Australia, Author, essays, memoir, Non-fiction, Tim Winton

‘Island Home: A Landscape Memoir’ by Tim Winton

Island Home UK edition
UK edition of Island Home

Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In the UK, nature writing is experiencing a renaissance. Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find a table adorned with attractive non-fiction books (like this one, for instance). You almost can’t move without running into a book about the seasons, or the landscape, or a particular species of plant or animal, or how someone has re-found themselves after spending some time alone in the natural world.

Last year I asked a judge on the Wainwright Prize, which was created in the wake of this new enthusiasm for nature writing, why this was the case. Why were people writing books about nature, and why were people choosing to read them? Her theory went something like this: modern life is so busy and everyone is so plugged in — to computers, to social media, to the digital world in general — that they’ve lost touch with nature and this was one way of rediscovering it.

In Australia, I suspect it’s a bit different. Sure, Australians are just as “plugged in” as the Brits, but I’ve always felt that there was something about the larger-than-life landscapes (and the too-weird-to-be-true wildlife) that infiltrates the Australian psyche, almost as if natural history was in our DNA. Of course, I grew up in the countryside, so I would say that, but I do think Australians are aware of the natural environment and the impacts that humans have on it more so than their British counterparts.

Australian writer Tim Winton puts it more eloquently than me in his new book Island Home: A Landscape Memoir:

We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is so much more of it than us. We are forever battling to come to terms. The encounter between ourselves and the land is a live concern. Elsewhere this story is largely done and dusted, with nature in stumbling retreat, but here our life in nature remains an open question and how we answer it will define not just our culture and politics but our very survival.

10 deeply personal essays

The book, which is made up of 10 essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (“The Island Seen and Felt” was first given as a talk at London’s Royal Academy in 2013, for instance), highlights Winton’s relationship to the land but also gives us a potted history of the environmental movement in Australia. Each deeply personal (and full of vivid imagery) essay is prefaced by a diary-like back story to explain how what follows came to be.

Perhaps my favourite essay (admittedly it’s hard to choose just one) is “The power of place” in which Winton explains his evolution as a writer (primarily of quintessential Australian novels, some of which are reviewed here).

From the get-go he says he always wanted to write about the landscape and the “music of the vernacular” around him, an idea that wasn’t always welcomed by city-based publishers who felt this would not go down well in places like Sydney or London. It seems so ludicrous now, given that it is these twin pillars that make Winton’s writing so unique, well-loved and, dare I say it, award-winning.

Times are a’changing

From this collection of essays it is clear that a lot of things have changed over the course of the past 30 or 40 years. Landscapes have been damaged and species lost as the march of suburbia has continued unabated; large areas of pristine wilderness have been ruined, or are under threat, thanks to mining, the construction of hydro-electric power schemes, and gas and oil exploration. Intensive agriculture has caused erosion, water pollution and soil salinity. I could go on, but I won’t.

It’s not all bad news though. As Winton points out, this ongoing destruction has also created a new awareness and a more positive attitude towards the environment. “Greenies”, once regarded as foolhardy lefties with nothing better to do with their time, have slowly become normalised — or at least the values they espouse have become “mainstreamed”. Winton explains this incredibly well in the essay entitled “The corner of his eye”:

In the 1980s “greenie” subculture began to broaden and become a social movement, though it was still fractious and hectic. With its unlikely national reach and surprising political consequences, Tasmania’s Franklin Dam blockade was evidence of how widely the thinking of those earlier prophetic figures had spread, and how potent it was when amplified by a new and more diverse generation of activists like Bob Brown. By the 1990s the erudition, discipline and strategic patience of advocacy groups meant that ideas once thought to be harmlessly eccentric were shaping the vernacular mood and framing public policy. And by the turn of the millennium, the status of a river, reef or forest could determine the outcome of an election.

He goes on to say that though the battle is not yet won, “few on the right are completely unchanged by this development in thinking”.

