Category Archives: Book reviews

‘His Name is George Floyd’ by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa

2022, 380 p

I must admit that I have not watched the video of the full 9 minutes and 29 seconds that it took George Floyd to die under Derek Chauvin’s knee as he was being arrested. I wonder how many people have: after all, nine minutes and 29 seconds doesn’t fit well into a half-hour news broadcast. But in that time a giant of a man, pinned down by a little, cocky man oblivious to the entreaties of George himself and the remonstrations of a small crowd of onlookers, exemplified what the Uluru Statement here in Australia identified as “the torment of our powerlessness”. Since his death on Memorial Day 25 May 2020, George Floyd’s image has been painted on walls, printed onto t-shirts, and the demand to ‘Say His Name’ echoed around the world, spawning protests across the world sparked by, but not restricted to, his death. This book, subtitled ‘One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice’ looks at George Floyd as a person, but also the whole web of history, economics and politics that brought that knee down on his neck.

The book is based on more than 400 interviews with the people who were close to George Floyd. It is interwoven with explanations that knot together the specifics of Floyd’s life and wider historical movements. What this book lays out is the way that structural racism, built gradually by historical events both large and small, government policies and their intended and unintended consequences, and spoken and unspoken assumptions have constructed a web that held George Floyd under, just as surely as that knee did.

Although some of the interviewees, who knew him as Perry rather than George, imbue him with a posthumous sanctity that might not have been commented on while he was alive (a not uncommon phenomenon), there is no attempt here to hide the fact that George Floyd was struggling with poverty and addiction. A big man, he was very much aware that people were frightened of him. He had been a football and basketball player at school and college, in an educational sporting environment that prizes sporting prowess over educational achievement in a lottery of sporting contracts with little preparation for anything else. A string of eight minor crimes led to him accepting a plea bargain for a crime which he probably did not commit, and he spent four years in prison. He left Houston Texas and his extended family to go to Minneapolis, where he tried to start again but was drawn back into addiction.

But there’s a political and social background to all this. Turning back to Reconstruction after the Civil War, there was a deliberate policy of ‘take down’ as black families worked hard and some became successful, only to lose their properties through tax defaults and bureaucratic hurdles imposed on people who, when enslaved, were not permitted to learn how to read. Housing policies and red-lining saw neighbourhoods rise and fall economically; the state of Texas refused outright to desegregate their schools leading to a two-track education system; the plea-bargain system balances the possibilities of long and short sentences in a form of judicial gambling; employment possibilities narrowed once a prison sentence was served; State policies over health and welfare support acted as push factor (away from Texas) and pull factor (towards Minnesota) factors; the opioid epidemic linked the medical system and the street scene; the over-policing of his neighbourhood meant that a disputed $20.00 note ended up in death.

The authors are journalists, and certainly this book flows well. The backgrounding chapters give clear, historical information showing the almost inevitable conjunction of George’s death and the wider forces that had shaped his life. Although there are no footnotes as such, the page-number references at the back of the book give their sources, most with a web reference attached.

The book does not end optimistically. The Rev. Al Sharpton warned George’s brother Philonise that for every action there is a reaction, and this has proven to be true. The conservative uproar about Critical Race Theory and the ‘White Lives Matter’ rhetoric is a pushback and an attempt to silence. But I don’t think that you could finish reading this book without having a better grasp of the sequence of small events that constitutes structural racism, and its almost inevitable aftermath.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country’ by Gillian Slovo

1997,282 p.

Gillian Slovo, the daughter of white anti-Apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First, was standing with her siblings at just one of the many public events surrounding her father’s funeral. Nelson Mandela came in.

[Mandela] told us how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched away from him, and burst out “You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.”

He let that last sentence hover before speaking again. This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment…

They knew it somewhere, all their generation: as the state poured out its wrath, they had watched their children suffer. And yet, and yet- what else could they have done?

p.214

What else could they have done? This is the question that lies at the heart of Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing. The answer she would give, I think, is “more”. More time, more contact, more honesty, more love. As the child of two committed, White anti-Apartheid activists, Slovo and her sisters shared their parents with a broader political project, as suggested by the title. Their family and their country were indivisible, even though they spent many years living elsewhere. They had grown up with secrets, with whispered conversations between heads almost touching, with a succession of fleeting and shadowy contacts and the knowledge that, as far as their parents were concerned, they always took second place to the larger struggle. Their father Joe Slovo and mother Ruth First were the glamour couple of the anti-Apartheid movement, born themselves to Communist parents, and active members of the South African Communist Party. They resisted apartheid right from the late 1940s, with Joe an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, acting as a defence lawyer in political trials. Both were under surveillance, and both spent years in exile in UK, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia. Ruth was detained under consecutive 90-day detention periods while the government played cat-and-mouse with activists, while Joe spent decades out of South Africa. She was assassinated in 1982 in Zambia through a letter-bomb. Her father lived until 1995, by which time the ANC had been elected through democratic elections and he had become the Minister for Housing in Nelson Mandela’s government- an almost unimaginable change of events from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s.

