Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

Animal People

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2011.

Charlotte Wood is an accomplished and award-winning writer who is largely unknown outside of her native Australia. I’ve read two of her novels — The Submerged Cathedral and The Children — having purchased them on trips back home and loved them both. Animal People, picked up on my last trip, only confirms my high opinion of her work.

A day in the life

The book spans just one day in the life of Stephen Connolly, a middle-aged man who’s feeling slightly lost and depressed with the way his life has panned out.  We have met Stephen before — he’s the “drifter” in Wood’s previous novel The Children (but note, you don’t need to have read that book to appreciate this one — they’re completely stand-alone novels), the one who’s never followed a “proper” career path, the one who his parents and his siblings are always worried about and fretting over.

Now, several years later, he’s living in Sydney, working a dead-end job in a food kiosk at the zoo and is constantly mistaken as a chef because of his (quite hilarious) penchant for wearing black-and-white chequered trousers, a bargain purchase from Aldi.

On the day in question, he’s decided that it’s finally time to dump his long-term girlfriend, Fiona, who has been putting pressure on him to move in with her and her two (bratty) children from her failed marriage.  But as the day enfolds, Stephen’s plans get thwarted, then sabotaged, and before he knows it, he’s beginning to doubt whether dumping Fiona is the right thing to do at all.

Trying to fit in

Animal People deals with one man’s struggle to find his place in a world that feels completely foreign to him — in all kinds of ways. The book’s title comes from the notion that you either love animals or you don’t, and Stephen, who has an allergy to cats and dogs, falls into the latter camp while everyone around him — his own family, his neighbours —  are slavishly looking after and spoiling pets of all sizes, shapes and descriptions, while sneering at homeless people or those unable to fend for themselves.

When Stephen told people he worked at the zoo their faces would light up. ‘Oh, I love animals! How wonderful!’ they gushed. How lucky he was, how privileged. They held him in high regard, and waited for tales of giraffe-teeth cleaning or lion-cub nursing. When he told them he worked only in the fast-food kiosk, their faces fell. But then they recovered. Still, to be surrounded by all those beautiful creatures. He usually agreed at this point, to finish the conversation. He did not say he found the zoo depressing. It was not the cages so much as the people — their need to possess, their disappointment, the way they wanted the animals to notice them.

Struggling to cope with commitment, city life and modern living, Stephen’s constantly pulled in different directions and fails to live up to anyone’s expectations — even expectations that are morally dubious.

For instance, when he accidentally hits a woman — a junkie — in his car on his morning commute, he takes her to the hospital, but when he relates the story to his colleagues afterwards — scared and a little bit embarrassed by the incident — he’s shocked when they tell him he should have just left her on the road. “My sister had a junkie boyfriend once,” one of them says. “They’re all scum, and they all lie. If she dies she deserves it. Probably would have O’D anyway.”

Unsurprisingly, given the book is set at a time of unprecedented prosperity in Australia’s history, one of the themes of Animal People is class. Stephen might have a job, but he’s down near the bottom of the social rung, scraping by as best he can, not that far removed from the junkie he tries to help.

And perhaps that partly explains his reluctance to make a serious commitment to Fiona, who was previously married to a rich lawyer and has an amazing house filled with everything anyone could possibly want: how can he ever compete with that?

Big themes, but lots of humour

Wood has a remarkable eye for detail, of getting dialogue pitch-perfect and sketching characters that are three-dimensional and believable, but she never wastes a word: the prose is reined-in, almost clipped, and yet it reads as elegantly and smoothly as a ride in a sleek sports car.

She knows what makes people tick, what scares them, what delights them, what makes them jealous or angry. And she completely understands the tensions, rivalries and complicated relationships between siblings (and their parents) in a way that sets her apart from your average run-of-the-mill novelist.

While the story deals with big themes — our obsession with material goods, social prestige and climbing the career ladder; the ways in which we relate to animals and anthromorphisise them; and how we find our place in an ever-changing world  — it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I laughed a lot while reading this book — and not just at Stephen’s fashion sense. There’s a terribly funny team-building exercise that had me cringing inside, and an hysterical children’s birthday party that turns into my idea of a nightmare.

