Category Archives: Ivanhoe Reading Circle

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’ by Margaret Simons

2019, 318 p.

There are special challenges in writing about a current politician. While there are plenty of informants, there is also the spectre of defamation and the whole vexed issue of whether a biography is authorized or not. The political fortunes of the subject may change dramatically, and today’s policies and stances can be rendered obsolete by tomorrow’s developments. Margaret Simons’ biography of Penny Wong was written in 2019, while the Labor Party was still in opposition. Wong was reluctant to be involved in the biography and when she did finally agree to be interviewed, the sessions were conducted in neutral spaces (no empty fruit bowl for her!) with strict limits on what could and could not be discussed. I wonder if she would concede to be involved today, now that she is minister for Foreign Affairs: I suspect not.

Penny Wong is very much aware that she is the first Asian, gay, female Parliamentarian and it was largely because of these adjectives that she decided to run for the Senate with its statewide vote rather than the more geographically concentrated House of Representatives where a targeted negative campaign could cruel her chances. Because she is a Senator, and unlikely to change to the House of Reps, there has been little anointing of her as ‘the next female Prime Minister’.

She has never wanted the Asian/Gay label to define her, but that has happened anyway. I was surprised to learn that her mother’s family, the Chapmans, were an old Adelaide family with a much longer pedigree than many of those who told her to go back to where she came from. She was born in 1968 in Borneo, of Hakka heritage, a group originally from central and southern China, who had emigrated to Borneo to take up land offered to Chinese labourers by the British North Borneo Company. Her father Francis Wong came to Australia in 1961 under the Colombo Plan to study architecture, and he and his wife returned to Sabah, where he became a leading architect and minor public figure. She and her brother Toby were born in Borneo and brought up in a ‘cultural, religious and ethnic melange’. Her much-revered grandmother Lai was Buddhist, her father Catholic and her mother nominal Methodist, and the family celebrated Christmas, Chinese New Year and Muslim religious festivals. In 1976, Penny’s parents split up, and the siblings moved to Australia with their mother, although they returned often to Kota Kinabalu for school holidays. She was unprepared for the racism that she encountered in Adelaide: a neighbour yelled at her to ‘Go back to where you came from, you slant-eyed little slut!) and anti-Asian slogans were spray-painted on their driveway. She was verbally and sometimes physically bullied at primary school. It was at primary school that she resolved not to show her hurt, and this restraint has followed her into her adult, political life, as has -unfortunately- the racist bullying. Racism seems to have formed an invisible straitjacket around her, and continues to constrain her.

This was less true of her sexuality. I was surprised to learn that she had been in a relationship with later premier Jay Weatherill before embarking on a relationship with Dascia Bennett, a woman eight years Penny’s senior with two children, who Wong considered as her step-children. She was later to meet and have two children with Sophie Allouache. As she says:

It is always about the person first. You fall in love with the person…I hope I have some empathy for those whose coming-out experience was really formative, but that wasn’t my experience. I was who I was in most ways before I decided I was in love with a woman. I was formed much more by an awareness of race than sexuality.


Once she was elected to the Senate, she and her political advisor John Olenich were debating ‘how to deal with the sexuality issue’. She protested that she had never been in the closet, and therefore she did not need to come ‘out’ but they agreed to a profile about the two new female Senators written by an acquaintance from university days, Samantha Maiden, which had a single reference to her sexuality: “In Labor circles, it is also well known Senator Wong is gay, a fact she would prefer to leave as a private manner. It was not an issue during her preselection to Labor’s highest ranks.” (The Advertiser, 10 August 2002)

