Author, Book review, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sandycove, Sinead O'Connor

‘Rememberings’ by Sinéad O’Connor

Non-fiction – hardcover; Sandycove; 304 pages; 2021.

Like many outspoken people condemned for speaking the truth, Irish singer-songwriter Sineád O’Connor was a woman before her time.

When she ripped up a photograph of the Pope live on American TV in 1992 to protest sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, she was roundly castigated, her records burned and her public appearances cancelled. She became persona non grata virtually overnight. Even Madonna, that bastion of virtue (I jest), attacked her.

At the time, she was a global star thanks to her cover of the Prince song Nothing Compares to U — released in 1990 (YouTube clip here) — but this single act, prescient as it we now know it to be (it was nine years before Pope John II acknowledged the issue), killed her international career. (Interestingly, her story about meeting Prince does not paint him in a good light.)

And yet, in the decades that have followed, she has continued to slog away, creating great music in various different genres including pop, rock, folk, reggae and religious. And she has continued to stand up for what she believes in, often playing out her struggles — mental health issues and relationship breakdowns, for example — in full glare of the public eye.

Long time fan

I’m a long time Sineád O’Connor fan. It began when I bought her debut album The Lion and The Cobra in my late teens, two years after it had been released. At the time, I was just beginning to explore Irish music, both traditional and popular, and this sounded like an intriguing blend of the two.

I wasn’t wrong. This album was powerful. It was melancholy. It was beautiful. It was angry. And her ethereal voice, quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before, was mesmerising as she shifted between singing like a banshee and singing like an angel, sometimes within the space of a line or a verse.

What was astonishing was that she was only 20 years old when she made it. She not only wrote many of the songs herself, but she also produced the record, too. To this day, it remains as one of my “desert island discs” — I could never grow tired of it. (To listen to it in its entirety, visit YouTube.)

A way with words

Fans know that Sineád has a way with words, whether spoken or sung, but it also seems she’s a talented writer if this memoir is anything to go by. Rememberings is a beautifully written book that details a remarkable life and a remarkable career in a voice that is intimate, pragmatic and often wickedly humorous.

It’s a book of two halves: the first, written in episodic style, details experiences from her childhood; and the second, written in a different tone of voice, covers the period of her life after she became famous. This latter section is patchy rather than comprehensive (O’Connor says this is a result of her undergoing a radical hysterectomy that wrecked her memory and had a detrimental psychological impact on her life), but it hardly seems to matter for the tales she tells are often eye-opening, insightful and funny.

The stories from the first half are more nostalgic and often heartbreaking. She was born in Dublin in 1966, the third of five children. (Her older brother Joseph is, of course, the Irish novelist whose work I have reviewed here.) After her parents divorced, she and her younger brother went to live with her mother, her older siblings lived with their father.

Sineád says she was regularly and brutally beaten by her deeply religious mother — “I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well” — and she blames this abuse on the Catholic Church, which had “created” her mother. Later, when her mother died in a car accident in 1986, Sineád, who was 19 at the time, struggled to reconcile her grief with her sense of relief.

Her musical talent came to the fore when she was sent to a Catholic reform school (she used to shoplift regularly), where one of the nuns bought her a guitar, a Bob Dylan songbook and arranged music lessons for her. She began writing songs and after leaving school performed in and around Dublin (because she was too young to tour).

Derailing her career?

Aged 20, she recorded the debut record that was to put her name on the musical map. Two more albums later, just when everything was going exceedingly well for her, with Grammy nominations aplenty and three best-selling albums, she was ripping up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live.

This example of “bad behaviour” is rather reflective of O’Connor’s life as a whole: she’s always been outspoken and forthright, not afraid of what people might think. She shaved her head very early on in her career when a record executive told her she needed to be “more feminine”. She went ahead with an unplanned pregnancy when she was told she couldn’t possibly be a mother and go on tour. She said she would not perform if the United States national anthem was played before one of her concerts. And she boycotted the 1991 Grammy Awards because she did not want to support, nor profit from, the “false and destructive materialistic values” of the music industry.

She has always defied convention and just done her own thing, regardless of the consequences.

But in this memoir she paints it differently: while the media and the public viewed the Pope photo incident as derailing her career, she sees it as saving her from the pop star’s life she didn’t want.

Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.

Rememberings is a brilliant memoir full of cheeky spirit and forthright honesty, as entertaining as it is enlightening. If they handed out awards for resilience, Sinead O’Connor would have to be the first in the queue. She truly deserves it.

