Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Garry Disher, Hodder, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘The Divine Wind’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 151 pages; 2002.

I will admit that when I purchased Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind last year from a secondhand bookstore for the princely sum of $1, I did not realise it was a young adult novel. I associate Disher with adult fiction, usually crime, and because I’d never read him before I jumped on the name and thought it might be a good introduction to his work. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised my mistake…

Except it wasn’t really a mistake, because The Divine Wind turned out to be quite an entertaining read, perfect fodder for an over-tired brain that just wanted some escapism while the outside world went a bit mad.

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, it’s essentially a coming of age story about four teenagers living in the pearling town of Broome, on the far north Western Australia coast, and what happens to them over the course of a few event-filled years.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Hartley Penrose, the son of a pearling master, looking back on his teenage years. He has a younger sister Alice, with whom he is particularly close following their mother’s return to England (she could never quite get used to her isolated, lonely life in Broome), and together they are friends with Mitsy Sennosuke, the daughter of a Japanese diver employed by their father, and Jamie Killan, who has just moved to town with his family. The four of them hang out regularly; they go swimming and sailing, or see films at the cinema.

But the carefree nature of their existence changes when a disastrous cyclone hits the coast which results in Mitsy’s father dying at sea and Hartley suffering a serious leg injury from which he never fully recovers. Not long later, the Japanese bomb Broome and soon Mitsy and her mother are viewed with suspicion because of their ethnicity; they are later interned.

Against all this drama, Hartley falls in love with Mitsy, who later becomes a nurse, but his feelings are never fully reciprocated because it seems that she may have given her heart to Jamie…

Love and adventure

As much a love story as it is an adventure story, The Divine Wind is a richly written novel that deals with some very adult themes including love, death, racism and war.

It’s a highly evocative account of a particular time and place, where non-whites, whether Asian or Aboriginal, are treated with prejudice. It’s also an unsettling portrait of a harsh and demanding climate; of a lifestyle that is remote and lonely; and a community that isn’t always forgiving.

It’s wonderfully moving and powerfully told.

This is my 10th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Emily Paull, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Madelaine Dickie, Margaret River Press, Michelle Johnston, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR2020, University of Western Australia Press

3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

Last year I decided to embark on a project to read books from my adopted state of Western Australia. And then my plans flew out the window when I started a new full-time job in a new career just a couple of weeks later!

Alas, six months on and my working life is now (slightly) more manageable, giving me more bandwidth to get on with my reading life.

Here are three excellent books I’ve read recently by women writers from Western Australia. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Red Can Origami is a brilliant, politically motivated novel about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general. But it’s also a deeply personal story about living in a tiny tropical town, adapting to a new lifestyle and remaining true to yourself.

It’s narrated in the second person by Ava, a journalist, who works on the local newspaper. She later takes a job as an Aboriginal liaison officer for a Japanese firm that that’s big into nuclear power. That firm is going head to head with a Native Title group in a bid to begin mining uranium on country. As the fast-paced plot races its way towards an inevitable showdown between the local community, the white do-gooders and the mining company, Ava finds herself out of her depth — and in love with a local Aboriginal man.

The novel is set in Australia’s tropical north and is as much a love letter to that landscape and climate and remote way of life as it is an exploration of morals and principles and the importance of cultural understanding and awareness. It’s written in rich, vivid language, has a cast of strong, well-drawn characters and covers some pertinent issues without being too heavy-handed. It’s a wonderfully authentic Australian story told with insight and sensitivity.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 306 pages; 2018.

Dustfall is set in Wittennoom, the asbestos mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which was classified as a contaminated site and then degazetted in 2006/7. Its deadly legacy, in which hundreds of miners developed terminal mesothelioma, is the lens through which this delicately rendered story is told.

Split into two distinct time frames — one historical, one current — it looks at two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. For Dr Raymond Filigree, working in the town’s small hospital is a way for him to rebuild his confidence, but instead, he finds himself at war with a mining company that has no respect for human life; while for Dr Lou Fitzgerald, the now-abandoned Wittenoom, full of eerie silence and empty buildings, offers a refuge from a career-ending error, but it also opens her eyes to much bigger crimes from the past when she discovers the town’s ruined hospital.

