Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘Vida: A woman for our time’ by Jacqueline Kent

2020, 284 p.

Perhaps biographies are like buses….nothing for ages, and then two or three arrive all at once. Vida Goldstein, the subject of this 2020 biography by Jacqueline Kent, did not receive a full-length biography until 1993, when Janette Bomford published her book That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, which I reviewed here. She featured in Claire Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom in 2018, and appears as a minor character in Caroline Rasmussen’s recent joint biography of Maurice and Doris Blackburn The Blackburns (2019). She has always appeared as part of the network surrounding Stella (Miles) Frankin and Catherine Helen Spence, but in terms of full length biographical treatment, the two main works have appeared in the last 27 years.

In her introduction to this biography, Jacqueline Kent notes that Goldstein is briefly mentioned in almost every history of women in Australia, but “her name is not particularly well known outside scholarly circles”. (Voters in the federal seat of Goldstein, in the bayside areas of Melbourne might beg to differ. As Kent points out, the electoral division might be named after her, but it has never sent a female MP to the House of Representatives). Kent writes that her biography

…seeks to show how much Vida was not simply a woman of her times, but someone whose views and beliefs are refreshingly contemporary – and so who is equally a woman of our time.

(p.xv)

Kent has written other biographies, but she is best known for her biography of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard The Making of Julia Gillard (2009) and a smaller work Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard (2013). Gillard remains a touchstone throughout this biography of Vida Goldstein as well, with Kent inserting present-day comments drawing parallels between Goldstein and Gillard’s experiences in parentheses in various places throughout the text. This connection comes to the fore in the epilogue, where Kent claims that Vida and her colleagues would have been “delighted to see Julia Gillard confirmed as the country’s first woman prime minister” which she follows with a four-page summary of Gillard’s prime ministership. This presentism is foreshadowed in the subtitle ” A woman for our time”.

When writing her biography, Janette Bomford bemoaned the lack of a cache of personal papers that would reveal the inner Vida Goldstein. Kent has had to work from the same straitened resources, and a quick glance at the footnotes reveals Kent’s debt to Bomford’s earlier biography. As a result, I’m not going to reprise Goldstein’s life here – instead I refer you to my review of Bomford’s book – because the events are much the same, which is to be expected when both authors are working from the same sources. Kent briefly raises, but then shuts down, speculation that Goldstein may have had a lesbian relationship with her friend and colleague Cecilia John. I’m not sure that it is a useful suggestion as there is absolutely no evidence for it, but perhaps it was prompted by Kent’s attempt to frame Vida as “a woman for our time”.

So where, then, does the difference lie in the two biographies? Unfortunately, I must have borrowed Bomford’s book because I can’t find it on my shelves, so I don’t have the two texts on my desk to compare. I can only work from impressions.

First, Kent’s book seems more Melbourne-oriented than I remember Bomford’s book being. Although she travelled to both U.S. and U.K, and although she had connections with feminists in other states, Goldstein lived and worked at the Victorian level in trying to get female representation in Parliament. Although given importance in the text and forming stepping stones in her life’s chronology, these national and international personal networks do not play an integral part in Kent’s narrative. Instead, Goldstein comes over as rather isolated and toiling away single-handedly here in Victoria, estranged both from party politics (which she abhorred) and by her conflicts with other feminist groups and political forces.

Kent gives us a good picture of Victorian political and intellectual life in the first twenty five years of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, Victoria was the last state to grant female suffrage in 1911, and the right to stand for State Parliament in 1923, even though white women had been able to vote in federal elections and stand for Federal Parliament since 1902. Although the first suffrage society in Australia was the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society in 1884, and despite Victoria’s relatively progressive intellectual life, the Legislative Council was able to stymie women’s suffrage and representation long after South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales had granted it. As a result, Goldstein’s many attempts to stand for Parliament involved federal elections, not state ones.

However, her main base of support was in Victoria, centred on the Book Lovers Library, run by her sister and brother-in-law in the city, and Oxford Chambers at 473-481 Bourke Street which for a while, became “something of a Goldstein compound” where the family members lived and worked. Her two newspapers, the Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900) and the later The Woman Voter (1909) were published in Melbourne.

Second, Kent gives full weight to Goldstein’s spiritual commitment, first to Rev Charles Strong’s Australian Church and then to First Church of Christ, Scientist, which was to remain her lodestar throughout her life. It was a commitment that caused tension with her friend Stella (Miles) Franklin, and it became increasingly important to Goldstein in her later life as a conscious choice in career direction. Perhaps it’s because I too am a Woman of a Certain Age, but I’m increasingly interested in how biographers deal with the latter years of their subject’s life. Kent handles this well, tracing through Goldstein’s contributions to public debate long after she had given up on unsuccessfully standing for Parliament.

Third, Kent’s biography has a lightness of touch that was less evident in Bomford’s more academic book. This is partly because of the parenthesized present-day asides, but also because Kent has a good eye for the visual image and the lively event. I’m not sure, though, that she has moved our understanding of Goldstein forward by much beyond what Bomford had already told us. But through the striking cover, the title with its present-day hook and the engaging writing style, Kent has probably broadened awareness of Vida Goldstein to a wider audience.

My rating: 7.5- maybe 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

2020, 304 p.

On a mid-summer day, established Australian authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell are in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank, London. They had planned to meet outside to share a gin and tonic and conversation with Emma Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great great grand-daughter. Emma has written several historical fiction novels, but she has also published This is not a book about Charles Darwin, a hybrid of memoir, family history and fiction. Forced inside by pouring rain, Emma has words of advice for the two sister authors, who were embarking on a similar challenge:

In fiction I am empress of all I survey. I can make up my own rules. I only need make my story seem authentic. The problem with non fiction is that a well-documented archive can be a potential censor…The kind of book you are writing is akin in fiction in many ways, and that means that the inner life can be explored as well as the outer. The interior life is the novelists’ true work.

