Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

2008, 336 p

I suggested this as a read for our bookgroup about three years ago, and it finally arrived! Fortunately I hadn’t read it while I was waiting, so I came to it ‘fresh’ even though it was published in 2008 and won the Booker Prize that same year. It is told in the voice of Balram Halwai, a village boy made good as an ‘entrepreneur’, who writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Describing himself as a ‘half-baked Indian’, he also sees himself as a White Tiger: “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”. Unlike the rest of his family, he takes (and makes) his opportunities to get ahead, and escape the destiny of custom and servitude.

He tells us from the very start that he killed his employer, Ashok, one of two brothers who along with their father, hire him as a driver. Forced to leave school despite his intelligence, Balram takes the opportunity to become the main driver when Ashok, and his American wife Pinky Madam move to Delhi. There Ashok becomes enmeshed in the corruption of political figures. When by p.285 Balram does finally kill his master, we have come to share his disdain for Ashok’s weakness and the dog-eat-dog world in which Balram lives. While the actual murder takes several pages, Balram then makes huge mental leaps over the consequences of the murder, especially for his family. He is completely unrepentant, on several levels.

The most striking image that I took away from the book was that of the ‘rooster coop’ where individuals are hemmed in by their family pressures to stay within that coop, and not even seek to escape. It is a self-imposed structure that keeps workers honest, even against their own interests. This is something that I have thought about when travelling in second or third world countries: why don’t people rob me? Why is it acceptable for me to move through their society so heedlessly, when my spending money for just that day could make a change to their lives?

One of the things that I loved most about this book was Balram’s narrative voice, which leaps off the page. He is a sardonic, self-serving and perceptive humble-bragger and like all good entrepreneurs, he takes you along with the dream, no matter your misgivings. The book is told completely from Balram’s point of view, although the author gets in his own critique of post-colonialism, corruption, loyalty and the deadening effect of the supposedly-extinct caste system. It is never really explained why Balram is writing to Wen Jiabao, except as the head of the rising power within Asia as distinct from the rotting and dying power of the old India.

I enjoyed this book, its structure as a series of letters and the sheer vitality and front of Balram himself. The author Aravind Adiga has had a life nothing like that of Balram, but he says that Balram is a composite of the many men he heard talking while they hanging around drivers’ ranks and train stations, in slums and in servants quarters. The narrative voice is so strong that you feel as if you are hearing it direct, even though it is as much of an artifice as the epistolary structure that Adiga has employed. Still- I don’t think that I have read another book quite like it.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup.

‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time’ by Craig Brown

2020, 628 p.

I am a sucker for anything about the Beatles, even though I’m sure that every interview has been reported and combed over and every possible angle explored. Books, documentaries, podcasts – I’ll consume them all. But, enjoyable enough though it was, I really don’t know if the week that it took me to read this huge tome was really well spent.

The book takes a chronological approach, from the earliest days of playing together and goes through to their last performance on the roof of the building in London. It is written as a series of short chapters – 150 of them – some a few pages in length, some only taking up a page.

There are little vignettes that he repeats throughout the text. For example, he writes present-tense descriptions of various parties held over the years that the Beatles were together, where he names who was there, the drugs consumed, the ‘vibe’. As they accumulate, you sense the increasing lack of control as the Beatles and their hangers-on descend into a vortex of jealousy, unhappiness and irresponsibility.

The references are all at the back, and there are many of them, but what is more interesting is the footnotes which become increasingly florid as the book continues. Many of his anecdotes involve unknown people, whose ‘celebrity’ is only revealed in the footnote, and you do get a sense that this is a little microcosm of people who know people.

Some of the chapters are quite quirky- e.g. the list in Chapter 97 of the figures on the cover of Sgt. Peppers (e.g. Dr David Livingston, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Stephen Crane the author) and those who were dropped (Mahatma Ghandhi because of pressure from the head of EMI; Leo Gorcey the actor who wanted $400 for his images; and Hitler and Jesus Christ, both requested by John but dropped because too controversial). There are interviews with people who saw his concerts (the Ruby Wax one is really funny), rehashed interviews with the Beatles themselves, and quirky stories. Black and white photographs appear in the chapter to which they apply, which I much prefer to an insert where all the photographs are grouped together. The ending of the book is interesting. He finishes with Brian Epstein, and tells the story backwards, highlighting the many ‘what-if’ paths that could have been taken along the way.

Some of the chapters are autobiographical, where the author talks about his own experience of the Beatles, and his rather dyspeptic current-day excursions to tourist ‘attractions’ in Liverpool. Some chapters are counterfactuals e.g. a chapter where he posits Gerry and the Pacemakers becoming the big thing of the 1960s, with the Beatles just lowly support acts. Other chapters are about things only tangentially related, that occurred at the same time. I must confess that I was hoping for something a little more analytic and dare I say ‘historical’, but this was not the book to bring me either of those things.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Defiant Voices: How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority’ by Babette Smith

2021, 253p.

