Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

‘Jetties and Piers: a background history of maritime infrastructure in Victoria’ by Jill Barnard

jetties-and-piers

2008, 65 p. & notes

I came upon this publication by chance a few months back, while I was looking up ‘quarantine’ for my  posting about Port Phillip during March 1842.  The report had been divided up into separate PDF files, and my interest piqued, I set about finding the rest of the publication.

Update: The author has since made the whole publication available on their website. Thank you! You can find it at http://livinghistories.net.au/our-work/commissioned-histories/

The author, Jill Barnard, is one of the team from the Living Histories group of professional historians. As part of her conclusion, she  cites the  founding member of the Australian Association for Maritime History  historian Frank Broeze , who pointed out that Australia’s maritime identity is as important as “sheep and land, railways and goldmines, bushrangers and bankers” in shaping Australia’s identity. It’s certainly an argument that has been reinforced for me in reading about Melbourne’s earliest days through the three Melbourne newspapers. The shipping news took up nearly 3/4 of one of the four pages in each issue; people were constantly falling off boats and jetties; and overseas news finally arrived long after the event, on account of the vast sea distances being covered.

This publication, sponsored by the Heritage Council of Victoria focuses as its title denotes, on maritime infrastructure and thus reflects a ‘heritage’ approach, based mainly on structures and their usages. The report is divided into two parts: Part 1 deals chronologically with 1800-1850, then Part 2 adopts a thematic approach, adopting the Australian Framework of Historical Themes (2000, 2001). No longer being involved in curriculum development and coming from a historical rather than heritage perspective, I was completely ignorant of such frameworks. The Framework is explained in detail here, and the Victorian Framework (2010) which was developed to respond to it is here (ah- Federation at work!)  I suspect that the impetus for ‘frameworks’ reflects the late 20th-early 21st century desire for checkboxes,  wall charts and verb-driven, economy-focussed competencies and I must confess that the whole process passed me by completely. Will I live long enough to see this whole approach to conceptualizing history itself historicized? I wonder.

I suspect that the two-part structure of this report reflects the constraints that such a framework placed on the author. As she points out, during the earliest years of Victoria’s white settlement there was a scramble by both private investors and governments to provide sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the ever-increasing needs, and such infrastructure served a variety of purposes for immigrants, merchants, fishermen, postal services and customs officers. Her Part 1, reflecting the years 1800-1850 progresses chronologically. In Part 2 she adopts a thematic approach, with the chapters directly linked into one of the categories or subcategories of the Australian framework:

1. Improving Victoria’s Ports and Harbours (Theme 3 Developing local, regional and national economies)

2. Migrating to Victoria (Peopling Australia)

3. Moving People ( Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)

4. Moving Goods and Cargo (ditto)

5. Defending Our Shores (Theme 7.1 Governing Australia as a Province of the British Empire and Theme 7.7 Defending Australia)

6. Commercial Fishing (Theme 3.4  Utilizing Natural Resources)

7. Making Ports and the Coast Safe (Theme 3.16.1 Dealing with Hazards and Disasters)

8. Boat and Ship Repair and Building (Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)

9. Accommodating Seamen (Theme 3.22 Providing Lodgings)

10. At the Beach: Using the Sea for Recreation (Theme 8 Developing Australia’s Cultural Life)

As Barnard points out in her introduction, this thematic approach does not necessarily serve her well. Different sites have changed their functions over time and do not fit into the neat themes of ‘recreation’ or ‘moving people’ that she has selected. Moreover, the thematic approach gave rise to a degree of repetition. As she admits, “it is difficult for the reader to simply follow particular sites or themes through from the beginnings of European settlement to the present day”. She’s right.

