Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

2008, 336 p

I suggested this as a read for our bookgroup about three years ago, and it finally arrived! Fortunately I hadn’t read it while I was waiting, so I came to it ‘fresh’ even though it was published in 2008 and won the Booker Prize that same year. It is told in the voice of Balram Halwai, a village boy made good as an ‘entrepreneur’, who writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Describing himself as a ‘half-baked Indian’, he also sees himself as a White Tiger: “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”. Unlike the rest of his family, he takes (and makes) his opportunities to get ahead, and escape the destiny of custom and servitude.

He tells us from the very start that he killed his employer, Ashok, one of two brothers who along with their father, hire him as a driver. Forced to leave school despite his intelligence, Balram takes the opportunity to become the main driver when Ashok, and his American wife Pinky Madam move to Delhi. There Ashok becomes enmeshed in the corruption of political figures. When by p.285 Balram does finally kill his master, we have come to share his disdain for Ashok’s weakness and the dog-eat-dog world in which Balram lives. While the actual murder takes several pages, Balram then makes huge mental leaps over the consequences of the murder, especially for his family. He is completely unrepentant, on several levels.

The most striking image that I took away from the book was that of the ‘rooster coop’ where individuals are hemmed in by their family pressures to stay within that coop, and not even seek to escape. It is a self-imposed structure that keeps workers honest, even against their own interests. This is something that I have thought about when travelling in second or third world countries: why don’t people rob me? Why is it acceptable for me to move through their society so heedlessly, when my spending money for just that day could make a change to their lives?

One of the things that I loved most about this book was Balram’s narrative voice, which leaps off the page. He is a sardonic, self-serving and perceptive humble-bragger and like all good entrepreneurs, he takes you along with the dream, no matter your misgivings. The book is told completely from Balram’s point of view, although the author gets in his own critique of post-colonialism, corruption, loyalty and the deadening effect of the supposedly-extinct caste system. It is never really explained why Balram is writing to Wen Jiabao, except as the head of the rising power within Asia as distinct from the rotting and dying power of the old India.

I enjoyed this book, its structure as a series of letters and the sheer vitality and front of Balram himself. The author Aravind Adiga has had a life nothing like that of Balram, but he says that Balram is a composite of the many men he heard talking while they hanging around drivers’ ranks and train stations, in slums and in servants quarters. The narrative voice is so strong that you feel as if you are hearing it direct, even though it is as much of an artifice as the epistolary structure that Adiga has employed. Still- I don’t think that I have read another book quite like it.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup.

‘The Chase’ by Ida Mann

1986, 217 p.

Our face-to-face book went into hibernation during the lockdown throughout 2020, so when received our most recent read, The Chase, an autobiography by Ida Mann, we opened the box with anticipation. But what a smell ! the books had obviously been unread for a very long time (probably pre-dating COVID) and they were very musty. And having finished the book now, there’s probably a good reason why this book has not been particularly popular. Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well).

If you’re wondering ‘Who is Ida Mann?’, you’re not alone. She was a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in 1893 in England, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Profession William Guy, an acclaimed cancer research in 1949. After her husband died in 1952, she continued her work in ophthalmology, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in indigenous populations, and speaking at World Health Organization conferences in many places throughout the world. She was also an inveterate traveller.

As might be expected from a woman steeped in the sciences, the book is very much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end endeavour. The presence of lines of verse scattered through the text does little to dispel this impression, reflecting the old-fashioned nature of the narrative rather than the author’s literariness. In its tone, the book reminded me of military histories, where every single individual has to be named and acknowledged, and Christmas family letters regaling the reader with travel tales to exotic places (from the days when we still could travel). Neither genre particularly appeals to me. The book (which admittedly has been edited from an even lengthier text) descends into an extended travelogue at the end.

