Category Archives: Book reviews

‘City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest’ by Sophie Cunningham

2019, 224 p.

As might be guessed from the full title City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest this book of essays ties together a number of disparate topics: trees, the natural world, human heedlessness, loving and dying. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

So why trees? Sophie Cunningham has been photographing trees on her Instagram account for some time. The act of walking past a tree, stopping to photograph it, and to in effect ‘curate’ it as part of a collection means that she looks at trees closely. The trees are rooted in different countries- most particularly North America and Australia- reflecting Cunningham’s own journeyings between these two countries. So too the essays which combine personal reflection, and non-fictional writing. As one might expect from an author who has lived in America for a few years, there is a strong American focus, while at the same time, having written the Melbourne volume of New South Books series on Australian capital cities, the book is replete with stories of Melbourne and its history.

So there has been a concerted attempt to create a unity out of these disparate elements through the ‘sketch/small essay/big essay’ structure of the book. The essays themselves are very discursive, like jumping from one branch to another in a huge tree. This seemed particularly true of the earlier essays, particularly ‘The Fall’ and ‘Staying with the Trouble’, which ricocheted from one idea to the other. I don’t know whether I became more accustomed to her writing, or whether this digressive writing was reined in by the later stories. Call me a stickler for a narrative thread, but I preferred the more disciplined ones.

Given the effort that had gone into crafting an identity for this set of essays as a entity, I was startled and disconcerted by the inclusion of a chapter from a previous book Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy. I was reading this as an e-book, and perhaps if it had been a print version I might have been alert to the ‘additional advertising’ nature of this final chapter. As it was, the sense of ’rounding off’ that came in her final chapter, Mountain Ash, was ruptured. A poor choice, I thought, on someone’s part.

I always find it difficult to review short stories and books of essays. Despite the care in creating an overarching structure for these essays, I did find them particularly – and at time, too – discursive within themselves. The ache for the environment comes through strongly, but in many ways I preferred the more intimate human stories.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

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

‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’ by Shashi Tharoor


2017, 261 p. plus notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time dabbling around in 19th century Colonial Office papers, albeit only between 1825 and 1848. The correspondence files to and from the colonies in the British Public Records Office are bound in huge volumes, arranged alphabetically by colony for each year, in fading brown (previously black) copperplate writing, with fascinating little side notes scribbled in the margins from various Colonial Office officials at different levels of the hierarchy. But you won’t find the Indian correspondence in these volumes: instead, it was dealt with and bound completely separate from the other Colonial Office mail. Within the Colonial Office bureaucracy, there was an ‘Indian’ track and an ‘Other Empire’ track, and never the twain did meet. It struck me as strange at the time, but I can understand it a little better after reading Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Although there was a template to all British-colony interaction, in India the expropriation and British-centredness of policy outstripped that of other colonies, and no doubt it suited the Colonial Office for that particular corporate approach and memory to remain corralled away from other colonial exploits.

This book had its genesis in a 2015 debate at the Oxford Union on the proposition that ‘Britain Owes Reparations to her Former Colonies’. Tharoor, speaking on the affirmative side, argued that – yes, reparations were owed- but given the impossibility of calculating them and the passage of time, they should be set at one pound per year for each year of British colonization. His arguments during the debate, he thought, needed little repetition, but when his contribution to the debate went viral, he realized that indeed, many people were not aware of the deliberately rapacious colonial policy that underpinned Britain’s treatment of India.

“Ah, but we gave India its railways, its facility with English, its bureaucracy, its parliamentary and legal system, tea and cricket!” those nostalgic for Britain’s Greatness – including historians Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James – protest. One by one, Tharoor unpicks these claims, although conceding the tea and cricket.

In Chapter 1 ‘The Looting of India’ he points out the financial rape of India’s economy through exorbitant taxation, manipulation of currency and the forced payment of pensions for Europeans who spent time in India before returning ‘home’ (a practice that settler colonies also had to comply with, although some Colonial Office appointees did remain in their adopted colonial home). The British government protected its own industries – the fabric industry, the steel and ship building industries – by insisting on the importation of  British manufacture by its colonies and using excises to decimate the Indian export industries. It wasn’t, he claims, that India “missed the bus” of industrialization: instead, it was thrown right under it.

Chapter 2 explores the question “Did the British give India political unity?” He argues that there had already been several empires that had united the landmass of India, and veering somewhat into speculation, that there was no reason why it could not have happened again without British interference. He points out that, unlike in the settler colonies, there was never any intention to give India self-government. The entire focus of the famed Indian Civil Service was British-focused, providing no route for Indian-born employees to progress, and forming a pool of eligible, bored British bachelors who were snared by the ‘fishing fleets’ of Englishwomen looking for European husbands with whom they would return to England after fulfilling their requisite period of luxurious exile.

