Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

‘Charades’ by Janette Turner Hospital


1988,  345 p

I hadn’t heard of this book at all, although I’ve read several of Janette Turner Hospital’s books previously (see here and here for reviews).  It was written in 1988 which is, after all, quite some time ago, and was included in the New York Times Book Review‘s fifty most notable novels of 1988. It was long-listed for the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the Banjo and the Adelaide Festival National Fiction Awards.

Stripped back to its bare bones, it’s the story of a rather lecherous Canadian university lecturer in physics, Koenig, who embarks on a relationship with a young student who, between bouts of frantic and sweaty lovemaking, regales him with stories of her search for her father and her unconventional mother.  The stories distract Koenig from his own woes about his wife’s breakdown, the end of his marriage and his son’s conversion to the Moonies.

That’s the simple version.  It’s also a riff on Scheharazade, story-telling and truth.  It’s all a bit contrived: we have the rather twee twist on ‘Charade’ as the young student’s name.  Add to this some rather laboured complications of physics and the uncertainty principle. Hence we have Bea, her mother, or ‘B’ (as in the B-narrative) and Kay, her ‘aunt’ (as in K, the symbol for constant value in physics), Nicholas Truman (true-man) and the mysterious Verity.

It’s not an easy book, and I very nearly abandoned it after Part I. But just at that point, either it improved or I succumbed to it, and I’m glad that I did. As a reader, you have to tolerate leaps between the frame story and flashbacks, and to have one story immediately contradicted by an alternate story.  At this point, you just have to hold on and trust Turner Hospital that she’s going to hold it all together- and she does, largely.

I could have done without all the physics, which nearly tipped me over the edge.  There are elements of this book that she repeats in later work (looking for lost parents; mobility and dislocation; the Queensland setting; bohemianism etc) and I think that she has become more refined and controlled in her writing over the decades.  But the book is worth persevering with, and is a satisfying read as you reach the end.  The word ‘virtuoso’ is often used to describe her work and it’s apposite: she flies high and takes risks.  It’s exhilarating, but not comfortable.

Posted to the Australian Women Writers challenge site as surely my final contribution for the year!


‘Warrior’ by Libby Connors


2015, 280 p.

If you, like many others, watched the ABC production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, then you should read this book. Think back to the silent, foreboding presence of indigenous people as they filed past the boundaries of what William Thornhill thought of as ‘his’ land, inscrutable, chilling, ethereal. There was a simple logic at play: settlers wanted the land and the aborigines wanted them gone. Kate Grenville complicates William Thornhill’s response and renders it explicable, even if it’s a response that we’d like to distance ourselves from. But beyond the defence of their country, the actions of the indigenous protagonists, in Grenville’s book and in settler reports of the time, remain fragmentary, apparently random and unknowable. Until now.

Libby Connor’s book Warrior challenges the simple classification of aboriginal ‘outrages’ as random, undisciplined and ultimately futile. Instead, she returns logic and agency to the indigenous tribal groupings in south-east Queensland during the pre-Separation days of the frontier. She does this through the story of Dundalli, a Dalla man who was executed in January 1855 for the murder of Andrew Gregor and his pregnant (white) house-servant Mary Shannon in an attack on the Caboolture River. White justice had taken twelve years to catch up with him. In the meantime, Dudalli had taken on mythic proportions by evading capture repeatedly, and his name became a byword for all ‘outrages’, whether he was involved or not. When he finally faced Supreme Court judge Roger Therry in a Brisbane circuit court hearing, in effect lawman-to-lawman, it was the judge who was intimidated by this tall, imposing  leader, and not the other way round.

Libby Connors is a historian who has written a great deal on the interaction between British law and indigenous people. She is well placed to go through the evidence, the courtroom arguments, the legal principles and the punishment regimes of white settler justice. But the real achievement in her work is in fleshing out Dundalli, so that he is more than one of those silent wraiths of Grenville’s book. Drawing on the memories of a tribal man recorded as an oral history during the 1950s , she is able to reconstruct (albeit through extrapolation) the nature of a Dalla childhood and adolescence than Dundalli is likely to have experienced. Using documents generated by white missionaries, bureaucrats, settlers, anthropologists and historians, she gives Dundalli’s leadership a context by mapping out the intra-tribal politics and strategies utilized by different groups in what is now the Sunshine Coast/ Brisbane area. These politics were instrumental, pragmatic and fluid. One group might encourage the establishment of a mission on tribal land as a means to gain access to technology that ensured supremacy over other groups; another might consciously defer to white justice in order to fulfil the demands of their own indigenous justice. The British and Indigenous justice systems existed, and continued to exist, side by side, and she highlights that both systems of law were mutable and in tension with the other.