This is not to detract from her professional achievements, which are many. One hundred and forty three published papers, a string of scholarships and fellowships, a CBE and DBE attest to her hard work and professional reputation within the field of ophthalmology. She was, however, no feminist. Just as Margaret Thatcher did little for the cause of feminism, Ida saw the ‘nonsense about women’s rights’ as unnecessary, because if you wanted a job enough, you would get it. She was vehemently opposed to the NHS, and it was its introduction, along with her husband’s ill health, that prompted her shift across the world. She expresses little empathy for patients, preferring the research aspect of her work. She was dismissive of the Australian slap-dash attitude when the pure genetic lines of her research mice were compromised because insufficient care was taken. Particularly repellent was her classification of the Aboriginal people she examined for eye disease into the categories based on their likeness to ‘us’: Similar, Almost, Rather, Hardly and Not-at-all. (p. 150)

Yet this intensely driven and pragmatic woman had a mystical side as well. She writes often of her dreams, particularly one vivid dream where she was presented with two doors. In the dream, she chose the door that opened onto sunshine, blue sky and fear, and this dream changed her life. She rejected the life of an office-worker that her parents had chosen for her, and became proactive in choosing and pursuing her own career. As in most autobiographies, there are elisions and silences, most particularly in her response to her husband’s death and a rather curious allusion to incestuous feelings towards her older brother, Arthur.

You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE as the March book for The Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. my face-to-face bookgroup). The other ladies enjoyed the book more than I did, and were more appreciative of her achievements than I was.

Ida Mann appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, so I have included her on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘Nine Parts of Desire: the Hidden World of Islamic Women’ by Geraldine Brooks

(1995) 2008, 272p.

Given that this book was written in 1995, (reprinted in 2008 with a new afterword) I hoped that her analysis of the lives of Islamic Women in Middle East countries might have been rendered redundant. That hope has not been realized. Despite the Arab Spring, the position of women in Islamic countries remains parlous, and possibly even worse than when Brooks wrote this book prior to 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the wars that followed in its wake.

Geraldine Brooks, who was born in Australia, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for many years, although she is probably better known now for her historical fiction. While she was working as the Middle East bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, she was frustrated by the customs that made her life as a journalist so difficult, compared with her male fellow journalists. Then she noted that her colleague and translator, Sahar, had begun wearing the hijab. Curious about why Sahar had adopted it, she realized that as a woman she had access to women’s experience that was closed to male journalists.

For almost a year I fretted and kicked at the Middle East’s closed doors. Then, thanks to Sahar, I looked up and noticed the window that was open only to me.

p. 7 1995 edition

Taking on Islamic dress herself, she sought out women who were still working as journalists, politicians and activists. Many women told her that, historically, Islam provided an improvement on women’s conditions, that the Prophet himself was pro-women, and that Islamic dress provided a respite from the male gaze. She was not convinced:

Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army’s war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women’s liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.

p. 232, 1995 edition

The title of the book is taken from a quote from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men”. This sounds like an invitation to male lasciviousness to me, and the desires that Brooks explores in this book are not sexual. Each chapter starts with a relevant quote from the Koran.