Ch. 3 turns to ‘Democracy, the Press and Parliamentary System and the Rule of Law’ – those features that Niall Ferguson describes as Britain’s “gifts” to their colonies. Certainly, India adopted (blindly, Tharoor asserts) the British parliamentary system and form of democracy.  Certainly, there was a lively press in India, but it was subjected to far more scrutiny than the Anglo-Indian press which often promoted violence and prejudice. Certainly, India adopted the British ‘rule of law’ but this law took no heed of the existing traditional legal system (just as happened with indigenous law in Australia) and it was overwhelming used against Indians. He points out that India still has laws on its books, especially in regard to sexuality, that have since been repealed or abolished in Britain.

Chapter 4 ‘Divide Et Impera’ argues that it was the British was conceptualized and reified the idea that religion and caste divided India. Tharoor concedes that religion and caste certainly existed before the British arrived, but they were not the monoliths that Britain claimed and there was more interaction between them than Britain conceded. There had been intra-religious violence among religious and caste groups, but he suggests that this violence occurred at times of political crisis. During the grudgingly-conceded Independence and the disastrous Partition, Britain favoured Jinnah and the Muslim League, and Congress allowed itself to be imprisoned and sidelined.

Ch. 5 returns to ‘The Myth of the Enlightened Despot’. He points out that the Spanish Flu affected 1/3 of the population – 125 million cases- and caused 12.5 million deaths (out of the estimated 50 million world wide). During the Raj, there were famines in 1770,  1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. There have been no famines since Independence. British history remembers Peterloo (18 deaths 400-700 injuries) and the Boston Commons ‘massacres’ (5 deaths, 6 injuries) but these pale into insignificance against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre  where British troops fired on a crowd of Indian men, women and children in a confined space, killing at least 376 people and wounded 1137.

Ch 6 ‘The Remaining Case for Empire’ looks that those other Good Things that Britain is said to have gifted India: the railways (they were exorbitantly built for freight, but not people), language (yes, but the literacy rate was only 16% and it was certainly not intended to be a route to equality), tea – yes and cricket -yes.

In Chapter 7 ‘The (Im)balance Sheet’ Tharoor turns particularly to Niall Ferguson and to a lesser extent Lawrence James and other apologists for the British Empire, refuting their arguments and pointing out the moral consequences of colonial policies. He continues this into Ch 8 ‘The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism’ which deals with imperial amnesia (or even more chillingly, its resurrection as part of Brexit yearnings). Although not calling for financial reparations, he does look to Kohinoor Diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels collection.  He points out that colonialism, not just in India, has a long afterlife with arbitrary national divisions drawn on maps as in the Sykes-Picot carve up of the Middle East, spurious racial claims as with the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and the militarization of Pakistan.

Certainly, taken together this is a damning record. There was much that I had glimpsed from my studies of settler colonies, but had not really understood when drawn to its extremes in India. This is of course, a polemical book, following a single argument as fits its genesis in a debate, but it is well written, measured and draws on a lot of recent research. However, his excursions into speculative history unnerved me, and I wonder whether the current COVID tsunami in India, the increasing inflexibility and belligerence of  Narendra Modi’s BJP, and the prickliness on the Kashmir border support or challenge his argument.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

‘The Passage of the Damned’ by Elsbeth Hardie


2019 335p.


At a time when we’re all locked in our houses because of coronavirus, it seemed apposite to read about other people who had also been locked down. I had been sent this book for review an embarrassingly long time ago, and so I settled down with it, expecting to read about a convict transport ship bearing mainly women passengers bound for New South Wales. I was surprised to end up in a completely different continent, with many of its female convict passengers integrating into a Spanish-speaking community, in many cases leaving their convict history far behind. It’s quite a rattling tale, and one with which I was not familiar.

The convict ship Lady Shore set sail from Portsmouth on 22 April 1797 with 66 female prisoners, 2 male prisoners, 40-something ship’s officers and some 70-odd members of the New South Wales Corps, some of whom were accompanied by their wives and children (the sources give differing numbers). It never made it to Sydney. On 1 August the ship was seized by mutineers, largely drawn from amongst the French, German and Spaniard prisoners of war who had been conscripted against their will into the New South Wales Corps.  One wonders why the British government ever thought that this would be a good idea. With the rallying cry “Vive La Republique!” they took control of the ship near the Brazilian coast, supplemented by other disaffected Irish and English members of the NSW Corps. The captain, chief mate and one of the mutineers were killed. A longboat, containing 29 people including officers, soldiers and some sailors, wives and children, was set adrift from the commandeered ship, reaching shore at San Pedro Rio Grand the next afternoon.  They gradually made their way to Rio de Janeiro, and in many cases, back to London where the mutiny was reported to the government.

