Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2016

Books-of-the-yearWhat a reading year it has been!

As you’ll no doubt know, I challenged myself to read Australian literature all year — and what an enjoyable, entertaining, intriguing and wonderful exercise that turned out to be. The scope and range of the books I read — both fiction and non-fiction — never ceased to amaze and delight me, so much so I’ll write a separate post about it at a later date.

During the year I also read a handful of Canadian books, thanks to my participation in the Shadow Giller Prize (which I’ve been doing every year since 2011), and five amazing British titles thanks to my involvement in shadowing The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016.

All up I read around 65 books, which is substantially fewer than my usual yearly average of around 75 to 80. (I can only blame excessive use of Twitter sucking up all my time, a lot of extra-curricular freelance editing on top of the day job in the first six months of the year, and two changes of day job, one in May and one in October.)

Choosing my favourite ten reads was no mean feat. I read so many great books. But here are the ones that have left a lasting impression (note they weren’t all published this year).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Floundering by Romy Ash
Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on a road trip one hot Australian summer. It’s narrated by the youngest son, who soon realises their holiday by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Heartbreaking and poignant, I loved this book and still think about it almost a year after reading it.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig  (2016)
This bold experimental novel is set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family. It’s written stream-of-consciousness style and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was gripped from the first line.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton (1965)
This delightful memoir had me tittering away at every madcap episode and anecdote related in Dalton’s droll, self-deprecating prose. Her tale about growing up in an unconventional household in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s is by far the most cheerful thing I read all year. I loved it.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (2016)
Another memoir, this is the one every Australian should read to find out what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person in a culture so firmly rooted in white colonialism. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. It’s the book that has had the most marked impression on me this year.

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)
One of the best crime novels I’ve read in years, this one — set during the worst drought in a century — rips along at a fair pace and has enough red herrings to keep the most jaded reader guessing. And it’s wonderfully evocative — of both the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit small, rural communities.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr (2015)
This is — hands down (pun sort of intended) — my favourite novel of the year. In quiet, understated prose Orr presents three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback over the course of two years (2004 to 2006). It is, by turns, charming, funny and deeply moving, reminding me very much of the eloquent fiction of the late Kent Haruf.

True Country by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott (1999)
This extraordinary debut novel — Scott has since won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice —  tells the story of a young teacher who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school. The community is plagued with problems, but Billy sees beyond that and finds himself coming to terms with his own Aboriginal heritage and forging rewarding relationships with the people and the landscape around him.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
A page turner of the finest order, this clever story largely revolves around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland. Spanning three centuries and three cities, it begins as a crime story before it morphs into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale. It’s a hugely entertaining read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanski (2016)
This is the third memoir to make my top 10! It is a wonderfully entertaining account of Magda’s life lived in the shadows of her Polish father, an assassin during the Second World War. As an exploration of a father and daughter relationship, it is superb; as an examination of the personal legacy of war and the way that legacy filters down through the generations, it is extraordinary. But it’s also a moving account of Magda dealing with her own demons, including depression and coming to terms with her sexuality.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
A rare example of a book matching the hype, I loved Wood’s thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which woman are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours. Written in a cool, detached voice throughout, the story follows a group of prisoners and their jailers over the course of a year. Fuelled by a quiet rage, this book rails against modern misogyny and should be required reading for men and women everywhere.

I’d also like to award honourable mentions to two more books, both of them non-fiction: Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis (2014) and Big Blue Sky by Peter Garrett (2015) (review forthcoming). These made me see the challenges facing refugees and politicians, respectively, in a whole new light.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2016?

I’m taking a little blogging break, but before I go I’d like to thank you for your valued support during this past year. Whether it was by sending me an email, visiting this blog or Reading Matters’ Facebook page, leaving a comment, clicking “like” icons or linking back to me from your own blog, it’s all very much appreciated and makes the whole experience of running this blog so much more enjoyable. 

Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! And I hope to see you back here for more literary chat and great book recommendations in mid-January.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Johnston, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Rosie Jones, Scribe, Setting, true crime

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“She is skeletal and pale, 95 years old and living in a nursing home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. There are dense layers of secrecy surrounding her, as there have always been. Her followers have been told since the beginning to protect her, and never betray her. To these followers, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is a reincarnation of Jesus, a living god.”