The response to a convict in the family has changed markedly over recent years. Once a source of shame and embarrassment, now it is brandished as a badge of pride (including by our own Prime Minister). One feels almost chagrined that despite rattling the family closet, there are ‘only’ later emigrants.

Family historians with a convict in the family have an advantage when it comes to sources. Across modern history there seems to be a reciprocal relationship between the severity of an institutional regime and the complexity and volume of their records and bureaucracy (thinking, for example, of Eastern European communist countries or Nazi Germany). In the case of Australia’s convicts, the transportation system generated a range of documents. Because they fell into a bureaucracy, we know so much about these individuals than we would have otherwise – their height, appearance, the circumstances of their crime- and yet, particularly for women convicts, their voices are rarely heard. This book seeks to recover those voices.

As Babette Smith observes, the characterization of the convict system generally, and women convicts in particular tends to fall into two extremes. The first (and I would put Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore into this category) sees Australia as a place of barbarity, oppression and cruelty; the second (and here I am thinking of John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies) sees it as a place where the overwhelming concern was that convicts not return to Britain once their sentence had expired. As a result, there was encouragement to marry, establish a livelihood and in effect, start over again- as long as it was as far from Britain as possible. In relation to women, some sources were particularly hostile, depicting them as debauched and incorrigible. Other sources, Smith claims, have been interpreted by feminist historians as characterizing convict women as passive victims of the patriarchy (p.9). In this book, Smith muddies the distinction. She detects elements of both but most of all emphasizes the agency of women convicts, whether it be by choosing to marry and thus disappear from the record, or by repeatedly challenging authority through their ‘defiant voices’.

The book is arranged in a loosely chronological structure, starting off in Chapter 1 ‘The Crown v. the People’ describing the female convicts’ interactions with the legal system back in Britain. She discusses social changes and the criminalization of poverty. She points out that most female convicts sent to Australia were convicted of theft, particularly from lodging houses, shops, and trickery. Women were also involved in counterfeiting and ‘receiving’ stolen goods. She draws from the criminal records, court reports and newspaper articles, and observes that few women cried when sentenced, because tears and outbursts would certainly have been noted in the newspaper reports. Although male prisoners were sent immediately to the hulks, women were often held in jail until there were enough of them to fill a ship (p. 32).

Chapter 2 ‘All at Sea’ describes the sea voyage to Australia. Because convict ships also carried officials and clergy, many of the most critical descriptions came from relatively wealthy fellow-passengers appalled at their proximity to their unadulterated working class. These are the documents that have largely fueled the ‘strumpet’ characterization of convict women. Many of these descriptions were observations only, as the two groups were physically close but with little or no actual interaction.

Chapter 3 ‘Camping’ concentrates on the arrival of the early female convict transport ships and the immediate experience on disembarking. She points out the shortages of food and fabrics, the variety of physical relationships with men, and the paucity of knowledge that we have about the relationship between convict and indigenous women. Chapter 4 ‘Expansion and Consolidation’ widens the geographical lens to look at the other convict settlements at Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land. In the section ‘Turning Respectable’ she describes the changes that Governor Macquarie brought both to the colony and penal theory. He represented the rising religious morality of the middle classes, and constructed the Female Factory at Parramatta, which introduced more regulation into women’s experience. Chapter 5 ‘Women at Work’ argues that because of the shortage of female domestic labour, women found themselves at an advantage – often for the first time in their lives- and resistant to the ‘niggling’ of their mistresses and employers. Absconding was often part of this battle of wills, although as Smith points out, with an absconding rate of 25%, the majority of women stayed put.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the Female Factory at Parramatta, the design and administration of which was strongly influenced by the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. From 1823 it was divided into three sections: the first for women waiting to be reassigned (the source of the ‘marriage bureau’ trope), the second for pregnant and nursing mothers and the third for punishment. Most of our ideas about the Female Factory are shaped by the appalling child mortality figures from the second section, and the defiance and insubordination of the third section. Here Smith develops her argument about women’s voices. The third section was noisy. Cheering, jeering, yelling, quarrelling were punished by hair cutting and confinement to cells. As she did in Chapter 4, Smith again widens her analysis in Chapter 7 ‘Secondary Punishment Settlements’ to take in the places of secondary punishment (i.e. sentences passed within NSW and VDL rather than back in Britain) in Newcastle, Macquarie Harbour, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

Chapter 8 ‘Female Factories in Van Diemen’s Land’ looks at the factories at the Cascades, Hobart in George Town (Launceston) in the north, and later in Ross. As with the Parramatta factory, these factories were divided into sections, and all were overcrowded. Here, too, the women talked (p. 193), much to the chagrin of the superintendent of Cascades. They rioted, they sang, they danced, they jeered, they ridiculed – just as they did in Parramatta. Policies came and went, with ‘probation’ introduced in 1845 to inculcate discipline and submissiveness, but it was abolished nine years later.

