Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Fortune Men’ by Nadifa Mohamed

2021, 384 pages

Other than How Green Was My Valley which I read about forty-five years ago, I don’t think that I’ve read any other books set in Wales. There’s no green valleys in this book, only the dockland streets of Tiger Bay in Cardiff, home to immigrants of different nationalities. Set in February 1952, as the King dies and Princess Elizabeth is named queen, Mahmood Mattan a seaman from British Somaliland is arrested for the murder of Jewish shopkeeper Violet Volacki in a run down neighbourhood. She is known to him, but he vehemently denies that he had anything to do with the murder. The police do not have a strong case. Even the murdered woman’s sister and niece do not identify him as the murderer, but he is betrayed by people around him who have been influenced, perhaps, by police coercion and the ‘encouragement’ of a reward offered by the family. Mattan is a slippery character- he lies, he steals, he cheats – and you are not sure until the end of the book whether he is telling the truth or not. Based on a true story, he finds little solace from British justice.

The book takes a little while to get going, moving from the perspective of one character after another. However once Violet is killed, the action speeds up even though time seems to stretch interminably, as well. The trial is reported in question and answer format, which I felt was perhaps a bit of a cop-out from the writer’s point of view. But after he is sentenced to death, the slow elapse of days underscores the cold-eyed indifference of capital punishment as he waits, a very small cog in a huge system that he does not fully understand and which treats him as easily dispensable.

The book teems with immigrants from many countries, and characters often break into their own language. Mattan is married to a British woman, who suffers with him the prejudice and powerlessness of people with few financial and cultural resources.

Mattan remains a rather oblique character throughout, although as his swagger and defensiveness drop away, it is possible to have more sympathy for him at the end of the book. The book ends with a newspaper article about the case and its denouement, and reading the case in its bald newspaper presentation makes you realize that Mohamed has managed to flesh out Mattan beyond the few facts that would be skimmed over by a reader at the time. There is at least some justice in the Epilogue. It certainly wasn’t there in the trial.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Library, but then I realized that I also had an e-book of it as well.

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe

2021, 144 p.

“A waste of bloody money! And it’s not even Australian” [Australian= Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin] !!” The purchase of Blue Poles by the National Gallery of Australia for $1.3 million dollars in 1973 was met with derision and controversy right from the start. Although the Whitlam government merely approved the purchase (rather than purchasing it in their own right), it came to be seen by conservatives as emblematic of the Whitlam government’s profligacy and pretension. It’s almost impossible for someone of my age to look at it without remembering the controversy. When I finally got to see it, decades after its purchase, I was surprised by how large it was, and that the blue poles were not really integrated into the painting but rather laid across it. Nonetheless, no trip to the National Gallery would be complete without popping in to see Blue Poles- and I will certainly go back to see it again having read this book. And profligacy- snort!- the painting has appreciated in value many times over.

This small novella ‘Night Blue’ interrogates the idea that a painting can be seen as something separate from its creator. Presented in three parts, Parts I and III are told by Blue Poles the painting itself as narrator- something that requires the reader to suspend disbelief and cynicism. It is, as Yes Minister would say, a “courageous” narrative decision. Part II is told by Alyssa, an academic art historian, who many years earlier had done some conservation work on Blue Poles. In the wake of failure of IVF -something she was ambivalent about in the first place- she decided to undertake a PhD looking at the way that women had been sidelined in Abstract Expressionism, as exemplified by Pollock’s relationship with Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. This sidelining of female artists, of course, is an old story (see, for example Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch), exacerbated further by Pollock’s violence and self-centredness. Does ‘cancel culture’ extend to paintings? Does Picasso’s notorious personal life make his work unacceptable? Does Pollock’s? I must admit that I found this second part of the book rather unsatisfactory, although it did work as vehicle by which the author could work in the factual information about the painting.

It is common enough for a non-fiction writer to use an inanimate object as the lens through which to shape their narratives, but it is less common for a fictional writer to do so. Was she successful? Not completely. At times, I found myself holding my breath as I almost gave in to it, but then my more logical part of my brain would kick in and my credence would ebb away.

The book is beautifully written, and almost against my will I learned a great deal about Blue Poles and its creation. It is bold and imaginative, but it just didn’t quite work for me.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book. Read for Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers thought very highly of it and you can read her review here. Kimbo at Reading Matters, like me, had reservations but still saw it as “an extraordinary feat of imagination”. You can read her review here.

‘Red Cross Rose’ by Sandra Venn-Brown

2021, 297 p.

When we think of Australian women during World War I, we tend to think of them as either nurses (and less often, doctors), or as sock-knitters. But there was a small group of Australian women, generally from middle to upper-class origins who did make their way overseas as volunteers with the Red Cross, or in the case of Rose Venn-Brown, as an administrator with the YMCA. The Armytage sisters from Como, for example, also made their way over there; so too did Vera Deakin. This book, written by Rose Venn-Brown’s grand-niece tells the story of one of these ‘Aussie girls’ in France between 1916 and 1920. Although the Red Cross also drew on her services, her main interest was the YMCA, and after the war ended she was attached to the Australian Graves Detachment based at Villers-Brettoneux in France.

When WWI broke out in August 1914, Rose was working as Assistant Registrar at the Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington. Coming from an affluent family, there was no economic necessity for her to work, but the family of thirteen (!) siblings seemed to gravitate towards white-collar professions after their father died quite early. She would have been expected to resign on marriage, but the war intervened, and marriage never beckoned. She felt that her administrative skills might have been of use “over there”, but she was generally discouraged by the military authorities, who would only send trained nurses. Eventually she circumvented them by travelling to New Zealand and embarking from there as a civilian. Through contacts, she found herself commissioned with the task of organising the medical records of the Australian War Office in Horseferry Road, London. She was asked by the wife of the NSW Agent-General in London to help organize the War Comforts Fund Association for Australian soldiers (which so many women were involved with back home in Australia), and was offered canteen work for the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). As far as she was concerned, she didn’t travel all that way to do canteen work, but she pulled some strings to be appointed to look after the finances of the canteens, which had been in a poor state until then. By 11 April 1916, her permits were cleared to cross to France to work for the YMCA, something that men employed by the YMCA were not impressed by. The men called a protest meeting, and it was agreed that Rose would spend a certain amount of time working in the camps – which was, of course, exactly what she wanted in the first place.

