Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

hooper_arsonist

2018, 245 p.

This book was awarded the Judges Special Prize in the 2019 Community History Awards announced during History Week last year, which surprised me a little.  Not because it’s not a worthy recipient – it is – but I hadn’t thought of it as ‘history’ as such, although of course, one day it will be.  After all, journalism has been described as “the first rough draft of history”.

However I see this book more as journalism than history.  It explores the police case and resultant trial of Brendan Sokaluk, the man found guilty of intentionally lighting the Churchill fires on Black Saturday 2009.  I happened to read it in January 2020 during our summer of smoke (we haven’t yet coined a name for it, perhaps because we fear that the worst is yet to come).  The Murdoch media was (incorrectly) proclaiming arson as the major cause of the fires that have ravaged our east coast this season. However,on Black Saturday in 2009 – which I wrote about at the time here and here– there was a case of arson and it is explored in this book.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I ‘The Detectives’ follows the arson-squad detectives,  dispatched to Churchill while the appalling toll of 173 deaths from the Black Saturday fires was still mounting.  Here we very much see the fire’s immediate impact on both the environment, and on the people who faced it. The detectives inspect the site, they question Churchill residents, and the name ‘Brendan Sokaluk’ keeps arising. When they interview him, they suspect that they are being played, and that he is feigning incomprehension.

Part II ‘The Lawyers’, focuses mainly on the defence lawyer, Selena McCrikard, whom Hooper thanks in her acknowledgments for “her trust”.  Other workers at Victoria Legal Aid, are also thanked “for their time and candour”. Selena McCrikard, like the police, was not sure about Sokaluk’s intellectual capacity, and as part of her defence she uncovers a delayed diagnosis of autism, and a long and sad history of isolation, bullying and disadvantage. Brendan lives in his own squalid house, but his parents have tried to help him to be independent. He had worked in the gardening section at the local university, but his workmates distrusted and disliked him. It’s a pretty threadbare life.

Any sympathy evoked in Part II is put to the test in Part III ‘The Courtroom’, three years after the fires. Parallels spring to mind with Helen Garner, who has written several books based on court cases, but Hooper keeps her distance here, instead of writing herself into the story as Garner often does.  It is interesting to see fire expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst, who has appeared on our televisions and in our newspapers over the last few months, being hung out to dry in the court. The case lasted 23 days, and the jury deliberated for three days.

The book closes with a coda, when Hooper returns  to Churchill.  This is the second time she has been there, having visited it just a few days after Sokaluk was arrested. Returning to it after 2017 she found that the Hazelwood power station, the main employer in this economically depressed area, had been decommissioned after a series of suspicious fires had burnt the coalmine in 2014.  She closes her book with a reflection on fire and climate change. Arson cannot be stopped entirely, and “warmer summers in a changing climate will provide more opportunities for those drawn to lighting fires” (p. 240). The pylons that stretch from the LaTrobe Valley across Victoria, she notes, feed an electricity grid that was responsible for more deaths on Black Saturday than Brendan Sokaluk’s fire.

This is an elegantly written book, conveyed without the mental anguish and ethical turmoil that marks the work of Helen Garner, another non-fiction writer drawn to writing about crime and courthouses. Hooper does not try to pathologize Sokaluk: she leaves that to the courtroom experts.  Neither does she minimize the effect of Sokaluk’s actions on the people of Churchill. Instead, she leaves us with Shirley, who lost both her sons in the fire.  As in her earlier book, The Tall Man, Hooper peels back the layers of contemporary Australian society, and reminds us  – as if we have needed reminding this summer- that fire will continue (and even more) shape our view of ourselves as Australians.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2020

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2020

‘Kathleen O’Connor of Paris’ by Amanda Curtin

Curtin_OConnor

2018, 320 p.

Look again at the title: that little preposition ‘of‘ is important. Artist Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand; her family lived in Western Australia; she lived in Perth and Fremantle herself in old age, but she always saw herself as being “of” Paris. Paris was her artistic and spiritual home, and she was bound there by networks of friends and connections.  Drusilla Modjeska may have written about the sacrifice demanded of women artists in the 20th century in Stravinsky’s Lunch, but Kathleen O’Connor lived her artistic life very much on her own terms.

West Australian- based Amanda Curtin had written about Kathleen O’Connor previously. In 2011, the short story  ‘Paris bled into the Indian Ocean’ was published in a collection of Curtin’s  work. It was based on the legend that Kathleen O’Connor had returned to Australia in 1948, and enraged by the duty she had to pay to bring her own paintings back into the country, threw many of them into the ocean.  In the way that art does, this story and its evocative title spawned an art exhibition in 2014, where artist Jo Darvall responded with her own series of watery images.