But what makes Animal People such a terrific read is Wood’s ability to tell a relatively modest story about an ordinary man in a truly entertaining (and effortless) way. I was gripped from start to finish, and then I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again.

Unfortunately, this book is not available outside of Australia (it doesn’t even have a listing on, but you can buy a signed copy direct from the author’s official website or try to import it postage free.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kirsten Krauth, literary fiction, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘just_a_girl’ by Kirsten Krauth


Fiction – Kindle edition; University of Western Australia Press; 265 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the author.

The media often warns us of the perils of the internet, but just how dangerous is it for young people? If Kirsten Krauth’s confident debut novel just_a_girl is anything to go by, it’s pretty hairy indeed.

A trio of messed-up characters

The book is set in modern-day Sydney and revolves around three characters: super-confident 14-year-old Layla, who is mature beyond her years;  lone parent Margot, who has found Jesus and fallen in love with the married pastor at her church; and Tadashi, a young single man with a strange fetish.

Each character is dealing with complicated issues of their own, all told in distinct narrative threads — both Layla and Margaret tell their stories in the very immediate first person, while Tadashi’s tale is related using the more remote third person.

What is most striking is the voice that Krauth adopts for each character: Layla is upbeat, frank and “speaks” in a short, clipped style; Margot is anxious, often fearful and her thoughts tumble out of her head in rush of breathlessness; and Tadashi is detached and living in a world of his own.

Online exploits

The book’s main focus is on Layla, who spends a lot of time in internet chatrooms, where she uses the handle just_a_girl (hence the title). She knowingly gets involved with men online and then meets them in hotel rooms for all kinds of shenanigans.

This is in stark contrast to her mother, who is too busy fretting about failed relationships from the past and grappling with depression to know what her teenage daughter is getting up to when she goes to “visit” her grandmother. It’s both alarming and disturbing at the same time.

What’s even more alarming and disturbing is Tadashi’s behaviour: unable to form a sexual relationship with a real person, he invests in a doll, whom he treats like a living, breathing human being.

Modern teenage life

just_a_girl could very easily have fallen into clichéd territory about teenage girls being molested by internet stalkers, but Krauth keeps a tight rein on everything and has her characters behave in unexpected ways. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but Layla’s thoughts, dreams and fears are bang on, even if her exploits are quite a bit more daring than mine ever were at that age.

For that reason, this book feels very fresh and contemporary, and provides a glimpse of the complicated world teenagers face every day in which peer pressure is no longer restricted to the school yard during term times but the internet 24 hours a day every day of the year.

This is a super confident debut novel that explores all kinds of issues — online security, teenage sexuality, loneliness, alienation, violence and depression — but in an accessible, easy-to-read way. It should be required reading for parents, but also teenagers themselves — it’d make a terrific novel to discuss in the classroom or a book group.

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

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michelle de Kretser, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser


Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 528 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If books won prizes for ambition alone, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel should win every gong going. This is a “widescreen” novel that explores the interconnectedness of our lives brought about by the advent of the internet, cheap travel and globalisation.

Dual narrative

The book spans 40 years and follows two characters — Australian Laura Fraser and Sri Lankan Ravi Mendis — whose tales are divided into two separate narrative threads. These two characters are poles apart, not least the ways in which they travel the globe.

Laura is a drifter, who has the freedom to travel across the world wherever her Australian passport might take her; Ravi is forced to flee Sri Lanka under difficult circumstances and seeks political asylum in Australia, never knowing whether he will be shipped back home against his will.

The pair eventually meet, but that’s not really the climax, nor purpose, of the story, which covers  many issues and topics associated with “travel”, including the way in which the development of the internet and cheap personal computers made the world smaller. Indeed, following these character’s lives is a journey in itself.

Laura, who uses an inheritance to travel around the world, leads the kind of life to which many of us might aspire. But even though she lives in London for several years, there are pitfalls to never putting roots down in one place — she doesn’t have a proper career, nor a settled relationship. But when she returns to Sydney and begins working for a travel guide company (a thinly disguised version of Lonely Planet), there is no miracle “cure” for her dislocation.

