Monthly Archives: August 2020

‘Drink, Smoke, Pass Out’ by Judith Lucy


2014, 256 p.

After finally finishing the harrowing The Discomfort of Evening, I needed something to laugh at. I knew that I had Judith Lucy’s book on my shelves, so I dug it out. I had read her Lucy Family Alphabet, which I enjoyed. I expected that this book would be in the same vein, but it took me into more of the same destructive behaviour (albeit in a more adult and benign form) that confronted me so much in Rijneveld’s book. Perhaps it was probably not the best choice of comedy writing after all. 

Judith Lucy has been mining her life for comedy gold for years. She speaks with a rather affected, yet Aussie, drawl which is both annoying and highly distinctive. Her focus is almost entirely on her own life. However, being ten (well, thirteen) years younger than I am, I quite enjoy watching her going through lifestyle changes that I’ve already experienced, and I now champion her as a middle-aged female comedian. The first third of this book is a subversion of the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon which fortunately passed me by, and she certainly did drink, smoke and pass out, become too involved with the wrong men, and end up needy and full of fragile bravado.

Fortunately Judith Lucy does eventually move on from the alcohol, bongs and unconsciousness. Starting off as a tale of a dissolute life, it ends up as an exploration of spirituality. In this regard, it’s almost like the companion book to her television program Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey. I’m not averse to a bit of spiritual tourism myself, but I can imagine that some readers would be rather put off by the change in direction.

So, it was not quite the refuge from The Discomfort of Evening that I thought it would be, given that both books deal in different ways with physical self-harming and religion. But give me Judith Lucy any day.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

aww2020I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 August 2020

Heather Cox Richardson In her History and Politics Chat of August 4, she returns to the question of the U.S. Postal Service, which she has dealt with earlier, and which has recently become a real issue facing the next election (in fact, she foreshadowed this quite some time ago). She then goes on to talk about why America doesn’t have a national childcare scheme (short answer- it’s ‘communism’ and Nixon rejected it). She encourages people to look at Jonathan Swan’s Axios interview with Trump and exhorts people to keep talking about the Russian Bounty scandal, because it’s important.

In the History of the Republican Party Part 9 video of 30 July, she talks about the liberal consensus that was formed when Eisenhower (Republican) took over from Harry Truman, who himself had taken over from FDR  and his New Deal. He challenged for the Republican nomination when the Republic party was in danger of being taken back to the big-business oligarchy direction under Robert Taft. Heather is obviously a bit of an Eisenhower fan (although she notes that she has been reminded that Eisenhower’s policies were not good for minorities).

Rough Translations I still really can’t believe, when I’m walking around my local shopping centre or in the park (which are the only two places I can walk) that we are all swathed in masks. In From Niquab to N95 two contradictory French laws are explored: the law that says you cannot cover your face, and the law that says you have to wear a mask. Interestingly, they couldn’t find a French woman who wore a niquab to interview, so they had to resort to Australian niquab-wearers instead.

Dan Snow’s History Hit. It’s strange to hear your own country’s history being told from the perspective of another country.  VJ Day: 75 years commemorates the end of hostilities against Japan. His first guest is a British historian (I wish that his show notes said who his guests were) who told this part of the war from very much a British/Empire perspective, where Australia is just one of a number of Far East and African countries fighting for Britain. He makes much of the Indian Ocean war – something Australia rarely focuses on- and Burma looms large. The second guest spoke about the Chinese war against Japan- something, again, which is not high in Australian historiography of WWII and the way that the Nationalists and Communists united to fight Japan- something that the rest of the world did not expect to happen.

Nothing on TV Robyn Annear has crept out of lockdown to talk about Mr Denning’s Umbrage. Mr Denning was a dance master, who ran Quadrille Assemblies in Melbourne in the mid-1850s, constantly battling to keep them ‘respectable’ and hounding his patrons through long advertisements in the Argus. I love this podcast. Narrated in her beautiful, slow Australian accent, there’s a chuckle in her voice and the pop of a champagne cork.