As part of her research, Curtin was struck by photographs of Kathleen O’Connor taken at the age of 90 in 1967, where she glares defiantly at the photographer, her hair covered by a stylish scarf, just as the photograph on the front cover shows her in the 1920s.   Reading through a collection of letters to O’Connor held in the Battye Library in Perth, Curtin’s eye is drawn to a rather patronizing letter addressed to her, as a 36 year old woman resident in Europe, by John Winthrop Hackett, a highly respectable patriarch of Perth society,  “…what a brave girl you are to attempt to carve out you own destiny this way”.  Curtin snatches his put-down and brandishes it as an accolade, dubbing O’Connor  “Bravegirl”, a sobriquet she continues to deploy  throughout the book.

While she certainly broke with convention in remaining in Europe unchaperoned and making her own way in the Parisian art-scene, “Bravegirl” was facilitated by her family connections, even though it may not have seemed that way at times. She was the daughter of C. Y. O’Connor, the engineer who is best known for bringing water to the Western Australian Goldfields (fictionalized by Robert Drewe in The Drowner.) The Goldfields Pipeline was strongly criticized, probably prompting O’Connor’s suicide, but  the remaining O’Connor family stayed in Perth, and while not wealthy, did have entree into well-known families.  Compensation for C.Y. O’Connor’s death that the family received from the government helped to support Kathleen during her many years overseas.  However, she worked damned hard too, as seen in the huge number of paintings created during her career, now spread in private and public collections, and often re-named. The list of known exhibitions during Kathleen’s lifetime highlights her visibility, and she has been featured in a number of prominent exhibitions since her death.  And – I have to admit-  I had never heard of her.

Biographers often work hard to capture their subject’s childhood, but old age is often dismissed. Curtin has not baulked at following O’Connor’s life through to the end.O’Connor’s heart and identity might have been in Paris, but she spent many years as an older and increasingly frail woman in Western Australia.  ‘Bravegirl’ continued to paint, and while her world became smaller, she continued her interest in the art world.

The book is replete with pictures, including a series of colour illustrations in the middle of the volume.  I particularly liked the way that the works were located close to where they were discussed in the text, and she numbered the illustrations for easy reference. I was surprised by the muddied, ochred tones of her work, which to me speak more of a smoke-filled room in Europe, rather than any Australian connection.

Interestingly, the 733 footnotes at the back of the book are not divided by chapter – a rather curious approach that I have not seen used elsewhere. The footnotes reflect the deep research that Curtin has undertaken, spanning personal papers, newspapers, memoirs oral histories and interviews, as well as the secondary sources she has used to inform the context she provides so richly.

It’s not easy to know how to classify this book. My library shelves it with the Biographies, but it spills out of that category.  Curtin the author is very much present, and she often struggles again her fiction-writer sensibility, reminding herself that this is not fiction, and warning herself that she is embroidering and imagining. (It doesn’t stop her doing it, though). As with Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, this is a fiction writer wading through the waters of historical research.  Interlaced with her own reflections is  another rather oblique (and to my mind, unnecessary) set of reflections, set in the present day, as Curtin returns to Australia after farewelling a dying friend, probably the Debi to whom the book is dedicated.

I have mixed feelings about this amalgam of genres. When I first started writing my PhD, we were encouraged by some- not all- of our supervisors and other academics to be adventurous in our writing, and to break out of the conventions of thesis-writing (advice I did not follow, by the way). I have always admired the writing of historians in the ‘Melbourne School’  (Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening and more recently within the same tradition Tom Griffiths) and their combination of rigour and reflection.  I loved the biographer Richard Holmes’ Sidetracks and Footsteps:Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,  but some 20 years on, I’m wondering if the reflections of the biographer/ biography combination is becoming a little worn.  I, like all other historians, understand and also have felt the tedium, the intensity and the exhilaration of archive work, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang a book on, especially after so many other people have done so beforehand.

Nonetheless, I value this book highly for bringing Kathleen O’Connor to increased prominence. Even more, the writing and evocation of place and nuance of character in Curtin’s writing, tempts me to seek out her fictional work. There, she won’t have to resist imagination or constantly wrest her work from conjecture.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2020

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

 

‘The Shelf Life of Zora Cross’ by Cathy Perkins

perkins_zora_cross

2019, 243 p & notes.

“Twenty pounds and you shall have her” and thus were the publishing rights for Songs of Love and Life transferred from a small self-publishing bookshop to that of the publishing behemoth, Angus and Robertson in 1917.  This book of sixty erotic love-sonnets was to become a literary sensation, going through three reprints and selling a respectable 4000 copies. Its author,  27 year old Zora Cross, wrote about love and sensuality from a woman’s perspective – something shocking in 1917.  Norman Lindsay, the artist whose own work abounds with nudes,  refused to illustrate the book, saying that women couldn’t write erotic poetry because their ‘spinal column’ was not connected to their ‘productive apparatus’. He did, however, condescend to provide a mythologized front cover which, to my eye, has nothing like the impact of an alternative cover design of  a bedroom scene with a present-day man talking off his coat, with his lover covering him with kisses.