Notwithstanding  the author’s own misgivings , I found this an interesting read. Although Victoria has a long coastline, there are few deep-water harbours. The Heads made the whole entry to Port Phillip treacherous, and both Melbourne and Geelong ports were ringed with sandbars. The settlement of Melbourne  on the Yarra River up on the Falls (which I’ve often mentioned in this blog ) meant that there was no direct connection to the ocean, although a canal was mooted for some time. She doesn’t just deal with Melbourne and Geelong: she also discusses  Portland, Port Fairy, Port Albert, Warrnambool and Lakes Entrance, as well as fishing and boat-building ports along the Bay.   Coastal shipping remained dominant for a long time because overland transport was so slow to develop, and the development of railways often bolstered port activity.  Nonetheless, the infrastructure for getting goods on and off ships remained primitive for some time. She cites the example of timber-loading at Mt Martha (on the Mornington Peninsula) where logs would be tossed off the cliff-face, where they fell to the beach to be loaded onto small boats and from there, onto larger ships. No wonder the container, which reduced double- and triple- handling, made such a difference to maritime transportation.

Most immigrants and passengers arrived at Melbourne, although during the 1840s and 50’s  there were attempts to channel immigrants directly to the pastoral stations that were crying out for their labour by landing them at Geelong and to a lesser extent Portland. Vessels for specifically inter-state travel continued until 1961 when they were replaced by international liners who had several ports on their itinerary. Her analysis extends up to the mid-twentieth century as she traces the demise of Station Pier and other passenger wharfs, especially after the opening of Tullamarine Airport in 1970.

It was fascinating to read about the early defence arrangements for the gold-rich Port Phillip Bay, in what are now inner suburbs like South Melbourne and St Kilda. Although sometimes the fortifications took so long to construct that military technology rendered them largely redundant, by 1890 Victoria was assessed as being “the best defended commercial city of the empire” (p.42)  Fort Nepean has the dubious distinction of being the site for the first British shots fired in both the First and Second World Wars.

I’d heard of Sir John Coode and the straightening of the Yarra, but I hadn’t realized how much of a ‘go-to’ man he was for infrastructure works on all Victorian ports.  The cost for infrastructure like beacons and lighthouses was borne by the colonies because they benefitted directly from the port activity, but after Federation the Commonwealth government took responsibility for ocean or ‘highway’ lights. I’ve seen sheds cantilevered over the water on the side of jetties and didn’t realize that they were rescue boats, and now I have a new appreciation for the rocket and mortar sheds where a ‘breeches buoy’ , similar to a pair of trousers, allowed a person to sit in them to be winched to shore.

My favourite part was the final chapter ‘At the Beach’ which reflected popular cultural use of the beach, as distinct from the largely economic focus of the other chapters.  Promenading at the beach was more important than swimming at it during the middle of the 19th century. At first sea bathing was forbidden between 6.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. because men swam nude, although this restriction was relaxed in 1917.  I’ve long been amused at the presence of life saving clubs at the mill-pond like bay beaches (e.g. 1912 Black Rock, Elwood and Hampton) and ‘baths’ separated out from the sea but these no doubt reflect the change from ‘taking the waters’ for health reasons to recreational swimming. The seawall that runs along Sandringham, Brighton etc. was constructed between 1935 and 1939 using stone recycled from city buildings including the old Melbourne gaol.  Other fences were made of ‘basketwalling’ made of ti-tree (which I can just remember). Boat sheds and private jetties reflect the purchase of beach-houses by well-to-to Melburnians.

All in all, an informative and well-told read for those of us interested in Victorian history.  It does assume a familiarity with the ports and places under examination, so it’s a fairly localized publication. It’s an interesting exercise to see the narrative limitations when a thematic framework is imposed onto a narrative, especially when dealing with an extended 150 year timeline.  I also found it a challenging idea to restrict the focus to activities that leave a physical presence in the form of infrastructure.  This object-based,  heritage-focussed approach is not one with which I’m particularly familiar (or, I admit, completely comfortable), but is is one that probably reflects the economic and public uses to which history is put today.

aww2017-badgeI have posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

 

‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

MeWRiteMyself

2017, 331 p.

It’s not often that I close up a history book with a “Well done!”, but I did with Leonie Stevens’ beautifully written Me Write Myself. Right from its quietly restrained front cover, through to its ending which rounds off and yet expands and invites further conversation, this is a exquisitely crafted book.  It works on so many levels: as narrative, as critique and as history.