Chapter 1, The Holy Veil talks about Brooks’ own interview with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was President of Iran between 1989-1997, for which Brooks wore the chador. She writes about the variations of Islamic dress in different Middle East countries, and the effect of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Chapter 2 “Whom No Man Shall Have Deflowered Before Them” discusses female genital mutilation and its absence in the Koran itself, honour killing, and the paradox between sexual licence for men and repression for women. Chapter 3 “Here Come the Brides” looks at Islamic marriage while Chapter 4 “The Prophet’s Women” looks at Muhammad’s own family life, making the point that many of the revelations from God seemed to be particularly apposite for Muhammad’s own situation. Chapter 5 “Converts” focuses on Janet, an American who had married and converted to Islam, and Janet’s American friend Margaret. Both women complied completely with the demands of their husband and in-laws. Chapter 6 “Jihad is for Women, Too” looks at the paradox of women incorporated into the military forces in Islamic countries, and the empowerment (within limits) that this sometimes provided. Chapter 7 “A Queen” looks at the situation of the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, a country that at the time offered the most hope for political liberalism. Chapter 8 “The Getting of Wisdom” examines women’s education in different Middle East countries, with differing degrees of segregation and the increasing presence of fundamentalism. Chapter 9 “Risky Business” looks at women’s role in the workforce, and Chapter 10 “Politics, With and Without a Vote” looks at the varied (and decreasing) political roles available to women. Ironically, some Islamic women were elected in hard-line Iran, but I sense that her political acceptability was increased by her persecution under the Shah which made her a striking example of the repressiveness of pro-Western politics. She picks up on the campaign by Saudi women to be able to drive- something that is shamefully still a travesty. Chapter 11 “Muslim Women’s Games” addresses the women-only Islamic Women’s Games and in Chapter 11 “A Different Drummer” Brooks herself gets physical by taking a belly-dancing course.

In her conclusion “Beware of the Dogma” she comes out most strongly with her own conclusions and the question of how we, as Europeans, should respond. She argues that “In an era of cultural sensitivity, we need to say that certain cultural baggage is contraband in our countries and will not be admitted.” (p.238) At the time of writing, America did not have laws banning female genital mutilation (Australia does). She argues – but does not believe that it will ever be accepted – that Islamic women should have a right to asylum on the grounds of “well-founded fear of persecution” as a matter of course.

I have read this book before, and I think that I am even more conscious of the issues that she raises, especially after the Arab Spring sputtered out. Her criticism is most strongly directed at Saudi Arabia, a country which has assumed even more importance on the world stage since Trump. She is strong in her condemnation, especially in her conclusion, but she avoids the reflexive Islamophobia of, say, Ayan Hirsi Ali (who lost me with her association with the American Enterprise Institute). Her interviews mainly deal with middle-class and educated women, but that probably reflects the milieu in which she was working and the contacts that she made. She seems rather oblivious to the effect that her Judaism – something that she does not hide- may have had on her informants.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth

roth_human_stain

2000, 361p.

This book opens with two affairs. The first, that “everybody knows” about is that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, an affair forever imprinted on my mind with the memory of his pointy, reddened face and jabbing finger as he declared that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”. I’m glad that through her really-worth-watching TedX talk, Monica has left the blue dress and “that woman” behind. But with Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” and now the accusations against Biden, it feels as if this ghastly American reality-show just keeps on going.

The second affair, the focus of this book, is between Coleman Silk, retired Classics professor and Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner half his age. Perhaps ‘affair’ is the wrong word: Silk is a widower, Faunia has fled a violent marriage, and they are both consenting adults. But Coleman Silk is already a disgraced man, as far as his employment at Athena College is concerned, from which he resigned in the aftermath of controversy over using the term ‘spooks’ to refer to two students who had never turned up to class. Although he was asking whether the students were invisible phantoms, ‘spooks’ had also, as a subsidiary, less-used meaning, a racist derogatory connotation as a term for African Americans. In what Silk (and Roth, for that matter) see as “political correctness gone mad”, Delphine Roux, a fellow academic in the humanities faculty, advocates for the young female student referred to as a ‘spook’, and then later for Faunia Farley whom she sees as the victim in an uneven power relatioinship.

Sex, race and religion are fracture lines in many societies, and in America in particular – and especially in its politics- they verge on being obsessions. Coleman Silk, successful, white Jewish professor, is not what he appears and in this book, the narrator Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in many of Roth’s books, decides to tell Silk’s story and reveal his secrets. Keeping secrets always has a cost, and in this book, Silk and his family carry the burden, in some cases even without knowing.

I have a love/hate relationship with Philip Roth. I can see the virtuosity of his writing but it is so wordy, so excessive. Sentences stretch on for a whole page and it is as if the narrative is being shouted at you. The fact that chapters go on at length doesn’t help. Too much, too much.

