Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp’ by David Sornig

sornig

2018, 361 p.

My ‘best book’ choice for 2018!

About thirty years ago, my then-husband and I won a prize in a raffle. It was a bus trip to and from Adelaide and two nights accommodation there.  (In fact, given that it takes a good 10 hours to travel to Adelaide from Melbourne, I’m starting to think that this might have been a second prize!) We left from Spencer Street (Southern Cross) station and drove through West Melbourne to get onto the freeway to Ballarat. I could still see the city skyscrapers on the right hand side of the bus – but what was this deserted flatland that we were driving through?  Warehouses, empty streets, great stretches of railway, blocks of containers, barren flat open areas. Where on earth was I?

Without knowing it, I was driving through the former Dudley Flats and West Melbourne Swamp, the focus of this excellent book. Even now, thirty years later, despite the construction of quays and high-rises, it’s an area that seems to resist taming. It’s almost as if it’s cursed. They build ferris wheels there, and they break down for years on end. They build high-rises, cover them with cladding, and they catch fire. Meanwhile, the wind sweeps along the newly-built boulevards, where trees struggle to grow.

Sornig starts his book with a death: the particularly gruesome death in 1942 of Elsie Williams, a Bendigo-born singer of Afro-Caribbean origin. Her body is savaged by the half-starved offspring and remainders of over 60 dogs that were kept by Lauder Rogge on his stranded ship, the John Hunt some six years earlier. She is discovered by Jack Peacock, the king of the Dudley Flats tip scavenging community.  These three characters – Elsie, Lauder and Jack – are the linchpins of this beautifully written narrative as Sornig traces through the attempts by governments, railways, do-gooders and now Border Force, to clean up and control what he calls The Zone.

Sornig describes himself a writer and a psychogeographer, not a historian (p. 152). I hadn’t heard of the term ‘psychogeography‘ before, but I have become aware that geography writing has changed over recent years, looking at space as well as place, tracing deep time as well as calendar time, revealing palimpsest as well as topography and emphasizing the connections between human individuals, their networks and ecology.

But Sornig is underselling his skills as a historian. He starts with the Blue Lake, known variously as Batman’s Swamp, Batman’s Lagoon, the North Melbourne or West Melbourne swamp,  covered with flowers, and described in idyllic and nostalgic terms by Edmund Finn (Garryowen) and George Gordon McCrae.  He traces through the various engineering manipulations that turned it into a wetland, and most importantly, the economic and social influences that drew the marginalized to its flats – the unemployed, alcoholics and homeless people. By the time it was known as Dudley Flat in the 1930s, it was notorious: my father remembered being taken to see the tin shanties as a young boy, and somehow government bureaucracies fell over each other in trying to move people on, resulting in their long-term residence on the flats.  His telling of the whole lives of his three main characters – Elsie, Lauder and Jack- encapsulate twentieth-century social history of the marginalized in a more human and nuanced way than any other I have read.

Like a Sebald book, this book is punctuated by black and white pictures, sometimes details of a larger picture, that is gradually revealed. There is a map, but it only appears 2/3 of the way through the book: a rather curious decision.  The narrative shifts back and forward as the narrator walks – literally – the Zone, while he also delves archives, sifts newspapers, follows up family history links.

It is beautifully written and very easy to read. It’s the best book that I have read all year, and one of the best books about Melbourne that I have encountered. Will it clean up in the non-fiction and history awards next year? It deserves to.

My rating: an unequivocal 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson

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2010, 359 p.

This was a bookgroup selection and I’d left it late to start reading it. So, in the one night I was catapulted from Vichy France and Nazi interrogators in Lovers at the Chameleon Club  into  English village life, retired Army Majors and golf-club gossip in Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. A very abrupt change of pace!