The book is beautifully written and imbued with a deep sense of place. A map that appears in the opening pages shows indigenous places superimposed onto familiar Western towns and rivers, highlighting the co-existence of two competing senses of ownership. Her frequent references to present-day Brisbane and Sunshine Coast landmarks would prick the consciousness of residents of those places, reminding them that another history runs alongside the sun, cosmopolitanism and tourism of both those places. When you find yourself overwhelmed by who’s who, and which group is which, you turn the page and there is a table; when you think ‘gee, a map would be handy here’, there it is. The text flows effortlessly, and the footnotes are unobtrusive, but when you look at them closely, you realize just how intricate and painstaking her construction of indigenous polity is.

This book has received the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, and I noticed that it was on the top of the list of recommended reading for Prime Minister Turnbull over his Christmas break issued by the Grattan Institute this year. It’s a tremendously important book. Many historians over the past forty years in particular have written, as Henry Reynolds does, of “the other side of the frontier” surveying the resistance of indigenous people to their dispossession across the frontier as a whole. What this book does is hone in on one particular location; one constellation of tribal groups; a set of named, individual leaders. It will make you pause the next time you read of an ‘aboriginal depredation’ in fiction, see it depicted in film or read it reported in settler testimony. It does what the fictional William Thornhill couldn’t, and white British justice wouldn’t do. It makes sense of what was perceived by settlers as brutish retaliation and gives it a legal, political and environmental logic, embedded in power structures negotiated and contested between intelligent, strategic and courageous leaders of men.


I’ve posted this review (the last for the year) to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.






‘Nine Days’ by Toni Jordan


Often front covers of books use stock images, but the photograph on the cover of Toni Jordan’s Nine Days is integral to the story.  It shows a young woman being hoisted onto the shoulders of soldiers and well-wishers who are gathered around a troop train.


The photograph was the impetus for Jordan to write this book, and its significance becomes clear by the end of the story.  However, the book is about much more than this photograph.

The Westaway family live in Rowena Street Richmond during the late 1930s. Connie is the eldest, Kip and Francis are 15-year-old twins. Their father has died, money is tight but Jean Westaway, their mother, prides herself that the family has improved itself by living ‘up the hill’, away from the slums .  Nearby lives Jack, recently returned from the country, who has returned to live with his parents whose house adjoins their business overlooking the Westaway’s backyard. It is 1939 and men are enlisting- Jack among them- and it’s no real surprise that in Toni Jordan’s hands, the photograph on the cover is of Jack and Connie’s farewell.

Although this is the central motif, the narrative and chronology of the book skips back and forth. There are nine first-person narrators, all connected to the Westaway family, but separated by time, generation and social class.  Jordan makes you work hard as a reader. Each chapter has the narrator’s name, but no information about date or location, and you need to make the connections yourself.  Too complex? I don’t think so. Even though I almost resented being shunted from one narrator to the next and being dragged back and forth through the decades, each chapter did its work in bringing the plot forward.

In her acknowledgments Jordan thanks historians Janet McCalman from Struggletown and Kate Darian Smith for On the Homefront. Jordan, as a fiction-writer, makes just the sort of use of secondary historical sources that a historian would want.  She doesn’t ‘Trove-ize’ Richmond by slathering on detail, but she gives it a lived-in feel,  because her research has attuned her to the broad sweep of a community and sensitized her to the meaning of place and not just its appearance.   By presenting narratives across multiple decades, she traces the gentrification of both real-estate and aspiration.

This book is a departure from Jordan’s  earlier work, Addition and The Fall Girl, both of which are light, humourous reads.  Even though Nine Days is a sad book which moved me to tears, there are flashes of humour here too.  Overall, it’s a much more complex book than her earlier work.  You have to work harder as a reader, and Jordan has worked harder as a writer too, to good effect.

aww-badge-2015-200x300 Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.

‘Medea’s Curse’ by Anne Buist


2015,  363 p.