By contrast, Ravi, an academic who develops one of the first websites and understands the potential of the internet, has no choice but to leave his homeland following the brutal murder of his wife and young son. When he seeks political asylum in Australia there is the constant fear that he will be returned home, even though he would love to see other family members and continue his life before it was so viciously interrupted.

Thoughtful and intelligent

There’s no doubt that Questions of Travel is a thoughtful and intelligent novel, the type of novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring big issues — in fact, on more than one occasion it reminded me very much of last year’s Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, by Will Ferguson, which was equally ambitious in scope and outlook.

But this is also one of those rare books that is all about the detail — incredible detail. Indeed, there’s so much detail in this book, it requires a lot of concentration and attention from the reader. It is not an effortless read. It is not a book to rush through.

Because of this it took a long time for me to get “into” the story and, just occasionally, I found it dragged in places. This may be partly to do with the author’s prose style, which felt convoluted and “showy”, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed her descriptions, particularly of objects and places, which were evocative and often quite beautiful. Likewise, her characters are wonderful — quirky, original, authentic and memorable.

But it is the little revelations, scattered throughout the narrative, that makes the book such an entertaining and often surprising read. And the ending, which almost made me fall off my chair with the shock of it, is one of the most powerful and totally unexpected conclusions I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction. Weeks later I’m still thinking about it — just as I am also thinking about all the many issues thrown up by this extraordinary, eloquent and deeply moving novel.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Hachette Digital, historical fiction, literary fiction, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Setting

‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 208 pages; 2011.

What do you do if you’ve just finished a hard-hitting, quite brutal and confronting, and overtly male book? You choose something completely different — in theme, tone and style — to read. So, hot on the tails of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe I picked up Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black — first published in 1993 — and what an utter delight it proved to be.

Delicious black comedy

This rather delicious black comedy is set in F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store — rumoured to be based on David Jones — during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

There is Patty Williams, fretting away because after several years of marriage, she remains childless and she fears that she may have chosen the wrong man in Frank, who prefers to spend all his spare time in the pub. There is Fay Baines, fast approaching 30 and imminent lifelong spinsterhood, who is growing sick and tired of all the hapless men she dates. There is Miss Jacobs — “whose Christian name remained a secret” — a stout and elderly woman, who has never missed a day’s work, but keeps herself to herself. There is Lesley “Lisa” Miles, the temporary sales assistant who has just finished her Leaving Certificate and wants to go to university — although her father doesn’t approve.

And finally there is Magda — “no one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname” — a Displaced Person from Slovenia, who runs the Model Gowns department in super-efficient and glamorous style.

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, god-awful and ghastly snake woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined.

Written in a style reminiscent of the delightful Muriel Spark, The Women in Black charts the ups and downs of these women as they struggle to find their place in a rather male-dominated world. And while there’s no real solid plot, there’s a decidedly fairy-tale element to it in which Lisa is taken under Magda’s wing and transformed from a shy, bookish and naive young schoolgirl into a confident young woman intent on following her dreams.

Fun and frothy, but never simple

And while the story is good-natured and fun and perhaps just a tad “frothy”, there’s some important issues underpinning it, not least the way in which women are treated by the men around them. I  don’t think it is any coincidence that all the Australian men in this book are depicted as rather insensitive or chauvinistic — or both (which, funnily enough, ties up nicely with my previous read, even though that was set a decade or so later). And it is only the “Continental” men — specifically Magda’s husband Stefan and his Hungarian friend Rudi — who are cultured and sophisticated and who treat women with respect and courtesy.

Indeed, St John writes these refugees — or “reffos” as they were pejoratively called at the time — who settled in Australia after the Second World War with acute sensitivity and insight, presenting them as well educated and “cultivated” — everything that an ordinary Australian at the time was not. This is nicely summed up by Magda when she denounces Rudi’s plan to find a nice Australian girl to marry as “madness” because all the cultivated girls have gone abroad. “You will hardly ever find one here; if you do she is saving her fare to London, I can guarantee it,” she says.