Stevens mounts her argument right from the subtitle on the cover:  ‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna’.  “Wybalenna?” you may ask. It’s more commonly known as Flinders Island, most often characterized as the doomed settlement off the coast of Tasmania, where the remnants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes were shunted to be forgotten in silence by colonists and colonial officials alike, in the 1830s and 1840s.  And “free inhabitants?” Wasn’t this a form of concentration camp, on the way to what was seen to be an inevitable extinction? In Stevens’ hands, we see that  these are not victims but “free aboriginal inhabitants” and not silent, even though historians may silenced them, often while bemoaning their fate.

Flinders Island, for a place so small, has attracted the attention of historians, right from James Bonwick in 1870 through to Henry Reynolds.  The publication in 1987 of N.J.B. Plomley’s gigantic Weep in Silence,  with its 1034 pages, might have been thought to have exhausted all there is to say on Wybalenna. Not so.

Stevens starts her book in a crowded, metaphorical baggage-room where we ‘check-in’ our assumptions, narratives and language.  First there’s the question of names, often Europeanized and of slippery orthography. Then there’s scientific racism, underpinning the rationale of colonialism and assuaging guilt, and seeping through much of the historiography of Wybalenna, right up to recent writing, which sees it as a narrative of tragic and helpless death. Then there’s the question of credibility of sources and this is where Stevens steps right up. She takes historian Ann Laura Stoler’s term “the hierarchy of credibility” and turns it upside down to give priority to the VDL texts over European texts.  This is where Stevens’ approach is new.  She depicts the texts relating to Wybalenna as a pyramid.  The deluge of government reports, memoirs, newspaper reports and journals from which other historians have drawn their work form the large base of the triangle. Up from them are the texts recorded by Europeans where VDL First Nations people ‘speak’ as their words are transcribed and collected. Right at the apex are the texts written by VDL First Nations people themselves: texts that have been largely sidelined by historians and dismissed as ventriloquistic curiosities, parroting the views of white chaplains and superintendents, and of little worth in themselves. By placing them at the top of the hierarchy of credibility, “the VDL word takes on an urgency and new level of insight, revealing a more nuanced, personal, human story.”(p. xxx)  Finally, the metaphorical baggage-room is full of historians, especially white historians, who have either “made such fervent use of the extinction myth” or “fetishised frontier violence under the guise of critiquing it.” (p.xxxi). Stevens is only too aware that she is “a white 21st century mainland writer studying VDL history” and she is “mindful of her position on the metaphorical dance card” (p. xxxii)

This history, on which we now embark, is one constructed, wherever possible, from VDL sources. The mantra will be We do not need yet another European history of VDL people. It is the simplest way of keeping the baggage in check. ( p.xliii)

The organization of the book is basically chronological, but the VDL texts lend a thematic approach. The first two chapters set the scene, with the short Chapter 1 placing VDL within the 45,000+ years of pre-contact history, and briefly sketching the Black War of 1830 and its aftermath. Chapter 2 deals with the establishment of Wybalenna and its place within the wider humanitarian response across the empire. From this point on, the chapters become longer, focussing around the texts generated by the free inhabitants of Wybalenna.

Chapter 3 ‘The Promise of Wybalenna’ draws on hand-written newspaper The Flinders Island Chronicle, written between September 1836 and December 1837 by two teenaged boys, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune, who had received a brief education at the Orphan School outside Hobart, before returning to Wybalenna.  The forty-two editions and drafts of the Chronicle have only been partially published, and generally dismissed by historians as an obvious and clumsy attempt at Christian indoctrination and control. But, as Stevens shows

In fact, the Chronicle is much more than a mouthpiece for the Commandant. Those editions dominated by religious indoctrination actually contain a great deal of information, if effort is invested in peeling back the layers of meaning. (p. xxxvii)

We learn from these two boys, falling over each other to publish their own separate edition of the ‘weekly’ paper (which often appeared more often than weekly) that the Commandant was never really in ‘control’ of the settlement, most particularly the women. Wybalenna was part of archipelago of islands visited by sealers and whalers, and news and rumour swirled around amongst officials, convicts, traders and the free aboriginal inhabitants. We see the ‘Protector’ and Superintendent, George Augustus Robinson carefully painting house numbers on the doors of the cottages, in anticipation of a visit from Governor Franklin which turns out to be a fleeting affair. We see games being played, deaths being mourned, changes in relationships.