Throughout all this, their daughters were observers: told little, kept safe but also kept at arms-length emotionally. In the weeks before his death from cancer, Gillian asked her father about his life, but he furiously exploded “You can write what you want to, but I won’t tell you.” After he died, Gillian returned to South Africa, to try to uncover the secrets that her parents had held from her and the last third of the book revolves around this search. She wants to know the circumstances and the perpetrators of her mother’s murder, and this brings her face-to-face with more secrets – the power apparatus that lent force to the apartheid regime but which has also managed to shapeshift and insinuate itself into the present security structures. She uncovers secrets about her parents as well, secrets which make her question her parents’ marriage and their fidelity and which serve further to underscore the children’s marginality to their parents’ lives.

Her parents were public figures, excoriated by the apartheid regime, but embraced as part of the struggle by the ANC – indeed, Joe Slovo is buried in a formerly-black only Avalon cemetery in Soweto. Their daughters did not know where they fitted in. They were white, had black servants, spent much of their life in England, and yet they stood, almost as ornaments, at the huge funeral celebrations held when their father died. But Gillian also knew that she and her family were not part of that white silence that pervaded the fifty years of apartheid – as she wryly remarked, it has been impossible now to find anyone who owns up to supporting it- and she bridled at the comment of a White driver that he “didn’t hold grudges”, as if he were the victim. Yet, Gillian feels that she has been a victim in that the larger struggle made her inconsequential to the people to whom she most wanted to matter.

As it turns out, I have read two memoirs written by daughters about their parents, one after the other. This memoir, and Swimming Home are similar in that daughters are holding their parents (especially their mothers) to account, and both share a broadly chronological narrative with multiple digressions and time shifts. What I really admire in this memoir is Slovo’s honesty in her motives and her expressions of disappointment in both parents and her frankness in stating that her parents’ commitment came at her expense. But how to measure the contribution of people passionate about huge events and conditions that affect millions, against the demands of three daughters? I don’t know, and at the end, I don’t think that Slovo does either. She will never find out ‘every secret thing’ – an impossible goal- but she concludes that

I, a child of secrets, had done something that I had needed to do. I had laid to rest some of the ghosts that had stalked my life, and in doing so, I’d found a kind of peace.

p. 281

Perhaps, a “kind of peace” is the best that any of us can hope for.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

‘Lives of Houses’ by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee (eds.)

2020, 262 p. plus notes

I must confess that I was initially attracted to this book by its striking cover, but when I dipped into the preface by Hermione Lee, I thought that I would enjoy it.

The writing of lives often involves writing about houses. Bringing a house to life through observation, familiarity, memory or excavation can be a vital part of narrating the life of an individual, a family, or a group: life-work as house work. A house can embody a person’s childhood, the story of a marriage, an inherited way of life, or a national history. The constructing of a house can be the fulcrum of dreams, ambitions, illusions and pretensions. How a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people, whether it’s the choice of a wall paper, the mess in the kitchen, the silence or shouting over meals, doors left open or closed, a fire burning in the hearth. the loss of a house can be a turning point that shapes the rest of a life.

p.xiii

If I had read a little further into the preface, I would have seen that the collection of essays in this book emerged from a 2017 conference titled ‘The Lives of Houses’ held at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford. My ambivalence about the book probably springs from the conference-paper genre from which it emerges. This conference brought together scholars from different disciplines and professions, with an emphasis on British, Irish, American and European houses. As with all conferences, the speakers (particularly the ‘big names’) would have been known to each other, their areas of interest already known, and their contributions would have been rather standardized in length. And ‘big names’ there are: Hermione Lee, Margaret Macmillan, David Cannadine, Jenny Uglow, Julian Barnes. Although there were papers that broke the mould, the overwhelming impression that I took away from the book was of 19th century British writers and a peculiarly British form of being ‘the writer’ in a mixture of eccentricity and domesticity.

The first two essays suggested a less biographically-oriented approach. Alexandra Harris’ chapter ‘Moving House’ pointed out that ‘moving day’ was a common annual or biannual spectacle across Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. Leases ran from one quarter-day to the next, and so expired in tandem, so Whitsun (25 May) in Scotland or Lady Day (6 April) in England was ‘moving day’, with another round at Michaelmas and Martinmas (11 November). Susan Walker’s chapter ‘Built on Memory’ examined the House of Venus in Morocco, a Roman house constructed in the late 1st century CE in what was at that time the edge of empire, extended and changed over the centuries, and finally abandoned in the early 5th Century CE until its excavation in the last years and aftermath of WWII. But with the exception of Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan’s reminiscences of her childhood home in Ontario, the majority of essays are about British writers, composers and politicians: Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Coleridge, Tennyson, Lear, Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Samuel Johnson, H. G. Wells and politicians Churchill and Disraeli.

