Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins

theburial

2012,  288

One of the fundamental and potentially riskiest decisions that an author makes is the narrative voice that s/he adopts to tell the story.  It doesn’t come much riskier than this:

Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was,  she was weak from my birth, and as she dug the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so that all was left was a wet and spindly bed… I opened my mouth wide to make a sound, but instead of air there was only fluid and as I gasped I felt my lungs fold in.  In that first light of morning my body contorted and I saw my own fingers reaching up to her, desperate things.  She held them and I felt them still and I felt them collapse.  And then she said Shhh, shhh, my darling. And then she slit my throat.

I should not have seen the sky turn pink or the day seep in.  I should not have seen my mother’s pale arms sweep out and heap wet earth upon me or the white birds fan out over he head.

But I did.  (p. 9)

A newborn baby as narrator rather does your head in if you think about it too much.  In Courtney Collins’ hands, though, the baby-narrator can see all things, know all things, and be as one with the sky, the earth, the universe.  It also frees the author for some beautiful, lyrical writing that would perhaps be too baroque and overwrought otherwise.

The Burial is based on the true-life story of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, a bushranger who ranged around the Wollemi area in the 1920s.  A ‘wanted’ poster (which I assume is authentic??) for here can be seen here  and a brief account of her life by her granddaughter can be found here.  Both in fact and in this novel, Hickman was a circus performer, cattle rustler and rider.

This post about the real life Jessie Hickman here mentions her marriage to the brutal Fitz, thus opening up the space for Collins’ story as Jessie escapes Fitz into the bush.  She is pursued by many men, chasing her for many different reasons: her Aboriginal lover Jack Brown, the opium-addicted Sergeant Barlow, and the violent gun-happy posse of local farmers bent on revenge and punishment for the theft of their cattle.  The feeling of them closing in on her drives the narrative, and it comes almost as a shock when the baby-voice narrator interposes itself again.

Collins has many balls in the air here: the dead but all-seeing baby, the circus back-story, a somewhat superfluous story of a cattle-rustling gang that she joins with in the folds of the mountains, an encounter with a Chinese prostitute and a love story.  While they were perhaps necessary to the knitting together of the plot, just the escape and the flight would have been enough for me.

This book has been likened to Cormac McCarthy’s work (indeed, the  frontcover is rather McCarthy-esque) and was eagerly anticipated after acclaim in its manuscript form.  I can see the parallels with McCarthy, but what I liked in this book was the theme of thwarted maternity- both Jessie’s own and that of the few women she meets- and that’s something you don’t get in McCarthy, whose books explore masculinity so well.

A rather petty quibble: I was irked by the author’s name on the top of each left-hand page.  Whose decision was that, I wonder? Possibly not the author’s. It made me feel as if I were reading someone’s homework.

This book was shortlisted for the Stella and the NSW Premier’s Award under the UTS Glenda Adams category for new writers.  It has been optioned for a film, and I can certainly see how easily it would translate to the screen as it is already composed of a series of ‘shots’- a technique that I’m not particularly fond of and which betrays, I think, an author’s difficulty in wrangling the disparate elements of a  story  into a flowing narrative.

And what about that baby as narrator?  Well, I think that the gamble paid off. It liberates her to write lyrically and, given that I often only take a broad-sweep memory of a book with me, I think that it makes the book stand out.  I’m not sure that she sustained it throughout- or even if I would have wanted her to have done so- but it was a brave move and one that this new author handled well.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was short-listed for the Stella and I want to use it as one of my Australian Women Writers Challenge reviews.

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‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville

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2012, 304 p.

An author writing a book that is part of a series has to write for two audiences.  The second and later books of a series need to stand alone for readers who are coming to it without having read the other books, and yet those who have read the other books will look for, and hopefully find, larger themes that carry across the work as a whole.

Sarah Thornhill is the final book in what is known as Grenville’s ‘Colonial’ Trilogy.  It picks up the story of William Thornhill that Kate Grenville explored in the first of the trilogy, The Secret River, published in 2005.  William Thornhill, a lighterman on the Thames had been transported to NSW in 1806 for theft, and after his sentence had  been commuted ‘took up’ land  on the Hawkesbury River, with all the consequences for the original inhabitants that such an innocuous term as ‘took up’ elides.

