‘Another Brooklyn’ by Jacqueline Woodson

2016, 170 pages

It’s funny- when I was reading this book, I had two other books in mind which include ‘Brooklyn’ in their titles. The first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story of 11 year old Francie Nolan, the daughter of first-generation migrants to America. I strongly suspect that Jacqueline Woodson had this connection in mind when she named her own semi-biographical coming-of-age story, this time with an African-American protagonist. The second was Jonathan Lethems’ Motherless Brooklyn which doesn’t really have much connection with Woodson’s book beyond the fact that the main character, August, was motherless when her father shifted her from SweetGrove Tennessee to live with her younger brother in Brooklyn.

Forbidden by their father from going down into the streets to play with the other children, August watches three other girls, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi as they amble the neighbourhood streets. As she and her brother gradually achieve more independence, August comes to know the three girls and is embraced into their friendship group.

Each of the other girls has her own tribulations. Angela, who wants to be a dancer, refuses to speak about her mother who is largely absent in her life; Gigi wants to be an actress, and years later is devastated when her friends miss her performance in the school play. Sylvia’s parents want her to be a doctor or lawyer, and ban their daughter from seeing Angela, Gigi and August, but the friendship continues until there is a betrayal of the friendship.

As for August, she cannot believe that her mother will not return one day. Her father and later her brother become involved with Nation of Islam, but her own commitment to Islam is lukewarm. She ends up attending university, loving men and women and gradually accepting her mother’s death.

As a coming-of-age story, the book affirms female friendship, even in a time of increasing sexual experimentation with boys. There is the intimacy of long acquaintance in their friendships, and yet each of them has her own battle. Each of the girls has to find her own way from parental demands, expectations and inadequacies. At a broader level, the book also documents the social and demographic change in Brooklyn, as white residents pack up and move away, and as drug addiction and poverty becomes more entrenched.

The book is simply told in the first person from August’s point of view, with short paragraphs arranged into chapters. The handling of chronology is particularly well done, with flashbacks and flash-forwards. There is a real sense of nostalgia and affection for this younger self.

The book itself is only short at 170 well-spaced pages, and as soon as I finished it, I found myself reading it a second time, to savor how Woodson travelled so far with such simplicity and ease.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 January 2021

The History Listen (ABC) A couple of re-runs for the summer season. Oh for a properly-funded public television and radio system that didn’t have to shut down from November to February every year and subsist on re-runs. Two Spoons- the general who plotted to kill Hitler is about a man who delves into his family history to find out the truth about a long-lost relative, Georg Von Sodenstern, who was reputed to have tried to kill Hitler (the ultimate what-if history). Imagining a family castle and a shining hero, he finds that the story is more complex than goodies/baddies. Actually, I found this podcast a bit hard to follow. I don’t know whether I was distracted, or whether it was so many unfamiliar names, but I found that I had to listen to it twice.

Heavenly and demonic: the story of the saxophone is, as the title suggests, the history of the relatively-recently invented saxophone (invented in about 1840) , which had a hard time being accepted as a ‘serious’ instrument. During the early 20th century, it was picked up by jazz musicians, but was still rejected as ‘devil music’ by churches. Who would have thought that Lisa Simpson would be the saviour of the saxophone by attracting young girls to play the sax.

Heather Cox Richardson I woke up on 7 January to hear that mobs had stormed Congress after attending a Trump rally nearby. Driving down to the beach, I listened to Heather Cox Richardson who was live at the time, obviously shell-shocked by what had happened. She had predicted violence in her podcast of January 5, but listening to her live on January 7, you could just hear the shock in her voice at what she had seen. She suggested that Trump would resign within a couple of days- I wonder if that will happen.

Big Ideas I had just finished reading Jenny Hockings The Palace Letters (review coming soon), so I listened to her Dymphna Clark Lecture, delivered in November 2020 and broadcast on 3 December 2020. In her lecture “For the Sake of the Monarchy: How the Palace Letters have recast the history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government” she goes through much the same information as in the book.

