This episode, called ‘People’, was themed around great characters from Australian fiction. This was how it was described on iView:
As an actor, Claudia Karvan knows great storytelling is all about people, great characters. What truths we can uncover about ourselves through the fictitious characters of Australian novels?
Having been starved of Australian literary fiction for about 20 years while living abroad, it was a delight to see this beamed into my living room! I was so familiar with the names and had read several of the books. I had even interviewed one of the authors in the past (hello, Tim Winton) and met another a couple of times (hello, Christos Tsiolkas).
While there was perhaps a bit too much focus on Karvan in the show and too heavily weighted toward contemporary fiction, there was enough meat on the bones in this episode to keep me entertained. And I even learned a thing or two. It wasn’t highbrow or dumbed down, but tread a careful middle ground.
And, more importantly, it wasn’t all fawning over writers and praising their work. In her opening interview with Christos Tsiolkas, Karvan confessed she never finished the book because she hated the characters so much! I’m sure that’s not the first time Tsiolkas has had that criticism levelled at his book, but perhaps the first time he’s had to defend it on television. I think he did it pretty well!
The books covered in episode one
I thought it might be interesting to list the books covered in episode one. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews
‘They’re a Weird Mob’ by Nino Culotta [not read, but we had a copy in the family home when I was growing up – amazed to discover it was written by an Irish-American, not an Italian immigrant]
‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey [abandoned in my pre-blogging days but as a much more experienced reader, I would be prepared to give this one another go]
‘The Choke’ by Sofie Laguna [not read this, but in the TBR]
I honestly can’t believe it is June already. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but where does the time go?
Anyway, it’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).
This month, the starting book is…
‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld (2020)
I haven’t read this novel, which won this year’s Stella Prize, though it has been lingering in my digital TBR for quite some time. I know that an element of it is historical fiction set in Scotland, which brings to mind another book with a similar background…
‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin (2016)
In this richly evocative novel by Western Australian writer Amanda Curtin, we meet Meggie Tulloch, a woman born in the late 19th century to a traditional fishing family on the north-east coast of Scotland. Spanning 1891 to 1932, Maggie shares her life story, including her time as a “herring girl” and her later marriage and emigration to the other side of the world. This brings to mind…
‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop (2015)
This is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It tells the story of an English woman who, together with her Anglo-Indian husband and two young children, becomes a “£10 POM” and emigrates in the early 1960s to begin a new life in Western Australia. But things don’t go according to plan and Charlotte struggles with the homesickness and dislocation that every emigrant feels. This brings to mind…
‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín (2009)
One of my favourite novels, Brooklyn captures the emigrant’s sense of dislocation so beautifully it made me cry. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irishwoman from Co. Wexford, who leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. This brings to mind…
‘Road Ends’ by Mary Lawson (2014)
Set in Canada in the 1960s, this book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. There are three different threads to the tale, but the most evocative one (in my opinion) is that of Megan Cartwright, who moves to London and finds her dream job (after many ups and downs) running a small boutique hotel. This brings to mind…
‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011)
In this strangely beautiful Japanese novel, we meet 17-year-old Mari, who helps run a hotel on the coast with her overbearing mother. Late one evening two hotel guests, a screaming woman and her male companion, are ejected from the premises. Later, Mari, who is alarmingly young and naive, strikes up a friendship with the man — more than 50 years her senior — that morphs into a rather deviant sexual affair. This brings to mind…
‘Breath’ by Tim Winton (2009) This gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story is about a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, better known as “Pikelet”, is a bit of an outsider, but he develops a bond with “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, and everything changes. The pair fall in with an older surfer, Sando, who challenges them to try surfing in often dangerous and remote locations, but it’s the clandestine (and deviant sexual) relationship that Pikelet has with the Sando’s American girlfriend that takes him into deadly territory…
So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about three generations of women in Scotland to a tale of teenage boys growing up in Western Australia, via four stories about emigration and a Japanese novel focused on a strange romance between an older man and a teenage girl.
Have you read any of these books?
Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.
There are 156 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.
Here are just a dozen titles, which I have reviewed on the blog over the past year or so. Note that inclusion here does not necessarily mean I recommend the book, only that I have read and reviewed it.
The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.
As many of you will know, I have recently relocated to Western Australia (WA) after almost 21 years of living in the UK. I am originally from Victoria, on the other side of the country, so even though I am back “home”, as it were, I have never lived in WA before, so it is all very new and exciting — and a little bit strange.