In her book  This House of Grief , Helen Garner wrote of her sinking feeling on hearing of the death of the Farquarharson children on Fathers Day- “Oh Lord, let this be an accident”.  For right or wrong, hearing of the death of children at what might possibly be their father’s hand often provokes an almost immediate suspicion of his guilt- “not again”.  However a child’s death at possibly their mother’s hand evokes incredulity- “how could she?”  The young (or even older) woman who has denied her pregnancy and  has reality crashing down on her with the birth of the child- understandable.  A deliberate, extended series of deaths like Katherine Folbigg has been accused of- less so.  Ah, we all judge. None of us really knows.

Natalie King, the protagonist of Medea’s Curse knows, though. Or at least, she is required, professionally, as a forensic psychiatrist, to withhold judgment in her special expertise with mothers who have killed their children.  But she’s human, and  she can’t completely.  She clashes with Professor Wadhwa, who is convinced that a woman who has had several children die under mysterious circumstances is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities): Natalie is less sure. In a separate case, she has identified strongly – too strongly- with Amber, a woman jailed for murdering her child who, Natalie suspects, has been unjustly punished for a crime committed by her husband.  Meanwhile,  Amber’s husband is linked with another possible crime involving another child.

Then there’s Natalie herself.  She suffers from bi-polar disorder and flirts with abandoning her medication. She obviously has a complex family back-story herself that will no doubt be explored in future books in the series mooted on the back cover. She rides a motorcycle: she enjoys sex but not the mess of relationships.  And she’s being stalked: or at least, she thinks she’s being stalked.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here.  Too much? Possibly, for this reader who leans toward Dr Blake and Midsomer Murders in her crime tastes, and is often known to state “Well, I have NO IDEA what THAT was about!” at the end of a Friday night crime series on television. Nonetheless, I was able to follow the various threads, and found myself picking up the book for “just 10 minutes reading” to see what happened next.

Anne Buist, the author, is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, and is a specialist in perinatal psychiatry. She obviously knows her stuff (although she is at pains to stress that she has not used her patients in this book). At times the book was a little too technical, although having her supervision sessions with another psychiatrist, Declan, (an established feature of psychiatric practice) was a good narrative device for explaining things to the reader. As a Melburnian, I enjoyed its local setting.

So, given that this is not normally a genre that I’d read, and given my difficulty with following multiple plot lines, I enjoyed this book. It was a rather frenetic read though, and I was happy to turn to something quieter afterwards!

aww-badge-2015-200x300 I have included this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

‘Only the Animals’ by Ceridwen Dovey


245 p. 2014

This book is a series of short stories written by the souls of dead animals mentioned obliquely in literature.  Not a promising premise, I must admit. When I mentioned to my husband what this book was about, he said  (rather derisively) that it sounded like the little tsunami of books that emerged a few years ago about the overlooked wives of famous men ( Mrs Cook; Shakespeare’s Wife; Ahab’s Wife etc).  While I’m not enamoured of the comparison, I can see the similarities. Dovey is writing into and against a better-known narrative by using imagination to bounce off her historical and literary research.

The stories are arranged chronologically and range across continents.  They are set during times of war, and all of them explore human-animal interaction. In each case, there is a connection with a writer who paid homage in some way to an animal in her or his work. In the case of the parrot, Dovey pays homage to Julian Barnes who himself paid homage to Flaubert in Flaubert’s Parrot. The stories have this layer-upon-layer texture.

We start with the Camel who accompanied Henry Lawson on an inland expedition in 1892; we meet the Cat that Collette took with her to the Western Front in 1915; we meet Tolstoy’s tortoise who ends her long life in space; we encounter a dolphin trained by the US navy in 2003, and a parrot in Lebanon in 2006- and others in between.  I’m not sure, though, that the narrative voices of the different animals were different enough (unless, of course all souls sound the same), even though there were cadences and allusions referencing the authors mentioned in each chapter.

I must confess to feeling rather out of my depth in catching the allusions and little in-jokes that I detected, but could not understand, as I read the stories. As with any mash-up, which is I suppose what these are, there’s a blurry line between the derived and the truly original. There’s a list on Dovey’s website that references her sources, both literary and historical, and it further blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.