This wasn’t quite what I expected, and so I enjoyed shaking off all this writerly clutter with the chapters that were not about houses. Alexander Masters’ chapter ‘The Fear of Houses’ was an examination of homelessness, and interviews with homeless people about houses (as distinct from homes) and house-less-ness. Elleke Boehmer’s chapter ‘When There is No House to Visit: a Migrant Writers’ sites’ traced the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera as he moved around Oxford in 1976, moving later to London where he slept rough on park benches and squats, hanging out with other African writers at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. ‘A Place One Can Go Mad In’, by Kate Kennedy, followed the WWI survivor Igor Gurney as he was committed to Barnwood House in Gloucester, and later the City of London Mental Hospital near Dartford, where he died in 1937.

In her chapter Hermione Lee writes about the ‘pilgrimage’ that devotees, descendants, friends or biographers, make to a writer’s house .

Why do millions of people visit Shakespeare’s “birthplace”? To see if something will rub off on them? To try to get the key to the vanished genius? It is a strong but muddled impulse, a mixture of awe, longing, desire for inwardness, and intrusive curiosity. Expectations are always high for such pilgrimages, and disappointment can be correspondingly sharp. The famous writer’s house you long to see may have vanished, but the urge to go to the site still remains.

p.33

When I thought about it, most of my ‘pilgrimages’ have been to houses overseas, rather than in Australia. We visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath (a rather tenuous connection with Austen); we stood outside a house in Stratford on Avon; and William Morris’ house in Bexleyheath, London. I visited Pablo Neruda’s house in Santiago, I went into a bar where Hemingway wrote in Havana, and Lorca’s house in Granada. We visited Karen Blixen’s house in Nairobi. I had to think harder about Australian/NZ houses: Henry Handel Richardson in Chiltern, Adam Lindsay Gordon’s cottage in Ballarat and Janet Frame in Oamaru. Are there more? I can’t think of any.

For me, visiting a writer’s house is an act of homage, I suppose, and perhaps a bit of pretension that I know who these authors were. Highlighting the connection between biography, writing and ‘the house’, and its afterlife as a tourist attraction, and extrapolating it beyond the rather cosy coterie of 19th/early 20th century writers and their biographers in this book, has prompted me to think about my own response to The Writers House and what draws me to visit- something I hadn’t thought about before.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Revisiting Ruth Park’s ‘The Harp in the South’

The Harp in the South was the July selection for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle. I read all three books in the trilogy back in 2010 and had read The Harp in the South (the first written but second book in the trilogy) decades before that. So this book and I go back quite a way.

At the Ivanhoe Reading Circle, it is the practice for one or two people present a paper on the book under discussion (and after tracing through the 102 year old history of this book group – Melbourne’s oldest- I can tell you that this was exactly the procedure they followed back in 1920 too). The first of the papers was about Ruth Park’s own biography and the writing of The Harp in the South. She was Catholic herself, and had had a Catholic education. She grew up in New Zealand, but on shifting to Australia in 1942 and marrying, she and her husband lived for a time in Surry Hills in Sydney. It was this experience that she drew on in 1946 when writing The Harp in the South as an entry in a writing competition with the Sydney Morning Herald. It was published in twelve daily installments in the newspaper, and attracted both criticism and praise for its depiction of slum life, right from the start. It was reluctantly published by Angus & Robinson as part of the prize.

The second paper dealt more closely with the book, and opened it up for discussion. It is rather confronting reading of the prejudice towards Chinese and Indigenous people, and the words with which it is expressed in this book, but the group felt that it was realistic for the time. (Indeed, I would suggest, today. Didn’t one of the Royal Family express concern about the colour of the Royal Baby when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle?- just as Mumma did in this book when Roie married the indigenous Charlie). Indeed, the title itself which references the Irish immigration to Australia, and Park reminds us that Surry Hills contained people of many cultures. Despite cringe-inducing slang, she treats these characters with respect and nuance.

Some of the group felt that the book lacked plot, but others would describe it as ‘domestic realism’. For myself, it was the lack of plot that appealed to me. People who didn’t enjoy it were even more repelled by the tidy ending. I must confess that I found the ending rather too saccharine as well.

The group had read Shuggie Bain last month, and several people mentioned similarities and differences between the two. Both involved dire poverty and alcohol, but in Harp it is Mumma who holds the family together instead of dragging it down with her. Some readers noted the Irish Catholic fatalism of that time which made a virtue of lack of aspiration. This was not a feature of 1980s Glasgow in Shuggie Bain: in fact, there is a sense of grievance and thwarted ‘effluence’ (to quote Kath and Kim) in the more recent book.