Island Home Australian edition
Australian edition

An impassioned plea for the future

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing (I have a degree in environmental planning and spent my early 20s full of youthful idealism trying to save the planet), so there was never any doubt that I was not going to love this book. But what I found most surprising was how much resonated even though the author lives on the west coast, which is vastly different to the kind of Australian landscape with which I’m familiar. But I rather suspect that Winton, who is about a decade older than me, has noticed more environmental change in his lifetime than most people on the more populous east coast have seen. That’s why everything he says here should make people sit up and take notice.

If nothing else, Island Home is an impassioned and eloquent plea to save what’s left before it’s gone forever. And yet, for a collection of essays that could be so potentially negative and downhearted, it brims with a kind of hopefulness and optimism for the future. I really loved it.

If there’s a failing of the book it is not the author’s but his publishers, who have not provided a table of contents or an index. Something to bear in mind for a reprint, perhaps?

For another take on this book, please see Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

This is my 38th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Wales

‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones


Fiction – paperback; Granta; 104 pages; 2014.

Earlier this year I read Cynan Jones’ extraordinarily powerful novel The Dig and was so impressed I quickly sought out his first book, The Long Dry, which was published in 2006 and won a Betty Trask Award the following year. Cut from similar cloth as The Dig, it depicts a world that is earthy, rough and rugged but it is written in such lyrical pared-back language it practically sings with the beauty of the rural landscape in which it is set.

A lost cow

Set over the course of a single day, it tells the tale of a farmer looking for a missing cow. But this is much more than a simple search-and-rescue mission, for as Gareth searches the parched fields we learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Central to this is Gareth’s connection to the land — he is a second generation farmer, having inherited the farm from his father who bought it after the war because he no longer wanted to work in a bank — and his community, including Bill, the simple-minded neighbour who was given a few acres of the farm by Gareth’s father, for whom he feels responsible.

We also hear from the wife — in brief, first-person snippets — who is worried that she’s no longer sexually desirable, suffers headaches and depression, and has a dark secret of which she is very much ashamed.

Then there’s the teenage son, who’s more interested in having fun than carrying out his tasks in any kind of responsible way, and the young daughter, Emmy, wise beyond her years and very much-loved and doted on by her father.

And finally, the lost cow’s wanderings — she is heavily pregnant, which is why it is so important for Gareth to find her — are threaded into the narrative, which is punctuated by little fragmentary set pieces, mini-stories within the story, that showcase life and death on the farm.

Nature writing

The Long Dry is very much a paean to nature, which is beautifully evoked in simple yet vivid descriptions, occasionally using unexpected words that not so much as confront the reader but check that you’re paying attention:

Damselflies and strong white butterflies, delicate as hell, are everywhere around the pond, and machine-like dragonflies hit smaller insects in the air as they fly. The reeds are flowering with their strange crests and on the island in the middle of the pond the willow herb is starting to come to seed, and the thistles.

There’s also some unexpected humour, too:

People are seduced by ducks: by their seeming placidity. They fall for the apparent imbecility of their smiles and their quietly lunatic quacking. But they are dangerous things which plot, like functioning addicts. In the local town — a beautiful Georgian harbour town which is not lazy and which is very colourful — the ducks got out of hand. […] If you tried to drink a quiet pint on the harbour the ducks were there and they sat squatly and looked up at you and seemed to chuckle superciliously, which was off-putting. If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby-shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week.

But mostly this is a tiny book packed with startling little moments and quietly devastating revelations — mainly about the farmer’s wife and the couple’s young daughter — that come out of the blue and turn the entire story on its head.

The Long Dry is beautiful and sad, poignant and often quirky, but full of human empathy. It constantly spins and shimmers and dances along the very fine line between sex and death — this book brims with both — and the way in which we are all essentially animalistic, in our basic needs, our desires and our behaviour. It explores the fragility of life, of holding on to happiness and how tragedy can strike at any moment. And it’s filled with vivid, sometimes unsettling, imagery that lives on in the mind long after the book has been put down.

It is, quite frankly, an extraordinary achievement to do so much in such a slim volume. I’ll be holding on to this one to read again…

Author, Book review, Claire Fuller, Fiction, Fig Tree, Germany, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ by Claire Fuller


Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The world has ended. Everyone is dead — except for two people: eight-year-old Peggy and her dad, James, a survivalist, who has been preparing for this exact situation for years.

