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‘The Hand of Fatima’ by Ildefonso Falcones


2010, 887 pages – yes, 887 pages. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Oooffgghh!! That was a long read! I was about to write that I rarely read big chunky historical fiction books but on reflection, that’s not true. I loved Kristin Lavransdatter, I eagerly await the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and I really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. Perhaps it’s that I often read trilogies and suchlike as they are released, several years apart. But I read this book all in one gulp.

I heard about it from a guide who took me on a historic walk in Cordoba last year, and I very much enjoyed reading about places that I had been in Granada, Seville and of course Cordoba.

It is set in 1564, long after the reconquest of Spain by the Christian Kings. However, as we see all too often in the midst of the sectarian wars that still afflict us, mere conquest is not enough to expunge the beliefs, stories and world view of a conquered people. The Islamic Morisco people in 16th century Spain are defeated, but restive, and uprisings erupt across Al Andalus, put down violently with massacres and enslavement on both sides.

Hernando is the son of an Arab woman and the Christian priest who raped her.  His stepfather despises him, and he kidnaps Hernando’s one love, Fatima, and takes and mistreats her as a second wife to spite him. He is shunned by the Christians who educate him into their beliefs, and he secretly visits Hamid, an old teacher who educates him into the Islamic beliefs. These two streams of belief, which he can call on when he needs to, mean that he is distrusted by both sides as he moves between the two cultures.

It is his facility with both Christianity and Islamic that drives him to a project to unite the two faiths through the figure of Mary, who is revered by both traditions. I found this part rather tedious and I’m not sure that it was really necessary to the story. But overall, it is a rather driven narrative, which barely takes a breath. Just when you think that things are about to be resolved, yet another twist occurs…and hence the nearly 900 pages.

I hadn’t heard of this book, which is written by a best-selling author. I was surprised for a moment to find that Lisa at ANZLitLovers had read it (until I remembered just how widely she reads) and her review is much more detailed than mine. I wasn’t even sure if it was written by a male or female author, but after reading the sex scenes with too much throbbing manhood for my liking, I decided that the author must be a man. I was not wrong.

To have the book recommended by a Spanish speaker, keen to show the beauties of her cities, is no small thing. It complicates the easy historical concepts of ‘conquest’ and ‘reconquest’, and I very much enjoyed the descriptions. When I was told about the book, I was reassured that I’d be able to find it in translation which is just as well. I doubt that I’ll live long enough to translate a book of nearly 900 pages in Spanish!


‘Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre’ ed. by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan


167 p. & notes, 2018

The name should have been a give-away. “Myall” was an old term for “aboriginal” and it was to be expected that any outback station called “Myall Creek” would have – or used to have- a noticeable indigenous presence. Late in the afternoon of Sunday 10 June 1838, eleven armed stockmen, most of whom were expired or convict labourers, rode into Henry Danger’s Myall Creek station near Invernell in north-east New South Wales. Henry Dangar himself was absent; as were the overseer and senior stockmen. The stockmen dismounted and entered a hut where they brought out about thirty Wirrayaraay old people, women and children who had sought refuge there on hearing the stockmen ride in. They led them out, tied with a leather strap, and took them away. Shots rang out; then the stockmen rode away. They returned the next day to burn twenty-eight bodies.

It was an appalling crime, and we know about it because the perpetrators actually faced court, and seven white men were hanged. The massacre itself was not exceptional: massacres had occurred prior to Myall Creek, and they continued afterwards. But the case was marked with controversy,  both from observers appalled by it, and squatters and settlers outraged by its legal consequences. It was the last time in the nineteenth century  that  white perpetrators of frontier massacres were convicted and hanged.

In 2000 a permanent memorial was erected at Myall Creek. Eight years later the Myall Creek Massacre and Memorial Site were added to the National Heritage List. This book, comprising a number of essays by both indigenous and non-indigenous authors, was published for the 180th anniversary. The academic historians represented here – Lyndall Ryan, Jane Lydon, Anna Johnston and John Maynard –  are all well-respected within the academy. The earlier chapters focus on the massacre event itself.  The final three chapters focus on Myall Creek within the songlines and trading networks of indigenous groups the length of the east coast of Australia and tease out issues of memorialization and reconciliation. The book evokes the harshness of distance and the impunity it confers in Warwick Thornton’s film Sweet Country, even though that was set in a different place some eighty years later.

If you’re not familiar with the Myall Creek massacre, you will be by the time you finish this book, which gives a clear account of the event and the men involved. I did know about it – my own Judge Willis was bobbing around in the background as one of the members of the NSW Supreme Court, but I have been guilty of the “failure of imagination” that Paul Keating spoke of in his Redfern Speech.  This book shows that it was all there: unarmed, defenseless, frightened old women and children; white onlookers too intimidated to intervene; wide distances adding a sense of menace, and averted eyes that cloaked these stockmen with the arrogance of impunity.