Next up on the phone came Francis Fukuyama, not particularly one of my favourite historians since his gloating about the supremacy of liberal democracy a few years back. In Will a Biden presidency revitalize America at home and abroad , Fukuyama distances himself from Trump but there was nothing here that I hadn’t heard before. A bit ho-hum

Sydney Institute I can hardly believe that I listened to this podcast from the Sydney Institute, but I did. Having listened to Jenny Hocking’s talk on the Palace letters, I thought I’d get the perspective from Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston, both from The Australian, a paper which I do not read. The Truth of the Palace Letters (the name of their book) agrees more with Hocking’s book than I thought it would, although they exonerate the Palace from any involvement at all, (which I don’t agree with- I believe that there was tacit encouragement to use the reserve powers -albeit in his own right- on the part of Sir Martin Charteris, and beyond some early advice, a deliberate avoidance of the instruction to tell the Prime Minister). Gerard Henderson moderated the discussion and reminded me why I don’t listen to Sydney Institute podcasts.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

I’ve signed up for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve been doing this challenge since 2012. It was originally established to overcome the gender bias in reviewing of books written by Australian women. As a historian, I have a particular interest in history written by Australian women, and I have been the ‘History Memoir and Biography’ convenor for the challenge for the last few years. Memoir and biography written by women are thriving away very happily, but the ‘history’ category has fewer contenders. So, I have found myself challenged to seek and review history written by Australian women historians.

This year I aim to read 25 books by Australian women writers. I’ll continue to champion history, but I will try to read a little more fiction.

Want to join me? Here’s where you sign up: https://australianwomenwriters.com/sign-up/

´People of the River´by Grace Karskens

2020, 525 p plus notes and appendices

What a difference a name makes. This book is the history of contact on Dyarubbin. “Where?” you might ask.

Dyarubbin is the name of the river that Europeans named the ‘Hawkesbury’ and the ‘Nepean’. Where white explorers saw two rivers, the people of the river saw just the one. Its sinuous progress through cliffs, opening up into cleared ‘reaches’ with fertile soil attracted indigenous people 50,000 years ago. And from the earliest months of British settlement, it attracted the soldiers of Sydney Cove too, led by Governor Phillip, searching desperately for farming land to grow the food to support the increasingly precarious convict settlement.

This book, which has been shortlisted for many historical and literary prizes during 2020, is a companion volume to Karsken’s earlier book The Colony about early Sydney and the Cumberland Plains. The argument that she makes in both books is the same: that both indigenous and settler peoples were thrust into a new relationship with each other, in tension over the land.

This is a long book, divided into four sections. Part I, Deep Country, starts as many books do (and indeed Karsken’s earlier book does too) with the geology of the land being discussed in the opening chapter ‘Old land, first people’. In this case, however, there are people in this landscape, shifting and adapting as conditions change. Conscious as we are of climate change, here perhaps we see a possible future with communities forced to flee to new places and lifestyles because of changes in the climate. The second chapter ‘Dyarubbin’ looks at the artefacts left by these people, sought out and collected by amateur and local collectors in a way reminiscent of Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors.