These twin narratives tapped into my own long-held fury about Wittenooom’s deadly blue asbestos mine which has been with me ever since I read Ben Hills’ Blue Murder, circa 1990, and heard Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine at around the same time. Another politically charged novel, Dustfall is eloquently told but brims with slow-burning anger. It’s absorbing, intelligent — and powerful.

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 242 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Well-behaved women seldom make history, so the saying goes. And that’s pretty much the theme of this collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.

Many of the characters in these succinct tales live quiet lives with little fanfare, they know their place and don’t seek the limelight, they simply get on with the business of doing what they do. They are the kind of people that go unnoticed, even in death, such as the free diver in “The Sea Also Waits” who goes missing at sea during routine training and whose absence only appears to be noted by her adult daughter, or the female skeleton in “From Under the Ground” who has been buried under a lemon tree in a suburban backyard for so long even the police hold little hope of figuring out who she might be.

Then there are characters who ensure that other women don’t get above their station, such as the bitter and twisted television soap-opera-star-turned-drama-teacher in “Miss Lovegrove” who cruelly convinces her starry-eyed young hopefuls that they will never achieve acting success. “My job is to tell you that the world is sometimes a dirty, ugly place,” she tells one of her charges.

It’s hard to believe that Well-behaved Women is a debut because the writing — in the tone, the prose style and the range of subjects covered — feels so accomplished. There are some real gems in this book and it will be interesting to see what Paull comes up with next. She’s definitely a talent to watch.

I read these books as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

These books are all by Australian women writers. I read Michelle Johnston’s novel for  #AWW2019 (I just never got around to reviewing it last year). The remaining two books represent the 3rd and 4th books I have read this year for #AWW2020 and the 6th and 7th books for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Australia, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 340 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Australian Government’s shameful policy on immigration detention has been chronicled from the refugee’s point of view (see here and here), but what of the person on the “right” side of the wire — the prison guard?

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel Spinifex & Sunflowers tells the story of a young man who takes a job as a guard at an immigration detention centre in Western Australia.

Contract job

Nick is a drifter, who has a troubled relationship with his family and needs a job to pay off a debt. Despite a lack of formal qualifications and little enthusiasm, he accepts a job with a contractor as a “refugee-prison guard” for which he is paid handsomely.

The book charts his so-called training (“Skippy could take my place at training and I doubt I’d miss much”), the relationships he develops with his colleagues — all poorly educated, with little to no passion for the task at hand and certainly no empathy for the people they’re “guarding” — and his long, monotonous 12-hour shifts at the “refugee prison”, where everything is reduced to preposterous levels of control. One of his tasks, for instance, is guarding a cordial machine to ensure prisoners don’t drink more than their allotted amount of liquid.

The tale reads like something Kafka might have dreamt up, but it’s rooted in reality, for Spinifex & Sunflowers is based on the author’s own experience working at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia for several months. (Somewhat ironically, this is where Dr Munjed Al Muderis, one of the refugees who has written a book about his experience, was held.)

Hidden world

What Avan Judd Stallard presents in this book is an eye-opening account of a hidden world filled with petty cruelties, stupid rules and a cold-hearted attitude to real people.

It’s graphic and confronting in places, written in a blunt, choppy prose style using crude language designed to reflect the narrator’s machismo. Female colleagues are sexually objectified, there are brawls in pubs and a lot of hard drinking; everything, including the desert landscape, is harsh and confronting.

But for all its crudity, the book has an empathetic heart, for Nick has a conscience, a strong moral compass and sees the refugees in his care as human beings rather than numbers. He befriends them and learns about their lives and cultures in ways that are forbidden by the powers that be.

He also begins to see that he shouldn’t judge all his colleagues by appearances alone; some are good people who have simply become trapped by bad decisions or circumstances beyond their control.

We are all human

The overriding message of the novel is that we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect; it is the system and the policies that strip away dignity and pit people against each other.