Extra notes

I read this book last year and loved it so much I struggled to pen a review, I just didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts. Then, over the Christmas break, I started putting something together and had it scheduled for early January. I held off publishing it when news broke that Sinead’s 17-year-old son, Jake, had died. Today, I’ve dusted it off and polished a few bits, and had fun digging out some of my favourite clips to share. Forgive the indulgence.

The first is an interview on Arsenio Hall in 1991 demonstrating a very wise head on young shoulders. She talks a lot of sense and her integrity really shines through. (But how the wheels turn because, in 2016, Arsenio Hall tried to sue her for defamation but dropped the case.)

One of my favourite songs from ‘The Lion and The Cobra’:

And, finally, her live performance at the 1989 Grammy Awards.

I’ve seen her in concert once — at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2012 — and more recently in the queue at Dublin Airport, circa 2017. She was almost unrecognisable — apart from the dimples and those extraordinary eyes.

ABC Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, China, Hong Kong, memoir, Mimi Kwa, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa

Non-fiction – paperback; ABC Books; 362 pages; 2021.

Mimi Kwa’s House of Kwa is a memoir like no other. Written with honesty, vivacity and humour, it marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

An epic family drama

When it opens, we learn that Mimi, a successful broadcast journalist and newsreader, is being sued by her own father, an eccentric Chinese man now living in Perth, but we don’t know what brought them to this crisis.

That’s when Mimi does something very clever: she winds back the clock to tell the grand story of her Chinese family, tracing its roots back to her great grandfather who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Emperor of China. And from here, she charts how the family moved from imperial Beijing to southern China and then, finally, Hong Kong.

She explains how her father — one of 32 children! — had his own life shaped by his childhood experiences living in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

We follow him to Australia, where he came to study engineering, and then, aged in his late 30s, married Mimi’s mother, a 19-year-old Australian with undiagnosed schizophrenia. The pair set up home in Perth, Western Australia, and Mimi was born not long after.

Because of her mother’s mental illness, Mimi was essentially raised by her maternal grandparents, but when she wasn’t in their care, her father’s parenting skills left a lot to be desired. He was running a hugely successful backpacker hostel — the Mandarin Gardens in Scarborough —  which he owned and where he put young Mimi to work. As a young teen, she was basically managing the place, meeting strange and dubious guests, and having her eyes opened to different cultures and personalities.

It was during this time that Mimi’s father developed a flair for suing anyone he could to demonstrate his cleverness and so-called grasp of the law. And so the memoir comes full circle, for now we understand how a father might come to sue his daughter. The reasons for doing so, however, don’t become clear until later on.

A book of two halves

The first half of The House of Kwa reads very much like a novel than an autobiography, but when Mimi begins writing about her own lived experience the story becomes much more personal — and heartfelt.

The product of two eccentric characters, Mimi endured a lot as a child, thrust into situations beyond her years but she got by and, regardless of such trauma, managed to carve out an impressive career as a journalist and TV anchor. But if anyone is to take credit for Mimi’s success it is her beloved Aunty Theresa, who has a starring role in this memoir, as a brilliant colourful character in her own right.

Theresa, who is the older sister of Mimi’s father, was the first Chinese air hostess for the British state-owned airline BOAC. She led a super-glamorous life during the golden age of air travel, and while she never married, she had plenty of suitors, including the man who founded the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for whom she designed some of the suites and had her own in-house fashion boutique.

During her childhood, Mimi visits Theresa often. Her aunty spoils her with treats and presents, but she also instils values and shares family history, giving Mimi a good grounding for the challenges ahead. It is this bipolar childhood — troubled and semi-neglected in Australia, privileged and spoilt in Hong Kong — that shapes Mimi’s life and outlook.

House of Kwa is an intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition.

I’d love to see the author turn her hand to a novel next. Perhaps she could fictionalise her aunty’s high-flying life!

This is my 24th book for #AWW2021. I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books,; #NonFicNov, hosted by a million different bloggers of which you can find out more here; and my own ongoing #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Perth (although she now lives in Melbourne). You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Heidi Everett, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ultimo, Wales

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett

Non-fiction – memoir; Ultimo Press; 182 pages; 2021.

Depression is commonly referred to as the ‘black dog’. In Heidi Everett’s memoir, My Friend Fox, her mental illness is essentially a ‘fox’, a wild, misunderstood animal often viewed as an outsider, a creature of terror and beauty.