That’s the scenario that first-time novelist Claire Fuller presents in Our Endless Numbered Days — but there’s a twist: Peggy’s dad, who is a “North London Retreater”, has made up the bit about the world having ended. It’s simply a ruse to prevent Peggy asking questions after he’s whisked her away from their London home to live in die Hütte, a wooden cabin in a remote forest somewhere on the Continent.

But why would her father do that? Why has he kidnapped her and told her that her mother is dead? And how will the pair cope living off the grid?

Nine years in the forest

When the book opens it is 1985, and 17-year-old Peggy has returned to her childhood home in Highgate, London (their home backs onto the famous cemetery), after having spent nine years living with her father in the forest.

Her story is narrated flashback style in a naive, intimate and compelling voice. It begins with that long hot summer of 1976 in which her father taught her hardcore survivalist skills — how to trap, skin and cook squirrels, which mushrooms were safe to pick, and how to light a fire without matches — while her German mother, a celebrated concert pianist, went away on tour.

When I should have been in school, the garden became our home, and the cemetery our garden. Occasionally I thought about my best friend Becky and what she might be doing in class, but not often. We sometimes went into the house to ‘gather provisions’ and on a Wednesday evening to watch Survivors on the telly. We didn’t bother to wash or change our clothes. The only rule we followed was to brush our teeth every morning and evening using water we brought to the camp in a bucket.

These skills become vital when her father takes her “on holiday” and then announces that an apocalyptic event has meant everyone else in the world, including her mother, has died.

Initially, it’s somewhat of an exciting adventure for Peggy as they set up their new home, explore the woods around them and settle into a new routine, all of which is beautifully described in Fuller’s evocative prose.

But it soon becomes clear that her father is obsessive — the silent piano he carefully crafts and then teaches her to play is but one example — and a creeping unease sets in. Existence is fraught, especially in winter when the snow arrives and food is in short supply, and a dark claustrophobia descends on die Hütte.

As the years progress, Peggy’s unquestioning acceptance of her father’s authority and knowledge is called into question, particularly when she believes that there’s another man living in the forest near them. It doesn’t help that James’ seems to be descending into a sort of madness, putting both their lives at risk…

A grown-up fairytale

I won’t be the first reader to compare Our Endless Numbered Days with a grown-up fairytale — think Little Red Riding Hood meets Bluebeard, or perhaps Goldilocks crossed with Hansel and Gretel — but it’s also reminiscent of those dystopian stories I read as a teenager in the 1980s when nuclear war was a very real threat (I’m specifically thinking of Robert C. O’Brien’s Z is for Zachariah) and everyone was intent on making sure they could survive an apocalypse.  It also reminded me of David Vann‘s terrifying wilderness adventures in which parent-child relationships are tested to the limit by psychological threats rather than physical ones.

But that’s not to say this isn’t an original story, because it’s quite unlike any exploration of father-daughter relationships I’ve read. It’s also an interesting analysis of a marriage between a highly strung musician (no pun intended) and the much younger foreigner she fell in love with: their compatibility doesn’t seem to extend outside of the bedroom, with devastating consequences in the long run.

The structure of the book — the flashbacks and the slow drip feed of information — make it an exceptionally tense read. Apart from a small lull in the middle, I kept furiously turning the pages, trying to work out what happened next, desperate to know how Peggy escaped the forest and returned to London. It’s not a thriller as such, but it brims with suspense and you know it’s building towards an uneasy climax.

Indeed, the revelations that unfold near the end are unexpected and shocking, making this one of the most astonishing — and memorable — debuts I’ve read in a long time. I immediately turned back to the start to see if I could spot the clues…

Lots of other bloggers have reviewed this book, including A Life in Books, Consumed by Ink, Word by Word and The Writes of Woman (with an author Q&A). Feel free to leave a link in the comments if I have missed yours.

Note, the author was kind enough to take part in Triple Choice Tuesday last month: you can see her choices here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth


Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focusing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘Death of a River Guide’ by Richard Flanagan


Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 326 pages; 2004.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors. I’ve read and enjoyed all his novels — The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001), The Unknown Terrorist (2006) and Wanting (2008) — but had kept his first novel for a special occasion. And what better occasion to read Death of a River Guide (1994) than Australian Literature Month?