As a result, I found this book a rather uneasy reading experience.  As with The Girl with the Dog, I found myself discomfited by feeling as if an academic and literary game was being played over my head, or as if I was being excluded from a conversation spoken in riddles by a group determined not to let me understand. Does that matter, if you’re enjoying the story in its own right? I suppose not.  Or is it that I resent being excluded by ignorance and am chafing against how that makes me feel?

There’s enough curiosity about seeing the author perform that keeps you reading,  because this is a book of literary performance.  Any collection of short stories is arbitrary- what is included, what is left out- and I felt that way with this collection as well.  There could be an Only the Animals II, or III if she felt so inclined (and I strongly suspect and hope that she does not).  Not because the project is flawed, but because it should only be done once, and done well, as it is.

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site


‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop


2015, 279 p

I put a hold on this book some time ago, having heard good things about it. I was startled to find that I was number 30 on the waiting list but when I actually picked the book up from the library some weeks later, I was prepared to be disappointed.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, we are told- but I do.  The gold embossed font suggested genre fiction (as Lisa from ANZLitLovers learned recently) and the pastel colours suggested romance. The sickly-sweet blurb “The only thing harder than losing home is trying to find it again” was not encouraging, either.

But this book is poorly served by its cover, because instead of fantasy or romance, this is a beautifully nuanced book about nostalgia, motherhood and the sense of ‘home’.   It is written in the present tense, a stylistic choice that I usually bridle against (despite writing nearly all this blog in the present tense myself!) In this case, however, I barely noticed, as was the case in Black Rock, White City which I read recently too: perhaps I’m moving away from my prejudice against present-tense narratives?

Set between 1963 and 1966, Charlotte has been plunged into rapid motherhood, long before she feels ready. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Henry, an Anglo-Indian academic and she is suffocating under what we would now probably diagnose as post-natal depression. Ground down by the sheer mindlessness and fatigue of dealing with babies, she acquiesces in Henry’s dream of emigrating to Australia and ends up in stark, hot, sun-drenched Perth, where he gains a position at the university.  She hates it and wants to return home but he resists her unhappiness, convinced that the opportunities that Australia offers their children and time will overcome what he assumes is temporary homesickness.  She resents Henry and is drawn to a fellow artist, Nicholas, who understands better the nature of the sacrifice that this move to the other side of the world has cost her.

Although  Henry rests in the assurance that he has done the right thing by bringing his family to Australia, as an Anglo-Indian he faces his own challenges in 1960s White Australia Perth. When he is called to India where his mother is dying, he leaves Charlotte alone with the children.  Back in his childhood home and increasingly conscious of his parents’ choice to send him back to England for his education,  he is brought up against his own concept of ‘home’.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to work as research assistant for A. James Hammerton, who along with the noted oral historian Alistair Thomson, wrote Ten Pound Poms, a fascinating book about the experience of post-war English migrants who emigrated to Australia under the assisted migration scheme that ran between the 1940s and 1970s.   He was working on a second book (not yet published as far as I know) about mobility between the UK and her former colonies especially after the assisted emigration schemes had drawn to a close, and the interviews that I read as part of my work for that project, along with those in the earlier book Ten Pound Poms very much echo the experiences of the characters in this book.  It rings absolutely true.

Not so true, however, are some of the small infelicities which arise, I’m sure, as a result of the youth of the author.  Refrigerator freezers in 1965 barely contained an ice-cream brick let alone a loaf of bread; playgroups didn’t emerge in Australia until the 1970s and the smacking of children- at least in many families- didn’t have quite the connotations it has now.  I suspect that the author has spent much time examining the copies of the Womens Weekly available on TROVE but the references to it are awkward and jangly.

Charlotte has the eye of an artist and the author, Stephanie Bishop, has the voice of the poet.  This comes through most strongly in the descriptions of setting and place that run throughout the book and which underpin Charlotte’s longing for England.  At the same time, the book is minutely domestic with well-observed (if perhaps a little too lengthy) descriptions of parenthood with small children in the absence of a family or community network.  Overall, it’s a very assured, mature and nuanced second novel by a clearly talented young writer.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

‘The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery’ by Alexandra Roginski


2015, 79 p & notes.

Great title and a good little book.  There are, in effect, three mysteries rather than just one- and all within 79 pages, grounded in careful research and a sense of humility towards the unknown and unknowable.