Rear Vision (ABC) How WWII changed Australia has three top-notch historians: Stuart Macintyre, Gwenda Tavan and David Lowe talking about the effect of WWII on Australian history in terms of the economy, immigration and foreign policy. Very good.


‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld


2020,   282 p. Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchinson

Preamble: I read this because it was shortlisted for the Booker International. I am appalled that it won. Surely there is enough pain and unhappiness in the world.

Ten year old Jas lives on a Dutch dairy farm run by her strict Dutch Reformed church parents. I don’t know if she was disturbed before her family faced a tragedy, but she certainly is afterwards. Not just her: the whole family is cycling into a vortex of wordless despair. She is frightened that her father is going to leave; her mother has collapsed in on herself in grief; her brother is sadistic; her sister is in a similar place to Jas herself.

I spent most of this book flinching from its unrelieved misery and cruelty and self-abuse. Her parents’ Christianity is harsh and emotionally sterile, and it is juxtaposed against a world obsessed with bodily functions. The children are largely left to find their own way through the tragedy, and the depth of mourning over the loss seems unbalanced against the indifference with which the children are treated. In my mind the farm seemed cold, dismal and muddy, with no beauty in anything or anyone.

I found this a really disturbing book, which means that it will probably stay with me. I don’t know if I really want it to. It’s a debut novel: does this mean that it has succeeded? I suppose it does – and it has certainly attracted critical acclaim- but I felt like having a hot shower and seeking out a book to make me laugh, to remove the misery that clung to me as I finished it.

Rating: I have no idea. Would I recommend it? Only for the strong-stomached.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize.


‘QE 77 Cry Me a River’ by Margaret Simons


2020, 109 P.

I find that, on finishing a book, I usually take an image away with me and it tends to be that image that I remember later. Margaret Simons writes evocatively of the Murray-Darling river system in this Quarterly Essay: the variation of farming uses, the high cliffs overlooking a meandering river, the mirages of water in red plains, the sand dunes and crashing ocean at the South Australian end. But what I will take away is the image of an effigy of the then-Water Minister David Littleproud being thrown into the water at Tocumwal and left to bob his way down to South Australia. Fitted with a tracking device, the effigy had acquired glasses and a suit on the way, was fished out near Swan Hill and taken for a drive around Nyah before being launched again, probably to be caught on a snag further downstream. Who knows- he may be there still.

But this is probably the only light moment in this essay, which teases out the politics that make management of the water of the Murray-Darling river system such a wicked problem. Not only are four states involved, but even within New South Wales, there is a Lower Darling (more regulated) and Upper Darling (boom-and-bust) split. There are big bolshie “outspoken” personalities, like Chris Brooks from Barooga in N.S.W or cotton-industry lobbyist Ian Cole; spokespeople for different lobby groups; the quaintly-named Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Jody Swirepik; indigenous traditional owners; academics like Peter Gell who has fallen out with former colleagues over a study he produced with them;  and politicians who have, for better or worse, left their fingerprints on the policy without actually effecting real change.  Are there baddies? Yes, the water thieves, and possibly some corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who have fallen under the eye of ICAC, and the NSW government, which is threatening to withdraw from the whole program. But, as cotton cultivators, almond growers, and farmers pointed out, people have only done what they have been allowed to do by governments and policy makers.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, the authorities joke, everyone downstream is a wastrel, and everyone upstream is a thief. Only I, the person drawing water in this spot, for these crops, in this way, truly understands the value of the water and how to use it. (p.5)

Dispute over the Murray-Darling was hardbaked into the 1901 Australian Constitution, when the states were given ownership and management of the water, with the Commonwealth having a limited role. The founding fathers left it to the High Court to determine the competing rights of each state- something that still has not happened.  The creation of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement under several Labor governments in 1987 took advantage of a narrow window of Commonwealth power to give effect to international environmental treaties. This environmental framing of reform continued with Turnbull’s Water Act in 2007, which relied for its constitutional validity on the international RAMSAR wetlands act, and it rather surprisingly passed in the dying days of the Howard government which expected (rightly) that it would lose. Despite all the argy-bargy that has followed, the Water Act still stands, with its rather contradictory aims of protecting the ecological values of ecosystems at the same time as promoting “economic, social and environmental outcomes”.