A brave and audacious debut

As a debut novel, Death of a River Guide is a brave and audacious one.

It is told from the perspective of Aljaz Cosini — half Tasmanian, half Slovenian — who is drowning in Tasmania’s Franklin River during a rather adventurous, dangerous and ultimately tragic river expedition that he is leading. As Aljaz tries to wriggle free from the rock which has ensnared him under the white water, scenes from his life — good, bad and ugly — come rushing back to him like fragments of a dream.

In an unusual twist (I hate to use the term “magic realism” but I guess that’s what it is), Aljaz also gets to experience scenes from the lives of his parents, lovers and forebears, helping him to understand his place in the world.

Bite-sized flashbacks

Interspersed with this narrative thread, which is composed largely of bite-sized flashbacks, is a second storyline that follows the white-water rafting expedition that Aljaz is leading. The expedition is a commercial tour for stressed-out executives, nurses and other full-time workers, and Aljaz, who is accompanied by a younger, more enthusiastic river guide, is a bit cynical about it all.

The job doesn’t pay particularly well, but he’s a drifter and will take anything that is going to keep his head above water — pun not intended. He has been a river guide before, but is a bit out of practice, for reasons that are explained during one of his many flashbacks.

The novel is heavy on detail — the descriptions of the river and the rainforests of Tasmania are particularly vivid and beautiful — and peopled with a seemingly endless cast of wonderful characters, including Aljaz’s convict ancestors and the tiresome people he leads on the trip.

Fast-paced narrative

But this is not at expense of narrative tension which becomes heightened the further you get into the book. That’s because you know from the outset that Aljaz is drowning, but you don’t know how this tragic predicament came about — and you have to propel yourself through more than 250 pages before you find out what happens on that fateful fourth day of the trip.

Death of a River Guide is a lovely rich and engrossing novel, brimming with multiple storylines about history, fate, identity and nature. It’s also a wonderful tale that contrasts Tasmania’s dark past as a penal colony with its new role as a wilderness destination. It’s a captivating read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘The Submerged Cathedral’ by Charlotte Wood


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 297 pages; 2004.

Last year an English friend told me that one of the things that most impressed him about Australians was not their sense of humour, their propensity to drink vast quantities of beer or their prowess on the cricket field, but their affinity with natural history. “It seems to me,” he said, “that you guys really love nature, you have an appreciation for it.”

I told him that was probably largely due to bitter experience. Nature is harsh — dare I mention droughts, floods, bushfire? — and we have had to learn to live alongside it. In doing so we have come to appreciate its power and its beauty. And because so much of the flora and fauna is not found anywhere else on earth, many of these plants and animals have become national symbols in which Australians take pride and wish to protect.

This appreciation of nature is often found in Australian novels, too. Henry Lawson is probably one of the earliest proponents. But 20th century writers, such as Patrick White, Tim Winton, Randolph Stow and Murray Bail, just to name a few, have also written novels which look at how the Australian psyche is shaped by the landscape of this island continent.

Into this canon of Australian “nature novels”, if I can call them that, is Charlotte Wood‘s second novel, The Submerged Cathedral, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2005. This highly evocative book, written in stark but lyrical prose, puts the rugged beauty of the Australian landscape centre stage.

Divided into four key time periods — 1963, 1964, 1975 and 1984 — the story focuses mainly on Jocelyn, a proof reader, who has inherited her parent’s home in the Blue Mountains. As she pours over the galleys of The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia, she is reminded of the country’s unique flora and begins to dream of building a “huge, elaborate garden of wild Australian plants” even though she is not a gardener and knows nothing of the plants other than she loves their names, their shapes.

The importance of Jocelyn’s dream should not be under-estimated. This desire to build a native garden would have been hugely unfashionable at the time. Back then all Australian gardens were essentially English gardens, comprising annuals and perennials, with neatly pruned shrubbery and manicured lawns. Native plants were confined to the bush; you did not put them in your garden. (As an aside, one of my favourite scenes in George Johnston’s My Brother Jack is when Davy, the main protagonist, plants a gum tree in the middle of his suburban lawn, attracting the wrath of the neighbourhood for daring to be so unconventional.)