So begins The Family, a powerful work of investigative journalism, by newspaper journalist Chris Johnston and documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones, which looks at the cult Anne formed in the 1960s. Known simply as “The Family”, this cult hit the headlines in 1987 when police raided its property in the hills outside of Melbourne and rescued dozens of children who lived there.

The children, who had all been adopted by Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill, reported serious crimes of physical and psychological abuse. They had been raised to believe they were all siblings (they weren’t) and that Anne was their real mother. Their hair was dyed blond and they wore old-fashioned clothes — think frilly dresses and buckled shoes — hugely reminiscent of the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.

When it came to answering her accusers, Anne was nowhere to be found. It took police on three continents more than five years to track her and Bill down. The couple was then extradited to Melbourne (from their home in the Catskills in New York State) and charged with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets. They were fined $AU5,000 each after they both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of making a false declaration.

Their lives barely changed, while “their” children’s lives were left in tatters, none of them entirely sure who their birth mothers were or why they had been subjected to so much cruel and unusual punishment throughout their childhoods.

Painstaking police investigation

The book is essentially a police procedural. It follows Operation Forest, which was set up by Victoria Police to locate the Hamilton-Byrnes and to seek justice for the children.

It also traces the roots of the cult — how it came into being, the major players and the crimes they perpetuated to enable The Family to function — as well as Anne’s rise from obscurity to notoriety. As one of very few female cult leaders in history, she managed to wield a mysterious hold on all her followers, even when she was living thousands of miles away in the UK and the US.

Somehow she hoodwinked fine upstanding citizens to join her “spiritual group” and built a network of “insiders” — doctors, midwives, social workers and lawyers — to help her steal newborn babies and register them in her name (adoption in Australia in the early 1970s wasn’t highly regulated). A similar network of scientists and psychiatrists also helped her “treat” cult members, including her children, with LSD in a bid to make them believe she was Jesus reincarnated as a woman.

And on top of this she recruited a series of “Aunties” who lived with the children, looked after them and educated them. But they also mistreated them and doled out punishment — hitting the children, locking them up and starving them.

No justice

When I read this book — which has been pieced together in exacting detail and based on interviews with the children, Aunties, current cult members, journalists and police, and drags on slightly too long — the first question that sprang to mind was “why did the children not get the justice they deserved?” The Aunties who were brought before the courts got fined more than the Hamilton-Brynes, but no one did jail time for child abuse. Essentially, Anne got away with it.

“There was no justice. There was no acknowledgement that the children had been mistreated. The children saw the Aunties go to jail for fiddling the social security ‘but they didn’t go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us for three days at a time,’ says Sarah [one of the children]. ‘No one got in trouble for that.'”

Detective Lex de Man, the policeman in charge of Operation Forest, says the police deliberately did not charge the Hamilton-Brynes with child abuse because it would be too difficult to make the charges stick — there was no evidence, just reports by the children which couldn’t be legally verified — and he was wary of making fragile, psychologically damaged children testify in a court of law. It was safer to take a more oblique approach: to get Anne on fraud and perjury charges, which they were able to achieve thanks to Anne’s own solicitor turning whistle bower.

Lex claims his investigation, which took years of painstaking work and struggled to get the resources it required, was able to debunk the mysticism around Anne to show that she “was no one special”.

“She was basically a very cunning crook. […] She is the most evil person with the most evil set of crimes that I have ever investigated in my 18-year career with Victoria Police. If you want to know the definition of evil, you look at Anne Hamilton-Byrne.”

A one-hour documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, has been made to accompany the book. You can find out more about it on the BBC4 Storyville website and the official documentary website. It’s definitely worth watching if you get the chance.

This is my 52nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 35th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Canongate, Cory Taylor, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

Non-fiction – paperback; Canongate; 160 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir may not be the most cheerful thing to do on Boxing Day, but this heartfelt, often brutally honest account of what it is to come to terms with your own death is — paradoxically — a life-affirming read.

Taylor is a scriptwriter turned children’s author turned successful novelist. She’s probably best known for her two novels — Me and Mr Booker, which won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in 2012, and My Beautiful Enemy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. (I have not read either book — but do check Lisa’s review of the latter.)