Under the free-market water licence reforms, the water could be unbundled from the land, and sold separately. With Penny Wong as Water Minister, many irrigators sold their water to the Commonwealth in the “Pennies from Heaven” buyback period. Tony Windsor used water politics as part of his deal with the Gillard government, and no sooner was the guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan released, with its recommendation of 3000 to 4000 gigalitres of water returned to the environment, than everyone (including the government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority itself) began backpedalling from it. A final figure of 2750 gigalitres was ‘fixed’ (literally), even though no-one thought was actually congruent with the science. With a change of government, Barnaby Joyce  moved water buybacks behind the curtain, and to his credit David Littleproud (he of the effigy) at least tried to hold it all together. The National Party in particular has not covered itself in glory but the chances of a Liberal party prising water from the cold dead hands of the Nationals is very unlikely.

This essay is told from a personal viewpoint, as Simons travels throughout the river system, but not in a geographically methodical way from headwaters to mouth. She interviews farmers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and academics, and spends lots of time on country roads, striding over paddocks, scrambling up dams, and in pubs.  After describing the plan and the politics, she starts at what she describes as “one of the saddest places in Australia”, the middle section of the Lower Darling around Wilcannia and Bourke. This is where we get the images of the fish-kills, and the government-purchased Toorale station. She then moves up into Queensland to Cotton Country, where floodwater harvesting has become a controversial practice, and where the ‘old school tie’ still matters. Then she goes down to the Murray that separates Victoria and New South Wales where, perversely, the water efficiencies encouraged by the plan have reduced the run-off which has fed the whole system. Finally, she ends up in South Australia, her own home state, where some believe that the attempt to ‘save’ the Murray should be abandoned and that the sea should be allowed to flood the lakes.

I’m not sure that there is a solution to the Murray Darling and I don’t think that Margaret Simons does either.  Her subtitle is “The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin”, which evokes the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ where individual users, acting in their own self-interest, spoil the shared resource. The Plan, while not perfect, does exist, which in itself is an achievement. The sticking point is its implementation.  The Murray-Darling is never going to return to ‘before’ because it is already a heavy plumbed and engineered water course. She is not hopeful:

Rural Australia, no longer the heart of our national narrative, is too easily neglected. It has been governed piecemeal, and with cynicism, and the National Party has contributed to that. some of the producer groups have made positive contributions, and some have been aggressive and short-sighted- on the wrong side of history. Developing visionary policies for rural Australia would take courageous leadership and enlightened politics. It is hard to find much evidence of either in the history of the Murray-Darling Basin. The exception, perhaps, is the fact that we have a Basin Plan at all. (p. 102)

This essay is valuable for taking a whole-of-system approach, integrating the perspectives and realities of a river that crosses four states and even more landscapes. It includes personal perspectives as well as the politics, and it provides a good background for watching as the next steps in this sorry, conflicted saga play themselves out.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: My Quarterly Essay subscription

aww2020I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘Cancelled’: Facebook series.


I have been absolutely loving the 10-part series ‘Cancelled’ that is screening on Facebook. Each episode goes for about 8 minutes or so. The whole thing was filmed on an i-phone by the three protagonists themselves (Luke, Maria and Luke’s mother Karen) in their Valencia apartment earlier this year, when Spain went down into a hard lock-down.

Luke Eve is a film director (and it shows) and he and his fiance, Spanish actress Maria Abiñana were planning their wedding in March. His mother Karen had arrived for the wedding, and was staying with them in their AirBNB apartment. As the deaths mounted, and the lockdown was announced, they felt that they had to cancel the wedding. Disappointed and frightened by the rising numbers of cases, they had to negotiate a new relationship with Luke’s mother in a confined space.

This is absolutely beautiful, intimate storytelling, released week-by-week in real time. This video here tells you how it was made. I originally started watching it for the subtitled Spanish, but it drew me in with its honesty and humility. It’s great.

