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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2022

Take the Child and Disappear, a memoir by Nina Basset

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is commemorated each year on the 27th January, because that is the day of the liberation of the Nazi extermination and concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. As it says on the HMD website:

Holocaust Memorial Day is the day for everyone to remember the millions of people murdered in the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution, and in the genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 is One Day. The HMD website quotes the words of Iby Knill, survivor of the Holocaust

You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.

The HMD site suggests that this theme can be the catalyst for thinking about the Holocaust in different ways: for example, we can focus on One Day in history, or a hopeful One Day in the future when things are different, but the book I have just read is very much about One Day when life changed.

Nina Basset is a child-survivor of the Holocaust and also a well-known member of the Jewish Community here in Melbourne.  It has taken decades for her to feel able to tell her story.

‘When five words uttered by a German soldier determine whether you live or die, you spend your life trying to unravel all the what-ifs. What if I had not been born in Poland in 1939? What if those five words had not been said? What if I had grown up in a safe, happy environment, surrounded by a large family?’

Take the Child and Disappear examines the Shoah (Holocaust) from multiple perspectives – before, during and after. As the author recounts her experiences and those of her family members, she contemplates the many ways being a child survivor has shaped her life, both consciously and unconsciously. ‘I have lived a happy and fulfilling life, surrounded by a large, loving family and enriched by years of community involvement. Yet despite this, there has always been a sense of dislocation and some unresolved questions, most troubling of which were – who am I and where do I belong? I thought a visit to Poland might answer them. It did not.’ The book is also about Hadassa, Nina’s courageous and wise mother.

For Nina Basset, life changed forever on Friday, 25th July 1941.  That was the day her father Izydor Katz was taken away and killed, though it was many years later that they learned that, with German permission, it was Ukrainian nationalists who carried out the pogrom.

There were many days in this child’s life when things changed irrevocably.  In Autumn 1942 when she was three she survived the liquidation of the Lwow ghetto because a German soldier spoke the words that title this book.  Her mother Hadassa was doing forced labour in the public gardens, when she was told that her only child and her mother were about to be taken away.

My mother dropped the shovel she had been using and started to run.  As a Jew, wearing the Star of David, she was prohibited from taking public transport.  She had no idea in which direction she should be going but she just kept running from street to street.  Eventually, she saw a large group of people being herded into a side street and ran towards them.  I was almost at the end of the queue with my grandmother.  I saw my mother, and dropping my grandmother’s hand, I ran towards her, shouting, ‘Mamuszia, Mamuszia.  She scooped me up and held me tightly.

The German soldier guarding the end of the line walked up to her.  ‘Is she yours?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ she replied.

‘Nimm das Kind und verschwinde,’ (Take the child and disappear) he told her.

My mother knew that she had to do everything in her power to get my grandmother out of that line.  ‘My mother-in-law,’ she said, ‘she is the one who looks after the child while I go to work.  She needs to come with me.’

The soldier looked at her as if she had totally lost her wits.  ‘I will say it a second time; but there will not be a third. Take the child and disappear.’ She did.  With a heavy heart and trembling knees, my mother walked away.  My grandmother, together with everyone else standing in that line, was taken away.

On such a thread a life can hang.  Who was the soldier, this man to whom I owe more than seven decades of my life, sixty years of marriage, a cricket team of grandchildren?  What was he like?  Did he have a thin face, with eyes already haunted by what he was doing or was he more robust, physically and mentally?  Did he expiate his guilt by freeing whomever he could, or was this his only random act of kindness? (p.62)

‘Disappearing’ was not easy to do and there was another fateful day when Hadassa took Anna from a place of refuge because the presence of a child was increasing the risk of discovery for others, and narrowly escaped capture.  Luck went their way again when a wonderful woman called Marysia Mandzhuk risked her own life and that of her sons and her husband by helping them to hide. Nina was one of very few children to survive until liberation; one of very few children to make her way to Australia as a displaced person in the postwar era.

As a a teenager in Melbourne, Nina did not identify as a child survivor:

Once I reached high school, which had a significant number of Jewish students, there were without doubt other child survivors.  But if there were, I was unaware of their status and they of mine.  It was not so much that we were keeping it a secret.  In my case, it was an inability to acknowledge that I was actually a Shoah survivor.  Survivors were the people with tattoos on their arms, the people with nightmares and sad eyes, the people like my mother, who held her experiences and her sorrows privately, even when she spoke openly of the bare facts.  In any event, I did not even hear the words ‘child survivor’ until many decades later, by which time I had processed and accepted that was a significant part of, if not all of, my identity. (p.122)

In the chapter ‘Reflections’ Nina Basset muses on Elie Wiesel’s haunting question about the brave men and women who intervened to save Jewish lives: ‘Why were there so few?’