Although The Women in Black — the title refers to the uniform the ladies wear at work — is slight and can easily be read in a couple of sittings, it is hugely intelligent and acutely perceptive about human relationships and the way in which “Continentals” began to transform Australian society — for the better. It’s an utterly delicious read — heartwarming, life affirming, funny and sad, all at the same time. I found it rather joyful and fun, as did Victoria Best who reviewed it so beautifully on Tales from the Reading Room last year. Whispering Gums also has a lovely review on her blog.

The good news for British and North American readers is that you don’t have to order it from Australia to read it — there are two editions (one by Abacus and one by Text Classics) readily available.

Australia, Author, Book review, David Ireland, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland


Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 1976. But the book — and Ireland himself — fell into a kind of obscurity. It has only recently been brought back into print thanks to Text Publishing’s Text Classics imprint, where, I am sure, it has found an entirely new audience.

But let’s be frank — this is a confronting book, probably one of the most confronting I’ve ever read, because it presents an entirely male world, one which revolves around alcohol, violence, sex and sexism. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor is it for those who are easily offended, especially by outdated and misogynistic attitudes to women.

The world inside a pub

The book is set entirely in a pub —  The Southern Cross hotel, situated in Northmead, western Sydney, to be precise — which is described as follows:

It was home. The world and history passed by on wheels. Life stayed outside. Babies were started, and born. Weddings, shootings, promotions, dismissals, hungers, past and future — all were outside.

So the pub is seen as a refuge, a home away from home. But it’s not a place of comfort — indeed, it’s a kind of metaphor for a different, more sinister, kind of world.

At night the Southern Cross often looked, even to me, an illuminated tomb. A sort of past solidified in masonry. The traffic tried to run by all the faster to stay in the present or the past might grab them. But to us, our tomb was where life was: outside was a world fit only to die in. The dark, a live monster, leaned on the roof and tried the glass doors. Its eyes were black, fathomless as death.

It is narrated by Lance, better known as Meat Man (a nickname which refers to the size of his penis — I told you this was a very male book), who lets us in to this secretive world inhabited by Australian males from the early 1970s, most of whom are poor, working class types who “drink to erase everything”.  He does this by recounting dozens of stories about the men who frequent the pub as well as his own adventures in drink and lust.

The book doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the novel — it’s a series of short fragments and episodes, some of them less than a page long, each one a separate tale in its own right. It feels disjointed at first, but there are common threads and themes running throughout, so that Ireland builds up a rich tapestry, albeit focused on action, not plot.

And the intimate nature of the prose — almost as if Lance is confiding his darkest secrets to you, and you alone — makes it a compelling read.

Adventures in alcohol

The Glass Canoe — the title, by the way, refers to a beer-filled glass  “and after however many glasses it took, the glass got bigger and bigger, we stepped into the glass and claimed our freedom to float away” — might be set in a pub, but it does not glorify drinking. If anything, it shows how alcohol dependence ruins lives and livelihoods.

It presents the drinker as a kind of underclass, even if Lance can’t quite identify with that view himself. Indeed, he thinks it quite humorous when his old school friend Sibley starts hanging around the pub studying the clientele for a university thesis. When he asks him how his investigations are going, Sibley says “I’m finding all sorts of things. This is another dimension here.”

‘They [drinkers] can’t survive in our world and in the future, Lance,’ he said
kindly. ‘The non-drinker is a member of the civilised races: the
drinker, no matter the language he speaks, belongs to one identifiable
inferior race spread throughout the planet. But to go on, some past
authorities say that to speak of intelligence in respect of drinkers is a
misnomer; they present hardly any of the phenomena of intellect. They
are unreflective and averse to abstract reasoning and sustained mental
effort.’ ‘You’re describing a drunk.’ ‘Lance, baby, that’s when a
drinker’s a drinker for Christ’s sake.’

Outdated attitudes to women

Lance also struggles to see how his misogynistic attitudes to women are anything other than normal — although he does warn the reader that “if this is not your style of thing, skip this paragraph” when he describes a trip to a strip club, so he clearly has boundaries. And while he appears very much besotted with “his Darling”, he still sleeps with other women whenever the opportunity presents itself. For Lance, and all the other randy blokes in this book, it is all about quantity, not quality.