And yet Jocelyn knows that English gardens in the Australian climate do not make sense.

All winter the garden is washed out and grey, and then in spring it explodes into colour. By midsummer it is leached dry again, but all through the childhoods of Jocelyn and her sister their mother had loved this eight weeks of English bloom.

When Jocelyn meets Martin, a doctor, from the city, the dream continues to ferment. She has a “sense of dormant things coming alive”.

One day in the garden, they crouched over a bucket.
‘Did you grow that?’ Martin asked, peering into the bucket in which the white star of a water lily was prising itself open.
‘It grew itself,’ she said. ‘I just threw a lump of wood into the water.’
‘Then it’s a gift,’ he said, smiling.

Their love affair, which is portrayed with immense sensitivity and gentleness (surprisingly, there is little or no sex in this novel), is a gift also. It’s 1963 and co-habiting is a social no-no. But Jocelyn risks her reputation to live with Martin, enduring the withering looks of locals who condemn her as “the doctor’s mistress”.

But there is a sense that Jocelyn knows exactly what she is doing. She is haunted by the memory of the man who asked to marry her when she was 18. She broke off their engagement a year later, knowing she did not love him. But her sister’s voice, ripe with disbelief and pity, still echoes in her ear: “You know there’s something wrong with you, don’t you?”

And therein lies the nub of the novel: if we are damaged by our pasts how do we heal ourselves? And what role does love and faith play in this process?

When Ellen re-enters Jocelyn’s life after a long absence — she had been living with her Australian husband in London — Ellen is hurting, too. She’s left her husband, has a young daughter and is now three months pregnant.

Jocelyn returns to her parent’s Blue Mountains home to look after her. Ellen is needy, demanding and prone to making her life seem more dramatic than it really is. Martin, once a central figure in Jocelyn’s life, feels himself being squeezed out by the sister’s shared bond. Jocelyn, so enamoured of Martin, is unable to compartmentalise her life: she cannot ignore Ellen’s claim on her.

To elaborate further would spoil the plot. But I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say that Jocelyn does eventually get to build that wonderful, sublime garden, filled with native ground covers, grasses and shade trees, of her dreams. It is only then that you begin to realise that the garden is a kind of allegory about cultivating love in our hearts, reaping what we sow and finding solace in the natural world.

The Submerged Cathedral is available to buy direct from the Australian publisher’s website, but you can also pick up cheap second-hand copies via Amazon UK.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Randolph Stow, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘To The Islands’ by Randolph Stow


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 208 pages; 2002.

Randolph Stow was an Australian writer who achieved great literary success in his early years. When he was just 22 he won the the 1958 Miles Franklin Award for To The Islands and the ALS Gold Medal, for the same book, in 1959. In 1978 he won the Patrick White Award. But ask the average Australian who he is or, better still, ask them to name the title of one of his books and you will probably be greeted with a blank face.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that Stow only wrote a handful of novels and that he emigrated to the UK circa 1970, effectively turning his back on the Australian literary scene. But it seems such a shame that a man who could craft such amazing fiction, including his mesmirising The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (which I read twice last year I loved it so much) could fall into relative obscurity so quickly.

I read To The Islands not long after I heard that Stow had died of liver cancer, here in the UK, in late May. (The news story of his death, published in The Australian, is very touching, but the comments are particularly telling of how dearly he was held in the affection of so many.)

It’s an astonishing read, not least because he was just 22 when he wrote it (and this, I have to point out, was not his first novel, but his third). It’s not only ambitious in scope, but there’s a wisdom to the story that belies his years. That the book is largely told through the eyes of an ageing Anglican missionary confronting his own inner demons seems a remarkable work of imagination and daring for one so young.

Stow’s carefully studied observations about the relationships between white Europeans and Aboriginals are also particularly perceptive. That may not be too surprising given he did spend some time working as a storeman on an Anglican mission in the far north of Western Australia immediately after graduation, but even so, he has captured the fear, violence and misunderstanding between blacks and whites incredibly well, and he has not been afraid to cast a light on some of the darkest, most gruesome events, in Australian history.