…I pose a different question: ‘How is it that there were so many?’ We all think that we would do the right thing, the ethical thing, the noble thing.  But in the face of losing your life and risking the lives of the people you love, would you have the courage to save a stranger? Would I? In the depths of the night, when truth is not easily avoided, my answer is: ‘I don’t know.’ (p.137)

When President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Nina Basset was part of a delegation at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000, the major outcome of which was Article 1 of the Declaration which states:

‘The Holocaust (Shoah) fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilisation.  The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning.’ The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which Australia is a member, has committed to ‘strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, remembrance and research worldwide’. (p.160)

My commitment to reviewing books that educate about the Holocaust annually on Holocaust Memorial Day is a gesture of support for the aims of that Declaration.

Nina Basset, 2021 (photo credit: Hybrid Publishers)


About the author: Nina Bassat was born in Lwów, Poland in 1939. The time and place has influenced much of her life and provides the background to her book. Her life has been divided between her profession as a lawyer, her leadership positions in the Jewish community at the state, federal and international levels and her family, which has been her centre of gravity. From childhood, books have been both a joy and escape and words have been her professional tools.

Author: Nina Basset
Title: Take the Child and Disappear, a memoir
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
ISBN: 9781925736724, pbk., 175 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available direct from Hybrid Publishers where there are also links to where you can buy it as an eBook and read a sample.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2022

Pointed Roofs, (Pilgrimage #1) by Dorothy Richardson

Like Brona, (whose thoughts you can read here) when I saw a Tweet from Neglected Books about a Readalong for Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sequence of 13 semi-autobiographical novels, I was intrigued.  I had never heard of her but after confirming at Wikipedia that she was one of the earliest modernist novelists to use stream of consciousness as a narrative technique, I thought I might keep an eye on the project and (since we are still having postal delays) I put my hostility to Amazon to one side and bought a Kindle edition of the first of the series, Pilgrimage, so that I could be on time for the start of the Readalong.

Inevitably, I started reading before I was supposed to.  I am hopeless at Readalongs, I’ve failed the timing of every one I’ve ever tried.

Alas, it didn’t take long for me to feel underwhelmed.  Wikipedia also states that Richardson (1873-1957), is also considered an important feminist writer, because of the way her work assumes the validity and importance of female experiences as a subject for literature.  I try not to be disloyal to the Sisterhood but while I agree that any experiences can be a subject for literature, they must be rendered sufficiently interesting to maintain the attention of the reader.  I could not muster the slightest interest in Miriam Henderson and the petty dramas of the German boarding-school where she becomes a governess.

Yes, I was bored by Pointed Roofs.

(I kept thinking of Daisy White’s bright and lively response to her time in a French boarding school, which I read about in Je Suis Australienne, Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945, by Rosemary Lancaster, which I reviewed here.)

Alarmed by my failure to engage with material so highly esteemed by other readers, I tried looking at the materials on the website set up especially for the Readalong.  Ok, I confess: yes, *yawn* there is a lot about clothes in Pointed Roofs, but I did not add to my ennui by looking at more stuff about women’s fashions.

Funny German dresses, thought Miriam, funny… and old. Her mind hovered and wondered over these German dresses—did she like them or not—something about them—she glanced at Elsa, sitting opposite in the dull faint electric blue with black lace sleeves she had worn since the warm weather set in. Even Ulrica, thin and straight now… like a pole… in a tight flat dress of saffron muslin sprigged with brown leaves, seemed to be included in something that made all these German dresses utterly different from anything the English girls could have worn. What was it? It was crowned by the Bergmanns’ dresses. It had begun in a summer dress of Minna’s, black with a tiny sky-blue spot and a heavy ruche round the hem. She thought she liked it. It seemed to set the full tide of summer round the table more than the things of the English girls—and yet the dresses were ugly—and the English girls’ dresses were not that… they were nothing… plain cottons and zephyrs with lace tuckers—no ruches. It was something somehow in the ruches—the ruches and the little peaks of neck. (Pointed Roofs: Pilgrimage, Volume 1 Dorothy Richardson, HardPress Publishing. Kindle Edition, pp. 109-110).