Part II Frontiers, starts with an an explanation of the intent of the Sydney Cove settlement. Chapter 3 ‘The Great Experiment’ is far more in the vein of John Hirst than Robert Hughes in emphasizing the intent that, right from the start, small-scale farming be offered to convicts who had either worked out their sentences or been pardoned, rather than the penitentiary hell-hole of post 1820s described in Hughes’ book . There was an ambivalent attempt to create a more prosperous and settled larger farmer elite through the provision of larger acreages to ex-soldiers. This inevitably brought conflict with the indigenous people of Dyarubbin whose women had dug for yams in those loamy reaches for generations. Chapter 4 ‘Contact and Crossings’ is a short chapter, describing those early contacts between Governor Phillips’ party which included indigenous Eora men who were strangers to the Dyarubbin too. She explores the role of intermediaries, who included John Wilson, who after serving his time, slipped among the Dyarubbin people where he passed himself as a returned tribesman. In return, they named him Bunboé (buna means ‘to jest or make believe’ and boé is the word for ‘dead’ so perhaps they were on to him.) Chapter 5 ‘Conflict: Given No Peace’ describes the inevitable conflict where the people of the Dyarubbin took the corn which grew on the land that had offered up yams for generations. Both sides practised communal punishment: in indigenous law ‘payback’ didn’t apply only to the guilty individual but could be and was directed to family and associates; for settlers, unable to find the perpetrators, a group of defenceless women and children were collateral damage. The fighting was most ferocious at Sackville Reach, a deeply spiritual place, where the settlers withdrew for a while, unable to cope with the relentless violence.

Part III New Old Land has four component chapters. Ch.6 Forests and clearings explains that the European settlers were moving into a manipulated environment, although they did not realize it. Those clearings and friable soil did not happen by accident. Ch 7 Farming in the bush emphasizes that in early years, farms were small shacks, with a fenced vegetable patch, surrounded by impenetrable bush. Wide-scale clearing and forestry did not happen until later. Ch.8 Floods and flood-mindedness explores the frequent flooding of Dyarubbin, which often came completely unexpectedly from rain inland that the farmers were unaware of, sometimes filling the narrow canyons and making the river flow backwards. Chapter 9, Commoners and Strangers looks at the change in policy in the 1820s that made Sydney a purely penal colony, and the encouragement of large estates to replace and control that earlier small-scale haphazard development. It looks at the accommodations and strategic friendships made between some settlers and indigenous families. When settlers found their ‘commons’ – large spaces for free grazing and pasturing – been appropriated by government policy to regularize land ownership, their anger was closer than they realized to the people of Dyarubbin who resisted being alienated from their own ‘commons’.

In Part IV of the book, there is a change of narrative direction. Titled ‘People of the River’ it shuttles back and forth between white and indigenous experience in alternating chapters. Family Fortunes (Ch. 10) looks at the interweaving of settler families through marriage, whereas Family Survival (Ch.11) examines the practice of taking children from indigenous families. The cultural lives of both groups are explored separately in People’s Pleasures in Chapter 12 (settler society) and Transforming Cultures (indigenous society) in Chapter 13. Christian spirituality in a new land is explored in Ch. 14 Sacred Landscapes while Ch. 15 Sacred Company looks at both the persistence and malleability of indigenous spirituality. These descriptions of indigenous beliefs were more detailed than I would have expected -in fact, I felt a little uncomfortable reading this section, as if I were intruding. At the end of the book, in a satisfying narrative circularity, we are brought back to the beginning of the book with the rock art and stories told on the cliffs overlooking Dyarubbin.

At 523 pages of text, this is a very long book – probably too long. In fact, I wonder if its length kept it on the ‘highly commended’ section of prizes instead of on the winner’s lists. Could Part IV, with its different narrative approach and far more focussed on individuals acting within social mores, have been a separate book in itself? It’s strange: I looked back to my review of Karsken’s The Colony, and I made a similar comment about a change of direction at the end of that book too. In both of her books, up until the last section of the book, settler and indigenous experiences had been interwoven and integrated, and the last section broke the thread by dealing with them separately.

Because what comes strongly through this book is that both groups of people – white and indigenous – had had to make accommodations and changes. Many of the white ex-convict farmers had been, until recent years, rural people back in England and Ireland, still influenced by the premodern ideas of the commons and small-scale farming. Some farmers recognized, or at least tolerated, indigenous people taking the corn from what had been their commons. Those who acted as intermediaries, on both sides, were being stretched – linguistically, socially, intellectually and spiritually- by having to move beyond the familiar into the truly unknown.