It asks important questions about the ways in which we treat people fleeing persecution from their homelands, people who have every right to safe asylum but who have become caught up in a system that treats them inhumanely and strips them of their dignity. There but for the grace of God go I.

Spinifex & Sunflowers is grunge literature at its best. It might make for uncomfortable reading, but it deserves to be read by a wide audience. It was longlisted for the 2019 Colin Roderick Literary Award. You can read a sample chapter here.

I read this as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page

Australia, Author, Book review, Brooke Davis, Fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis

Lost-and-found

Fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Advance warning: Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found is going to be everywhere and you are going to have trouble avoiding it. And with good reason: this is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending.

The book has already garnered lots of attention in the author’s native Australia, where it has been a best-seller since its release last year. And it sparked a bidder’s war at the London Book Fair, suggesting that the publishers knew a good thing when they saw it. It has since been sold into 25 countries and translated into 20 languages.

I cracked it open last weekend not quite knowing what to expect and then I went on a wonderful little journey with a trio of remarkable characters that were a pleasure to spend time with. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.

Obsessed by death

When the book opens we meet Millie, who is obsessed with death and dead things. She’s recently lost her pet dog Rambo and then, more tragically, her father. By page six she’s “lost” her mother — in the literal sense, not the euphemistic sense — when she’s told to wait in a department store’s “Ginormous Womens Underwear” section, while her mum disappears into the distance — never to be seen again.

Millie will carry this around with her from now on, this picture of her mum getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It will reappear behind her eyes at different times throughout the course of her life.

An overnight stay ensues, hidden under the giant undies, and then she meets Karl the Touch Typist, an 87-year-old man who has escaped his nursing home and is living in the department store without anyone’s knowledge. The pair form an unlikely friendship.

Later, when Millie makes her way home alone, thwarting the best efforts of the police and social services, she meets her neighbour, 82-year-old Agatha Pantha, who hasn’t left her house since her husband died. Instead, she spends her time shouting insults through the window at passing strangers, earning a reputation as the neighbourhood’s “crazy lady”.

Together the trio set off to find Millie’s mum. What follows is an exciting — and somewhat manic — cross-country road trip involving buses, trains, a stolen car — and a department store mannequin.

A kooky cast of characters

What I loved most about this book is the characters. They really get under the skin and feel real: Agatha with her tendency to shout inappropriate Tourettes-like “sound bites” at all and sundry, Karl who constantly taps, taps, taps his fingers in memory of his life as a typist, and Millie with her dogged determination to avoid the police and find her mum.

While 80 years separates the oldest from the youngest, the three have one thing in common: they are all grieving: Millie for her dad (and her mum), Karl for his beloved wife Evie, and Agatha for her husband Ron. Interestingly, Brooke Davis wrote Lost & Found as a way to deal with her own grief after the sudden death of her mother seven years ago, and with this knowledge in mind, the reader can’t help but see Millie’s sense of abandonment as a reflection of the author’s.

It’s important to have your mum. Mums bring you jackets and turn on your electric blanket before you get into bed and always know what you want better than you do. And they sometimes let you sit on their lap and play with the rings on their fingers while Deal or No Deal is on.

But while the novel is about grief and death, it’s also about the joy of living and posits the idea that you’re never too old to do new things or start again. Yes, it is moving in places, but there’s an undercurrent of mischievous delight and black humour that stops it from being sentimental or emotionally manipulative. And Davis reigns in the “cutesy” factor so that it never succumbs to schmaltz, either.

Lost & Found  might be whimsical and comic, but to dismiss it as a “frothy” read would miss the point: this is a novel that has deeper philosophical meaning, one that will make you feel good about the possibilities that life offers when you grab it with both hands — no matter how young or old you might be.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton

Eyrie_UKedition

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you’ve ever spoken your mind, or stood up for something you believe in when it might have been easier — and safer — to keep quiet, you will find plenty to identify with in Tim Winton‘s Eyrie, which has just been published in the UK.

A tale about a burnt out man

In this extraordinary novel — Winton’s 11th — we meet Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. He’s also lost his comfortable lifestyle, his lovely house and his marriage.

Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower overlooking Fremantle, he’s living like a recluse: not even his mother, a social justice lawyer, is allowed to visit.

Burnt out, broke and clearly ill, he spends his days drinking and his evening popping prescription medication. There is little joy or meaning in his life, but then he meets his neighbours — Gemma, a woman from his past, and her six-year-old grandson, Kai — and things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous.

Returning to life

Told in the third person but entirely from Keely’s point of view, the novel charts Keely’s slow return to the world he’s given up on. But as he endeavours to do the right thing by Gemma and Kai, he finds himself becoming immersed in a seedy world far removed from his middle-class upbringing.

Lurching from one uncomfortable incident to the next, his behaviour gets increasingly erratic — he makes offensive phone calls to his sister that he can’t remember making, he passes out, he gets dizzy, he vomits — so that by the novel’s end you’re wishing he’d do what his mother keeps telling him and seek some medical advice.

But Keely is a man who lives by his own set of rules and follows his own moral compass — and you can’t help but love him for it.

Richly layered read

Winton does lots of rather clever things with this novel to make it an exceedingly strong, muscular and richly layered read.

He never provides straightforward answers about Keely’s situation — how he lost his job, what happened with his wife, is he sick or simply a drug addict —  but provides a steady drip feed of clues, so that you can figure it out for yourself.

He makes Keely come from a family of “good Samaritans” and intertwines that past history with the present to highlight the legacy of what it is to help others less fortunate than yourself.

He then sets the story at the tail end of 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis — which left Australia unscathed — so that he can explore the underbelly of Australian society at a time of great economic prosperity.

And then he has Keely, a well-educated man who’s pretty much lost everything, living in a building that houses all kinds of people, including those who had nothing to lose in the first place, so that he can see what happens when a downwardly mobile man falls into that class — will he sink, swim or help the people around him?

A comic touch

Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects — not least Australia’s class system, a subject that seems to preoccupy many of the country’s contemporary writers — it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. (There’s some terrific pun-laden conversations between Keely and his mother throughout the story, for instance, as well as a rather outrageous hangover scene in the opening chapter which sets the mood for the rest of the book.)

In exploring what it is to be a good person and what it is to do the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment — Winton shines a light on the way in which contemporary Australians live their lives.

Eyrie, which has recently been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, is a sometimes exhilarating, often confronting and always thought-provoking read. I loved its intelligence and its clever set pieces tied together by a fast-paced narrative, but most of all I just loved being held in its sway. I’ve read it twice now — and when I finished it I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again. If that’s not the sign of a brilliant book, I don’t know what is.

An interview with the author

I was fortunate enough to interview Tim Winton in person on his recent promotional tour in the UK for Shiny New Books. You can read it here.

Alan Carter, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Michael O'Mara, Publisher, Setting

‘Prime Cut’ by Alan Carter

Prime-cut

Fiction – paperback; Michael O’Mara Books; 346 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The unpublished manuscript of Alan Carter’s Prime Cut was shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award. The following year it was published in Australia by Fremantle Press, and earlier this year it was published in the UK by Michael O’Mara Books.

In a nutshell, it is a first-rate crime thriller. It’s fast-paced without skipping over detail and it feels incredibly evocative of time and place — a mining community on the Western Australian coast in October 2008, just as the rest of the Western world is heading into economic meltdown.

Two storylines

The book is structured around two narrative threads that eventually come together in an unexpected — and ultimately — shocking way.

The first revolves around Stuart Miller, an English police detective who quit the force after a particularly harrowing murder case in Sunderland, England, in 1973. He decamped to Australia, where he has been living ever since with his Scottish wife. But he’s been mentally scarred by what he saw the day the “Cup Final killer”, Davey Arthurs, electrocuted and then blugeoned to death his wife and child. Now, 35 years later, someone with the same modus operandi has struck in the Adelaide hills, and Stuart can’t help wondering if it’s the same man.

The second narrative focuses on Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong, a Chinese-Australian, who’s been banished to the Stock Squad, which investigates crime in the outback relating to sheep, cattle and roadkill, following a fall from grace. But he’s called back in from the cold to head up a murder investigation when a torso is washed up on the coast. His return to “proper” police work brings him back into contact with an old colleague, Senior Sergeant Tess Maguire, which adds additional complications he doesn’t really doesn’t need.

