Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Lake House’ by Kate Morton

morton_the-lake-house

2015, 591p.

It was not my choice to read this book. Call me snobbish and superficial, but I’m even  turned off by the cover. There it is with its anachronistic photo of yet another woman’s back (although at least you can see her face here), and the fact that the author’s name is in a larger font than the title (one of my ‘amber lights’ warning of books that I probably shouldn’t read).  Kate Morton is a best-selling Australian author and has written several books, all with similar names and covers. Normally, I would steer well clear. However, this book was the selection for my bookgroup and because I am a very conscientious book-grouper, I read it.

It’s a mixture of a  historic big-house novel and a current-day police cold-case story featuring a middle-aged female detective. I’m rather guiltily partial to both genres. I’ve read my share of ‘big house’ books: I loved The Go-Between in Year 12, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, innumerable Victoria Holt books when I was 15, Molly Keane’s books and Atonement.  And in terms of cold-case police stories, after I finish writing this review, I’ll go off to watch Unforgotten on the TV to get my dose of intelligent female police detectives. All these indulgences are just that: they’re ‘down-time’ leisure, when I turn my mind off and just go with it. Which is how I think about The Lake House. It’s the sort of book you might read when you’re on a week’s holiday and want to just immerse yourself in a fairly-undemanding read.

There are two narratives interwoven through the book, one set in 1933 and the other in 2003, both based on the house Loeanneth and its mysteries. In 1933 it was the home of Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their three daughters and baby son, Theo who mysteriously disappeared on Midsummer’s Eve.  The second narrative, set in 2003 centres on Sadie Sparrow, a London detective who has been stood down and told to ‘take a holiday’ after she spoke to the press about a missing-child case.  She travels down to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather and when she stumbles on the now-derelict Loeanneth, she is driven to find out what happened to the family who left it so abruptly after the disappearance of the little boy.

There are red-herrings and misdirections galore, and although some of them took me by surprise, I guessed the too-pat ending ahead of time.  I suppose that I should be pleased that I actually knew who dunnit by the end, instead of plaintively wailing “But I don’t get it…..”

The book contains every possible big-house and cold-case cliche and at just off 600 pages it certainly is a big baggy monster. There are whole plot lines that could have been omitted without loss, but the twin-narrative structure was well-constructed and sustained across the whole long book. It certainly romped along and drew me in so that I didn’t at all mind reading great slabs of it, which is probably the way you’d read it if it were a holiday read. But it’s not high literature, and I suspect that much of its appeal is that it is so recognizable and comfortable. I won’t be rushing to read another Kate Morton – there are too many other books that are more challenging to read and enjoy, and at 500+ pages, the rewards just aren’t there

My rating: 6/10

Read because:  CAE bookgroup choice.

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

 

‘A River with a City Problem’ by Margaret Cook

River_City_Cook

2019, 198 p plus notes

As it happened, when I was in Brisbane earlier this year, we ambled along the Riverwalk floating walkway. Watching the ferries and catamarans plying the river, crossing the pedestrian bridges and feeling the sand under our toes on the man-made beach, we wondered “Why doesn’t Melbourne do more with its river?”  Then we passed a restaurant on the walkway that had a mark on its window (which I’ve highlighted here in red) to show the height of the 2011 flood.  You can gauge its height by the legs on the stools at the bottom of the window.

river

At first I thought “What resilience!” but after reading Margaret Cook’s book, I’m not so sure.  This restaurant would have been under water in 1893 and 1974 had it been there then, and it will be under water again when the floods inevitably return. This dogged determination to keep rebuilding is exactly what Cook means when she says that the Brisbane River is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.

White settlers, like the indigenous people who were here before them, are always drawn to fresh water sources. They should have listened to the Turrbal and Jagera people whose Dreamtime stories tell how the river was created by Moodagurra, with an emphasis on the rain and cloud that allowed him to wriggle to form the sinuous river. Of course, they didn’t listen to anyone. Early development took place on the floodplain, subjected to regular floods, but riverfront continued to be viewed as prime land.

Until 1893, that is, when the floodwaters surged onto the floodplains, where homes, wool sheds warehouses and industries had been located. Thirty-five people drowned. The solution? Why, build a dam, of course!….and this has been the approach in Brisbane ever since. There was a hiatus between 1893 and 1974, when drought was often more of a problem than flood, but inevitably the floods came again, and the Somerset dam was found lacking. And so, the solution? Why, build another dam – this time, the Wivenhoe, which was designed to be a dual-purpose dam that would maintain a water supply for Brisbane in times of drought, but also prevent Brisbane and Ipswich from flooding during heavy rains.  A shorter hiatus this time, between 1974 and 2011, then inevitably the floods came after days and days of rain. This time, the ubiquity of smart phones meant that the flood was captured in all of its swirling, turbid power, and rank, stinking aftermath.

This book tells the story of the three major floods – 1893, 1974 and 2011 – from ecological, geographical and human perspectives. More importantly, though, it looks at the failure of policy as successive governments of both persuasions lacked the courage to say ‘enough!’ and prevent development on the floodplain. In the aftermath of a crisis, there’s a proud defiance in claiming that” we will rebuild” but often it defeats good sense.