In Chapter 1 Lyndall Ryan focuses on Henry Dangar, the absentee owner of the Myall Creek station, who chose not to support his employees who reported the crime. In Chapter 2, Patsy Withycombe points out that the ringleader, John Fleming, was the only one of the eleven stockmen who was not a serving or former convict, and he escaped punishment altogether, protected by local squatters. In Chapter 3, Jane Lydon places the international and humanitarian response within the anti-slavery context of the 1830s, focussing particularly on the widely circulated engraving of the prologue to the massacre titled ‘Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts’ by ‘Phiz’, better known for his illustrations of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Chapter 4 looks at the more local response where Anna Johnston examines Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ published in December 1838 and later put to music by Isaac Nathan in 1842. In Chapter 5 Lyndall Ryan asks of the massacre “Was it typical of the time?”. Building on her work on the Massacre Map, she points out that it was. All the perpetrators had been involved in other massacres. It was not unusual for incidents to take place in daylight, or be led by a settler. It was not unusual to tie the victims together and lead them to the site where they would be slaughtered, or burn their bodies afterwards. Such atrocities have their own sickening rhythm and recurrences.  Chapter 5, which has multiple authors, links the Myall Creek massacre with another massacre at the Wonomo waterhole, and argues that trade networks and songlines made it possible for different aboriginal groups along the eastern coast of Australia to be forewarned of the struggle which would soon extend to their area too. Chapter 6 ‘Myall Creek Memories’ is a reflection by John Maynard on being asked to give the commemorative address- the first by a non-indigenous historian – in 2015. Chapter 8 co-written by Jessica Neath and Brook Andrew is a compilation of interviews with advisors, architects, academics and scholars of cultural memory, over the question of how Myall Creek should be memorialized (if, indeed it should be) and its relation with other memory-sites related the Holocaust and Genocide. The book is framed by a prologue by Sue Blacklock and John Brown who worked on a reconciliation and covenant relationship between the Uniting Church and ATSI people in 1992. It closes with Mark Tedeschi’s QC’s address delivered in 2017, both as Chief Crown Prosecutor for NSW and the author of his own more legally-oriented account of the massacre and its legal aftermath.

This is an excellent book. The chapters are engagingly written, and if the chapter by Jessica Neath was perhaps a bit tedious in its format, it raised some interesting questions. It makes me wonder: will I live long enough for Australians and their governments to have the maturity and humility to look at the white settler past, and actually do something about an honest recognition and reconciliation that must come one day?


I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.

Movie: Colette


(From a few weeks back)

It’s a pity that Keira Knightly was case as Colette in this movie. She’s too well-known and I was consciously aware of that throughout most of this movie, except for one striking scene where she becomes very angry. Dominic West was very good, and disappeared better into the character. I must confess to never having read any of her work, and really knew little about her. Still, an interesting take on celebrity and marketing in the literary world of a century ago.

My rating: 3.5 stars

I’m off……again


Did I mention to you that I’m off again? This time to Buenos Aires, Colombia and the Atacama Desert in Chile.

You can follow my adventures – and this time I hope that this rather edgy trip doesn’t have any adventures to speak of – at my other travel blog

I rather foolishly promised that I would write the first sentence of each entry in Spanish, so apologies to those who don’t read Spanish, and even deeper apologies to those who do!

‘Saltwater’ by Cathy McLennan


2016, 314 p

If you go by the cover of this book, with its subtitle “An Epic Fight for Justice in the Tropics”, you’re going to be disappointed. There is a trial in this book, but you won’t have heard of it. It’s just one of what I suspect is an ongoing succession of trials of young aboriginal men, whose lives seemed almost doomed to incarceration by their background of alcoholism, illiteracy and aimlessness. It’s not an ‘epic’ fight for justice, and there’s certainly no victory here.

The book is a memoir written by Magistrate Cathy McLennan, who looks back some twenty years to her first graduate job with the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, when she was aged just 22. She is not of indigenous heritage herself, and although brought up on nearby Magnetic Island, she felt largely overwhelmed working with this indigenous organization. Other non-indigenous barristers came and went, and despite her youth, she was very much thrown in at the deep end. The clerical and administrative staff were indigenous, and she relied on the guidance of aboriginal women working in a liaison capacity.  The male indigenous administrator of the organization was less supportive.

One of her earliest cases involved four young men charged with the murder of a white grog-runner. She was initially convinced of their innocence, and feels blocked by the local police.  The police, however, are not one-dimensional.  Called out to meet with a group of aboriginal people drinking in the park, she was horrified that a very young baby was lying on glass-strewn dirt. Brought right up against the dilemma of child protection vs. fear of another stolen generation, she realized that, in this situation, the police wee just as conflicted as she is.