The first mystery explored in Chapter One, is the identity of the skull in Museum Victoria.  Catalogued as ‘Jim Crow’ and part of the Hamilton collection that was gifted to the National Museum of Victoria in 1889,  the skull had puzzled museum curators for some time. The matter had assumed a more urgent, human significance in the wake of the international trend towards repatriation of indigenous artefacts from collecting institutions.  The label on the skull designated it as ‘Jim Crow’,  a name frequently cast on indigenous men and evocative of African-American blackness, but physical tests suggested that the skull was that of a female.  It was only with a re-reading of the ambiguity of the analysis, and a preferencing of the historical record over the skeletal one, that opened up of the possibility that the skull was male after all. Roginski makes no secret of the conditional and still uncertain nature of this classification.  It might indeed be the skull of the man known as Jim Crow, and from this suggestion the rest of the book flows.

Jim Crow’s death certificate indicates that his birthplace as Clarence Town, near Maitland.  We know little of his origins, but we do know his end: hanged for rape in 26 April 1860 at Maitland Gaol.  Jim Crow bursts into the historical record on 24 January 1860 when he visited a farmhouse near Dungong and asked for water, and then- according to Jane Delanthy’s  deposition- asked “Will you give me rape Missus?”. In Chapter 2 Roginski unpicks the case, weighing it against other rape cases involving white prisoners. Although, as she acknowledges, we will never know what really happened, she suggests that the evidence did not appear strong enough to secure a guilty verdict.

But Jim Crow – or at least, his body- was to leave a longer trace in the historical record. Three months later, the noted  showman-phrenology  Archibald Sillars Hamilton (known professionally as A. S.Hamilton) approached the sexton at the Anglican Church at East Maitland asking where the bodies of Jim Crow and another man hanged at the same time were buried.  The sexton felt uncomfortable enough about the request to report it to his superior who then reported it to the police magistrate.  Hamilton was committed to stand trial for inciting another person to exhume corpses from a burial ground.  After a widely reported trial, Hamilton was acquitted, but his purpose was achieved when ‘someone’ disinterred the bodies.  Chapter 3 deals with this case, and explains the ‘science’ of phrenology as an international and then Australian phenomenon.  A. S. Hamilton led a colourful and disreputable life, and his attitude towards indigenous people is complex.  His slipperiness as a character further complicates the identity of that skull in the museum.

Chapter 4 deals with the provenance of the Hamilton collection and how it came into the possession of the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria.  Hamilton’s third wife, Agnes, gifted them as a phrenological collection to an organization embedded within the cultural and scientific life of Melbourne. A rather rueful note in the author’s acknowledgments notes that an Overland article by Jill Dimond about Agnes Hamilton (which she cites quite a bit in this final chapter) appeared just as she submitted her thesis (and here we all experience a collective shudder of fellow-feeling).  This chapter, however, is broader than just Agnes Hamilton, as it widens out to consider the collecting policies of the Melbourne institution more generally.

This is only a small book, but it is told in an engaging voice and makes reference to many larger academic arguments without becoming bogged down in them.  The introductions and conclusions bear the hallmarks of the thesis genre, and she has been served well by Monash University Publishing which has allowed her the academic accoutrements of decent footnotes and -bliss- a separate bibliography.  It’s a rollicking good read, but weaves together important questions with rigour as well.  ‘Jim Crow’ is no longer mere artefact.

Other review: Tom Gilling’s review in The Australian

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

‘The Girl with the Dogs’ by Anna Funder


2014,  57 p.

This book is published as a Penguin Special, a series that is spruiked as

“concise, original and affordable… short enough to be read in a single setting- when you’re stuck on a train; in your lunch hour; between dinner and bedtime.”

Looking through the other titles in the series at the back of the book, they’ve engaged some good writers, mainly but not exclusively fiction.  I see that this novella was originally published as “Everything Precious” by Paspayley.  Paspayley? Publishers?  It’s only now, as I write this blog entry that I’ve remembered reading about this: Anna Funder (winner of the Miles Franklin back in 2012) was funded to write a short story aimed at a young female demographic by Paspayley Pearls.  The company had come in for some adverse publicity through a Four Corners episode in 2012 investigating the death of one of its pearl divers, and the company contracted Special Group advertising agency to produce a campaign aimed at a market that had not, until then, seen pearls as a fashion item.   A chapter of the book was released online each day, accompanied by a video clip featuring an actress wearing Paspayley pearls.  At the end of the week-long campaign, the whole book was available for download as a free e-book and in hard copy.  Of course, if I’d read the back cover, I would have known that it had been published online under a different title.