In this evocative book, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the author, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules.

Everett, who was born in Wales but emigrated to Australia with her working class parents as a child, has a complicated diagnosis:

I am psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age: 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, ? juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.

She spends her time in and out of psychiatric institutions. On one occasion, safe at home where she lives with her beloved dog Tigger, she goes on the run, believing she’s being spied on by cameras in the wall. It’s the middle of winter, cold and dark, and she’s dressed in nothing more than jeans and a light shirt.

I’m not dressed to go out tonight but I can’t go back. This is an emergency; I’ve got to get away. I quickly walk up to the end of the road, turn left and keep walking. Tigger and I won’t stop walking for the next two weeks.

Interspersed with Everett’s terrifying account of running from her own paranoia and her adventures in and out of psychiatric care, are her memories of a happy childhood in rural Wales contrasted with her troubled adolescence in suburban Australia (when her illness began to manifest itself).

She often speaks of her love of the countryside and her admiration for foxes, in particular, the urban foxes she comes across in Melbourne. She wends the tale of a suburban fox on the run throughout her narrative, a metaphor for her own life, misunderstood and never quite able to mix with other people.

She also writes movingly of the love she has for her dog and of her obsessive hobbies — music and drawing — and the ways in which they give her life meaning and take her outside of her illness.

Her lyrical prose is filled with original, occasionally breathtaking, descriptions — a fox she meets has “gemstone eyes”, for example, while the wind blows “a vomit of sea in its mouth” and “the trees begin a free jazz session of syncopated dripping” after a rainstorm.

My Friend Fox is quite an astonishing read — short, powerful and fable-like. The depiction of mental illness and the impact it has on one person’s life is arresting and illuminating. And despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with optimism — and hope.

This is my 19th book for #AWW2021 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Charmian Clift, Greece, Harper Collins Australia, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift

Non-fiction – memoir; Harper Collins Australia; 416 pages; 2021.

Charmian Clift (1923-1969) was a legendary Australian writer and essayist. She was married to Australian war correspondent and author George Johnston (1912-1970) with whom she had three children. The couple moved to London in the early 1950s, where they resided for several years, before moving to the Greek island of Kalymnos in the south-eastern Aegean Sea. They later moved to the island of Hydra, where they became part of a Bohemian group of foreign artists and writers, which included young Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) are two memoirs that Clift wrote about her family’s time in Greece. They were brought together in one volume and reissued by Harper Collins Australia earlier this year. In the UK, they have been published as single volumes, with gorgeous covers, by Muswell Press.


Mermaid Singing

This memoir charts Clift and Johnston’s move to Kalymnos where they planned to live as cheaply as they could while they worked on their books. (The pair collaborated on The Sponge Divers, a novel set on the island, during their stay.)

“We came to the island of Kalymnos in the small grey caique Angellico, belting in around Point Cali with a sirocco screaming in from the south-west, a black patched triangle of sail thrumming over our heads, and a cargo of turkeys, tangerines, earthenware water jugs, market baskets, and the inevitable old black-shawled women who form part of the furnishings of all Agean caiques.”

In beautifully evocative prose, Clift outlines a year living on the island. The entire experience is a culture shock — there is no running water nor electricity; even furniture is hard to come by with nary a wardrobe or chest of drawers to be found. Privacy is non-existent, with local villagers treating everyone’s houses as common property, and the Johnston’s attracting a lot of attention because they are foreign.

There is deprivation everywhere — food is scarce, children run around in rags, buildings are decrepit. Most families survive by sending their men off to sea for months at a time where they risk their lives to deep-sea dive for sponges, sometimes returning home with twisted legs caused by the bends.

Yet for all the poverty and harshness of life, there is a real sense of community, one that embraces the Johnstons, including their two young children Martin and Shane, with open arms. In this strange new world, Clift turns a forensic eye on cultures and customs to report on a way of life that was poor and primitive (even by mid-century London standards). Some of her chapters read like expertly crafted magazine features that would not be out of place in a glossy newspaper supplement today. She really gets under the skin of what makes the people and the place tick, writing about the sights,  smells and textures in filmic detail.

Mermaid Singing is as much an anthropological study (in the same vein as J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands) as it is a story of two writers escaping the rat race to focus on their creative output. It is a lush and gorgeously vivid read.