The Hawkesbury has received quite a bit of literary attention in recent years. Most famously, on the basis of her own genealogical connections Kate Grenville set her The Secret River on the Hawkesbury, and Julie Janson has reciprocated in her Benevolence, an indigenous response to settler family stories. In this book Karsken takes on the hugely popular Secret River, not so much in terms of the fiction/history debate, but more for its depiction of the Dyarubbin people as largely uncomprehending, unknowable and eventually massacred into disappearance. She takes particular issue with Grenville’s scene where William Thornhill tries to introduce himself to what she depicts as an uncomprehending Aboriginal man. Instead of just mimicking a settler naming himself, Karsken notes that the Aboriginal people of the Hawkesbury were very particular about names and gestures of friendship. The brutal Smasher Sullivan in Grenville’s book would have not survived long because his brutal treatment of his woman would have been swiftly avenged. In the closing grotesque scenes there are poisonings, massacres and the burning pile of black bodies. Karsken points out that Grenville herself admitted that she drew on the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, twenty years after the story depicted. She points out that Grenville’s book and the miniseries it inspired was also a throwback to the 1980s Aboriginal history that focussed on massacres.

However, by the time Grenville’s The Secret River appeared, historians were rethinking the portrayal of Aboriginal people only as passive victims of all-powerful whites, and recovering very different histories: the stories of resistance, and of the long war that Aboriginal people fought in defence of their Country. These new histories were more holistic too, recognizing other important aspects of cross-cultural contact- diplomacy, negotiation, conciliation, cooperation, friendship, intimate relations and the living exchange of things, words and ideas.

p. 125

Karsken’s work very much falls into this ‘new history’ category. There is something almost wistful about the possibilities at early contact. There are what-ifs in her history, most particularly concerning Governor King who after meeting with a delegation of men from the Dyarubbin, stopped making land grants further down the river – a policy that was swiftly overturned by the next governor sent out by the colonial Office. She looks for womens’ stories, and finds them. She seeks individuals, and names them, and searches for continuities. At the end of the book, she describes her discovery in the archives of Rev. John McGarvies list of ‘Native names of places on the Hawkesbury’ which brought the names of country out of the silence. It now forms the basis of a collaborative project with Darug knowledge-holders, historians, linguists and archaeologists.

I am not familiar at all with the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin region, and I found myself having to consult the maps at the front repeatedly. I suspect that someone from New South Wales would appreciate the book much more than a Victorian would. In many ways, these early-contact histories right across Australia are similar in that they are all freighted with a common longing and regret for the closure of opportunities that were once open. But each one is also different, and best known to people familiar with the location, because they are so deeply embedded in ‘country’, and as a result each is particular to itself.

This is a beautifully written book, that has its broad-ranging and yet detailed research interwoven on every page. It combines archaeological, ecological, local, spiritual research that keeps its focus on individuals, in the agency they possess, and the choices they make.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

This is the first book I have included on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-31 December 2020

Heather Cox Richardson I’m back listening to her history podcasts on Thursdays her time. Her podcast of 10 December starts with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the takeover of power by Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat vice-president, who “fixed up” Reconstruction in a few months before Congress returned, by returning power to the southern Confederates. What an ****hole. No wonder many historians consider him the worst president in American history ( I wonder if DJT will knock him from No.1?)

Latin American History Podcasts I’m on a bit of a Mexican History quest at the moment, having enjoyed the SBS series Hernán and re-read Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest. Max Serjeant is a travel writer and journalist, currently based in Western Australia. His podcasts are nothing flash technologically, but the narrative is well written. I’ve started off (as you might expect) with The Conquest of Mexico Part I.

