Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood


2015, 313 p.

As it happened, I was exactly half-way through Charlotte Wood’s book The Natural Way of Things when I learned that it had won the Stella Prize.  I was already engrossed in it: staying up way past my bedtime to read just a few pages more. After it won the Stella I felt that the noble thing to do was to stay up until 1.00 a.m. this morning finishing it so that I can return it to the library for others to enjoy.

Although is ‘enjoy’ the right word? Probably not, because this is a bleak book set in outback Australia where young women who have been publicly shamed through the media and corporate power networks have been incarcerated and ‘removed’ from society’s gaze and conscience.  Real-life parallels spring to mind: Monica Lewinsky, the St Kilda School Girl, women on reality TV.  In its depiction of the paradox of bleak openness and yet claustrophobia, it reminded me a little of Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster ( a book that I felt didn’t receive sufficient recognition) and of course has resonances with Lord of the Flies and other such books.

What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls? Would they be called missing?…Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said that they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. (p. 176)

The book is divided into three parts, tracing the progress of the year Summer, Autumn and Winter, and the book is so grueling in places that it felt as if the action took place over a much longer period. There are no numbered chapters as such, and the sections vary between present and past tense.  The book opens from the drugged, disoriented point of view of one of the captives and this confusion takes some time to clear for the reader as well, as the reason for their incarceration emerges.  There is throughout the sense of suspended menace- not enough to make the book unbearable, but sufficient to compel you to keep reading in horrified fascination.  It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that it’s this horrified fascination that we often feel when watching a public shaming occurring throughout media.

In awarding the Stella Prize, the Stella Prize judges described it as ‘a novel of – and for – our times’ and ‘a riveting and necessary act of critique.’  I’m mindful that this book has been awarded in a climate of heightened awareness of domestic violence and misogyny, but I don’t think that topicality is its only virtue. I’ve found myself thinking about the book all day, and I think that its bleakness and power will make it memorable and uncomfortable in the future, much as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does in a different genre.

It’s good, and it deserves the acclaim it’s receiving.


I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

‘High Seas and High Teas’ by Roslyn Russell


High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia

213 P & notes, 2016, NLA Publishing

With the recent emphasis on ‘illegal boat arrivals’ in Australia in recent years, it has often been pointed out that, with the exception of indigenous Australians and families who arrived within the last sixty years, all Australians come from ‘boat people’ stock. Rustle the branches of most family trees and there they are: the names of ships, the point and date of departure and the point and date of arrival. Turn to page 2 of the Port Phillip newspapers during the 1840s and there’s the shipping news, identifying the first class passengers by name, numbering the second class passengers, and dispensing with the rest as an undifferentiated group of ‘bounty migrants’ or ‘steerage passengers’.

The inside blurb of this book exhorts family historians to “get a sense of your ancestors’ shipboard experience”, and the foreword by Kerry O’Brien centres on his own family lineage reflecting somewhat of a  ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ emphasis.  Family historians often have little more than the name of the ship and its departure and arrival dates of their forebears. Sometimes they are fortunate enough to have a diary or letters penned on the journey, or on occasion, a particular trip may be so notorious that it was subjected to the scrutiny of the authorities afterwards. In all these cases,though, there are broader questions in moving from the particular to the general: how typical was this one trip? Is there a commonality of experience that linked all sea journeys to Australia?

Roslyn Russell fleshes out and contextualizes the voyage between embarkation and arrival in her book High Seas & High Teas by drawing on thirty-three diaries penned by passengers and crew during the nineteenth century.  These diaries, chosen from among the 100 accounts of voyages to Australia held in the Manuscripts Collection of the National Library of Australia, are not necessarily an accurate reflection of the demographic makeup of ships’ passengers. As she points out both in her introduction and at other places in the text, most of the diaries are written by men (roughly three to one) and fourteen of the thirty-three diaries were written by first class passengers. The voices of mothers of young children, in particular, are missing. This imbalance, she suggests, may be explained by social factors, but it could also reflect the collecting interests of the enigmatic Rex Nan Kivell and Sir John Ferguson, whose collections formed the basis of the NLA holdings (p.2).