But the Queensland governments were even more egregious than other Australian governments, in their dogged pursuit of growth and development at all costs. It’s not just Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s white shoe brigade here; it’s Clem Jones the Labor Mayor of Brisbane, and a succession of Premiers of both persuasions who consistently looked to technology instead of asking the harder question “Should we even be building here?” When other governments were looking at floodplain planning, especially in the light of global climate change, Queensland governments went through the motions, leaving loopholes that were (of course!) exploited, and tip-toeing around developers and their investments.

By the time the 2011 floods came, even though the water level itself was lower than earlier floods, the financial implications were disastrous because of the encouragement of higher-density development on the floodplain. She discusses the role of Newscorp media after this flood, most particularly the Australian, in attacking the science behind the decision to release dam water to save the dam, and blaming individuals rather than opening up a broader analysis of the systems that had led to such disastrous results.

The book had its origins in a PhD thesis, which is a remarkably hard genre to shrug off when writing for a more general audience.  This is most obvious in the chapter ‘Flood Management with Hindsight’, which examines the decision to release flood water during the 2011 floods. There are lots of acronyms in this chapter, and I rued the lack of a glossary of abbreviations. I also regretted, as a general reader not local to Brisbane, the lack of a more detailed map of the Brisbane River within the city of Brisbane. There is a map that shows the Brisbane River Catchment more broadly, but when mentioning suburbs and city landmarks, the names meant little to me without a map.

The presence of  images throughout the book, especially when discussing the three floods, breaks up the text. I liked that the pictures were placed within the text, instead of being corralled in the middle of the book as a set of plates – a decision probably made easier by the fact that they were black-and-white newspaper images, rather than colour photos.

By the end of the book, I was not at all confident that anything had been learned at all, and I don’t think that Cook is, either.  That line on the restaurant window showing the flood level that I spoke of earlier seems now to be more an act of hubris, than a mark of resilience.  For now.  Her conclusion, titled “The Floods Will Come Again” is a statement of fact, rather than a prognostication of doom. Perhaps then the political courage might be found to acknowledge that the city itself is the problem, rather than the river.  As the title says, it is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.

Source: review copy courtesy of the author

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

 

 

 

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

pilkington_rabbit

1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

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

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

Fowler_WeAreAll

2014, 336p.

One of the problems with writing a book that is almost completely reliant on a big narrative twist in the middle is that you can’t really review it, without spoiling it for others. So, I won’t do either- review it, or spoil it.

The book is told in the conversational narrative of an American woman looking back over her childhood, which was ruptured when her sister left.  And I’ll leave it at that.

How would I have reacted to this book without the ‘great reveal’, I wonder? Probably not as favourably, because there’s a sort of shocked delight in going back over your assumptions when you’ve had them turned upside down.

Once you’ve read the book, do an image search for the front cover. It’s interesting that some of the front cover designs give away the story much more than the cover on the version I read (above).

Read because: it was a CAE bookgroup selection

My rating: 7/10

‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley

Wheatley_Mothers_Daughter

2018, 352 p.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them.  You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.

That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.

So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.

The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized.  The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.

The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.

It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs.  Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.

Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant  anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.

In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.

Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.

There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir.  Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members,  discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 9/10

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

 

‘Fortune’ by Lenny Bartulin

Bartulin_Fortune

2019, 292 p.

Everyone knows the gods love a good joke, and look… They grinned and nodded between themselves and then pointed down at the crowd, made more random selections: him, her, her, him et cetera. Choices made, they whipped up the sticky tendrils of fate and loosed the surging winds of change (those puff-cheeked cherubs) and ..then the gods took a well-deserved afternoon nap. All that’s left for us are the incomplete maps, to conjecture and argue their scale. (p. 33)

We’re often uncomfortable at the thought of the randomness and contingency of our lives. Even if we don’t believe in a host of gods up in the sky, playing us like chess pieces, it’s unnerving to think that our scheduling and planning can be upset without warning. These capricious and heedless gods of chance pop in and out of Lenny Bartulin’s Fortune, smirking and upending the life trajectories of a sprawling cast of characters reaching from Napoleon’s Berlin of 1806, through to the convict settlements of Australia, ending up on the killing fields of the Western Front.

Characters move in and out of this novel but there is particular interest in four: Johannes Meyer, who is press-ganged into Napoleon’s armies and bounces from one dire situation to the next; Elizabeth von Hoffman who traverses the empire through her connections with different men; Claus von Rolt who deals in the objects of empire, and a questing philosopher Krueger.  This is not a straight-forward narrative, but instead bounces from one character to another, leaving some behind without warning, bringing someone in for little reason before bundling them out again.  It is almost like a film in the way that it cuts abruptly from one scene and storyline to another.  It reminded me a little of Barthes’ The Sotweed Factor or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman in its quick scene changes, large cast of characters and its insouciance about their fates.