There’s a swaggering maleness about his writing, and the constant presence of sex as a prism for viewing the world makes me feel uncomfortable. In this book, Roth’s own conservatism is quite clear as, through Coleman, he fulminates against post-modernism, literary theory, education standards, affirmative action, political correctness and hypocrisy. But Roth also needles those sore points of present-day American society so acutely: the freedom to invent yourself, the American Dream, Jewishness in American society, sexuality, Vietnam and the biggest one of all, race. He’s brilliant. He’s insufferable. And somehow, he manages to do all these things in a very American, male, ‘look at me’ way that, almost despite yourself, demands that you do.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: CAE book groups.

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

honeyman_oliphant

2017, 383p.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely thirty-year old woman. Just not ‘self-contained’ or without friends, she is bone-achingly lonely:

There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. (p 269)

She works in the back-office of a design company in Glasgow, the only job she has ever had.  She is prickly, judgmental, oblivious and agonizingly awkward.  Nothing comes easily; she is suspicious and sees the worst in people, while affecting a supercilious superiority.  It is no wonder that she repels people, and becomes the butt of their jokes.  Except, perhaps, for Raymond from I.T., a disheveled ‘techie’ who calls for her help when a old man collapses in the street. In that act of kindness, Eleanor is gradually brought into a circle of other kind people – not saints, but just ordinary people acting with everyday kindness. Small things, like haircuts and a cat, gradually put some colour into a very bleak life.

We gradually put together Eleanor’s back-story. We learn that she has a burn scar on her face, that she has been the victim of domestic abuse, that she spent many years in foster care and  that she has weekly talks with her mother, who is a truly evil, cruel woman. Honeyman’s control of unfolding Eleanor’s story is masterful. At one stage I felt that it was all falling into place too easily, until a twist at the end that I will not reveal. Endings are often difficult, and I think that I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book better than the last part.  I wish that the twist was explored more deeply, but on the other hand, I didn’t need it straightened out and explained either.

Eleanor’s voice is distinctive: arch and highly educated, it also reveals a sardonic but needy humour. Honeyman sustains this voice throughout, and as a reader you are both repelled and yet sympathetic towards her.

Although I normally avoid best-sellers that have stickers on the cover, I really enjoyed this book, and devoured it over a couple of days. I found myself laughing out loud in several places, and tears brimming just a few pages later.

My rating: 9

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups as our March 2020 read.

‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca

Trinca_Madeleine

2013, 243 p.

The author of this biography, Helen Trinca, came to know of Madeleine St John through one of her books. So did I.  For me it was The Women in Black, which I read back in 2011 as part of an online Australian Literature bookgroup and reviewed here. Erroneously suspecting that it was autobiographical, it seemed to me at the time to be a “happy, satisfying read” and “a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.” The film, The Ladies in Black (I hadn’t noticed the change in title before) was released in 2018, and it also struck me as a “feel-good, look-good” movie.

Having now read Trinca’s biography of St John, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Women in Black being autobiographical.  And if I found the book “affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic”, perhaps that says more about St John’s skill as a writer than anything else, because the author was certainly none of those things.  Instead, she was prickly, bitter and more likely to hold a grudge than indulge in nostalgia.

Born in 1941 while her father was with the A.I.F. in Palestine, Madeleine St John’s mother Sylvette was Romanian, but styled herself as French after arriving in Sydney in 1934. Her father was the barrister and later M.P. Edward (Ted) St John, from a blue-blood conservative family.  The surname, pronounced ‘Sinjin’ niggled at me – something about the Voyager maritime disaster– and Trinca’s book reminds us that it was during his maiden speech as a Parliamentarian that St John attacked his own party and called for  second Royal Commission into the accident (which, when it finally occurred, completely overturned the findings of the first, flawed Royal Commission). But the Ted St John who appears in this biography is not so much the politician, as a father – and in Madeleine St John’s eyes, a very poor one.  Her parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Madeleine and her sister Colette were packed off to boarding school. When Madeleine was twelve, her parents divorced and soon afterwards her mother Sylvette committed suicide. Her father badly bungled telling his daughters, and remarried too quickly, to Val.

