Daily Archives: December 31, 2020

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.