I was surprised to learn that Helen Simonson is an American writer, albeit British-born, who has lived in America for the past twenty years. She captures village life remarkably well. Midsomer Murders is a cliché, but when I visited my brother who lives near a village outside Maidenhead, I was stunned to find myself in a village that looked very much like that murderous locale, right down to the village green with the white posts and looped chain fence. This is the sort of place in which  68 year old Major Pettigrew (retired) makes his last stand.

Not that you’d know it from the opening pages of the book where, numb after the death of his brother, he has put on his deceased-wife’s floral housecoat. The doorbell rings, and he answer it to find Mrs Ali, the widow of the local general-store owner. With self-assured pomposity and casual racism, he had barely been aware of her except to buy his blended tea from her, but they strike up a friendship.  They are drawn into the disastrous plans by the local golf club to have as their party theme ‘The Last Days of the Maharajah’, an ignorant and insensitive event which conflates India and Pakistan, the Mughals and the Empire. Both the Major and Mrs Ali are quietly resisting the suffocating oversight of their son/nephew, both of whom are insufferable in different ways. The book does become rather hyperactive at the end.

Is it the persistence of Baby Boomers as a reliable reading market that has led to a rash of older-person ‘twilight’ relationships? I’m thinking of Our Souls at Night, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Australian author Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, all of which have older protagonists who are being pressured by their offspring.

This book is a comfortable read that reveals a wry sense of humour. I was reminded of Barbara Pym, and perhaps even shades of Jane Austen. I hadn’t ever heard of it, but it was a very enjoyable escape that made you squirm at time with embarrassment, roll your eyes at pretension and prejudice, and rejoice in a happy ending that didn’t necessarily tie up all the ends too neatly.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (a reading selection for my bookgroup)

Rating: 7.5/10

‘Best We Forget: The War for White Australia 1914-1918’

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2018, 272p

There are some books whose time has come, and I think that Peter Cochrane’s latest book falls into that category. Released by Text – a general publisher as distinct from an academic one – it comes at the end of a five-year tsunami of books and features about World War I and our ‘birth as a nation’ and ‘ANZAC character’.  These tropes have been pushed very heavily by governments, particularly (but not exclusively) by the present conservative government. But in this book, with its cleverly twisted title, Cochrane argues that the seeds of Australia’s involvement in World War I began in the half-century before 1914, when a self-governing and increasingly prosperous Australia began to feel the chill of its geographical location so far from ‘mother’ England, and the ominous size of the Asian populations that surround this island nation. It’s almost impossible to read this book today without a consciousness that, with the rise of China in the 21st century and the United States led by an erratic president, there is much in common between us today and the politicians and leaders of 1914.

Cochrane’s  book starts and finishes with a discussion of myth-making. Much of the popular ‘birth of a nation’, ‘mateship’ and ‘ANZAC character’ rhetoric springs from the writings of war-correspondent Charles Bean. But as Cochrane points out, Bean had been developing his argument that the Australian was a new type ‘hammered out of old stock’ and imbued with all the qualities necessary for military greatness, particularly mateship, long before World War I (p.7).  The true ‘Australian native’ was a clean man, a cleanness found ‘in the blood’ of the Anglo-Saxon race. He took this mental template with him to his WWI reporting and to his magisterial The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 which shaped Australia’s view of WWI for decades after. As he notes in his closing chapter, Bean’s characterization has strongly influenced popular memory, most particularly the shock jocks, right-wing politicians and allied intellectuals (and I would add, ambitious Directors of the Australian War Memorial as well) ever since.

But, Cochrane argues, this is not the whole story. It’s a rather uncomfortable fact that the first issue that the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia dealt with in Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, more popularly known as the White Australia policy.  Australia had passed race-based legislation right from the 1850s, in response to Chinese migration, and in 1901 as its opening act, it reasserted its identity as a ‘white man’s country’. This could be, and was, framed as an pledge of loyalty to the British Empire, but Britain for her part, by now had her own strategic interests in encouraging and protecting her relationship with Japan instead.  And as Germany became more bellicose and Europe more volatile, Britain proposed outsourcing responsibility for the security of the Indian Pacific to Japan – Japan!!- as a well-resourced ally instead. Cochrane argues that Australia’s willingness to fight in Europe was a way of proving our loyalty to Britain, to whom we were tied by race and culture, and leveraging that loyalty to ensure that Britain continued to look to the interests of her daughter Australia, and not the new ally, Japan.