For me, reading this book in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on abortion made me even more aware of just how regressive this decision is. Even though Park took the narrative easy way out in her book, she still captured well the fear and desperation that drove women to backyard abortionists in a time when there was no other choice. I had to remind myself, too, that in 1946 this book would have been writing about contemporary lives, not history. Indeed much of the criticism of the book was her depiction of slums at a time when many people declared there were no slums in Sydney. Not so – the book is credited (for better or worse) for driving the slum clearance movement in Sydney. I appreciated the historical detail that was conveyed almost in passing – for example, in describing rubbish collection when Dolour picked up a paste brooch- having found myself trying to investigate this in 1920s Heidelberg.

Anyway, I loved this book just as much on this third reading as I did on the first. The discussion of Ruth Park tempts me to read her autobiography A Fence Around the Cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993). Just add it to the pile.

‘Booth’ by Karen Joy Fowler

2022, 466 p.

As it happens, I have read two historical novels in fairly close succession. In the first, The Birth House, I felt that the plot was being driven by the desire to draw in as much historical detail as possible. In this second book, Booth, there is the opposite scenario: fidelity to the events and personalities has meant that plot development is slow and measured. The events of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are well-known (probably much more to American readers than to Australian ones) and the author’s intent here is to widen her lens to look at the family of John Wilkes Booth and the effect of his radicalization and its resultant crime on the Booth family more broadly. Much like Jacinda Ardern’s refusal to name the Christchurch terrorist, Karen Joy Fowler does not dwell on the assassination as such, but more the events leading up to and following on from it.

The book also clearly locates itself in the present day, although it is only in the Afterword and Acknowledgments that she identifies Donald Trump by name. But the first of the Lincoln-related chapters starts with an epigraph from Lincoln himself asking Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch will at some stage spring up amongst us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. (p. 5) The theme of political violence, both through civil war and through the acts of an individual, throbs underneath the book.

The historical John Wilkes Booth is not the only Booth in this story. Instead, it is the whole family of Booths- father and sons. It opens with Junius Booth who emigrates with his family to Baltimore where he becomes a celebrated Shakespearean actor. Several of his sons follow in his footsteps: June, a rather unsuccessful actor; John Wilkes who was to become (in)famous for other reasons; and Edwin, who becomes the most famous and wealthy of them all, although for many years in his father’s shadow. Joe, the youngest son, is the only one not to follow his father’s theatrical career. Rosalie, his eldest daughter never marries and finds herself subject to her brothers’ plans and domestic arrangements, while her sister Asia does marry and has several children. The family itself displays different political leanings (shades of Trumpism here too) with the increasing radicalization of John in the face of his siblings’ varying degrees of support for Lincoln and abolition. Each member of the family was affected differently by John’s actions. All are shunned, with instant career implications for the brothers who were working as actors. Some family members blamed themselves, or each other, and all distanced themselves from the assassination.

The narrative intertwines the stories of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth as they both move towards the assassination that we know will happen by the end of the book. There is an irregular structure within the Booth stories. At times the narrative just flows chronologically, but at other times the author takes each family member in turn to explore events from their perspective (but still with omniscient narrator voice). I found this inconsistency rather annoying: I prefer a structure to be sustained throughout. There are many small chapters- rather too many for my liking- headed with a roman numeral, evoking a 19th century novel. The narrative is in the present tense, which worked well in highlighting the contingent and unfolding nature of events.

As she explains in the afterword, Fowler has blended fact and fiction. The Booth family has been much researched, both at the time in trying to make sense of the assassination, and later in historicizing it. Rosalie as the eldest daughter was the least defined historically, which gave author greatest scope for invention, albeit within the constraints of the spinster daughter role.

Karen Joy Fowler is explicit in her linking Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of Donald Trump. Would the book work just as well without these current-day references? I suspect that it would, although I wonder how a pro-Trump reader would react to her clearly anti-Trump stance. As it is, it is a well-researched fictionalized telling of a family story that wears its research lightly, but subjects itself to the constraints of facts in its plot. For me, this is historical fiction with fidelity.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Swimming Home’ by Judy Cotton

2022, 240 p in paperback

So what do you do when you have a memoir in your hand, but know absolutely nothing about the author? One option is to start Googling so that you have some context into which to slot the biography, and to gauge some sense of authority of the writer. The other is to just read it as a piece of writing, on its own terms, and then Google afterwards. This is the approach I took with ‘Swimming Home’ by Judy Cotton.