After attending Scotch College where she proved herself to be an outstanding student, she attended the University of Adelaide, and this is where she became involved in student politics as a representative of the Students’ Association and the Adelaide University Union board. She was not necessarily fated to be attracted to the Labor Party. She could have just as easily become involved with the Liberal Party as the Labor Party, until John Howard moved to the right with his racist dog-whistling to attract Pauline Hanson-type voters. It was while she was protesting outside a Labor convention that was debating a graduate tax – and the vote was tied- that she realized the importance of ‘being in the room’, and this has become one of the touchstones of her political stance. At many times- and most particularly during the multiple futile attempts to change Labor party policy on same sex marriage- she remained in the room, even though she was then forced to publicly adhere to a policy that she did not agree with. But for her, the important thing was that the debate was still had, inside the room. But should she have openly opposed Labor policy? In reporting her interview over this topic, Margaret Simon observes that Wong was “defensive and combative”. Wong tells her:

I had a decision to make at that time that I could either resign in a blaze of glory or I could stay and fight. And I did make that decision in 2004- that I would make sure that we changed the party platform one day, and that ultimately we would change the country.

p. 149

It was to take twenty-three bills introduced into parliament, usually by minor parties, until marriage equality was finally achieved in 2017. With her hands covering her face and brushing away tears, the country had finally been changed.

Quite apart from the areas of race and sexuality, which are of personal importance to Penny Wong, I had forgotten that she had been responsible for the Water and Climate Change portfolios – two intractable policy areas, both of which were caught up in the toxic politics of entrenched interests and grandstanding. She was not particularly successful here – indeed, has any politician been successful? – although her pursuit of buybacks in the Murray-Darling scheme have turned out to be more successful than the infrastructure improvement approach which followed her tenure, with little evident improvement. As Climate Change minister, she got caught up in the international politics of the COP meetings and Kevin Rudd’s declaration and then retreat from ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’. Her political judgement was astute but largely behind-the-scenes: she was the only colleague to raise the question of the electoral implications of Rudd’s back-pedalling.

Written in 2019 (an updated second edition is due out this year), Margaret Simon was witness to Labor’s defeat in an election that many thought was an assured Labor victory. It meant that Wong remained a shadow minister, but her work in preparing to be Foreign Minister was prodigious, and was evident (after the book had been published) in Wong’s quick spring to action as soon as Labor won office in 2022. Despite Paul Keating’s withering putdown of her for Penny Wong for “running around with a lei around [her neck] handing out money” in the Pacific, I think that she is very capable and her quiet, polite demeanour has enhanced Australia’s reputation, as well as her own.

I know that Adelaide is a small town, but I hadn’t realized how closely intertwined (dare I say ‘incestuous’?) Adelaide politics were, and probably still are both within the Labor Party and in the political arena generally. In the interplay between student politics, the legal/political profession and across formal political parties, allegiances and enmities were formed and continued over time, including when the participants moved onto the national stage. Wong established a firm friendship with Mark Butler, and a combative relationship with Don Farrell, both of whom are Adelaide representatives and current ALP ministers.

Simon makes no secret of the fact that Wong is a political animal. She has played political games and made political judgements, and not all of them do her credit. She has displayed loyalty, particularly to Kevin Rudd long after others had moved away, and to Anthony Albanese, whose time has come. She has made enemies too.

Simons has chosen as her subtitle ‘Passion and Principle’. Apart from the obvious alliteration, I wonder why she chosen “passion” in describing Penny Wong. Her demeanour is deliberately passion-less – her breaking down in tears after the same-sex marriage plebiscite notwithstanding- and Simons points out the ‘Wongisms’ that she uses to keep control of her language e.g. her low, quiet delivery; her expressive eyebrows to suggest skepticism; her vocal tics like ‘the best of our generation’ and ‘let me just say this’. It came as a surprise to read some of her lectures and addresses (e.g. the John Button Memorial Lecture) where she spelled out her beliefs and priorities and I found myself thinking “You are really good” in a way that doesn’t come through in other forums. While not indulging in ‘what-if’ thinking, Wong entertains counter-factuals as part of working out her position, and she eschews the idea of binary thinking, always looking for an alternative.