Meanwhile, the mutineers and their cargo of female convicts set sail for Montevideo. Because France had defeated Spain during 1794 as part of the Revolutionary Wars, the mutineers felt (correctly) that they would receive the protection of the Spanish government, and they were eventually released, and even financially benefited from taking the ship as a prize of war. One of the ringleaders finally faced British justice and was hanged for the murder of Captain Willcox when he was apprehended some time later. There was little British concern about the female convicts, many of whom converted to Catholicism and blended into Buenos Aires society.

The author, Elsbeth Hardie is a journalist in New Zealand. Before writing this book, she had written another non-fiction book The Girl Who Stole Stockings, based on the life of her maternal ancestor, Susannah Noon, who was sentenced to transportation for the theft of stockings when she was twelve years old. Although this 1794 journey of the Lady Shore carried female convicts, they play a minor role in this book- as, indeed, they did in the eventual outcome of the mutiny.

The book is written as a chronological narrative history, divided up by subheadings but not into separate chapters. While this does drive the action forward, there is little shaping of an argument as such. The author describes the drawn-out nature of imprisonment prior to embarkation on a convict transport ship, and gives a good picture of the New South Wales Corp ‘enlistment’ which verged on impressment during the Napoleonic Wars, when any half-decent soldier was deployed in fighting rather than guarding convicts on the other side of the world.  I did find myself transfixed by the ‘what next?’ nature of the first part of the book, especially during the mutiny and the immediate aftermath. It was much written about at the time, by both participants and in the newspapers, and Hardie balances competing (and somewhat self-serving) narratives to give a detailed account of events.

The narrative splinters somewhat when it comes to tracing the outcomes for the women convicts. Here Hardie relies- with appropriate acknowledgement- on the work of Argentinian scholar Joseph M. Massini Ezcurra in the 1950s, whose work was taken up by Juan M. Méndez Avellanada writing from the 1980s and whose book Las Convictas de la Lady Shore was published in English in 2008. When the female prisoners arrived, they were located in a Bethlemite convent called La Residencia in Buenos Aires. From there, they found work as servants in Buenos Aires families, married, and disappeared into respectability or – in relatively few cases – moved into prostitution and petty crime. Most converted to Catholicism, either through conviction or as a survival mechanism, and blended into society. Their names in the records were often rendered into their Spanish translation e.g. Susannah King became Susana Rey; Lucy Whitehouse became Lucia Blanco. Sometimes their names were written phonetically; other women reverted to their maiden names or adopted another names. At this point, the genealogical detail of the hunt tends to swamp the narrative.

The discussion of sources appears, rather strangely, at the end of the book. This could be the author’s way of bringing the story into the 20th and 21st century.  Texts and sources continued to appear as recently as 2012, when Sotheby’s sold the diary of Thomas Millard, the ship’s carpenter, which was purchased by a private buyer and has disappeared since. It was a strange way to finish the book, and I felt that it cried out for a concluding chapter, drawing out the major themes and rounding off the story.

I found myself likening this book to Cassandra Pybus’ Truganini (my review here), not in terms of content, but in its avoidance of secondary literature and sidestepping of academic work that would have added so much to this book. In this case, I don’t know whether it is because Hardie has a journalist, rather than historian, background or whether, as in Pybus’ case, it is a more deliberate authorial choice. In her descriptions of the prison system and the women’s crimes, I found myself thinking back to E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (my review here) which explains the ‘mission creep’ of the Black Act in the protection of property and the distortions it created in sentencing decisions and leading to so many commutations of life sentences to transportation. Greg Dening did such an excellent job in talking about naval discipline, leadership,character and mutiny in Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, which I would have loved to have seen Hardie draw on when discussing the rather pusillanimous (and young) Ensign William Minchin of the NSW Corps. And what would Kirsten McKenzie, one of my favorite historians and author of Scandal in the Colonies and A Swindler’s Progress (my review here) done with Major James Semple, imposter extraordinaire and one of her most robust characters and informants? In Semple’s life (or rather, lives), and in the lives of the women convicts, Hardie gives us multiple examples of the slipperiness of identity in colonial port cities that McKenzie explores so well.