The second book of the trilogy, The Lieutenant  steps even further back in time to the years immediately following the First Fleet, which arrived in 1788. It is based on William Dawes, the astronomer, and his friendship with a young Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang.

This final book in the trilogy returns to the Thornhill family and is told by Sarah Thornhill, William’s youngest daughter who was born in 1816 in the colony as a ‘currency lass’.  She knows no other home

They called us the Colony of New South Wales.  I never liked that.  We wasn’t new anything.  We was ourselves. (p. 3)

This sense of this new, native-born generation of British Australians being ‘themselves’ is captured beautifully in this book.  John Molony has written about this generation in his book The Native Born (Google preview here) and  it is examined in Portia Robertson’s work The Hatch and Brood of Time.

One of the real triumphs of this book is the narrative voice that Grenville has crafted in her character Sarah.  She is illiterate but quick, and her voice is ungrammatical and conversational.  It is not an act of ventriloquism like Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, but instead she echoes the cadences and slips of the spoken conversation of an unlettered woman, talking to someone she knows well.

At heart, it is a love story.  Sarah grows up alongside and loves Jack Langland, the son of a white man and an aboriginal mother who is marginally accepted by the white settlers in the surrounding district.  But when Sarah, as a white woman, declares her love for Jack, she runs into the intolerance and cast-iron proprieties of white society and the relationship ends abruptly.  Heartbroken, she marries  the settler John Daunt as a second-best, and gradually comes to love him.  If the book does nothing else, it tells this story well.

But Grenville has another purpose in this trilogy as well.  She has clearly identified ‘reconciliation’ as one of her driving passions in her life as well as in her writing, and I think that it’s the theme that holds the three books in this trilogy together.  The first book grapples with the question of how a good man does terrible things; the second wonders whether there wasn’t another way; this third asks, what can we do if it can’t be mended.  Sarah (and Grenville’s?) answer is to tell the story; say what you know.

How will I ever find a way to tell everything that brought me here?…Of those things left undone that ought to have done, and those things done that we ought not to have done?

Rippling away into all those lives, down along the fathers and daughters and granddaughters. Generation after generation, the things joining us and the things cutting between us.  All made by something done so long ago….If there was anything I could do to mend things, I’d do them…. I’m never going to be able to tell what it was all about… I can only tell what I know. Cruelties and crimes, miseries on every side.  But of all the crimes done, the worst would be to let the story slip away.  For what it’s worth, mine had best take its place, in with all theothers (p 313, 304)

If you follow the public conversation about the nexus between Australian literature and Australian history at all, you will know of the controversy over The Secret River  between Grenville as author and the historians Inga Clendinnen and Mark McKenna.   Grenville’s take on the controversy can be found here on her own website.  She notes in the introduction that she had previously removed this response from the site, but was constantly asked for copies of it.  So, at the risk of giving oxygen to it again, she replaced it on the site.

I do not at all have a problem with authors having a larger message, a deeper purpose, or a moral, political and intellectual impetus for driving for their work. I do have a problem, though, when it warps the logic of the narrative, and I think that this happens here.  Quite simply, I found the ending of the book implausible in terms of the range of behaviours open socially to the characters in the mores of the time and  I was not convinced by the drive that impelled their action.

Nor do I completely believe Grenville’s insistence that the beat-up belongs in oblivion.  In a cheeky little ‘last word’ right at the start, she has an epigraph.

It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.

And where does this come from?  None other than E. H. Carr’s What is History? p. 21.

Some other responses I’ve enjoyed.

Marilyn at Me, you, and books.  http://mdbrady.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/sarah-thornhill-by-kate-grenville/

Lisa at ANZLitLovers  http://anzlitlovers.com/2012/03/25/sarah-thornhill-by-kate-grenville/

Alison Ravencroft’s Meanjin article http://meanjin.com.au/articles/post/the-strangeness-of-the-dance-kate-grenville-rohan-wilson-inga-clendinnen-and-kim-scott/

My rating: 7.5 /10

Read because: it was my book group’s selection for March 2013.

Sourced from: CAE book groups

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‘Sufficient Grace’ by Amy Espeseth

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2012, 322p.