It’s a Wonderful Lie We don’t seem to receive those Christmas yearly updates sent to family and friends any more. Perhaps because people like Ashley Flowers, Holly Laurent and Greg Hess make podcasts like Its a Wonderful Lie where they read between the lines and out-and-out make up stuff about these lives that are being put out there for everyone to read. There’s 12 of them, each self-contained and each going for about 20 minutes. They provide a little window into middle-class American life, and the CCPVC episode is particularly interesting. So mean. So funny. I listened to them all, laughing my head off, as I walked around the park.

Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to….

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is described at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest . There is a starting book (for January 2021 it’s Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet), then you think of other books that you have read that are somehow and usually tenuously connected. In this case, I start off with Shakespeare’s son and end up with Dante Rossetti’s muse. As is often the case, I haven’t read the starting book but I have downloaded it, which is half-way to reading it (isn’t it?).

Shakespeare- such a famous surname for a writer- and so I jump to Nicholas Shakespeare, a recent immigrant to Australia, who writes about his search for two ancestors from his family tree in his book In Tasmania (2004). One was the army officer and merchant Anthony Fenn Kemp, and the other Petre Hordern, an alcoholic from a wealthy family who drags his family into poverty.

As part of his search for Kemp descendants, he visits a newly-found Kemp cousin who brings out a shell necklace supposedly owned by Truganini, supposedly “the last full-blood Aborigine” (or so we were told at school back in the 1960s). Cassandra Pybus gives a much more rounded view of Truganini, and her agency across the British colonies of Van Diemens Land and the Port Phillip District of New South Wales in Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse. (2020)

One of my favourite books about Tasmania -indeed, one of my favourite Australian books full stop – is Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) , a beautifully illustrated and imaginative, magical realist book, based on the life of convict artist William Buelow Gould but going far beyond the historical character. I read this book before I started blogging. Flanagan has written many wonderful books since, but this is my favourite.

Speaking of fishing, Vicki Hastrich spends quite a bit of time messing about in boats in her Night Fishing (2019), a collection of essay-length memoir pieces tied together with the theme of boats and fishing, but with reflections on other things as well.

A boat – or rather a merchant schooner called ‘The Ibis’ runs through Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy starting with Sea of Poppies (2008). Within the 468 pages of this book, first we have the arrival of a boat, its provisioning and then its slow movement down the river towards the open sea, collecting characters along the way. There’s no sign of it here, but the trilogy is going to end up embroiled in the Opium Wars as part of the economic model underpinning British imperialism.

At the other end of the opium trade were the British users, although in this case the opium was marketed as laudanum. Elizabeth Siddal, model for artists from the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and lover of Dante Rossetti, eventually succumbed to her laudanum addiction in Lucinda Hawksley’s Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (2004).

Well, that turned rather dark, didn’t it?- both the title characters, loved by famous writers, end up dead. On a lighter note, I’m pleased that I’ve been able to include some ‘older’ back-catalogue books, with a good sprinkling of Australian authors.

My best reads for 2020

How odd. Of the seven books I scored highest for 2020 (unexact science though it is), only one was written by an Australian author.

  1. Casey Cep Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. (2019)
  2. Jeff Sparrow Communism: A Love Story (the one Australian book) (2007)
  3. Julia Blackburn Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (2019)
  4. Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light (2020)
  5. Nino Haratischwili The Eighth Life: (for Brilka) (2014, in translation 2019)
  6. Robert Penn Warren All the King’s Men (1946)
  7. Marlon James The Book of Night Women (2009)

The gender divide was pretty even: four women, three men. Four fiction, three non-fiction. Four written in 2019 or 2020, three written earlier. Three of them (Mantel, Haratischwili and Warren) were door-stoppers. Perhaps in this very strange year, there was something to be said for burrowing into a very long read.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020 – wrap up

Well, actually, I finished it a while ago because I am well beyond the twenty I nominated. Anyway, here are the books alphabetically by surname that I read for the challenge this year:

Michelle Arrow The Seventies: the personal, the political and the making of modern Australia

Maggie Black Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glemorniston

Geraldine Brooks People of the Book

Sue Course Lost Letters from Vienna

Sophie Cunningham City of Trees : Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest

Amanda Curtin Kathleen O’Connor of Paris

Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell Searching for Charlotte

Vicki Hastrich Night Fishing

Kerry Highley Dancing in my Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do: Power Control and Domestic Violence

Chloe Hooper Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

Jacqueline Kent Vida: A Woman for Our Time

Judith Lucy Drink, Smoke, Pass Out

Julie Marcus The Indomitable Miss Pink

Catherine McKinnon Storyland

Katherine Murphy The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics (Quarterly Essay #79)

Brenda Niall Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers

Favel Parrett There was Still Love

Cassandra Pybus Truganini

Margaret Simons Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay #77)

Leigh Straw After the War: Returned Soldiers and the Mental and Physical Scars of WWI

Laura Tingle The High Road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand (Quarterly Essay #80)

Helen Trinca Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John

Clare Wright Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Women Publicans

Only three fiction out of 24. The dominance of non-fiction is probably because I’m conscious of keeping the ‘history’ numbers up in the AWW History, Memoir and Biography Round-Ups that I compile.

Other stats? I read 24 Australian women writers compared with 9 Australian male writers. I read more Australian literature (33 books) compared to international fiction (28 books). Of those 28 international reads, 18 were written by women and 11 written by men.

Overall, I didn’t read as much this year as I thought that I would have given that I had 112 day lockdown. I just didn’t seem to be able to settle, and much of the year just slid away from me.

But I’m up for joining the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021, and perhaps this time I’ll aim for a little more fiction in my life.

‘The Book of Night Women’ by Marlon James

2014 (ebook), 432p

Phew! What a way to finish my reading year! Originally published in 2009, this is the story of young, enslaved Jamaican woman Lilith, living on Montpelier sugar plantation in the late 18th century. She was conceived as the result of a rape on her very young mother by her white overseer father Jack Wilkins, from whom she inherits her green eyes. Fourteen years later, Lilith’s life changes when she is, in turn, threatened with rape by a johnny-jumper ( a black overseer) and she kills him. She is taken into the plantation-owner’s house, hidden by Homer, an older woman slave, through whom she meets a number of her half-sisters, who share her green eyes,. These ‘night women’ are plotting a rebellion on the plantation at a time when slave rebellions in other slave colonies have made the vastly-outnumbered white slave owners very nervous.

“Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will” is repeated several times through the text. The book captures well the relentless powerlessness of being enslaved, and the violence, brutality and seeming endlessness of such misery. This is an appallingly violent book- probably the most violent book I have ever read- at times, teetering of the edge of violence pornography (indeed, some commentators have labelled it as such – see Markus Nehl’s article “A Vicious Circle of Violence: Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women” available as full text here. ) Is such graphic, often sexualized, violence necessary? I wondered. But James has done his research, drawing on the descriptions of violence in Thomas Thistlewood’s diaries, the richest historical documents that survive from the period. Sickening though it is to read, to me there seems to be a dishonesty and betrayal in cloaking the brutality meted out on human bodies with evasion and avoidance.

The complexity and heterogeneity of the enslaved community, and its relationship with slaveholders, is well depicted in this book. It is embodied in Lilith, whose white paternity and her father’s half-hearted protection gave her a sense of superiority amongst other enslaved. This ‘protection’ did not extend to being able to avoid whipping and brutality, ordered by the Irish overseer Robert Quinn. Yet, when she was moved to Quinn’s house at the whim of her proprietor’s mistress, they fall in love, while not forgetting that he is “massa” and she is enslaved. While I was reading, I was constantly aware how quickly their relationship could revert to brutality, and I found myself feeling sick with dread that at the next page-turn Quinn could have turned on her, especially once she became aware of the planned rebellion. There was hostility and distrust between the ‘house’ slaves and the ‘field’ slaves. Much of the brutality was meted by the johnny-jumpers on their masters’ instructions, and rape and brutality existed amongst the enslaved themselves. The slaveholders themselves were debased by their own cruelty, not that one could hold much sympathy for them.