Nonetheless, I am again wishing for a different book, rather than the one I have in my hands.  By her focus on one example, Hardie draws a vivid picture of global politics as it played out on the high seas during the Revolutionary Wars. She captures well the coerced nature of life in the NSW Corps, and highlights the elisions between role of prisoner, guard, sailor and soldier. Far from a lonely ship sailing off onto the high seas, she paints a picture of a network of ships, criss-crossing the globe and circulating different ports, not unlike those maps of flight paths in the back of the airline magazine when we used to be able to fly. Particularly the first half of her book is engrossing narrative history, and I must admit that I  have not often had to put ‘Spoiler Alert’ at the start of a review of a history!

Sourced from: review copy from Australian Scholarly Press.

‘Drink, Smoke, Pass Out’ by Judith Lucy


2014, 256 p.

After finally finishing the harrowing The Discomfort of Evening, I needed something to laugh at. I knew that I had Judith Lucy’s book on my shelves, so I dug it out. I had read her Lucy Family Alphabet, which I enjoyed. I expected that this book would be in the same vein, but it took me into more of the same destructive behaviour (albeit in a more adult and benign form) that confronted me so much in Rijneveld’s book. Perhaps it was probably not the best choice of comedy writing after all. 

Judith Lucy has been mining her life for comedy gold for years. She speaks with a rather affected, yet Aussie, drawl which is both annoying and highly distinctive. Her focus is almost entirely on her own life. However, being ten (well, thirteen) years younger than I am, I quite enjoy watching her going through lifestyle changes that I’ve already experienced, and I now champion her as a middle-aged female comedian. The first third of this book is a subversion of the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon which fortunately passed me by, and she certainly did drink, smoke and pass out, become too involved with the wrong men, and end up needy and full of fragile bravado.

Fortunately Judith Lucy does eventually move on from the alcohol, bongs and unconsciousness. Starting off as a tale of a dissolute life, it ends up as an exploration of spirituality. In this regard, it’s almost like the companion book to her television program Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey. I’m not averse to a bit of spiritual tourism myself, but I can imagine that some readers would be rather put off by the change in direction.

So, it was not quite the refuge from The Discomfort of Evening that I thought it would be, given that both books deal in different ways with physical self-harming and religion. But give me Judith Lucy any day.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

aww2020I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld


2020,   282 p. Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchinson

Preamble: I read this because it was shortlisted for the Booker International. I am appalled that it won. Surely there is enough pain and unhappiness in the world.

Ten year old Jas lives on a Dutch dairy farm run by her strict Dutch Reformed church parents. I don’t know if she was disturbed before her family faced a tragedy, but she certainly is afterwards. Not just her: the whole family is cycling into a vortex of wordless despair. She is frightened that her father is going to leave; her mother has collapsed in on herself in grief; her brother is sadistic; her sister is in a similar place to Jas herself.

I spent most of this book flinching from its unrelieved misery and cruelty and self-abuse. Her parents’ Christianity is harsh and emotionally sterile, and it is juxtaposed against a world obsessed with bodily functions. The children are largely left to find their own way through the tragedy, and the depth of mourning over the loss seems unbalanced against the indifference with which the children are treated. In my mind the farm seemed cold, dismal and muddy, with no beauty in anything or anyone.

I found this a really disturbing book, which means that it will probably stay with me. I don’t know if I really want it to. It’s a debut novel: does this mean that it has succeeded? I suppose it does – and it has certainly attracted critical acclaim- but I felt like having a hot shower and seeking out a book to make me laugh, to remove the misery that clung to me as I finished it.

Rating: I have no idea. Would I recommend it? Only for the strong-stomached.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize.


‘Light in my Darkness’ by Helen Keller


Revised and expanded by Ray Silverman, 2000, 146 p.

This book, originally called My Religion, was written by Helen Keller in 1927,when she was 47 years old. She was certainly not the little girl standing beside the water pump in the garden any more. After graduating from Radcliffe College, Helen Keller had already achieved fame through the publication of her autobiography in 1903. Between 1920 and 1924, when money was tight, she and her teacher Ann Sullivan joined the vaudeville circuit, where they conducted two twenty-minute shows each day, as celebrity acts. Her family certainly disapproved of this way of earning money, and Ann Sullivan didn’t enjoy it. From 1924 onwards she became an ambassador and fundraiser for the American Foundation of the Blind- a far more ‘respectable’ role. This gave her a public profile and a platform to publicize the needs of the blind, but also to share her religious beliefs with the wider world.

As she tells it, since making her connection between language and the world, Helen Keller had had a spiritual hunger. She ‘spoke’ with the rector of Trinity (Episcopalian) Church Boston, Phillips Brooks about some of her religious questions but her main spiritual guide was the assistant to family friend Alexander Graeme Bell, Swiss-born John Hitz.  He introduced her to the writings of the famous 18th century Swedish theologian, scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg when she was in her early teens and he continued to support her spiritual development for the rest of his life. This book of a series of essays was, in a slightly different form, published as My Religion.