Rose later published her letters back home, and her diaries from her time at the front. The author has drawn heavily on both of these sources, and Rose certainly wrote well. As a descendant rather than a historian, Sandra Venn-Brown does not interrogate these sources or their production in the same way that Janet Butler has done in Kitty’s War (my review here).

If Rose Venn-Brown were working today, we would call her an Events Organizer, as much of her work revolved around organizing lectures and concerts for the men in the YMCA ‘huts’ located behind the front. It was acknowledged that the men needed leisure activities as they cycled between periods on the frontline and then back at base, and she liaised with performers and lectures to schedule and stage these events and organized dances and concerts among the men themselves. By this stage, three of her brothers had enlisted and she enjoyed being able to catch up with them when she could. Much of her identity revolved being an “Aussie girl” and the comfort that the Australian troops drew from hearing a familiar accent from a “girl” who could just as easily come from their home towns. Travelling from one part of the Western Front to the other was not easy, and in a letter home Rose gave a graphic description of visiting Gamaches, 62 kilometres north of Amiens, in early 1919 when hostilities had ceased. The journey was about 190 kilometres but took a full day, with the car bursting into flames several times and requiring multiple repairs along the way.

She finally returned home, but lost money in organizing a tour for her friend Flora Sandes, an entertainer from Serbia, whom she met as part of her work for the YMCA in Europe. Rose seemed to have been afflicted by the restlessness that many soldiers felt on returning home, and after three years she left for Shanghai, then travelled back to England and France, where she revisited the old battlefields with a friend Daisy Daking, a leading folk dancer who was sent out from England to entertain the troops and teach folk dancing (a rather surreal image, I must admit, all those soldiers folk-dancing). In the 1930s she returned to be with her family, moving from one family member’s home to another. She never married and never had a family of her own. She died in Chatswood, aged 69, seen by some in her family as “a bit full of herself” and “strange”.

This book presented the “Aussie Girl” in a WWI context that was uncommon at the time, and now too, when the focus is more on soldiers and nurses. The book is interlaced with the author’s own commentary and recollections from various tours overseas, which gives it a more homely feel. The author has been badly let down in the proof-reading, because there are multiple errors that mar the text- a rather surprising oversight in a book published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. Nonetheless, as the blurb on the back says, it does give new insight into battlefield life during the Great War, and it has presented Rose’s own lively recollections and anecdotes to a wider audience.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library in preparation for a presentation I gave to Heidelberg Historical Society about George Lort Phillips, a local man who ended up commanding the Australian Graves Services unit until 1921.

‘Australian War Graves Workers and World War One’ by Fred Cahir, Sara Weuffen, Matt Smith, Peter Bakker, Jo Caminiti

2019, 143 p.

The subtitle of this book is ” Devoted Labour for the Lost, the Unknown but Not Forgotten Dead”, which gives an indication of the stance towards war graves workers adopted in this book, several chapters of which were contributed by descendants. Published in 2019, it moves into the commemorative space left open after all the WWI centenary celebrations by looking at the physical and emotional work that followed the suspension of fighting, most particularly through the men who were attached to the Australian Graves Detachment.

The book opens with two very good context-setting chapters that explained the bureaucratic structure of the grave-worker organizations, both in relation to the British Army and to the AIF. It describes what was involved in grave work: opening the grave, checking for ID disks, paybooks and other identifying objects, wrapping the body in a blanket, sewing it up and marking it with an identifying tag. Bodies were collected and buried in designated cemeteries, some of which were later consolidated into larger cemeteries. Photographs of the relocated graves were sent to next-of-kin in Australia. The Australian Graves Detachment, comprising over 1000 men, was created in March 1919 when there was still a large number of soldiers waiting repatriation back home. It ceased to exist on 20 August 1919, when demobilization was largely complete, at which time its functions devolved to the much smaller Australian Graves Service.

The book then moves to biographical sketches of different men involved in the Australian Graves Detachment. These chapters start off with descriptions of the men’s military experiences (with the exception of Private William McBeath, who arrived too late to see military action, although he did undertake training in England in case the Armistice did not hold). Their military involvement explains the reality of war experience that they brought to their war graves tasks, both in terms of personal bravery but also in terms of the camaraderie of being ‘one of the men’. This camaraderie influenced -for good or bad- their leadership style with the AGD. This is seen in the case of Major John Eldred Mott, featured in Chapter 3, who as an ex-German POW, had displayed great ingenuity in escaping prison camp, and was seen as a largely sympathetic man-of-the-men. His leadership style was more consistent with management of civilian workers than a hard-and-fast military approach, but this was of course one of the ambiguities of the AGD. Drawn from a volunteer army, they were no longer operating under the rules of war.

Frank Cahill (also known as ‘Carr’), in Chapter 4, was one of the 1914 men who were promised an early return to Australia under the ‘first in, first out’ demobilization strategy, but he decided to stay on and volunteer with the photographic section, a division of the AGD that came in for criticism for the number and quality of their images. He returned to Australian in 1921 but could receive only a 25% pension for an injury to his wrist. He committed suicide in 1928, and his widow had to struggle to have her husband’s death acknowledged as “materially hastened by war service”.

In Chapter 5 Peter Bakker and Fred Cahir identify four indigenous soldiers who worked with the ADG: Edward “Darkie” Smith from Queensland, William Charles Miller from Tasmania, George William Mitchell from Queensland and John Ogilvie from Western Australia. Smith continued to work with the Australian Graves Services and was Australia’s longest serving indigenous WWI soldier, clocking up six years, two months and five days of continuous service. However, it is notable that the only court-martial within the AGD was the stabbing of Private Ogilvie- a manifestation of racism within the group?