However I did read the background stuff about Richardson’s experiences of being a governess in Hanover, and I noted the List of Characters.

And then I read the post titled ‘Leon Edel on Learning How to Read Pilgrimage’. It was much more interesting than reading Pilgrimage itself.

Leon Edel was an eminent American literary critic and an expert on Henry James.  I bonded with him straight away when I read this:

Let us look at Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, the first volume or “chapter” of her twelve-volume Pilgrimage. About the entire work there are extremes of opinion —some readers find it unreadable and “impossible” while others speak of it with high emotion. Whether we are able to read it or not we must accept its “pioneer” place in the history of the twentieth-century novel. Miss Richardson set herself a difficult experiment, perhaps more difficult in a technical sense than Proust’s: like her French contemporary she placed the reader in the mind of a single character, and with great tenacity of purpose held to her difficult task until it was completed. The twelve “chapters” deal exclusively with the pilgrimage of Miriam Henderson’s mind from adolescence to middle life.

At this point in the inquiry it seems to me that I can best discuss the entire question of the reader’s relation to the novel of subjectivity by drawing upon my own experience in the reading of Pointed Roofs. I read it first two decades ago and found I could develop no interest in Miriam Henderson and her emotional adventures in the German boarding-school to which she goes to teach the English language. The volume indeed discouraged me from reading any of its successors, and it seemed to me that the great defect of the book was that Dorothy Richardson had selected too dull a mind for her experiment. Returning to Pointed Roofs after two decades, I found once more that my interest lagged. The author was involving me in a world of chirping females, and I had to force myself to absorb the contents of each page. The heroine struck me as immature and wholly without interest.  (From The Modern Psychological Novel, Grosset & Dunlap (1964).

Now, to be fair to Dorothy Richardson and the enthusiasts who love her work, I have to acknowledge that having encapsulated my bored irritation so keenly, Edel then frays the bond by recounting his epiphany when he realises that Miriam is only 17.  This revises his whole opinion of the book and he re-reads it and thinks it’s terrific.

Well, I don’t know how Edel could have thought Miriam was in her twenties, because the one thing that did work for me in this novel was the representation of a naïve and inexperienced adolescent of strong passions and opinions, even if she does keep them to herself.  Perhaps Edel had never read My Brilliant Career. If he had, he might have recognised the tone.

Witness this confected drama over a soup spoon:

“Don’t let her do it, Miss Henderson.”

Fraulein Pfaff’s words broke the silence accompanying the servant’s progress from Gertrude whose soup-plate she had first seized, to Miriam more than half-way down the table.

Startled into observation Miriam saw the soup-spoon of her neighbour whisked, dripping, from its plate to the uppermost of Marie’s pile and Emma shrinking back with a horrified face against Jimmie who was leaning forward entranced with watching…. The whole table was watching. Marie, having secured Emma’s plate to the base of her pile clutched Miriam’s spoon. Miriam moved sideways as the spoon swept up, saw the desperate hard, lean face bend towards her for a moment as her plate was seized, heard an exclamation of annoyance from Fraulein and little sounds from all round the table. Marie had passed on to Clara. Clara received her with plate and spoon held firmly together and motioned her before she would relinquish them, to place her load upon the shelf of the lift.

Miriam felt she was in disgrace with the whole table…. She sat, flaring, rapidly framing phrase after phrase for the lips of her judges … “slow and awkward”… “never has her wits about her”….

“Don’t let her do it, Miss Henderson….” Why should Fraulein fix upon her to teach her common servants? Struggling through her resentment was pride in the fact that she did not know how to handle soup-plates. Presently she sat refusing absolutely to accept the judgment silently assailing her on all hands.

“You are not very domesticated, Miss Henderson.”

“No,” responded Miriam quietly, in joy and fear.

Fraulein gave a short laugh.

Goaded, Miriam plunged forward.

“We were never even allowed in the kitchen at home.”

“I see. You and your sisters were brought up like Countesses, wie Grafinnen*,” observed Fraulein Pfaff drily.

Miriam’s whole body was on fire… “and your sisters and your sisters,” echoed through and through her. Holding back her tears she looked full at Fraulein and met the brown eyes. She met them until they turned away and Fraulein broke into smiling generalities. Conversation was released all round the table. Emphatic undertones reached her from the English side. “Fool”… “simply idiotic.”