Chapter 9 ‘Love and Loss’ looked at the role of marriage as a stepping-stone to morality in many cases, and further violence in others. Here she describes the conditions and death toll at the Cascades nursery in particular, and the role of orphanages. In a nice bit of symmetry, Smith closes the book in the final chapter titled ‘The People v. The Crown’, a neat inversion of the opening chapter. She emphasizes that the outcome for convict women ranged from ‘triumph to tragedy’. (p. 242). She points out that while the Crown always won back in Britain, in the colonies the tables were turned. The gentry needed the co-operation of the prisoners. Starting with the ship journey to the colony, there was a change in the power balance. The health care received on ship was better than many women had ever experienced before. Undoubtedly there were women who had sex with the crew,the officers, and possibly male passengers, but this may well have been their choice. On shore, women convicts were involved in every kind of sexual relationship, of which rape and coercion was just a part, but always a threat. However, as the century and the former penal colonies progressed, women changed, sometimes crossing class barriers in their relationships.

They were not silent. Smith notes:

Some historians have advocated a shift in historical imagination from ‘seeing’ to ‘hearing’ the past. And they are right. But it has been predominantly the sounds of a male world to which they have listened. Distracted by our feminist preconceptions about sexuality and gender power imbalance, we missed how loudly the voices of women convicts ring out from history’s page. Moving past the sites of exploitation suggested by the gentry, such as the voyages and relationships, we can hear more clearly what the women were saying, the force with which they spoke and recognize its impact on others. Their use of shouting, wailing, singing and ridicule as weapons in a war of attrition against authority is now fully exposed, with the range and depth of it much greater than we realized.

p. 251

There were many things that I liked about this book. It is generously and lavishly illustrated throughout the text with images and artefacts from the convict era, although I wished that some of the text-based artefacts were reproduced in a larger size so that they could be read instead of merely observed as an object. The text is interspersed with little biographical break-outs, which tell the story of individual women convicts across their whole life span, reflecting the work of family historians. I liked the way that she recognized the changing nature of the convict system over time, as the idealism of the early plans had to yield to shortages and unforeseen situations, the influence of Macquarie, and the regimentation of later convict policy.

And yet those frequent potted biographical break-outs exemplify the tension in her argument. They also highlight the importance of the choice of name for a book – something that I know is often driven more by the publisher than the historian, although in this case Smith thanks her Twitter friends, who overwhelmingly favoured ‘Defiant Voices’ as the final title. As Smith points out many times, the transportation scheme opened up pathways that would probably not have been available to women had they stayed in Britain. Particularly during the earlier years of transportation, when women and domestic servants were scarce, women found themselves in the box-seat, probably for the first time in their lives. Smith rightly emphasizes the women’s agency, and for many women, this involved making domestic choices that took them out of the convict system entirely. Again and again, her break-out boxes feature women who married or settled into some other sort of domestic relationship, and went on to have many children. Some became wealthy, others ended up being buried in impressive vaults, others became pillars of the church. I wonder how many of their friends (and indeed children?) knew about their convict origins? These details are drawn from genealogical records, rather than prison records.

Meanwhile, the more voluminous prison records deal with those ‘noisy’ women denoted by the title. Making noise is another form of agency – of resisting, calling attention, of refusing to conform – but the women’s loudness and the weight of documentation generated by their intransigence tends to overshadow that other domestic, quieter agency of summing up the options, and choosing the best.

It is rather misleading because in the body of the text, Babette Smith has resisted being dragged into an either/or, strumpet/victim dichotomy. The book is far more nuanced than the title and back-page blurb suggests. It is instructive to hear those voices of defiance, but it is important to recognize those other, more domestic choices as well – as Smith does well, despite the title.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Review copy from NLA Publishing through Quikmark Media.

I have included this review on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’ by Anne Applebaum

2020, 189 p.

I was aware of Anne Applebaum’s work on the Soviet gulags, and I think that I have read several of her essays and pieces in various journals and newspapers, but I confess that it didn’t really occur to me to wonder about her own political affiliations. That’s just as well, because I probably wouldn’t have read this book otherwise, closed as I am in my own little leftish-leaning progressive bubble. In this book, which is a mixture of memoir and political argument, Applebaum talks about her falling out with her friends, most of whom would fit into that American Enterprise Institute, Thatcheritish, conservative-leaning (but not Trumpian) Republican world of intellectuals and diplomats.

In this extended essay/memoir, she starts off with a New Years Eve party that she threw in 1999 – the dawn of a new millenium- attended by journalist friends from London and Moscow, junior diplomats based in Warsaw, a few friends from New York and their Polish friends, cousins and a handful of youngish Polish journalists. Her husband was then foreign minister in a centre-right Polish government. She herself had worked at The Spectator between 1992 and 1996.

