20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries Volume II, 1987-1995’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

I think I might burn all these diaries. What if I died and people got hold of them and read them? Their endless self obsession, anecdotes, self-excuses, rationalisations. Meanness about others.

One Day I’ll Remember This is the second volume in Helen Garner’s diaries, of which there are currently three. (I have reviewed her first volume, Yellow Notebook, here.)

This one covers the period 1987 to 1995 and begins with the news that Garner, now in her mid-40s, is splitting her time between Melbourne, where she lives, a rural retreat called Primrose Gully, and Sydney, where her lover, the writer dubbed “V”, resides. She later marries him — her third marriage —  but it’s not all smooth sailing.

In her richly detailed prose, she pours out her heart and shares her innermost thoughts about life and love and friendship and the creative urge — and everything in between.

A writer’s life

And, because she is a writer, we find out what she’s reading —  John McGahern, Janet Malcolm, Slyvia Plath, Patrick White, old copies of the TLS, Sally Morgan’s My Place, among others — and get a ringside seat as she works on her own screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous and, a little later, her novel Cosmo Cosmolino (which I haven’t read).

Towards the end of this volume, she’s penning The First Stone, a non-fiction book (about a sexual harassment case) that turned out to be especially divisive — even before it was published.

A friend called: ‘Listen, the shit’s really going to hit the fan with this book. The street word is you’re running the line that women get raped were asking for it.’

Self-aware but fearless

Not that Garner is too worried about what anyone thinks of her. Throughout this volume, it’s clear she’s her own harshest critic.

I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?

She’s plagued by self-doubt, not only in her work but in her life as well, both as a mother and as a wife.

I say, ‘I’m no good at marriage. I think I’d be awful to be married to.’

She spends a lot of time beating herself up about things — she has a falling out with a close friend, frets about her adult daughter leaving home and no longer needing her, wonders what it would be like to confront her lover’s wife to tell her about the affair — but she’s also good humoured and drops many witty one-liners.

My front tooth is dead. I have to have a root canal. But I swam eight laps of the Fitzroy Baths.

Gorgeous writing

Her powers of observation are extraordinary, and the way she paints scenes in just a few words is dazzling — particularly when you know she’s not writing for an audience; these were personal diaries never intended to be published.

Late summer morning. Swam. Pool very beautiful. Sun giving out long, oblique rays of pink and gold.

Similarly, in just a line or two, she is able to transport us to a different time and place —  the “miracle” of receiving a fax message, the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the joy of the Berlin Wall coming down — and yet these diaries don’t feel dated.

That’s because the writing, at all times, is alive and wonderous, full of daring thoughts and brimming with heartfelt emotion and honesty. Thank goodness she never did get around to burning them.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I rushed out and bought it as soon as it was released at the tail end of 2020, where it remained in my TBR for longer than I planned. In fact, it was lying in my TBR for so long, the publisher had enough time to publish a third volume  — which has been sitting in my TBR for more than six months now!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, true crime, Wendy Davis

‘Don’t Make a Fuss: It’s only the Claremont Serial Killer’ by Wendy Davis

Non-fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 2016 pages; 2022.

This is a story about the tragic consequences for all women when one woman speaks up and nobody listens.

The above line, quoted on the back cover of Wendy Davis’s memoir Don’t Make a Fuss, perfectly encapsulates the moral of this story.

Wendy, a 40-year-old social worker at a hospital in Perth, was randomly attacked at her workplace by an onsite contractor in 1990. He grabbed her from behind while she was sitting at her desk alone in her office. He put a cloth over her mouth so she couldn’t scream and tried to drag her into a nearby toilet cubicle. Wendy managed to fight him off and ran for help.

The culprit, a Telecom (now Telstra) technician, was charged with the relatively minor charge of common assault, told to undergo counselling and kept his job. Meanwhile, Wendy’s shock, trauma and concerns were dismissed by the police, by Telecom (who claimed the man was having “relationship problems” and was a “good worker” with a “good future ahead of him”) and even by her husband (a policeman), whom she later divorced.

She buried her fears and never talked about what happened. She left her job, even though she loved it and had worked hard to achieve her position, and tried to put it all behind her. She remarried and moved to Tasmania.

Claremont serial killer

Meanwhile, the man that attacked her went on to murder two women, and a suspected third, in what became known as the Claremont serial killings, which occurred in 1996-1997. He remained undetected for almost a decade, but in 2016 he was arrested by the Special Crime Squad which had ploughed extra resources into investigating the killings.

Bradley Robert Edwards, 48, was charged with…

the wilful murders of 23-year-old Jane Rimmer and twenty-seven-year-old Ciara Glennon, who had disappeared from Claremont in 1996 and 1997, the abduction and rape of a seventeen-year-old woman in Claremont in 1995, and the sexual assault of an eighteen-year-old woman in Huntingdale in 1998, with both of the latter offences including deprivation of liberty. […] Police were still investigating the 1996 disappearance of another woman from Claremont, eighteen-year-old Sarah Spiers.

Response to arrest

Wendy’s memoir is written as a response to the news of Edwards’ arrest, which affected her deeply. She had spent 25 years pretending the attack hadn’t happened, burying it deep in her subconscious, until she received an unexpected call from Western Australia police at her current home in Hobart, which made it all come rushing back.

I had forced the trauma deep down. As people, especially women, of my time were taught to do, I just ‘got on with it’. I didn’t make a fuss.

Her story is written in an intimate but forthright style and swings between Wendy’s life in the immediate aftermath of the attack and the resurgence of anger and grief she felt more than two-and-a-half decades later. She details her involvement in the state trial (she was called as a witness), which took seven months and was conducted without a jury, but actually took years to get to trial.

What emerges is a portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful and resilient woman, now in her 60s, who effectively suffered three traumas: the attack itself, in 1990; the dismissal of her concerns by the authorities immediately afterwards; and a resurgence of psychological trauma upon news of Edwards’ arrest and the subsequent trial.

Taking concerns seriously

The issue that hits home hardest, however, is the importance of taking women’s concerns seriously. While Wendy’s story is written with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see how Edwards’ terrible deeds may have been stopped if Wendy’s “incident” had been taken more seriously in the first place.

A meeting with Telecom, just a week after Edwards had tried to abduct her, is a case in point. Wendy attends the meeting with her husband, not sure what it is going to be about, but then discovers it’s the company’s way of making excuses for their employee and of ensuring that Wendy won’t go on to sue them.

The manager went on to say that, although he understood that I was shocked by what had happened, it would not benefit anyone if this promising employee lost his job, his career. I was rendered speechless for a moment or two. When I recovered, I told him that I thought I was going to lose my life. I told him it was not normal behaviour to attack a complete stranger because you were having difficulties in your relationship. I said that he’d had cable ties in his pocket, that he’d put something over my mouth, tried to drag me into the toilet, that I was still bruised and in shock.

The manager tells her that it wasn’t unusual for Telecom employees to carry cable ties, that he’d never done anything like this before and that counselling would help him with his “current personal issues”. Wendy claims the manager was “clearly not hearing my account of the events” and that she left the meeting feeling anxious, angry, concerned and totally disempowered.

It’s hard to read this compelling memoir and come away from it without feeling the same.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it new from Dymocks not long after it was released.

And because the author grew up in Western Australia and lived in Perth for much of her life, this book qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
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.