Skin cancer diagnosis

In 2005, shortly before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma thanks to a cancerous mole on the back of her knee. Three years later the disease turned up in the lymph nodes of her pelvis and a couple of years later it spread to other parts of her body. She had two operations, which helped halt the progress of the disease.

She kept her illness a secret, only telling her closest friends and her husband, Shin. She wrote two novels and found a measure of literary success.

Then, in December 2014, she had a seizure and was told the melanoma was now in her brain. She had the offending tumour removed successfully, but the disease was now terminal. She made her illness “public” and set about writing this memoir, something which took just a matter of weeks.

In fiction you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor, US edition
US Edition, by Tin House Books

A memoir in three parts

Dying: A Memoir is divided into three key parts: the first wrestles with her idea of dying a dignified death even if that means taking things into her own hands (she orders a euthanasia drug from China, pens a suicide note to go with it and locks it away in a cabinet — just in case); the second looks at her parent’s troubled marriage and the tensions that exist between herself and her two older siblings; and the third recalls her childhood growing up in a range of diverse places including Fiji and Kenya.

At all times, Taylor’s voice is self-assured, calm, reasoned. There’s not a shred of self-pity in it:

Mine was the privileged tale of someone who had not truly suffered. The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.

She is always honest, sometimes unbearably so, about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her (late) father, whom she had to cut out of her life when his behaviour became too aggressive and manipulative. But she’s clear-eyed about the reasons for the tensions and knows that under different circumstances the outcomes might have been more positive, but she’s not one for worrying about things she can no longer change.

Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start re-writing your past you realise how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor. Australian edition
Australian edition, by Text Publishing

Moments of joy

Through this all there’s a feeling of love in this book — for her (late) mother, with whom she has much empathy, and her husband Shin and their two sons. But there’s also a lot of love for places (Taylor’s father was a pilot, which meant moving houses a lot as a child) and for travel. She holds special affection for Japan, where she met her husband, and Fiji, where she spent some of her childhood.

And she’s enthusiastic about writing and the way she devoted her life to it, mainly to make sense of the world and her place in it. This rather extraordinary memoir is testament to her talent and love of the English language. It’s also testament to an extraordinary woman not afraid to confront her own mortality and to share what she discovers about it along the way.

Cory Taylor died on 5 July 2016, aged 61.

This is my 51st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 34th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson

The Landing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2015.

“If a separated man — about to be divorced — is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?”

So begins Susan Johnson‘s The Landing, which tells the story of a well-to-do, good-looking 55-year-old man trying to recalibrate his life after his wife leaves him for a woman.

Jonathan Lott is scared of being alone, but he can’t quite believe that his marriage is over. Seeking solitude  — and a place to lick his wounds — he spends as much time as he can at the couple’s holiday home at The Landing, 150km north of Brisbane.

But in this quiet lakeside community  — with just a few streetlights, a couple of bitumen roads, no reticulated water or sewage and patchy mobile phone coverage — Jonathan’s comings and goings are witnessed (and commented upon) by the locals who live there.

What results is a relatively lighthearted story that is essentially a comedy of manners — when is it socially acceptable to start dating again after you’ve separated, for instance — that focuses not just on Jonathan’s lacklustre love life but the lives and loves of pretty much everyone living in this rural backwater, including: Penny Collins, her demanding and elderly French mother Marie and her shallow and narcissistic daughter Scarlet; Sylv, who runs the only shop in town; Paul Raymond, who leaves his wife to shack up with the much younger Scarlet; Gordie, the Glaswegian doctor, and his pretty daughter Anna; and Giselle, a seven-year-old girl from an impoverished background who roams The Landing in search of company.

The complex nature of love 

The narrative comprises multiple, interleaved layers that to unpick it would be like peeling an onion. But the real strength of this novel lies in Johnson’s ability to capture the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, the often complicated relationships and tensions between different generations of the one family, and the complex nature of love in all its many forms — romantic, sexual and familial.

The frailties of the human heart are captured with insight and delicacy, lifting this story from the bog standard romance the cover might suggest, to one that is full of nuance and humour and moments of pitch-perfect clarity. And all the characters, so richly drawn, feel intensely human.