Her passion seems to have been constrained by the second ‘p’ of the subtitle: principle. In deciding to ‘stay in the room’ she steadfastly abided by cabinet solidarity outside it (something that I am criticizing pro-Voice Liberal front-benchers for doing), even when it went against her own interests. This came through most clearly to me at the 2011 South Australian Labor convention where the question of a conscience vote for same-sex marriage would come up for debate. She warned Julia Gillard (who opposed a conscience vote) that she would publicly support a change to the party platform. As the most senior South Australian member, she held Julia Gillard’s proxy, and knowing on principle that she couldn’t use it, she gave it to Don Farrell, thus giving her opponents an extra vote and opening up a space for Farrell to give an incendiary ‘no’ speech. (p.231) Given how important the question of same sex marriage was for her, that’s principle.

Margaret Simon is not an invisible presence in this biography. Coming from the press ranks herself, she affords an influence to the media that perhaps a political scientist or historian would not.She has had to actively pursue Penny Wong, and the long list of nearly forty named informants at the end of the book and an extensive bibliography and index reflect her diligence in writing this book. At times it reads like a tussle between two feisty interlocutors: she often challenges Wong’s assertions, and Wong pushes back. Penny Wong has been firm about the ‘no-go’ areas (e.g. her brother, her children). This is no hagiography: instead, as with other good interviewers (I’m thinking her of Janet Malcolm) Simon is reflecting on her own practice as a biographer and refining her own ideas about politics and politicians. In the final pages, Simon says:

…as the book had proceeded I had come to think of it as being about politics itself: how hard it is, the price that is paid in the struggle to make change, and both the necessity and inevitability of compromise, even when- as with climate change- such compromise may do us in. I was thinking that perhaps, as with a tragic play, the audience might leave with a greater understanding of the human affairs it depicted. Perhaps they might also grasp the humanity behind the headlines- and what it meant for a person of talent, passion and principle to devote herself to delivering the service of political representation.

p 317

And in this, I think that Simons achieved this admirably.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: own copy

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle selection for April.

‘The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson’ by Leah Purcell

2019, 278p.


Any Australian child who grew up during the 1960s would know the story of The Drover’s Wife. It was in the Fifth Grade School Reader, and we all had the vision of the unnamed woman, dressing up on Sundays and walking through the lonely bush pushing the perambulator with her children beside her; and sitting up all night waiting for the snake to come out from the woodpile into the house, with Alligator the dog stretched out, his hackles rising as the snake finally slithers into the log hut.

I hadn’t realized that the version we read at school was an abridgment of the longer story (which can be found at and it was only when I read the longer version that I realized the racism threaded through it. The “stray blackfellow…the last of his tribe and a King” had built the woodpile hollow, and was thus indirectly to blame for the presence of the snake in the house; then there is the caricature figure of King Jimmy, who sent his wife Black Mary “the “whitest” gin in all the land” to assist with her third childbirth. Thankfully, these do not appear in the School Reader version.

But it’s easy to see how the story of The Drover’s Wife acts as a springboard into Purcell’s 20th/21st century reimagining of the story with an aboriginal protagonist, domestic violence and rape wrought by white men, and morally superior indigenous characters. Far from the heroic white settler ideal, the white men here are murderous brutes and ‘justice’ is warped. She fleshes out and gives a name to The Drover’s Wife – Molly Johnson- and she gives “Black Mary” a backstory that reflects the violence of Australia’s colonial history. There are no white saviours here: the good man is Yadaka, and it is Yadaka who reveals Molly’s own story to her.

There are nods to the original Lawson story – a fleeting reference to the Sunday walks through the bush- enough for someone who knows the story to recognize it. But younger readers, I suspect, would not know the Lawson story and would perhaps not recognize the subversion of the original that Leah has executed. Perhaps in 30 years, the subtitle will be sufficient ‘The Legend of Molly Johnson’.