In her brief introduction, she explains that, over time, three main routes were established between Great Britain and Australia. Most early 19th journeys took the High Seas route down to the coast of South America, sometimes stopping at Rio de Janeiro, then across to Africa and down to the south of the Cape of Good Hope and on to Western Australia, Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney.  From the 1830s an alternative route opened up when passengers travelled across the Mediterranean by steamship to Cairo; by camel and cart to Suez, and by steamship again to Bombay. There they connected with sailing ships that brought them down through Torres Strait. By the 1850s a third, more dangerous route was developed when clipper ships passed far to the south of the Cape of Good Hope to pick up the Roaring Forties, the strong winds that blew between 40-50 degrees S latitude, which yielded a shorter journey but also risked storms and icebergs. Steamships were introduced to the route from the 1850s onwards, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cut the length of the journey from more than 100 days in the early 19th century to 40-50 days by the 1890s.

Despite these technological and itinerary changes, there was a commonality to the experience of the sea-voyage, just as there is a basic underlying sameness about air travel today.  This commonality even extended to the convict ships which plied the oceans until the 1860s.  Russell has devoted the first chapter to ‘Sailing Under Servitude’, where the surgeon-superintendent played an ambiguous role encompassing both solicitude and discipline. Diary entries in this chapter from crew and surgeons underscore the isolation and fear of insubordination that ran as an undertone throughout the journey, but as her references to convict ships in the later thematic chapters of the book demonstrate, even convict ships  experienced the same combination of boredom, fear, discomfort and self-made amusement that marked the journeys of later passengers of all classes for the next century.

Chapters 2-12 follow the trajectory of the journey from embarkation at port and the often lengthy bureaucratic and nautical delays before actually setting sail (Ch.2); the provisioning and accommodation on board (Ch. 3-5); passing the time (Ch.6-9); misfortunes at sea (Ch. 10-11), and the final arrival at their destination (Ch.12) which could, once again, be delayed by bureaucracy and quarantine requirements.   I was surprised to learn of the emigration depots back in England which acted as a sort of on-land simulation of the steerage experience, with emigrants forced to sleep in dormitories and comply with Royal Navy regulations as a way of familiarizing them with the life that faced them for the next four or five months.  I had seen printed newspapers purporting to be written on board ship and wondered at how they were published. Russell explains that they were hand-written on board ship and, after a subscription was collected from the passengers, the funds were put towards publishing the newspaper on land, after arrival, as a memento. Like Russell, I had wondered about sanitary arrangements- a topic which, unfortunately, few diary-writers explored in much detail.

But the real heart and soul of this book is the diaries.  Each chapter commences with a potted biography and then a transcript of one person’s diary that illustrates the theme of the chapter, followed by a beautifully clear, double-paged image of that page of the diary.  As readers, we encounter the diary writers again in several places, and I came to look forward to Annie Gratton’s (1858) and Edith Gedge’s (1888) vivacious entries, and confess to a twinge of schadenfreude at the sour William Bethell’s whinges and complaints. Some diarists reappear often, while others have a fleeting presence, making highly pertinent observations, then disappearing into the throng of passengers again.

The book is lavishly illustrated with the small sketches that the diary-writers used to embellish their pages and the chapters are enhanced by artworks of the day described as ‘background features’ in the reference section at the back.  It really is a beautiful book to just dip into, with large, full colour illustrations on nearly every page.

I’m not aware that the book is part of any museum exhibition, but as a reader, I felt as if I were viewing a mounted display.  The trajectory of the journey provided a narrative spine, branching off into small sub-themes of just two pages in length, just as a museum display might do.  Overall, the book does not have a historical argument as such- except, perhaps, for the commonality of the voyage experience across time and class- but instead brings the journey to life through images and the voices of the diary-writers.

It was probably because I had become comfortable with the chatter of those voices that the ending seemed so abrupt. Mr W. Barringer, with whom she closes, moves into permanent accommodation and the book ends. I would have welcomed Russell onto the stage herself as author or researcher perhaps, or would have liked the book rounded off with a birds-eye view of the voyage experience more generally, or even just a fonder farewell to Mr Barringer.   I felt as if I were standing on the wharf, and that the passengers I’d met along the way had ridden away from me to their new lives without bidding farewell. We had, after all, been on a long journey together.

Source: Review copy courtesy National Library of Australia publishing.


I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.


‘Hello Beautiful! Scenes from a Life’ by Hannie Rayson


2015, 255p.