Chapter 6 looks at Captain Allen Charles Waters Kingston, who was caught up in the Court of Inquiry in March and April 1920 which was critical of Kingston’s command of the AGD in Villers-Brettoneux. He was suspended as a result of the Court of Inquiry, and returned home on the same ship as two of his most trenchant critics.

Chapter 7 is probably the most personal of the biographical chapters, as it incorporates diaries and letters from the author’s grandfather. Private William Frampton McBeath enlisted in June 1918 after completing his carriage-making apprenticeship, and the war was over by the time he arrived. He was drafted into the Graves Detachment, where he kept a brief diary- one of the few kept by graves workers. He arrived back in Australia on 13 November 1919, along with 1300 other troops.

The biographical approach taken by this book, particularly when the chapters were written by descendants, leads to a fairly terse dismissal of van Velzen’s “tabloid” book Missing in Action which is more critical of the AGD and its successor, the Australian Graves Services. However, there is no getting around the fact that two inquiries were held into the graves services division, which highlights not only the troubles and conflicts within the units themselves, but the political sensitivities over graves work back here in Australia, something that Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief captures well. The individual stories told in this book underline the physical and psychological difficulty that soldiers- not just graves workers- had when re-adjusting to life in Australia, as highlighted in Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs.

The book closes by enumerating the enormity of the task undertaken by the graves workers. Between February and August 1919 nearly 70,000 Allied (not just Australian) soldiers were located, exhumed and reburied by the AGD. One hundred years on, the stark beauty of Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries have washed clean the sheer drudgery and horror of their creation.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: SLV as an e-book. Read in preparation for a talk on George Lort Phillips at the Heidelberg Historical Society.

‘Missing in Action’ by Marianne Van Velzen

2018, 240 p. plus notes

Australians are familiar with the War Memorials that stand in nearly every suburb and country town. They are so much just a part of the built environment now that we barely see them, except on Anzac and Remembrance Day when you walk past and see wreaths of flowers placed on them. At times I stop and look at the names, and shudder at the groups of names from one family, but more than 100 years on from World War I, they do not have a particular emotional resonance. That was not true at the time they were constructed. As Ken Inglis explores in Sacred Places, war memorials in every small town were a surrogate – however inadequate- for an individualized grave.

Quite apart from the practicalities and logistics of repatriating so many dead bodies from World War I, the decision was made at a Commonwealth level that all soldiers from Commonwealth countries would be buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery closest to where they fell. But they had to be located first. In battlefields that were bombed repeatedly, with weapons that could blow a man to pieces and without time for careful record keeping, this was no easy task. At first it fell to the Australian Graves Detachment, which worked alongside the English Graves Registration Unit in identifying and burying Australian bodies. At the end of 1919, the remaining soldiers working for the Australian Graves Detachment merged into the smaller, newly founded Australian Graves Services. The tasks of digging up bodies remained with the English Graves Registration Unit- after all, who knew what nationalities were going to be uncovered?- but once located, the Australian Graves Services (AGS) would inspect the body and its remaining clothing, looking for identification to ascertain if it was an Australian soldier, and if so, who it was. It was hard work, physically and emotionally, and soldiers who worked in these deployments were cut some slack, especially in terms of their leisure time activities. But the families at home did not know that, and the government wanted to keep it that way. And when questions began being asked at home, often prompted by disgruntled ex-employees, there was a concerted effort to keep any inquiries out of the news.

This book is the story of the two inquiries that were held into the Australian Graves Services unit in the first two years following the war. Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, this was a unit riven by jealousy, ego, incompetence and deviousness. It was overseen from Australia House in London, with three main bases over in Europe: Somme/Amiens; Villers-Bretonneux and then Poperinghe up on the Belgian border. Each of the officers who headed these bases loathed the others, for various reasons. Van Velzen approaches the story from multiple viewpoints, moving from one officer to the other, retelling events from their perspective. This leads to a certain degree of repetition, but it does also allow for actions and people to be viewed in different lights. Nobody comes out of this well. Jealousy, obstruction and rorting look bad no matter how you describe it.

After an initial inquiry cleared out the initial ‘troublemakers’ (who returned to Australia to make even more trouble there), there was a reshuffle of authority and a forging of an alliance between George Lort Phillips at Australia House, and Alfred Allen, a Quaker who had come to the AGS through the Red Cross, who was in charge at Poperinghe . Exonerated and perhaps emboldened by the first inquiry, Allen had become increasing sure of his ability to find bodies through ‘divining’, and it was this confidence that brought him into collision with Cecil Smith who had been charged by his wife’s uncle Col. James Burns with locating his son, Robert Burns. James Burns was wealthy and influential (he was the Burns in the Burns-Philp shipping company) and he had the money and contacts to persist when Phillips and Allen began stonewalling Cecil Smith in the search for Robert Burn’s remains. Smith alerted the politicians back in Australia, who wanted to keep all this out of the newspapers, leading to a second inquiry which was quietly shelved, just as the first one was. And as for Robert Burns’ body? Well, you’ll need to read the book.

Van Velzen has relied heavily on the 790 page report ‘Court of Inquiry: To inquire into and report upon certain matters in connection with the Australian Graves Services’. Bart Ziino’s also drew on this source in his more academic text A Distant Grief (my review here), as did a recent article “Suppressing an ‘undesirable public controversy’: Corpses, the Department of Defence, and the Australian Graves Services, 1919–1921” by Romain Fathi in the most recent edition of History Australia (Vol 19, Issue 3). However, in this longer, and less academic book, Van Velzen draws more heavily on the evidence given to the inquiry in a more conversational style, using it to bolster the varying viewpoints as she moves from character to character. The tone is rather sensationalist, tending to look for good guys and bad guys. However, by locating the inquiry within the very human story of Robert Burns and his grieving father, you as a reader do not lose sight of the fact that it is a young man who has died here, even though the other players in this grubby affair may have.