The story, as you may have gathered, is set on a remote mission in the Western Australian outback in 1957. Here, the Church of England provides lodging, employment and medical care for aboriginals, a race which has few civil rights  (“Someday we all be citizens, eh, brother?” quips one aboriginal to one of the brothers in an early scene) and is forbidden to drink alcohol. (In the preface to my edition, Stow points out that alcohol did not become a problem until the 1970s.)

An ageing missionary, Stephen Heriot, has ruled the mission for decades. One of the younger missionaries, Helen, describes him as “stone and iron” and “impassive, accustomed through decades to deal with wooings, marriages, disputes”.

But when Rex, a troublesome aboriginal, returns to the mission, Heriot is determined to have him banished. Younger members of the mission are less sure about sending him away (“It begins to look a bit like victimisation,” Way warns him; “He not a bad man, Rex. You don’t give him no chance,” says a fellow aboriginal, Richard.)

But one wild night, in the middle of a storm, Heriot believes he may have killed Rex. Full of remorse, he flees the mission on horseback, taking a rifle and a box of cartridges with him. What follows is a kind of adventure story, in which Heriot, confronted by the enormity of the unexplored wilderness around him, begins to experience a spiritual awakening. Meanwhile, his fellow missionaries try to track him down, convinced that Heriot plans to kill himself…

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a quintessential Australian story. Stow’s descriptions of the landscape are always beautiful and, for this expat Australian, homesick-inducing. But even if you have never been to Australia, Stow has a way of conjuring the beauty of the surroundings that will make you feel like you have walked the terrain, smelt the eucalyptus, swum in the creeks and billabongs, seen all the amazing wildlife around you.

From the water flagged with lily leaves, lilies flowering among them, birds rose in sudden stages with a clatter of wings. Ibis and white cranes climbed slowly, wild ducks wheeled, and returned, and flew off again. Geese trailed their long cry over the plain, a single black jabiru following.
Before they had gone the children were already in the water, floundering among the lilies, crying to one another of the coolness of it and of its richness in ducks and flowers. The small children danced naked in the shallows with shining skins. The others, in brief pants, some girls in their dresses, dolphined among the lily stems.

It’s interesting, too, to see how prescient Stow’s views are on race relations given he penned the novel more than 50 years ago. I particularly liked this exchange between Heriot and one of his fellow missionaries, Way:

“As they [the aboriginals] lose simplicity they lose direction. So, what are we going to do with them? Who’s going to teach them trades, give them confidence in themselves? Drive them out of this inertia they fall into now their pride’s grown enough to make them want above everything to have some sort of competence. I don’t know the answers.”
“We’re promised a technical school, some day, somewhere within a hundred miles.”
“I wish it well,” said Heriot. “And you. Because you’re coming to the most heartbreaking phase in the history of this problem.”
“We’ll do our best, I hope.”
“I hope,” echoed Heriot, and looked at Way, that capable middle-aged man, reflectively and approved him. “You’ve time, I think, to see enormous changes, perhaps the end of physical misery among them, as the old ones die out in the way we old ones do. But in the end you’ll have something else to face – misery of the mind. And that will be the hardest, Way.”

This is a fascinating novel, one that can easily be read in one sitting, although I think it probably requires at least two read-throughs to fully come to grips with all the ideas presented. Many literary critics have dubbed it a “masterpiece” and I can see why.

As an aside, I read the “very slightly abridged” 1982 edition (which was republished by UQP in 2002) and not the original. Stow says he revised it because it contained “many faults, due partly to immaturity, but more to the fact that my technical competence was not equal to my ambition, which in retrospect makes me realise how horizons narrow in middle age”. (The great Irish writer John McGahern did much the same with his 1974 novel The Leavetaking for similar reasons, so he’s in good company. And, if I’m honest, there’s much about Stow’s work that reminds me of McGahern.)

Stow also claims to have cut out some of the Christian mission-station propaganda involving a “good deal of talk by the white characters about their difficulties and hopes, and even a very tepid love-interest, introduced not for its own sake but to suggest that at least two Europeans would remain committed to the Mission”.