The cover of this book is well chosen: stark twigs against whiteness, tracked with blood.  The novel is set in the deep frozen woods of Wisconsin, where the narrator 13 year old Ruth lives in with her extended family in a Pentecostal fundamentalist community.  There are secrets and sin in this community, and the children of the family are victims and increasingly, co-keepers of these secrets.

Although the book is set in the recent past where young girls can wear moon-boots and  attend the local school, theirs is a claustrophobic, simple life without television and consumer goods, resonant of a nineteenth century existence.  Hunting, fishing and farming are fundamental to their lifestyle, and they are closely attuned to the passing of seasons and their relationship with the food they eat- the changes in the ice, the viscerality of hunting, the harvesting and husbandry of the earth.  The family live close by to each other and worship together, with the exception of Uncle Peter, who is estranged from the religion that binds the rest of the family together in such suffocating ties.

The narrative is set over five months, with each month forming a separate section of the book and it is told in Ruth’s voice and from her perspective.  Ruth is a watcher, hiding in cupboards and under tables, and while in a way she sees much more than her religion-blinded relatives, she also does not completely understand what she is seeing.  As readers, we see before she does.  Her narrative is supplemented by the  hymns that shape her world view, and their simple God-based certainties of their lyrics highlight further the sweaty, murky fug of human relationships inside cabins and barns, with the stark and chilled landscape outside.

This is a layered world, with fundamentalist Christianity laid over an earlier dalliance with Amish religion; with Native American and Norwegian heritage lying underneath as well.  Ruth’s cousin Naomi has been adopted from the nearby Native American mission and Ruth’s grandmother too has Native American heritage that her children largely ignore, covered as it is by her deep religious faith.

I was very impressed with the sheer confidence with which this book is written.  Much of this might spring from the author’s own life, which largely mirrors Ruth’s experience. Her descriptions are poised and beautiful, and in her creation of Ruth’s voice she combines the majesty of the King James Bible and the shy, naive knowingness and yet innocence of a young girl approaching womanhood, uncomfortable in her body, and already blinkered to other options in the world outside.  The title is taken from Corinthians 12:9

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

This is not an amazing grace; instead it is a stripped down one- merely sufficient. The biblical reference is apt because at its heart this is a story about power and weakness.  At times the biblical allusions threaten to engulf the story- the Ruth/Naomi pairing; Samuel as the much wanted child and prophet etc- but there is enough weight in the descriptions of landscape, the all-encompassing faith and the murkiness of sin to balance the biblical metaphors out.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2009, long listed for the Stella Prize and  short listed for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was long-listed for the Stella.

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‘From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story’ by Pamela Burton

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2010,  401 p. & notes

I think that most of us would be hard pressed to name the judges on the High Court of Australia- I know that I would be.  Occasionally a judge ‘cuts through’ into the mainstream- Michael Kirby comes to mind (perhaps even more since retiring from the bench than while on it?), as does William Deane (although probably more as Governor General than judge)- and Mary Gaudron is another.  Mary Gaudron was the first female High Court judge in Australia- just one of the many firsts in her career.  As the title of this book highlights, she was one of the judges involved in the Mabo decision, arguably one of the most important judicial decisions in Australian history (although- fascinating parlour game- no cheating on Google- who were the other judges in the Mabo case???) Continue reading

‘Like a House on Fire’ by Cate Kennedy

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2012, 277 p.

Like a House on Fire is a book of short stories.  If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ll know what’s going to come next.  I’m going to say that I don’t know how to talk about a collection of short stories.  That I don’t know how to read them- one at a time and feeling short-changed, or moving on to the next one and feeling bloated.  That they finish before I have time to engage at any level with the character.  That I just don’t like them.

Well, none of that is true with this book.

Perhaps, after 15 years of being able to indulge my love of reading more fully, I have finally learned how to read a short story.  My discovery: one story at a time ONLY , then go on to read a non-fiction book instead. The  single story has enough space to expand; it’s not squashed down to fit the next one in.

Or perhaps, these are very, very good short stories.  They have all been published elsewhere in journals and magazines as is often the case in compilations like this. Every single one of them is memorable, and for me that’s a big thing.  All too often I find myself reading the next story in a collection because the last one has been too insubstantial: the term ‘meh’ fits exactly.