Indeed, women are generally sneered at — “Did you know that on a golf course the ladies hit off from different tees, closer to the hole? They haven’t protested yet at the inequality” — unless, of course, they work behind the bar and/or look and behave like men.

But lest you think this book sounds rather hard-hitting, I have to confess I got quite a lot of laughs out of it. There’s a laconic sense of humour that keeps it from becoming a juggernaut of angst. And Lance, for all his faults, is a likable character — he might be sexist and enjoy a fight, but he stands up for the underdog, feels sympathy for the old men in the pub, appreciates Sibley’s attempts to better himself through education.

In short, even though The Glass Canoe is essentially about men drinking, fighting and shagging, I’m glad I read it. In its depiction of another time and another place it is very good, but as a raw glimpse of a macho mindset it is exceptional.

For another female take on this novel, please do read Lisa at ANZLitLover’s brilliant review.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 224 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gail Jones is an acclaimed Australian writer with four novels to her name. Five Bells, her fifth, is set in Sydney on one day shortly after the new Labor Government has come to power, some time in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters as they criss-cross the city on a fine summer’s day.

There is Ellie, a tourist from rural NSW, who has ventured into the city to meet her old boyfriend, James, whom she has not seen for several years. Ellie’s home-life has been troubled, and James, now a school teacher, is recovering from a tragedy that has scarred him emotionally.

Then there is Catherine, from Dublin, who is embarking on a new life in Australia after the death of her beloved brother in a car accident. And, finally, there is Pei Xing, born in China, who is still trying to come to terms with the loss of her parents, who were killed in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Apart from Ellie and James, these characters do not know each other but there are fleeting moments when their lives intersect. Eventually they meet, but under unexpected and tragic circumstances, right at the end of the novel.

The book is not particularly plot-driven, but it is very much a story about characters, and, in particular, their inner lives. There’s a quote about three-quarters of the way through that sums up the premise of Five Bells perfectly. In it Ellie stands at a bus-stop processing the thoughts in her head: her dad’s untimely death; her mother’s quick and unexpected re-marriage; of having sex with Jamie in her teenage years.

A bus-stop wait could cover all this, all this complicated history. A woman standing still in a main street on a Saturday afternoon could carry all this: death, time, recollected acts of love-making — all together, simultaneous, ringing in her head.

In many ways that’s exactly what reading this book feels like. You become totally immersed in the interior monologues of the four different characters, holding their thoughts in your own head, like a simultaneous refrain, and waiting for the moments of shared experience, whether physical or mental, between them.

Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic backstory and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface. In many ways this is a book about the deep personal secrets we all keep.

Pei Xing is a prime example. Her self-reliance, friendliness and kindness belies her tortured past. Every week she makes a long trek by public transport to visit an elderly woman in hospital recovering from a stroke. The woman was once her prison guard in China, but it is not something she has ever told anyone. Who, for instance, would understand their complicated relationship? Pei simply sits with the woman and reads Doctor Zhivago, which her father translated, to her.

She did not speak of Mao. She did not mention their large-scale history, the three-year famine, or the anti-rightist campaigns; just as she did not tell the most private of her family memories, the red-coat day, her mother’s music, the times she had spent learning English and Russian from her father. And so it went by, the cosy lassitude of a hospital afternoon, washed in reminiscence and a snowy story from Russia.

The city of Sydney is also a central character in this book. There are recurring motifs throughout: Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House; an Aboriginal busker playing a didgeridoo; Circular Quay and the ferries plying the water; the Museum of Contemporary Art; the sunshine and the glittering harbour waters.

And in this there are echoes of James Joyce’s Dubliners, especially in the last paragraph which is reminiscent of Joyce’s great short story The Dead, substituting the snow over Dublin for rain over Sydney.