You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right- the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcher-ites. Even those who might have been less definite about the economics did believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union (EU), a Poland that was an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.

p. 2

That was twenty years ago. Twenty years on, she says, she would now cross the street to avoid some of those people, who, in turn would refuse to enter her house. They have found themselves on different sides of a political divide that runs through the Polish right, the Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and with some differences, the British right and the American right. (p. 4)

Although she says that this is a political difference, it has bled into the personal as well. Ania Bielecka, a close friend and the godmother of one of her children, is now close to the leader of the Polish Law and Justice party, and no longer responds to her texts. Another friend has become a full-time internet troll, several are conspiracy theorists. As she points out, these friends have been educated at the best universities, often speak foreign languages, live in big cities. They form part of the group she calls ‘clercs’, a term used by the French essayist Julien Benda to describe the authoritarian elite of the 1920s-30s, the writers, journalists and essayists, who morphed into political entrepreneurs and propagandists who goaded whole civilizations into acts of violence. (p.18) She goes on to talk about current-day clercs who have brought their academic and media reputations to give cover to far-right figures and their agendas.

She distinguishes between two types of nostalgia, drawing on the work of Russian essayist Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia. ‘Reflective’ nostalgia is an appeal to the past and its yellowed pages and memory, without actually wanting to bring it back. ‘Restorative nostalgia’ want to “rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps”, as Boym expressed it. It often goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories and ‘medium-sized’ lies.

She dates the cultural despair which has driven some British Tories into the arms of UKIP to the end of Thatcherism and the end of the Cold War, sometime between the 1990s and the 2010s. She suggests that the ‘grassroots’ conservatism of Trump’s America or Brexit is a reaction against complexity, often driven by major demographic change, inequality and wage decline and disappointment with meritocracy. It is amplified by the “contentious, cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself” (p. 109)

She draws on examples from across the Northern hemisphere, but concentrates on Brexit in the UK, Trump’s America, Hungary, Poland and Spain. In all these countries, far-right parties have been supported by ‘intellectuals’. Why? she asks. They operate from a variety of motives, she suggests. It is not a charitable list:

The people described range from nativist ideologues to high-minded political essayists; some of them write sophisticated books, others launch viral conspiracy theories. Some are genuinely motivated by the same fears, the same anger, and the same deep desire for unity that motivates their readers and followers. some have been radicalized by angry encounters with the cultural left, or repulsed by the weakness of the liberal centre. Some are cynical and instrumental, adopting radical or authoritarian language because it will bring them power or fame. Some are apocalyptic, convinced that their societies have failed and need to be reconstructed, whatever the result. Some are deeply religious. Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order. All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.

p.21

I found myself thinking of historians and commentators who I have watched embed themselves with the far right. Is it only because I dislike their stance that I find myself ascribing one or another of these motives to them?

She closes her book with another party, held in Poland again, in August 2019. Once-luxurious goods like portable sound systems and basalmic vinegar had become common-place; some of the guests had also attended their 1999 shindig. Some of them weren’t even in 2019. She felt that the division between ‘somewheres’ (i.e. people rooted to a particular place) and ‘anywheres’ (i.e. people who travel) was not visible.

But by March 2020 the world had changed again with the abrupt closure of borders because of COVID. She ends by being unsure which future faces us: perhaps we are living through the twilight of democracy and heading towards anarchy or tyranny; or perhaps the coronavirus will inspire a new sense of global solidarity. (I think that vaccine nationalism has put an end to that optimistic hope). She reminds us that liberal democracies have always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort and struggle (p. 189). And they always acknowledged the possibility of failure.

We always knew, or should have known, that history could once again reach into our private lives and rearrange them. We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of nations would try to draw us in. But maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them.

p. 189

An interesting aside: in America this book was titled Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. I’m racking my brains to work out the motives for the different title.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens’ by James Boyce

2020, 195p.

“That’s strange…” I thought. The James Boyce the Historian that I am familiar with is a Tasmanian historian, who has written two excellent histories of Van Diemens Land and the 1835 settlement of Victoria, as well as books about the gambling industry in Tasmania and the concept of original sin. But writing about the Fens in England? What’s he doing over there?

Before reading the book, I decided to read the Acknowledgments first because I needed to know why he had jumped from Tasmanian to British history. Forewords, Postscripts and Acknowledgments are an interesting addition to the text. I often don’t read the foreword, even though the writer (or their publisher) has consciously placed it before the text, because I frequently find that it’s more interesting and useful to read it after I have read the book. I’m often perplexed as to why a foreword or introduction or a foreshadowing of the arguments is at the front, when it would be more meaningful at the end of the book. However, even though I have often criticized the insertion of the historian as an actor into his/her text, I do like to know where the historian is coming from. It seems to me that this is the information that is best placed in an introduction, rather than at the end of the text.