Learning all this changes the direction of my thinking about this book. I wonder how Penguin came to publish it, when it’s available online anyway? Is that why they changed the name?   I think I’d feel a little cross if I shelled out the $9.99 to buy it, only to find that I’d downloaded it for free six months earlier under another title.

In fact, I’d been thinking about the pricing of this book, even before I learned of its digital incarnation.  I read it in 45 minutes, and $9.99 seems rather expensive for less than an hour’s reading.  Then I remembered Weight Watchers (of all things). They consciously price their sessions to be the same price as a cinema ticket- enough to twinge, but a price comparable to a fairly common entertainment activity.  I suppose that movies go for about 100 minutes at $20.00 for a full-price ticket at Hoyts, so I guess that an hour’s reading (I’m a fairly fast reader) at $10.00 makes the book and a movie  somewhat comparable.  This all seems rather grubby and mercenary, but I must confess to feeling emboldened to pursue the idea now, knowing that the book was funded as a commercial venture in the first place.  Although all books are, I suppose: the difference lies in the fact that instead of a publisher funding it, a jeweller did.

As for the book itself: it is very much a modern story.  Tess is the mother of three children and the daughter of a widowed Judge now in an aged care facility; she has a career as a legal editor that takes her to international conferences; she has been married for seventeen years to Dan, an academic.  It’s a life of school-runs, mobile phones and i-pads. All this technology both suffocates and liberates, and it is through technology that she can find a man she knew and loved long ago.

Despite its modernity, the story is told in a detached, rather interior fashion, and to my shame, it was only when I read the Saturday Paper review of Funder’s book that I realized that it’s a Chekhovian voice that I’m hearing.  The story is a riff on Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog (available online here), and realizing this, I have even more respect for what Funder has done with it. I shouldn’t imagine, though, that there will be many readers who will make the connection with the Chekhov story- I certainly didn’t.

This story is strong enough to stand as a novella in its own right, and I think that it would be stifled by being in a collection of short stories.   Tess is a nuanced character and her lifestyle and thoughts completely plausible, even for someone a good fifteen years older than she.  In my 45 minutes of reading, I experienced a full range of emotions: fear for her, a gooey warmth at the romance of it, an ending that satisfied.  In all this, the book is thoroughly self-sufficient. Nonetheless,  I can still imagine that Paspayley would have been delighted that she’d encapsulated their target market (Western, educated, wealthy, approaching middle aged without admitting it, female) so well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Anchoress’ by Robyn Cadwallader


2015, 320 p

If writing were diving, then this book would be a reverse 4.5 somersault tuck (degree of difficulty 4.5).  After all, the main character is a seventeen year old anchoress nun, walled up in a small cell beside a church in 1255 England.  Where on earth does a writer go with that?  And just to escalate the degree of difficulty to a reverse 4.5 somersault pike (degree of difficulty 4.8), the author of this book has a  PhD in medieval studies, focussing on St Margaret and attitudes towards women.  Where another author might be tempted to spice it up with an illicit affair and a daring escape, we would rightly expect that Robyn Cadwallader would be sensitive to the spirituality that would draw a young woman to such a drastic, and to us unfathomable, spiritual choice.

I first came across the concept of immurement in the book The Nun of Monza where ‘walling up’ was used as a form of punishment.  Sister Sarah’s election to become an anchoress is, however, an act of relative free choice.  Nor is she completely isolated.  As Mary Laven showed in her book The Virgins of Venice, set four centuries later, when women were financially supported by wealthy men to devote their lives to prayer for the souls of their sponsors, this transaction often ensured that bonds of obligation survived.  Sister Sarah’s cell was attached to the shaded side of the village church, nine paces by seven, within earshot of the life continuing outside, with curtained windows through which she could receive food, talk to her two servants and give counsel to women who came to her for spiritual encouragement.  She was visited regularly by Ranaulf, a young monk usually employed in the scriptorium of the local monastery, who reluctantly took the place of an older spiritual guide charged with the care of the anchoress women.

