Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

‘The Dismissal Dossier’ by Jenny Hocking

Hocking_Dismissal

Updated edition 2016, 75 pages & notes

Is it only Labor supporters ‘of a certain age’ who remember where they were in 1975 when they heard that the Whitlam government had been dismissed? I was in my second year at La Trobe University, and being November 11, it was in the midst of exams. I remember sitting on the brick steps at the Agora, wondering if the student troops would rally and whether there would be a march on Parliament House. But there was nothing- at least not immediately. I think that people were just stunned.

And, after reading Jenny Hocking’s small book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, I’d have to add that not only were people just stunned, they were lied to as well. It has taken over forty years for the truth to trickle out, through vendettas, scribbled notes in archives, interviews, and  re-evaluations. The story isn’t over yet: Jenny Hocking, who wrote the celebrated two-part biography of Gough Whitlam, is still pursuing ‘The Palace Letters’ between the Queen and her secretaries and Australia’s then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, which have been designated ‘personal and private’ by Buckingham Palace, and thus out of the reach of Australians.

So- what weren’t we meant to know and now we do, largely through Hocking’s persistence?  We now know that the Palace did know ahead of time that Kerr was planning to sack Whitlam. Through Reg ‘Toe-Cutter’ Withers’ spilling of the beans after himself being dismissed, we know that Fraser was aware of it too.  We now know that  Sir  Anthony Mason  had been involved even before Sir Garfield Barwick (the Chief Justice) was, and that Barwick and Kerr agreed to obscure his involvement at the time and afterwards.  We also know that Kerr, fearful that Whitlam would sack him first, had shored up his position with the Queen’s secretary and Prince Charles in advance.  We now know that Kerr was anxious that a Royal Commission not be held into the Loans Affair because it would have come out that he had signed off on the minutes of the Executive Council meeting that approved the plan.

There’s a lot, too, that we have either forgotten or not realized the significance of.  The Senate had not refused Supply, but the Liberal/Country party refused to vote on it. Whitlam’s poll numbers were improving, while Fraser’s were plummeting over the stalemate in the Senate. Whitlam had already spoken with Kerr about holding the half-Senate election days earlier and had the agreed papers in his pocket, which would have brought the stalemate to a head. The House of Representatives still sat on the afternoon after the Dismissal, and passed a motion of no-confidence in Fraser as Prime Minister by a margin on 10 votes – the ultimate breakpoint in our parliamentary democracy, which should have seen Fraser stepping down immediately.  There were in effect two dismissals on 11 November: first the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, then later that afternoon, the dismissal of the House of Representatives, which Kerr prorogued to avoid having to do anything with that embarrassing vote of no confidence.

These things have been revealed over the last forty years, but because they have been drip-fed, you tend not to see the whole picture. After Reg Withers revealed that Fraser had been in on it before the Dismissal, Fraser admitted that he had lied. How did I not know that? I remember Sir Anthony Mason’s dismissive “I owe history nothing” but I’d forgotten his role. I remember news of a dinner with Prince Charles, but didn’t make the connection. That’s why this book is so important. It’s only short, but it draws the threads together. It re-kindles the rage.

I was fortunate to hear Jenny Hocking speak last week (and a recording of her presentation can be found here). She reminded us that Gough’s exhortation was to “Maintain your rage and your enthusiasm“. Reading this book reminds me why we should maintain the pressure for a republic, and why Hocking’s own persistence and assiduity has been so important.  After the Federal Court dismissed her attempt to have the Palace Letters revealed, just this afternoon she was granted Leave to Appeal to the High Court of Australia. Those letters will and must be revealed one day: I just hope that she and  I live long enough to see them.

My rating: 5/5 because it’s it’s such an important book. Read it.

Sourced from: SLV e-book. (Did you know that you can download e-books from the State Library if you have a card?)

 

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

‘Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World’ by Michelle Scott Tucker

elizabeth-macarthur

2018, 339 p.

I am old enough to remember when Australia’s wool trade was a source of national pride. Primary school children would send off to the Wool Board (or whatever it was called at the time) to receive a project pack that included samples of wool at different stages of processing: straight off the sheep’s back, washed, combed, and carded, right through to a piece of woven material, all in a big envelope. John Macarthur was on our $2.00 notes, with a whopping great merino beside him, with William Farrer on the other side with his wheat, symbols of the importance of the pastoral industry and agriculture to Australia’s history and economy.