(p.162)

This book is, as Emma Darwin noted, “akin to fiction”. Or as Kate Forsyth noted “We are taking historical fact and framing it within our own personal lives, creating what might be called a hybrid memoir.” (p.241) I am glad that as authors, they are clear-eyed about what they are doing. This jointly-written book is not a straight biography: instead, like a Who Do You Think You Are? episode, this is just as much about the searchers and the search as it is about the quarry. As in Who Do You Think You Are? there is an emotional attachment through ancestry that draws out empathy, and a degree of identification that arises only because they are family.

In this case, the two authors, who are sisters and each a published author in her own right, feel a particular affinity for their great-great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson who wrote the first Australian children’s book A Mother’s Offering to her Children by a lady long resident in New South Wales in 1841. Charlotte’s daughter, Louisa Atkinson, published two books also under the name “an Australian lady”, as well as serialized works, and is recognized as a botanist and illustrator.

But there was more than this professional connection amongst authors set 180 years apart from each other. The story of James Atkinson, early settler and agriculturalist, his marriage to Charlotte, and the construction of the family property ‘Oldbury’ in the Southern Highlands of NSW was part of family lore. Much of the book involves the sisters travelling overseas in a type of investigative pilgrimage, visiting homes, churches and inhaling the spirit of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, whom they mentally link with Charlotte. There is a lot of imagination in this book, but it is clearly identified as such. I must confess to not feeling comfortable with these flights into fiction, but I would have bridled more if they weren’t edged with qualifiers like “perhaps” and “maybe”.

There is an almost innocent transparency about their speculations, even if I find myself balking at them. Historians and biographers weigh evidence all the time, but don’t often show the workings. In the chapter ‘Changing the World’, Kate Forsyth speculates about the possibility that Charles Darwin may have met with Charlotte during his trip to New South Wales. The genealogical origins of the Forsyth/Murrell project are very obvious here. Charles Darwin’s great great grandmother Anne Waring was the third cousin of Charlotte’s great grandfather Richard Waring, making Charles Darwin the 5th cousin once removed of Charlotte – surely a connection that only a genealogist could love. (p144) In family lore, Charles Darwin met with Charlotte in Sydney. However, there is no hard evidence that he did. His diaries are silent about it and the timing for him to ride to Berrima to visit her for just one night is tight. The clues that she offers are just that: clues, based on Darwin’s interest in the Waring family, and his use of Waring as a middle name for a child. Forsyth provides her evidence and holds it up for scrutiny, admitting that it is slight. It is.

Nonetheless, there is considerable research that has gone into the book, although the lack of reference to the footnotes section in the body of the work tends to obscure this. There is rich material here, without needing to be bolstered with the present-day framing narrative. Charlotte came out to Australia with a job lined up as a governess with Hannibal Macarthur, the nephew of John Macarthur and son-in-law of former governor Phillip Gidley King. On board, she met James Atkinson, one of the well known Atkinson brothers who were early settlers in New South Wales. They married, and had four children. Two years after her husband died she remarried, apparently hurriedly, to George Bruce Barton, a man who along with Charlotte suffered a bushranger attack. Forsyth and Murrell struggle to make sense of this hasty marriage to her fellow crime victim. Whatever Charlotte’s motives, it was a poor choice, as the marriage was abusive and they separated. This thrust Charlotte into the public eye as the defendant in a significant court case mounted against the executors of her first husband’s will over Charlotte’s fitness to be appointed guardian to her children (see Atkinson v Barton). She received a sympathetic hearing from Chief Justice Dowling and was granted guardianship (had my own Justice John Walpole Willis still been in Sydney at the time, I do wonder if she would have received the same outcome). Disapprobation attached to a remarried and separated woman fronting the courts against the highly respectable executors of the will, and it may have been this need for anonymity as well as income, that led her to write her book for children under the coy nom de plume “a lady long resident in New South Wales”.

Kate Forsyth contributes several chapters discussing A Mother’s Offering, taking it largely on its own merits and within the context of Australian literature. In fact, the question-and-answer format within a framing domestic story occurs in other settings across the empire in the mid 19th century as well. For example, here I reviewed Tales of a Grandmother by Mrs. A. Carmicheal, based on stories of St Vincent in the West Indies, published at exactly the same time- 1841- and also dealing with plant life, climate and geography, as well as the benefits of slavery. For many years the identity of the “lady long resident in New South Wales” was thought to be Lady Gordon Bremer until booklover and bibliographer Marcie Muir identified Charlotte as the author in 1980. Patricia Clarke’s biography Pioneer Writer: The Life of Louisa Atkinson, Novelist, Journalist, Naturalist publicized Muir’s discovery even further.

Forsyth reads A Mother’s Offering closely, noting Charlotte’s excursions into paleontology, mineralogy, conchology and cetology (p.243). She winces at Charlotte’s depictions of indigenous people and the imperial bombast of stories of shipwrecks and the death of “little Sally the black child”. She moves beyond A Mother’s Offering to examine P.P’s tales, mentioned briefly in a newspaper advertisement and which she suspects may be Amusing and Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle, reviewed in 1837 but given as a gift in 1832. A second Peter Prattle book Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle was listed as a ‘new publication’ in British newspapers in 1842. The evidence for Charlotte’s authorship of these other two books is, as Forsyth admits “circumstantial evidence, but suggestive nonetheless”(p.271). The book has been generously illustrated with colour plates from Charlotte’s sketchbook, showing her skill in drawing plants, birds and insects.

But Charlotte’s story is only one aspect of this book. Like Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, it is the story of a search. It is also the family story of two sisters who have their own careers as authors, and as such, it is also story about writing, both in the 1840s and in the 2020s. Their childhoods, their parents, unexpected family secrets and their responsibilities as part of the ‘sandwich generation’ between children and elderly parents are also interwoven into their search for Charlotte.

Ten of the chapters are written by Belinda, particularly at the start of the book, and eight by Kate. The chapters blend together fairly seamlessly, and I was not particularly aware whether I was reading a Belinda chapter or a Kate chapter. There are, for me, too many descriptions of food and sightseeing and at times it reads like a travel diary. Just like the television program Who Do You Think You Are? the search, and not just the discovery, becomes the story.