As Madeleine St John was too ready to tell everyone, her father’s perfidy and betrayal lay at the heart of her own world-view. Her anger and bitterness about it warped nearly every aspect of her life right up to her death. She was mercurial, cruel and self-centred, allowing people to come close and then spurning them when they became too close. The irony is that even though she despised her father and idolized her mother, she combined traits from both of them.  While denying all her life that her mother had committed suicide, she shared Sylvette’s fragile mental health, and suffered depression and breakdowns. She certainly shared her father’s black-and-white views about what was right, and refused to compromise them for anyone. For the sake of her own principles, however she defined them, she often acted against her own interests and burnt many people. She was more like her father than she would ever have admitted.

Madeleine enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1959 and circulated amongst that golden generation who were to head off to England: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Mungo MacCallum. In this testosterone-heavy atmosphere, she became one of the sub-editors of Honi Soit (the university newspaper) but was never published in it. She was part of a group of eight girls, dubbed ‘The Octopus’ who joined up with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and regularly met at a cafe in Manning House.  She married and moved with her husband, Christopher Tillam, to America where he embarked on a film-making career. As emotionally brittle as she was, it was no surprise that the marriage faltered. Madeleine moved to England where she worked in a succession of bookshops and antique shops, managed to get council housing and developed an image that combined a  stylishness and snobbery that belied her meagre income. She became rigidly religious, and spent years – even decades- writing a biography of Mme Blavatsky, the Theosophist, which she ended up burning (and which I would have been quite interested to read, really.) She was not published until 1993, at the age of 52, when she released The Women in Black, set in the sun-drenched Sydney of her own adolescence. Her three other works were set in her own London-based suburb Notting Hill, one of which (The Essence of the Thing)  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thus bringing her to the attention of the Australian literary scene.

She did not particularly welcome the acclaim that publication brought her, and although it gave her the financial means to travel, she was no happier than she had been previously.  She abhorred the thought that she would be embraced as an Australian by the Australian literary scene, when she had spent all her adult life putting her Australian nationality behind her. In poor health, she eschewed the attempts at reconciliation by her step-mother Val, and continued to draw in and then reject her friends, who would be bewildered by her change towards them.  In poor health from emphysema, she became increasingly concerned to shape her image after her rapidly-approaching death, rejecting one literary executor for another, and demanding the return of letters.

I think that Madeleine St John would have been infuriated by this biography, where the author treats her with a cool impassiveness. She does not buy into St John’s histrionics and manipulations, but recognizes patterns in her behaviour and makes some sense of it, without condoning it. The book lightens, as did St John’s own life, once she achieved her break-through publications, but for Trinca (and me, for that matter), her writing only highlighted the paradox between the writer and her work. Trinca keeps her eyes steadily on Madeleine the character, and there is no in-depth analysis of the books as such. Her footnotes pay testament to the author’s diligence in tracking down friends and acquaintances – none of whom could give unalloyed praise for St John. She was fortunate to be given access to a collection of audiotapes recorded by St John that were left in the keeping of a friend.  She read St John’s own statements about her life with a judicious eye, and combed through the lively but self-serving correspondence that other people had kept, much against St. John’s wishes. Using this network of friends and acquaintances, Trinca manages to weave a background against which St John’s life can be placed; a background that captures the heady optimism of university life in the early 1960s, the tangled connections amongst an intellectual and creative largely expatriate milieu, and the continued warp and weft of family background, no matter how much someone might want to distance themselves from it.

There are a lot of people in this book, and I was often glad of the index to remind myself who was who. It was a little frustrating that the index was organized by surname, whereas the text referred to people, in a familiar tone, by first name. More than once I found myself having to scan the whole index, until I found the first name mentioned in the text.