But it was all very male-dominated. I first heard of Elizabeth Macarthur when I visited Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta about twenty years ago. It struck me then, listening to the guide, that much of the glory that attached to John Macarthur more rightly should be shared with her, given that he spent so many years overseas. In this book Michelle Scott Tucker brings Elizabeth Macarthur to centre stage as businesswoman, wife and mother, dealing with a difficult and eventually mentally ill husband.

The book opens with a premature childbirth at sea on a convicts’ ship, where Elizabeth Macarthur, a gentleman’s daughter, is the only woman on board.  She, her husband John  and her infant son were sailing as part of the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove where he would take up his position as a commissioned officer in the New South Wales Corps.  As was common right up to the 20th century, Elizabeth kept a ship board journal, and Tucker contextualizes this journal well in explaining what shipboard life was like in the Second Fleet, and the social distinctions and rigidities within the hierarchy of the passengers. There were tensions, slights and confrontations and even here we see John Macarthur’s hair-trigger sense of honour which was to blight and shape the social life of his family within the colony.

I must confess that even though I’ve read about the early days in Sydney Cove, I didn’t realize the significance of the navy/army distinction as the basis of much of the dissatisfaction at the elite level within the colony (and come to think of it, probably in the other colonies I have read about as well).  Macarthur quickly moved into the centre of the social life of ‘good society’ and was deeply implicated in the Rum Rebellion against (Navy) Governor Bligh led by the New South Wales Corps (Army). His involvement in local politics at a time when official power was exercised through the Colonial Office meant that he spent many years overseas, clearing his name and honour, and then in a sort of political exile that in effect split the family. As was common at the time, young boys were sent ‘home’ for their education, and for many years Elizabeth kept the properties going, soothed the local politics as much as she could and built up the family enterprise on this ‘edge of the world’, while her husband and a number of sons did the same back in England. When a son went off ‘home’ as a seven year old schoolboy, sometimes he never returned to Australia. Instead, opportunities brought about through extended family connections and marriages kept him back in the’ old country’.

Colonial histories in the past, tended to focus on the world of men. In recent years there has been more attention on the networks of influence, opinion and behavioural constraints that operated in colonial societies. While John Macarthur had his own political involvements, so too did Elizabeth Macarthur within the women’s networks of early Sydney. His behaviour directly impacted on her own friendships and status, and Tucker describes this well.  Although aimed at a popular, as distinct from academic audience, the bibliography at the back of the book shows that she has read widely on early Sydney, although I’m surprised that she doesn’t reference Kirsten McKenzie’s Scandal in the Colonies which would have fitted in so well here.

The family correspondence has been kept, and it is through this lens that Tucker shapes her reading of Elizabeth Macarthur. Family correspondence has its limitations, of course, and these were exacerbated by distance and slow communications.  For letters to  friends, who had never -and would never- see Australia, there is an ‘other-worldliness’ to her situation. In letters to her sons, who did not need to have things explained, the maternal relationship still held. In letters to and from her husband John, beyond reporting events and business, the politics of their relationship was interwoven with the family mores of the time.

In several places, Tucker notes that Elizabeth Macarthur has not commented on particular events or people. This is always frustrating, perplexing and yet these silences often reflect something of the personality and times of the writer. Sometimes Tucker surmises “she must have….” which I found myself resisting. One of the questions of biography,  is how much we can claim a common worldview at the emotional level with people of the past, especially in the light of recent work in this field.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another biography of a ‘colonial wife’: that of Anna Murray Powell, wife of the Chief Justice in Upper Canada in the 1820s in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1755-1849 (my review here).  A more academic text than this one, McKenna uses the family correspondence of the Powell family to examine how as matriarch and wife, Anna Murray Powell grappled with a young daughter whose very public and unseemly infatuation with the future attorney-general.  As with Elizabeth Macarthur, there are silences and omissions about the things we are most curious about as 21st century readers, particularly when dealing with a socially unacceptable situation – for Anna Powell, the behaviour of her daughter, and for Elizabeth Macarthur, her husband’s mental illness.

