Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘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)

pilkington_rabbit

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.

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

Fowler_WeAreAll

2014, 336p.

One of the problems with writing a book that is almost completely reliant on a big narrative twist in the middle is that you can’t really review it, without spoiling it for others. So, I won’t do either- review it, or spoil it.

The book is told in the conversational narrative of an American woman looking back over her childhood, which was ruptured when her sister left.  And I’ll leave it at that.

How would I have reacted to this book without the ‘great reveal’, I wonder? Probably not as favourably, because there’s a sort of shocked delight in going back over your assumptions when you’ve had them turned upside down.

Once you’ve read the book, do an image search for the front cover. It’s interesting that some of the front cover designs give away the story much more than the cover on the version I read (above).

Read because: it was a CAE bookgroup selection

My rating: 7/10

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger_TimeTravellersWife

2004, 519 p.

I used to read many more books that I do now, particularly between the years 2000 and say 2007, when I had an extended period of ill health. When this book was produced with a flourish as our July read for book group,  my heart sank a little as I had read it back in 2005. But fourteen years is a long time between reads, and although I remembered the gist, I didn’t remember the details.

It’s a time-travel book. I quite enjoy time-travel books that have a relationship at the heart of them until I try to explain them, and then the whole construct falls apart. It is the story of Henry, who travels back and forth through time, and his love for Clare, who would become his wife. The structure is confusing at first, with the chronology jumping back and forward, with Henry at varying ages as Clare plods through her allotted life span as Henry appears, disappears and reappears again.  I often found myself having to turn back to check the date of the chapter, and there was not enough difference in tone and language between the alternating narratives of Henry and Clare. The book has many references to literature and poetry which don’t really rescue it from what is often very domestic and every-day. The ending was a long time coming, with ‘just one more chapter’ being tacked on to the last.

Did I like it any more in 2005? It seems not: in fact, I seem to have mellowed in my old age. This is what I wrote in 2005:

I should have been warned off this book by the Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on the front. It’s an interesting idea: a chronodisplaced man pops in and out of the life of the woman who is to be come his wife, but worthy only of novella treatment – not a whole 500 page tome! So much of this was banal: getting dressed, eating, mundane conversation lived by an adolescent randiness and panting and always-wonderful sex.  It will probably make a nice enough movie, but it doesn’t need all this print to support it. It’s a first novel, and one badly in need of a judicious prune.  5.5/10

Ouch! I was surprised by how much sex there was in the book, which seemed rather gratuitous in the end.  Perhaps I would enjoy the movie more? After all, that Christopher Reeve movie ‘Somewhere in Time’ was a favourite when I was about 20.  Still, I’m pleased to see that my opinions about books generally hold firm over more than a decade, and that I won’t have to go back to re-read all the books I didn’t like.

My rating: 6.5 out of 10 (I told you that I had mellowed)

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup selection.