There is a lot of music in this novel, too, a soundtrack that mirrors the cacophony of city noises. Catherine has Elvis Costello’s I Want You trailing “mournfully through her head”, listens to Sinead O’Connor singing Raglan Road, and has a crush on U2’s Bono stemming from her teenage years; James has Coldplay’s Clocks in his mind (“it is the curse of his generation, to have a soundtrack enlisted for everything”) and is haunted by the disturbing images in the video for Nirvana’s Heart-shaped Box which he’d seen as a 19-year-old. Even Pei remembers her father telling her that everyone possesses an “inward music”.

Five Bells is an ambitious, beautifully written novel, full of the lovely rich language I’ve come to expect from Gail Jones (I’ve reviewed Sorry and Sixty Lights on this blog). It’s a moving, rather gentle, story about coming to grips with the past in order to move into the future, of the ties that bind us to our families, and of the things we never tell each other. And I’d like to think it might earn Jones a place on this year’s Booker long-list…

Alan Collins, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘A Promised Land?’ by Alan Collins


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 418 pages; 2001.

The Jewish immigrant experience has been much explored in British and American fiction. In Australia it’s a different story. Despite being a nation of immigrants, this is the first book I’ve ever read focusing on the Jewish in Australia.

A Promised Land? is actually three novels in one: The Boys from Bondi (first published in 1987), Going home (1993) and Joshua (1995). It is also known as the “Jacob Kaiser trilogy” because it follows the life of Jacob Kaiser, an Australian-born Jew, from his childhood in Sydney during the Great Depression to his early 40s during the Vietnam War era.

It’s clearly a semi-autobiographical work, because there are many similarities between Alan Collins’ early life and his fictional creation, Jacob Kaiser, as both were born in the 1920s and raised in a children’s home for Jews. This lends the story, in particular The Boys from Bondi, a truly authentic feel.

The first two novels, which cover the years 1935 to 1948, concentrate on Jacob’s search for identity. The third, set in 1967, addresses similar concerns, but it focuses more on Jacob’s son.

Reviewing this collection of novels is difficult without giving away crucial plot spoilers, because ultimately what happens in the first book impacts on everything else that follows. So if the outline feels vague, forgive me.

When we first meet Jacob he is 10 years old. It is 1935. His family, feeling the effects of the Great Depression, have come down in the world, moving from their stately home in Bellevue Hill to a boarding house, known as The Balconies, overlooking Bondi Beach.

When Jacob is 13 and his brother Solly is nine, tragedy strikes. They come home to find their step-mother, Carmel, has done a runner and are then told their father has died — he has “fallen off a cliff”  while working in a road gang, although we never learn if it is an accident or suicide. Now orphans, Jacob and Solly, are taken in by a Jewish charity, the Abraham Samuelson Memorial Home school.

It is while at the children’s home that Jacob gets his first taste of what it is to be Jewish. As a third-generation Australian Jew, he feels more Australian than Jewish because the Kaisers have never been religiously observant. He hasn’t even taken his bar mitzvah.

But now, surrounded by European Jews fleeing prosecution in Nazi Germany (“The survivors of destroyed Jewish communities in countries that he knew only as blobs on a map of Europe”), he realises that he has little in common with other Jews. Their language, their rituals, their well-to-do European backgrounds feel foreign to him.

This is a common thread that runs throughout Collins’ triptych: where does an Australian-born Jew fit into the grand scheme of things? And what does it mean to be Jewish in a secular, supposedly egalitarian society?

Later, when Jacob leaves the children’s home, this search for meaning continues. He gains work in a printery as an apprentice, where he confronts anti-semitism from his boss, who calls him an “Ikey” and a “Yid”, and blames him for the fighting in Palestine over the formation of a Jewish state. But this casual bigotry is everywhere. Even his Gentile girlfriend, Peg, a student nurse from Bathurst, wonders why he hasn’t got a big nose?

“How many Jews do you know, Peg?”
“Well, there’s, um, Doctor whatsisname in Casualty. A really nice bloke. He gave me some pills for my hayfever. And then there’s–”
“Okay, that makes two — one has and one hasn’t. So you’re only half-right, aren’t you?”