It’s hard to know how to read religious writing, especially when you don’t share the writer’s convictions. Keller was often criticized for the “literary-ness” of her writing, and that is certain true here, where she is writing in the devotional-writing genre which by its nature seeks to use words to capture emotion and reflection about the spiritual world.

This re-ordered edition starts with a biography of Helen Keller written by Dorothy Hermann, whose longer biography I reviewed here. It then moves through a series of chapters where Keller writes first, about her own religious development, and then about Swedenborg’s life and writings. I must confess that I found these Swedenborg chapters heavy going. They were fairly lengthy and wordy, and I was not particularly comfortable with her full-throated adulation of Swedenborg’s ideas. I wondered if the context in which I was reading them was wrong, so I decided to read them after my morning meditation, when I’m in a more contemplative mood. They still remained turgid and flat. However, I did enjoy the shorter chapters near the end of the book, which did lend themselves to ‘devotional’-type reading.

I was particularly interested in the editor’s note at the end of the book. Helen Keller did not find writing easy. She admitted that she found it hard to distinguish her own words (i.e.  words that she generated) from words that had been spelled out onto her hand by someone else. She was not able to skim-read what she had written previously, and when she was interrupted, she lost her thread. Parts of this book had been written years earlier and pasted into the manuscript. She certainly was not happy with her draft of My Religion which she handed over for publication, hoping that someone else would be able to do the editorial work that she could not. But it was published unedited and remained in print in its original form until this revision and expansion in 1994 with a second edition in 2000. The editor, Ray Silverman, himself a Swedenborgian from Bryn Athyn (New Church i.e. Swedenborgian- University) rearranged the segments, and put them into more coherent chapters. He added some material from of Keller’s other writings or speeches, and did remove a small amount of the original text.

I must confess that I would never have read this book had I not been preparing a talk on Helen Keller. It’s certainly not light reading in a genre that has a limited audience.

Sourced from: purchased e-book


‘The Eighth Life (for Brilka)’ by Nino Haratischvili


2014, 944  Trans. by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin 2019

OK , Readings Bookstore, you got me. You included a chapter-length teaser of this book with your Readings Monthly newsletter, I read it and straight away put a hold on The Eighth Life at the library. (Sorry, Readings, that probably wasn’t the outcome you wanted!) But then the rather abrupt first shutdown came, with the book waiting on the hold shelf in the inaccessible library and so I turned to Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light  instead. I had no sooner picked up this book from the library than the second shutdown was announced, and so I found myself with six – and then nine – weeks to read it. Not that it took that long. Within about 30 pages I was hooked, and I could barely put it down.

It is a huge family saga of 933 pages, spanning from the start of the 20th century through to the 21st century in Georgia, on the fringe of the Russian and Soviet empires. The narrator, Niza is writing the family history for her 12-year-old niece, Brilka whose life will be the eighth in this family story. Book 1 starts with Stasia, who marries a White Guard turned Red Lieutenant after the Russian Revolution; Book 2 introduces us to Christine, her sister, who becomes involved with the ‘Little Big Man’ Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief. In Book 3 her son Kostya follows his father into the Navy, leaving behind a shattered love affair to become the family patriarch and tyrant. Stasia’s  daughter Kitty, for whom Book 4 is named, flees Georgia and becomes a dissident songwriter in the West. Book 5  deals with Kostya’s wayward daughter, Elene, who has two daughters Daria (Book 6) who is Brilka’s mother, and Niza (Book 7) the narrator. Brilka’s story, in Book 8, is yet to be told.

This makes the book sound more linear than it actually is. The women of the family – sisters, aunts-  live inordinately long lives, and they are present in the lives of their great-granddaughters and great-grandnieces. The family memory is long enough that events recur, and resonances in one generation sound in succeeding generations.  It was good to read a book where the matriarchal line carried the real strength, with mothers, aunts and female friends carrying out the nurturing roles and driving the family forward. The atrocities -and there are atrocities- lie at the heart of what it is to be a woman.

At the same time, there was a hint of magical realism with a family chocolate recipe, that is never divulged to the reader but carried from one generation of women to the next. It tastes exquisite but often seems to carry a curse. Does the book need this magic chocolate? Probably not, but it does underline the fairytale narrative of the book.