“Why on earth did they choose THAT cover?  Or that name? It’s awful!” said my son.  I looked at it more closely.  Even though the title whispers ‘self-help’ book for women of a certain age, that picture was too honest. What I saw was a confident, clearly middle-aged woman, actually getting her hair wet, swimming at the beach.  I can hardly bear to think of what my son saw: it obviously didn’t attract a thirty-one year old male reader. Never mind- this book clearly isn’t aimed at that demographic.  The book and its cover are directly aimed at another demographic: that of the middle-aged, Australian, RN-listening female reader who would constitute, I should imagine, a fairly healthy slice of the book-buying public.  The author, playwright Hannie Rayson admits as much:

I just have to imagine you, tucked up in bed, wanting something companionable and consoling. Irish Murdoch said literature should never console. I think that’s bollocks.

My women friends have big jobs. They have families. At night when they climb into bed they read two pages of the novel on the bedside table and fall asleep. The next night they have to reread those two pages. They creep forwards slowly, page by page, until Saturday. Then, because they are optimists, they buy another novel.

An idea began to take shape.  I could write those two pages. Three would be manageable. But once I started, I found I had more to say.

Some of these stories began their lives as articles in the Age or HQ magazine.  All of them have been reworked with a simple rule: everything has to be true. More or less. (p. 2)

And that’s pretty much it. As promised, the chapters are short and all have the ring of authenticity. It’s just the sort of book you want to read when you can’t handle anything too heavy before you fall asleep, or when you’re stretched out in the shade on a summer’s day.  Like Crabbe/Sales’ podcast Chat10Looks3, it’s a bit like sitting alongside friends who are full of gossip.  In this case, it’s writerly, arts world gossip with her husband Michael Cathcart (or MC as she often calls him) in a droll walk-in, walk-off role, and snippets of Helen Garner and Carrie Tiffany- a world that her readership peers through the window at, somewhat enviously.

The chapters are arranged more or less chronologically, starting with her childhood in a rented house in East Brighton (and hence, not the other Brightons) in the 1960s, with her real-estate agent father and home duties mother.  She kept an adolescent diary, and while cringing at the person she finds in its pages, she uses it to good effect.  She attends the Victorian College of the Arts and discovers that she’s not an actress and finds herself as a playwright instead.  She walks straight into a full-time acting job with TheatreWorks, a community theatre company with a mandate “to create theatre for the people of the eastern suburbs”. So there she is, driving with her colleagues to the outer reaches of Burwood from centre-of-the-universe Fitzroy; playing Storming Mont Albert by Tram, a piece of location theatre on the Number 42 tram.  There are large, unexplained gaps and jumps in the chronology taken as a whole, but each chapter is neatly self-contained, and there is a refreshing humility and down-to-earthness about success that could have turned into pretension and name-dropping in other hands.  We leapfrog from first marriage, to childbirth, to amicable breakup, to repartnering, to waving off an adult child as he heads of overseas, to settling into mature professionalism- all with humour and humanity.

No, dear son, that picture on the front of the book is just right.  It’s self-assured with a healthy tinge of anxiety and a dollop of self-depredation. This is a book that knows what it’s doing and who it’s doing it for, and it does it well.



I’ve posted this review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘The Convent’ by Maureen McCarthy


2012, 418

You know, the tourism industry should fall to its knees sometimes and thank local activists who save significant buildings and places from being privatized and subdivided into exclusive housing that most Melburnians will never set foot in.  Then somehow it becomes a tourist precinct, and money can be made from it, and people forget and wonder that it was ever under threat.

Abbotsford Convent is such a place. On a bend of the Yarra River, the land was valued by the Wurundjeri people who frequently met nearby where the Yarra River and Merri Creeks merged.  John Orr built Abbotsford House there and Edward Curr (who was a prominent opponent to Judge Willis) lived at the nearby St Heliers property  between 1842-1850.  By 1863 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had consolidated their purchases of Abbotsford House and St Heliers and established a convent there.  In 1900 it was the largest charitable institution in the Southern Hemisphere, housing up to 1000 residents. For a century it provided accommodation, schooling and work for female orphans, wards of the state and girls considered to be in “moral danger”, financing its activities through farming, its industrial school and the Magdalen laundry service.  It was a place of dedication for the nuns who lived there, but many of its residents- particularly those in the laundry- had sad and bitter stories to tell.  In 1975 it was sold and used for the following 20 years by different education providers.  In 1997 it was onsold to developers, who planned to build 289 apartments on the site.  The Abbotsford Convent Coalition fought hard against this plan, and in 2004 it was gifted to the public by the State Government.  It now houses studios, office spaces and cafes and is the site for a lively program of performances and markets.