The text is divided into ten ‘books’ that move chronologically. Each book is divided into  multiple ‘chapters’, each with a subheading, some only a page in length, others longer. I found the last two ‘books’ unnecessary, where the action jumped from the late 1830s up to 1916. I’m not sure why the author felt he had to do that – some misplaced Anzackery perhaps? The settings are well-known to us through books popular image and film – Napoleon on his horse, a bit of Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore or For the Term of His Natural Life, the colonial excesses of Joseph Conrad. Nonetheless, there has been good research go into this book – for example in the Dutch sugar plantation cities of the South American coast – and the book wears the research with a chuckle.

I read this book in one sitting, on a cold Saturday afternoon which I think would be the perfect way to enjoy it. I don’t think that I could have kept all the characters in mind had I read it in my usual 15-minutes-before-bed mode.  It has glowing blurbs from young(ish) Australian male writers and journalists – Geordie Williamson, Paul Daley and Chris Womersley, and there does seem something ‘masculine’ in the writing [says she, not quite knowing what she means by this] – perhaps the nihilism, sexuality and virtuosity that pervades the book?  I enjoyed it for the romp and its vitality. It requires concentrated reading, and it rewards it.

My rating: 8.5 and possibly 9 out of 10

Sourced from:  Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers didn’t like it: Melanie Kembrey of the SMH did.

 

‘Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman’ by Leigh Straw

straw_dulcie_markham

2019, 251 p. & notes

Historian Leigh Straw has been working on the underworld in Sydney between the 1920s and 1950s for some time. This book forms the third part of a trilogy. In The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016) looked at underworld figure, sly grogger and cocaine dealer Kate Leigh, while in Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018) she looked at Lillian Armfield, the policewoman who, excluded from other types of crime fighting, was charged with chasing down young girls and diverting them from the vices of prostitution and addiction. Working on these two opposing forces – the criminal and the police officer- she kept coming across Dulcie Markham, who was well known to both Kate Leigh and Lillian Armfield. Obviously fond of the long book-title, in Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman, Straw traces the life of this beautiful and notorious woman, who traversed Australia and was completely embedded within the underworlds of the cities in which she lived.

And Dulcie Markham was beautiful: stunningly so. She was known as “Pretty Dulcie”, but she was also known as the “Angel of Death” and “The Hoodoo Girl” as the men with whom she associated were shot and stabbed in a mounting rollcall of violence and death. Born in 1914 in Surry Hills (in Sydney) she ran away from home at the age of fifteen and took up prostitution as one of Tilly Devine’s girls, at a time of rivalry between the two Sydney crime-madams, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, and at a time when sly grog, gambling, larrikins and the Razor Gangs made Sydney a dangerous place to be. She first appeared in court as a member of Sydney’s underworld in 1931, when she gave evidence – or more correctly, stalled in giving evidence- at the inquest into the death of her erstwhile lover by her more recent paramour. This was the first of a number of deaths of five lovers and husbands where she was not physically present, but could well have been involved.

It is interesting to see how the sources available have shaped this story. Dulcie Markham was certainly talked and written about, and her police file was bulky, but she herself rarely spoke to reporters and there is virtually nothing written by Markham herself. As a result, Dulcie’s story was completely embedded within the stories of other people. At times I felt as if the author let herself be caught up too much with these other minor personalities, who had crime histories just as sordid as Dulcie’s.  Sometimes the excursions were triggered by some association, for example a sudden jump forward to the murder of a prostitute in the 1980s when discussing whether Dulcie was intimidated – a fairly tangential connection.  Perhaps it’s part of the crime writing genre itself (I’m thinking of John Silvester’s columns in The Age) but there’s a chatty, familiar chumminess and a bit of a chortle that comes through when the excesses of the underworld are being written. It makes me a little uncomfortable.

Yet this intimacy with the underworld is written within the academic framework of sources, academic books and theses, endnotes and bibliographies. The book wears its research lightly.

What these interwoven anecdotes and networks do demonstrate, again and again, is the violence which seemed almost casual, and the narrow line between being a perpetrator and being a victim.  Dulcie was herself shot and bashed, but bound by the code of silence as part of milieu in which she moved.  Surprisingly, although charged and convicted many times,  she spent remarkably little time in jail herself.  Clear, too, is Dulcie’s mobility as she shifts between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, each time bobbing up in the middle of that city’s underworld, and switching her name frequently. Once in, it was hard to escape.

Straw contextualizes Dulcie’s life well, giving insights into the nature of criminal empires, the specific crime scene in a particular city, the nature of prostitution, and more general social life in Australia across these decades. Her final chapter, when she weighs up Dulcie Markham’s life is strong, where she discusses the trope of the ‘femme fatale’ and assesses her against Anne Summer’s dichotomy of ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’. As against all the things that we don’t know about Dulcie Markham, Straw concludes:

What we do know is Dulcie May Markham was one of the toughest crime figures in Australia from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the violent neighbourhoods of crime across three cities, she proved herself by utilising the avenues then open to women involved in crime- prostitution, sly-grogging and gambling houses. Dulcie showed great intelligence, resilience and a staggering ability to live through intimidation and violence. She was a survivor in a world that saw few live to retire as she did to a quieter life. (p. 243)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

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