There is no family tree at the start of the book, as one might expect, but the separate books are long enough that characters are clearly embedded in your consciousness, and I rarely found myself thinking “Hold on, who’s that again?” I certainly learned more about Georgia than I expected I would. The book is somewhat discursive, following other characters beyond the eight lives of the title but it’s best to just go with it and enjoy, instead of becoming impatient to return to the main story.

I just loved this book. It was perfect reading for a lock-down, when you have sufficient time to immerse yourself in a big fat book.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott


2019, 304 p.

Some writers are noted for the diversity of themes and genres they explore. I’m thinking, for example, of Joyce Carol Oates, where each book seems to be completely unconnected to the one that came before or after it. Other writers, in contrast, have themes that they return to again and again, approaching them from different angles, probing them, teasing them out.

Kim Scott is one of the latter. I haven’t read his first Miles Franklin Award winning book Benang (although I can see it winking at me from my bookshelf), but I gather from reviews that he returns to events and places from that earlier book in this, most recent, one. His second Miles Franklin Award winning book That Deadman Dance (my review here) took us back to the earliest days of white settlement, with a wistful ‘if only’ and regret for lost opportunities. In Taboo those ‘if only’s’ are long past, but like That Deadman Dance, the book does hold out possibilities for reconciliation, albeit with a more jaundiced eye. I think of the two books as bookends of a long history of dispossession, neglect and treachery between the 1830s and 2020.

In Taboo, Tilly has only just recently become aware of her indigenous heritage when her dying father asks to make contact with her from jail. She finds that she has half-siblings, aunts and uncles that she not known about, but she is wary in approaching this community which reaches out to embrace her as ‘Jim Coolman’s girl’. She is a damaged young woman, who has only recently escaped from an abusive relationship, described at first just in fragments, adding to your sense of a dread as a reader. The Wirlomin community invites her to return to country for the opening of a Peace Park, sponsored by the Kepalup Local Historical Society, who hope that the ‘traditional owners’ will add some authentic indigenous flavour to the proceedings.

Tilly has her own unfinished business during this visit too. As a baby, she was fostered by a white couple, Dan and Janet Horton, who live on Kokanarup, a station that was the site of a massacre and thus taboo to the indigenous community. She remembers little of the fostering, but Dan remembers her and wishes that his late wife, who had died only months previously, had been there to see her again. Janet Horton had been one of the instigators of the Peace Park project, aware of the history of Kokanarup, but the Horton family and the white community generally have firm boundaries to the ‘reconciliation’ on offer. For white Australia, actually giving the land back is the ultimate taboo.

Nearly two hundred years of colonization have taken their toll on this community. There are the old stories, handed on from generation to generation, but much of the Noongar language has been lost and now culture has to be consciously taught in programs or, as in this 6 day trip, through camps and activities.  Tilly’s own father, Jim Coolman, had started such programs in jail, and he turns to one of his students, Gerry, to make contact with Tilly once her gets out of jail. It is a community finding itself again, holding tight to the things that have remained, and with a determination to rebuild and hand on to the next generation. There is drug and alcohol abuse and crime, but there is also generosity, humour and laughter. The return to Kokanarup is part of this healing. Language is at the heart of it: learning the old  world, binding together through shared language.

The abuse that Tilly has escaped- and is still escaping- is uncovered in the second half of the book, and it has not finished yet. There are bad people drifting around the community – Gerrard, Gerald’s identical twin, is stoned or violent (and sometimes both at once) and a white prisoner officer and drug pusher, Doug, abuses his power at both a community and personal level. There is also the condescension of the college Aboriginal Support Officer, Maureen McGill, who blithely tells the Noongah kids that she has worked with lots of Aboriginal people, “cultural people, still on their country” (i.e. ‘real’ Aboriginals), and is just as keen for the trappings of Aboriginality – the didgeridoos, the dancing- as the Kepalup Local Historical Society.

The book is beautifully constructed, with a circularity that always appeals to me as a reader. Scott has such a good ear for dialogue, and he writes about the land with love and perception. I think that I probably preferred That Deadman Dance, but that was probably a ‘safer’ book, where  the ‘historical fiction’ genre avoids the question of current-day intransigence and inaction on the part of white Australia. Taboo is quietly insistent that there are questions that need to be answered, and relationships that need to be repaired.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from:  Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book



‘Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse’ by Cassandra Pybus


2020, 336 p.

The front cover of Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini shows Peter Dombrovski’s photograph of the sinuous, black ribbons of kelp at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania. It’s a beautiful and yet unnerving photograph that is just right for this story of a black, evil period of Australia’s history that still congeals and clogs our sense of ourselves as Australians.

Truganini is a story based on historical sources, but Pybus has chosen not to write history here, with footnotes and forays into the historiography and secondary source material about Tasmanian indigenous history. As a historian, I regret that.