The Abbotsford Convent is the setting for Maureen McCarthy’s book named, appropriately enough, The Convent.  Based on her own family history, the book covers four generations of women whose lives intersected with the convent and the nuns who lived there.  Nineteen-year old Peach takes up a summer job at the convent when she receives a letter from her birth-grandmother, Ellen.  Peach has always known that she was adopted, and has until now felt no real curiosity about her birth-mother.  We learn that her grandmother Ellen had been raised at Abbotsford Convent after her mother Sadie had been declared an unfit mother in WWI Melbourne.  Ellen’s daughter Cecilia had been a nun at the the same convent.  The book shifts from one character to another, and between time periods spanning the early decades of the twentieth to the twenty-first century.

Books that rotate their focus between characters  call on a certain amount of goodwill on the part of the reader.  I found myself far more engaged by the stories of Cecilia and Sadie, and almost resented being brought back to the rather quotidian life of  19 year old Peach (and is it too trite to complain that I really disliked the name ‘Peach’ even though I know why it was used?) I felt that Cecilia, the nun, was sensitively drawn and McCarthy’s research into cloistered life, although somewhat heavy-handed, made Cecilia a rounded and nuanced character.

McCarthy is best known as a Young Adult writer.  The subject matter of the book transcends that genre, but the book was weighed down for an adult reader by the rather too obvious narrative scaffolding that supported the dialogue, and the rather laboured descriptions.  It reminded me very much of Rod Jones’ The Mothers (which I reviewed here) and it’s interesting that I found both these books, so similar in their content, to be too simply told.  Could it be that because both these stories had their origins in their author’s own family history, the overriding concern was to treat the story with respect, and that this affected the telling?  I have no idea, but with the exception of Cecilia’s chapters, I couldn’t shake my awareness that this book was written for a much younger audience than I.

There’s an interview with the author at:

aww2016 I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.

‘You’ll be sorry when I’m dead’ by Marieke Hardy


2011, 295 p.

Celebrity is a trade-off.   The celebrity figure gaily trumpets “look at me!”, and accrues public recognition, freebies, attention and the aura of self-possession. In return s/he is subjected to the audience’s misplaced sense of identification and friendship, or conversely, approbation and smug censoriousness. And so I sit watching ABC’s Book Club (until a few years ago the First Tuesday Book Club, a handy reminder to tune in) alternately tut-tutting at Marieke Hardy’s fey girlishness with those plaits and tats one minute, and wishing a moment later that I was so winsome and witty myself. It was probably this ambivalence that led me to pick up her book You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead. Having read it, I’m still ambivalent, although probably with a more affectionate glow than previously.

As you might expect, it’s well-written and funny. Its chapters are similar to long-form pieces that you might read in a Saturday newspaper magazine  and indeed several of them have been published in that format previously. She’s self-deprecating and self-assured; she delights in being wicked and revels in her exhibitionism. She tells of her obsession with prostitution, her fumbling attempts at swinging, and her mortification at travelling with her parents at the age of thirty-five. Many of her stories are Melbourne-centred, as in her tribute to VFL footy ‘Maroon and Blue’, one of my favourite stories. She flits around the edge of showbusiness through  her family pedigree and her own child-actor CV and laughs at her own adolescent pursuit of one of the ‘stars’ of Young Talent Time. Some stories have more depth: her story ‘Forevz’ reminded me of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room – in fact, there were quite a few stories here which evoked Helen Garner for me, for some reason. The placement of the stories seems quite random, as does the insertion of testimonials from some of the people she has written about (an affectation I could have done without, really).

Like the celebrity persona she projects, there’s a mixture of show-off and razor-sharp penetration. I found myself laughing out loud in places, tearful at times, and rolling my eyes in other places. It’s a good dip-into book, and just as in ABC Book Club, you don’t really know what she’s going to come out with next.