Here’s the Facebook link:


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 August 2020

Heather Cox Richardson Her History and Politics Chat on 29 July was a commentary on the events in Portland and the Republican Jim Jordan’s showing of a manipulated video showing the violence there. She was asked how to respond to REAL fake news like this, and she talked about the importance of changing the narrative back to reality. As far as moving the Feds in, she reminded her listeners of other events, e.g. Waco Branch Davidian siege, and the preceding Ruby Ridge siege, that act as a warning that the optics of a Federal intervention are always bad. She then moved on to whether the Russian bounty scandal is real. She notes that Trump isn’t really engaging with it, and wonders why. Finally, she addresses the question of Trump refusing to leave office. She is not overly concerned about that at the moment, noting that lots of things can happen between now and the election  e.g. Trump’s finances, Portland. etc.

Her History Chat of 23 July continues her History of the Republican Party into the 1930s and 1940s. Now that the Republican Party had allied itself with big business, it was happy to bask in this alliance during the 1920s when things were good (for some). But it backfired in the 1930s, when everything fell apart. There was a philosophical determination to overlay unemployment with moral overtones, and so the Republican Party couldn’t compete with FDR’s New Deal, which was very electorally popular. The Republican Party split between the Taft Conservatives (who wanted to return to the big business led affluence of the 1920s) and the Dewey Republicans (who embraced a lot of the New Deal ideas). The Democrats split too, with the Dixie Democrats from the south objecting to policies that black people were able to benefit from.

The Thread Continuing on with the thread of ‘non violent resistance’, we’ve gone back from Martin Luther King to Bayard Rustin, and now with Turning Enemies into Friends we go back further to Ghandi, who was a direct influence on Rustin.  Ghandi himself corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, who is explored in The Transformation of Leo Tolstoy. What a fundamental spiritual/political shift he made! Then finally we end up with I Will Be Heard, which looks at the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, printer of The Liberator newspaper in the 1830s, decades before the American Civil War.

The Latin American History Podcast How curious- a Latin American history podcast from Australia, presented by Malcolm Sargent. I have no idea who he is. But anyway, I enjoyed The First Circumnavigation of the Globe Parts I and Part II about Magellan’s three year circumnavigation journey in  1519. Actually, he didn’t actually make it, because he was killed in a battle with the locals in the Philippines when he became embroiled in political/religious affairs.

Lectures in History C-span. This lecture from 2013 is called Culture and Society in the 1920s. Professor Michael Kazin from Georgetown University (and co-editor of Dissent magazine) discusses Prohibition, the reactivation in the 1920s of the Ku Klux Klan as an anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant movement, the growth of  Hollywood and the Production Codes that led to sanitized bedroom scenes in American movies, and Al Capone.  Interesting.

Latin America in Focus. This podcast in English is produced through the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Do you remember seeing a few months back those photos of thousands of semi-naked prisoners chained together, crammed together on the floor in rows? That was ordered by the El Salvadorean president Nayib Bukele, Latin America’s youngest president (39) who styles himself as being an ‘outsider’. In The Strange Case of El Salvador’s Plummeting Homicide Rate, the Central American analyst with the International Crisis Group, Tiziano Breda, argues that gangs can choose to dial up or down intra-gang violence for political ends, and that perhaps Bukele’s current very high popularity gives him political capital to institute dialogue with the gangs. I’m not sure that these photos, which Bukele tweeted himself, will help. Breda suggests that he did that to shore up his over-90% popularity, because he is not in a strong legislative position. Mmm. I’m not so sure.


‘Light in my Darkness’ by Helen Keller


Revised and expanded by Ray Silverman, 2000, 146 p.

This book, originally called My Religion, was written by Helen Keller in 1927,when she was 47 years old. She was certainly not the little girl standing beside the water pump in the garden any more. After graduating from Radcliffe College, Helen Keller had already achieved fame through the publication of her autobiography in 1903. Between 1920 and 1924, when money was tight, she and her teacher Ann Sullivan joined the vaudeville circuit, where they conducted two twenty-minute shows each day, as celebrity acts. Her family certainly disapproved of this way of earning money, and Ann Sullivan didn’t enjoy it. From 1924 onwards she became an ambassador and fundraiser for the American Foundation of the Blind- a far more ‘respectable’ role. This gave her a public profile and a platform to publicize the needs of the blind, but also to share her religious beliefs with the wider world.