Police at work

Prime Cut is a proper police procedural — and an excellent one at that. Carter expertly captures the working relationships, dynamics and internal politics of a group of cops working in an isolated area, mainly through the use of pitch-perfect, often witty (and sometimes cutting) dialogue and superb characterisation. And he also shows us their home lives, and gives us some insights into their inner-most thoughts, which provides the story with a welcome literary twist.

The only cliche, aside from the fact that none of the police in this novel are happily married, is the romantic element that creeps into the storyline, but I’ll forgive Carter that one foible, because this is such a compelling, complex and deftly written novel.

Its real strength, however, lies in its sense of time and place; Carter conveys the spirit of Hopetoun, on the Western Australian coast, which is renowned for its beauty and it’s nickel mining operations, not only by describing it so evocatively but by also giving us a kind of snapshot of a community on the edge, one that is being quickly changed by a mining boom bringing in new people, new money and new problems.

Carter’s background in directing television documentaries may explain why this book feels so sharp, “alive” and real. There’s a certain cinematic quality to the writing, too, because it’s so visual. And it’s brimming with narrative tension, which makes me wonder why some clever production company hasn’t snapped up the rights to turn this into a film or telemovie.

Overall, this is one of the finest police procedurals I’ve read in a long while — and I’m delighted to see a follow-up, Getting Warmer, has also been published. That one has promptly risen to the top of my wishlist.

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

‘Finding Jasper’ by Lynne Leonhardt

FindingJasper

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

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

A Western Australian novel

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

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

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

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

Detailed and highly nuanced

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

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

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

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

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

Post-war Australia

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘That Deadman Dance’ by Kim Scott

That-Deadman-Dance

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 416 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

If there was one book I was really looking forward to in 2012 it was Kim Scott‘s That Deadman Dance, which had been published in Australia to critical acclaim in 2010. Prior to its long-awaited publication in the UK last October, it had gone on to win almost every award going in the antipodes, including the 2011 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2011 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.

But perhaps that weight of expectation proved too heavy for me, because I found myself struggling to enjoy this book, even though I very much appreciated Scott’s “message” and his thoughtful, often beautiful prose.

First contact between black and white

The story, which is set on the south-west coast of Western Australia in the mid-19th century, charts the colonisation of the land by white settlers and the impact of their arrival on the native inhabitants, the aboriginal Noongar people.

Scott, who is a descendant of the Noongar, is more than authorised to tell this tale, which shows how an initial spirit of co-operation between the two groups sadly erodes over time.

The Europeans, once outnumbered by their aboriginal counterparts, become dominant and all-powerful as the settlement takes shape and new buildings, new roads and new systems of governance are put into place. As the population grows and more people arrive from the motherland, the Noongar are no longer viewed as equals but as a threat — in all kinds of ways.

By comparison, the Noongar, a resourceful and welcoming people who had initially embraced their new visitors and their strange ways, find that the land which had sustained them for thousands of years has now been parcelled off into farms for crop and meat production and they are no longer free to roam it. Their incomprehension is only matched by the white settler’s fury when sheep and other food is stolen from them.

This almost imperceptible shift in power is what makes this book so fascinating, because at what point did it go wrong? What would modern Australia be like if black and white relations had not broken down in this terrible way?

Unusual structure

The book is structured in an unusual way — and I think this is probably why I struggled to enjoy it. It is divided into four parts, which are not arranged in chronological order — for instance, we start in 1835, before going back to 1826-1830, then we move forward to1836-1838 before jumping forward again to 1841-1844.

There’s not much of a plot either (except, of course, the breakdown in black and white relations) and there’s not really a main character with which the reader can identify. While much of the narrative revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, a young aborigine, who has a remarkable gift for mimicry and learning new languages, Scott provides a range of perspectives, so we get to see things through the eyes of a vast array of characters, including Dr Cross, Bobby’s uncle Mendak, the Chaine family from Britain and former soldier Alexander Killam.