This is an excellent biography, that captures well the ambivalence of the biographer towards her subject.  It won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was short-listed for several other awards. The summary on the back cover of the book mentions sadness, tragedy, love and perseverence.  I don’t know if I could be so charitable. Self-centredness, control and vindictiveness spring more to mind for me. And the mismatch between St John’s writing and her own life? I remain mystified, and I suspect that even after all this exhaustive research, I think Trinca might be too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup and read for The Ladies Who Say Oooh.

aww2020

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

‘The Tyrant’s Novel’ by Tom Keneally

Keneally_tyrant

2003, 292 p.

I read this book soon after it was published in 2003, when the idea of locking up ‘illegal arrivals’ without visas in detention centres,  introduced in the 1990s by the Keating Government, had been ramped up to the the mandatory off-shore detention of all arrivals by boat under what was euphemistically called the ‘Pacific Solution‘.  The book  has only increased in power in the 17 years since, especially with the very public face of Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, whose book No Friend But the Mountains received widespread critical acclaim. It’s as if Keneally’s book has been brought to life.

Keneally’s novel is in three parts.  Part 1, ‘The Visitor’s Preface’, told in the first person, frames the novel. An unnamed journalist narrator accompanies a female colleague to a thinly disguised Villawood Detention Centre. There he meets ‘Alan Sheriff’, the name adopted by an Iraqi refugee incarcerated there, who proceeds to tell him “the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear”.

The bulk of the body is in Part 2, ‘Alan Sheriff’s Story’. It is also told in the first person as a memoir, although on occasions Alan breaks off to note the detention-centre conditions under which the story is being told.  ‘Alan Sheriff’ is a writer, who after the moderately successful publication of a book of short stories in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, had been working quietly on a novel. When tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning, he puts the novel aside, feeling that his life and work is futile in the face of his grief. Suddenly the summons arrives from Great Uncle (a thinly disguised Saddam Hussein) for him to write a novel within a month which will be published under Great Uncle’s name.  His loyalties to friends who have also become enmeshed in Great Uncle’s web of power, and his fears for their safety, push him to acquiesce.

The novel closes with ‘After-Tale’ which tells of how ‘Alan Sheriff’ has ended up in the detention centre.

Keneally has made a number of authorial decisions here which are interesting.  First, as an article by Caroline Baum reveals, the scenario in the detention centre and the friendship with ‘Alan Shepherd’ are real, and in her opinion, insufficiently disguised. Her article raises questions about the ethics of an author’s use of real people in what is purported to be fiction.

Second, he has decided to replace the Iraqi names of his characters with anglicized ones: Alan Sheriff, Matt McBrien, Andrew Kennedy, Sarah. This adds a sense of identification for an Australian westernized reader, but it is also jarring. I’m not sure if the trade off between making a reader think “This could be me” is worth in effect stripping his characters of all their cultural identity. In Keneally’s hands,  the story is based amongst people of an intellectual/entertainment industry elite, whose lifestyles are not that different from ours.

Third, he does not actually name Saddam Hussein, although in his afterword, he acknowledges his debt to Mark Bowden’s article “Tales of the Tyrant”in the Atlantic Monthly May 2002. Certainly, reading the article after finishing the novel (which I very much encourage you to do), you can see where Keneally has picked up the threads of his own story.

Things happen abruptly in this novel, so much so that you find yourself re-reading to see if you had understood it properly.  Keneally has a rather clumsy attempt at mirroring Shiite/Sunni theology through ‘mediationist’ and ‘intercessionists’, which only muddies the story. I’m not sure that I was convinced by Alan Sheriff’s abandonment of his own novel, and it is an important point in the plot. I can understand why Keneally has chosen to anglicize the names, but I feel condescended to as a reader; as if Keneally expects that I cannot identify with names from another culture.