I think that a reader’s response to this book will depend heavily on how strictly they interpret the ‘rules’ of biography. For myself, I found the present-day family history rather unnecessary, the imaginative writing superfluous and the speculation unstable. However, for other readers I’m sure that the humanizing and integration of the past and present would have a strong appeal. The authors claimed to be taking historical facts and framing them within their own personal lives. That’s exactly what they have done.

Source: Review copy from NLA via Quikmark media

I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glenormiston 1839-1880’ by Maggie Black

2016, 292 p. plus notes

The term ‘squatter’ has had different connotations over time. In the 1980s it suggested young people living in empty houses. In the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written in 1895, we had the squatter riding up mounted on his thoroughbred, accompanied by the troopers. And even further before that, in early 1840s Port Phillip we had squatters who were often young single men from wealthy families, who went up country, lived rough in huts, grew beards and came back to Melbourne to drink and carouse before heading back outback again. Generally, the squatters have had bad press in Australian history, seen as selfish landgrabbers, oblivious to the destruction of indigenous culture on the land they had appropriated, keeping the little man off the land, and using their power in the Legislative Council to protect their interests.

Much of the celebration of squatters has sprung from familial and parochial pride at our ‘forebears’: men celebrated by their families for establishing the family wealth, and communities grateful for the extensive but often patriarchal contribution made by squatters as civic characters. As Tom Griffiths showed us in his excellent Hunters and Collectors, these tributes to great men, which spawned books and statues (e.g. the 1920s cairns to the squatter Angus McMillan in Gippsland) were particularly created in the late 19th and early 20th century when it was felt that ‘the pioneers’ were passing away. Consciously framed as celebrations, the inconvenient matter of expropriation and massacre was framed as ‘clearing’ and ‘dispersal’. Even Margaret Kiddle’s beautifully written Men of Yesterday, which I discussed here, is silent about the indigenous groups that most certainly lived in, and fought for, the Western Districts of Victoria.

And so enter Niel Black. A 35 year old tenant farmer from Argyllshire, Scotland, he arrived in Melbourne 1839 as part of a Scots-based syndicate that aimed at taking leasing land, raising sheep, selling the wool, making money and then getting out and heading back ‘home’. One of the striking things about this book is its demonstration of Scottish capitalism at work. The sleeping partners of the syndicate back in Scotland wanted their dividends from their investment and were less interested in buying up land to create one unified landholding. But Niel Black, being the partner on the spot, increasingly saw things differently, developing a desire for his land after living and working here and becoming involved in politics to maintain squatter primacy in Victoria.

Black was very much in the ‘improving’ mindset, and fits in well with the descriptions of Scots Presbyterians who established early churches in the Port Phillip area that I read last year. He brought his own farmworkers with him, and maintained an interest in Scots-based emigration schemes that provided indentured labour to work on pastoral properties. In this, he adopted a patriarchal stance, but was happy to support good workers who established their own properties.

Writing about an early pastoralist inevitably raises questions about the relationship between the squatter and the indigenous people that he displaced. By moving into the Western District, Black was shifting to an area where there was a great deal of settler/aborigine conflict. He was keen to buy land that had already been ‘pacified’ and ‘cleared’ of aborigines because of his discomfort with the violence that new settlement entailed. At first he seems to be relatively critical of the harsh treatment of these “poor ignorant” creatures, and adopted a frighten-away policy of galloping after them or discharging his gun in the air when they encroached onto his land. However, over time, he became more sympathetic to settlers who had ‘clashed’ with aborigines, including the Whyte brothers who perpetrated a massacre near Wando Vale in March 1840, and was himself involved in a posse searching for those responsible for the death of a shepherd on an adjoining run. Gradually he joined in the general disparagement of ‘blacks’ and late 1842 he joined in the squatters’ criticism of La Trobe’s inactivity. Like many squatters, he felt that the Aboriginal Protectorate was a misguided, incompetent scheme, but he had quite good relations with Protector Charles Sievwright, even though many others did not.

Instead, most of his clashes occurred with either the Commissioner for Crown Lands Foster Fyans, or with neighbouring squatters. Particularly once the government began passing legislation forcing squatters to pay for some of their land, he was often reluctantly engaged in the same shady practices as other squatters in trying to gain control of contiguous expanses of land. This drive to consolidate land holdings was not understood or supported by some of his Scotland-based partners, and a breakdown in the relations with one of the partners in particular forced him to abandon his home to shift to another subdivision of the run where he built another, grander, home. It was largely to protect his holdings that he went into politics, but he seemed to be a rather diffident politician, operating behind the scenes but not publicly prominent. Lobby groups are always unlovely when you look at them close up, and the squatter lobby is no exception. Maggie Black is clear-eyed about the anti-democratic tendencies of this group of men acting politically in their own interests.

His story demonstrates the mobility of wealthy settlers who, even while achieving prominence in the colony, still viewed the UK as ‘home’. Black journeyed ‘home’ twice in search of a wife, and his business interests with his partners kept him financially tethered to Scotland, even though his wealth was entirely accrued in Victoria. His partners were happy to send their sons out to Glenormiston for the pastoral experience, and his nephew Archie, sent across from Scotland after his father suffered from mental illness, became a trusted, but later embittered, fellow squatter.

Niel Black wrote journals and voluminous letters – particularly to his business partner T.S. Gladstone, and these have been drawn upon heavily by historians of the Western District. They were all very nearly lost to history during the paper shortages of WWII, but were squirrelled away and later shown to Margaret Kiddle when she was researching for her Men of Yesterday. The wealth of his writing has enabled Maggie Black to write a well-rounded biography that makes explicable the convoluted Selection Acts legislation that tried to curb the power of the squatters. In his writings we see the mechanics of imperial – in this case Scottish – capitalism at play, and the emotional tensions that emerged when finance, family and competitive pressures made their demands.