Chapter 4 draws on the school room examinations and written and spoken sermons generated as part of the Christianizing mission. In them, Stevens finds insights into language diversity, the persistence of ritual and the balancing of original and introduced spiritual beliefs. (p. xxxix).  She has to work harder here, as the texts are so heavily overlaid with the interpretations of Christianity that are being used as a form of control: keep your house clean, the insubordination of the women, the promise of God’s good country.  It is during this chapter that Stevens integrates the journey across Bass Strait to Melbourne in 1841 undertaken by George Augustus Robinson and the ‘family’ he took with him,  including the two former newspaper writers, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune. Two of the group are noted for being the first men hanged in Melbourne – Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  I’ve read much about them in my own work on Port Phillip, but they always seemed (and were) men out of place, a disembodied group brought into the colony and then sent away again. Through the picture that Stevens has built up of Wybalenna, we see this ‘family’ and their importance, and why Robinson chose them, in particular, to take across to Port Phillip. They become distinct people, not just the ‘VDL Blacks’.

One of the things that I like most about Steven’s approach is that Wybalenna changes, in response to the people living there and those appointed there. It’s not a passive, inert place. Events unfold, relationships form and breakdown, alliances shift. In Chapter 5, the revolving door administration since Superintendent Robinson’s departure throws up Doctor Henry Jeanneret as new Superintendent, a ‘problematic individual’ who is dismissed, challenges his dismissal back in England, then is reappointed to Wybalenna again.

It is the dissatisfaction with Jeanneret’s reappointment, and desire to shift to a different model of living, that leads the Wyballena inhabitants – most particularly through Walter George Arthur- to write again in Chapter 6. This time they adopt the petitioning and epistolary form of colonial bureaucratese, as they write to the Governor on the Tasmanian mainland, making their complaints against Jeanneret, and asking the Queen’s intervention.  The authorship and authenticity of the letters was challenged by Jeanneret at the time, leading to the appointment of a one-man commission of inquiry which itself generated its own paper trail. The way that later historians, most particularly Plomley in Weep in Silence, have dealt with these letters, reflects the ‘taking sides’ amongst the white characters that historians are wont to do.

This assessment, naturally, gives no credit whatsoever to VDL activism or agency, besides Walter Arthur. Weep in Silence is essentially a European history, about Europeans running a European settlement, with a few inconsequential VDL faces thrown in (p. 321)

Through her careful reading, Stevens embodies these “inconsequential VDL faces” into living, active, resisting people. Naming is important, and the footnotes at the bottom of the page give a small biography for each one so that Wybalenna is literally ‘peopled’. How blessed she has been as an author, too, with a publisher that respects footnotes on the page (and not squirrelled away at the back of the book), letting the historian acknowledge sources and accuracy right then and there.

This is an absolutely beautifully written book. Stevens engages and challenges other historians, but more with urgency and invitation to share, rather than oneupmanship.  The chapters are long (possibly a little too long?), but the narrative flows, capturing shift and change.  It moves, as Wybalenna moves. This is academic history written with head and heart, and with eyes and ears open.  I hope and expect to see it shortlisted for history and non-fiction prizes over the next year. Read it.

Source: Purchased from Readings

My rating: 10.

aww2017-badge I have linked this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

‘A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work’ by Bernadette Brennan

Brennan

2017, 298 p. & notes

This book is exactly what the title promises: a study of Helen Garner and her work.  It’s not, and nor does it purport to be, a full biography but is instead a ‘literary portrait’, firmly based on and in Garner’s own writings and writing practices.

The author (who, judging from her picture on the back page is much younger than I thought she would be) uses the publication sequence of Garner’s books as its organizing principle, but it seems in both the introduction and conclusion that she at one stage contemplated a different structure.