And so, flipping to the back of the book, I find that Boyce explains that

A more direct source for this book was my research on the Australian frontier…When I began to read histories of the Fens, I was struck by some largely unacknowledged similarities with the colonial frontier. Here too was a multi-faceted defence of country, a transformation of the land, the introduction of foreign settlers and a confrontation between two worlds. While researching Australian history, I began to wonder, did the fact that the Fens was part of England justify such a radically different approach to writing its past?

p.198

So this is the approach that he takes: that even though the Fens are physically located in England, they were colonized just as lands across the globe had been. The Fens, he explains, are not a precise location, given that the creeks and waterways that constitute them have always been an ever-changing phenomenon. His maps at the start of the book show locations in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. (I must confess that these names mean little to me, as other than a trip to Cambridge, I have never been there). More interestingly, he adopts his own name for the people who live there by creating the term “Fennish”. He points out that even though they may not have seen themselves as a discrete people, their sense of unity was strengthened once the process of dispossession began.

Resisting imperialism helped create a shared identity for diverse groups of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians as it did for the people of the Fens.

p. xviii

He also identifies them a ‘indigenous’ people: a term we generally associate with over-the-seas colonialism. They were people intimately knowledgeable about the liminal relationship between water and land.

All cultures undergo times of upheaval as well as long periods of evolution. What characterises an indigenous culture is neither its uniformity nor immutability, but that it remains rooted in country as it experiences continuity and change.

p. xix

So he traces the unique, watery, changeable geography of the marshes of the Fens from 4000 years ago. The Romans were experienced drainers, and they constructed canals and dams which became integrated into a local creation myth about a race of giants. After the Roman withdrawal, the Fens were portrayed by the Church as an inhospitable and unpopulated land. It was this reputation for unhealthiness and a combination of direct resistance, accommodation, adaptation and deal-making that meant that the Fennish survived Roman, Saxon and Viking conquests. (p. 15) Most of the Fens remained common land after the Norman conquest, although many new religious houses were established, extending their presence through priories, hermitages and shrines. This monastic expansion provided economic opportunities through an abundance of fish, waterfowl shellfish, eels and most importantly, grass. There was a high proportion of small farmers, and the size and abundance of the commons ensured that the Fennish could make a communal living.

‘The Commons’ were fundamental to Fennish life, but they were always under threat, first from monasteries, then from the social and religious flux associated with the Reformation. Under the Stuarts there were grand plans for draining the marshes, particularly drawing on Dutch expertise. Oliver Cromwell at first championed the rights of the Fennish, only to himself become a champion of enclosure and drainage once he became Protector. The passing of the Enclosure Bill in 1767 led to the clearing out of ‘squatters’ backed by the power of the state, as with the Highland Clearances in Scotland, facilitated by the legal ‘fix’ described in E.P, Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters.

What seemed to spell the end for the Fens was not political power alone, but also technological change. The Industrial Revolution spawned new technologies, but the relative isolation of the Fens ensured that Fennish culture survived through ongoing resistance, deployment of the courts, and fightback. Drainage and enclosure of the Fens took hundreds of years because of the success of this resistance. It was World War II and its food shortages and the devastating floods in 1947 and 1953 that accelerated government-funded projects to drain the fens. Big, capital-intensive engineering schemes were prompted by heavily subsidized farm prices after Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. Indeed, “The landscape was as comprehensively transformed between 1950 and 2000 as at any corresponding period in history” (p.180)

That might seem to be the end of the story, except that the land has had its own silent, inexorable regeneration. Climate change and subsidence means that the land is again being inundated, and restoration projects are under way.

In his postscript Boyce points out that just because the Fennish were English did not shield them from a process of colonization on British soil, as distinct from American or Australian soil.

The Fennish story is an integral part of the troubled history of the imperial age. As elsewhere in the empire, an indigenous people fought the land grab through every means available to them, including force, until the subversive power of the modern state and the technological power of the Industrial Revolution achieved what seemed to be a final victory

p.190

It is this bi-focal approach to colonization, seeing it as a process wielded in Britain and well as by Britain that is the real strength of this book, prompted by Boyce’s deep engagement with Indigenous history here in Australia. I must confess as an Australian reader, I found myself wishing that I knew more British history and geography. In his acknowledgments Boyce refers to Graham Swift’s Waterland, and for me, this fictional book helped me to fill in the imaginative gaps. Boyce is an incisive and economical writer, carefully attuned to landscape and ecology, continuity and change. His book is only small, but it makes an argument about colonization and resistance with its feet planted in two different, widely separated continents.

‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donaghue

2020, 291p.

One of the closest historical parallels to our current COVID pandemic is the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918-20. The publication date of this book, commenced prior to COVID, was brought forward, no doubt to respond to this renewed interest in how a society deals with a world-wide rapidly-spreading illness, especially in Western industrialized settings. The book is set in Dublin during November 1918, just prior to the announcement of the armistice, when the flu was raging. It is set in a small quarantine ward for expectant mothers in a large hospital that is being over-run with influenza cases, at a time when many women would still have given birth at home had they not been suffering from influenza at the time.