But with these stories, each one is memorable in its own right, and I found myself recognizing their truths in other places.  The story ‘Five Dollar Family’, for example, where a new young mother, exhausted, drained,  looks to her dead-beat young partner and is stiffened into resolve to move beyond him- surely I saw the story lived out in an episode of ‘The Midwives’ a few weeks ago where a young single mother in Manchester likewise grew up, almost before your eyes, through the act of giving birth.  Or the story ‘Cake’ where a new mother returns to work for the first day, torn by the act of leaving her child at creche, feeling as if she is play-acting a pre-baby life that she has moved beyond- even if you haven’t been in that situation, I think we’ve all felt the way that  workplace routine comes a sepia filmreel, a nothingness, after some big, life-changing event.

Many of these stories involve bodies: most particularly women’s bodies and medical intervention-  the night before a breast biopsy; the waiting room before a miscarriage is diagnosed. Others are told from a male or a child’s perspective.  The story which gives the collection its title is about a young father with back-ache and it is so well told that you find yourself arching your own back in response, while at the same time suppressing the suspicion that he’s exaggerating.  The opening story, ‘Flexion’  which takes in  a longer timespan that many of the other slice-of-life stories in this collection do, traces a wife’s ambivalent response as her leathered, laconic farmer husband recovers after a tractor accident.

For me, it says a lot that I can flip through the book, glimpse the title at the top of the page and instantly recall what the story was about.  I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed a collection of short stories so much.  I wouldn’t feel in the least disgruntled or short changed should it win the Stella Prize for which it has been short-listed.

My rating: 9.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was long listed for the Stella Prize.  Reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

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‘Sea Hearts’ by Margo Lanagan

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2012,  343 p.  Also published as ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island”

I’ve always loved stories about mermaids and selkies.  As a child, it was a special treat for me to read a book that had belonged to my mother called “The Children’s Treasure House” by Alfred Noyes, copyright 1935.  It has beautifully rendered coloured plates, black and white art-deco line drawings and it is indeed a treasury of stories and poems including Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm and simplified retellings from the works of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare etc.  I see through Trove  http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/47810432b  that it cost 5/- with 1/- for postage, and was available through the Women’s Weekly.  I had two favourite stories in the book.  One was the Snow Queen, and the other was The  Little Mermaid- the REAL Little Mermaid:  no Disney-saccharine Ariel, Flounder and Scuttle the Seagull here-  but the proper story, with its pain, yearning and sad, sad ending.

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Whenever I’m in a boat travelling across clear, shallow water and I see those glistening threads of sunlight in the water or foam on the edge of waves, I think of this picture.

Selkies are more confronting, given their connection with seals, but fascinating none the less. According to the legend (which of course has many variations), male selkies are handsome, powerful and seductive but can only remain a short time before returning to the sel. Female selkies  will stay on land as long as their sealskins are hidden from them, and even have children with human men, but will return to the sea as soon as they find their skin again.  Often their own children unwittingly help the selkie to find the skin that has been deliberately hidden from her, and either the selkie forsakes her husband and children to return to the waves, or takes the children with her. Several years ago,  I fell in love with the movie The Secret of Roan Inish with its selkie and the little lost boy. I liked it so much so that I watched it two days in a row when it came to a local theatre. Again- yearning and loss, and a beautiful, windswept setting.

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So when I read that Margo Lanagan’s book Sea Hearts is about selkies, I wanted to read it.  Off to the library I toddled, only to find that it wasn’t on the shelves even though the catalogue claimed that it was.  Ah- silly me- it’s in the Teenage section

I really don’t know what distinguishes ‘teenage’ from ‘adult’ here.  It’s a beautifully told story, spun out over several generations. It is set on remote Rollrock Island, with its village of fisherfolk and small cottages.  The  chapters are of varying lengths, told in the first person in a curious, lilting accent.  Each chapter focuses on a different character and time elapses between generation to generation.  One of the longest and most compelling chapters is told by Missakaella, an awkward young woman, shunned by the villagers, drawn to the sea and especially the seals in the bay.  They are attracted to her, too, and her mother forces her to wear an apron with crossed strings, that somehow keeps the seals at bay.  It is through Missakaella that the age-old meeting between selkie and human is reconsummated.  It is a powerful and evocative piece of writing that I found oddly, and breath-holdingly erotic.  That’s quite a narrative feat: to not only be lulled into suspending disbelief about the physicality between seal and woman, but to actually stir in response to it as well. But actions have consequences: obsession becomes possession; love becomes loss; something taken can take in return.