It is too simple to say that Garner’s body of work is one book, but everything she has written is interrelated. Over a period of forty years she has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters and questions. Because houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation sit at the core of all Garner’s fiction, I originally thought to structure this study around Garner’s primary spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, courtrooms and public institutions… Such readings, however, do not lend themselves to a full and coherent appreciation of Garner’s development as a writer…. In the end I decided to structure this portrait so that each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways. (p. 7)

I must confess that I forgot about this intended motif until the author returned to it in the closing pages of the book, where she alludes to Henry James’ metaphor of the house of fiction, and Garner as a ‘watcher’ through windows. I don’t find it a particularly useful structure, and as it would seem, neither did the author, as it is left largely untouched through most of the text.

Instead, the book is presented in two parts: Part 1 Letters to Axel and Part II Questions of Judgment.  ‘Axel’ was Axel Clarke, the son of  historian Manning and linguist Dymphna Clark and a close friend from university days to whom Garner wrote often and honestly. His archive of letters to and from Garner, deposited in the National Library of Australia are a significant resource for Brennan. He died in 1990, after a long friendship with Garner tinged with tension  over her ‘use’ of his illness with a brain tumour in ‘Recording Angel’, one of the stories in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), the last of the works analysed in Part I.   The ‘letters to Axel’ form a useful organizing device, although ‘1942-1992’ or ‘The First Fifty Years’ would have done just as well.  Each of the seven chapters focuses on a major work and Brennan  interweaves personal details, gleaned from Garner’s own works and interviews, and literary analysis based on the books themselves.

Part II, Questions of Judgment starts with The First Stone, the first non-fiction book that took Garner into the courtroom as the basis for her narrative, a practice that she has followed in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and most recently in her Monthly essay ‘Why She Broke‘.  The chapter on The First Stone is the longest in the book and it marks not only Garner’s shift into long-form non-fiction writing, but also her most contentious book that provoked questions among her critics about her commitment to feminism and how that feminism was defined, and her attitude towards younger women.  Readers who do not like Garner’s work often criticize her insertion of herself into both her fictional and non-fictional writing, and Brennan (among others) is critical of Garner’s personal intervention in the form of letters to Master Alan Gregory, the man accused of sexual harassment. I had not realized the legal tightrope that her publishers trod with this book, and it took its toll on her relationship with Hilary McPhee.  It is a book that still evokes controversy. Most of the books in this second part are non-fiction, which is the genre in which Garner has predominantly worked in the last decades. The exception is The Spare Room, which is the novelized retelling of a real life experience when a friend undergoing an alternative treatment for cancer stayed with her. Brennan’s book closes with Everywhere I Look, Garner’s recent collection of essays.

It is not necessary to have read Garner’s books to enjoy this literary portrait, but it certainly helps to have done so.  Critiques of short story and essay collections are always difficult to write and read because the act of describing them often eviscerates them, and  several of Garner’s publications fall into this genre. Nonetheless, Brennan gives enough of the flavour of Garner’s works to jog the memory or provide sufficient background for her analysis to make sense.

It is not an authorized biography as such, in that Garner had veto power over it. She made available to Brennan her diaries, letters and drafts that are currently embargoed at the NLA, and participated in interviews with the author. It’s a rich, textured archive.

This is not a biography, and yet we do learn about  Helen Garner those things she chooses to reveal about herself, either through interviews or mostly through her own writing.  We read about her difficult relationship with her father, her life in share-house Carlton that prompted Monkey Grip, her three marriages, her daughter and grandchildren.  There are things we do not learn, too, most particularly who the ‘Philip’ character who floats through her early fictional writing was based on.  I did not realize the persistence of Garner’s religious quest, thinking that she had left it behind after Cosmo Cosmolino (which I reviewed here and did not enjoy). I remember, but did not fully appreciate, the virulence of the debate about The First Stone and was unaware of the legal and literary maneuvering that preceded its publication.  In my review of Postcards from Surfers, I wondered about how a book of short stories was put together, and in Brennan’s book I saw the collaboration between editor and author in constructing a ‘work’ of short stories as a distinct entity.  Through her diaries it is clear that the naive, ‘I-know-nothing-about-the-legal-system-but…’ stance that comes through in her courtroom non-fiction is a deliberate, and somewhat disingenuous choice.