So, drawn from this memoir, who is Judy Cotton? She is an artist, based in New York, but born in Australia during WWII in Broken Hill. Her father, later to be the parliamentarian and U.S. ambassador Sir Robert Cotton, trained for the RAAF but was posted to Broken Hill by the Dept of Supply during WWII because of his familiarity with mining. He and his family later shifted to Oberon in NSW to establish a timber industry, another crucial war-time industry. Judy was one of three children born to Robert and his wife Eve. The children were sent to boarding school in Sydney where Judy’s older sister Anne received treatment for crossed-eyes. Her father embarked on a parliamentary career with the Liberal Party and her mother, an accomplished pianist became involved in sheep-breeding. Judy attended university and married a diplomat who was posted to Korea. Her marriage broke up, and she and her son Tim went to Japan, and then to New York where she worked as a journalist and successful artist, until contracting Lyme disease which forced her to change her artistic direction. Her parents moved to America too, when her father was appointed Consul-General in New York between 1978-81 and U.S. Ambassador between 1982-85 before returning with Eve to retirement in Sydney and then Palm Beach. Her mother died in 2000, her father six years later in 2006, having re-married.

All of this sounds quite straightforward, but I have imposed an order that does not exist onto this memoir, thereby leaching it of its power and beauty. You have to work hard as a reader to piece a chronology together: indeed, I could only do it by going back to read it again. The chronology does move forward at a chapter level, but each chapter splinters into shard from different times, identified by year, but fused together. It is more like a mosaic than a canvas. Although a memoir, many aspects of Cotton’s own life are left oblique – her first marriage, her success in New York, her 40 year relationship with Yale.

The book opens in 1923 with ‘Eve’ playing imaginary scales while hiding under the fig tree. She was somewhat in awe of her beautiful older sister Jean, protected by her mother Ollie from her drunken father Archie. We soon learn that ‘Eve’ was Judy Cotton’s mother. And the cracks in the author’s relationship with her mother are quickly revealed:

Eve rated my sister and me by the same terms, and we both lost in the equation. She scored us on looks, clothes and marriages, having decided that achievement in the world was best left to my father. She worked hard to even things up between my sister and me, tying me down by one metaphorical leg so that I could not run faster than my blue-eyed sister

p.14

I must admit that my heart sank a bit when I read this. As I explained in my review of Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter (see my review here), I am not particularly comfortable with the parental memoir genre, and the sense of grievance that seems to pervade it. It’s certainly in evidence in this book, as Cotton stores up the injustices and harsh comments committed by her mother in a form of emotional ledger.

What are Judy Cotton’s accusations against her mother? Sending her two daughters away from their country town in NSW to boarding school ; her parents’ (especially her mothers’) response to Judy’s divorce “they wanted to see the wreckage for themselves…they left me stranded and penniless in Korea in the hope that it would force me to stay married and not embarrass them”. Once divorced and living in Japan with her son “Eve [her mother] waged a relentless campaign for me to return to Australia so she could ensure I did not take lovers and become like Jean [her mother’s sister]”. Her mother, by then living in New York with her husband who was US ambassador, had a heart attack: “Eve worked up a good set of arterial blockages in preparation for a massive heart attack. She had talent and she used it”. On her mother’s return to Australia, she remained imperious to the last. She had a clear sense of how things should be, rejecting things that were ‘not just exactly right’. She was blunt, with a pertinent charm: ‘Horizontal stripes are unkind to your hips’ ‘Oh dear, not grey again’.

She commented on inappropriate clothing, husbands and haircuts, on roots showing, a vase of flowers or world news not arranged to her liking. She pecked at tiny flaws and big ones, a hen in the yard after grain, a pianist aiming for precisely the right note

p.105

In these lists of wrongs, I sense little of the adult (with her own secrets, compromises and vulnerabilities) appraising another adult (with her own secrets, compromises and vulnerabilities), only the resentful, hurt child. And yet, from the outside, Cotton would seem to be very much the dutiful, loving daughter. When her mother is elderly and failing, she flies back and forth over the globe, sitting by her hospital bed, being as supportive as an expatriate child can be. She is both made by her mother’s life, and unmade by her mother’s death.

It is this sense of being drawn away and yet returning that is captured in the title ‘Swimming Home’ and in the frequent descriptions of shores that are repeated throughout the book. It is there right in the opening preface:

Undertow is perilous, the Pacific riptide hauling me hand over hand like a movie on rewind as I watch from the plane. Landing, I struggle to take off instead, but no matter how many times I leave, the land has me by the ankles with a grasp that won’t let go

Dedication

She returns again and again to the sea, just as she returns again and again to Australia with its light, its smells, its birds, its trees. It is a wide Australia on a huge canvas: it is also a prison, steeped in the blood of dispossession and injustice. The ocean represents openness and distance, and yet also a treacherous pull. Her descriptions of the sea are beautifully created images. I think of George Orwell’s injunction against worn-out metaphors, and certainly she has imbued each of her descriptions of the sea with new, completely original images. The Pacific “hiccuped its briny breath”, it has “goosebumps”, the waves are “an ancient island’s rasping breath” and, most evocatively “the sea shivering in filmy layers as if it were sheer fabric pulled diagonally in ruched pleats one across the other ” (p. 103).