You are left with a sense that everyone comes out badly here. Perhaps it is just as well that people ‘back home’ did not know, and perhaps there was a justification at the time for keeping it quiet. As is often the way of things, it is deputy heads that roll.

Marianne Van Velzen has written a very readable if populist book, with neat narrative framing around Robert Burns. Your attention is captured anew with each new character, with a satisfying ending, which is not something that you can often say about military books. Its marketing might be a bit sensationalist, but it’s a well-constructed story that uses its sources well in an engaging, but thought-provoking way that emphasizes the human and the political over the military

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage’ by Alice Munro

2002, 323p

That’s quite a mouthful for the title of a book, and unfortunately instantly forgettable if someone asked you “What was that Alice Munro book of short stories that you read?” I read this book as part of a book club read and although we all enjoyed the stories enough while we were reading them, we found it very hard to remember enough details to discuss the stories in any depth. I often find this with short stories, although I enjoyed the longer length of these nine stories (most of about 30 to 40 pages in length). They were was long enough to become engrossed in the characters and too long to just turn to the next story once you had finished.

As you can see, Munro writes of a particular milieu- Canadian, middle-class, middle-aged- with a particular sympathy towards women. The stories are a bit like a short-form Anne Tyler, and I was not particularly aware of a distinctive narrative voice to distinguish one story from another. Perhaps this is why I, and my fellow book-clubbers, could not really remember the stories as discrete entities when we came to discuss them. We could remember particular events or people- but which story were they from?

So, indulge me while I summarize the stories so that I can remember them in the future- and beware of spoilers!

The title story ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship and Marriage’ is set “years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines”. Johanna is a middle-aged, rather plain woman who is working as domestic help for Mr McCauley, who is caring for his teenaged daughter Sabitha. Sabitha’s mother has died, and her father Ken Boudreau lives at some distance, writing occasionally to his former father-in-law for money. Sabitha and her friend Edith, intercept Ken’s letters and devise a hoax whereby Ken declares his love for the rather drab Johanna. Johanna takes her meagre savings and goes to Ken, who is oblivious to the letters that Johanna has received that have been written under his name. But Johanna has the last laugh: on meeting the rather pathetic Ken, she turns to caring for him instead, marries and has a child.

In ‘Floating Bridge’ middle-aged Jinny is returning home from an appointment with her oncologist. Her husband Neal, is brazenly flirting with Helen, a young woman whom they have hired to help around the house during Jinny’s chemotherapy regime. Neal insists on driving the sullen Helen to her home, and staying there for dinner, leaving his frail and washed- out wife to wait in the car. But Jinny has not received bad news from her doctor: instead her cancer is in remission, and she is no longer facing death. When a young man, Ricky, approaches her while she is waiting in the car, she acquiesces in going with him into the fields, where he kisses her on a floating pontoon bridge over a lagoon. She laughs.

‘Family Furnishings’ is about Alfrida, who is a journalist who writes several columns under different pen names in the local paper – Round and About the Town, and Flora Simpson Housewives’ Page. Her cousin and his wife and their young daughter, the narrator, were rather in awe of her, and referred to Alfrida as a career girl. As the narrator grows older, she goes to university in the same town where Alfrida is living, but she resists going to visit her. When she finally does, she is struck by Alfrida’s poverty and lack of sophistication. The narrator takes a story from Alfrida’s childhood and becomes a successful writer, a form of theft that Alfrida grudgingly admired.

In ‘Comfort’, a woman returns from her tennis match to find that her husband, who had been suffering from a neurological illness, has committed suicide. A teacher at the local high school, he had been increasingly targetted by fundamentalist Christian students and their teachers and forced to resign. She searches for a suicide note and removes all signs of suicide before calling the local undertaker, with whom she had gone to school. It is the undertaker who finds a note in Lewis’ pyjama pocket- a bitter and sarcastic note in riposte to his critics.

In ‘Nettles’ a woman recalls a boy she was friends with when they were both children. He was the son of a well-digger, who came round each year to work on the wells in their town. She meets him again, years later, at the house of a mutual friend. Even though he is married, the attraction she felt for him years ago is still there. They go for a walk along the golf course, and get caught in a sudden storm. He divulges a tragedy that he and his wife have faced, and she knows that their relationship will go no further. When they return home, their legs are itchy with welts from the nettles and weeds in which they took shelter.

In ‘Post and Beam’ Lorna recalls many years ago, when she, her husband Brendan and two children were living in an architecturally distinctive Post and Beam house. Brendan is a university lecturer and one of his most brilliant students was Lionel, who had a nervous breakdown. Lionel now works for the church, and is poorly paid and still troubled and he starts writing poetry to Lorna. Lorna’s cousin Polly, five years her elder, comes to stay with them and is needily judgmental of Lorna’s life. When Lorna and Brendan have a weekend away for a wedding, Lorna is terrified that Polly will have committed suicide in their absence, and she makes a deal with God- or whoever. The deal is not honoured, and life goes on.

‘What is Remembered’ is set in Vancouver and Meriel and her husband Pierre are travelling to a funeral for Pierre’s best friend Jonah. Meriel decides to visit her elderly Aunt Muriel at a nearby nursing home, then return home later that night. Dr Asher offers to drive her there, and he accompanies her into the nursing home. They have a brief dalliance that he puts a firm end to, and they go their separate ways. She remains married to Pierre, but is always aware of that other life that she could have had.