The story is told from alternating viewpoints: the first person voice of Sister Sarah interwoven with the third-person perspective of Ranaulf.

The real strength of this book takes place within the four walls of Sister Sarah’s cell.  The door is nailed shut; the bones of an earlier anchoress lie in the dirt at her feet.  In the flickering candlelight, she refuses food and in the lightheaded melting of reality, self-flagellation and erotic fantasies about the physicality of love for Christ unhinge her.  We learn of her grief for the death of her sister in childbirth, and gradually piece together her reasons for making the choice to become an anchoress.  Ironically, although seclusion was supposed to quash the senses, it instead heightened them.

I was less convinced by the outside world, though.  Sir Thomas, the landlord’s son, is a two-dimensional villain, and I found the conversation with Eleanor, a small child who attaches herself to any passerby for companionship, unconvincing.  Perhaps it was the abbreviation of the name (‘Ellie’), but the Eleanor character seemed far too much a twenty-first century invention.

Those qualms aside, Cadwallader remains faithful to the religious impulse that drove Sister Sarah to make the choice she did, and to the power and authority relationships that supported the whole conceit of an anchoress.  It is a strange book to us, because it is a strange situation, and Cadwallader’s quiet, dignified tone – in itself somewhat strange to us- carries it well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

‘Melbourne’ by Sophie Cunningham


2011, 272 p.

This book is one of a series published by New South where an established author  is given an open brief to write a ‘travel book where no-one leaves home’  of about 50,000 – 60,000 words about their own town.   There are nine in the series: Peter Timms (Hobart); Matthew Condon (Brisbane); Delia Falconer (Sydney), David Whish-Wilson (Perth); Kerryn Goldsworthy (Adelaide); Paul Daley (Canberra), Eleanor Hogan (Alice Springs);Tess Lea (Darwin) – and this one, Sophie Cunningham’s ‘Melbourne’.

As the commissioning editor Phillipa McGuiness said:

the inspiration for this series was literary, not some pointy-headed urge to make a grand statement about Australia’s cities….While people may read local histories, or dispassionate general histories about where they live, we rarely get the chance to read about our own cities in a way that resonates with our own experience and resurrects memories….So I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.

In this book, Sophie Cunningham uses the seasonal year as her organizing structure, starting off with summer and moving through the seasons until finishing up with summer again.  Of course- in a city that is obsessed with weather- too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet- and famously has “four seasons in one day”, what other device could you use?  In particular, she uses the year 2009-2010, reflecting no doubt the date of commission, but that year was also a particularly memorable one for weather.  The summer of 2009 saw three days of excruciating heat (I wrote about it at the time, here) that culminated in the Black Saturday bushfires (that I also wrote about here) that razed Marysville and Kinglake.  I think that the fact that I can so easily link to four posts in this blog (and there are more than I could have linked) demonstrates how deeply these events are gouged into the consciousness of a Melburnian.

Cunningham’s book is consciously literary. Not only is she a writer and likely to bring a writer’s consciousness to the task, but the book was written in the wake of her resignation from Meanjin, a literary journal deeply embedded in Melbourne’s cultural identity.  She may have left Meanjin under contested circumstances, but her frequent citations of articles from Meanjin commissioned and published under her editorship suggest a continued identification with – and even a lingering sense of grief over- Meanjin.

For readers who are familiar with the city being discussed, there’s an internal comparison at work – “Would I have written the book this way??” Cunningham’s take is very much based on the inner suburbs of Melbourne, and a much younger perspective than I could bring.  She is gay, without children, and part of a literary milieu that as a mere reader, I can only observe from outside the window.  I think that if I were writing it, I’d be harking back to an older liberalism (all those Victorian worthies who in their way were quite radical), more architecture and possibly more politics.  I think I’d have to roam outside into the suburbs beyond the inner city, because I see Melbourne very much as a suburban city too.

The book is only small and beautifully produced- it fits well in your hands. It is by turns personal, historical, anecdotal and observational.  I did have a frisson of dissatisfaction near the end which seemed to have too many Melba-esque (pun!) farewells.  It was probably more the sense of rounding-off too many times, rather than the ending itself: in fact, I could have happily read another fifty pages more.

An interesting concept, and a really enjoyable read.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: It was on the library shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.