For those who don’t know, WA is Australia’s biggest state — it makes up almost a third of the entire landmass, most of which is desert (or what you might call the Outback). The state’s population of around 2.6 million people (in 2014) live largely in the fertile south-west (home to the Margaret River wine region) and the capital city of Perth.
Until 2015, I had never stepped foot in WA. But when I did so, on an all-too-brief holiday, I immediately fell in love with the laidback lifestyle, the open spaces and the weather. I have returned for longer holidays several times since, and in June 2019 made the leap to move here permanently, choosing to settle in Fremantle, a historic port town just a 30-minute train journey south of Perth.
Living here for only a short time it strikes me how little I know about WA culture — its music, art, theatre and literature, in particular — because when you grow up on the south-east coast of the country it’s all very Melbourne and Sydney-centric. (Something I also noticed when I lived in Queensland for a few years in the mid-1990s.)
But what I have learned is that WA has a very strong literary tradition, with numerous successful writers, past and present, and a handful of independent presses, including Fremantle Press, the University of Western Australia Press and Margaret River Press, being based here.
I thought I would use my blog over the next few months to celebrate WA writers and review books written by the people who live here (or come from here). I’m regarding it as a bit of a journey of discovery and hope you might come along for the ride.
I’m not a complete ignoramus though. In the past, I have read many WA writers and I can see from my archives that I have already reviewed some, including (in alphabetical order by author’s surname):
On first impressions, I’d say it was a relatively mediocre reading year for me, and going back through my reviews I can see that it was a definite year of two halves, with the first being particularly strong and the second being much weaker.
So here’s my list — a mix of old and new, heavily weighted towards Australian novels with a handful by authors from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and South Africa The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.
I’m very much a late convert to Tim Winton, arguably one of Australian literature’s better known exports, having only read a handful of his novels since 2011.
The Shepherd’s Hut, his 12th novel, was published earlier this year and it’s pretty much quintessential Winton: heavily focussed on landscape and place and centred on a young (male) character coming to terms with adulthood.
When the book opens, we meet Jaxie Clackton, an adolescent behind the wheel of a car, heading north on the highway. He’s fleeing something, but we’re not sure what, and we know he’s got a box of shells and a .410 shotgun.
For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you. But it wasn’t always like this. I have been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.
The narrative then spools back to the start of Jaxie’s story — “the day the old life ended” — and we are suddenly emerged in a world of toxic masculinity. We learn that Jaxie’s mother has recently died and his father, a drunk and a bully, beats him mercilessly.
Coming home late one day, he finds his father pinned under the car he’s been repairing; most likely he has been crushed to death. This, Jaxie thinks, is an opportunity too good to miss. He packs a bag, grabs a gun and some ammunition, and leaves home, free at last.
[/caption]From there on in, we follow Jaxie’s adventure north, all of it on foot, through wild bush, scrub and salt lands, fending for himself, shooting kangaroos for meat and always keeping an eye out for life-sustaining water. He has a mobile phone with him, but largely keeps it switched off to protect the battery life but also to ensure the authorities can’t track him down and pin his father’s death on him.
It’s a fraught, taut and dangerous journey and the only thing propelling him along is the urgent desire to be reunited with his girlfriend, Lee, who lives somewhere up north.
The plan only goes awry when Jaxie, desperate for food and water, stumbles upon the shepherd’s hut of the title and meets the strange man who lives in it. Suddenly, there’s a new dilemma: should he let his guard down and accept the man’s friendship, or keep moving on, possibly to die alone in the harsh terrain?
Vividly detailed novel
As ever with Winton’s work, place is central to the story and his detailed descriptions of the landscape transform Jaxie’s tale into a vivid technicolour “movie of the mind”.
But what really makes this novel such a compelling, often heart-hammering read is Jaxie’s working class teenage voice. It’s urgent, angry, demanding, intimate, opinionated and often crude, but it’s what drives this novel forward and provides forensic insight into Jaxie’s tortured past and his current state of mind.
Winton does an exemplary job of depicting Jaxie’s interior world, that struggle between wanting to be seen as an adult who’s self-reliant, strong and trustworthy, while coming to terms with strange new emotions: grief for the loss of his mother; relief at the death of his father; and first adolescent love with Lee ( “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper…”).