Combined with such eloquent writing — Johnson’s descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife that abounds in The Landing are particularly evocative and lyrical — makes for a superb, effortless read.

I really enjoyed The Landing, but in the spirit of transparency should point out I know the author. Indeed, we had lunch together when she was en route to Paris to begin working on the edits of this novel. I ended up buying my copy when I went to Australia last year — and couldn’t wait to read it.

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

Unfortunately The Landing hasn’t been published in the UK, but you can order a copy via the Book Depository.

This is my 50th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 33rd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 240 pages; 2010.

Reviews of Thea Astley’s novels on this blog are like buses: none for ages, then two come along at once.

First published in 1987, It’s Raining in Mango was Astley’s 10th novel. It tells the story of five generations of one family — from the 1860s to the 1980s — and touches on a wide variety of issues, including racism, sexism and homosexuality, all within a distinctly colonial Australia framework.

As ever, with most of Astley’s novels, it does not make for easy reading, but it will reward those who persevere through at least the first 60 or so pages.

Time shifts

The book’s unusual structure makes it a challenge to read. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Astley complicates matters by constantly jumping between generations and sometimes letting time frames overlap. This does not make for a straightforward read and requires some effort on behalf of the reader to make things “work”.

Fortunately, there’s a helpful dramatis personæ at the front of the book, which provides the birth and death dates of each character, including the circumstances of their death. Without this I’m afraid I would have been totally lost.

The structure is also more akin to a collection of short stories (it won the inaugural Steele Rudd Award, a literary prize for short stories, even though it’s not branded as such) rather than a novel (a trait shared with her 14th novel Drylands), but the interconnections between characters means that it feels like a cohesive whole.

Reporting on dispossession and slaughter

When the book opens we meet an Irish-born journalist, Cornelius Laffey, who leaves Sydney, dragging his family with him, to set up a newspaper in the goldfields of northern Queensland in 1861. While there he witnesses the violence toward Aboriginals, who are dispossessed of their land and, finding much empathy with their situation, reports on it:

“No attempt is made to understand the feelings or even the natural rights of the indigenous peoples along these rivers. Their fishing grounds have been disturbed. Their hunting areas are invaded. All along the Palmer and the subsidiary creeks they have been pushed off by an army of diggers cradling for gold.[…] For every digger speared or killed along the mudsoaked track to the Palmer, there would be ten or more natives butchered. Many of the butchered are women and children. Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin, and the outraged righteousness of one of our sub-inspectors of police has given sanction to the indiscriminate slaughter of these dispossessed people.”

This brutal, honest reporting results in him losing his job — and so sets into motion the cycle of incredible ups and downs for the Laffey family over the next 120 years.

Heartbreaking individual stories

During the course of this “novel” (I use the term loosely) we meet a wide variety of characters, most of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water, including Cornelius’ wife, who runs a pub, their son and daughter George and Nadine, and their respective partners.

Their individual stories, told in separate chapters, are gritty, often heartbreaking and sometimes violent. Nadine, for instance, has a child out of wedlock when she is 14 and ends up working in a brothel to support herself.

It’s Raining in Mango — the title refers to an imaginary town called Mango in tropical Far North Queensland — also covers the history of an Aboriginal family, whose lives occasionally intersect with the Laffeys. This serves to remind the reader that while things may never be smooth sailing for the Laffeys, things are a lot worse for the Mumblers who have suffered violent dispossession at the hands of white settlers.

What emerges is a portrait of Australia’s hidden history:  of strangers in a strange land trying to make a go of it, and its native inhabitants being massacred in the name of colonial “progress”.

For a much more intellectual — and insightful — take on It’s Raining in Mango, please see this article in the Australian Book Review.

This is my 49th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 32nd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley

Drylands by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 294 pages; 1999.

Drylands is Thea Astley at her fine, angry best. This novel, which turned out to be her last (she died in 2004, aged 78), earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2000, a prize she shared with joint winner Kim Scott for his novel Benang: From the Heart.

Astley, it has to be said, is not always an easy writer to read. Her prose is dense and rich in metaphors and her ideas are astute and political, the product of an inquiring and intelligent mind.