This is a handsomely presented book, with each chapter separated by a black-and-white illustration that evokes seaweed, bubbles and deep cold water.  I must admit, though, that I found the front cover rather sinister and disturbing.  The book itself is not.  Instead, it’s a haunting love story, too good to be left to teenagers.  It has been longlisted for the Stella Prize  but if it were to win, it would be an usual, rather ‘brave’ choice.

My rating:  8.5/10

Sourced from: The ‘teenage’ section of the Yarra Plenty Regional Library (hah!)

Read because: several people had reviewed it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2012; I noted that it had been shortlisted for the Stella; and because I’m fascinated by selkies!

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‘Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image’ by Kim Torney

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2005,  241p.

I feel as if the McCubbin image that graces the front cover of this book has been hanging in the corridor of every school I have ever attended.  Just looking at it evokes for me the smell of squashed sandwiches and pencil cases.  Likewise, the mere mention of the “Lost in the Bush” story in the primary school reader brings back memories of brave little Jane Duff, struggling with her brother to carry their baby brother through the ravines of the endless bush, tenderly covering him with her cotton dress at night.  Of course, that’s the whole power of an image:  just a glimpse or uttered word evokes a cascade of remembrances and associations. And as the title of this book suggests, the lost child in the bush is a particularly durable and potent Australian image. Continue reading

‘ A Stranger Here’ by Gillian Bouras

a_stranger_here

1996, 247 p.

The Age, my daily newspaper (which is, unfortunately, becoming less and less pleasurable- did you hear that the Guardian is coming to town?) no longer has its regular columnists who let you into their lives over an extended period of time.  I suppose that Martin Flanagan writes within that tradition, and the much-missed Kate Holden did too on the back page of Saturday’s Age.  The late Pamela Bone was good; so was Sharon Gray; and I remember Gillian Bouras as well. As I recall, she was a Melbourne teacher who went to live in a Greek village, and she continued to write her column from Greece.  She  has mined her life for novels, too, and this book  continues this tradition.  Is it fiction or non-fiction? I have no idea.  I think that I’d classify it as memoir and biography dressed up as fiction.

It is written in three alternating voices of three women, overlaid by an invisible third-person omniscient narrator :  first, the Greek peasant mother-in-law Artemis;  second, the friend Juliet; and finally the writer Irene (who may, perhaps be the omniscient narrator writing in first person).   Australian-born Irene now lives in England, self-exiled from Greece where her youngest child still lives after the breakdown of his parents’ marriage.  She doesn’t want to return to Australia and she cannot bear to be too far from her youngest son whom she loves perhaps too unhealthily.  Her mother-in-law Artemis, addled by dementia, has always resented Irene, and the friend Julie, herself British-born, has stayed in Greece, turning a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities and she is rather impatient of Irene’s indecisiveness and passivity.

I received this book as part of my book-group’s Kris Kringle: we each anonymously wrap up a book of our own that we have enjoyed and put it wrapped into a basket and choose another.  Over the Christmas break we read the book, then at our first meeting we return it, speak about our response to it, and try to guess who ‘gave’ it.   It doesn’t at all surprise me that this was a book given by one middle-aged woman to another middle-aged woman, and it has been interesting reading this and My Hundred Lovers in such close succession, because there is a similarity between them.   They are both very female books, written by older women, who have been scarred, chastened and emboldened by experience.  Both books do not have a clear-cut beginning and end point, and while driven by the elapse of time and the waxing and waning of relationships, do not have a plot as such.

While identifying with it, I did become a bit impatient at the ‘stuckness’ of the narrator in this book and was relieved that it didn’t go on for much longer, even though I was enjoying reading it.  I do wonder if  the author takes the  adage “Write what you know” a little too seriously: can any one person’s ordinary life carry the burden of so many novels???