This was such a clever, insightful playing with white settler fantasies that I feel curmudgeonly in pointing out the flaws in the story which are, unfortunately, many. The book is an expansion of the stage play and it still bears the strong use of dialogue that would have marked a performance. But with the tasks of expanding into a novel, Purcell has permitted herself to explore her characters’ “inner thoughts” and this is one of the things that brings the book undone. She skips from character to character, switching between first and third person which gives a disjointed feel to the narrative. She has introduced two white characters into the book – Nate and his wife Louisa Clinton- who, in a twist that doesn’t quite come off, ends up being a nod to Henry Lawson’s mother Louisa Lawson. There are plot steps that just don’t make sense: for an isolated bush-hut there seem to be many people going past, and it is never explained why Molly stops, endangering her children whom she has protected fiercely throughout, on their way to Yadaka’s cave. The ending was heavy-handed and cliched.

There were a number of disconcerting anachronisms in the book. Women had ‘baby bellies’; there were ‘hobby farms’; people did ‘business degrees’ (universities offered no such courses); people were affected by hormones (not discovered until 1935). This is not the American West: executions required a Supreme Court trial, not the local magistrate, and they took place in capital cities. Even the scenario of children ordered by a judge to be ‘taken’ without reason is anachronistic, the legislation being introduced in the early 20th century. This book cried out for good editing and fact checking.

There is much to admire in its subversion and defiance. But this book has shown me that playwrights are not necessarily novelists, and that even the most creative and politically sharp critiques can be brought undone by infelicities.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: own copy. Read for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

‘Kiss Myself Goodbye’ by Ferdinand Mount

2021, 272 p.

I read this in an e-book version, so I didn’t really have an opportunity to pour over the front and back covers. Without the little telltale identifier ‘biography’ ‘memoir’ or ‘non-fiction’ that some books have on the back cover, I found myself wondering exactly what I was reading here. Was it really a memoir written by a rather arch, conservative, class-conscious Englishman, or was this a masterful frame story for what was essentially fiction? Well, it seems that it is indeed non-fiction and a memoir, which places it back in the pack as being just another family-history-as-search type book, a genre of which I am not particularly fond.

Ferdinand Mount starts his memoir by recalling the various houses in which his Aunt Betty and Uncle Grieg lived. There are quite a few of them, in varying degrees of opulence, and the opening chapter starts, as the rest of the book continues, as a type of roll-call of the significant people to whom his aunt and uncle have tenuous links. It is Aunt Betty who suggests that instead of calling them such prosaic names as “Betty” and “Grieg”, her nephew and niece call them “Munca” and “Unca” after the two mice in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. At the time the author thinks that this is a childish suggestion to come from an adult, and inaccurate too, as there was actually only one mouse called Hunca (with an H) Munca. However, he acquiesced at the time, and continues to do so during the book, varying between “Munca” and “Betty”. The title of the book comes from a pre-war song with the lyrics:

I’m going to kiss myself goodbye

Oh goodbye, goodbye

I’m going to get on my wings and fly

Up high, Up High

This is more appropriate, because this is the story of the deception undertaken by several members of his family as they accelerate their climbing of the social ladder in Britain, breaking through the famed class system by the adoption of different names and shady dealings.This is not necessarily an unique story: Robyn Annear did it better with the Tichborne inheritance in The Man Who Lost Himself and Kirsten McKenzie adopted a more scholarly approach to false identity and deception in A Swindler’s Progress (my review here). However, while distance and the colonies provided good coverage for false identity, there is a certain brazenness about Aunt Betty’s story, slipping through names and marriages without moving out of England.

The book is structured around his family history search for the truth about his Aunt Betty, whom he always found evasive and mysterious. It is a search driven by documents and he is a particularly inept family historian, naive about sources, and unusually reliant on other people finding things for him. He uses his search for a particular member of his family as the rationale for a new chapter, which means that there is a certain amount of back-tracking and foreshadowing, and he weakens his book considerably by including updates on his searches at the end which diffuses, rather than tightens, his ending.