‘Queenie’ and Chrissy are step-sisters, but Queenie suddenly leaves home and runs away with the widowed older man next door, Mr. Vorguilla. After eighteen months, Chrissy finds out where Queenie is living, and comes to stay with her before starting Teachers College the next year. Mr Vorguilla is emotionally coercive and mean, gaslighting Queenie over a Christmas cake that she had saved money to buy. As Chrissy goes on to her life as a teacher, marries, has children, and travels in retirement, she learns that Queenie has left her husband. She thinks that she glimpses her in different places, but is never quite sure.

The first and last stories in this book were both made into films, and they are the strongest stories in the collection. They were, too, the only ones that we were able to remember well enough to discuss. ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ was adapted into the film ‘Away from Her’. Fiona and Grant had a long, happy marriage, but when her Alzheimers forces him to place her in care, she transfers her affections to another patient, Aubrey. When Aubrey’s wife Marian can no longer afford to keep him in care, she takes him home and Fiona is heartbroken. Grant meets with Marian, and starts up a relationship with her in the hope that this is a way that Fiona and Aubrey can meet again. The ending was ambiguously written.

As you can see, there is a sameness about these stories. Munro was awarded a Booker International, which is for a body of work, and I can see that she is insightful and masterful in weaving real complexity and emotional truth into a short work. I think that her writing would appeal much more to older than younger readers, and she has a compassion and indulgent tolerance for the mis-steps and compromises that we all make to keep living. Perhaps compiling such similar stories into one volume does them a disservice. Perhaps they are better left as they were originally published- many of them in the New Yorker and other magazines- where their similarities are less obvious and where they can stand alone and their strengths shine.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)

‘Lessons From History: Leading historians tackle Australia’s greatest challenges’ by Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe (eds).

2022, 349 p. & notes

It’s a big claim: that historians can tackle Australia’s greatest challenges. Despite Santayana’s rather facile aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, the humanities -and history in particular- have been largely left behind in the trample of lobbyists, think-tanks and policy advisors who direct political decisions from a more presentist and futurist perspective. I’m not sure that it’s a historian, rolling up her sleeves, who is on the end of the old phone depicted on the front cover,

This book, written during the COVID pandemic, responds to the feeling, that I share with many others, that we seem to be living in particularly historically fraught times. It aims to:

[provide] a roadmap for this vital knowledge, laying bare how history can and, indeed, should inform public debate. It is a book for politicians, policymakers, community workers, journalists and engaged citizens, as well as historians. Far from seeking to offer crude historical ‘lessons’ or rigid templates that might be imposed upon contemporary problems, instead we are interested in history’s capacity to enlarge and contextualise public debates…. Historical literacy may not always lead to better policy, but we maintain that history is fundamental to understanding context- which, from its Latin roots, means weaving together or drawing on surrounding circumstances.


The chapters that follow, mostly about 12-20 pages in length, deal with the major ‘hot-button’ challenges of the early 2020s: climate, China, foreign aid and investment, equality, water and power policy, refugees, war crime, the far right, First Nations issues, women and childcare, domestic violence, the Northern Territory, federation. Each chapter chooses its own time parameters, informed by the issue at hand, and closes with a summary statement: “Lessons from history” with the main policy ‘takeaway’ in a couple of short paragraphs, giving the book a somewhat managerial flavour. The chapters reflect the methodologies and ‘schools’ of the authors: economic historians provide statistics; oral historians provide snapshots from interviews.

The book is in two parts, which work almost at odds with each other. Part I: How a Knowledge of History Makes Better Policy seems to challenge the idea that historians, specifically amongst other public intellectuals, have anything particular to offer, and whether what they offer is used accurately or usefully. Graeme Davison champions, as a historian, the intellectual and social commentator Hugh Stretton, who published books like Ideas for Australian Cities (1970);Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (1978) and his final work Economics: a New Introduction (2015). These do not sound like the work of a historian and indeed, Stretton himself doubted whether he was a historian but, as Davison says

..from first to last, his thinking about public policy was deeply historical. He was not a policy wonk who taught history on the side; everything he wrote about public policy drew on his understanding of history


Stretton did not look to history for specific information, or analogies, but instead for a way of reasoning and a capacity to think about problems in a certain way. Frank Bongiorno warns in his chapter that politicians, exhorted to look to the past, can take the wrong lesson -e.g. by conceptualizing anything in diplomacy other than bristling belligerence as Chamberlain-esque ‘appeasement’ – or can subscribe too uncritically to an orthodox reading of economics – e.g. that Australia’s economic decline of the 20th century was caused by the flabbiness encouraged by the Australian Settlement, that only rigorous market reforms by governments of the 1980s and 90s could reverse. James Walter challenges the idea that historians are necessarily ‘outsiders’ by looking at historians who have worked ‘inside the tent’ of government policy, like the feminist historians in the 1970s/1980s and civic historians like Stuart Macintyre and John Hirst, and the policy pressure exerted by Gideon Haigh and Graeme Davison to secure funding for the National Archives of Australia.

Part II Lessons from History then turns its attention to the ‘challenges’. The challenges very much reflect the year in which the book has been compiled. While this contributes to its timeliness, it does also cast some -not all- chapters as more like commentary than analysis, giving the book the feeling of being an extended Monthly magazine or other Schwartz Media publication. Indeed, many of the better-known authors have featured in Quarterly Essays, and in some other chapters where the writer was not known to me, I found myself being able to predict what the “Lessons for History” were going to be after reading just one or two pages. I even found myself double checking to see if these were really historians (yes, most but not all were) and not lobbyists or spokespeople.

I was mystified by the short time spans and limited parameters that some authors chose for themselves. Several chapters reached back onto to the 1970s and 80s, as if the issues underpinning the current challenges started only then. For example, Mia Martin Hobbs’ chapter ‘Why soldiers commit war crimes- and what we can do about it’ looked only at the Vietnam and Afghan wars; the multiply-authored chapter ‘Urban water policy in a drying continent’ looked mainly from the 1990s’ onwards. ‘We need to hear the voices of refugees: citizen engagement for reforming refugee policy’ focussed on Tamil refugees, surely just one of the many refugee groups in Australia today.