“I’ve done it now,” mused Miriam calmly, on the declining tide of her wrath.  (Pointed Roofs: Pilgrimage, Volume 1 Dorothy Richardson, HardPress Publishing. Kindle Edition, pp. 101-102).

*The book is littered with scraps of German, but a lot of them are like this, merely repeating what’s already been said in English.  The trouble is, you don’t know that until you’ve looked it up at Google Translate, and like Brona I got sick of doing that because it added nothing to the reading experience to find out what these German words meant.

Whatever, I think there are good reasons why this is a ‘neglected book’.  It’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read, but the citation is less than enticing.  It’s basically a plot summary of the whole Pilgrimage series and it doesn’t say anything about the feminist agenda or ‘its “pioneer” place in the history of the twentieth-century novel‘.

To sum up IMHO, while Pointed Roofs may be of academic interest, that doesn’t make it worth the bother and I won’t be plodding through any more of it.

Author: Dorothy Richardson
Title: Pointed Roofs (Pilgrimage #1)
Publisher: HardPress, first published 1915
Source: Purchased for the Kindle from Amazon.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2022

One Bright Morning, by Wendy Scarfe

Just scraping into the last day of Bill’s week focussing on Australian Women Writers Gen4 at The Australian Legend, One Bright Morning is the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Wendy Scarfe. (Bill’s criteria for inclusion in Gen 4 is simple: women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Wendy’s first novel was The Lotus Throne (Spectrum Pubs., Melbourne, 1976).

One Bright Morning is a story set around a pivotal moment in Australia’s history.  This is the blurb:

Fleeing Kuala Lumpur after the Japanese capture of Penang, young Zeny Havilland arrives in Darwin shortly before Christmas 1941.

Uprooted and knowing no one, she finds work as a reporter on the Northern Standard and a home with a gentle Quaker who takes in waifs and strays. Robert, a troubled young man damaged by war, lives in a shed in the garden.

The Japanese army’s advance into the Pacific seems unstoppable and Australia a probable target. Amid the growing tensions in a frontier town unprepared for Japanese attack, Zeny and Robert fall in love and face with courage not only the threat of invasion but their fear that Robert’s personal demons will destroy their future together.

The chilling prologue is dated 19 February 1942 in Darwin:

It was a bright morning, the azure sky untroubled by the usual rolls of purple cloud threatening rain.  Sitting with Robert on a wooden bench on the Esplanade, overlooking the Timor Sea, I watched a kingfisher in a flash of cerulean dart from an old tree to the bank of mangroves below.  A flock of birds in arrow formation from the south caught my attention.  Leaning against Robert, I wondered idly what islands they had come from.  Birds migrating were not new to Darwin.  I studied them, the sun glinting on their silver wings.  This was unusual, surely some trick of the morning light. (p.1)

The back story then emerges.  Zeny, in her early twenties, is living and working independently in Kuala Lumpur as the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia.  She hesitates to evacuate for misguided reasons, and ends up being rescued by a couple of coast watchers.

(This put me in mind of Anthony English’s Death of a Coast Watcher which vividly depicts the complexities, dangers and ethical issues confronting Australian spies operating in Japanese-occupied territory.  See my review here).

Zeny’s voyage in a camouflaged fishing vessel with Bill and Joe is not without danger, but it sidesteps the disastrous Fall of Singapore which had been Zeny’s original destination. She arrives in Darwin not only unable to explain the covert circumstances of her arrival, but also to the realisation that Darwin is no safe haven anyway. It’s geographically and militarily vulnerable, and thanks to years of government neglect and poor administration, it’s isolated by inadequate communications and transport connections to the rest of the country.  There is widespread fear of a Japanese invasion.

While Churchill refuses to return our troops for the defence of Australia, the federal government in Canberra struggles to face up to the threat after the loss of the 8th division (15,000 men) in Singapore.  As it tries to force the evacuation of women and children who don’t want to leave, Zeny settles into a very unsettled life.  Quixotically, despite the oppressive weather and the impending peril, she wants to make her home in Darwin because she’s never had a proper home. Her mother died when she was young, and she went to boarding school while her father did humanitarian work.  Her last communication with him was from Burma, advising her to get out of KL; and having heard reports about Japanese atrocities in Penang, she fears for his safety but her daily trips to the Post Office bring no news.