Niel Black has had not one but two moments in the sun during the 2000s. There is this book, published in 2016 by Niel Black’s great-granddaughter, and an earlier book Strangers in a Foreign Land released eight years earlier, based on Black’s journal and other voices from the Western District, written by Maggie MacKellar. (I will confess to wondering at one stage if they were both the same author using different surnames, but this is not the case). I know that an erstwhile reader of this blog, Kevin Brewer, has been working on Niel Black for some time and he is acknowledged in Maggie Black’s book.

In the wake of the conflict with his former partners, the Glenormiston holding was split up between them, and lots were drawn for the different portions. Although his house was on the other section, Black had to settle for the Mount Noorat section, and after living for some time in Melbourne, in 1875 he decided to build a grand house that even he acknowledged would be “the crowning folly of my life”. The 38-room, two-storey, stuccoed Italianate mansion, which took years to construct, was better suited for a town, rather than a pastoral estate in the Western District. He was to live in it for only two years before his death in 1880. Despite its grandeur, it was demolished in the early 1940s – a life shorter than that of its builder.

Niel Black lives on through his journal and letters, never intended as public documents, that draw and inspire historians – particularly the three Margaret/Maggies (Kiddle, MacKellar and Black)- to write so beautifully about him, and in the case of the MacKellar and Black books, to be able to contextualize him in the light of later historiography.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020.

‘See What You Made Me Do’ by Jess Hill

2019, 416 p.

On February 12, 2014 a woman stood in her driveway, raw with grief and changed Australia’s mind about domestic abuse. Her 11 year old son had just been killed by his father. She had been warning for years that her former partner was a danger to her son and now her fears had been realized. Family violence can happen to anyone, she said, irrespective of how nice your house is, or how intelligent you are.

Jess Hill pinpoints this moment as when Australia began to listen. It was not that there had been no debate previously: Heather Osland’s imprisonment for murdering her abusive husband had caused controversy; Julie Ramage was the face of the middle class victim of domestic abuse, and there have been countless other terrible cases where the partner and/or children were murdered, often with the suicide of the perpetrator. But somehow Rosie Batty’s articulate composure in the midst of horror made the whole country listen.

Hill’s book explores domestic abuse in Australia today and she carefully identifies it as domestic abuse rather than domestic violence, because often coercive control is subtle and non-physical. But coercive control has many common features as if, as she says, there was a perpetrator’s handbook. Although the focus of her book is on male abuse of their intimate partners, she also addresses the violence of women, although noting that even though male victims fear the consequences of their abuser’s actions, they are not usually in physical fear of their lives. She looks at the effect on children, as well as on parents. One chapter near the end addresses the issue of domestic abuse within indigenous communities and the many indigenous women who have spoken out against it.

It’s a fairly analytic book, especially in the early chapters, where she sets up dichotomies, interspersed with individual stories, often given under a pseudonym. There’s a narrow line to be drawn here: honoring the story and the woman who has entrusted it to her; showing complexity; and yet not presenting a cavalcade of narratives. There is also a fine legal line that she needs to tread, to avoid identification of children. For the male perspective, she relied mainly on court documents and affidavits.

Those legal and ethical writing considerations notwithstanding, I must confess that for much of the book, I felt as if I were reading an extended Saturday newspaper article or a Quarterly Essay. I don’t know whether it was the book, or whether it was me, but it seemed to really tighten up with the chapter looking at the legal system and the perverse outcomes that have arisen from legislation to amend the Family Court, especially during the Howard years, in response to men’s rights groups. ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’ was a thinly-researched argument which resulted in women (especially) acquiescing in arrangements that their children were baulking against, lest she be designated the hostile party and be banned from seeing the children at all. I was reading this book while the newspapers were reporting the Coroner’s inquest into John Edwards’ murder-suicide of his two children, Jack and Jennifer, and his wife Olga’s later suicide. It was like watching Hill’s description of the perversity of the court system and the power of the independent lawyer appointed to represent the children’s interests being brought to life.

She closes the book with a critique of the Federal Government’s domestic abuse strategy and its wishy-washy targets which look at attitudes and systems but not the most telling and easily computed statistic of all: that of the number of women killed by intimate partners. And lest it all seem too hard, she identifies policing strategies that have worked, although her North Carolina community-justice approach made me just a bit uncomfortable about public shaming. Shame, Hill argues at the start of the book, is what turns impotence into omnipotence and I do wonder about a causal factor being used as the corrective.

This book won the Stella Prize for 2020. The prize has gone to Non-fiction previously. The winner in 2019 was a memoir with The Erratics; Alexis Wright won it with a biography with Alexis Wright’s Tracker in 2018, and in 2014 Clare Wright received the Stella Prize for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.) The Stella Prize website describes itself as “a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and an organisation that champions cultural change.” I do find myself wondering, though, whether this book received the prize more for the second part of the mission statement than the first. The writing is clear and analytic and it integrates policy and personal narrative. But is it ‘literary’? (whatever ‘literary’ means). I think I’d be looking for an unusual structure, or an imaginative approach, or vivid imagery – something more than ‘investigative journalism’. I don’t deny that the book is important, both in its breadth and its analysis, and its emphasis on domestic ‘abuse’ as distinct from ‘violence’ it may well have shifted the conversation. But I guess that’s my problem – that it’s part of a conversation- rather than a distinctive and imaginative voice that somehow soars above the hubbub.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: ebook from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge

‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ by Shokoofeh Azar

2017, 268 p. Translated by ‘Adrien Kijek’

I knew that this book had been shortlisted for both the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing, and also for the Booker International. It has been translated into English by a translator whose pseudonym appears only in the bibliographic details at the front of the book. Having only recently become sensitized to the nuances of translation by learning another language myself, at first I felt a frisson of annoyance that the translator was so invisible. However, I learn from a review of the Europa edition of the book, where the translator is designated ‘anonymous’, this was at their request and for reasons of safety. The fear and repression felt by the translator pervades the book too, where the political and personal grind remorselessly against each other. The magical realism with which the book is imbued is a relief, both in terms of self-protection for the characters and for us as readers.