The chapters I enjoyed most had a broader span, and surprised me by some of their conclusions. I was surprised that Claire E. W. Wright agreed with Graeme Samuel’s contention that an ‘impenetrable club’ of women was keeping other women out of the boardroom, before unpacking the reasons why this might be- although Wright, too, confined her analysis to post 1980s. I enjoyed Joan Beaumont’s chapter ‘Governing during economic crisis: the importance of memory’ which looked at the recent references to the 1930s Depression as a point of comparison during the COVID epidemic, and the power of the Great Depression in collective memory. I found Caroline Holbrook’s chapter on ‘How To Fix our Federation’, with its comparison of Commonwealth Day (1 January 1901) and Australia Day fascinating. I give my tick of approval to her suggestion of 29-30 March, the anniversary of the first elections for federal parliament, as an alternative to Australia Day, a choice that engenders pride in democracy itself and Australia’s contribution internationally. (For myself, better still if it could include a successful Voice referendum on that day too.)

As you might expect in a book of this type, some essays are more likely to appeal than others. For me, I like the ones that stretched further back in time than 1980, and I felt short-changed by those that ended with a policy prescription that could be found just as easily in a Saturday-paper article. There were others, however, that combined a concise sweep of events with an analysis of their meaning, and a critique of how they could be used or misused in policy formulation. These were the ones that left me wanting to hear more.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Twilight Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome’ by Faith L. Justice

2017, 392 p.

This review contains spoilers.

I have just finished listening to Mike Duncan’s very lengthy podcast series on A History of Rome. The last decades of the Empire were such a mess, but my attention was arrested by the prominence of two women, Placidia and Pulcheria, who despite their differences, became powerful in their own right in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires around the turn of the 5th century C.E. In his podcast, Mike Duncan suggested that someone should write a joint biography of these two contemporaneous women. I’m not sure if anyone has written a biography as such, but Faith L. Justice has embarked upon a fictional telling of the lives of three Theodosian Women – Placidia, Pulcheria and Athenais.

I’m a historian of Australian history, but I don’t often read historical fiction based on real, historical figures. Histories from the viewpoint of an invented character, yes; invented characters based on real ones, yes; histories told from the viewpoint on an onlooker, yes; but less often fiction focussing on and fleshing out real characters, using real events and timelines. In fact, I just abandoned reading Annie Garthwaite’s Cecily, about Cecily Neville, the wife of Richard, Duke of York and the mother of Edward IV and Richard III because I just didn’t know enough Plantagenet history to make sense of it, and I wasn’t prepared to put in the hard yards. One notable exception to this is Hilary Mantel’s work, especially her Wolf Hall Trilogy, and her excellent A Place of Greater Safety about the French Revolution, which no-one ever seems to mention. But even with Mantel’s work, I started each book feeling paralysed by my lack of knowledge until I took a deep breath and trusted that, with her emphasis on character, the events would fall into place.

This is the dilemma for a historical novelist, I suppose: knowing the context and events backwards as author, but writing in such a way that you bring a reader who does not know them along with you. In this, Faith L. Justice (surely not her real name!) gives as much support as she can, with a family tree and a list of characters as they appear chronologically in the book, with helpful italicizing of the names of those she invented.

So who was Galla Placidia? This entry from Justice’s blog gives the background to Placidia’s childhood and upbringing. Born in 388-89 or 39293 CE (how wonderful that she has a 5 year age range!), she was the daughter of the Roman emperor Theodosius I and the paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius. She became empress consort to emperor Constantius II and was the mother and powerful advisor of emperor Valentinian III. So, definitely, completely entwined in imperial politics.

But the book Twilight Empress starts with her being taken hostage by Alaric, the king of the Goths, prior to the fall of Rome. She was taken to Gaul, where after 5 years she married Alaric’s son Ataulf, with whom she had genuinely fallen in love. However, her half-brother Honorius rebuffed their appeals to recognize the marriage, and sent his trusted general, Constantius to bring her home. He did so, and married her himself, having been in love with her for many years, although she did not reciprocate. She had two surviving children to Constantius (having lost her earlier child that she had with Ataulf) before Constantius died. She then threw herself into the lives of her children, forming a separate power base behind her rather insipid son Valentinian, and acting as an intermediary between the Eastern and Western Emperors. The author did well here, showing her as an active and intelligent political operator, but always within circumscribed limits. Meanwhile, her daughter Justa Grata Honoria (known as Honoria – one of the many Honorias) was misbehaving, much to her mother and brother’s embarrassment. The author has fun with Honoria, inventing an ending for her in the vacuum of information about what really happened to her.

I wonder if I would have gleaned all this from the book alone, had I not known some of it from other sources? I’m not sure. My awareness of the emotional resonances of Placidia’s story came solely from this book because the other sources do not provide them, and because there is space for a fictional author to explore the emotional realm. But I don’t think that I would have detected the broader factual events of her life from this book alone, something that could have been remedied with a timeline of major events, perhaps, and a few maps.

Of course, the emotional realm is where an author can exercise their imagination, but the historiographical field of ‘History of the Emotions’ signals to us that emotions are not constant across time and societies. Some emotional responses will always be impenetrable to us as 21st century readers and this would be even more true of classical times. So the ‘romantic’ scenes in the book, which had a decidedly modern tenor, did not sit well with me, veering at times into Mills and Boon territory.

However, one of my motivations for reading this book was to reinforce what I have learned about Ancient Rome recently in a less weighty form, and in that, the book succeeded well. Faith L. Justice gave Placidia agency, -albeit limited- both in her emotional life and in her political behaviour, providing a good counter to all those histories of battles and betrayals amongst the men of Rome.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from: purchased e-book

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

2020, 246 p.