But this book, which is set in a small Australian town succumbing slowly to the drought, resonated with me, perhaps because I identified with the themes presented here: of small town loneliness and alienation; of kicking back against a culture too obsessed with sport and too inward looking and parochial to care about the importance of reading and language.

It is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader” which suggests that it might have a literary slant to it, but even readers — and, in particular, book groups and book festivals — get a (slight) drubbing in this coolly intellectual novel.

A novel made up of stories

The structure of Drylands is unusual. It almost reads like a collection of short stories as we follow the trials and tribulations of a complex cast of well-drawn, intensely human characters living in the “God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere”.  They include a foreign accountant on the run, the farmer who sells his property in pursuit of a dream, an indigenous man who lives in a broken down shack on the outskirts of town, a writing teacher who bemoans the “humdrummery” of small town life, the publican’s wife who hates sport and a stressed out house wife with six sons who leaves her family in pursuit of a new life.

Their individual tales are recounted by Janet Deakin, who fancies herself as a writer: she spends her days running a newsagency that in another (more literary) place would be a bookstore, and her nights chronicling in her journal the decline of the town and its inhabitants.

She would write a story, she decided, about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story.

This “meta” element of Astley’s novel means it’s not clear whether Janet is an actual character or something dreamed up by writing teacher Evie, but whatever the case, Drylands captures a world in which the written word is in serious peril by a small population obsessed with drinking beer and sport, watching TV, videos and Internet pornography, and playing PlayStation games. (I can’t help but wonder how angry Astley would be if she were alive to see how the Internet and social media have become all-consuming vehicles for serious distraction in today’s switched-on digital world.)

Beautiful language

Aside from the scathing anger and the fierce social commentary in this rather wise and knowing novel, I rather enjoyed Astley’s beautiful way with language. I’m grateful that the copy I read was so battered — I bought it in a charity shop for the princely sum of £1.99 several years ago — because that meant I didn’t feel guilty about underlining so much of it in blue pen.

Here’s how she describes what’s it like being surrounded by bush:

A world of gum trees, bark stripping, dangling, their bony limbs rejecting grace, crowded arrogant as beggars in their rags.

Here’s how she describes the view of the Queensland landscape out of a train window:

The countryside was emerging in the pre-dawn light, misty hills and cane fields blurred silver under an uncertain sun blundering its way through clouds.

And, finally, perhaps my favourite sentence in the entire novel:

Along the main street in the clamorous dark the pub was yowling towards its climatic closing time.

Astley is also very astute at capturing human relationships, emotions and motivations. Here’s Evie, the writing teacher, trying to figure out why the women of the town turn up to her classes even though they have little to no creativity in their bones:

Why had they come? What did they expect? She was beginning to understand the isolation of these places that drove people to seize any opportunity to escape from their humdrummery. These four — these pleasant four — were playing truant from husbands who regarded their activity as female folly. They were fighting the darkness.

Did I like this book? It’s hard to say. I think it might be better to say I admired it. I admired the prose, the ideas, the wonderfully rich characterisation, but these stories did not stick, perhaps because the tales felt ephemeral and “untidy” in the sense that there are no neat endings. But, as a whole, Drylands is an evocative, somewhat pessimistic read about a town that grinds everyone down in the end.

For another take on this novel, please read Whispering Gum’s review.

This is my 48th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 31st for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 299 pages; 2010.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel, was first published in 1999. It tells the story of Billy, a young teacher, who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school.

Here, in a Christian mission now in decline and a government administrative outpost struggling to keep staff, Billy and his wife, Liz, find themselves thrust into an Aboriginal community that appears to be in disarray. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the astonishing landscape in which they live in ways that surprise him.

An immensely powerful read about dispossession, the clash between cultures and finding your rightful place in the world, I found True Country the perfect follow-up/companion read to Stan Grant’s memoir Talking to My Country. Both books sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were, and paint a stark, disturbing portrait of what happens when one culture tries to subjugate another.

A remote settlement

When Billy and Liz fly into Karnama this is what they see from the plane window:

We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.

This first impression of a beautiful, semi-ordered landscape is tarnished when the plane banks over the bush on the other side of the settlement and Billy sees that it was “littered with old car bodies, tins, plastic, all sorts of rubbish”. And perhaps that’s a metaphor for this whole, carefully structured, novel, which scratches the dark underbelly of what it is to be a forgotten people living in a community beset by problems, many of them caused by decades long interference from others who think they know better.