As Cochrane argues

…this idea of Australia as an Anglo-Saxon citadel, the last bastion of the purest and finest white blood, entirely ‘clean’, shaped defence thinking in Australia from the late colonial period onwards, in company with the fear that Australia might be left to fight an Asian invader alone. More importantly, this fear was the strategic concern behind Australia’s commitment to the First World War. The primary objective, of course, was the defeat of Germany, the survival of Britain and the empire, and the maintenance of those strategic, economic and sentimental ties that most Australians cherished. But most Australians also cherished their racial purity and that too was at stake, or so it seemed in the years before the war and during the war itself. (p. 9)

We are uncomfortable with the Immigration Restriction Act today, but at the time Australian politicians on all sides – liberals, conservatives, labour interests- saw racial purity as fundamental to upward progress of this newly federated nation.

The White Australia policy was not merely about keeping other types out. It was a desirable end in itself, racial homogeneity being a precondition for social reform and a high standard of living, for the constitutional vigour of the race, the high ideals, the upward evolutionary trajectory associated with the new Commonwealth. There was a vast reservoir of emotional investment in the coming nation.  ‘Race pollution’ was akin to ruin, while race purity was embraced as a positive ideal, the indispensible prerequisite for the principles on which white Australian social and political life was based. (p.46)

Cochrane’s book traces through the increasing anxiety from the 1870s onwards as Europeans moved into the South Pacific, evoking fears that a foreign power such as France, Germany or Russia might use Pacific islands as a launching pad for attacks, or worse – invasion, of Australia. British garrison troops were withdrawn from Australia in 1870, and Britain remained largely unmoved by Australian pleas to annex New Guinea, the New Hebrides, and the Solomons, as they had done with Fiji. Britain by this time was more concerned with European stability. Australia’s fear of Asiatic races was long established, burnished by the veneer of Social Darwinism.  The Anglo-Japanese commercial treaty of 1894 gave Japan, a powerful nation state with its own imperialist visions, honorary membership of ‘civilized Europe’ (p.41)  This set up an immediate conflict between the new Commonwealth of Australia, which saw itself as the last citadel of Anglo-Saxon race purity in the Pacific, and Great Britain which wanted its ally and business partner Japan exempted from the Immigration Restriction Act.

This anxiety over Japan explains Australia’s willingness to expand its military preparedness prior to World War I, introducing its civilian military scheme, and its panting readiness to assist Britain as a show of good faith. It’s as if Australia were the jilted child, jealous and edgy when a new adopted child is showered with favours. There is a strong sense that Australia was being ‘played’ by Britain.  While not sanitizing Billy Hughes as such, the book does make sense – if you accept the White Australia premise- of Hughes’ desire to introduce conscription to keep the troop numbers up, in order to bolster Australia’s position in the Pacific in the post-war carve-up at Versailles.

At the domestic level, politicians made no secret at all of the anxiety over Japan and Asia. It’s right there in their speeches, alongside fear of Germany and distress over Belgium. It was voiced on all political sides, and often. Cochrane doesn’t have to look hard to find examples, although just a quick survey of the newspapers of the time on Trove highlights that Germany was portrayed as the more potent foe. As with other histories that pack a punch, once a historian has alerted the reader to a phenomenon, it suddenly seems to be everywhere, hidden in plain sight. There seemed to be no embarrassment about proclaiming and defending whiteness and ‘cleanliness’ at the political level. However Cochrane does not conflate this political rhetoric at a national level, with the personal motivation that an individual soldier might have felt to enlist.

