Category Archives: 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.