I must confess that, had it not been the September selection for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle, I would not have read this book. Not even winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2021 would have tempted me. I’ve read a few of Amanda Lohrey’s books before, but after at first being beguiled into their Garnersque Melbourne settings, I have become increasingly wearied by the philosophical and spiritual baggage that she burdens her books with – most particularly in The Philosopher’s Doll (my review here) and even more so in A Short History of Richard Kline (my review here). So, eyeing off the title The Labyrinth with its sacred and meditative connotations, I was not inclined to read the book.

In its classical (as distinct from religious) origins the labyrinth was an elaborate structure built by the craftsman Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, in order to contain the monster Minotaur. The young Theseus, later to be the mythical King of Athens, had joined a group of youths and maidens slated to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. He entered the labyrinth with a ball of string which he used to keep track of his progress through the maze, killed the Minotaur, then followed the string to get out of the labyrinth again.

All this seems a long way from Garra Nalla, a small farming community on the New South Wales coast, which is close enough to the prison in Brockwood, where Erica’s only child is serving a sentence for murder. On the way up the coast she revisits her childhood home, Melton Park, a former asylum which has been converted into a tourist venue. Her father had been the chief medical officer, and she and her brother grew up ranging freely over the gardens and wards of the asylum. Her father, who had stayed on at the asylum with his two children Erica and Axel after their mother had left them, engaged the children on building a labyrinth in the gardens of the asylum, complete with the measuring and designing that such a project entailed.

The labyrinth at her childhood home had long disappeared by the time that Erica visited it, but when she moves into a ramshackle house near the ocean, after a particularly vivid dream she decides to build a labyrinth on the flat space beside her own home. She researches various designs of labyrinths (leading to more exposition than I cared for) and obsesses over the form, shape and construction of her labyrinth. She needs the expertise and muscle of others, and this leads her to befriend Jurko, former stoneworker and an undocumented migrant from the Balkans, who is sleeping rough in the national parks nearby.

If there is a monster in her labyrinth, it is her son Daniel. Always an intense child, he was an artist and art becomes the one connection she has with her son as she visits him in the stark, soul-destroying visitors’ room at the jail. He is spiky and unlikeable (although I think that, from a plot point of view, Lohrey lost courage in choosing the rather ambiguous crime that led to Daniel’s imprisonment). He is probably mentally ill, although this is not reflected in the sentence that he received. But Daniel is Erica’s punishment: she feels the guilt for his crime (even if Daniel does not); she is compelled to keep visiting him because she is the only one who does; and she is reluctant to tell other people about her son in the small seaside hamlet where she is carving out her new life.

Mental illness and loss runs through this book. Growing up in an asylum, she had much childhood exposure to mental illness, although her father taught her not to fear it, assuring her that we are all lunatics at some stage. Her mother feared it, though, and she left her husband, 10 year old Erica and her younger brother Alex after a dispute with her husband over a particularly violent inmate who had been admitted to the asylum and who, she felt, was under insufficient supervision. Although her mother died two years later, their father never told them: a rather inexplicable act by a doctor, and a source of grievance between father and children when they discovered the truth. Her mother was right: her father was killed by a patient.

Moving into adulthood Erica embarked on a series of violent, unsuitable and unsuccessful relationships, becoming homeless and camping up and down the coast at one stage with her son Daniel who, like her, mourned and kept searching for his lost parent. She feels guilt over her parenting, and when Daniel commits the crime that led to his imprisonment, she takes on herself the guilt for the innocent victims- a guilt that Daniel does not feel. Erica herself is emotionally untethered, but she is not alone. Ray, her next door neighbour, is a morose and belligerent misogynist; young Lexie who she employs rather unnecessarily to help around the house is withdrawn and ‘strange’; and self-assured neighbours turn out to have their own family crises. But, as her father said, we’re all affected by the moon.

Her father had believed in the power of making things as a form of healing. The epigraph to the book “The cure for many ills, noted Jung, is to build something”, and after her mother Irene left, her father built Erica a doll’s house in his own workshop at the back of the house

…after Irene disappeared, he made me a doll’s house with a circular staircase that I could never gaze on without a sense of the mystery of my own being. I would imagine that somewhere in the attic of the doll’s house, my mother had left behind a part of herself and that one day she would return for it.

p. 8

It’s no surprise, then, that Erica embarks upon building her labyrinth as a cure for her own sickness at heart. The project draws in other people, particularly Jurko and even the pugnacious Ray, and although it is not completed, the labyrinth acts as a healing force for Erica, and a metaphor for working one’s way through challenge. In the closing pages of the book, Erica feels that the labyrinth is her mother’s.

Much of the book is fairly quotidian: her gradual acceptance of and by her neighbours, unpacking her possessions and destroying those of her son (under his instructions) in her new home, and choosing designs and rocks for the labyrinth. But it is heavily laden with descriptions of dreams (something that Lohrey does in her other books as well) and fairly didactic information about labyrinths. She writes landscape well, and you can almost see her weather-beaten shack against the sand dunes. She captures the small scale of Garra Nulla, and explores the flawed characters of her neighbours, more visible in a small town. Lohrey’s exploration of the emotional situation of the parent of an imprisoned (adult) child is well done, without the shrillness of Lionel Shriver’s We Have to Talk about Kevin. But in spite of the things that Lohrey did well in this book, I just found the philosophizing and dream sequences stultifying and offputting. Even though obviously many other readers feel differently (including those at the Ivanhoe Reading Circle meeting) the ‘Miles Franklin Winner’ didn’t rescue this book for me.

My rating: 7/10 (It would have been lower, but the discussion nudged me higher)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Read for the September meeting of the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’ by Doris Lessing

501 p. 1984

I was going to say that I hadn’t read any of Lessing’s work because I saw her as an outdated writer from the 1960s in a tweed skirt and pudding-basin haircut. I now realize that I had her mixed up with Iris Murdoch, and that she actually lived until 2013, writing until the early 21st century. And consulting my reading journals from before starting this blog, I found that I had read a Lessing before – The Good Terrorist, a book I loathed. So it’s just as well that I was pushed into reading this book by my CAE bookgroup, because I would never have read it by myself (if I could even find it because it’s not widely available any more).