Peel Me a Lotus

The second volume of Clift’s memoirs, Peel Me a Lotus follows nine months in the lives of the family, who have now decamped to Hydra, an island closer to the Greek mainland, and with a growing reputation as a Bohemian hangout.

When the book opens, Clift is pregnant with her third child and the couple are racing to fix up a house they have purchased before the baby arrives.

This memoir is less about traditional island life than her previous volume and more about the life of the family, how they go about setting up their home, the tensions Clift experiences between living a life of domesticity and one of creativity, and the role the couple play in the foreign community of artists and poets and writers who have made Hydra their hang out.

If the island is no longer ‘our’ island, it is very lovely nonetheless. A summer island, a painter’s paradise, just enough off the beaten track to be an authentic ‘discovery’, simple still, and strong with its own personality. ‘Quite unspoilt,’ people are heard to say. ‘The essence of Greekness. An absolute gem.’

Again, this book is full of bold and colourful descriptions of people, locals and foreigners alike, and places, including the dramatic landscape, the port and the sea, enough to make you feel as if you are there soaking up the sunshine, the plentiful wine and the good vibes.

Given our current travel restrictions (because of the Covid-19 global pandemic), reading this book is the next best thing to visiting the Greek islands yourself. I loved it. Cathy at 746 Books recently reviewed this one too.

This volume represents my 16th & 17th books for #AWW2021 and my 14th & 15th books for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in January this year, delighted to see these memoirs back in print at last! I’ve long been a George Johnston fan (his novel ‘My Brother Jack’ is my favourite book of all time, but read pre-blog and not reviewed here), but I had never read anything by Clift and had been wanting to do so for a very long time.

Author, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book 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 Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978–1987’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 272 pages; 2019.

I’ve started to write, without thought of form: it keeps coming, I am happy and no longer straining after effect. But each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is to write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets so that they remember them.

If you are familiar with the work of Australian writer Helen Garner you may be surprised by this journal entry, penned in 1983, because it reveals a confronting truth: that early on in her career she was plagued by self-doubt and had resigned herself to never achieving critical success.

Of course, we now know that not to be the case. Garner has achieved rare critical and commercial success over the past 30-plus years — more for her non-fiction than her fiction, it has to be said — but she was on the money about writing stuff that “sticks in people’s gullets” for it’s fair to say she is not beloved. If anything, Garner is a polemic writer, often courting controversy for what is seen as her biased reporting.

I make no bones about being a fan. I particularly like her true-crime reportage (This House of Grief and Joe Cinque’s Consolation are stand-out books in this genre) and the way she tackles the truth — as she sees it — disclosing her own feelings without fear or favour.

When I read her essay collection, Everywhere I Look, published in 2016, I fell in love with her personal diary extracts “all written with the elegance and undiminished wonder of a true writer who revels in the extraordinariness of the every day”. Any wonder then, that I was completely enamoured by her latest book, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978–1987, published by Text last month.

Plagued by doubt

The quote at the top of this review is but one example of Garner’s extraordinary self-awareness and of her ability to be critical of her own talents and shortcomings as a writer.

Her take on leading a creative life, the all-consuming nature of it, the self-doubt and the courage of baring your soul to the world, is in sharp relief to her own personal struggles: the tedium of growing old, the loneliness of being in an unhappy marriage, the pain of a divorce and the fear of never finding love again, mixed in with the small joys of raising a daughter.

The entries are not what you might expect of a typical diary. There are no dates (apart from the year) and some entries are no more than a single sentence. But my, how each entry, each sentence sparkles and shines. She captures the minutiae of daily life in a remarkable way, using the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

K and I ate room service food, sitting on the edge of the single bed like two good children.

Her writing is sublime and pithy. It’s confronting and raw and funny and makes you look at the world, domestic and familial, in a fresh, new way. The entire book is totally immersive and a joy to read.

Through the simple art of recording daily thoughts and experiences, Garner hones her writing skills and her powers of observation. Budding writers or anyone interested in the creative process could do worse than read Yellow Notebook: it’s compelling and insightful and full of the lovely, rich detail that makes a writer’s prose come alive. It’s a masterclass in anecdotal writing.

Personally, I cannot wait for follow-up volumes to be produced. If they are anything like Volume I, they will be exceptional reads.

This is my 24th book for #AWW2019.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Rick Morton, Setting, University of Melbourne Press

‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

Non-fiction – paperback; University of Melbourne Press; 191 pages; 2018.