I must confess that I guiltily enjoy the odd episode of “Call the Midwife”, and the prospect of a book about a midwife working during the influenza pandemic appealed to me. I studied the ‘Spanish’ flu in some detail a couple of years back, albeit at a very local level here in my own suburb, and I was interested in a fictional account. However, this book combines many themes – possibility too many themes – including Irish involvement in the British war, Sinn Fein, the Catholic Church mothers and babies homes, lesbian love, as well as childbirth practices and the influenza pandemic. Clearly Donoghue has done her homework on all these topics, and the research lays heavily over the story. It is overly didactic in places, and as a reader you tend to feel “told” much of the time.

SPOILER ALERT

The book is set over only three days in the small ward for expectant mothers in a hospital completely stretched by the influenza pandemic. Sister Julia Powell, who is just about to turn thirty, lives with her brother who has returned from the warfront, struck mute with shell shock. She is the day nurse in this small ward, turning her patients over to the care each night of Sister Luke, a harsh and rigid nun from the nearby convent. With their resources stretched by influenza cases, she welcomes a new volunteer to the ward, a young girl called Bridie Sweeney who comes from the same convent as Sister Luke. In these three days, both birth and death hover around this small ward, as Julia and her untrained assistant deal with a string of obstetric emergencies, with the fleeting attendance of Dr Katherine Lynn, a real-life doctor, who had been arrested for her Sinn Fein activities.

Even though I was frustrated by the ongoing presence of the author’s research that encrusted the story, I also found that I was completely engrossed in the book. Birth-stories have their own narrative shape – perhaps it’s the Call the Midwife effect – and the small anteroom seemed like a self-contained if somewhat claustrophobic little world, set against larger historical forces. The ending seemed a little melodramatic, and given the depth of information conveyed about influenza, the frightening rapidity of onset was underplayed, given that it is a major plot development. Nonetheless, it kept me reading late into the night.

My rating: Difficult to say – I was engrossed with it, but frustrated by the clumsiness in inserting the research into the narrative. Let’s go with 8/10?

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart

2020, 430 p.

******SPOILER ALERT******

When Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize, I had heard of neither the book, nor the author. Having just completed The Shadow King, which was also shortlisted, I thought that the winner must have been an outstanding candidate to top Maaza Mengiste’s book. Now having finished the ultimate winner, I feel a little disappointed. It’s not that Shuggie Bain is not a good book: it is. It’s well written and will stick in your mind for some time after reading it. But it’s a little too much Angela’s Ashes for me (again- well-written and memorable but not Booker Prize material, not that it was eligible at the time), and I wonder if Stuart will be able to move beyond books steeped in his own experience. Time will tell, I suppose.

The book is a thinly disguised autobiography. Shuggie Bain is the youngest of three children, always fastidious and conscious of appearance. The woman whose appearance meant most to him was his mother, Agnes, whose attention to her dress, hair and makeup masked increasingly futile attempts to disguise her alcoholism. As the youngest and rather effeminate child, there was an intimacy between Shuggie and his mother as they slept and bathed together, and chose outfits together. Increasingly Shuggie became familiar (in a non-sexual way) with her body as he undressed her and put her to bed in yet another drunken stupor.

The book is set in a Glasgow ravaged by Thatcher’s economic policies. It is circular in its narrative, starting and finishing in a bedsit on the South Side (of Glasgow) in 1992, then backtracking to Sighthill 1981 where Shuggie is living in his maternal grandmother’s house with his parents Big Shug and Agnes. In 1982 Big Shug moves his wife, daughter Catherine and two sons Leek and Shuggie to Pithead, a former mining village that has been closed under Thatcher’s economic rationalism. He then promptly leaves the family. By 1989 Shuggie and his mother move to the East End, his older siblings having escaped the continuous degradation and betrayal caused by their mother’s drinking. By 1992, in the final section of the book, Agnes is no longer Shuggie’s burden.

And burden she is. She drinks through the Monday and Tuesday social security money as soon as she receives it. She breaks into the various meters attached to the utilities in a user-pays society to scrounge change. She goes out with men- too many men- and uses her body to get the money to drink. There is too much vomit and too many sprawled bodies. That one bright year when she finally breaks free of her addiction is even more tragic for how it ends. She is in no place or state to respond to her children’s needs. Near the end, when she has spent all the money and without a single bite of food in the house, she deflects Shuggie’s complaints of hunger by scoffing that at least he gets a free lunch at school. Not so. Shuggie is being bullied, and his lunch passes are extorted from him.

For Shuggie has his own needs and his own problems. Identified by everyone- his own family, neighbours, other students – as ‘not right’, he is struggling with his own sexuality. He would have stood out as a figure of fun. As a five-year-old, just moved into the Pithead house, he interrupts his mother as she is meeting the neighbours- a toxic scrabble of vicious women who congregate around the fence gossiping and bitching- to express his dissatisfaction with their new house.