Elizabeth Macarthur was a mother, with her love stretched between ‘home’ and this new life very much on the edge of the world. She was a wife, displaying affection, but also exasperation and diffidence when dealing with a difficult husband. Within her own family relationships, she dealt with distance and madness.  She was an astute businesswoman, handling a large enterprise in the colonies while her husband had all the financial power. Tucker has given us a rounded picture of Elizabeth Macarthur, one that is faithful to the times and also to the sources.

My rating: 8.5

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers challenge

 

 

‘The Glad Shout’ by Alice Robinson

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-Robinson

2019, 310 p

This book opens right in the middle of the action, with Isobel clutching onto the arm of her husband Shaun, with her daughter Matilda clamped to her hip. They are in what reads like the MCG in Melbourne, which has been turned into an emergency evacuation centre after Melbourne has been lashed by a destructive storm. Set in a near future, encroaching sea levels have poisoned bayside gardens and lap the boulevards along the bay, and with storm damage making places uninsurable, the suburbs have become increasingly derelict and dangerous.  We have seen flashes of this in our news already: the Louisiana Superdome stadium after Hurricane Katrina, the huge waves crashing onto the Malecon in Havana Cuba, people sitting on their roofs in Queensland floods, awaiting rescue. In The Glad Shout, Robinson sets her story after the consequences of climate change have come crashing, literally, into Melbourne. Tasmania, which has heeded the perils of climate change, is still safe; Western Australia has finally seceded, and the other states are closing their borders against the climate refugees who want to join family members interstate and escape this climate nightmare.

The book has two narratives, told in alternating chapters. The present-day chapters, written in the present tense, have Isobel having to fend for herself in the stadium and finally making the decision to leave, putting her own life and that of her daughter into the hands of people-smugglers. We’ve seen this scenario too: people crammed onto dinghies with insufficient food and water, the lifejackets and the oil slick of dysfunctional engines.

The other narrative is flashback to Isobel’s tense relationship with her mother Luna, her sometimes ambivalent love for her husband Shaun, her guilt over her own mothering of Matilda. Her mother Luna, who had purchased the house that was swamped by floodwaters, was a real-estate agent and property investor. She placed great store on possessions and wealth, and she grieved intensely when Isobel’s brother, Josh, left home. Much of the flashback sections is involved with the nuances and Isobel’s sense of grievance over the people who surround her, and her conflicted relationship with motherhood, both as daughter and mother herself.

There’s always a risk in having double narratives running through a novel. Too often, as in this case, one is more compelling than the other, and so the reader feels a sense of impatience at having to wade through this section before reaching the next. I tired of the flashbacks, which bordered on the banal, and rather implausibly, they increasingly found their way into the present-day-disaster section as well. I suspect that the author herself has young children, and perhaps its my middle-agedness that makes me impatient of her obsession with her birth-experience with Matilda: something that is only a small part of the relationship between mother and child, in the long run. I wouldn’t presume to know what those exhausted, bedraggled mothers we see on television stumbling ashore from refugee boats had been thinking on the journey. But I suspect that they haven’t been mentally rehashing the slights and annoyances of their relationship with their mother, or castigating themselves for their ambivalence over their own motherhood.

On the other hand, I liked her celebration of  women’s strength in an emergency. I liked the politics of climate change and refugee policy being brought into the personal realm, and her exploration of the instincts of maternity, survival and communality in the midst of disaster.  I think that these will be the things that I take away from the novel, and that will keep it memorable. I just wish that there had been less of the emotional angst over relationships and human frailty.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

 

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Tiffany_ExplodedView

2019, 191 p.

Carrie Tiffany seems to be writing about times at twenty year intervals. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was set in the 1930s, Mateship with Birds was set in the 1950s and here now with Exploded View we find ourselves in the outer suburbs in the late 1970s. As with her other books, this most recent book is made up of fragments and set in the present tense, with short sentences and a slow rhythm.  This time, however, Tiffany gives us a nameless adolescent narrator, who is fragile, dissociative and in trauma.

The title comes from the type of diagram that one finds in a car repair manual or instruction book, where an action or object is pulled apart, with the separate components shown separately.

example_exploded_view

Wikipedia

Our narrator knows cars well. Her stepfather (‘father man’) repairs cars in an unlicensed repair shop at the back of the block, but she is not his willing assistant. Instead, she sabotages his work, taking the cars out at night and damaging their motors. She does not speak and she reads the Holden workshop manual, not for what it says but for its depiction of what she cannot say.