As she tells it, since making her connection between language and the world, Helen Keller had had a spiritual hunger. She ‘spoke’ with the rector of Trinity (Episcopalian) Church Boston, Phillips Brooks about some of her religious questions but her main spiritual guide was the assistant to family friend Alexander Graeme Bell, Swiss-born John Hitz.  He introduced her to the writings of the famous 18th century Swedish theologian, scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg when she was in her early teens and he continued to support her spiritual development for the rest of his life. This book of a series of essays was, in a slightly different form, published as My Religion.

It’s hard to know how to read religious writing, especially when you don’t share the writer’s convictions. Keller was often criticized for the “literary-ness” of her writing, and that is certain true here, where she is writing in the devotional-writing genre which by its nature seeks to use words to capture emotion and reflection about the spiritual world.

This re-ordered edition starts with a biography of Helen Keller written by Dorothy Hermann, whose longer biography I reviewed here. It then moves through a series of chapters where Keller writes first, about her own religious development, and then about Swedenborg’s life and writings. I must confess that I found these Swedenborg chapters heavy going. They were fairly lengthy and wordy, and I was not particularly comfortable with her full-throated adulation of Swedenborg’s ideas. I wondered if the context in which I was reading them was wrong, so I decided to read them after my morning meditation, when I’m in a more contemplative mood. They still remained turgid and flat. However, I did enjoy the shorter chapters near the end of the book, which did lend themselves to ‘devotional’-type reading.

I was particularly interested in the editor’s note at the end of the book. Helen Keller did not find writing easy. She admitted that she found it hard to distinguish her own words (i.e.  words that she generated) from words that had been spelled out onto her hand by someone else. She was not able to skim-read what she had written previously, and when she was interrupted, she lost her thread. Parts of this book had been written years earlier and pasted into the manuscript. She certainly was not happy with her draft of My Religion which she handed over for publication, hoping that someone else would be able to do the editorial work that she could not. But it was published unedited and remained in print in its original form until this revision and expansion in 1994 with a second edition in 2000. The editor, Ray Silverman, himself a Swedenborgian from Bryn Athyn (New Church i.e. Swedenborgian- University) rearranged the segments, and put them into more coherent chapters. He added some material from of Keller’s other writings or speeches, and did remove a small amount of the original text.

I must confess that I would never have read this book had I not been preparing a talk on Helen Keller. It’s certainly not light reading in a genre that has a limited audience.

Sourced from: purchased e-book


‘The Eighth Life (for Brilka)’ by Nino Haratischvili


2014, 944  Trans. by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin 2019

OK , Readings Bookstore, you got me. You included a chapter-length teaser of this book with your Readings Monthly newsletter, I read it and straight away put a hold on The Eighth Life at the library. (Sorry, Readings, that probably wasn’t the outcome you wanted!) But then the rather abrupt first shutdown came, with the book waiting on the hold shelf in the inaccessible library and so I turned to Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light  instead. I had no sooner picked up this book from the library than the second shutdown was announced, and so I found myself with six – and then nine – weeks to read it. Not that it took that long. Within about 30 pages I was hooked, and I could barely put it down.

It is a huge family saga of 933 pages, spanning from the start of the 20th century through to the 21st century in Georgia, on the fringe of the Russian and Soviet empires. The narrator, Niza is writing the family history for her 12-year-old niece, Brilka whose life will be the eighth in this family story. Book 1 starts with Stasia, who marries a White Guard turned Red Lieutenant after the Russian Revolution; Book 2 introduces us to Christine, her sister, who becomes involved with the ‘Little Big Man’ Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief. In Book 3 her son Kostya follows his father into the Navy, leaving behind a shattered love affair to become the family patriarch and tyrant. Stasia’s  daughter Kitty, for whom Book 4 is named, flees Georgia and becomes a dissident songwriter in the West. Book 5  deals with Kostya’s wayward daughter, Elene, who has two daughters Daria (Book 6) who is Brilka’s mother, and Niza (Book 7) the narrator. Brilka’s story, in Book 8, is yet to be told.