Sadly, To The Islands seems to have fallen out of print, although you might score a very cheap second-hand copy on Amazon Marketplace if you are lucky.

For another take on the same novel, please read Lisa Hill’s review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

Author, Book review, Canada, England, Fiction, Henry Holt, historical fiction, literary fiction, Mary Swan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Boys in the Trees’ by Mary Swan


Fiction – paperback; Henry Holt and Company; 207 pages; 2008.

Mary Swan is an award-winning writer of short stories. The Boys in the Trees is her first novel.

The story is set largely in Canada in the late 19th century (although there are earlier chapters set in England) and spans several generations. It explores the repercussions of a horrendous crime that is committed by William Heath, the head of a young family, who is later tried, convicted and executed for his deeds.

A wide cast of characters, including William’s wife, Naomi, the local doctor and a school teacher, each take it in turn to tell their version of the story.

The prose and rhythm of the writing is truly delicious. Swan has an eye for detail and is very astute at conveying emotion, atmosphere and the inner workings of the heart without resorting to cliche or sentimentality.

The subject matter is dark, and there’s no denying the claustrophobia of the story’s setting, but that’s not the problem I had with The Boys in the Trees. For much of the time I simply could not get a handle on the narrative, which felt disjointed and ephemeral. Swan leaves a lot of the work to the reader, an approach which I normally enjoy (hence my love of Jennifer Johnston, who’s made a career of letting the reader join the dots), but in this instance there seemed too few clues to allow me to make sense of the tale.

I suspect the narrative was weakened because each chapter feels like a story in its own right, rather than part of a wider novel, but even so, the very heart of the book felt too elusive for me to appreciate. I’m conscious of the fact that Swan did not want to tell William’s side of the story (as she reveals in a Q&A at the back of my edition) and I appreciate that people often do terrible things for unfathomable reasons, but I would have liked to have known a little bit more about him if only to get a better handle on his motivations.

There’s no doubt that The Boys in the Trees is a haunting tale, one that brims with evocative language and closely observed detail, but the way in which it is told makes the characters and the community within it too distant and elusive to truly work as a cohesive whole.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Randolph Stow, Setting

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 408 pages; 2008.

I loved Randolph Stow‘s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea so much I read it twice. First, in March, then again last week. And on both occasions I found myself falling in love with the story and wishing it would never end. I’m sure I could read it a third time (a fourth time, a fifth time… you get the idea) and not grow sick of it. It’s one of those beautiful stories that’s easy-to-read but if you dig a little deeper you’ll unravel layers of meaning.

Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the Second World War was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. When the story opens in 1941 the Japanese have yet to bomb Darwin (that happens in February 1942) but the threat feels very real.

Young Rob Coram is just six years old and his life revolves around school, playing at the beach and avoiding his younger sister, Nan. His father, a quiet, solitary man, is stationed at the local garrison and plays little part in his life, and even less so when the family is evacuated to the rural hinterlands. It is here that we are introduced to Rob’s favourite cousin, Rick, who at 20 years old has given up his law studies to join the Army. Rob is devastated.

The book follows both their lives over the next eight years and is divided into two parts: “Rick Away 1941-1945” and “Rick Home 1945-1949”.

It’s the second part which is probably more moving of the two, because Rick’s time as a prisoner of war in Mandalay has scarred him psychologically and he finds it difficult to readjust to normal life. When Rob hears someone describe his beloved cousin as “immature” he adds it to a catalogue of offences in which “everything was wrong with Rick” :

Rick was immature.
He was lazy.
He was a narcissist.
He used dirty language. […]
He talked like Hitler about the Bomb.
He fainted.
He cried in his sleep, and when he had got drunk at Andarra on New Year’s Eve.
He had stayed at the very bottom of the Amy.
He had given up his campaign ribbons to a kid in the street as soon as he got them.
He had not given his campaign ribbons to Rob.