It is at about this time, living in a house with his Jewish landlady Mrs Rothfield, that Jacob becomes politicised. Desperately lonely, with no immediate family of his own, he discovers the local library, works his way through countless classics and then stumbles upon Robert Tressall’s book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. His eyes are opened by the concepts of worker’s rights and of Socialism. Later, Peg, introduces him to Communism via the Eureka Youth League, and another female friend, the beguiling Ruti whom he went to school with, invites him to join the Zionist group to which she belongs.

Of course, a book about Jewish identity could not fail to mention Palestine, and it is here that Jacob eventually goes to explore his Jewish roots. There’s a particularly telling scene in the second novel in which he looks out the window of the kibbutz and sees “forlorn clusters of refugees” standing about waiting for direction.

One looked up and beckoned to him. Jacob was seized with terrible indecision. He did not want to be associated with these remnants; Jews they may be but what else did he have in common with them? In yet another guise it was the same problem that he had confronted so many times. Jews, he knew to his own longstanding confusion, came in so many varied and wildly disparate personae that one had ultimately to realise that Jewishness was their only common factor. And that Jewishness could not be definied merely as religion. The one thing that Jacob had learned was that the rituals of belief were only the externals of Judaism. It was the five thousand years of history that daunted him, which he carried on his back like the old man of the sea, unable to discard it even if he had wanted to.

In Jacob’s struggle to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile aspects of his life, we see that where we come from influences who we are and where we are going. In many ways this is a book as much about Australian identity as it is Jewish identity — and some of it, including the bigotry, prejudice and ignorance, makes for uncomfortable reading.

It’s particularly interesting to see the ways in which the attitudes to Jewish refugees (also known in a derogatory manner as “reffos”) changed during the 1930s and 1940s.  Initially they were welcomed with open arms but later, when the Anzac’s began to return from war, they were scorned for taking jobs that Australians felt that their soldiers deserved. By the same token, the Vienna Wald coffee shop set up by Jewish refugee Mitzi Strauss, once regarded by locals as a place they would not be seen dead in, becomes popular with the coffee-drinking set in the 1960s.

I loved A Promised Land? despite my initial misgivings that the story didn’t sound particularly exciting going by the rather wan blurb description. The presentation of the book, with its uninspired cover image and the poor binding quality, also let it down.

But from the very first page, I was swept away by the tale of Jacob’s troubled life. Collins has an amazing gift for story-telling. The three novels are filled with drama, intrigue, adventure, grief and joy. There’s plenty of warmth, humour and poignancy too.

And his prose has that old-fashioned effortlessness to it, which makes eating up the pages very easy. It’s the characters which really make this book, though. I loved them all, especially Jacob’s undesirable Uncle Siddy, with his nefarious money-making schemes and eye for the ladies; Peg, the nurse from Bathurst, is a feisty, tell-it-as-it-is sort; and Mrs Rothfield is motherly and kind, even if she does warn Jacob to stay away from the Gentiles!

A Promised Land? is only available in Australia. For details of where you can buy it visit Alan Collins’ official website.

Finally, many thanks to Lisa from ANZLitLovers for giving me this book; I would never have read it otherwise. I would urge you to read Lisa’s review for another take on it.

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, crime/thriller, Fiction, Grove Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘The Unknown Terrorist’ by Richard Flanagan


Fiction – hardcover; Grove Press; 336 pages; 2007.

Australian author Richard Flanagan‘s latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist, is dedicated to David Hicks, the Australian-born Taleban fighter captured by US forces in Afghanistan in November 2001. Hicks was detained by the US Government in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for more than five years, before he was tried and convicted of supporting terrorism in 2007. His ongoing detention without trial made him a cause célèbre in Australia.

If nothing else, this particular case highlights that those accused of terrorism are not subject to the normal “rules” under the justice system as it operates in most democratic countries: if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time you could be locked away without trial and, what’s more, you could be mistreated and tortured on the simple basis that you are presumed guilty with no legal right to defend yourself.

Since the advent of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, we live in dangerous times, but who is in danger? Innocent civilians who may be blown up at any moment? Or innocent people accused of plotting to blow things up on the flimsiest of “evidence”? It’s a blurry line and it is exactly this line that Flanagan exploits for the purposes of this thrilling, thoroughly modern novel.