It has an interesting publishing history. It was published as two separate novels ‘The Diary of a Good Neighbour’ (1983) and ‘If the Old Could…’ (1984) under the pseudonym of ‘Jane Somers’. Lessing explains in the preface to this 1984 volume that she sought to publish the books under another name to test out the publishing industry’s willingness to take on an unknown author, and the effect of a known ‘name’ in achieving publication. She was right to be sceptical about the industry: her main publishers of her many previous works both rejected it. When it was picked up by Michael Joseph (later Penguin), they said that The Diary of a Good Neighbour reminded them of Doris Lessing. Her French publisher made a similar observation. Unlike her other books, it was mainly reviewed by women journalists in women’s magazines, highlighting for her the difficulty in bringing books to the attention of readers (I’m not sure that this is such a problem now, is it? Although you only have to look at the piles of remaindered books to realize just how much writing becomes literally junked because it has missed its wave).

Spoiler alert

Set contemporaneously in the early 1980s (which is when they were published) the books are written in the form of undated diary entries, a format which becomes increasingly implausible with the increasing use of direct speech and which leads to one continuous screed of writing. Jane, or as she calls herself, ‘Janna’ is an editor at Lilith, an upmarket glossy women’s magazine that includes several ‘serious’ sociological pieces on birth control, sex, health, social problems generally, often gleaned and barely disguised from New Scientist and other publications, as well as a heavy photographic emphasis on clothes, food, wine and decor. Janna was smart, fastidious about her own grooming and presentation, with a stylish home but a circumscribed social life beyond work. She had started working at Lilith in 1947, straight from school, and she was still there some 35 years later, although the magazine itself had changed its focus and structure over time. She had married in 1963, but her husband Freddie died with cancer. Several years later her mother died, after living with her briefly when her married sister Georgie said that she could no longer cope with her, as she had four children of her own. By her own admission, and increasingly, Janna realizes that she had been repulsed by, and emotionally absent for, both these deaths.

It is strange, then, that in The Diary of a Good Neighbour this chic and self-contained woman should befriend Maudie Fowler, whom she met in the chemist’s shop and accompanied back to her home. More than ‘befriend’ in a bureaucratic sense: she became a mainstay, a ‘carer’ (before than was a thing) and intimately involved with Maudie’s increasingly frail body in a way that she never could would have done with her husband and mother. This is part of Janna’s own growth as she reaches middle-age and looks back on her earlier life with an appalled guilt and regret that she had not really engaged with mortality, even when it affected those closest to her. Lessing captures well the despair felt at the betrayal by the body in old age, the mutual love/hate relationship between the aging person and their carers, and the bureaucratization of ‘care’ contracted out as part of a financial arrangement. Although set in the 1980s, the old women that Lessing describes live in squalor, with no internal bathrooms and inadequate heating. It’s pretty bleak.

If the Old Could’ picks up after Maudie’s death as Janna falls unexpectedly in love with Richard, a married man. It seemed light and airy after the oppressive sadness of the first book, although as time goes on the one-sidedness of the relationship becomes increasingly apparent. It is clear that Richard is not going to leave his wife; neither Richard nor Janna can bring themselves to actually make love with each other; Richard has Janna’s phone number but she has no way of contacting him; they spend a lot of time moving from pub to coffee shop and walking the suburbs of London. Janna’s caring responsibilities have, if anything increased, as her moody and indolent niece Kate moves in with her and Janna becomes a frequent visitor to Annie, an old, complaining woman who stays immured in her stuffy rooms. Kate is clearly mentally ill – her other niece Jill and Janna’s co-workers at Lilith can see it- but Janna is largely passive in the face of Kate’s slovenliness and her half-hearted involvement with a group of squatters who trash Janna’s immaculate apartment and take advantage of her generosity (shades of The Good Terrorist here). Janna herself is likewise passive in the face of the theft and cheating of the carers employed to look after Annie, perhaps through a misplaced sense of solidarity at the poor treatment of women working for the elderly. If Janna didn’t give enough to her mother or her first husband Freddie, she is surely compensating here, from a sense of guilt and lost opportunities. But the last part of her relationship with Richard and his family, particularly his son, is puzzling and strains credulity.

Moreover, I was never really convinced by Lessing’s selection of career for Janna. We are told repeatedly that she is very busy, but I couldn’t really work out what Janna did at Lilith. She seems to spend a lot of time worrying about her former co-worker and friend Joyce, who leaves for America to save her marriage, and she can drop everything for lunches and walks with Richard when he deigns to call. Janna’s focus on clothes and presentation (both for herself and in judging others) is an important part of her personality, but these could be woven into any professional job. I suspect that Lessing knew little about the high-end magazine industry.

Taken together, this is a lengthy two-part book. Particularly at the start, I seemed to read and read without making progress, and I despaired at ever reaching beyond the first quarter of the book. The writing is dense and wordy. The lack of chapters gives the book a feeling of relentlessness, especially in the dark sections with the increasing oppressiveness of Maudie’s frailty.

However, Lessing is very good at depicting the contradictions and compromises of women’s lives. Although written in Janna’s voice, she leaves space for the reader to make their own judgments of Janna’s actions and priorities. Despite my qualms about Lessing’s choice of high-end journalism for Janna’s work, the book itself has an emotional authenticity that is best appreciated, I suspect, by older readers. Readers who have watched their elderly parents die, have made mistakes and feel regrets, and have lived more than one life. In fact, I can’t imagine younger readers persisting with this book at all but, as an older reader myself, I appreciated watching a woman re-evaluating her life, finding her younger self a puzzling creature, and facing her own mortality head on.

My rating: Hard to judge. 8??

Sourced from: CAE Booksgroups (The Ladies Who Say Oooh)