Her final words encapsulate the expatriate’s tug and flow.

Then I will leave again, attempting to evade the land and people that still hold me prisoner, shake off its fierce undertow…I resist the invisible feelers that creep like tiny heat-seeking missiles to cut to my core. I cannot afford to feel. Age has taught me that. I leave again.

No one’s story can explain the past.

No one story

p. 126

I must admit I found myself relieved that this memoir was relatively short (my e-version has 131 pages; the paperback book appears to have 240 pages). The writing is almost too sharp, too crystalline, almost as if you were reading a whole book of poetry in one sitting. I found myself gaining a new appreciation for the book in the second reading I was compelled to undertake, in order to be able to write this blogpost. And this written, now I’ll look at her work.

My rating: 8/10 (hard to say)

Sourced from: review copy from Black Inc. books.

‘The Birth House’ by Ami McKay

2007, 352 p.

One of the ongoing debates in literary and historical circles revolves around the question of the dividing line between fiction and history. Just this morning, I read another contribution: Between Fact and Fable: Historical Fiction or Non Fiction Novel? I must confess to my own wariness when historians include speculation in their histories, and am critical of historical fiction that does not display fidelity to the time that it is depicting. In reading this book, however, which was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, I find myself disconcerted by yet another variation on the conundrum. Is this a novel, or mainly a device upon which to hang the author’s research?

The subject matter interests me: I have always been interested in midwifery practices in the past, and the nature of women’s knowledge about their bodies. Set in Scots Bay in Nova Scotia (a real place) during and immediately after WWI, its main character is Dora Rare, the first female Rare in six generations. She is treated with suspicion by the people in the small town, and is drawn to Miss B. the town midwife, who is similarly ostracized (and feared?) by the locals. Out of love for Miss B. and drawn by her own interest, Dora becomes a trainee midwife. However, both Miss B. and Dora find their knowledge and skill questioned when Dr Thomas, an obstetrician in the employ of Farmers Assurance Company of King’s County, arrives in town. He talks up the advantages of health insurance, and deprecates the old folk ways of midwives, which are under threat not only from him but from legislation and regulations encouraging ‘safe’ hospital births.

Despite ‘catching’ many babies, Dora herself struggles to fall pregnant. Faced with no other real alternative and eager to have her own child she has married Archer Bigelow, a feckless man who enjoys the unfettered access to his wife in order to impregnate her. This marriage and her own maternity does not turn out the way she envisaged it would. Forced to leave Scots Bay, she travels to Boston where she meets liberated and unconventional women involved in the suffragette movement. There she develops an independence which helps her to return to fight, along with her friends from the ‘Occasional Knitting Society’, for the rights of Scots Bay women to give birth as they wish.

By its very nature, the author of historical fiction chooses a particular time and place in which to set the novel. By establishing her book in 1916-1920s, a range of fascinating historical situations opens up for Mackay. There’s the Canadian contribution to WWI; the Canadian homefront and attitudes towards men who did not enlist; the Spanish flu epidemic; women’s suffrage; the rise of the ‘girl’ and changing attitudes towards women and their sexuality and maternity. She has clearly researched all these things, but I found myself wondering if the plot was being driven too much by the search for scenarios in order to utilize all this research. While reading it, I don’t think that I ever lost the consciousness that I was reading a book and that there was an author pulling the strings – and for me, that’s not a good thing.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE book groups

‘Rules of Civility’ by Amor Towles

2012, 368 p.

I had to wait for a long time for this book to become available at the library, and it was well worth the wait. I just loved it, and didn’t want it to finish. The story is set in New York in 1937, and is evocative of all those black-and-white films with the Empire State Building in the background and imbued with New York glamour. There’s shades of Gatsby here too, through the first-person narration of a young woman of humble background who is drawn into the milieu of fabulously wealthy people.

The frame story introduces us to Katey Kontent on the 4th October 1966 who, along with her husband, attends a photographic exhibition ‘Many are Called’ at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition features never-before-seen portraits taken by Walker Evans with a hidden camera in the late 1930s on the New York subways with a hidden camera. These black-and-white images are of just ordinary people, taken without their knowledge or consciousness. One image in particular attracts her attention. She knows that well-dressed, urbane business man, and she knows that an image of a gaunt, disheveled man is him too- it is Tinker Grey.