Roza, the mother of three children Sohrab, Beeta and Bahar climbed the tallest tree in the grove, a greengage plum tree, and it was there that she received enlightenment at exactly 2.35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, the very moment that her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. The family had fled Tehran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but the unrest followed them to the small village of Razan as well. Not that her daughter Bahar physically followed them to the remote village: she had been killed during 1979 and as our narrator, is now a ghost, still present to her family, but dead.

The book combines historical detail – the mandate of wearing headcoverings, the appearance of men bristling with guns in the back of utilities, the disappearances and hangings – alongside a world of dragonflies, riotous growth of plants, jinns and mermaids. It’s a rather discombobulating book to read, with frequent time shifts and a permeable edge between the traditional and historical, and between the spirit and political worlds. The men with guns may have come, with their fundamentalist theology, but the traditional Persian beliefs in the spirit world underlie outward compliance and inward resistance. So too does the traditional way of story-telling, with a long story-within-a story that wreathes without a full-stop for ten pages.

This is also a family story, as each member responds in their own different way to the challenge of living through traumatic times. Roza, after her three-day stay in the greengage tree, leaves her diminished family; Beeta turns into a mermaid; her father Hushang immerses himself in his books before returning to his family home in Tehran, where the family has sequestered itself. His brother Khosro turns to mysticism, as a way of inuring himself from changes that he does not support. And Bahar moves among them restlessly, with love and impotent compassion, waiting for them to join her.

This is not an easy book to read, especially if you dislike magic realism. For myself, I see it playing a dual role in this book: as a way of laying claim to a way of viewing the world, but also as a form of resistance. Given that this book was trumped in the Booker International by the bleak and shrivelling The Discomfort of Evening, there is much more to hold on to in this book, which would have been a more worthy winner, in my view.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: Shortlisting on Stella and Booker International prizes

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics’ by Katharine Murphy QE 79

2020, 98 p

Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered.

No matter where she stopped this essay, things would have continued to change. As it is, her essay starts with her interview with Scott Morrison during “some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided”. Events have moved on since then, and so too the civility that marked the for-public-consumption ‘unity’ of Morrison’s National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers, which has sidelined Parliament, the Opposition and the usual cabinet processes. The gloves are off now. Since she wrote this essay, Victoria’s second wave has quite rightly come in for criticism, but Morrison is now cheerleader for opening borders and patting the head of Liberal-run NSW, suggesting that deep down Morrison really is Prime Minister for New South Wales. She doesn’t mention the COVID Commission Advisory Board, headed by none other than resources businessman Nev Power, and its championing of a gas-led recovery.

If her aim was to paint a portrait of Scott Morrison, even she would admit that she has not been particularly successful. The emphasis on the pandemic has pushed any further consideration of Morrison’s character offstage. I have learned nothing about his education, his life before politics, or his position in the party. His route to the Prime Ministership is left unexamined. Apart from his Pentecostal faith, which is off-limits for reporters, the Morrison she portrays is a pragmatic and transactional shape shifter. He learned from his much-criticized inertia with the bushfires, where he couldn’t actually do anything. He’s certainly into doing now, but curiously absent when things go wrong.

So much has changed for us in the last nine months that it’s hard to keep track of the trajectory, and her tracing through of the early response to news of Wuhan is valuable as history. But her essay ends, as the title suggests, in an uncertain way. Pragmatism, in the absence of anything else, is amorphous.

Murphy doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Morrison is more ideological than she suggests, and I think that we will see it in the budget that awaits us. But for that, and for any real sense of how this pandemic has changed us, we will just have to wait.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my Quarterly Essay subscription.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Dancing in my dreams: confronting the spectre of polio’ by Kerry Highley

dancing-in-my-dreams

2016, 177 p. plus notes

I admit that it might seem rather perverse to read about polio epidemics during our own coronavirus pandemic. But with the government’s attempt to highlight COVID infections amongst younger people as well as in older populations to highlight the seriousness of the situation, my mind has been turning recently to the polio epidemics of the past, and particularly the significance of age during a pandemic.

My father was the second child of the family, with a much older half-brother born to a previous marriage (as was too often the case, my grandfather’s first wife died in childbirth). Effectively brought up as a much-doted only child, my eight-year old father was sent to the family property up in Healesville to stay with his grandparents when the polio epidemic of 1937 struck, far from the contagion of the city. 

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My father with his father (left), grandfather and mother at Healesville

Through Highley’s book Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio, I now know that the government tried to discourage parents from doing exactly this, no doubt fearful of spreading polio even further. The streets in 1937 were deserted, she writes, and the picture theatres empty. Schools were closed, and states rushed to close their borders, something that the Federal Minister for Health, Billy Hughes, declared was unconstitutional. (Federal politicians obviously don’t like to be reminded that state borders still exist.) I still shake my head in disbelief that I have seen the same thing in 2020.

But, in fact 1937 was not the most virulent polio epidemic that Australia has seen.  That distinction belongs to the early 1950s, when polio affected 32.30 in every 100,000 of population and affected states across Australia (compared with 14.10 in 1936-40, which mainly affected Victoria.) Nor was it necessarily infantile paralysis, as it was more formally known. The improvements in sanitation in the early twentieth century meant that very young infants, who seemed to be less severely affected, were less likely to catch it. Instead, older children from about 6 and up, teenagers and young adults contracted it. In European, industrialized countries, it changed from an endemic disease to an epidemic one, and one that affected middle class children and young adults, and not just ‘the poor’.

Epidemics prior to 1951 affected particular states, rather than the country as a whole. In 1904 it was Queensland and NSW; in 1908 Victoria; and then in New South Wales in 1931-2. During 1916 New York was afflicted with an epidemic that evoked many of the public health responses we have seen recently: six (!!) weeks quarantine of patients and contacts; food delivered to the front door, funerals held in private, schools closed, public meetings banned.  The public perception that there was a correlation between polio and dirt was challenged when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. That myth may have been crushed, but the perception that to be “crippled” (to use the terminology of the day) was a matter of shame continued for decades.