Most of all, though, I am left with a sense of the writer at work– and work it surely is. The reading, the thinking, the writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The author’s drawing together of observations from other writers and thinkers – most particularly that scholar of the art of biography, Janet Malcolm. The richness and texture of thought and reflection. The edginess and vulnerability of putting yourself out there as an author. The web of connections between people in the local intellectual and literary scene.  A life lived in the mind, but also in the everyday. A particular way of looking.  All the things that I appreciate most in Garner’s work.

My rating: 8.5

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2017-badge

I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

 

‘A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson’ by Kerrie Davies

wifes_heart

2017, 225p

David Marr, the celebrated biographer, has proclaimed for himself the rule that “biographers should stay out of sight”. I suspect that he would be ‘tut-tutting’ the whole way through this book, because the biographer/author Kerrie Davies is very much on-stage, using her own early 21st century experience as a lens through which to examine and reflect on the marriage and separation of Bertha and Henry Lawson.  The book both starts and finishes with Davies’ own reflections on single parenthood and she shuttles back and forth between her own memoir and a biographical examination of Bertha and Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson, as most (I hope!) Australian readers would know, is one of Australia’s best known writers, with his short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’  forming one of the staples of school anthologies in the last century.  He wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s at a time when ‘Australianness’ was being explored in writing through the pages of The Bulletin and through the works of the Australian impressionists – Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton et al. He is a much-biographied subject, as Davies found, with biographers falling into two camps: those who blamed his wife Bertha for pursuing child support payments and hounding him to imprisonment, and those who saw Bertha as the long-suffering, separated wife bringing up her children alone.

Davies falls very much into the second category. She, too, has brought her daughter up alone when her marriage to her musician husband fell apart through his incessant travelling, and this sense of identification with Bertha permeates the book. I’m not sure that it makes good biography, but I don’t know if a ‘pure’ biography was ever her intention. Certainly she draws on primary documents, including court files, letters, memoirs, secondary sources and Henry’s own writings, reproducing important paragraphs in the text itself, and footnoting the sources at the rear of the book.  In this way she has certainly given Bertha an identity and agency. She has carefully researched the legislation governing divorce at the turn of the twentieth century, and beautifully integrates Henry, in particular, into the bohemian and literary milieu of the day.  However, as a journalist, she makes no claim to be a historian, and in describing the Darlinghurst gaol in which Henry was imprisoned, she turns us over directly to the hands of the archivist at the gaol, Deborah Beck, in a manner reminiscent of meeting-the-historian in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. In fact, that same sense of anachronistic identification that permeates ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ is evident in this book as well, and it means that as reader, you’re taken along for the story in the present just as much for the history.

Although a very different sort of endeavour, this book evoked for me Jennifer Gall’s Looking for Rose Paterson. There’s a symmetry in that both researchers are drawing an otherwise unseen woman (a mother, a wife) out from the background of these two writers – A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson- who are together synonymous with colonial nationalistic turn-of-the-century writing.  But Bertha Lawson was not unseen: she wrote her own memoir, her correspondence is found amongst Henry’s works, people knew her and she looms large in his lifestory as the force that he resisted and railed against, and which eventually- in the eyes of his champions- brought him undone.  The subtitle of the book is “The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson”, and Davies has succeeded in telling this untold story.  “No one is more pleased to see you yourself again than I am” Bertha wrote to Henry (p 185) during one of his recurrent phases of sobriety before lapsing into alcoholism again. In seeing Bertha, and the cycles of alcoholism and cruelty, unsuccessful reconciliations, legal maneuverings, emotional bargaining, justifications and accusation, we see  Henry ‘himself’ also.

The author’s paper to the 2015 Australasian Association of Writing Programs conference discussing her writing decisions can be found here.  (What a fantastic site! they have all the papers from decades of conferences).

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

aww2017-badge

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

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

maguire

2016, 243 p

The reviewing cycle for a much-talked-about book seems to move so quickly that, after a few months, everything seems to have been already said and people are moving onto the next new much-talked-about book. So I come- at last-  to ‘An Isolated Incident’, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, longlisted for the Miles Franklin and commended for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

It all makes me feel rather outgunned when I say that my response is rather lukewarm.