The book is not just about his Aunt Betty/Munca, but he infuses it with a lot of his own memoir as well. He is an undisciplined narrator, launching off into long descriptions of tangential information, and drawing links with minor royalty and celebrity figures. I don’t think that I would particularly like this man personally. He is certainly well-connected with the literary scene and Conservative Party politics: head of the Policy Unit during Thatcher’s time, the holder of a hereditary baronetcy through his uncle, contributor to the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement for eleven years, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I can only assume that it is these latter connections that landed him Hilary Mantel’s saccharine and very prominent front-cover blurb that the book was “Grimly funny and superbly written, with a twist on every page”.

The book is well written, but there is a gaping vacuum at its heart where he fails to interrogate or even imagine the nature of Aunt Betty/Munca that led her to such contradictory and often callous actions. It is as if he has traced the steps but never stopped to ask “why”. This would, of course, require speculation but he has not resiled from speculation and guesswork elsewhere. Given the wreckage that she left behind her in terms of marriages and adoption, his tunnel vision suggests that perhaps there is more of Aunt Betty/Munca in him than he would like.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book; read for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.

‘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.

‘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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘As Swallows Fly’ by L.P. McMahon

2021, 384 p.

I had not heard of this book, or its author until L.P.McMahon was invited to be the Ivanhoe Reading Circle’s annual guest speaker. His book, As Swallows Fly is set in Pakistan and Melbourne, but Lawrie himself hails more locally from Rosanna as a child and ended up as Professor of Nephrology at Monash University. That local connection may well have been why the Ivanhoe Reading Circle invited him to speak. His immersion in the world of medicine comes through clearly in his book, particularly at the end, and from his talk we learned that he and his wife had visited a Catholic mission in a Pakistani village which largely mirrors the village in the opening chapters of the book. So, in many ways McMahon is following the injunction “write what you know”.

Although this book is fiction, it evokes shades of the story of Malala Yousafzai, who was severely injured after a Taliban assassination attempt, and was treated in a UK hospital. In this book, however, young Pakistani and Christian Malika was attacked as a more personalized act of resentment and power, and she ended up in Australia more on account of her mathematical brilliance which was being wasted in a small village, than because of her injuries. She boarded at a private school and attended extension activities at the University of Melbourne. As a back-stop, her village priest in Pakistan put her in contact with Dr Kate Davenport, a plastic surgeon, who assumes incorrectly that Malika is hiding her face behind a veil for cultural/religious reasons. Rather implausibly, neither Malika nor Kate realize at first the possibilities for healing that the situation could provide.

The book has several ‘starts’ before arriving at the present day. The opening pages are a prologue set in Melbourne, twenty-three years earlier where we sense the tension between a teenaged Kate and her mother; Part One commences in Rural Pakistan five years earlier as we learn how Malika came to live in the Christian village and come under the care of Ayesha, her foster mother, along with Tahir, a Muslim boy, after a car accident. Part Two finally brings us to present-day Melbourne where Kate, now a successful plastic surgeon, is cleaning out her now-deceased mother’s house when she is approached to care for Malika on the weekends. Part Three takes us to Malika’s boarding school, where she struggles with the other girls, who are jealous of her brilliance. Part Four explores the evolving relationship between Malika and Kate, and expands on Kate’s own working life and the political struggles in a high-stress, ego-driven profession, along with the family emotional baggage that she is still dealing with. If you think that there’s going to be a Cinderella ending, between the plastic-surgeon and her damaged protege – there’s not.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here- rather too much, I think. I was rather surprised that McMahon chose to write from the point of view of two women- Kate and Malika- and he generally carried it off sensitively, with just a few infelicities. By making Kate a plastic surgeon, McMahon was able to explore ideas of facial perfection and imperfection, but at times I felt that he betrayed his male gaze in his descriptions of women. The author’s own medical experience comes through, especially in the sections dealing with professional rivalry with other specialists, and in medical terminology when describing clinical conditions. I certainly don’t share Malika’s gift for mathematics, and I just have to take on trust that her fascination with the flocking behaviour of swallows as a mathematical problem is more than just a metaphor for being on the edges of the crowd. Some of the characters seemed rather one-dimensional: the only mentions of Muslim characters were negative, and Sam the receptionist was so brazen as to be a caricature. The narrative relied heavily on dialogue, which at times verged on the banal and the writing felt forced at times.