Running alongside her involvement in this case was her ongoing contact with Olivia, to whom the book is dedicated, an 11 year old the size of a 5 year old, who was continually being locked up for robbery, and was sexually abused repeatedly. Olivia was failed at every turn: by her alcoholic mother, by child services who could do no more than come up with ‘a plan’, and by the ‘justice’ system that was content to shunt her off to Palm Island, where Olivia was even more abused than she was in Townsville.  McLennan bridles against failure at all levels that condemns indigenous children to incarceration. She could see the problem: she had no answers.  Now, twenty years later and as a magistrate, I find myself wondering if she has found a way for the system, that she is now part of, to do better.

The book is written in the present tense, and the prose is fairly pedestrian. She certainly raises many questions, and even if the book is not as “compelling” as its blurb suggests, it does add texture and complexity to a tragic and seemingly intractable situation.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.


‘The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years 1859-1909’ by D. Macrae Stewart


1909, 129 p.

This book was written to celebrate the golden anniversary of the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1859, combining the Synod of Victoria, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria and the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria. There was one section of the United Presbyterians who didn’t join until after 1870, but in terms of golden jubilees, 1859 was the date. (Mind you, the earlier book I read about Presbyterianism in Victoria dated the coming together of different strands of Presbyterianism to 1867 instead.)

Written as a celebration publication, the text is laid out quite beautifully, with red margins and decorated inhabited initials to mark the start of each chapter. Stewart has used a planting metaphor to organize his chapters, which are titled ‘Seed’ ‘Stem’ ‘Branching’ ‘Pruning and Grafting’ etc.

As this book goes up to 1909, it covers the Charles Strong controversy of the 1880s, which of course had not occurred with Sutherland published his earlier history of the Presbyterian Church in 1877. Charles Strong, who had been the pastor of Scot’s Church in Melbourne (probably the premier Presbyterian church in Melbourne)became the first minister of  the Australian Church in 1885 after being charged with  promulgating unsound and heretical doctrine and resigning his position from Scots Church.  I think that if I’d been alive at the time, I would have been attracted to the Australian Church.

the australian church.

The Australian Church at the eastern end of Flinders Street (near Spring Street). It seated 1200 and opened in 1887 but the Church shifted to more economical premises in 1922. The Australian Church was finally dissolved in 1957. From the Australasian Sketcher. SLV

The book has several plates showing prominent churchmen, mainly of the past but with some contemporary men (in 1909) as well. So many beards!  There are few mentions of women, but there is a section on the Presbyterian Mission Womens Union, famous for its cookbook. I only now realize that I always called it the PMWU rather than PWMU.

The book is curiously silent about the 1890s depression. Perhaps in 1909 it was too soon to discuss such things.


‘The Valley at the Centre of the World’ by Malachy Tallack


2018, 352p.

I can’t remember quite why I borrowed this book when I saw it on the ‘New Books’ shelf at the library. Perhaps I’d heard good reviews of it or maybe it was its setting in Shetland that attracted me. I enjoy Shetlands on the ABC and I heard a cracking interview with the author of Vera and Shetlands, Anne Cleeves. What ever drew me to it, it’s a beautiful book that I almost didn’t want to end. It surprises me that the author is a young man. The book felt as if it were written by an older person (think, perhaps Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead or perhaps Elizabeth Strout’s work) in terms of its treatment of the relationships between people, infused with a sensitivity to place and space.

The Valley at the centre of the world is exactly that – a single valley with just five houses clinging to The Road that runs above and parallel to ‘The Burn’, the waterway that runs to the sea. The use of ‘The’ is intentional: there is only one. In its harsh but beautiful isolation, there is a timelessness about The Valley, although people are coming and going. Older man David has lived there all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him. Although he does not consciously think of it this way, he owns the valley.  His wife Mary, came there thirty years ago and their daughters Kate and Emma have both shifted away.  Sandy, a newcomer, was their daughter Emma’s partner and came back with her to the Valley but the relationship has broken up. He stayed on when Emma left, and with a respectful relationship to his inlaws (do you have inlaws if you’re not married?) and now landlords, he takes over the cottage and croft left vacant when Maggie, a very old inhabitant dies. There is Terry, a morose alcoholic single father, and Jo and Ryan, who have shifted into the Red House from the city, with Ryan a go-getter spiv taking advantage of the cheap rent. Finally, there is Alice, a crime writer (who reminded me not a little of Anne Cleeves herself) who has moved to the valley after the death of her husband. She has decided, somewhat presumptuously I think, to write about the Valley and is particularly drawn to Maggie as a character, hoping to find some secret or depth about this woman who had spent her whole life in the Valley.

The book revolves around the lives of this small group of people, who each have their griefs and flaws. It is a slow book, just as life itself in The Valley is slow. Soap opera? Perhaps, but it’s soap opera written with insight and generosity.

What is striking is the use of dialect in the conversation. There’s a glossary at the front, but it’s more the sentence construction and small words that slows you down as a reader. I don’t subvocalise or even mentally vocalise when I read, so this was a strangely auditory reading experience for me.

I really loved this book, and didn’t want it to finish.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library