If you had never touched an engine, if it were only a matter of looking in the manual, you would think it was a miracle, that it couldn’t have been made by a man…In the manual you can choose to look at the parts, or the air in between them. The air in between isn’t nothing; it isn’t blank. If you make yourself look for what’s not there the empty spaces become parts themselves. (p. 27)

The narrator avoids naming the trauma, but she tells it in “the air between” the parts. Father man is violent and abusive, and her impotent mother turns a blind eye. Her brother is irrelevant. The longest part of the book is taken up with a rather pointless road trip taken across the country where they drive, drive, drive and sleep in the car at night. At night, the darkness comes.

Threaded through the book is a sense of menace, but there is no plot or climax as such. It reminded me of Sonia Hartnett’s disquieting work with which it shares an adolescent narrator, quivering tension and long silences.

I loved Carrie Tiffany’s earlier books, but I was disappointed in this book. Tension held for a length of time becomes excruciating, and I felt that way about this book.  It would have been better as a short story.

AWW2019I have added this book to the Australian Women Writer’s database.

‘From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage’ by Judith Brett

brett_democracy

2019, 183 plus notes

When she was a lecturer in politics at LaTrobe University, Judith Brett tells us, she used to ask her first-year students to talk about their first political memories as an ice-breaker activity in their first tutorial (p157). Many mentioned going with their parents to their local school while their parents voted. I must confess that my only memory of going with my parents when they voted was the election before I turned 18. It was 1972, and the Labor Party was about to be elected after 23 years of successive Coalition governments. I knew whom I would have voted for, had I been allowed, and to this day I wonder if my father voted Labor, just that once. I had a strong sense of “this will be me, next time” and I felt quite excited about it. But other elections? I just can’t remember. My family (including me) all played tennis on Saturdays: I assume that they nicked in to vote either before or after the tennis court.

I am proud of Australia’s electoral system, despite grizzling about the politicians it throws up, and fearful of the effects of lobbyists and deep pockets. Judith Brett, in From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is too, and as we head into one of our more important elections, it’s good to read this book from one of Australia’s foremost political historians that affirms and celebrates the process. Sometimes we forget just how distinctive our system is. We have compulsory voting (as do Belgium, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Cyrus, Greece, two regions of Austria and one Swiss canon; Central and South America, Egypt, Fiji and Singapore) (fn1. p. 185). And more importantly, compulsory voting is popular, with 77% support in 2007 (p.151). We vote on Saturdays (not Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays). We have preferential voting in the House of Representatives (in itself a rarity) and proportional representation in the Senate. Our elections are conducted by the Electoral Commission, who are public servants at arm’s length from government. We don’t have to queue for hours. And there are sausages and a cake stall.

 

[Back in 2010 at my local school]

This book is quite current, taking us right up to 2018, but two-thirds of the book is a historical analysis of how we ended up with the electoral system that we have today. Unlike America, which was first settled during the 17th century constitutional struggles between monarch and parliament and steeped in the ideas of John Locke, Australia’s first political institutions were established when the British Parliament was supreme, and beginning to expand its own franchise. Our philosophical roots lay in Jeremy Bentham who believed in government first, rights second (p6). As historian W.K. Hancock wrote:

The Australian democracy has come to look upon the State as a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number…To the Australian, the State means collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’ and therefore he sees no opposition between his individualism and his reliance on governments (Hancock Australia, 1930 cited on p.7)

Newly expanding colonies needed infrastructure, and the government provided it. In fact, for the first 100 years or so, Australian taxpayers didn’t have to pay much for it: the British government did. We didn’t have income tax until 1915, and Britain paid for our defence. Why would people want to limit government expenditure on services that benefited them? (p.8)