You probably already know that it’s about a murder of a young woman, Bella Michaels, an aged-care worker in the small country town of Strathdee.  Despite being described by the publishers as a ‘psychological thriller’, this book doesn’t really fill that description at all. Instead, it is the description of grief and the surrounding media manipulation of a murder report.  We, as readers, know as much or as little about the murder as the police do.

It is narrated from the alternating viewpoints of the murdered girl’s sister Chris, a barmaid at the local pub in Strathdee, and May, the journalist dispatched from the city to report on the crime.  The book is arranged chronologically, starting with daily entries on the 6th April, then becoming less frequent as media interest in the case wanes. Chris’s sections are written in the first person, using a conversational tone and capturing the cadences of a fairly rough, indifferently educated country woman. May’s narrative is written in the third person, interspersed with the trashy interviews and articles that she has written over this time.

For much of it,  I felt as if I were reading an article at the supermarket checkout or watching Sixty Minutes. I know that this was probably intentional on the part of the author, drawing readers into the voyeurism of crime-watching and armchair speculation.  This is just one of the things that the book does well. It also captures well the lazy, casual misogyny of everyday life, magnified further in a small town, and the juxtaposition of an active, consensual  female sexuality alongside non-consensual sexual creepiness.  Sexuality was used to manipulate by both men and women in this book.  She also puts her finger on – although does not explore further – the connections between offences that are portrayed as only “isolated incidents”

This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [another woman murdered in Strathdee] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.

None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it. It felt to May, that there was a thread connecting it all, and if she could find it she could follow it back, see where it began. Rip it out and examine its source. p.343

“Rip it out and examine its source”: a noble aim, but not one achieved in this book.  Sometimes I feel as if I’ve read a book that has been consciously written for a book-group discussion or to air “an issue”.  I couldn’t quite shake this feeling when reading this book.  Don’t get me wrong- I am a member of a bookgroup myself, and know that I would happily participate in the discussions that this book is likely to generate for the next couple of years.  However, I don’t like feeling that I’ve been targeted as a market.

There’s the enjoyment that a reader has during reading, as distinct from the discussion and contemplation afterwards. I found that the book dragged and it was really only in the last 1/3 that I found myself becoming more engaged.  Until then, I was underwhelmed by the vacuity of both women, and irked by the supernatural angle that was introduced halfway through. Just as the case ambled along, with little progress, so too did this book.   Perhaps this is one of those books where its strength lies after reading it, rather than while reading it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

aww2017-badge

I’ve added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter

tranter

2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir’ by Olivera Simic

simic

2014, 188 p

It’s not often that I open up a book and find myself thinking “Hey! I was there!” I did in this book, though, where Olivera Simic starts by describing an encounter at a law and history conference in Melbourne. [Those of you who have been with me since 2010 might vaguely remember that I was involved in the organization of the ANZLHS Law and History Conference that year. For me, any recollection of the conference is completely overwhelmed by the accompanying memory of leaving quickly after the last session to sit with my mother at her nursing home. She died the next day.]

Olivera Simic’s recollection of that conference, though, involves a quick interaction she had with the chair of the panel who asked how he should introduce her.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Yugoslavia’ she replied. ‘But that country doesn’t exist!’ he countered, finding the interchange sufficiently bewildering to share it with the audience.  Several people came up to afterwards, saying that it was very unusual to hear someone still introducing herself as Yugoslav.

But I do. I am a Yugoslav without Yugoslavia. I identify with the country I was born in; I am homesick for the place that exists only in my distant memory: the beautiful old towns, rivers and mountains, and the part of the Adriatic coast that was Yugoslavia. I speak a language that was declared dead when the war broke out in 1992. I was fortunate not to lose a close family member, but like many Yugoslav people, I lost so much.  The beginning of the war meant the end of my physical belonging to the country I was born and grew up in, the country I loved, the country I left and soon abandoned.  I tried to move on, to forget destruction and war, to run away from it all… The further I was from home, the closer home was to me, to my heart, to my mind.  The connection to my homeland was not severable to distance but, as many migrants will know, on the country, was made stronger by it. The smell, the sound, the sky and the sun of my home haunt me. They are always with me. (p.10)