During (and after) the 1937 epidemic, there were two competing treatment regimes and much of Highley’s book describes the personalities, history and politics that affected the dominance of one regime over the other.  These clashes took place within a particular historical context.  The 1908 Medical Act established the dominance of the medical profession over the chemists, dentists, midwives, herbalists and homeopaths who had operated in the medical sphere previously.  Nurses, although trying to emphasize their professionalism through groups like the Australian Training Nurses Association,  were very much under the control of doctors and the British Medical Association in Australia organization was very powerful. Interestingly, due to the influence of Christian Scientists and chiropractors in the United States, this strict delineation was not a feature of the American medical scene. In Victoria, the ‘fever hospital’ (later Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital) opened in 1904, and in 1937 all polio cases were sent there.

The official response was headed by Dr. (later Dame) Jean Macnamara, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in the stellar year of 1922 (along with pediatrician Dr. Kate Campbell, hematologist Dr Lucy Bryce and medical scientist Dr (late Sir) Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet). She was appointed resident of the Children’s Hospital the following year, then became clinical assistant to the Children’s out-patients physician and entered private practice specializing in poliomyelitis in 1925. When a polio outbreak occurred that year, she began testing the use of immune serum in her patients and continued to do so even when other international results called its efficacy into question. (Another resonance today- serum is being tested for COVID as well.) Her method involved the splinting of children into a Thomas Splint – a flat, almost crucifix type structure-  for months if not years until the damaged nerves had recovered. Her preference for splinting also extended to treatment for knock-knees and postural problems. In Highley’s somewhat critical depiction, she took a rather utilitarian view of illness, with an emphasis on the economic costs of the ‘cripple’ who would need an invalid pension in the future.

The competing treatment was pioneered by Sister Elizabeth Kenny,  a nurse – not a doctor- from Townsville. Instead of waiting for the inflammation to subside, the Kenny treatment involved hot flannels for the pain (something that Macnamara’s treatment did not prioritize) and early massage and manipulation of the muscles. As Highley points out, Kenny was in many ways her own worst enemy. She was evasive about her own background, which did not include general nursing training, and it  was her experience during WWI that qualified her to call herself ‘Sister’. She was adamant in distancing herself from what might be construed as ‘quack’ medicine, which meant that she did not ally herself with the increasingly-accepted discipline of physiotherapy, which probably would have been to her advantage. Not part of the medical establishment Kenny herself was pugnacious and often alienated people who could have assisted her. Her methods were more accepted in America, where the medical establishment did not have the same stranglehold, and in New Zealand. Although some of her methods were integrated into Australian treatment, the Kenny-dedicated clinics dwindled, and ‘Kenny-like’ treatments diluted the significance of early intervention.

So much was not known about polio at the time: how it was transmitted, its effect on the body, the prognosis for an individual. Just as today, there was a frantic race to find a vaccine against polio, and the tragic mis-steps in this process bring a note of caution to our current world-wide race to find a COVID vaccine.

But the focus of this book is very much on the individual, and his or her  experience of polio. She traces through the diagnosis and early crisis of the disease, the responses of child and adult patients to this rupture in their lives, the differing experiences under the Macnamara and Kenny treatment regime, the long period of rehabilitation and family and societal responses in the years and decades afterwards. The text has liberal quotations of oral testimony, drawn from a variety of sources, and you never forget that you are reading about people. It is engagingly written, with equal attention to personality, politics and science.

And no, it wasn’t depressing reading during a pandemic.  It was oddly reassuring to read that communities had been frightened by a disease that was unknown, and that the current measures of quarantine, isolation and, yes, border closures are not some 21st century draconian infringement on our liberties or a conspiracy dreamed up on the edges of the internet. It was interesting to see two women competing within the medical sphere, and the power dynamics at play. There were mis-steps and misapprehensions, but knowledge of polio as a disease gradually expanded. The book captures attitudes towards illness and disability that are best left in the past.  The story of the polio vaccine and its tragic failures prompted by haste carry a warning (I’m speaking to you, Trump), but eventually confirm the importance of vaccination and rigorous testing. I’m glad that I read this book.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: read online through State Library of Victoria.

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘After the War: Returned soldiers and the mental and physical scars of World War I’ by Leigh Straw

Straw_After_the_War

2017, 205 p.

It’s a strong, handsome face that appraises us from the front cover of Leigh Straw’s After the War. When the author saw it from the front page of the muck-racking Truth newspaper, she was struck by its resemblance to her own husband. It accompanied a report of a murder-suicide in Collie in 1929 where an Andrew Straw had murdered Muriel Pope in the street by shooting her, before turning the gun on himself. Leigh Straw, a historian who is better known for work on the Sydney and Melbourne underworld from the 1920s (see one of my reviews here) had stumbled on her own real-life family crime, one that had been suppressed and altered in family lore.

Andrew Straw, returned WWI veteran, is just one of the West Australian men that Straw deals with in this book. There are fifteen main protagonists, with the brief appearances of another fourteen veterans, all of whom volunteered as members of the 1st AIF. Her book takes us through enlistment, fighting, and their return to Western Australia, with a particular focus on the difficulties they faced when returning to their families in a society limping through indifferent economic conditions towards the Depression.

Chapter 1 ‘When the Call was Given: A Nation at War’  summarizes the war experience from enlistment, Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Armistice. Here we meet many of the men who will reappear in later chapters. These are personalized further in Chapter 2 ‘Dad did his turn at the war’: War Experiences’.

Chapter 3 ‘Civilian Life’ brings them back to Western Australia. Arrangements for repatriation had been set in train right from the earliest years of the war, and injured men were being sent home long before the final demobilization at the end of the war. Of the 32000 Western Australian men who had volunteered for the war, 24,000 returned with 16,000 of them injured, invalided or incapacitated by mental or physical wounds.

Soldiers with tuberculosis faced years in and out of sanatoriums as shown in Chapter 4 ‘Isolated: Tubercular Soldiers’. Western Australian soldiers had the added complication that many of them had been miners, or lived in mining towns. At first the Repatriation Department (always keen to reduce ‘shirking’) raised questions about prior mining work and war service. However, most medical reports highlighted the war experience as a causal factor even where there was a work history in the mines.  Tuberculosis can sometimes take years to manifest itself, and gradually the policy of restricting payouts for tuberculosis to a two-year period after the war was eased to allow for later illness. The Woolooroo Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in the general population was established 50 km outside Perth in 1915, just after Gallipoli, and it was expanded after the war with a military section.

