardoo as alien to himself. She was the old playmate; a force in the background of his life, silent and absolute. Something primitive, fundamental, nearer than he to the source of things: the well in the shadows.

It’s this denial of a joyful matrimonial partnership, of even allowing Coonardoo a voice, that turns Hugh bitter, a denial that manifests itself in one shocking outburst of brutality that puts paid to any future happiness.

A white man’s sorrow

At its most basic, Coonardoo is a tale about a white man’s sorrow and disappointment, about his failure to tame the land and to find happiness in family and romantic relationships, to be true to himself, but the narrative is underscored by deeper issues — hints of Aboriginal massacres, dispossession and exploitation.

“The blacks are like that, I reck’n,” Saul agreed. “They never kill for sport — only for food or vengeance. I’ve always treated ’em fair and honest, let their women alone — and never had any trouble with ’em. […] And the blacks has plenty of reason for vengeance, Youie. Thirty years I’ve been in this country, and there’s things I’ve seen… No black ever did to a white man what white men have done to the blacks.”

And while Hugh’s attitude towards the Aboriginals who work on his land could be said to be kind and sympathetic by the standards of the time in which it was written, it’s hard not to wince at the patronising nature of much of what he says and does today. The following statement, for instance, is racist (and sexist), which makes for uncomfortable reading:

“But these people are not servants,” Hugh told her, “not in the ordinary way. We don’t pay them, except in food, tobacco, clothing. Treat them generously, feed them well, give them a bit of pain-killer or a dose of castor oil when they’ve got a bingee ache, and they’ll do anything in the world for you. But you must never work them too hard — specially the gins [derogatory term for an Aboriginal woman]. They’re not made for hard work, can’t stand it. Look at their little hands. Coonardoo’s — I’ve never seen any woman with as pretty little hands as Coonardoo’s.”

Prichard, unfortunately, is hampered by her inability to truly know what it was like to be indigenous. She’s constrained by her own prejudices, privilege and experiences. In today’s language, we would say this was not her story to tell.

But for all its failings, Coonardoo is an important book both in terms of the Australian literary canon and Australian history. I am glad to have made its acquaintance.

Please also see Lisa’s thoughtful and considered response to this novel, for she has taken the time to put it into context by reading other people’s opinions about it.

Because the author spent a large chunk of her life in Western Australia (she moved to Greenmount, on the edge of the Darling Scarp, in 1920, where she lived until her death in 1969, aged 85), this book 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.

This is also my 26th book for #AWW2021. 

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, David Whish-Wilson, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘Shore Leave’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 248 pages; 2020.

Australian crime doesn’t come much more hard-boiled than David Whish-Wilson’s Shore Leave, which is set in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1989.

The fourth in the Frank Swann series (which began with Line of Sight, the only one I’ve read), it works as a standalone. All you really need to know is that Frank was once a police superintendent but now he’s working solo as a private investigator and because he’s made a few enemies in the past, he’s always looking over his shoulder for people out to get him. He’s also grappling with a debilitating illness in which he’s unsteady on his feet, losing weight and vomiting, but trying his best to ignore it!

Murder plot

The plot focuses on the murder of two women, which might be linked to the arrival in port of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. An African-American sailor is missing and thought to be the likely suspect.

Working together — and sometimes against — the US Navy Master-At-Arms and the local police, Frank finds himself drawn into a messy and dangerous game involving prostitution, warring bikie gangs and gun smuggling.

The third-person narrative expands beyond Frank’s point of view to also take in US Navy “cop” Steve Webb, gold miner Paul Tremain, terminally ill armed robber Tony Pascoe (on the run from Fremantle Prison), and sailor Devon Smith, a white supremacist trying to sell illicit M-16s to outlaw bikies.

These multiple narrative threads are told in alternate chapters to provide a choppy, fast-paced story detailing a dark web of corruption, greed and violence.

Gritty read

Shore Leave is a gritty read, but there’s a black sense of humour running throughout to offer some light relief, and Frank’s domesticated home life, with his beloved wife Marion and their grown-up daughters, adds a softer, more humane edge to all the violent drama.

I especially loved the historical time period and evocative setting, and had fun trying to spot the Fremantle landmarks that have become oh-so familiar to me since moving here almost two years ago!