Our first elections, starting in the 1840s on a limited franchise, followed the English model of public voting. They were held in a carnival-like atmosphere, ‘treating’ supporters with alcohol, and keeping up a running tally. It was the desire to largely  circumscribe the abuses of this system that led to the development of the secret ballot, complete with separate cubicles and a pre-printed ballot paper issued only at the booth, which came to be known as “the Australian ballot”. Brett highlights three South Australian electoral innovators whose contributions are often overlooked : Catherine Helen Spence who devoted years to her campaign for proportional representation, William Boothby who as Provincial Returning Officer bureaucratized and regularized electoral administration, and Mary Lee who campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in South Australia. (I had always wondered why South Australia had an electoral district called ‘Boothby’ when Justice Boothby caused as much trouble as my own Judge Willis did. But it’s the son William, not the father Benjamin). Ironically, her table showing state-based changes to Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council franchises now shows South Australia as the laggard, with compulsory voting for Legislative Council elections in South Australia introduced only in 1985! (p. 138)

It was because South Australian women had had the vote since 1895 -and thus, should not be disadvantaged by losing their suffrage under Federation-  that the new Commonwealth Australian constitution allowed anyone enfranchised to vote at a state level to also vote in Commonwealth elections. A similar arrangement was made for Aboriginal voters. Disturbingly, right up until 1962 Aboriginal people could not vote in federal elections unless they were on the state roll or had served in the armed forces, thus leaving Western Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory Aborigines unable to vote. There’s a grubby little secret in her chapter “Women In Aborigines Out” where the Commonwealth had a ‘preponderant blood’ rule whereby “all persons in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates are disqualified”. It was left up to electoral officers to decide largely on the basis of skin colour and their own judgements about individual Aboriginal people’s capacities (p.68). It wasn’t at the 1967 referendum that the right to vote was extended to all ATSI subjects: it was the 1962 act. Aboriginal people were not subject to exactly the same voting laws as other Australians until 1983 (p.72).

In fact, one of the most contested features of Australia’s electoral system was the postal vote, which was allowed, disallowed and allowed again according to the vicissitudes of the different political parties. The Labor Party opposed postal voting because it removed the act of voting from the public booth into the private realm, where domestic power dynamics could lead to voters being pressured to vote against their wishes. Conservative parties supported postal voting, citing women’s interests, arguing that women were confined to their homes before and after the birth of children, and were not comfortable attending a polling booth alone.

One of the things that comes through clearly is that neither party acted from high principle in tweaking the system. Parties supported changes that they thought would have some advantage in it for them, although sometimes the consequences were unforeseen. And as her chapter ‘Liberals push back’ shows, hard right Liberals and libertarians have tried (and probably continue to try) to repeal compulsory voting. Likewise suggestions from the Liberal party that voter ID be introduced, and Howard’s attempts to reduce the time after the writs are issued for enrolment or change of details, are threats to our system of compulsory voting.  As far as undermining our system is concerned (especially from the Right), we need to be alert, and then alarmed.

The book has a light touch on what could otherwise be pretty turgid material.  There are enough ‘jump-forwards’ to keep the currency of her endeavour in mind, and particularly in the latter chapters, Brett herself comes forward more.  Just as with Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (which I reviewed here), sometimes we need to be reminded, as Brett does in her final sentence, that

What the story of compulsory voting tells us is how very good we are at elections. We should celebrate it. (p. 183)

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019.

‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ by Jill Giese

Giese_The-Maddest-Place-on-Earth

2018, 220 p.

In the Epilogue of this book, clinical psychologist and author Jill Giese  writes that she jumped at the rare opportunity of an Open Day at Willsmere, the site of the old Kew Asylum. A little girl asked in that unfettered way that children do, ” If they were all crazy, why did they build them such a nice place to live?” As Giese notes, the most (and increasingly) visible sign of mental illness today is people lying on the streets of Melbourne, wrapped in blankets, begging for small change. Interestingly, it was the urge to give mentally ill people a shelter – an asylum- from the homelessness and penury of living in a blanket, that led to the construction of first the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and within six years, the construction of Kew Asylum, the first purpose-built asylum in Victoria. Both institutions – though plagued with overcrowding – were not established as the ‘Bedlam’-type places of horror that we might assume them to be.