This makes the book sound more linear than it actually is. The women of the family – sisters, aunts-  live inordinately long lives, and they are present in the lives of their great-granddaughters and great-grandnieces. The family memory is long enough that events recur, and resonances in one generation sound in succeeding generations.  It was good to read a book where the matriarchal line carried the real strength, with mothers, aunts and female friends carrying out the nurturing roles and driving the family forward. The atrocities -and there are atrocities- lie at the heart of what it is to be a woman.

At the same time, there was a hint of magical realism with a family chocolate recipe, that is never divulged to the reader but carried from one generation of women to the next. It tastes exquisite but often seems to carry a curse. Does the book need this magic chocolate? Probably not, but it does underline the fairytale narrative of the book.

There is no family tree at the start of the book, as one might expect, but the separate books are long enough that characters are clearly embedded in your consciousness, and I rarely found myself thinking “Hold on, who’s that again?” I certainly learned more about Georgia than I expected I would. The book is somewhat discursive, following other characters beyond the eight lives of the title but it’s best to just go with it and enjoy, instead of becoming impatient to return to the main story.

I just loved this book. It was perfect reading for a lock-down, when you have sufficient time to immerse yourself in a big fat book.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 August 2020

Heather Cox Richardson. In her History and Politics chat of 21 July, she addressed two questions. In the first, looking at the use of Homeland Security forces in Portland, she was asked why the Posse Comitatus Act did not apply. This act, and even moreso the military traditions attached to it, prevents the military being used against the American people. Her answer- the Department of Homeland Security (and she, too, bridles against that title, as do I) answers to the executive government and so it doesn’t apply to them. The second question was about the switch in Republican policy to be pro-Russian instead of steadfastly anti-Communist as it had been in the past. Her answer- it happened in 2016 when Paul Manafort took control.

Her History of the Republican Party of 17 July picks up with the election of 1912 and goes through to the election of 1928. With a four-way contest (including the Socialist Eugene V. Debs), Woodrow Wilson the Democrat came through, and many of his actions were not inconsistent with the Progressivist agenda of the Republicans at the time, although springing from a different philosophical base. He was painted as a Communist by the Republican party, and by the time Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge took over, the Republican party was once again championing big business.

Let’s Talk about Sects. The second in this monthly series, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God looks at a Nigerian sect which is similar to the Jonestown massacre in terms of deaths. Headed by Credonia Mwerinde, who claimed to be receiving messages from the Virgin Mary,  the usual tale of appropriation of resources and intimation ensues, but heightened further by the hundreds of deaths that the cult evoked.

Rough Translation  (NPR) El Hilo: Walking to Venezuela. We all know that millions of people fled Venezuela as a result of the appalling inflation and violence, but now that coronavirus has led neighbouring countries Colombia and Ecuador to make it impossible for them to gather a precarious livelihood with street selling and casual work, millions are now walking the 1300 miles back to Venezuela. This is really good.

Lectures in History. This series of podcasts are recordings of university history lectures, generally relating to American History. In Socialism in Early 20th Century America, historian Eric Foner talks about the importance of the Socialist Party in New York and Milwaukee in particular, and the presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs in 1912.

Rear Vision (ABC) Heading into the US election, there is a lot of speculation of if and how Trump might ‘steal’ this election. Voter suppression in the United States of America looks at the right to vote in America, pointing out that the amendments to the Constitution (e.g. 15th) have just been to (supposedly) prevent the vote being denied but without actually saying that there IS a right to the vote. With the rise of the Civil Rights Act, southern states have found ways to deny the vote to the black population e.g. voting boundaries, requiring specified ID, strict ruling on discrepancies.