The prose style is simple and perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the boy. It’s incredibly poetic in places, not surprising given Stow’s career (he’s had much poetry published), and his beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the changing seasons, are reminiscent of Irish writer John McGahern:

The dark grey berry-bushes on the vacant land grew green and soft-looking, and put out small, mauve-tinged flowers. Then spring came, loud with bees, and the red berries formed, and in many yards were yellow flowering cassias. When the petals fell, the flowers turned into writhing green snakes full of seeds. The peppertrees bloomed. At Sandalwood the olives drizzled continually, the little green-white flowers and unformed fruit whispering down. In the early mornings the harbour was polished like a blue mirror.

The merry-go-round is a recurring motif, symbolising the unity of the family and the circle of life, two themes the book revolves around (yes, pun intended). Indeed, the beauty of the story is following Rob’s transformation from the naive young boy who thinks the mast of a wrecked ship out at sea is a merry-go-round despite his mother’s claims to the contrary. (It’s only when he manages to swim out to the wreck with a friend as a teenage boy that you, the reader, realise he’s grown up and the emotional impact of this, at least for me, cannot be underestimated.)

The story deals with other themes in varying degrees, including what it is to be Australian and whether it is possible to outgrow your country; the differences between a city and rural upbringing; isolation and belonging; boyhood and adulthood; family and loneliness; war and peace.

It’s not a perfect novel (there are occasional clunky “bits” and some of the ideas and attitudes presented, especially towards aboriginals and the Japanese, are dated and offensive), but it’s a highly readable, entertaining, often funny and incredibly moving story. I’m grateful to Penguin for bringing it back into print because this is the kind of book that deserves a wider audience. I can only hope that they might do the same to Stow’s remaining back catalogue.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Steven Lang, University of Queensland Press

‘An Accidental Terrorist’ by Steven Lang


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 330 pages; 2006.

An Accidental Terrorist is a debut novel that was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award 2006 and has recently earned Steven Lang the UTS Award for New Writing in the 2006 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Even before publication it won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Manuscript from an Emerging Queensland Author 2004.

So I had relatively high expectations when I first began reading this story, which is set in a small town on the southern coast of NSW (in Australia).

Here, amid the old growth forests, tensions are running high between a logging company, forestry workers and local conservationists, a distinctly Australian story that hasn’t been much explored in popular fiction (as far as I am aware).

Kelvin, a young 20-something, who has lead a somewhat depressing and rootless existence on the edge, finds himself returning to his home town, where he shacks up with the beguiling Jessica, a lawyer turned would-be writer. On a neighbouring property Carl, an American with a mysterious past, offers Kelvin work building fences on his land.

But when Kelvin makes some unlikely alliances at The Farm, the name of a communal house where a group of hippies live, he risks losing his newfound sense of security and future happiness.

Without wishing to spoil the plot, let me say that the climax is worth waiting for. Unfortunately, because it is told from too many points of view, the tension dissipates amid the readers’ confusion.

That said, Kelvin’s foray into the bush, on the run, is beautifully told: you are never quite sure whether he is going to survive the escapade or not.

On the whole An Accidental Terrorist is a well paced novel that richly captures the beauty and wonder of Australia’s old growth forests. Some of Lang’s descriptions are so evocative you can almost smell the eucalyptus wafting up off the page.

His characterisation is also spot on, and Kelvin’s back story, revealed in dribs and drabs like a slowly dripping tap, is very well done: slightly disturbing and full of pathos without sentimentality.

But there are flaws in this novel too. The reader is never quite sure whose story this is: is it Kevin’s, or Jessica’s, or Carl’s? There are too many different points of view all vying for attention.

Similarly, the reader is given few clues as to the era within which the book is set. It threw me completely when, about a third-of-the-way through, I realised it was the early 1980s, as I had mistakenly thought it was set in modern times.

But the thing that puzzled me most was this: what was Kelvin’s motivation for getting involved with the lads from The Farm? What made him do what he did? And was it really an act of terrorism or merely an act of vandalism?

If nothing else, this book asks more questions than it answers – often a sign of a good book, although in this case I feel that such questions may have been nothing more than oversights rather than any deliberate attempt to get readers thinking.

Finally, a quick word on the format of this book. At 135mm wide by 180mm high it is a delightfully “squat” book that’s easy to hold and weighs very little despite it being 25mm thick. I’ve not seen this size of novel before, and wonder if it’s typical of UQP?