Tag Archives: Australian literature

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent


2013, 352 p.

The problem with coming to a much-talked-about book after the wave of publicity and interest has broken is that there’s not really much else left to say about it.  I’ve just dabbled in some of the reviews and it’s hard to get away from the fact that Kent received a very large advance for the novel; that she’s young and doing a PhD in creative writing, and  that it has been translated into twenty languages.    Ben Etherington has written an interesting piece in the Sydney Review of Books  about the marketing context that has many links- well worth reading.

As probably everyone knows, the book is a ‘speculative biography’ of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was executed for murder in Iceland in 1829. Awaiting sentence, she is interned on a remote farm, where enforced proximity draws her into the circle of her keeper’s family.

Everything that I would want to say about the book has been said before.   Reviewers speak of the historical setting, and I’ll talk about it too. Historical documents preface each of the chapters, that not only lend verisimilitude, but also act as a fence to constrain this speculative biography.  The research is obviously deep, and  its occasional didacticism can be excused when writing about such an unfamiliar historical setting.  Just as in history-writing itself, the endpoint is known, and it’s the author’s task to make it plausible and real.

Many reviewers rave about her descriptions of settings, and I need to join with them in praise. Her descriptions of setting are so evocative that you can almost see it. It’s a very cinematic book, and of course it has been optioned for a movie.  In your head you can see the opening scenes and hear the voice-over already.

I was struck in the opening pages by the story-ness of it.  Of course, story-telling is one of the themes of the book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading the sort of book I might have read as a teenager, where all the people and events were set out in place, then ‘action’- the story proper began.   I still can’t decide whether it’s slightly clunky and old-fashioned, or very clever and self-reflexive. The device of the priest worked to usher in a first-person story-telling narrative, but I didn’t find myself particularly interested in him as a character.

And yes, several reviewers have squirmed under the buffeting of poetic imagery, and at times I felt rather overwhelmed by it as well.  But then she’d capture an image in a couple of words so cleanly and sharply that you’d nod and forgive her everything. I enjoyed the viscerality of her descriptions as Agnes is released from her cell as she smells herself and the grunge of captivity.  I felt the smoky fug of too many people in a small cottage  that evoked  shades of Halldor Laxness’ Independent People.

Then there’s the cover. Is it trite to talk about the cover? I don’t think so- it was part of my experience of settling down with a real-life, hold-in-the-hand book to read a bit more.  You won’t detect it on screen, but the cover has a beautiful pearlescent sheen, inside and out, and I often found myself running my hand over it as a thing of beauty.

aww-badge-2015-200x300This book has already been read so many times under the Historical Fiction category in the Australian Women Writers Challenge that I feel a little redundant putting it under the 2015 reviews as well.  Never mind.  Two years on from its publication, it should be standing on its own two feet. It does.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton


Had this been the only Tim Winton book that I had ever read, I too would be throwing every award that I could at it: last night it was announced that it had won the Age Book of the Year.

Like the swell of ocean waves, you think that it’s building into a surf-story, then all of a sudden you realise that you’re into the full-blown coming-of-age story complete with betrayal, sexual experimentation, parental estrangement, empty dreams and disillusionment. It has it all: beautiful writing that just takes you along with it, a wry narrator whom you almost instantly like, a love for the ocean, and an ease of telling that is sure without being pretentious.  Much like the public persona of Tim Winton himself, it seems.

And I guess that here lies my problem with it.  I’ve read several Tim Winton books, and I feel as if I’m reading the same story again and again.  His evocation of his Western Australian roots, his Christian background, his middle aged male protagonists, his collection of broken, betrayed and disillusioned people…they’re all there in The Riders, Dirt Music, The Turning and now again in Breath.  The sheer exuberance of Cloudstreet- probably my favourite Australian novel- seems a long time ago, and it was. He does Angelus, and his nostalgic male protagonists very, very well.  But I think of other authors- Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood, Joyce Carol Oates- who really stretch themselves and their writing into new shapes and places and I wish that, perhaps, he was a bit braver.

‘Aphelion’ by Emily Ballou

2007, 493 p

There is such a thing as too much.  Chocolate, for example. Or wine. Or, as in the case of ‘Aphelion’ by Emily Ballou, too much scenery, too many storylines, too much thinking, too much talk, too many themes, too much imagery, too many pages, too much ‘luminous’ prose.

The book is set in the Snowy Mountains, in a small town that has been relocated as part of the hydro-electric scheme.  Four generations of women live in the family home- the 101 year old Hortense, her 80 year old daughter Esme, Esme’s niece Byrne (about 50) and her own daughter Lucetta (20 plus).  Into this seething mass of mother/daughter/aunt entanglement comes young Rhett from next door, returning to the family home after the death of his mother, bringing with him Hazel the American museum curator who barely speaks to her mother.   You can probably imagine the multiple themes here: motherhood, regret, what-ifs, relocation, dislocation, nostalgia etc. etc. etc.

This book felt like a Sunday evening serial on the ABC with lots of Australian scenery (just in case it can be flogged off to British television), iss-ews that we can all identify with, and multiple storylines.

But it wasn’t all bad.  In fact, even though the book was overdue and I was accruing a daily penalty, I wanted to keep it until I had finished it.  Perhaps, in spite of all these qualifications and criticisms, the fact that I wanted to reach the end is the most important response of all.


2008, 280 p.

As a newcomer, you’d have to be pretty brave to write a fiction book about one of another country’s iconic stories. The author of this book is American-born and now living in Australia. Quite apart from the narrative draw of the Burke and Wills expedition in its own right, it’s obviously the sort of story that attracts writers from other countries. The English writer Sarah Murgatroyd with The Dig Tree also mined the Burke and Wills story with, I think, more success than Rabalais has had. And of course, Alan Attwood with Burke’s Soldiers and Alan Moorehead ‘s Cooper’s Creek also tell the Burke and Wills story- and they’re just the ones that I’ve read! Generations of Australian school children have heard the story; the highly glorified Burke and Wills statue has been shuffled to and fro around Melbourne streets and now overlooks the corner of Swanston and Collins Street, and the imagery is strongly reinforced by the Longstaff painting in the National Gallery of Victoria.

So how then, does a writer who has not grown up immersed and inured to all this mythologizing deal with the story? This is a fictional account, and focusses on the love interest between Robert O’Hara Burke and the actress Julia Matthews which he expands by having William Wills fall in love with her as well. I’m not aware of this twist- but hey, it’s fiction. The story is told in small snippets, disconnected in time and location and has the feeling of being at times over-written. As an Australian reader, it is familiar to me: I can’t imagine how a reader new to the story could possibly follow it.

If he is writing for an Australian audience whose knowledge of the expedition can cope with these narrative discontinuities, then he has even more responsibility to get things right. I always understood that they reached the mangroves of the Gulf of Carpentaria, observed the tidal flow, then turned back. I have never heard, as Rabalais asserts, that they stood in the foamy sea. This gives the expedition a triumph that it was denied, and there’s something very Australian in that. We are comfortable with our heroic failures- we like them that way.

There’s a sniff of the writing exercise about this book. Many sections are only 3 or 4 pages long (a good length for ‘workshopping’), and there is an appalling, anachronistic interjection of an authorial reflection about photographs which, thankfully, starts and ends abruptly never to be seen again.

The Moorehead book is the ur-text of Burke and Wills stories. Sara Murgatroyd, who died of cancer at the age of 34 just after her book’s publication, gets a good look in and has left a strong legacy. Other than that, I don’t really think the world NEEDS another Burke and Wills story.