It’s only when Billy and Liz settle into their new lodgings and begin work that they pick up on the very real “them” and “us” mentality that exists between the whites and the blacks. Grog is forbidden for Aboriginals, but the priest has his own private supply, for instance, and all the white staff live in well-built air-conditioned housing and have access to vehicles, while the blacks sweat it out in hot corrugated iron shacks and travel everywhere by foot.

Tensions arise between these two cultures, caused primarily by a different set of values. Many of the Aboriginals living in Karnama have so little respect for education that the teachers must wake up their students and practically drag them into the classroom every morning. There is no understanding of the concept of personal property, so that if they “borrow” a car and crash it, it is simply abandoned by the side of the road, and children think nothing of going into a teacher’s unlocked house without their knowledge to rifle through their belongings. And there’s a strong (cynical) belief that the white people, whether teachers, government administrators or clergy, are there simply to make money or to further their careers, they have no real interest in helping the Aboriginal community.

There are deeper, more disturbing problems here, too: alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing is rife (to “kill the world”, as Billy puts it) and the men are violent with each other and their wives (usually after drinking too much grog).

Room for hope

Strangely, for all the shocking incidences in this book (including a violent murder committed by white men), it is not a depressing one. That’s largely due to Billy’s “assimilation”, for want of a better word, into this community, for part-way through the story you come to realise that Billy is not white: he has Aboriginal ancestry, and his reason for moving to this community is to discover that part of himself which, for so long, has remained dormant and unknowable.

There are wonderful descriptions of outings to go fishing and to learn about bush culture and to fall that little bit in love with the varied landscape around him and to appreciate the vagaries of the seasons.

This time of the year […] it is getting hotter. Late in every day the sky comes low, it sags down like it is swollen and bruised. The flies are sticky drinking your sweat. Over on the edge of the sky the lightning stabs the hills. But no rain comes yet. It will.

He strikes up a particularly lovely friendship with Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in  Karnama, who sits at his kitchen table and tells him stories that he records on audio tape with a view to transcribing them for his students. It’s perhaps telling that this form of oral history, so much a part of Aboriginal culture, never makes it into written form, for Billy realises that to do so would require too much time and too much editing and he doesn’t think he has the right to alter Fatima’s words: these are not his stories to tell.

An engaging portrait

The novel is largely structured around a series of vignettes and what I would call sketches of characters or scenes, some of which are only a couple of pages long. But this style builds up an engaging portrait of the community, so that you come to learn about the way it works and the people who inhabit it in ways a normal straightforward narrative might not have been able to do.

It’s largely written in the first person, past tense, but there are snatches of present tense to heighten tension and there are passages told in Aboriginal vernacular which lend a vivid, authentic flavour to the prose. It is that vernacular that I loved most, perhaps because much of it so wonderfully conveys the spiritual connection between people and the land:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ’round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We  got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle… every kind. Sweet mango and coconuts too.

In case you haven’t guessed, I really loved this novel. I loved the way Scott writes about confronting, often shocking, problems but in an intelligent, empathetic way. I loved his poetical use of language. I loved his characters, the whole complex range of them. I loved his descriptions of the landscape. I loved his sense of humour evidenced in descriptions of shambolic corroborees put on for American tourists expecting polished performances. And I loved the redemptive ending. But most of all I loved its big beating heart.

True Country has been widely published, so British and North American readers should be able to source a copy online without too much difficulty.

Kim Scott is of Aboriginal descent. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice — for his novels Benang: From the Heart (in 2000, jointly with Thea Astley’s Drylands) and That Deadman Dance (in 2011).

This is my 47th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting, Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016.

“What does it feel like to be an indigenous person in Australia?”

This is the question journalist Stan Grant wrestles with in a radio interview upon his return to Australia after a decade working overseas. It’s the same question he wrestles with in Talking to My Country, a heartfelt and deeply personal memoir about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

His response?

I tell Richard [Glover, the interviewer] how vulnerable we can be. I tell him of the little boy I once was who felt so ashamed of his colour that he tried to scrub it off. I tell him of the ache of poverty and how my family had roamed the back roads looking for a home in a land we had lost. I tell him of how a sideways glance or a snickering child could steal our souls. I tell him how we learned to measure our words and lower our voices for fear of being howled down. I tell him that even now despite carving out a place for myself I could so easily be crushed by rejection.