Cochrane does not deny the potency of the other spurs to military action, like fear of Germany and disgust over Belgium, but he does raise the question over why the anti-Asiatic rhetoric has been expunged from our popular memory of World War I.  This is a theme that he returns in the final chapter of the book, especially in the light of the Centenary of WWI:

Best We Forget is an ironic title. We do well to remember the Great War: the battlefield ordeals and the soldiers’ sacrifice. Yet, in the course of bringing a nation into being and fostering it to maturity, sacrifice takes many forms. We might also remember that nations are built as much in peace as in war; negotiators and conciliators count as much as warriors; inventors and visionaries have shaped Australia’s evolution as least as decisively as have the great generals; and, thankfully, debate and compromise have done more to shape our political culture than have the bayonet or the gun. (p. 229)

I think that, especially coming at the end of a long period of historical reflection, this book will be a stayer. Once alerted to the anti-Asian racism that underpins much of Australia’s war rhetoric, you can’t unsee it.  Nor can you sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’, written in 1878, without remembering that the word ‘fair’ can  (and at the time, did) have racial overtones.

This is an important book, well written as all of Cochrane’s work is, accessible and controversial. It places the war within a continuum of Australian history, rather than as a purely external disruptive event, and forces us to expand our view of ‘loyalty to the Empire’ to encompass uncomfortable truths.  Perhaps it’s not so much ‘Best to Forget’ but certainly ‘Best to Recognize’.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

 

 

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

edugyan

2018, 432 p.

George Washington Black (‘Wash’), a slave child in the sugar plantations of Barbados, was triply marked. First: he was marked by his colour when he escaped to Nova Scotia on the run to avoid being framed for a murder he did not commit. Second: he was marked by the brand ‘F’ burned into his skin for the ironically-named ‘Faith’ plantation when it was taken over by  a ruthless plantation-manager named Erasmus Wilde. And finally, he was marked by scarring from burns he received when a ballooning attempt went wrong.

So how did a young boy from the canefields of Barbados end up in places as diverse as the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England and Morocco? In the opening part of the book he, along with Big Kit – an older woman who has taken him under her wing-  is brought up to ‘the house’. There he catches the eye of Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, the cruel plantation-manager’s brother, who judges him the right size to be ballast for a balloon-prototype he was constructing. Titch soon recognizes Wash’s sharp mind and drawing skill, and he engages him as a research assistant and valet, much to his brother’s disgust. It is while assisting with the ‘cloud-cutter’ balloon that Wash is injured in a gas explosion. Titch and Wash escape for America when Wash witnesses a death that they both know will be blamed on Wash. A generous reward is posted by Erasmus Wilde for his capture and return, and so Wash’s journey begins.

This book works on a big canvas, reminding me oddly of a Dickens novel in its scope. It crosses the globe, and it has big characters. For me, the most powerful part of the book was in 1830s Barbados, where the historian in me approved the author’s depiction of both slavery and the paltry nature of the Apprenticeship scheme that paraded as abolition.  The narrative voice is restrained and educated, in a rather formal and antiquated way. Interestingly, there is no framing device for the narrative: you just take the story as given. It is at heart a quest novel, although shot through with yearning, injustice and beautiful description.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

 

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris 1932’ by Francine Prose

prose

2014, 436p.

It’s just as well that one of the rules I set for myself when reading is to give a book at least 100 pages before I give up on it. I didn’t know anything about this book and for the first fifty or so pages I was just confused.

There are multiple narrators here, speaking through different genres. Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer, writes long letters home to his parents that do not quite conceal his incessant asking for money. Lionel Maine is an American novelist of the big, baggy, gossipy type who has written a memoir of his time in Paris pre-WWII called ‘Make Yourself New’. Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, who becomes Gabor’s wife, writes an unpublished memoir of the events, with the instruction that the memoir be burnt at her death. Wealthy art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, who has married into an auto company, writes her own jauntily named memoir ‘A Baroness By Night’. The sections titled ‘Yvonne’ are written in the third person by an unnamed omniscient narrator. The heft of the book appears in the fictional biography of athlete and motor racer ‘The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars’ by Natalie Dunois.