However, the continued bloody-mindedness of our mandatory detention system has, if anything, worsened, and the increasing presence of so many ‘strongmen’ in politics world-wide means that this book is more relevant today than it was in 2003. Written with a clear political purpose at the time, those politics are even more urgent now.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups as a book group reading amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh

‘Charles Hotham: A Biography’ by Shirley Roberts

roberts_charles_hotham

1985, 201 p.

Even though I’m a historian of Victoria, I confess to drawing rather a blank when it comes to all but the most recent Governors of the state. La Trobe springs to mind immediately, but many of the others I ‘know’ only by things that have been named after them, especially hotels and public buildings.  I was aware that Hotham had taken over from La Trobe, and that he has been characterized as the villain in the Eureka Stockade story.  There’s a street named after him, a pub in Geelong and a mountain… but that’s about all I could have come up with before I read Shirley Roberts’ biography of Charles Hotham.

In her opening pages, Shirley Roberts announces that “Hotham appears as a man who has been most unfairly denigrated”. Clearly her intention in writing this book is to rescue him from this fate.  Of course, historians mount arguments about individuals all the time, making judgements “from the enormous condescension of posterity” as E. P. Thompson put it.  In this case, however, Roberts’ intention to scrub the mud from Charles Hotham detracts from her book as history. She accepts uncritically certain sources and cherry picks from others, and when actions contradict her argument she brushes them off as inexplicable or strange.

However, despite these flaws, Roberts has written what seems to be the only biography of a man whose short 15 month governorship coincided with a political flashpoint in a colony on the verge of receiving self-government.  It starts in a workman-like fashion, with a family tree – the kiss of death for a biography.  Probably the book would be written very differently today, with more emphasis on the networks of empire and the significance of patronage links, and a widening of the focus from white politicians to include protestors’ and women’s forms of influence. But given that we are reading the book we are holding, and not a book as we would wish it written 35 years later, she has captured well the far-flung nature of the British Empire, and the circuits along which colonial authorities and civil servants travelled.

Charles Hotham never aspired to be a colonial governor. He far preferred his naval role, and the command of ships and navy personnel without the complications of representative democracy and colonial elite structures. His work took him to Argentina, where the British Navy at first played a type of peace-keeping role between Argentina and what is now Uruguay, before intervening to protect their trade routes along the rivers that bordered the two countries. After the putative abolition of slavery, he was sent to West Africa (generally seen as a grave-yard posting) to harass slave shipping along the trade routes, especially en route to Brazil. He demanded, and received, loyalty from his crews in an established hierarchy of authority and obedience.

But these very qualities made his posting to Victoria, already seen as a problematic colony, even less appropriate and bound to end in tears. The discovery of gold had led to a deluge of new arrivals, the complete disruption of the bureaucracy, and a crying need for infrastructure. The economy was wobbly, and running at a deficit. In true economic technocrat style, he pronounced and held to hard-line economic prescriptions, announced and implemented without consultation. The colony, like those in the other Australian states, was holding its breath waiting for the legislation for self-government (see Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) and this return to authoritarian, centralized rule was not likely to please anyone – even those who had craved a more ‘governor’-like presence than La Trobe had cast.

Roberts explains the origin of Hotham’s world-view in terms of his naval background, but uses it to excuse his too-quick turn to repression, and recourse to delay through ordering a Royal Commission (that old standby to gain time). She portrays him as a man surrounded by flawed men, who let him down.

In filling out Hotham’s early career, which she does very well, she draws on a biographical sketch written by Hotham’s sister as a gift to his sister-in-law on their marriage. Although no doubt drawing Hotham in a good light, it has been gift to his  biographer, too. In her analysis of Hotham’s time in Melbourne, she draws strongly on the conservative, pro-Hotham Argus with little reference to opposing newspapers. As an author, she is mounting a pro-Hotham argument, although she does not make it clear exactly what or who she is arguing against.