The approximately 250 km of Bass Strait that separates Victoria and Tasmania is not a wide expanse of water, but Victorian and Tasmanian histories have tended, until recent years (e.g. James Boyce’s 1835; Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners ) to have been told as two separate histories of development. This is particularly true in the consideration of Truganini,  for a long time wrongly described as the “last Tasmanian Aborigine” as one story, and the story of the “Van Diemen’s Land Blacks” (as they were described at the time) who accompanied the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson to the Port Phillip settlement in 1839 as a separate story. I have read of Robinson’s activities in Tasmania through Plomley’s work (most recently revisited in Johnston and Rolls’ collection of essays in Reading Robinson, and in Leonie Steven’s beautifully written Me Write Myself) and I have also read in more details of his activities in Victoria ( most particularly in Auty and Russell’s Hunt Them, Hang Them). But until now, I haven’t read another work that sees the Tasmanian and Victorian experiences as a unified event, part of this unfolding ‘apocalypse’ that swept away all the certainties of a long-established lifestyle in an environment that could be bounteous, but also unrelenting.

Cassandra Pybus’ own life story is tied up with that of Truganini. Her family history in Tasmania starts with the grant of Neunonne land  on North Bruny Island  to her great-great grandfather Richard Pybus, thus implicating her own family directly in the dispossession of Truganini’s own land. She had heard family tales of an old woman picking her way across the land – her traditional Neunonne land, (although the Pybus family wouldn’t have seen it that way) and Pybus herself  purchases and lives in her uncle’s house built directly adjacent the old convict station at Oyster Cove where Truganini spent the last thirty years of her life.

Perhaps because it is a story personal to herself that Pybus has decided to write this as a narrative biography, rather than an academic history. As with any other writer working in this area, she relies heavily on the journals of George August Robinson, the self-appointed ‘Protector’ of Aborigines. Written in an almost illegible scrawl, these journals are a mixture of bombast, ego, information, sketches, occasional introspection and frequent obliviousness.  In her introduction, she writes:

In writing this book, I have deliberately confined myself to first-person accounts from people who saw her and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then – ideally- made a contemporaneous record of it. Such sources are very few and they are all culturally loaded. Robinson’s journals, however narcissistic and ideologically driven, are the best sources available , which bestows on this highly problematic man an outsized role in her story that he doesn’t really merit. (p. xix)

She doesn’t hold back on her own opinion of Robinson- an opinion much more critical than many other historians who are alternately repelled but puzzled by him:

Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described. The challenge I have set myself is to somehow release these people from entrapment in a paternalising and self-serving account of the colonial past.  I want to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth (p. xix)

And this is where my regret that she has chosen not to write a history comes in: that without footnotes, and without acknowledging the work of historians with whom she has clearly talked – her friend Lyndall Ryan for just one- as a reader, I cannot tell where Robinson and the other observers end, and Pybus takes up, especially in ascribing Truganini’s motives and responses.

But I am in danger of letting my desire for a different book obscure my pleasure in the book that we do have. In Pybus’ Truganini – as distinct from the ‘last Tasmanian aborigine’ Truganini- we have a flesh-and-blood woman who swims and dives, who struggles through harsh landscapes and complains of having to walk instead of taking the boat, has friendships, loves children, uses her body and her sexuality to get what she wants, and resists being corralled into Robinson’s vision of a compliant, dying race.

I hadn’t realized just how far Robinson and his ‘guides’ walked on the different ‘missions’ between 1830 and 1834. They literally circumnavigated Tasmania, across varied terrains in often appalling weather. Pybus’ writing glows in describing landscape: you can just see them sinking into wetlands, scrabbling up and down rocky slopes.  Then there were the ‘missions’ back and forth, trying to ‘conciliate’ particular tribes – or what was left of them- all part of Robinson’s plan and purpose,  none of which he could have undertaken without them.

By “reading against the archival grain” in Robinson’s journals, you can see how resistant Truganini and his other ‘guides’ were to his mission. There was a whole tribal political and economic network in operation to which Robinson was oblivious and excluded. In a ‘search’, it was dubious who was seeking and who was sought.  Women were ‘rescued’ from the Bass Strait sealers, but refused to go with Robinson, preferring to stay with the sealers. There was a sexual trade in operation – and Truganini was a participant – and Robinson was powerless to stop it.

The two-facedness and betrayal in Robinson’s behaviour is breath-taking. He ‘brought in’ people of the varying nations with promises that he did not keep, often pleading that he had sought permission but been denied.  He promised to rescue daughters from the sealers, but did not (and could not) do so. He held out the promise of fertile land on the north-east tip of Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires, knowing that the eventual outcome was not this rich territory, but instead a windswept Bass Strait island.