Perhaps the only thing that lets down the book is the rushed, semi-ambiguous ending, and the fact we never really find out the man in the shepherd’s hut real back story. But that’s by the by. I loved The Shepherd’s Hut in all its fierce, hard-as-nails glory. It’s a story that marries beauty with brutality, but it does something rather special too: it brings into sharp relief men’s emotional needs and what happens when those are not met.
In a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.
The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.
I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:
‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
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.
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.
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.
Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In the UK, nature writing is experiencing a renaissance. Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find a table adorned with attractive non-fiction books (like this one, for instance). You almost can’t move without running into a book about the seasons, or the landscape, or a particular species of plant or animal, or how someone has re-found themselves after spending some time alone in the natural world.
Last year I asked a judge on the Wainwright Prize, which was created in the wake of this new enthusiasm for nature writing, why this was the case. Why were people writing books about nature, and why were people choosing to read them? Her theory went something like this: modern life is so busy and everyone is so plugged in — to computers, to social media, to the digital world in general — that they’ve lost touch with nature and this was one way of rediscovering it.
In Australia, I suspect it’s a bit different. Sure, Australians are just as “plugged in” as the Brits, but I’ve always felt that there was something about the larger-than-life landscapes (and the too-weird-to-be-true wildlife) that infiltrates the Australian psyche, almost as if natural history was in our DNA. Of course, I grew up in the countryside, so I would say that, but I do think Australians are aware of the natural environment and the impacts that humans have on it more so than their British counterparts.
Australian writer Tim Winton puts it more eloquently than me in his new book Island Home: A Landscape Memoir:
We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is so much more of it than us. We are forever battling to come to terms. The encounter between ourselves and the land is a live concern. Elsewhere this story is largely done and dusted, with nature in stumbling retreat, but here our life in nature remains an open question and how we answer it will define not just our culture and politics but our very survival.
10 deeply personal essays
The book, which is made up of 10 essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (“The Island Seen and Felt” was first given as a talk at London’s Royal Academy in 2013, for instance), highlights Winton’s relationship to the land but also gives us a potted history of the environmental movement in Australia. Each deeply personal (and full of vivid imagery) essay is prefaced by a diary-like back story to explain how what follows came to be.
Perhaps my favourite essay (admittedly it’s hard to choose just one) is “The power of place” in which Winton explains his evolution as a writer (primarily of quintessential Australian novels, some of which are reviewed here).
From the get-go he says he always wanted to write about the landscape and the “music of the vernacular” around him, an idea that wasn’t always welcomed by city-based publishers who felt this would not go down well in places like Sydney or London. It seems so ludicrous now, given that it is these twin pillars that make Winton’s writing so unique, well-loved and, dare I say it, award-winning.
Times are a’changing
From this collection of essays it is clear that a lot of things have changed over the course of the past 30 or 40 years. Landscapes have been damaged and species lost as the march of suburbia has continued unabated; large areas of pristine wilderness have been ruined, or are under threat, thanks to mining, the construction of hydro-electric power schemes, and gas and oil exploration. Intensive agriculture has caused erosion, water pollution and soil salinity. I could go on, but I won’t.
It’s not all bad news though. As Winton points out, this ongoing destruction has also created a new awareness and a more positive attitude towards the environment. “Greenies”, once regarded as foolhardy lefties with nothing better to do with their time, have slowly become normalised — or at least the values they espouse have become “mainstreamed”. Winton explains this incredibly well in the essay entitled “The corner of his eye”:
In the 1980s “greenie” subculture began to broaden and become a social movement, though it was still fractious and hectic. With its unlikely national reach and surprising political consequences, Tasmania’s Franklin Dam blockade was evidence of how widely the thinking of those earlier prophetic figures had spread, and how potent it was when amplified by a new and more diverse generation of activists like Bob Brown. By the 1990s the erudition, discipline and strategic patience of advocacy groups meant that ideas once thought to be harmlessly eccentric were shaping the vernacular mood and framing public policy. And by the turn of the millennium, the status of a river, reef or forest could determine the outcome of an election.
He goes on to say that though the battle is not yet won, “few on the right are completely unchanged by this development in thinking”.
An impassioned plea for the future
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing (I have a degree in environmental planning and spent my early 20s full of youthful idealism trying to save the planet), so there was never any doubt that I was not going to love this book. But what I found most surprising was how much resonated even though the author lives on the west coast, which is vastly different to the kind of Australian landscape with which I’m familiar. But I rather suspect that Winton, who is about a decade older than me, has noticed more environmental change in his lifetime than most people on the more populous east coast have seen. That’s why everything he says here should make people sit up and take notice.