This is a complex, cleverly plotted crime novel featuring well-drawn, memorable characters and cracking dialogue. Its dark and brooding atmosphere gives it a noirish edge, perfect if you are looking for a hard-nosed crime novel about old-fashioned investigative work before the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

About the author¹: David Whish-Wilson was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, but raised in Singapore, Victoria and Western Australia. He left Australia aged 18 to live for a decade in Europe, Africa and Asia, where he worked as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. David’s first novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Line of Sight (Penguin Australia), was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award in 2012. He has since written three more in the series: Zero at the BoneOld Scores and Shore Leave. The first three books in the series have also been published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag. David wrote the Perth book in the NewSouth Books city series, which was shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award. He currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his partner and three children, where he teaches creative writing at Curtin University.   (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia and the US in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK it is available in paperback only.

This is my 10th (and final) book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 8th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie bookstore (in Fremantle) last year.

And because the author lives in Fremantle, 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.

Alexander Thorpe, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Death Leaves the Station’ by Alexander Thorpe

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 210 pages; 2020.

To kick off Southern Cross Crime Month I thought I’d start with the type of novel you may not normally associate with Australian crime fiction.

Death Leaves the Station, by Alexander Thorpe, is billed as “cozy crime”. It’s the type of old-fashioned mystery more commonly associated with the likes of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh (more on her later in the month) and the Crime Classics recently reissued by the British Library.

Thorpe has taken that very British construct, with all its well-trodden rules and conventions, and plonked it slap bang in the middle of the Western Australian wheat belt circa 1927 and then let things play out under a hot Australian sky. It makes for an entertaining read with a distinctively Southern Cross twist — and I loved it.

A missing body

The story begins with the disappearance of a corpse on Halfwell Station, which is about 30 miles from the nearest town of Mullewa, in Western Australia’s mid-west region.

Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes, renowned for his large moustache (which he hates but refuses to shave off because he believes to do so will cause his wife emotional harm), is called in to investigate. He describes the case as “the rummiest tale to come ringing down the telegraph wires since the Great War”. This is the nuts and bolts of what has happened:

A man is discovered on the edge of the desert, lying in a pool of his own blood, miles away from anywhere. Less than twenty-four hours later, he vanishes completely, with no apparent effort being made to either clean up or conceal the crime and nothing in the way of footprints or wheel ruts nearby. To top it off, there are no reports of anyone going missing from any of the surrounding towns or settlements and no reason whatsoever for a man of any description to be wandering around this far-flung corner of the country in the normal course of affairs, especially in the wee small hours of the morning.

The only person who saw the corpse is 18-year-old Mariana (Ana) Harris, the adopted daughter of the Sation owners, who likes to go for walks at night because she’s obsessed with the stars.

She keeps this frightening discovery to herself, but when an unexpected stranger — a mendicant monk who has no name (because he has given it up) — arrives on their doorstep en route to Mullewa, she gives him a brief tour of the property and confesses all. However, when she goes to show him where she saw the body, it is no longer there.

What ensues is a mystery of the finest order starring Ana (as the star witness) and a trio of investigators comprising the friar, the detective and an Aboriginal tracker. Their inquiries take them east to Geraldton, on the coast, and then south to Fremantle, as they try to find the missing corpse, determine his identity and work out who committed the crime.

A fun read

Death Leaves the Station is a fun read that marries an old-fashioned if somewhat quirky mystery with an adventurous road trip — by motor car and train. It’s written in formal prose — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it has to be said — but with a liberal dose of humour. The characters are distinctive and well-drawn, and the plot, albeit reliant on maybe one too many coincidences, is well thought out and believable. The historical setting only adds to the evocative atmosphere of the mystery.

I especially liked the way that Thorpe has included indigenous Australians in the story and shown how attitudes of the time were intolerant and harmful without making this an explicit part of the text — the reader is left to come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think.

I’d love to see this novel develop into a series… I’d certainly read the next one!

About the author¹: Alexander Thorpe is from Fremantle, Western Australia. He has written advertising copy for pool cleaners and concrete supply companies, taught English in Joseph Stalin’s hometown, and written for news outlets, travel journals, marketing companies and educational providers. Death Leaves the Station is his first novel. (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only. You can order it direct from the Fremantle Press website.

This is my 1st book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page

And because the author grew up in Perth and lives in Fremantle, 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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, general, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR 21

‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, 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.