The History Listen (ABC) Manuscripts Don’t Burn: The Master and Margarita revisits Bulgakov’s famous book, which became a cult sensation when it was published in the 1960s, thirty years after Bulgakov wrote it in Stalin’s Russia. I read it in 2004, before I started this blog, and I think that I must have read it at a surface level, because I don’t remember finding the depths that the afficionados interviewed for this podcast discovered. Maybe I should re-read it some day. Or maybe not.

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott


2019, 304 p.

Some writers are noted for the diversity of themes and genres they explore. I’m thinking, for example, of Joyce Carol Oates, where each book seems to be completely unconnected to the one that came before or after it. Other writers, in contrast, have themes that they return to again and again, approaching them from different angles, probing them, teasing them out.

Kim Scott is one of the latter. I haven’t read his first Miles Franklin Award winning book Benang (although I can see it winking at me from my bookshelf), but I gather from reviews that he returns to events and places from that earlier book in this, most recent, one. His second Miles Franklin Award winning book That Deadman Dance (my review here) took us back to the earliest days of white settlement, with a wistful ‘if only’ and regret for lost opportunities. In Taboo those ‘if only’s’ are long past, but like That Deadman Dance, the book does hold out possibilities for reconciliation, albeit with a more jaundiced eye. I think of the two books as bookends of a long history of dispossession, neglect and treachery between the 1830s and 2020.

In Taboo, Tilly has only just recently become aware of her indigenous heritage when her dying father asks to make contact with her from jail. She finds that she has half-siblings, aunts and uncles that she not known about, but she is wary in approaching this community which reaches out to embrace her as ‘Jim Coolman’s girl’. She is a damaged young woman, who has only recently escaped from an abusive relationship, described at first just in fragments, adding to your sense of a dread as a reader. The Wirlomin community invites her to return to country for the opening of a Peace Park, sponsored by the Kepalup Local Historical Society, who hope that the ‘traditional owners’ will add some authentic indigenous flavour to the proceedings.

Tilly has her own unfinished business during this visit too. As a baby, she was fostered by a white couple, Dan and Janet Horton, who live on Kokanarup, a station that was the site of a massacre and thus taboo to the indigenous community. She remembers little of the fostering, but Dan remembers her and wishes that his late wife, who had died only months previously, had been there to see her again. Janet Horton had been one of the instigators of the Peace Park project, aware of the history of Kokanarup, but the Horton family and the white community generally have firm boundaries to the ‘reconciliation’ on offer. For white Australia, actually giving the land back is the ultimate taboo.

Nearly two hundred years of colonization have taken their toll on this community. There are the old stories, handed on from generation to generation, but much of the Noongar language has been lost and now culture has to be consciously taught in programs or, as in this 6 day trip, through camps and activities.  Tilly’s own father, Jim Coolman, had started such programs in jail, and he turns to one of his students, Gerry, to make contact with Tilly once her gets out of jail. It is a community finding itself again, holding tight to the things that have remained, and with a determination to rebuild and hand on to the next generation. There is drug and alcohol abuse and crime, but there is also generosity, humour and laughter. The return to Kokanarup is part of this healing. Language is at the heart of it: learning the old  world, binding together through shared language.

The abuse that Tilly has escaped- and is still escaping- is uncovered in the second half of the book, and it has not finished yet. There are bad people drifting around the community – Gerrard, Gerald’s identical twin, is stoned or violent (and sometimes both at once) and a white prisoner officer and drug pusher, Doug, abuses his power at both a community and personal level. There is also the condescension of the college Aboriginal Support Officer, Maureen McGill, who blithely tells the Noongah kids that she has worked with lots of Aboriginal people, “cultural people, still on their country” (i.e. ‘real’ Aboriginals), and is just as keen for the trappings of Aboriginality – the didgeridoos, the dancing- as the Kepalup Local Historical Society.

The book is beautifully constructed, with a circularity that always appeals to me as a reader. Scott has such a good ear for dialogue, and he writes about the land with love and perception. I think that I probably preferred That Deadman Dance, but that was probably a ‘safer’ book, where  the ‘historical fiction’ genre avoids the question of current-day intransigence and inaction on the part of white Australia. Taboo is quietly insistent that there are questions that need to be answered, and relationships that need to be repaired.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from:  Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book