The story is told in a Jamaican patois, although it is not clear exactly who the narrator is until the end of the book. While some would (and do) see this as appropriation of the black female voice by a black male writer, this does not particularly concern me if there is fidelity and consistency in the narrative viewpoint – and on both these counts, James certainly delivers. The voice doesn’t falter once, and the complexity of Lilith’s feelings for Robert Quinn are convincing.

I didn’t find this an easy book to read, and at times I wondered if I could, and should, go on. But I was drawn into the tension of the story and captured by the narrative voice, and it ranks up there with the best books that I read during 2020, and one that I will remember for a long time.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

2011,  150p.

Actually, I reviewed this book ages ago and forgot to post my review!

I’ll try hard not to put spoilers in this review, but …..

This is only a small book, although I hesitate to call it a novella as it covers a large amount of territory. (Whispering Gums has reflected on the qualities of a novella here) It was awarded the Booker Prize in 2011, where its brevity certainly sets it apart from the other thick books that have won it recently.

It is written in two parts.  The first part is a reflection written in the first person by Tony Webster, now divorced and retired, reminiscing about his final year of school.  Three, smart-alecky, academically pretentious boys were joined by a newcomer, Adrian Finn, who was smarter than all of them put together.  They left school, Adrian went to Cambridge while Tony went to Bristol, and he found himself a girlfriend, Veronica. The relationship didn’t last.  By now, the friendships had drifted off and other jobs and other relationships took over. Adrian and Veronica took up together and some time later Tony was jolted to learn that Adrian had killed himself.

In Part Two, life has gone on.  Many years later Tony receives a letter informing him that Veronica’s mother had left him some money and a diary. Why the bequest? he wonders. There had only been one brief, quizzical conversation between them one weekend when Tony visited her family.  The diary does not belong to Veronica’s mother, but instead  is Adrian Finn’s.  The transfer of the money goes smoothly, but Veronica resists giving him the diary.  After Tony confronts her, she gives him a fragment of a letter than he had written long ago, that he had forgotten completely.

A large part of this book is devoted to a reflection on time and memory, and the stories we tell ourselves.  Tony here is not so much an unreliable narrator, as an unconfident one.  He alerts us to his uncertainty from the start:

We live in time- it holds us and moulds us- but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.  And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions.  No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly… And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.  Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing- until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return. (p. 3)

Tony read history at Bristol, but at this time of his life he is far more concerned with life-narrative and how it we construct it.  He thinks back to a quote that Finn had offered in their sixth-form history class in response to their teacher’s question “What is history?” (Ah, how Carr-sian!) Finn cited a quote from a  (fictional) author, Patrick Lagrange that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation“. (p. 17)

Tony is wracking his brain to recall writing the letter which has discomfited all the recollections that he has held onto of that time.  The “imperfections of memory” have met “the inadequacies of documentation”, but he finds only uncertainty.

I theorise- that something- something else- happens to the memory over time.  For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions.  I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out.  The events reconfirm the emotions- resentment, a sense of injustice, relief- and vice versa.  There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed.  Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be a contradiction. (p. 120)

The title of the book is The Sense of an Ending, and it’s truly only a ‘sense’ that you are left with.  Tony, too, thinks that he has found an ending to his story, but “there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

I thought that I had reached the end of the book, and had my own certainty that I’d finished with the story.  In planning to write this post, I looked at a few other reviews in newspapers and blogs- only to find that perhaps I hadn’t finished it at all.  Read this review that explains the ending, then keep on going through the comments -ye Gods, 423 of them!- and the real cleverness of the book reveals itself.  It has sent me back to the start again!

[Written much later }I didn’t give it a score at the time of writing, and I have no idea now what I thought of it then. But obviously the ending passed me by completely, which can’t really be a good thing, can it?