Told from these varying voices and agendas, these characters are drawn to the Chameleon club, a Parisian nightclub which attracts gays, lesbians, cross-dressers and artists. As Hitler’s politics begin to filter beyond Germany’s borders, the club increasingly falls under scrutiny, and adapts to fit the political milieu.  The main interest of the book is a regular cross-dressing customer of the club, Lou Villars.  A former athlete and motor racer, she is spurned by her girlfriend Arlette and becomes drawn into National Socialism, becoming a notorious Nazi informant and interrogator.

I only gradually realized that this book is  based in fact, albeit with fictional names and imaged events. The photograph around which much of the action revolves was taken by Brassai entitled ‘Fat Claude and her girlfriend at Le Monocle’ (see here) and Lou Villars is a barely disguised Violette Morris, (see also here) who gave the Germans information about the Maginot Line and members of the French Resistance.

I was conscious that my approach to the book changed dramatically once I realized that it was based on fact. I resisted the temptation to start googling the characters, and instead let the fictional book take me where it wanted me to go. There is a ‘Cabaret’-style artifice to the book, which became increasingly dark as the narrative went on. By having multiple narrators, the author is not bound to ‘explaining’ her Lou Villars character, or her seduction into National Socialism, although the multiple narrators give her scope to speculate.  I’m glad that I didn’t give up at 100 pages in, but I do wonder if my response to the book would have been different had I realized what the author was doing, earlier on.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I had heard of Francine Prose

My rating: 8

‘Girl Talk: One Hundred Years of Australian Girls’ Childhood’ by Gwenda Beed Davey

girl_talk

2017, 210 pages

As it happened, I started reading this book during International Day of the Girl  (October 11). It’s telling that there is no International Day of the Boy- and nor should there be, considering the straitened and frankly bleak lives that many girls live throughout the world compared to their brothers.

The very first picture in the opening pages of this book, subtitled ‘Group of girls with the Leones and the di Giglio Band, St Kilda, 1911’ shows a musical band of men, with young girls in the background, dressed in white, looking for all the world as if the characters from Picnic at Hanging Rock had turned up at a musical soiree. The text of the book itself starts at a very different place with the ‘sexting’ events of 2016 where young girls texted images of themselves to two boys, only to find their images shared and viewers invited to vote for ‘slut of the year’. It seems hard to even place those 1911 girls, all hatted and demurely dressed in white, in the same analytic frame as those internet images.

This is what Gwenda Beed Davey does in this book. As she writes in her introductory essay ‘Being a Girl in Australia’,

This book looks at the changes in girls’ experiences and behaviour through their own words, their ‘girl talk’. The book will consider what has changed and what has remained the same. Ten women, all born in Australia, have recorded their recollections of their childhood, in decades from ‘around 1910’ to ‘around 2010’ (p.2)

She defines childhood as ending at around 13 years of age, when puberty sets in and childhood games are often abandoned.

In an article for the National Film and Sound Archive, where Davey worked as a Research Fellow, she explains that she more than twenty years ago she had  recorded a number of oral histories for the National Library of Australia. Some of these interviews were made available for the body of this book, supplemented by more recent interviews which brought the book up to 2016.

After the introduction, each chapter is devoted to each interview which is presented as a separate continuous first-person account, with the questions removed. However, the presence of the questions lingers in the topics addressed, with a common emphasis on games played and rhymes recalled, reflecting the author’s interest in childhood games through her earlier involvement in the ‘Childhood, Tradition and Change’ research project (see its fascinating database here). As they are interviews, there is not a lot of narrative shaping, and the endings are rather abrupt. Davey has prefaced each chapter with a paragraph-length introduction, and each interview is seen as being emblematic of a particular decade.