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from:  well- who knows???  I think Sue, but I’m not sure.

Read because: it was the 2012 book group Kris Kringle.  And she identifies herself on her website as “An Australian Writer Living in Greece” so I’ll include her on the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.

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Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

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Well, I did it in 2012 and I’ll do it again in 2013. I’ll probably read quite a bit of fiction because I tend to anyway, but this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013,  I want to concentrate on Australian Women Historians writing Australian History.

Last year Yvonne Perkins in her blog Stumbling Through the Past analysed the gender balance of book reviews in three major Australian history journals.  She found that by and large, History Australia and Australian Historical Studies have a fairly even gender balance the books that are reviewed (with even a slight leaning towards female writers), while The Australian Journal of Politics and History had more reviews of male authors.  It’s an interesting post- read it here– and it spurred her to develop a list of books written by women historians.

To be honest, I was surprised that there was such strong gender balance in two of the journals she analysed, because my perception is that more books are written by male historians.  I did a little detective work myself, counting the books in the ‘Australian Studies/Australian History’ section of Readings bookstore in Carlton.  Whatever the breakdown in the book review section of the major Australian historical journals, on the shelves male historians romped it in – only 28 of the 95 books I counted were written by women.

And certainly, if I turn my head to the left and look at my own bookshelves, there are many more books written by male historians.  I can think of a number of reasons for that.  First, I don’t very often buy history books new (whereas I do buy second-hand) and so any bias in the past will be reflected in the books I buy. I really am trying to have less clutter around, and so I borrow from the library, and try not to buy. But I’m often attracted to the remainder bin, the ‘Specials’ table and the second hand bookshop, and the piles of books that academics put outside their door when they’re cleaning up their offices…..and my bookshelves show the result.

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Second, my area of interest is nineteenth century colonial societies in white settler nations- especially Australia and Upper Canada.  It’s a fairly old-fashioned sort of interest now, and was mined fairly heavily in the 1960s and 1970s.  I’m coming to it imbued with all the ‘isms’ and ‘turns’ of the past fifty years, but I must admit that many of the books on my shelf are terribly dated- and the bias towards male authorship in the 60s and 70s shows.

Finally, and related to this, early women Australian historians writing Australian history had a hard time even being recognized as academics, let alone published academics.  Some time ago, I wrote a post about Kathleen Fitzpatrick , a historian at Melbourne University who wrote, but abandoned, a book on Charles La Trobe that she had been working on for some time.  There is a suggestion that she withdrew from the field because another (male) historian was writing on him as well, and she didn’t want to compete with him.

Just recently, I read an article called ‘ The Writing of Australian Biography’ by M. H. Ellis who is depicted in his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry as just the sort of male historian that one might want to step back from.  It was published in Historical Studies (Vol 6, No. 24, May 1955) after being read before Section E of the Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science held at Canberra in January 1954.  I disagree with much of what he says in his paper, but what really struck me was the language. I’m sure that any female biographer with the audacity to even sit in the room slunk away quietly, well aware that she had no right to be there:

 No very young writer, hastily scrambling over a rich reef of documentary material, is likely to have the natural insight to enable him to distill from it a living image that will appeal as being the stuff of life to readers of diverse ages and mental outlooks in different periods, and inspire confidence in any picture he may draw of the mind and motives of a man of mature years… Nothing but slow filtering of essentials through the sieve of parallel experience can teach one man what makes another man function and behave as he does and enable him to put his findings down on paper in a manner to convince those who have endured or are enduring life that he is setting down truth.”(p 434)

Or how about this one?

There must be in all true biographers a natural and honest bias toward good principles, which are the yardstick by which men are measured.  Biographers should be the most human of men and subject to the decent prejudices and preferences which guide the ordinary citizen.  It would be right against human nature if such men did not involuntarily exhibit their likes and dislikes, their amusement or lack of amusement, their approval or disapproval, if they write from the heart.  But if he tries to suppress or falsify his natural emotions, then the biographer’s work becomes sodden dough or dead meat or false in note.  But in any case the chances are that when his subject takes control of his imagination he will be at his mercy if the man is worth writing about.  (p. 437)

Just imagine if a female biographer wrote about a female subject!!…ah, but would she be worth writing about??  It is sobering to think that this is the intellectual climate that our early women academic historians operated in.  It makes their few publications even more significant.