KEWdraw

English: Engraving of the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew. Buildings of Yarra Bend Asylum are seen in the foreground. c 1880. Source: Wikipedia

Victoria had what was perceived to be the highest level of mental illness in the world, hence the title “The Maddest Place on Earth”. In fact, at one of the numerous Royal Commissions held into asylums in Victoria during the 19th century, it was predicted that by 2050 every inhabitant of Victoria would be mad. A number of reasons were put forward: our meat-rich diet, the climate, the effect of the Gold Rush, excessive masturbation (although why Victorians would be especially prone to this was not explained) and the success of the Salvation Army in turning people’s minds to God.  Perhaps a better explanation was the “imported insanity” that arose from families ‘back home’ shipping their mentally-ill family members off to the colonies to avoid the scandal of madness. The Gold Rush could have both attracted and elicited madness in men who threw in everything to travel to the other side of the world, with failure more likely than success.

Giese tells the story of the Yarra Bend Asylum and the Kew Asylum but this is not your usual institutional history. Instead of taking a top-down approach, she uses  two main characters as the lens through which to view the asylum system in Victoria. Her first character, George Foley, was the son of an eminent artistic family in England. He suffered his first episode of mental illness while in art school, and suddenly “found himself” on a ship headed for Melbourne. He moved in and out of Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums, continuing to draw while incarcerated, and trying to hold together a precarious artistic existence when he was “outside”. The second character was journalist  Julian Thomas who, working under-cover as a ward attendant, wrote a series of columns for the Argus under the pen-name of “The Vagabond”.  He writes vividly and with humour, every bit the equal of a Mark Twain, or a nineteenth-century Louis Theroux.  Julian Thomas is well-known to historians of Australian (and particularly Victorian) history, but I hadn’t read his work before, and obviously Giese herself – a psychologist herself, rather than a historian-  was delighted to discover him for the first time.

Through George Foley, we catch a glimpse of the sharp edges of the itinerant artist’s life, even for a man clutching the slender thread of family reputation. At a time when there was no treatment for mental illness, he would be housed, fed and given meaningful work while in the asylum, only to flounder once he was released to his own resources again. He drew portraits of personnel within the asylum, including ‘The Vagabond’, who used a touched-up version of the portrait when he finally revealed his identity.  Through ‘The Vagabond’ we learn of meal-times with poorly cooked food, the dissonant music of the asylum band at the fortnightly balls held for inmates and staff, and the brutalizing effects of institutional life on the Kew Asylum attendants in particular.

Right from the establishment of Port Phillip, the presence of mentally ill people on the unmade streets of Melbourne was noted. Until the changes in asylum practice encouraged by the Quakers in the early 19th century in England, asylums had been dire places. Based on the new philosophy that asylums for the mentally ill should be built out of town, on hills in the fresh air, Yarra Bend quickly outgrew its construction in 1848 and was soon surrounded by a mosaic of cottages and even tents. The nearby Kew Asylum was opened in 1872 in a much grander E-shaped Italianate building,  Within five years Kew was the subject of a Royal Commission, which found overcrowding, disease and mistreatment. This was largely caused by a change in the criteria by which patients could be admitted to a ‘lunatic asylum’, which swelled the numbers of mentally ill patients with chronic patients with intellectual disabilities or dementia.  Despite the grandness of Kew Asylum, Yarra Bend stayed largely unchanged with its small cottage structure and more domestic, less institutionalized approach.  As Giese points out, Yarra Bend (despite its age and comparative neglect) came to be seen as the better model for dealing with mental illness with features like shelter, home-cooked food and meaningful, routinized work, that our mental health system could well emulate today.

Giese’s decision to use Foley and the Vagabond as her focus – one a patient, the other a staff member- is inspired. It would have been easy to have taken a patchwork approach, with small stories and vignettes stitched together into a fairly conventional institutional history, but for most of the book she avoids this methodology.  While she also traces through the career of Edward Paley, Inspector of Asylums, and recounts the numerous commissions of enquiry that, as too often happens today, masqueraded as action in themselves, she maintains her gaze on two individuals.  As a reader, you become invested in these two men. You read with a sinking heart of Foley’s struggle for mental stability and you see through the eyes of The Vagabond, in lengthy italized extracts from his columns.  Moreover, The Vagabond, too, has his secrets as Giese discovers at the end of the book.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s History Award for this book, and it fully deserves it. It is beautifully written, although perhaps a little fervent at times, and it is a deeply compassionate book. By foregrounding the long-term experience of George as patient, the Vagabond as attendant and journalist, and to a lesser extent Dr Paley as administrator, she gives a human face to mental illness as a lived experience. It’s a wonderful read.