In spite of my reservations about aspects of this book, I found myself more emotionally engaged with the characters than I expected to be, and sat up in bed until quite late to finish the book. And I’m always attracted to books set in my own home town, and he wrote Melbourne well.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZBookLovers enjoyed the book (probably more than I did) and reviewed it here.

‘Politics and the English Language’ by George Orwell

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve only just started attending the Ivanhoe Reading Circle after 122 years – of the Circle, not of me – and George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ seemed a rather brave choice for a reading group. It was published in 1946 and it is only about 24 pages long. Many of its ideas have been rehashed (in, for example, Don Watson’s Death Sentence) and it’s hard now to come to it with fresh eyes. I must admit that I was rather disappointed in it.

It starts very abruptly, and I felt as if I had walked in on a conversation that had already started. He then goes on to lampoon five examples of writing, and identified four problems: (i)stale metaphors, (ii) ‘verbal false limbs’ (i.e. adding phrases like ‘serve the purposes of’ or adding syllables to a word like ‘deregionalize’). Then there is (iii) ‘pretentious diction’ or the use of foreign words and jargon; and (iv) meaningless words to hide the vacuity of ideas behind them. I don’t share his dislike of metaphors. Certainly they can become stale, but they act as a form of short-hand, and not every one has the clarity and imagination to mint their own. He uses the example of the ‘ancien regime‘ as an example of pretentious diction, but among historians ‘ancien regime‘ has a specific and accepted meaning. He then complains about the gumming together of long strips of words , much as Don Watson did sixty years later but with more elan. (Am I allowed to use that foreign word?).

He then goes on to talk about political language. It is, he claimed “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”. We’re about to be deluged with political writing now that we’re in election mode. I don’t know if it’s the writing about politics that is bad, or just the ‘talking point’ repetition and evasiveness of what comes out of politicians’ mouths that is the problem. “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. All true, but is this a problem of language or intent? To me, it seems that it’s the behaviour around the language, rather than the language, that makes it all so sordid. The failure to call politicians out when they refuse to answer a question; the failure to challenge dubious facts; demonisation (e.g. ‘illegals’ for ‘refugees’); the numbing repetition of phrases (‘going forward’, anyone?) and the dogged labouring of the issue of the day. “All issues are political issues” he says “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, follies, hatred and schizophrenia”. For me, this is the nature of politics, rather than the language used to express it.

He makes some big claims about the connection between language and politics (hence the title of the essay), but he doesn’t back them up. “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” he asserts, but then returns to his criticisms about woolly language and circumlocution. He claims that his prescriptions are not just about simplicity, or ‘good prose style’, and yet these are the solutions he offers without really tearing into the question of language and political imagination. He seems to see politics as only ‘retail’ (another buzz-word that I assume means ‘selling’ a policy) in terms of the hearers receiving politics, but not of creating politics or imagining alternatives.

The discussion at the group provided an opportunity to vent our annoyance at politicians and politics, but I don’t know if we generated anything new. I felt as if it had all been said before – albeit, possibly by Orwell before other people- and it just felt a bit stale.

My rating: No idea. How do you rate this?

Sourced from: purchased e-book, but you can find it online quite easily.

‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

2020, 384 p.

If I had been the person who identifies the genre in marketing a book, how would I have classified this book? It starts off with a murder, moves into a sensitive depiction of neglect and isolation, interweaves evocative descriptions of landscape and nature, shifts towards being a coming-of-age novel and ends up in a court case. It is like five books in one, and I’m undecided whether it is a skilful mish-mash of genres, or whether it is a genuine attempt to move beyond the murder/courtroom genre by providing a protagonist with nuance, depth and change over time.