Journalist Rick Morton exposes the myth that Australia is an egalitarian society in his brutally honest memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt.

Morton, a social affairs writer for The Australian, writes about his upbringing on a remote cattle station in the Queensland outback, his coming out as a gay man and his subsequent struggle to make a name for himself in a profession dominated by the middle-classes. Dotted along the way we learn about his older brother’s drug problems, his sister’s love of guns and hunting and traditional outback life, and his mother’s ongoing efforts to try to raise herself above the poverty line.

He structures his book thematically, rather than chronologically, and in doing so highlights a host of important issues including poverty and privilege, the class system, mental health, drug addiction, domestic violence, homophobia and intergenerational trauma.

But this is also a story about family and how the forces within and outwith can shape and test and impact familial units. And very often it is the personalities within those families that have the most influence — and not always in a good way.

Toxic relationships

Morton explains how his family’s world was dominated by his paternal grandfather’s toxic masculinity, from which there was no escape — even with all that space in the outback. A physically abusive man — “My father was five when his own dad threw him into a wall and ruptured his spleen” — his reign of terror had long-lasting repercussions on the family. It was a cycle Morton did not want to repeat.

Morton’s own father — who clearly lacked emotional resilience, no doubt through his own troubled upbringing — deserted the family when Morton’s older brother suffered terrible burns in a fire as a young boy. Morton and his siblings (he has a younger sister, too) were raised by his now single mother, a woman with next to no education and little experience of the world beyond the farm. The book reads very much as a tribute to her resilience and compassion and love.

Crucially, however, our story is also that of a mother who tried to love enough for the failures of everyone around her. This is a foray into an Australia on the outside of public consciousness, one whose egalitarian core is ruptured by ordeals of illness and poverty, and people who have never been taught how to be vulnerable and, in doing so, make misery wherever they go.

There’s no doubt that One Hundred Years of Dirt deals with some heavy topics, but it’s written in an engaging and entertaining manner.

Initially, I found the structure a bit odd, because the narrative is not straightforward, but once I realised the book was shaped around thematic chapters, many of which could be read as standalone essays, it began to resonate — and hit home.

Clearly written from a place of anger, the book posits some vital questions about wealth distribution, social justice, poverty and privilege. Read between the lines and it’s a call to level the playing field, to change the way we think about welfare, to give people opportunities based on merit not money, to diversify our board rooms and newsrooms and political chambers so that we can break down the often invisible institutional barriers currently in place.

One Hundred Years of Dirt is a truly compelling read and a brilliant example of showing how personal experience is shaped by the larger social and political structures that make up modern-day Australia. It should be required reading for politicians, policymakers and educators everywhere.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Behrouz Boochani, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Papua New Guinea, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 374 pages; 2018. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin with “reviewing” this book. I read it more than a month ago now, and every time I sit down to try to commit my thoughts to this blog the words won’t come.

It’s an astonishing and lyrical account of a cruel and inhumane life at the hands of a cruel and inhumane government. It makes for very powerful reading, but it also serves to make the reader feel powerless. I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable fug that enveloped me as I read this.

For those of you who don’t know, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013.

Boochani’s tale, tapped out on a mobile phone, text message by text message, and smuggled out via WhatsApp, was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and it is bookended by a foreword by Australian author Richard Flanagan, a lengthy translator’s introduction explaining how the book came into being and a similarly lengthy essay by the translator at the very end.

It first came to prominence earlier this year when it won the Victorian Prize for Literature — the single most valuable literary award in the country — and the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. But since then it has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry’s non-fiction book of the year and Australia’s National Biography Award.

Ironically, Boochani has not been able to accept any of those awards in person. Although the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017, he has remained on the island since then — effectively stateless.

An collaborative memoir

The memoir — which Tofighian describes as “literary experimentation” and a “collaborative effort between author, translator, consultants and confidants” — reads very much like an adventure tale to begin with, before morphing into an almost Kafa-esque depiction of prison life.

It charts how Boochani decided to flee Iran when the offices of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he co-founded and produced, was raided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which arrested 11 of his colleagues. Fortunately, he was not in the office that day. In fact, he never went back. Instead, he went into hiding and eventually made his way to Indonesia, with a view to making a perilous ocean crossing to seek asylum in Australia.

But things did not go as planned. The Indonesian boat he was on, overcrowded with some 60 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy.  Everyone on board was taken to Christmas Island.

Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned…being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.

From there, Boochani was moved to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a detention centre in Papua New Guinea operated by the Australian Government. He was stripped of his name and, like every other prisoner, became known as a number only.

I can’t believe what is happening to me /
All that hardship /
All that wandering from place to place /
All that starvation I had to endure /
All of it… /
So that I could arrive on Australian soil /
I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus /
A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the book is a mix of eloquent, heart-felt poetry (as per the quote above), bitter diatribes about his predicament and observational stories about fellow prisoners and guards told with amazing psychological insight. It’s an almost soporific account of day-to-day life on Manus and what happens — or doesn’t happen — on those endlessly long, supernaturally hot days in detention.

It brims with a slow-burning anger but it is also filled with perplexity and confusion, for how could a country, so highly regarded, so wealthy and free, treat innocent people in such a cruel, dehumanising way?

Boochani’s story is littered with suicides (much sought-after razor blades being the instrument of choice) and horrendous examples of already traumatised men, many fleeing persecution and certain death at the hands of authorities in their respective homelands, now enduring further mental anguish.

His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment. He depicts the infighting, the emotional outbursts, the acts of moral cowardice, the riots, the hunger strikes, the way that certain people cling to their traditions and cultures when everything around them is foreign and frightening.

And he writes about his own inner turmoil, his desire to be alone, to not build allegiances with anyone, to quietly observe — and secretly document — all that he sees around him.

Compelling and confronting

There’s no doubting that No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary achievement. The contents are compelling and confronting, as is the story behind its creation.

Reading it is to become almost immune to the shock of all that Boochani endures. I suspect his writing, not only of this book but the many articles he has penned for the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Times et al while being imprisoned, has given him the creative outlet he needs to preserve his sanity — and his hope. He is a very cerebral person and a deep thinker.

It’s the kind of book that induces anger and shame in the reader. But it’s the sheer injustice of this system and the total lack of empathy and compassion towards our fellow humans that leaves me feeling most perplexed. I cannot comprehend it. Nor can I comprehend the waste — of time, of energy, of productive human lives — to maintain a policy that is so hostile and destructive.

Sadly, the people who need to read No Friend but the Mountains most — those that think asylum seekers should go back to where they come from, the policymakers, government officials and contractors that prop up this system — won’t read it. But if you’re an Australian, I almost think it’s your duty to do so, if only to know what is being done in your name.

For another take on this book, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This half-hour documentary (above) is a moving account of how Boochani wrote the book and smuggled it out.

This is my 13th book for #20BooksOfSummer. I bought it on Kindle after it won the Victorian Prize for Literature, but the copy I actually read was borrowed from Fremantle Library. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Stephanie Wood, Vintage Australia

‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 339 pages; 2019.

Love is blind, so they say, and never more so in Stephanie Wood’s case.

A respected journalist who dreamt of finding a special man to spend the rest of her life with, Wood fell victim to a charlatan — a love rat, who took advantage of her compassionate side and told her lie upon lie until she finally woke up to his shenanigans and confronted him about his manipulative behaviour.

Fake — published in Australia last monthis her brutally honest account of their relationship.

A charming man

So there was Joe. What did he look like? Friendly, I think, happy to see me. How did I feel? Curious, nervy, eager to impress. What was the conversation? Fluttery and shallow at the outset, before we started to find common ground — a shared liking for nature, politics, words. He told me that a broadcaster was looking at a script he’d written for a comedy about office cleaners. He said that sometimes he went to the ballet on his own. I told him I liked gardening. He said that, next time, he’d bring me some sheep shit. Something I said gave him an opening to another wacky story: when he was a schoolboy, he let a duck loose in the art gallery where his mother was a volunteer and chaos ensued. And I don’t doubt any of it — why would I? I just laugh and he seems to twinkle before me.

So begins Wood’s first date with the man she met in “the early days of winter 2014”, a man who said he was a former architect turned sheep farmer (hence the mention of sheep poo in the quote above) and property speculator, a man she fell in love with but whom she later realised could never pin down.

Visits to his farm in the Southern Tablelands never quite came off, pre-arranged dates would be cancelled at the very last minute, at times he wouldn’t even show up — and he wouldn’t answer his phone or reply to text messages for days on end. But there was always an excuse, often elaborate but plausible, for which Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt.