Set in Sydney across five hot, summer days, the story follows Gina Davies, a lap dancer known as the Doll, on the run from the law having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. But Gina is entirely innocent. Her “crime” has been no more than having a one-night stand with an attractive stranger, Tariq, who is blamed for three unexploded bombs found at Homebush Olympic Stadium the previous day.

Broadcast journalist come television celebrity Richard Cody — whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Ray Martin — is onto the story straight away for a prime time current affairs program called Undercurrent.

Cody has had a secret “encounter” with the Doll at the club and thinks there’s something mysterious about her. What ensues is a media beat-up about the “unknown terrorist” that becomes increasingly fantastic as time goes on, with little grounding in reality. But despite Cody’s occasional twinges of guilt — he realises the Doll has no motive for the crime — he justifies his decision to “move the story on” because ASIO spook Siv Harmsen tells him that “we need stories that remind people of what horrifying things might happen”.

And so standing together they watched the same footage run again — the same bomb in the same kid’s backpack; the same bad photograph of the same bearded man in Arabic-looking dress; the same slow-motion grainy images of Tariq and the Doll hugging each other. The repetitive images clicking over filled the TV like loose change filling an empty poke. The Twin Towers fell again; the same children’s bodies were laid out once more in Beslan; the same man or woman dressed in black brandished the same machine gun; the Doll continued dancing naked. And there were new scenes — a murky London tube train moments after it had been bombed; the Sari nightclub burning after the Bali bombing; wounded being taken away from the Madrid train bombing, the montage culminating in a shot that zoomed in on the Sydney Opera House before being blowing out to white, a cheap effect accompanied by an ominous rumble.

The Doll closed her eyes.

When she opened them she saw Osama bin Laden. George W. Bush. Missiles being launched. Men in robes firing grenade launchers. Great buildings exploding into balloons of fire. Women covered in blood. Hostages about to be beheaded. New York! Bali! Madrid! London! Baghdad! The Doll disintigrating into dancing squares of colour, herself pixellated, smiling a smile that was never hers.

Without wishing to spoil the plot, Gina’s life — and that of her best friend, Wilder — is put in increasing danger until the dramatic, heart-thumping climax. This is a genuinely intelligent thriller, quite unlike anything Flanagan has written before but with the same beautifully written prose for which he is renowned. I love the ways in which he uses analogies and similes to bring his writing to life. The book is littered with hundreds of examples, but this one, in which he compares a policeman’s dying marriage to that of a dying tree, demonstrates his particular brand of originality.

They stayed together and watched each other slowly become strangers, watched their love die as you watch a great old gum tree succumb to dieback. The affair was over for him, but it was just beginning for her. She never found out then, but it was as if each day now she lived another day of those years of lies and deceit; and his punishment was to witness her suffering. First just the leaf tips in the distant crown brown a little at the edges, then whole leaves, then a branch here and there. Still the tree lives, and everyone says it will be fine, that it is the weather, or one of those things, or anything but the death of something as natural and as seemingly permanent as a tree. But when his marriage began dying back, Nick Loukakis discovered nothing is fine. Each day some small thing — a joke, a shared intimacy, a sweet memory — he found to have withered and died. Caresses fell like dead leaves. Conversations cracked and then broke. And in the end there was nothing to quicken the trunk with the rising sap that fed and was fed in return by the branches, by the twigs, by the leaves. And in the end what remained, Nick Loukakis discovered, was nothing; nothing to keep it going, just a large thing still standing erect and proud, only everything about it had withered and died.

This is a very knowing novel, carefully constructed to expose the kinds of puppetry that goes on behind the scary headlines and news bulletins that bombard us on a daily basis. As well as dropping cynical observations about media manipulation, The Unknown Terrorist also takes a pop at the politics of fear mongering.

It’s by no means a perfect novel — there are far too many coincidences throughout, and the entire plot is far too contrived — but it’s a genuinely exciting and thought-provoking read about the shallow yet dark times in which we live.