My rating: 10/10.

Source: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing

AWW2019 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Imperfect’ by Lee Kofman

Imperfect1140-658x1024

2019, 306 p

In reading this book, I alternated between anger and a vague sense of voyeurism. When I review books, I tend to avoid tackling the author and try to engage more with the words on the page, the research, the planning decisions in mounting an argument. However, sometimes the author insinuates herself so much into the text, and makes herself so much part of the whole endeavour, that it’s impossible to separate the two. The other book that angered me in this way was Caroline Jones’ Through a Glass Darkly (my review here) and the two books are similar. Both books profess to be – and are – very honest but I find myself wondering just why these authors decided to put themselves on the page like this at such a personal level. They have made their book about themselves, quite deliberately. They force the reader to engage with the writer as a person. And in both cases, I think to myself “You know, I don’t think I like you much” and I want to move away. This is different from not ‘liking’ a character in a fiction book: instead, it is the whole premise and world view through which the book is filtered – and this world view is something that, as authors, these writers have decided to foreground.

Lee Kofman has undergone several bouts of surgery during her life. As a young child in the Soviet Union, she was operated on for heart problems, then a bus accident resulted in injuries to her leg that required skin grafts, leaving her with a large scar and misshapen leg. Her self-consciousness about her scars was heightened when she shifted with her family to Israel, where a high premium is placed on body image, before moving to Australia. She adopted clothes that hid what she saw as her ‘disfigurements’, always tentative about the act of revealing her body to friends and lovers. Not only is this a point of vulnerability, it is complicated further by a sense of inauthenticity and evasion – that she has pretended to be something perfect and whole when she is not.

This self-consciousness about her body and its disfigurement has bubbled through her professional life as well. Her PhD was written about concepts of the human body; she has undergone therapy with what she perceives as mediocre success; she has included in her fiction characters who are physically marred in some way. And now this book: an exploration of ‘body surface’ (her phrase) and the way that it shapes the people we become. It all starts with her.

I confess that my brittleness about her use of her own life-story as a rationale and lens springs from my own experience (ah! I’m aware of my own hypocrisy here). But in her exploration of obesity, horrific burns, facial deformities etc., and her assumption of a sense of shared experience, she personally has the luxury of the dilemma of when and if to reveal. That is a luxury denied to most of the people she interviews, whose difference is right there from the start, visible to all- not just to lovers and friends – but the curious, cruel and supercilious alike.

She admits at times that her own curiosity verges on voyeurism about other people’s experience. Her analysis is not just of imperfect bodies, but bodies that have been deliberately manipulated through extreme surgery and piercing, tattooing and shaping. She ranges far, interweaving her interviews with ‘imperfect’ people with academic research encountered as part of her PhD study. In many ways, even though I know that many readers enjoy it, I am uncomfortable with this mixture of the confessional and the academic.

She writes that her own sons have albinism. I do wonder how they will read this book when they are older. Will they see “Mummy’s scars”, which have figured so heavily in her writing and academic life, as a common bond between them, or will they resist? Will they resent being drawn into her analysis? I suspect that they may well.

Kofman gives us plenty of herself, but the voices of the people she interviews are reflected through her lens. I find myself thinking of the excellent ABC program “You Can’t Ask That” that gives time to look, and then listen. The interviewer there is silent because the questions are written on cards, and drawn from a range of questioners. Kofman is not silent.

I will probably let this post sit for a while as I ponder whether to post it. When I dislike a book, I generally don’t write a blog post about it at all. After all, I figure, if the book is a dud, then my piling-on is not going to make the book any better, or the author a better writer.

But neither this book, nor Caroline Jones’ book are duds.  And in both cases, the author herself has made choices. She has chosen to place herself in the centre of her book, not just in terms of the action (as an autobiographer or memoirist might do), but to use herself as the starting point of the analysis, not just in an intellectual sense but asking you to join her in the exploration as well. In this case, I’m not comfortable with her fixation on what she sees as her own failings. Even more, I’m not comfortable with her assumption that it gives her a sense of fellow-feeling with people whose ‘body-surface’ is much more confronting and demanding than hers.

My rating: 7/10 (actually, I found this hard to judge)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.