But what Wood did not know at the time was that Joe was also involved with another woman and he was stringing her along too. What’s more, his past was somewhat dubious. He hadn’t chosen to swap architecture for farming — he’d been forced out after the firm he ran with his friend went bust thanks to his fraudulent activities.

Riveting exposé of con men

Fake is not just an account of Wood’s unwitting involvement in a sham relationship, it’s a riveting exposé of con men across the world who use their narcissistic powers to take advantage of others for their own end.

She looks at the psychology of such fraudsters and fantasists to try to explain why they behave in such abhorrent ways and speaks to other women who have been similarly fooled, including American journalist Benita Alexander, who fell for celebrated doctor Paolo Macchiarini, who was later exposed as a fake (and which I first read about in 2016 thanks to this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction article in Vanity Fair).

Wood also examines her own heart to work out why she fell so deeply in love with a man who — with the benefit of hindsight — was so clearly not all he was cracked up to be. How could she, as an intelligent woman and a journalist trained to never take things at face value, succumb to his duplicitous ways? Why did she choose to overlook his failings and put up with his bad behaviour? Why did she think she did not deserve any better?

In this brave and honest book, Wood takes a painful episode from her personal life and turns it into something more important: a compelling and well-written study of a behavioural “type” designed to help others recognise when they’re being played. Her advice could, perhaps, be summed up with another cliché to match the one I opened with: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Please note, Fake has not been published outside of Australia, but you can order a copy from Readings.com.au which ships internationally for a flat fee.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2019

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Eric Lomax, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 322 pages; 2014.

We all know famous first lines from books, but how many can quote the last line? It was the ending of this book — and specifically the final sentence — that really got me. It packed such a powerful punch and rounded off all that had gone before with such aplomb and grace and wisdom that it made me cry.

Scottish-born Eric Lomax, the author of this extraordinary autobiography, The Railway Man, was a young officer with the Royal Corps of Signals when he was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army during the fall of Singapore in February 1942.

He was just one of thousands of POWs forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway under brutal, inhumane conditions.

The book charts Lomax’s life from his quiet childhood in Edinburgh to his time in the British Army during the Second World War. It looks at what happened to him when the war ended and finishes with him meeting  the Japanese soldier who tortured him 50 years earlier.

The title comes from Lomax’s love of trains and all things train related, an obsession he discovered as a young boy.

I was drawn to the railways so much that they have been a backdrop to almost every turning-point in my life, and have led me into unhappiness and torment, as well as some of the only real contentment I have ever known.

Many of you may know the story already from the 2013 film adaptation starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. I haven’t seen the film, so am not sure how faithful it is to Lomax’s book (Lomax died in 2012, so never got to see the film).

Admittedly it’s written in a fairly dry, reserved style and follows the tropes of traditional autobiography. The prose is clear, succinct and free of sentiment.

The main section, which is about life as a POW, includes descriptions of horrific acts by Japanese soldiers against the prisoners, Lomax included, but they are not gratuitous: they are central to the story. (Lomax had both his arms broken in a terrible beating; in another instance he was water-boarded. He was so desperate to escape his torturers, he threw himself down the stairs so that he could be taken to the hospital in Changi, where conditions weren’t much better but at least he’d “enjoy” a slight reprieve.)

The Railway Man really comes into its own after the war is over, when Lomax returns home to try to pick up his life where he left off, only to discover that he’s not the person he thought he was.

I was often inward-looking, a victim of a strange passivity that made me absorb experiences like blotting paper but which made it difficult for me to give; it made me appear slow, yet I was anything but lazy. I felt sometimes like a guest in my own house. When confrontation came, I would resist with immense stubborn energy, revenging myself on the Kempeitai [the military police of the Japanese Imperial Army] and the guards in every encounter. Although I could not have admitted it, I was still fighting the war in all those years of peace.

When he accidentally discovers his torturer is still alive, he dreams of revenge. But when the opportunity to meet him face to face arises, Lomax realises that he has the capacity to forgive — and it is this extraordinary meeting, between two men, both in their 80s, that gives this book its remarkable redemptive power. It’s an astonishing read.

Fans of Richard Flanagan’s Booker-award-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North will find much to like here.

In 1996, The Railway Man won both the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction and the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography.

This is my 1st book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy a couple of years ago from Harbour Books, a lovely independent bookshop in Whitstable, on the Kent coast, which had a lot of old Vintage stock going cheaply. The price tag on the front of this edition shows I paid £2.99 for it instead of the £5.99RRP.