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.
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.
1979, 278 p
One of the frustrations that I’ve faced in trying to understand Judge Willis has been to try to understand his mindset. Why did Port Phillip society of the time find him so unacceptable and demand his dismissal? Was he too radical? Was he too conservative? Was he neither of these things? This book focusses on early Victorian England which, although a hemisphere away from Port Phillip, was the milieu that informed the thinking of colonial judges and civil servants and was the lens through which their patrons and superiors back in the metropole viewed their actions.
In this book, Roberts attempts the heroic in trying to define and illustrate the workings of an unnamed-at-the-time set of varying beliefs and attitudes which he, along with other 20th historians, identifies as ‘paternalism’. He argues that, bolstered by Romanticism and literature, paternalism reached its apogee in 1844. It’s a slippery concept, though, despite his attempts to pin it down through analysis, for example, of the backgrounds of the contributors to the major ‘paternal’ journals and quarterlies of the day, or by the speeches and voting patterns of ‘paternalist’ MPs in the 1840s. He divided these parliamentarians into 6 categories: the Romantics, The Peelites, The Churchmen; the Country Squires; The Whigs and the Anglo-Irish, but even he admits that there is no consistency between their espoused position in speeches, and their actions. Paternalism, it seems, is only one of several influences. In fact, his concept is so hemmed in by qualifications and disclaimers that you start to wonder if what he is describing exists at all.
But, despite his difficulties in defining it, he posits that after 1848 ‘it’ was no longer functional: rendered less relevant by the rise of urbanisation, a self-conscious middle and working class and the mid-century intellectual developments of science, rationalism, empiricism and belief in progress.
I’m not sure that this book has taken me much further in understanding Judge Willis. It’s interesting that his major patrons are categorized as either Peelites or Whig paternalists- but I’m not really sure yet what, if anything, that means.
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.
I have rather mixed feelings about historical fiction. On the one hand, it was probably historical fiction that led me to my love of history in the first place, and the type of history that attracts me always has a strong human and imaginative thread to it. When there is a basic fidelity to the setting and the mentalities of the main characters, then I love it. It can be playful with the facts, but not earnestly wrong. I really relished Peter Mew’s Bright Planet set in- surprise, surprise- 1840s Port Phillip, and Patrick White’s historical fiction (e.g. Fringe of Leaves, Voss ) is solidly grounded in research and yet nuanced and sophisticated in its themes.
But I have my reservations too. I agree with Inga Clendinnen (my heroine) with her qualms over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and the issue of historical fiction attempting to contribute to a historical debate. I am annoyed when something is just plain wrong- the research has been done and exhibited, but it’s WRONG! I dislike the arrogance of projection of modern mentalities onto characters set in the past. I sometimes feel as if the story is suffocated by meticulous research that the author can’t bear to let go of.
Which leads me to Rose Tremain’s Restoration. It is set, as you might guess, in Restoration England, complete with Charles II, the Great Fire and the Plague. There’s a certain predictability about this- of course they are all such write-able events that no author writing a book set at the time could resist them! I thought that Tremain captured the voice of a 17th century male writer well, and my admiration for it increased even more when I returned, as I do from time to time, to www.pepys.diary.com to read Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the day.
But of course, ventriloquism is not the same as creation, and it added to my sense that I was reading a set piece, with hackneyed settings and events and a reproduction of a 17th century voice. This probably sounds more scathing than I mean it to be: I enjoyed it well enough, happily persisted to the end, but I only rate it as a ‘good enough’ read.