If nothing else, Island Home is an impassioned and eloquent plea to save what’s left before it’s gone forever. And yet, for a collection of essays that could be so potentially negative and downhearted, it brims with a kind of hopefulness and optimism for the future. I really loved it.
If there’s a failing of the book it is not the author’s but his publishers, who have not provided a table of contents or an index. Something to bear in mind for a reprint, perhaps?
Dirt Music is Tim Winton‘s eighth novel. (He’s currently got 11 to his name.) It’s the one that’s been recommended to me most over the years, and somewhere along the line I’ve acquired three copies — but not read any of them. Until now.
The novel is what I’ve come to expect of Winton’s fare: beautiful prose, exquisite descriptions of landscapes, earthy all-too-real characters and a strong sense of place. But, if I’m being truly honest, I have to say the storyline is completely bonkers — and the narrative gets increasingly strange after the midway point. I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I liked it or not.
The story is essentially about two damaged people who begin a “forbidden” relationship before one of them runs away and hides out on a remote and uninhabited tropical island, where he goes slightly crazy. In the meantime, a search party, with nefarious intentions, sets out to find him. It’s a bit like marriage between an Australian Heart of Darkness and The Swiss Family Robinson, perhaps with a smidgen of Mad Max thrown in for good measure. A strange combination, right?
An unconventional romance
Initially the story begins as an unconventional romance between two residents in a lobster fishing village on the Western Australia coast. The fictional White Point is one of those places that has suddenly become awash with cash thanks to a lobster boom, but the people are rough and ready (read rednecks) and the community is dominated by men who solve disputes with their fists even if they live in the most lavish of houses. (Indeed, latent violence permeates everything, including the names of the fishing boats, which include Reaper, Raider, Slayer and Black Bitch.)
Living in this community is Georgie Jutland, a 40-something woman railing against her privileged middle-class background (her father is a QC and she’s had a private education but shunned university to become a nurse). She’s moved in with established fisherman Jim Buckridge, a widower with two sons, who rules the seas: he’s a kind of unelected “sheriff” who keeps the town’s wilder elements in check, often using the threat of violence to do so. But Georgie’s not exactly happy. She has no job and her relationship with her two stepsons is strained. She spends most of her time drinking vast quantities of vodka.
One day she spots a man on the beach, who appears to be poaching fish from lobster pots that don’t belong to him. His name is Luther Fox. She knows that she should tell Jim, but for whatever reason she keeps the news to herself. She secretly befriends Luther, who is grieving over the death of his brother, sister-in-law and their children in a tragic accident, and begins an affair with him.
Both Georgie and Luther are “lost”, damaged people, lonely and in need of solace, but their relationship — if you could even call it that — seems one-sided: Georgie needs him more than he needs her. You never really get a sense that Luther is truly attracted to Georgie — for him it’s more about distracting himself from loss, for replacing the music he no longer produces with something akin to love or, more specifically, lust. Perhaps it’s because he lives off-grid (he burnt all his identification papers following the funerals of his relatives), that he wants to remain invisible, even to the woman he’s sleeping with.
But remarkably, for a book that is supposedly about a love affair, there’s not much sex in it. And the story, which is divided into eight parts, changes tack so dramatically at the midway point that it seems churlish to describe it as anything other than a strange, sometimes terrifying, adventure story set in a dramatic landscape.
An undercurrent of music
As the title would suggest, music, specifically bluegrass, is perhaps the only consistent theme running through it. Dirt music is, according to Luther, “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity”. (In Australia, a two-disc soundtrack for the novel was released to go with it, which you can purchase from the ABC Shop if you are that way inclined.)
Luther is passionate about music — he played in a band with his brother and his sister-in-law until their deaths, when he put his guitar away, no longer able to find joy in creating it. And so the absence of music becomes a metaphor for loss. It’s only when Luther is holed up on a tropical island that he finds himself tuning in to the sounds of nature once again.
All in all, I found Dirt Music a compelling, yet strangely inconsistent read. It’s bleak, sometimes achingly so, and the narrative seems cluttered and meandering, in need of a good edit. But as a portrait of a hostile landscape and of the sometimes desperate ways in which lonely people seek solace it’s exceedingly good.