But the sale of the publishing rights, and the choice of front cover and illustrator were not in the hands of this young, barely-published author. This book, which is a biography of the now-forgotten Zora Cross, is also an exploration of the Australian writing and publishing scene of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. I had flutters of half-formed recognition of many of the names in this book, and the author has used them as anchors in each of the chapters that move roughly chronologically through Zora Cross’ life.  As Cathy Perkins writes:

I set out to write a conventional biography, but I was drawn to an idea of a life that was made of up relationships. Each of Zora’s relationships shows a different side of her personality and each has its own tensions. (p. xii)

The opening chapter, then, is subtitled Ethel Turner, who as well as the author of the much-loved (by me!) Seven Little Australians, also wrote the children’s page in The Australian Town and Country Journal. Children would send in their contributions and letters (I remember doing the same to ‘Corinella’ in the Sun during the 1960s) and ‘Zora Cross of Pie Creek Road Gympie’ was a frequent contributor. When she grew too old for the children’s page, she finally met her mentor in person.

Ethel Turner suggested that she try her luck with the Lone Hand, the sister publication to the Bulletin, and thus Cross started up a rather fervent correspondence with the editor, Bertram Stevens, who features in Chapter 2. In this chapter we learn of Cross’s employment as a school teacher and her strange, short marriage to fellow-student Stuart Smith, with whom she had a child who died soon after birth.  Pregnant again to an unnamed father in 1913, Cross travelled northern Queensland with a theatre company, and became editor to the small Bohemian newspaper of arts and social news.

She also wrote poetry for the Bulletin, and it was through this connection that Norman Lindsay, for whom Chapter 3 is titled, was asked to provide the artwork for Songs of Love and Life.  It was published by George Robertson, who features in Chapter 4, who carefully oversaw the sales and  reviews of the books under his imprint.  She wrote copious letters to him, too, and on the walls of his office he had a copy of the beautiful portrait that graces the front cover of this book. However, despite his success with Songs of Love and Life, he declined to publish other manuscripts of Cross’, along with the manuscripts of many other women writers who were to go to fame including Katherine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw and Christina Stead.

She achieved success writing about the losses incurred in WWI, in Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy written in tribute to her brother John Skyring Cross (Jack), who is explored in Chapter 5. He died of illness after being injured on the Western Front.  In 1919, George Robertson asked his assistant, Rebecca Wiley, to go on a month’s holiday with Zora, who was feeling run-down. Chapter 6, named for Rebecca Wiley, explores the often tense relationship between these two women, especially once Zora had shifted to Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains with her partner, Bulletin editor David McKee Wright, who features in Chapter 7. They never married because David was still married to his previous wife, and she was pregnant to another man when they partnered. They had two daughters together, and David legally adopted her son. He died suddenly in 1928.

Now widowed, Cross continued to write, especially for the Australian Woman’s Mirror, an offshoot of the Bulletin which predated the still-extant Australian Women’s Weekly. Chapter 8, subtitled ‘Bernice May’ refers to her pen-name in much of the writing she did for ‘women’s pages’ . After falling out with George Robertson, she embarked on a series of interviews with fellow women poets and novelists for the Mirror, including Jean Devanny, Eleanor Dark, Dulcie Deamer, and Mary Gilmore.  A long-standing presence in Cross’s life was John Le Gay Brereton, Chapter 9, a friend of Henry Lawson, chief librarian and later professor of literature at the University of Sydney. His access to resources assisted her to write a series of books about Classical Rome, which were not well received (and sound pretty dire). As president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Brereton was a constant source of support when Cross made frequent, and generally successful applications, for Commonwealth Literary Fund pensions and grants.   Another longstanding friend was Mary Gilmore (Chapter 10) who was punctilious in overseeing her bequest of papers to the Mitchell Library. She died in 1963 and a year later, Zora Cross died of a heart attack.

This is a very skillfully written biography, maintaining its chronological trajectory while using various friends and colleagues as a prism through which to explore Zora Cross’s personality and writing.  Cathy Perkins, the author,  who is the editor of SL magazine and other publications at the State Library of NSW inserts herself several times into the narrative, in her research and  advocacy for Zora Cross.  As well as a biography, the book explores the literary industry and the whole issue of literary presence after death. Perkins’ decision to use relationships as an organizing device emphasizes the interconnections between writers and publishers, something that is often invisible to the reader.

She captures well the breadth of Cross’ writing, and quotes generously from her unpublished works, without necessarily championing its sometimes rather dubious quality, leaving it instead up to the reader to decide.  She portrays Cross as a fully rounded character: unconventional mother and partner, hard-working, flirtatious, sometimes needy, mother, grandmother and community member. But most importantly, as a prolific and life-long writer, even if she has been -until this biography- completely unknown today.

My rating: 9/10 A really accomplished biography

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

aww2020

This is my first read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020