The front door opened again, and Shuggie came out on to the top step. Without addressing the women he turned to his mother and put his hands on his hips; he trust a foot forward and said as clear as Agnes had ever heard him speak, “We need to talk. I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It’s simply unpossible.” (p.101)

p.101

Despite his older brother Leek’s attempts to get him to walk in a more masculine way by ‘not being so swishy’ and making ‘room for your cock’ (p.152), Shuggie is a target and he suffers.

‘Social services’ is remarkably absent in this book. This is no surveillance state: instead it is a state of neglect. Would Shuggie have been better off, removed from his mother? No, I don’t think so. She is the centre of his world – too much- but his sense of obligation and persistence in keeping on hoping, keeping her sober, catching her beauty, lies at the core of his existence. Other people just drop away- his own siblings, his grandparents, his own father, her partner – none of them can withstand the selfishness and energy-draining repetition of Agnes’ drunkenness. An illness, yes, but one for which it is hard to have sympathy.

Why do I feel short-changed with this book as a Booker Prize winner? It is a long book at 430 pages, and it feels every bit of it without actually moving far (which is of course, a function of the stuck-ness of Agnes and her family). It tells a narrative well, its use of dialogue is good, the emotional tenor of Shuggie’s bond with his mother is nuanced, and Stuart imagines himself sensitively into Agnes’ befuddled mind. It is all of these things, but for me it didn’t have the literary heft that I would want a Booker Prize winner to have. It is, at heart, a misery memoir, self-contained within its own world. A worthy short-list contender, but for me not ‘winner’ material.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Chase’ by Ida Mann

1986, 217 p.

Our face-to-face book went into hibernation during the lockdown throughout 2020, so when received our most recent read, The Chase, an autobiography by Ida Mann, we opened the box with anticipation. But what a smell ! the books had obviously been unread for a very long time (probably pre-dating COVID) and they were very musty. And having finished the book now, there’s probably a good reason why this book has not been particularly popular. Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well).

If you’re wondering ‘Who is Ida Mann?’, you’re not alone. She was a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in 1893 in England, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Profession William Guy, an acclaimed cancer research in 1949. After her husband died in 1952, she continued her work in ophthalmology, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in indigenous populations, and speaking at World Health Organization conferences in many places throughout the world. She was also an inveterate traveller.

As might be expected from a woman steeped in the sciences, the book is very much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end endeavour. The presence of lines of verse scattered through the text does little to dispel this impression, reflecting the old-fashioned nature of the narrative rather than the author’s literariness. In its tone, the book reminded me of military histories, where every single individual has to be named and acknowledged, and Christmas family letters regaling the reader with travel tales to exotic places (from the days when we still could travel). Neither genre particularly appeals to me. The book (which admittedly has been edited from an even lengthier text) descends into an extended travelogue at the end.

This is not to detract from her professional achievements, which are many. One hundred and forty three published papers, a string of scholarships and fellowships, a CBE and DBE attest to her hard work and professional reputation within the field of ophthalmology. She was, however, no feminist. Just as Margaret Thatcher did little for the cause of feminism, Ida saw the ‘nonsense about women’s rights’ as unnecessary, because if you wanted a job enough, you would get it. She was vehemently opposed to the NHS, and it was its introduction, along with her husband’s ill health, that prompted her shift across the world. She expresses little empathy for patients, preferring the research aspect of her work. She was dismissive of the Australian slap-dash attitude when the pure genetic lines of her research mice were compromised because insufficient care was taken. Particularly repellent was her classification of the Aboriginal people she examined for eye disease into the categories based on their likeness to ‘us’: Similar, Almost, Rather, Hardly and Not-at-all. (p. 150)

Yet this intensely driven and pragmatic woman had a mystical side as well. She writes often of her dreams, particularly one vivid dream where she was presented with two doors. In the dream, she chose the door that opened onto sunshine, blue sky and fear, and this dream changed her life. She rejected the life of an office-worker that her parents had chosen for her, and became proactive in choosing and pursuing her own career. As in most autobiographies, there are elisions and silences, most particularly in her response to her husband’s death and a rather curious allusion to incestuous feelings towards her older brother, Arthur.

You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE as the March book for The Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. my face-to-face bookgroup). The other ladies enjoyed the book more than I did, and were more appreciative of her achievements than I was.

Ida Mann appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, so I have included her on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste

2019, 424 p.

When I started reading this book, I started feeling a bit panicky. Ethiopia in 1935?? I knew nothing about it and started furiously Googling Ethiopia/Italy 1935 (‘Duck Duck Go-ing’ doesn’t slip off the tongue quite as easily, in my feeble attempt to stand up to Google’s ubiquity). But then I thought: hold on, this is the author’s job, not mine – no Barthesian ‘death of the author’ for me- and so I sat back and let Mengiste take me where she wanted. I was right to trust her: she took me to a war that I was only vaguely aware of, to the men and the women who fought it, and to soldiers on both sides.