Ch 5 ‘Unbalanced’: The ‘Mental Soldiers’ of War’ examines ‘shell-shock’, ‘war neurosis’ and what we would now call PTSD. As Marina Larsson points out in her book Shattered Anzacs (my review here),  families fought hard to have shell shock distinguished from ‘mental illness’ more generally. They advocated for separate facilities at Stromness Hospital and Kalamunda Convalescent Home to distinguish returned soldiers from the patients at Claremont Hospital for the Insane, but there was always cross-over between the two.

In Chapter 6 ”A Ruined Man’:Postwar suicide’, Straw turns to the newspapers to find details of this outcome of war that was so difficult to talk about by immediate families. West Australian government policy shamefully decreed the destruction of inquest reports after ten years, and so she needed to turn to newspaper reports when the inquest notes did not appear in the repatriation files. Using Trove, she sampled between 1915 and 1940,  after which point World War II reports made searching by keyword more difficult. She found that veteran suicides accounted for more than 10 percent of all registered male suicide deaths in the state- a number which was lower than I expected. However, as she points out, deaths reported as ‘accidental’ or through drowning allowed widows or family members to claim a war pension, when a finding of suicide did not.  Those that were reported as suicide generally (60%) involved fatal gunshot wounds, most to the head or chest. Almost one third involved poisoning. One distinguishing feature from the current-day veteran suicide statistics was the number of self-inflicted razor wounds. Nearly 40% of the suicides took place in the five years between 1925-1929, before the Great Depression, but when a large number of men reached middle age and struggled to find work. War pensions were increasingly questioned and lowered from 1925. Alcoholism featured heavily, and there were marital and family problems.

Chapter 7 ‘War’s Aftermath: Family stories’ turns to the oral histories given by family members, both to Leigh Straw herself and to earlier oral historians. For a number of these families, including Straw’s own, these stories went untold for years . ‘Conclusion: the men who came home’ summarizes the findings of the book, and a final epilogue ‘A Disordered Brain’ returns to Andrew Straw’s story – the man whose face is on the front cover, and who was the impetus for this book.

This book, written in 2017, locates itself and pays tribute to much of the work on war injury, repatriation and the effects on family which has been undertaken over recent years. There is much of it, and I found myself wondering why Straw chose to move out of her academic field of crime/social history of the early-mid 20th century when so many other historians have worked in the area of WWI repatriation before her. I’m thinking, for example,  of Marina Larsson, Joy Damousi, Stephen Garton and Alistair Thomson – all of whom have written about loss and return over the past twenty-five years.

I think that part of the answer lies in the event that prompted to her to write: the discovery of a close family relationship, that even travelled generations to manifest itself in the face of her own husband. Other books on the same topic tell individuals’ stories and use oral histories, as she has done. But in this book, she focusses on fifteen men whose stories re-appear across the various chapters of analysis, supplemented by other examples. It is an academic history, complete with footnotes and literature review, written with a family history focus.

A second aspect is its emphasis on Western Australia, rather than the more populous eastern seaboard. In this regard, it is no surprise that the book was published by  University of Western Australia Publishing. Western Australia’s commitment to the war effort was the highest in the country by proportion of population, with close to 10% of the state’s population enlisted in the war.  The state more strongly supported conscription than the other states, right throughout the war. Many of the enlistees from WA were relatively recent arrivals from Britain or Victoria attracted perhaps by the 1890s gold discoveries, with possibly shallower family connections. Schemes and plans for repatriation were implemented across the nation, but being so far distant from the other states, the Western Australian government worked largely in isolation.

This is an easy book to read, despite its difficult themes. It is an academic text, but with its grounding in the lived experience of men and their families, it wears theory and argument lightly. Beyond the photo of Andrew Straw on the front cover, it does not have any pictures, which is surprising given the co-operation the author received from many family members. But perhaps that is not the drawback it might appear.  Photographs, with their staging and smiles, do not capture the pain and struggle that is perhaps more apparent taken across the whole life span, and into further generations. That comes from stories, and this book is replete with them.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

After the War was joint winner of the 2018 Margaret Medcalf Award from the State Records Office of Western Australia.

aww2020I have included this on the database of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘There Was Still Love” by Favel Parrett

parrett_there-was-still-love

2019, 210 p.

There is an unsettling synchronicity about writing a review of this book while our government is closing its borders and our lives are being upended and constricted by government fiat. The parallels between our current situation and the 20th century of Czechoslovakia are slim, however. I may not hold my grandchildren for six months, but the rupture in the lives of those who escaped the fall of the Iron Curtain and those who did not was far deeper. But, as the title says, there was still love.

There are three threads in this book. One of them takes place in Melbourne in 1980, with young Malá living in with her Czech grandparents, Mána and Bill, cocooned in the warmth of their love in a frugal and ordered household typical of many post-war refugees. At the same time, there is her cousin Ludek, also living with his grandmother Babi in Prague, completely unaware of his cousin’s existence. He yearns for his mother Alena to return from her tour of the West with a theatrical company, and doesn’t realize that the government is using him as the lure and tether to bring her back to Czechoslovakia.

It is only near the end of the book that you realize the link between these two stories of grandchildren, wrapped in the love of their grandmothers. The two grandmothers were sisters, and by sheer happenstance, one ended up in the West and the other in the East. Their lives diverged at that point, even though they ran along parallel lines.

There is no great build-up or denouement in the book, which is gentle and quiet. I will confess to finding it a little difficult to follow. The narrative swaps back and forth between Melbourne and Prague and across time, with the focus on different characters whose names rather too similar – Malá, Mana, Ludek and (admittedly, a surname, Liska). I found myself wondering why she chose to structure the book in this way. Perhaps it was to make more complex what was actually a simple, if profound story?