But Talking to My Country is more than just a memoir. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. If, as Grant argues, Australia is a “great country”, it should also step up to the mark and be “held to great account”. He has a point.

Sobering facts

Here are some of the sobering facts peppered throughout Stan’s frank and eye-opening narrative:

  • Aboriginal people represent fewer than three per cent of the population, yet they represent a quarter of the prison population
  • Half of those in juvenile detention centres are indigenous
  • One in five indigenous prisoners try to kill themselves
  • There were 99 deaths in custody in nine years in the decade before 1987. Despite a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody, this figure has increased by 100 per cent in the past two decades
  • Acute depression affects one-third of indigenous people over the age of 15
  • Aboriginals are three times more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts
  • 50,000 aboriginal children were stolen from their families by the federal and state governments in a misguided attempt to assimilate them
  • Since 2008, when then Prime Minster Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology about the Stolen Generation, the number of aboriginal children removed from their families has increased by 400 per cent
  • Compared with white Australians, Aboriginal Australians have a much lower life expectancy, much higher levels of unemployment and a higher infant mortality rate
  • Six out of 10 white Australians have never met an Aboriginal Australian

But while Grant paints a shameful portrait of a nation divided, he is quick to point out that he is one of the lucky ones. He left school early, but he managed to find a route out of poverty through further education and journalism.

Many of you may know him as a broadcast journalist — he was a correspondent for CNN for a decade covering all kinds of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, but I mainly remember him as the host of the current affairs program Real Life in the mid-1990s. He was the first Aboriginal journalist to be on mainstream TV.

I’m not sure his book offers any solutions to Australia’s troubled past, but what it does do is show how we got into this mess. Grant does not point the finger at white people per se, but at the “system built on white privilege”. He shows that it is only by understanding our past — the shared history, the massacres, the unjust treatment of his people — that we can reconcile what has happened and move into the future together as one united people. Grant states that Aboriginals are constantly told to let it go, but he says it’s not quite as easy as that:

… our history is a living thing. It is physical. it is nose and mouths and faces. It is written on our bodies. […] It is there in the mental scars you often cannot see.

It doesn’t help that Grant, having grown up in the margins of society, still feels a stranger in his own country. “When an anthem is played and a flag is raised we are reminded that our country is no longer ours,” he writes.

Sadness and shame

I came away from this book feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness — and shame. It’s the exact same reaction I had when I read Kim Scott’s confronting novel Benang: Straight from the Heart, about a man who realises he is “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with Aboriginal blood.

Talking to My Country is eye-opening and informative. It’s fuelled by anger and shame. I read it feeling my heart breaking with every turn of the page. It’s exactly the kind of book that every Australian should read, but it has wider appeal in showing what happens to people when they are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. In the current political climate, its message seems more important than ever.

This is my 46th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Magda Szubanski, memoir, Non-fiction, Poland, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Text

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanksi

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 400 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

So begins Magda Szubanksi’s extraordinary memoir Reckoning, which is as much a love letter to her dad as it is an autobiography of her own life.

Most British readers will know Magda from the Australian sit-com Kath & Kim, where she plays the sports-obsessed unlucky-in-love Sharon Strzelecki. But she also starred in the 1995 Hollywood film Babe, the story of a pig who wants to be a sheepdog, and appeared in a slew of comedy shows from the late 1980s onwards. She first came to my attention in 1986 when she was in The D Generation, a comedy sketch show created and written by a group of Melbourne University students, and later Fast-Forward, another comedy sketch show that went on to become Australia’s highest rating TV production of that type.

Not your usual celebrity memoir

That aside, you don’t need to know who Magda is to appreciate this book. It may be billed as a memoir, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, it tells the story of Magda’s life, but it’s got an intellectual rigour to it that you don’t often find in your usual run-of-the-mill celebrity autobiography.

It covers some very hard-hitting topics including relationships between fathers and daughters, what it is to be an immigrant (Magda was born in Liverpool, England, to a Scottish mother and Polish father, and they immigrated to Australia when she was five years old), intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and “genetic memory”, the Holocaust and the Polish resistance, politics, feminism, mental health and repressed sexuality.