I was very impressed with her ability to summarize a scenario or event clearly and succinctly, without overwhelming the reader with detail.  This was especially true of Hotham’s time in South America and Africa, which I knew absolutely nothing about.  She is not an academic historian – and the paucity of her reference list attests to this – and her book is more a matter of setting things out, rather than complicating by nuance.

Hotham only governed the colony between June 1854 and November 1855. This short period of time is largely dominated by the Eureka uprising, and Hotham’s role in it. This short, pragmatic book fleshes out his career more fully, and portrays him as more than just the villain of the Eureka rebellion. But Roberts’ determination to rescue Hotham from blame has led her to mount a polemic, rather than write a biography.  The reader should approach this book with admiration at the job she has done, and appreciation for filling in otherwise little known information. At the same time, however, this book needs to read with care and a raised, sceptical eyebrow.

And look at this – I was half-way through the book when I found this plaque at Flinders Street Railway Station!  So he did leave a mark on Melbourne after all!

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From this place the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company’s service to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) was inaugurated by His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham K.C.B., R.N. Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria on September 12 1854, when Australia’s first steam train departed for Sandridge at 12.20 P.M.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups. You’ll have trouble tracking it down, I suspect.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

 

 

‘The Lake House’ by Kate Morton

morton_the-lake-house

2015, 591p.

It was not my choice to read this book. Call me snobbish and superficial, but I’m even  turned off by the cover. There it is with its anachronistic photo of yet another woman’s back (although at least you can see her face here), and the fact that the author’s name is in a larger font than the title (one of my ‘amber lights’ warning of books that I probably shouldn’t read).  Kate Morton is a best-selling Australian author and has written several books, all with similar names and covers. Normally, I would steer well clear. However, this book was the selection for my bookgroup and because I am a very conscientious book-grouper, I read it.

It’s a mixture of a  historic big-house novel and a current-day police cold-case story featuring a middle-aged female detective. I’m rather guiltily partial to both genres. I’ve read my share of ‘big house’ books: I loved The Go-Between in Year 12, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, innumerable Victoria Holt books when I was 15, Molly Keane’s books and Atonement.  And in terms of cold-case police stories, after I finish writing this review, I’ll go off to watch Unforgotten on the TV to get my dose of intelligent female police detectives. All these indulgences are just that: they’re ‘down-time’ leisure, when I turn my mind off and just go with it. Which is how I think about The Lake House. It’s the sort of book you might read when you’re on a week’s holiday and want to just immerse yourself in a fairly-undemanding read.

There are two narratives interwoven through the book, one set in 1933 and the other in 2003, both based on the house Loeanneth and its mysteries. In 1933 it was the home of Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their three daughters and baby son, Theo who mysteriously disappeared on Midsummer’s Eve.  The second narrative, set in 2003 centres on Sadie Sparrow, a London detective who has been stood down and told to ‘take a holiday’ after she spoke to the press about a missing-child case.  She travels down to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather and when she stumbles on the now-derelict Loeanneth, she is driven to find out what happened to the family who left it so abruptly after the disappearance of the little boy.

There are red-herrings and misdirections galore, and although some of them took me by surprise, I guessed the too-pat ending ahead of time.  I suppose that I should be pleased that I actually knew who dunnit by the end, instead of plaintively wailing “But I don’t get it…..”

The book contains every possible big-house and cold-case cliche and at just off 600 pages it certainly is a big baggy monster. There are whole plot lines that could have been omitted without loss, but the twin-narrative structure was well-constructed and sustained across the whole long book. It certainly romped along and drew me in so that I didn’t at all mind reading great slabs of it, which is probably the way you’d read it if it were a holiday read. But it’s not high literature, and I suspect that much of its appeal is that it is so recognizable and comfortable. I won’t be rushing to read another Kate Morton – there are too many other books that are more challenging to read and enjoy, and at 500+ pages, the rewards just aren’t there

My rating: 6/10

Read because:  CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.

 

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

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1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge database.