It is this constant jumping around (many of the chapters are very short) from person to person and from one time frame to another, that complicates the narrative. And despite this almost schizophrenic approach, I did occasionally find that the storyline lagged.

Portrait of Australia’s past

Of course, it’s not a bad novel and I’d urge anyone who is interested in Australia’s early history and its landscape to give it a try. Scott’s prose is wonderfully evocative, particularly of the bush and the ocean, and his descriptions of the whaling ships and the whaling industry — which becomes such a dominant force along this part of the coast — is rich and eloquent.

The strength of the story lies mainly in its examination of how the values of the colonisers were at odds with that of the Noongar — a dilemma that remains unreconciled to this day. But Scott does this in such a gentle, nuanced way that the full force of his detailed portrait of white arrogance and ignorance, coupled with black incomprehension and despair, doesn’t fully hit you until you come right to the end of the novel.

I came away from the last page feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, best summed up in this quote (from page 109):

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we
took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything
of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew
you didn’t want ours…

For a different take on this book, please see the reviews at ANZLitlovers, Tony’s Reading List and Book Sexy Review.

A note of warning: the blurb on my edition suggests this novel is a romantic tale between an aboriginal man and a white woman, but that paints a false premise. While there is a short romance between Bobby and Chaine’s daughter, this is not the central focus of the novel.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

Breath

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 247 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You’ve got to hand it to Tim Winton for being able to pick a theme and really work it. In Breath, his eighth novel, he focuses on the concept of breath — and breathing — so that it infuses almost every page. But he does it so delicately you’re not even aware that it’s happening — a bit like breathing itself — until you put the book down and mull things over.

A gentle story

I read Breath over the course of a few cold winter days and found myself mesmirised by the gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story that unfolds, of a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, or “pikelet”, is an outsider — his parents are English immigrants — who has no friends and lacks confidence. The only time he is ever sure of himself is when he is swimming in the local river or surfing in the ocean.

But when he meets “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, everything changes. The pair aren’t exactly kindred spirits, but there’s a bond between them — mainly in the form of “deep diving and breath-holding against the clock”.

Looking for added excitement, they save their pennies and invest in “real surfboards” made out of “proper foam and fibreglass” which “were tokens of our arrival”.

I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated.

The solitary figure on the beach (as per the quote above) turns out to be the linchpin of this story. His name is Sando, he has a Kombi van, a red dog, a lovely house by the ocean and an American wife with a chip on her shoulder and a stroppy attitude to match. He is in his 30s (“that made him a genuinely old guy”) and, although the boys don’t immediately know it, he was once an international champion surfer.

Tests their courage

Over the course of a summer he hangs out with Pikelet and Loonie and tests their courage by taking them surfing in often dangerous and remote locations.

For the first time in his life Pikelet experiences exhilaration and finds something that he is exceptionally good at. But there are limits to his bravery — and it is finding that line between fear and stupidity that shapes his character.

It also makes him realise that perhaps the friendship he shares with Loonie is not really friendship at all.

He hurled himself at the world. You could never second-guess him and once he embarked on something there was no holding him back. Yet the same stuff you marvelled at could really wear you down. Some Mondays I was relieved to be back on the school bus.

An unexpected twist

I won’t spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way through Pikelet’s story takes an unexpected — and erotic — twist that I never saw coming. That’s despite the fact that the opening chapter, written from the perspective of a middle-aged Pikelet looking back on his formative years, lays the ground for what it is to come.

What appears to be a rather gentle coming-of-age story turns into quite a heart-hammering and confronting read, one that shocks and frightens in equal measure. Yet Winton never resorts to sensationalism or author trickery; he simply tells the tale of a teenage boy’s secret past in simple, straightforward prose — and it feels all the more compelling for it.

And I love how the narrative is so strongly tied to the ocean and all things aquatic; it almost reads like a loveletter to the sea.

Breath won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2009 and the Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize in 2008. It was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers Prize (south-east Asia and south Pacific region) and Queensland Premiers Literary Awards 2008.

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

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

MerryGoRound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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