And thus we are taken back to New Years Eve 1937, when Katey, along with her room-mate Eve Ross, first meet Tinker in a nightclub, as they try to eke out their money for drinks to see them through to the new year. Eve, is blonde, with dimples “so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek” (p.15) Tinker is rich and good fun, and both girls – neither of whom is rich – are swept up into a life of parties and nightclubs until it all comes to a sudden halt. Despite Katey and Tinker’s attraction to each other, life goes off in a different direction. Katey takes us through the year of 1938, each time taking care to note the exact date, as she changes her job, and negotiates her way around a wealthy, dissolute milieu with Wallace Wolcott, Dicky Vanderwhile, and Anne Grandyn. Meanwhile, Eve and Tinker go off on other trajectories. One one level, Katey learns that wealth and power can influence events and give people the wherewithal to manipulate and intervene in other people’s choices: on another level, there is still that aspect of chance and unexpected event that sends everything awry.

The title of the book comes from the Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation which Katey discovers amongst Tinker’s possessions. She realizes that these 110 homespun maxims are more influential on Tinker than she at first thought, especially the last one: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience”. And it was that last one that brought Tinker to the dishevelled state that the photographer Walker Evans captured in his photograph.

At the end of the book, and looking back on that year of her life, the older Katey says:

It is a bit of a clichĂ© to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time- by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?…

Life doesn’t have to provide you any options at all. It can easily define your course from the outset and keep you in check through all manner of rough and subtle mechanics. To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course- that’s by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn’t come without a price.

p. 323

I’ve been oblique about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed reading this book and feel as if I have been in the hands of a master storyteller.

My rating: 9.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation’ by Julianne Schultz

2022, 416 p. plus notes

I must confess that I’ve never really engaged in discussions of Australian identity. It has always seemed to me to be a topic that can too often by hijacked by the ra-ra Akubra mob, and infused with the whole Anzac, flag, fair dinkum rhetoric. But I was encouraged to read this book, largely on the basis of the many positive blurbs on the cover, but also by the inclusion of that little word “soul”. Leaving aside its religious connotations (which Schultz does too), she is probing beyond the surface and the image to consider something more personal, more integral to the idea of Australia and Australians, as distinct from the performance of Australian-ness. As a commentator she is well placed to do so: she was the inaugural editor of the Griffith Review which, over and beyond the 64 volumes she edited, has explored various features of Australian life in essays, poetry and story.

In many ways the chapter headings in this book echo the titles of the Griffith Reviews that I have on my shelves: From Somewhere; Making the Nation; Remaking the Nation; People Like Us; From Little Things. Like a Griffith Review volume, these discursive chapters weave together strands of her own biography, history, literature and politics.

She has a number of themes that she returns to across different chapters. One of these is the idea of the ‘Covid X-ray’ which revealed the fault-lines within Australian society. Another is Linda Colley’s idea that, without catastrophe, most change takes ‘three score years and ten’ to move from idea to reality- an oddly reassuring thought. Schultz references this ‘three score years and ten’ often during her book, giving it an oddly ponderous, almost religious tone at times. She refers several times to the Sydney Olympics and the feeling of pride that many of us, ready to sneer, felt at its irreverent and insouciant depiction of our country on a global scale. Where has that Australia gone? Finally, and most importantly, she returns again and again to the Uluru Statement, that call to Australia’s soul, that she feels will “sooner or later, fundamentally reshape the idea of Australia” (p. 146).

This book is unashamedly a product of the twenty-first century. Her chapter-by-chapter references (unfortunately the book lacks a compiled bibliography) favour recent publications and the rather excessive long list of laudatory paragraphs at the start of the book embed the book within a progressive intellectual milieu. So far, I have not read reviews of the book from The Australian or Quadrant, which ordinarily would leap on a book about ‘Australia’s identity’- one of their favourite topics despite their deprecation of ‘identity politics’. In a way this book is timely, given that we faced a general election in the wake of strange times. But I also have hopes that, given its historic span that draws from historians and events across Australia’s history, it might transcend that short-termism. I suspect this book may well stand the test of time, as Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, Hancock’s Australia, Bernard Smith’s Boyer Lecture The Spectre of Truganini and Stanner’s phrase ‘The Great Australian Silence’, each of which she references repeatedly, have managed to do. At least, I hope that it does. By talking of ‘the soul of the Nation’ she steps beyond the economy and politics into something more intimate and powerful and inspirational.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘The Red Witch’ by Nathan Hobby

2022, 385 p & notes

Near the end of her life, the author Katharine Susannah Prichard was sorting through her papers and correspondence, threatening to burn “while there’s still time”. Her friend Catherine Duncan wrote back to her

I can understand that you should want to put a time limit on giving students access to personal papers, but in fifty years, dearest Kattie, the KSP you are now will have become someone else- she will have escaped you…Perhaps in the end it’s better to surrender the truth to posterity rather than allow one’s self to be deformed by supposition.

p.378

Well, fifty years have passed and here is Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I wonder what KSP would think of it? She was, after all, very conscious of posterity and it was the attempt of early biographer Cyril Cook to apply a Freudian lens to her biography that led her to write her own autobiography Child of the Hurricane. Time and politics have not been kind to some aspects of her legacy: for example, Coonardoo needs to be read within the time it was written and would never appear on school reading lists today, and her staunchly pro-Stalinist political views, controversial then, would appeal to an even smaller group of adherents now. But I think that she would embrace the roundedness of Hobby’s biography, which combines beautifully the personal, the literary and most importantly, the political in presenting her life.