So who are some of the women we meet here? Ethel Carroll, born in 1914, grew up in a series of rented houses with her extended family. Her father was a strong unionist, and worked as a bootmaker. She was brought up in the Methodist church, and through gaining a 1/2 scholarship, was able to attend Stott’s Business College.

Maxine Ronnberg was born in 1920 and lived in Mortlake in rural Victoria until she was thirteen. Her father was a stock agent, and she grew up in the family home where there was a governess, cook and housemaid, as well as the stockmen and drovers.

Jean Phillips was born in 1925 and moved from Collingwood where her father was employed in a boot factory to the nascent Canberra in 1927 where her father worked as a doorman at the ‘new’ Parliament House. They lived in Ainslie in a government house where the rent never changed. She left school at 14 because she didn’t like it and became a dressmaker.

From this point on, the interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2016. Dorothy Saunders was born in Sydney in 1932 and came to Melbourne when she was two. Her father was an industrial chemist educated at Sydney Tech, while her mother was a secretary. She lived at Seaholme, near Altona, which was an undeveloped suburb at the time. During the polio epidemic she went to live in the Blue Mountains for 6 months, and the family later shifted to Ferntree Gully when her father feared that Altona would be bombed during WWII. She had a wide extended family, but her father was very bad-tempered.

Claire Forbes was born in 1940. Her father fought in WWI, and he was left a life-long Pacifist. He was 55 years old when she was born, and he died when she was 15. She was part of a huge Catholic family, and they lived in a small Queensland country town and holidayed in Coolangatta with her large extended family. She had a rural school upbringing, with the Art Train and the Rural School on the ‘rail motor’ bringing extra curricular education to this remote area.

Sue Broadway was born in 1955, if not ‘in a trunk’, then certainly surrounded by vaudeville and greasepaint. Her mother was an entertainer who made the transition to television. Sue herself participated in eisteddfods and followed her mother to the Royal Show and shopping centres. Her father was a teacher and she went on the Moratorium marches.

Patricia Ciuffetelli, born 1961, grew up in Queanbeyan and then Canberra. Her parents were both born in Italy and came to Australia in the late 1950s. She did not speak much English when she started Catholic school. She had a large extended family, the result of waves of chain migration from Italy.

Tara Gower, born in Adelaide in 1981, is a Yawaru woman who dances with the Bangarra Dance Theatre. She was born in Adelaide but shifted to Broome where her father’s grandparents lived, and where many people were ‘coloured’ in Broome’s highly multi-cultural community. She went to St Mary’s, the ‘black’ school but later went to the ‘white’ high school. She considered that her childhood ended  at 12, when her father died.

Jodene Garstone was also of indigenous identity, and 12 years old when this interview was recorded in 2011. This is the only  one of the interviews with an informant who was a ‘girl’ at the time, rather than a retrospective account. She too was born in Broome, but at the time of recording lived in Kununarra, and was at Geelong Grammar on a scholarship. While recalling a childhood eating bush food with friends, she had aspirations to be a surgeon, while her brother was studying law.

I found myself wondering about the author’s role in this book, given that the body of the work is the interviews. An oral history interview is always a shared production. While the questions by the interviewer might steer the shape of the interview, the real wealth of the interview comes from the participant.  In terms of the book itself, as distinct from the interviews from which it is formed, the main contribution of this author lies in the choice of interviews, the selection of pictures, the crafting of the small prefaces before each chapter and her introductory essay ‘Being a Girl in Australia’.

The introduction performs three roles here, and I’m not sure that they combine effectively.  Perhaps if Davey had spelled out more specifically her intent in writing this introduction, it might have been easier to know how to approach it. She has chosen a number of themes, where first she gives a historical precis of the theme across the hundred years covered by her informants; second, she provides a commentary on current (i.e. 2017) events in relation to that theme; then third, draws out illustrations from the interviews themselves.