Hirut is a young girl who, after the death of her parents, has been taken as a servant into the household of Kidane, a friend of her parents, and his wife Aster. All that Hirut has left to remind her of her father was his old rifle, that he used during the first Italian-Abyssinian war in 1896. Although Aster had been forced into an unwilling marriage to Kidane, she is also jealous of her servant Hirut, and almost beats her to death. However, as Italy invades Ethiopia, Aster is determined to fight alongside the men, and she drags Hirut into the conflict as well. Hirut’s gun is confiscated and added to the meagre cache of the Ethiopian rebels. Kidane, who veers between kind and abusive towards Hirut, assumes the leadership of a group of rebels -both men and women- who harry the Italian troops.

Carlo Fucelli is the leader of those Italian troops. He is a sadistic man, particularly after his own masculinity is challenged, and realizing that he has leverage over Ettore Navarra, the Jewish Italian photographer amongst his troops, he forces the photographer to photograph the atrocities that he commits. Compliant but deeply uncomfortable, Navarra is feeling his own position becoming more precarious as the anti-Semitism in Europe increases, especially learning about his father’s own history, something previously unknown to him.

The ‘Shadow King’ of the title is a peasant with an uncanny likeness to the now-exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. While Selassie frets in Bath UK, his ‘shadow’ appears, almost like a vision, before the troops to inspire them. I wasn’t particularly convinced by this Shadow King character. He seemed rather implausible and unnecessary and by choosing the ‘The Shadow King’ as the title, the author gives him a prominence not found in the book itself.

There is a lot going on in this book. Told in the present tense, the point of view switches back and forth between characters, separated only by an icon. The text is interrupted by short incantations by the ‘Chorus’, evoking a Greek play. There are short descriptions headed ‘Photo’ which describe a photograph taken by Navarra, or his framing of a photograph that he will take.

All these diverse elements add to the breadth of the book. Even Fucelli, the butcher of the story, is explored with sensitivity, and Kidane is seen as both ally and monster. Navarra is conflicted: he is the photographer who has captured atrocity but he is also a son, in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous. Women in this book are at the mercy of men, but they too can be violent.

The book is beautifully written, if a little overwrought at times. However, Mengiste was not served well by her proof-reader, who let several typos go through. Notwithstanding these glitches, I finished the book feeling as if I had been in the hands of a masterful, poetic writer, who had taken me to a theatre of war totally unknown to me. She has eschewed the male-dominated military narrative to see women as active fighters, and ultimately all actors as victims. I can see why this book was short-listed for the Booker. It makes me wonder how ‘Shuggie Bain’ bested it.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. I have had it reserved for months!

‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

2017, 320 p.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m always a sucker for an American Civil War book, but I didn’t realize that this was going to be one until I started reading it. (I should have read the back of the book, where it is quite clear that this is set in 1850s America). I had been more attracted by the author, Sebastian Barry, whose A Long, Long Way and The Secret Scripture I had read before. Those two books were both set in Ireland, and I expected this to be the same.

It was only when I started reading that the memory floated back of a fellow postgraduate working on the Irish involvement in the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, the main character in this book, is such a man: driven as a 17 year old from famine-struck Ireland, he joins the army to fight in the Indian Wars and there he befriends- indeed, more than befriends – falls in love- with his brother-in-arms John Cole. I certainly hadn’t expected that, and was brought up with a jolt when Barry comes out and says it: “And then we quietly f**ked and then we slept”.

Before joining the cavalry, and both destitute, Thomas and John work as ‘girls’ on the stage in a mining town starved for women, until they get too old and big to carry off the pretense. Needing work, they join the cavalry. Their platoon is charged with ‘clearing’ the land for white emigration, and they encounter the Oglala Sioux chief Caught-His-Horse-First first in an act of generosity, then betrayal. Discharged from the army, Thomas and John head for the midwest, taking with them Winona, the niece of Chief Caught-His-Horse-First, to form a make-shift and unusual family. They rejoin the theatre-circuit, and Thomas reprises his cross-dressing act. When the Civil War comes, they join up on the Union side. It is an ugly war, and its ugliness pursues them into their post-war life.

It’s strange: I was completely drawn into this book and finished it in an afternoon. Yet, when writing this post, I was left mainly with impressions and I confess to having to look up other reviews to remember the actual plot. The book as a whole made a stronger impact than the individual details.

In reading this book, there were flashes of Cold Mountain and unexpected echoes of Blood Meridian. There is certainly violence, but somehow it is dream-like and disconnected. The narrative voice in this book, speaking in the present tense throughout, in my head sounded to be a completely American accent, without even a trace of Irishness. It is, essentially, a love story, with beautiful descriptions of landscape and climate. I don’t often read a book with a film in mind, but I expect to see this on the screen one day, as it has a very filmic, epic quality.

My rating: 8

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library