What comes through most in this book is, as the title suggests, love. Love between sisters separated by distance and ideology; love between mother and child, and most of all love between grandparent and grandchild – each time, flowing both ways.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

aww2020I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

 

‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca

Trinca_Madeleine

2013, 243 p.

The author of this biography, Helen Trinca, came to know of Madeleine St John through one of her books. So did I.  For me it was The Women in Black, which I read back in 2011 as part of an online Australian Literature bookgroup and reviewed here. Erroneously suspecting that it was autobiographical, it seemed to me at the time to be a “happy, satisfying read” and “a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.” The film, The Ladies in Black (I hadn’t noticed the change in title before) was released in 2018, and it also struck me as a “feel-good, look-good” movie.

Having now read Trinca’s biography of St John, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Women in Black being autobiographical.  And if I found the book “affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic”, perhaps that says more about St John’s skill as a writer than anything else, because the author was certainly none of those things.  Instead, she was prickly, bitter and more likely to hold a grudge than indulge in nostalgia.

Born in 1941 while her father was with the A.I.F. in Palestine, Madeleine St John’s mother Sylvette was Romanian, but styled herself as French after arriving in Sydney in 1934. Her father was the barrister and later M.P. Edward (Ted) St John, from a blue-blood conservative family.  The surname, pronounced ‘Sinjin’ niggled at me – something about the Voyager maritime disaster– and Trinca’s book reminds us that it was during his maiden speech as a Parliamentarian that St John attacked his own party and called for  second Royal Commission into the accident (which, when it finally occurred, completely overturned the findings of the first, flawed Royal Commission). But the Ted St John who appears in this biography is not so much the politician, as a father – and in Madeleine St John’s eyes, a very poor one.  Her parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Madeleine and her sister Colette were packed off to boarding school. When Madeleine was twelve, her parents divorced and soon afterwards her mother Sylvette committed suicide. Her father badly bungled telling his daughters, and remarried too quickly, to Val.

As Madeleine St John was too ready to tell everyone, her father’s perfidy and betrayal lay at the heart of her own world-view. Her anger and bitterness about it warped nearly every aspect of her life right up to her death. She was mercurial, cruel and self-centred, allowing people to come close and then spurning them when they became too close. The irony is that even though she despised her father and idolized her mother, she combined traits from both of them.  While denying all her life that her mother had committed suicide, she shared Sylvette’s fragile mental health, and suffered depression and breakdowns. She certainly shared her father’s black-and-white views about what was right, and refused to compromise them for anyone. For the sake of her own principles, however she defined them, she often acted against her own interests and burnt many people. She was more like her father than she would ever have admitted.

Madeleine enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1959 and circulated amongst that golden generation who were to head off to England: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Mungo MacCallum. In this testosterone-heavy atmosphere, she became one of the sub-editors of Honi Soit (the university newspaper) but was never published in it. She was part of a group of eight girls, dubbed ‘The Octopus’ who joined up with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and regularly met at a cafe in Manning House.  She married and moved with her husband, Christopher Tillam, to America where he embarked on a film-making career. As emotionally brittle as she was, it was no surprise that the marriage faltered. Madeleine moved to England where she worked in a succession of bookshops and antique shops, managed to get council housing and developed an image that combined a  stylishness and snobbery that belied her meagre income. She became rigidly religious, and spent years – even decades- writing a biography of Mme Blavatsky, the Theosophist, which she ended up burning (and which I would have been quite interested to read, really.) She was not published until 1993, at the age of 52, when she released The Women in Black, set in the sun-drenched Sydney of her own adolescence. Her three other works were set in her own London-based suburb Notting Hill, one of which (The Essence of the Thing)  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thus bringing her to the attention of the Australian literary scene.

She did not particularly welcome the acclaim that publication brought her, and although it gave her the financial means to travel, she was no happier than she had been previously.  She abhorred the thought that she would be embraced as an Australian by the Australian literary scene, when she had spent all her adult life putting her Australian nationality behind her. In poor health, she eschewed the attempts at reconciliation by her step-mother Val, and continued to draw in and then reject her friends, who would be bewildered by her change towards them.  In poor health from emphysema, she became increasingly concerned to shape her image after her rapidly-approaching death, rejecting one literary executor for another, and demanding the return of letters.

I think that Madeleine St John would have been infuriated by this biography, where the author treats her with a cool impassiveness. She does not buy into St John’s histrionics and manipulations, but recognizes patterns in her behaviour and makes some sense of it, without condoning it. The book lightens, as did St John’s own life, once she achieved her break-through publications, but for Trinca (and me, for that matter), her writing only highlighted the paradox between the writer and her work. Trinca keeps her eyes steadily on Madeleine the character, and there is no in-depth analysis of the books as such. Her footnotes pay testament to the author’s diligence in tracking down friends and acquaintances – none of whom could give unalloyed praise for St John. She was fortunate to be given access to a collection of audiotapes recorded by St John that were left in the keeping of a friend.  She read St John’s own statements about her life with a judicious eye, and combed through the lively but self-serving correspondence that other people had kept, much against St. John’s wishes. Using this network of friends and acquaintances, Trinca manages to weave a background against which St John’s life can be placed; a background that captures the heady optimism of university life in the early 1960s, the tangled connections amongst an intellectual and creative largely expatriate milieu, and the continued warp and weft of family background, no matter how much someone might want to distance themselves from it.

There are a lot of people in this book, and I was often glad of the index to remind myself who was who. It was a little frustrating that the index was organized by surname, whereas the text referred to people, in a familiar tone, by first name. More than once I found myself having to scan the whole index, until I found the first name mentioned in the text.

This is an excellent biography, that captures well the ambivalence of the biographer towards her subject.  It won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was short-listed for several other awards. The summary on the back cover of the book mentions sadness, tragedy, love and perseverence.  I don’t know if I could be so charitable. Self-centredness, control and vindictiveness spring more to mind for me. And the mismatch between St John’s writing and her own life? I remain mystified, and I suspect that even after all this exhaustive research, I think Trinca might be too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup and read for The Ladies Who Say Oooh.

aww2020

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.