It’s interesting to look at these themes.  She starts by looking at education, then moves on to health.  There is a long section on past-times and games, which perhaps reflects her earlier research interest in childhood games in the  ‘Childhood, Tradition and Change’  project.  Her discussion then takes a more contemporary approach in exploring ‘The Age of Fear’ and ‘Sexualization, Representation and Experience’. These sections roam far beyond the interviews to discuss helicopter parenting, Bill Henson and Safe Schools. Her theme of families is more firmly rooted in the interviews, but the section on diversity includes the contemporary question of single sex schools and detention centres. She returns to a historical narrative to deal with the 1920s strikes, the 1930s depression and the three major wars. Her section headed ´War, Bereavement and Loss´includes the Stolen Generation and child migrants.

While it is important that the stories revealed in these interviews are placed within their historical context, some of the themes that she identified seem to have been imposed onto the data from a 2017 perspective, rather than emerging from what her respondents said.  Today ‘Class’ sounds rather old–fashioned and 1970-ish as a historical and analytic theme, but it just leapt out from the interviews, as did the influence of extended family. Nor was church observance explored, even though many informants mentioned it. Although class, family and religion don’t have the currency of topics like Female Genital Mutilation, Social Media or Offshore Detention mentioned in the introduction, they are the themes raised by these women, many of whom were middle-aged or older when interviewed.

That said, I enjoyed reading each of the interviews, particularly the ones set further back in the past. Each chapter is between 15 and about 30 pages in length, and the women´s voices come through the narrative. Even though they are mainly told from an adult perspective, they capture the diversity of lived experience across one hundred years, in a range of settings, focused on a life–stage that is too easily overwritten by later events and sensibilities.

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

 

Source  Review copy courtesy of Australian Scholarly Publishing.

‘Almost French’ by Sarah Turnbull

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2002, 309 p.

Somehow or other, the deluge of books about women going off to France seems to have rushed past me. I hadn’t particularly been drawn to dip my toes into the flow, but this book was chosen by my bookgroup and so I read it, some sixteen years after it was published.

At the time of writing it, Sarah Turnbull was an expatriate freelance journalist living in Paris. Most of her journalistic work was published in magazines (similar to the Weekend Magazine that comes with the Age), and the lightness of her touch and self-deprecation makes this an easy and very pleasant read. Food, fashion, the joys (or not) of pet ownership are topics that she addresses in the book, and could easily be lifted for lifestyle magazine consumption.

She only intended going to Paris for a week, having met Frederic in Budapest, and accepting his offer of a week in Paris on a whim.  She ended up staying eight years. In this time she came to realize the truth of the words of an elderly man she had met on the Greek  island of Samos on her travels. After migrating to Australia, he had returned to Greece but felt it “a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures”.

She has to learn the language, and she feels excluded by her limited French and frustrated by her inability to assert herself. But more than words, she has to learn the French purpose of language in a social setting as a game, to show one’s quickness and wit. She struggles with the coldness of other French women until she recognizes it as a manifestation of competition. She mocks Frederic’s horror at her donning tracky-daks to go down to the nearby bakery, but finds herself equally affronted by the tackiness of English dress-sense when they go over to England for a weekend.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny in places, for example where Frederic quickly ties his jumper around his waist and affects a dodgy French accent when pretending to be an Australian tourist when they are challenged for trespassing. There are moments of poignancy too, like when she needs to don sunglasses in the plane when leaving Australia, looking at the Qantas advertisement and seeing the landscape curving away from her from her plane window.

This is really just a series of anecdotes, with no great plot shifts or crises. She is insightful in identifying the nuance and yet solidity of cultural difference. It is something that we can and should all be reminded of, going in the different direction, by people who are adjusting to Australia. It’s a light, enjoyable read- and yes, it made me wonder if perhaps I could go to France next year after all…..

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have put this title onto the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.