We hear and read of people surviving war, but less often surviving peace. Simic was born in 1973 and spent her childhood in Banja Luka, the second-largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Her parents are Orthodox Serbs and were members of the Community Party before the 1990s in what she regarded as “a heterogenous multicultural, multilingual and multireligious community.” (p11) When war broke out in 1992, her parents sent her as a nineteen-year-old to neighbouring Serbia, her mother’s home country, where she was granted refugee status and enrolled in law school. She lived in Serbia, with occasional dangerous trips home to see her parents, from 1992 through to the 1999 NATO bombing during which, for 78 days,  she along with her fellow residents, lived in a permanent state of fear and anxiety. She was –  and still is – angry at the world for allowing this to happen, and after September 11, the emotional and existential burden of this experience devastated her in the form of PTSD.  At the end of the war, she was no longer ‘Yugoslavian’  but, on the basis of her surname, was designated to be Serbian – “a specific, but somehow alien ethnic identity”  that it had never occurred to her to apply to herself previously (p.21). Her mother-tongue, Serbo-Croation ceased to exist, replaced by other languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian).

Our labels of ethnicity have overridden our very being and make it impossible for us to be recognized first as people, and only then as an ‘ethnicity’. (p.25)

In 2001 she started work with Human Rights Watch in Washington DC. She completed an M.A. in Gender and Peacebuilding in Costa Rica. Since 2006 she has lived in Australia, and after gaining her PhD., worked as an academic writing on genocide and war crimes, most particularly (but not only) those committed by Serbs, and on trauma more generally. It’s an academic path that her parents and neighbours back in BiH try to dissuade her from, seeing her as a traitor to their concept of the Serbs as both victims and heroes.  She is aware that she is part of the ‘industry’ of postwar recovery and reconciliation, organizing seminars and workshops, receiving grants to carry out research on armed conflicts.

One of the paradoxes of experiencing violence first hand is that it can give unconditional power and authority to one’s voice, and people who have not had these experiences might feel as if they cannot say anything worthwhile (P 102)

She is aware, when faced with representatives of Srebrenica (where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by members of the Serbian forces) that she, like other academics, could be seen “as ‘conference tourists’, building our careers on the misery of survivors.” (p. 104) It doesn’t sit well with her.

I have summarized her story as a continuous, chronological narrative, which is not the way she has structured this book. There is a timeline of Yugoslavia’s disintegration as an appendix, but it acts more as an organizing device after reading her memoir, rather than during it.  Instead, her chapters are titled as paradoxes and opposites:  Journeying through War and Peace; Traitor or Truth Seeker? Moving from War to Peace; The Past Is Present; Victims and Survivors; Between Remembering and Forgetting.  There is no narrative tension of wondering if she will survive or not: no tales of want or deprivation.

Instead, this is a memoir of the intellect. She refers often to other writers and theorists and her bibliography is rich with academic references.  I was puzzled by her subtitle ‘a political memoir’ because this is so much a memoir of the head AND heart, until I remembered that old feminist touchstone ‘the personal is political’.  The blurbs on the back cover clearly place it within a feminist tradition, and in her preface she explains:

In feminist research women are considered to be experts regarding their own lives who communicate and reveal the narratives about the events that took place in their lives, their feelings about those events, and their interpretation of them (Foss and Foss, 1994 . 39) … Although mine is an individual story, I believe that on many levels it is also universal . My experiences of war and survival are similar to those of other war survivors…This is…why I have been motivated to embark on this emotional journey which sometimes links intimate experiences with existing scholarship. (p. 2, 3)

It is, then, her story but analyzed from an academic perspective, and interwoven with literature, history, genocide studies, trauma studies, human rights and peace studies.  It’s not the sort of memoir that will make you cry, but it will make you think.  I watch television and those streams of Syrians, carrying children and one or two plastic bags (what do you pack?); I hear predictions that partition might be the only solution for Syria and I think of Simic’s resistance against having an ethnic identity forced upon her by war.  I think of Simic’s need to weave her own experience into a larger philosophical and intellectual web – to make it mean something more.  It reminds us that the victims of war need to become survivors of peace, as well.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.