What a complex thing it is, constructing a person’s personal life from the outside and at fifty years’ remove! What she herself said about her relationships with men, and what her son, who was her literary executor, might have written are not necessarily what an outsider decades later might have said. What we think or write ourselves about our relationships (retrospectively in a memoir, or contemporaneously in correspondence) is refracted by our need to have an emotional coherence to the story we tell ourselves and others about our choices and actions. A biographer looks for coherence too, but is more tolerant of ambiguity and inconsistency. And so, Prichard’s relationship with the older married man William Reay reads now as a compromised, rather questionable entanglement, the relationship with Guido Barracci is tinged with betrayal and her dalliance with Hugh McCrae seems opaque and puzzling. Reading from the outside, her marriage with Hugh Throssell seems an enigma. To the end of her life, in her letters to her son and friends, she declared her love for him and mourned his ongoing absence in her life. Yet they seemed to share little of her literary life (although it did sustain them financially), they spent quite a bit of time apart, the family suffered on account of his financial ineptness and I suspect that Hugh was never as politically active as she wanted him to be. Did the circumstances of his death colour the story she told herself about her marriage? And then there are her other friendships. What was it like to be her friend? There are obvious falling-outs with many friends, despite the effusiveness and overtly literary tenor of her correspondence.

To be honest, I was completely unaware that she had written so much. Certainly, this was her working job, and, especially during the Depression years and later, she needed the money from her novels, short stories and newspaper stories. But this is a lifelong job, and the to-and-fro with publishers and editors continued throughout. Competitions play a bigger part in her writing life than I would have imagined, although I guess awards (a ‘competition’ under another name?) play a similar role in our literary scene. She received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant in 1941, but I am not at all surprised that the security service recommended in future that the names of applicants for fellowships be submitted to them “for comment” to prevent any other writers with Katharine’s political leanings from being considered. A literary biography needs to accommodate both readers familiar with the subject’s works, and those who have not read them at all. I felt that Hobby did well, giving enough of the flavour of her work for those unfamiliar with it, drawing together his own evaluations with those of readers at the time, but not labouring the work either. That said, the only one of Prichard’s works that I am tempted to read after reading this biography is the goldfields saga (The Roaring Nineties; Golden Miles and Winged Seeds). Her frequent trips to the places in which she set her novels reflects her emphasis on authenticity (within limits, of course), although the outback seems to held more allure than urban settings.

The strongest part of this biography, as reflected in the title The Red Witch, is Hobby’s examination of her politics, which enriched but complicated her life enormously. It seems to me that she projected her political commitments onto her husband Hugh, who showed only fitful involvement in politics. She both gained and lost friends through differences of political opinions. Her politics could have cruelled her career (her receipt of a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant probably stymied the chances of Communist writers who followed her) and certainly many readers and reviewers felt that the vehemence of her politics straitened her novels. Her unshakeable admiration of Stalin, when so many other colleagues dropped away, can be variously read as loyal, steadfast, inflexible or willfully blind. But her politics were so interwoven with her friendships and her writings that it is impossible to cut them out and make a judgement of her life and writings without them.

The book is arranged in five chronological parts: Kattie 1883-1907; Freewoman 1907-1919; Mrs Throssell 1919-1933; Comrade 1934-1949; Katya 1950-1969. Within each part there are multiple chapters- possibly a few too many, when some were as little as seven pages in length. The preface plays the part of the literature review, and is probably the most evident sign of the PhD thesis that preceded this book. I really enjoyed the Afterword, set in Prichard’s former home in Greenmount W.A. in 2019 when the author comes on stage properly. Nathan Hobby has been present in the book throughout, especially in his appraisals of Katharine’s writing, but it has always been behind the scenes, which is the way I prefer it. But I was glad that he stepped forward at the end.

He has been well-served by Miegunyah Press, which has given him expansive footnotes, an excellent index and a bibliography as well- something that is much appreciated instead of having to hunt through footnotes for the first reference to a source. The footnotes reveal the rich archive of correspondence that underpins Hobby’s work, and the variety of newspaper sources from which has drawn.

It is probably true that, as Catherine Duncan predicted, some fifty years after her death, ‘KSP’ has become someone else but I think that she would recognize herself in this book. The KSP of the future may have escaped her, but I don’t think that she escaped Nathan Hobby. He has presented her to us in all her aspects – as lover, mother, wife, comrade, writer, companion and public figure – with diligence, empathy and tempered admiration. No subject could ask more of her biographer.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy Melbourne University Press