And so, for my Australian Women Writer’s Challenge this year, I’d like to consciously read and review some histories written by women.  Where possible, I’ll look for histories related to my thesis to review, but I’ll try to review them as a reader, rather than for the contribution they make to my own work. I did review a couple of histories for the Australian Women Writers Challenge last year, and I found myself consciously trying to make my review more general than I might have otherwise, and I’ll take the same approach this year.  Other histories I find, that are unrelated to my own work, I’ll be reading just as anyone else would, as I won’t have much pre-existing knowledge to bring to the book.

I often feel a bit diffident about reviewing books when I know that I’m going to run into the author- which is quite likely when reviewing Australian History books by Australian historians.   I get an attack of the M. H. Ellis-es, and I feel that I really have no right to review and that I should just slink out of the room.  But I shall stand tall (take that M. H. Ellis!!), knowing that on the few occasions when the connection has been made “Oh, so YOU’RE the Resident Judge!” (and I cringe at the presumption of my blog-name), there has never been any unpleasantness- to the contrary, in fact.

 

‘My Hundred Lovers’ by Susan Johnson

myhundredlovers

2012, 262 p.

I must admit that the whole Fifty Shades  phenomenon and its innumerable offshoots leaves me cold.   So it was with some trepidation that I borrowed My Hundred Lovers, hoping that a writer that I’ve enjoyed in the past would not betray me with a fleeting and warped assertion of empowerment through a string of  hot-breathed, moist, look-away sex scenes. I need not have feared. This is a beautifully written book, expanding love and sexuality to encompass the whole of life and being human.

It is written as one hundred chapters, each very short consisting rarely of more than four pages, and sometimes as little as a paragraph.  The hundred lovers here (such a daunting number!) are the spark between sensuousness and embodiment (in the sense of being in the body) and the whole range of a woman’s experiences.  There is  much for the fifty-year old reader to reflect and identify with here: the ambiguity of father/daughter physicality; the childhood sex play that I find myself looking back on and wondering about;  explorations of changing adolescent bodies; self-exploration;  sex for all the wrong reasons; sheer experimentation.  But sensuousness and being in the body is more than genitals and crevices: it’s also luxuriating in water, sand, heat; buttery croissants; it’s buildings and houses and landscapes; it’s friendship and companionship.

Unlike the sweaty, fervent erotic fiction that its title evokes, this book champions an older, wiser, more lived-in view of love.  It’s a view of love that  a fifty-year old reader does not feel disqualified from- if anything, it affirms and confirms what it sometimes takes fifty years to learn:

Love arrived smaller and more humble than advertised.  Love turned out to be plain, quotidian… She preferred herself now, less succulent and more loving, humbled, loved. (p.261)

This book is more than a list, it’s a life-story with relationships, losses, pain and confession, all measured out against the beat of passing time.  In fact, counting and taking measure is prominent here.  As she tells us in the opening sentence, romance between the average couple dies two years, six months and twenty-five days into marriage.   Most of us will live for a thousand months.  There are one hundred experiences in this book, numbered off in a countdown, and given that the book could have finished anywhere really, I found myself counting too…98, 99, 100.  Biography (including fictional biography as in this case) relies on the countdown of years and the elapse of time for its shape; unlike memoir which is an intellectual construction where time can be squeezed, stretched and compressed like clay.  This book combines the two- it is basically chronological in its structure, but events and reflection are intertwined and the whole  “100” framework is a literary and arbitrary construction.

The writing is crystal-sharp: quite an achievement in a genre that even has its own award for failure and mis-steps in the Bad Sex Awards– a dubious ‘honour’ that must surely shrivel up the juices of any writer.  Although it is completely self-contained in its own right, the author’s highly-acclaimed earlier work The Broken Book, a fictionalized biography of Charmian Clift, sits alongside it as a close companion.   They are both beautifully written, intelligent books.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because:  I’d heard of it and very much enjoyed the author’s earlier works.  And I’ll backtrack a little and  count it for the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge 2013

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