The chronological narrative shuttles between a court case and the backstory starting back in the early 1950s, gradually moving forward until the two timelines converge in 1969 with the discovery of the body of footballer and small-town Lothario Chase Andrews in the swamp. Accusations mount against Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, who lives alone in a shack in the North Carolina swamp marshes. In 1951, her mother walked out one day in her crocodile-skin shoes, leaving her five children to their violent, drunken father. Gradually Kya’s siblings leave home, unable to cope with their father’s beatings and neglect. At the age of six, she is left to fend for herself as her father disappears on days-long benders until he, too, disappears leaving Kya as a ten-year-old to make her own way. Able to negotiate the inlets and tides of the swamp, she earns enough money from fishing to buy bare necessities, but she does not attend school and ekes out a precarious, lonely existence. She is very much a child of the marsh, attuned to the rhythm of the tides, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife that surrounds her. The people of Barkley Cove know that she is living there, and she is shunned as ‘swamp trash’ by the people of the town, but as she grows older, she attracts the attention of two boys – Tate Walker and Chase Andrews – both of whom show remarkable restraint (at least initially) with a young, feral, unprotected girl living on her wits. Tate teaches her to read, and opens up to her an avenue by which she can draw, and write about and study the natural world that teems around her. Wary and self-sufficient, she is slow to trust either man, and as a reader you feel the latent menace of them both. Betrayal comes, as you know it must, but in different ways. When Chase Andrews’ body is found near an abandoned fire tower in the swamp, it seems to justify many of the prejudices of the people of Barkley Cove.

Of this ‘five for the price of one’ volume, I liked the landscape writing most. Delia Owens has written non-fiction environmental writing before, and she does it well. Not for nothing has she been likened to Barbara Kingsolver. The swamp is depicted as a living, breathing, moving body, and Kya is closely attuned to its movements and changes. I thought that the author captured well the fear that Kya and her siblings felt in the face of her father’s rages and neglect, and the petty and oblivious cruelties played out on her by the people of Barkley Cove. So did the book need a murder as well? For me, Owens could have rested on these two themes alone.

But if Owens was determined to have a murder and court-case, then she did write it well, even though it marked an abrupt change in pace and intent. The court case sections reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, with its small-town setting and the rejection of a Mayella Ewell-type character, albeit in very different circumstances. I found the book a real page-turner at this point. I often rail about being left at the end of a crime book wondering ‘So who did do it?’ but there was no danger of that with this book. I just don’t know if the whole murder and its aftermath was necessary.

The part was was least convincing to me – and it’s an important plot development – is Kya’s transformation from a feral, illiterate child into a writer/scientist, with published works under her belt, and sufficient experience of the world to want to purchase comforts to make her shack more habitable without changing the outward appearance. Kya the child is plausible: Kya the adult is less so.

And so, how do I assess this book? I admit to sharing Jonathan Franzen’s wariness of a book emblazoned with an ‘Oprah Book Club’ sticker, and knowing that this book was endorsed as part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club did not necessarily endear it to me. I hadn’t noticed Tic-Toc book reviews until I searched for this book. Certainly the book has achieved best-seller status. Was the murder and court-case added to appeal to a wider audience? Or is this a book that moved beyond the two-dimensionality of many crime/court novels, just as I have often craved for them to do? I felt as if I was being buffeted around by the different genres that the book drew upon, even though most of them were done well in their own right. Perhaps it was the amalgamation of different types of writing that disconcerted me, leaving me feeling stuffed with too much plot.

My rating….a difficult one. I’d have to rate a book highly that has me sitting up in bed until 1.30 a.m. to finish it. And yet, and yet…. let’s go for 7.5

Sourced from: purchased as an e-book

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle suggestion.