His abandonment of his ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ family in Port Phillip, after bringing them over by various ruses, is reprehensible. Robinson had  arrived in Port Phillip well before Superintendent La Trobe arrived, and by then he had virtually washed his hands of their charge, more intent on bolstering his career by building the bureaucracy of the Protectorate in Port Phillip. His ‘Van Diemen’s Land family’ simply just falls out of his journals, and his conscience.

It was Truganini’s longevity that leaves her at the end of a dismal story of betrayal and illness, as gradually the people around her sicken and children are never born. It is difficult to find ‘agency’ in this slow denouement, but there is instead a steady resistance as Truganini refuses to fit into the fairy tale ending of an arranged marriage and a cottage in a simulacrum of “civilization”.

The book closes with a series of short biographies of the various indigenous people who Truganini encountered, either as part of her pre-Robinson days, during the so-called ‘Friendly Missions’ or through their enforced proximity on Wyballenna and Oyster Cove. These are arranged by nation, reflecting the importance of country as identity. They highlight that Truganini, like all of us, played various roles amongst the people she knew: friend, sexual partner, fellow expeditioner on the so called ‘Friendly Missions’. They make daunting and depressing reading.

The book has excellent maps at the start, which I found myself consulting often. The text rarely mentioned places not shown on the map, and it was easy to locate where the action was taking place. There are two sets of colour plates, but unfortunately no index, which made the biographies at the end of the book awkward to negotiate if you were unaware of the tribal origins of each individual. Her primary sources are cited, but no secondary literature at all.

I come to this book as a historian, and so I regret the lack of footnotes and engagement with the huge body of scholarship and the historical debates. The research has been done and her passion is clearly apparent.  Her work is, as historian Henry Reynolds blurbs on the back cover “of unquestionable national importance” but by her choices she has moved it out of the historiographical realm.

But there is no gainsaying the beauty of Pybus’ prose in describing landscape, and her sensitivity to Truganini’s agency and cohesiveness as an intelligent, resilient woman in a maelstrom of disruption and under a burden of grief. Perhaps eschewing the footnotes attracts readers other than historians, and that is important.

As a reader -whether a historian or a general reader-  you leave the book agreeing with Pybus that after all this dispossession, resistance and sorrow, that the “very least we can do is pay attention and give respectful consideration when the original people of this country tell us what is needed” (p 270).  It is, as she says “not too much to ask”. Indeed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: Difficult to say-  commenting as a general reader, 9/10


I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020


‘Helen Keller: A Life’ by Dorothy Herrmann


1998, 425 P

This is the biography that I should have read first, before embarking on Kim E. Nielsen’s The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. It is a much longer book, dealing with her whole life, right from birth until death, and it is not overtly written from a particular theoretical perspective. It draws heavily on the  many works that Keller herself wrote, previous biographies, and correspondence between Keller and many correspondents, and between that network of correspondents themselves. Herrmann points out that a fire in 1946 destroyed much of Keller’s correspondence, which is of course unavailable to later biographers.

Although the focus is on Keller, this biography also examines her relationship with the two women who were the most important in tethering Keller to the sighted/hearing world: Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson, and to a lesser degree Nella Braddy Henney, who herself wrote a biography of Anne Sullivan. While these relationships are without question fundamental to understanding Keller, Herrmann at times is distracted by telling their stories at some length, to the extent that you wonder as a reader quite where she is going with this.

She casts a critical eye on Anne Sullivan in particular, suggesting that this complex, suffocating relationship brought limitations to both of them. Neither woman would have attained the fame she did without the other. There was one occasion in particular where I wondered how much evidence Herrmann was operating on when she offered a number of rather startling, left-field suggestions for a ‘secret’ alluded to by Helen Keller.

I like how ’rounded’ this biography is. She explores Keller’s sexuality, her politics, her financial situation and her spirituality. She follows through the full length of Keller’s long life, which demonstrated to me Keller’s resilience once she emerged from her grief at the death of Anne Sullivan, and later Polly Thompson. It is clear that Keller had her own politics and her own religion, quite distinct from the opinions of her companions. Perhaps because I’m getting older myself, I’m increasingly interested in the way that people embrace aging, and Keller certainly was active until she was quite old, and I’m glad that Herrmann has stayed with her to the end.

There’s a video interview with Dorothy Herrman here that demonstrates the richness of this biography.

Sourced from: borrowed from the Internet Archive. At a time of lockdown, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get this here.

My rating: 8/10