Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Lynne Leonhardt, Margaret River Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Finding Jasper’ by Lynne Leonhardt


Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 316 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Every so often I read a book that makes me homesick because it captures the sights and sounds of Australia so very eloquently that you can practically smell the aroma of eucalyptus wafting off the page and feel the harsh summer sun beating down on you. Lynne Leonhardt’s wonderfully self-assured debut novel Finding Jasper is one of those books.

A Western Australian novel

Set in Western Australia between 1945 and 1963, the novel is divided into three parts.

It opens in 1956, when 12-year-old Gin (short for Virginia) is sent to her aunt’s remote farm while her English mother returns to London on a three-month holiday. It is Gin’s first time away from home and she is upset by the prospect of being abandoned in this manner. But she soon comes to love her stay with Aunt Attie, especially the stories she learns about her father (Attie’s brother), who died shortly after she was born.

The second part moves backwards in time to January 1945 and tells the tale of Gin’s mother, Valerie, and her first husband, Jasper, an Australian fighter pilot in Bomber Command. The pair meet and marry in England while Jasper is stationed at the (fictional) RAF base Wickerton during the Second World War. When Gin is born, Valerie emigrates to Australia ahead of her husband. But he is killed in action and never returns home.

The third and final part jumps ahead to January 1963 and largely revolves around 19-year-old Gin, whose life is still profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper, the father she never knew. While living at home with her mother, her step-father Noel and her little step-sister, Dottie, a family tragedy changes things forever. Gin must now decide what kind of path she wants to forge for her own life.

Detailed and highly nuanced

The above outline is a mere thumbnail portrait of an exceptionally detailed and highly nuanced novel which essentially shows the immediate and long-term repercussions of Jasper’s death on three women — Attie, Valerie and Gin (and to a lesser extent Gin’s grandmother).

It’s a confident and ambitious novel, written in lovely, sensitive prose, and despite the sometimes dramatic subject matter, it completely shies away from sentiment and showy flashes of emotion. It’s all rather restrained and packs a more powerful punch because of it.

The characters are all wonderfully realised — Attie is the very essence of a strong, self-reliant, independent woman who just gets on with things, running a farm in harsh terrain and a difficult climate, without any male help; Valerie is uptight, anxious, fearful (the result of having lived through the Blitz) and hugely disappointed by her lot, but is unable to share her feelings, so comes across as snooty and judgemental; and Gin is spirited and inquisitive, occasionally shy and lonely, but full of optimism for the future.

The landscape and the wildlife are also central characters, and Leonhardt writes about them so beautifully and with such a visual eye, I could easily see this novel being turned into a film or TV series. I particularly loved the way she described things through the eyes of Valerie, an outsider, who cannot fathom the heat and the dust and the isolation of her new home when she first arrives in Australia after months at sea.

‘Well,’ said Attie, ‘at least it must be a relief to be on dry land again.’
‘Yes, of course,’ replied Valerie, although the land still looked decidedly barren. She sat silently absorbing the changing Australian landscape. For a while, the rise and fall of the sand dunes offered glimpses of the ocean through the low-lying scrub. Salt lakes appeared through the trees and shrubs. Bloody hell, she thought, and closed her eyes.

Post-war Australia

While I wouldn’t necessarily label Finding Jasper an historical novel (on the basis it may put people off), it is very reminiscent of a particular time and place — that of post-war Australia. This part of the country, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian Ocean, was not isolated from the war — the Japanese bombed many parts along the Western Australian coast and there was a real fear of invasion.

And in the latter section, there’s a very real sense of a rapidly changing world, with references to the Beatles, JFK’s assassination, Communism and the “yellow peril”.

I think the highest compliment I can pay this novel is to say that certain elements of it reminded me of another great novel from Western Australia — Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, which I reviewed favourably several years ago.

On the whole, Finding Jasper is a hugely enjoyable and acutely sensitive story about love, loss and family, the kind of book that deserves a wide audience. It will appeal to those who love intelligent novels that explore the impact of war on survivors and are peopled by characters you come to truly care about.

As ever, Australian novels can sometimes be hard to source in the wider world. But for international readers, it can be ordered in paperback direct from the Margaret River Press website or in ebook form from the following Amazon, iTunes and Kobo.

Australia, Author, Book review, David Malouf, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Fly Away Peter’ by David Malouf


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 142 pages; 1999.

David Malouf is a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist and poet from Australia. Fly Away Peter, his third novel, netted him The Age Book of the Year in 1982 and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1983.

A Great War novel

It is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.

When Fly Away Peter opens it is 1914. Jim Saddler, a 20-year-old man from southern Queensland, devotes his time to watching birds in the estuary and swampland near the home he shares with the father he does not like very much.

One day he meets the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther, a rich farmer not much older than himself, who employees Jim to record the coming and going of the birds — both native and migratory species — as part of his plan to create a sanctuary.

A little later Jim befriends an older English woman called Imogen Harcourt, whom he sees in the “sanctuary” taking bird photographs which she sends to a London magazine. These photographs also accompany the long list of birds that Jim transcribes into a special book using his “best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down”.

Trio of characters

This trio of characters come from vastly different backgrounds — Miss Harcourt is an English immigrant who lives alone, Australian-born Ashley was educated in England’s finest schools, Jim has never left Queensland — and yet they are united by their mutual love of birds and the natural world.

When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.

But their idyllic existence comes to an end when war erupts in Europe and both men decide to sign up — Jim goes to Salisbury, England, to be trained; Ashley is an officer in a different division. It is here, on the battlefields of the Western Front, that Malouf’s extraordinary novel really comes into its own.

The mud and the trenches

His gut-wrenching descriptions of the mud and the trenches and the fear of going over the top are eloquent and moving, as is his depiction of the friendships, and occasional personal hostilities, formed on the front line.

There is one particularly god-awful scene in which Jim loses his best friend in the platoon, a larrikin called Clancy, that is more horrifying and bone-chilling than anything I’ve ever read about the Great War.

But the great strength of Fly Away Peter is the way in which Malouf not only describes how war is a machine, spitting out more and more young men who will die horrible deaths far from home, but also the way in which he contrasts the fighting in the trenches while the residents of Armentières are getting on with their day-to-day lives:

Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that lead to the war.

Explores Australian myths

It’s easy to see why the novel is a set text in many Australian schools. It explores the myth of the Australian soldier and the ANZAC spirit, and contrasts the horror of war with the beauty — and peace — of the natural world. It shows how an appreciation and respect for nature is a great leveller, crossing the boundaries of race, class and experience. And the text is rich with symbols, not least the migratory birds which represent Jim’s “flight” to the other side of the world.

But it is the poignancy of the ending, in which Miss Harcourt stands on the beach and reflects that life continues to move on — “Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held” — that elevates this novel from excellent to exceptional.

I haven’t felt so devastated by a First World War novel since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And going by how much I loved and adored those novels, I don’t make this statement lightly…