The latter is a major part of Magda’s story, for she kept her own sexuality a secret for much of her adult life, frightened not only of being rejected by her loved ones but by the Australian public and the film and television industry in which she’d forged such a successful career. Her struggle with this element of herself  is threaded throughout the narrative and her inability to come to terms with it publicly manifested itself in anxiety, depression and over-eating. She eventually came out live on TV in 2012 when she realised it was time to finally stand up and “do the right thing”:

It was possibly the most nervous I have ever been. My breathing was constricted but I could still make a sentence and even a joke. When the guys [the hosts of the TV show The Project] asked me how I identified I replied, “I am absolutely not straight. I wouldn’t define myself as bisexual either. I would say I am gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-a-little-bit-not-gay-gay-gay-gay. Unfortunately, there’s not actually a word to describe me, so I have to express myself through the medium of dance.”

Bearing witness

Another thread running throughout Magda’s life is her father’s dark history. He was just 15 when the Nazi’s invaded his home town of Warsaw. Most Poles fled, but the Szubanskis stayed put. Magda’s father formed his own “private army” — “a vagrant bunch of childhood friends roaming around doing whatever damage they could, especially killing Germans” — before he was properly recruited, aged 19, to become a non-commissioned officer of the Polish execution squad known as Unit 993/W Revenge Company. This top-secret unit was tasked with assassinating agents of the Gestapo and Polish traitors. “It sounds like a movie,” writes Magda, “It wasn’t.”

In a city where everyone had something to be afraid of, those who aided the Nazis lived in fear of people like my father. His unit comprised both men and women. […] They targeted collaborators who gave the names of resistance members to the Gestapo. Unit 993/W also assassinated Poles who told the Gestapo where Jews were hiding. And so the Nazi collaborators were sentenced to death by the Polish underground courts. Despite the chaos of war, due legal process was followed. The traitor would be tried in absentia in a court of law and the sentence would be carried out by my father’s unit. Then, when the time was right, they would run in, read them the list of crimes of which they had been found guilty, and shoot them.

During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Magda’s father was captured and sent to a POW camp. He escaped while on the notorious Lamsdorf Death March, but was recaptured and sent to two more POW camps. Eventually, he was liberated by the Russians and made his way to Scotland, where he reinvented himself as an Englishman, married Magda’s mother, a Scot of Irish extraction, and tried to forget his past. He never saw his parents again.

Clearly a man of courage, who had a strong instinct for survival, Magda describes him as:

… warmhearted, friendly, engaging, intelligent, generous, humorous, honourable, affectionate, arrogant, blunt, loyal. He was a family man. He was handsome, although he did not have heroic stature. He was five foot four. He was stylish, fashion-conscious; a dandy even. […] He loved tennis, he loved ballet, he loved good conversation. Out there in the Melbourne suburbs […] you would never have guessed that he was capable of killing in cold blood. But he was. Poor bastard.

For Magda, the struggle is to reconcile in her own head (and heart) the man she loved with the man who was capable of shooting people dead, and much of this book explores that murky territory, trying to put events into some kind of context and fleshing out the ambiguities and moral complexities of what it was to live through the Second World War. Was it okay to kill people if you were on the “right” side?

An intimate read

Reckoning is a deeply personal read — sometimes uncomfortably so — but Magda is an honest, forthright guide, and her love for her parents (and her siblings, especially older sister Barbara) shine through. This is not a sentimental read, nor is it a self-pitying one, but it’s a warm, intelligent, brave and occasionally eye-opening one. I found it utterly captivating and came away from it feeling as if Magda had somehow exonerated the ghosts of her family’s past — or at least come to terms with them.

Unsurprisingly, Reckoning has won a slew of awards in Australia, including ABIA Book of the Year, ABIA Biography of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, Indie Award for Non-Fiction, and Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice Award.

It has just been published in the UK and will be released in the US and Canada next month.

As an aside, do watch this clip of one of Magda’s most ingenious creations, Lynne Postlewaite, whose catch-phrase “I said pet, I said love…” still makes me laugh:


This is my 45th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 30th for #AWW2016.