However, apart from the gentle kindness of her Quaker landlady Olive, there’s also the enigmatic presence of Robert, suffering from what we would now call PTSD as a consequence of his experiences as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War.  One Bright Morning is partly a love story, one that shows how people with a mental illness sometimes avoid relationships because they fear being a burden. But it also shows the joy of discovering someone who shares a love of books.  This couple is navigating contentment rather than a grand passion.

(It’s also a nice touch when Robert helps Big Dan to improve his reading skills to assuage his loneliness.  He marvels at War and Peace, wondering if Hitler had ever read it, because if he had, he might have had second thoughts about invading Russia.  Indeed.)

Like most (but not all) of the strong female characters in the novel, Zeny is self-supporting and independent, and she quickly gets herself a job reporting on ‘Women’s Issues’ at the local newspaper.  (Remember the ‘women’s pages’ in the press? Too many terrific women journalists were marooned there, few of them able to achieve even a byline, though the late Pamela Bone at The Age broke the mould.)  Notwithstanding, Zeny earns the grudging admiration of her editor, even when she writes articles that get censored by government.  Her role as a journalist in the novel allows her access to places and events not available to most other women so the issues raised by the pre-bombing inertia and the chaos in the aftermath are shown from a woman’s point-of-view.

The characterisation of the Quaker landlady and Robert as a non-combatant victim of war brings into focus the question of pacifism during a time of war.  The barbarism of their enemy is shown by the bombing of the clearly marked civilian hospital and the hospital ship and Zeny is surprised to feel the depths of her hatred for people who would commit such atrocities.  At the same time, the multiculturalism of Darwin challenges easy judgements: there is swift intervention when the visiting US military tries to discriminate against Darwinians of Japanese origin.  Without being heavy-handed about it, this is a novel which interrogates a number of complex philosophical issues.

Exactly the kind of novel that I like.

In the Acknowledgements, Wendy credits her sources, which include Peter Grose’s An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin which I reviewed back in 2009.

Author: Wendy Scarfe
Title: One Bright Morning
Cover design: Stacey Zass
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781743058947, pbk., 216 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2022

The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories, edited by Mary Lord

Having stumbled on this collection of 30 short stories in an OpShop, I decided to check the collection for authors listed in Bill’s list of Gen4 authors: women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Because what is really good about this collection under the editorship of Mary Lord is, as she says in the Introduction:

…not another arrangement of regularly anthologised evergreens, but a collection that introduces readers to less well-known but still first-rate stories by outstanding writers, and to the work of some others not so well known whose writing has been overlooked or neglected. (p.1)

So there are some interesting rarities in the Table of Contents, which I reproduce below in case anyone is searching for those that are less well-known.  But in terms of Bill’s list of AWW4 writers, disappointingly there were none who were new to me in the collection.  So for the purposes of this post, I just read authors he’d listed.  

I began with Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’ published in 1976.  The twist in the tail made me laugh, as Jolley’s wicked sense of humour so often does.  Narrated by an adolescent daughter, it’s about a humble family (fatherless, with no explanation as to why or how), whose mother makes a living by charring.  She likes to give the poor people from down her street a bit of pleasure, so when the owners are absent from their luxury apartments, she lets the poor neighbours in to have wedding receptions and parties in the penthouse.  

This does, of course, cause extra work for her, and it adds to her responsibility to keep an eye on her father’s derelict farm.  It was the kind of place where nothing grew except weeds but it couldn’t be sold because Grandpa was still alive in a Home for the Aged, and he wanted to keep the farm though he couldn’t do anything with it.  But the time comes when it can be sold, and Mother takes the children there to get it ready for sale.  The ne’er-do-well brother takes to farm life immediately.

It seemed there was nothing my brother couldn’t do.  Suddenly after doing nothing in his life he was driving the tractor and making fire breaks, he started to paint the sheds and he told Mother what fencing posts and wire to order. All these things had to be done before the sale could go through. I kept wishing we could live in the house, all at once it seemed lovely there at the top of the sunlit meadow. But I knew that however many acres you have they aren’t any use unless you have money too. I think we were all thinking this but no one said anything thought Mother kept looking at my brother and the change in him. (p.247)

Well, the sale goes through, but there is a happy ending for this family of battlers after all.  The irony of the title is a gendered joke in a story featuring a strong independent and wily woman.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find which of Jolley’s short story collections includes this title, so if anyone finds it, please let me know. 

Then I read ‘On the Train by Olga Masters, published in 1982.  This is a deeply disturbing story about two little girls, Sara and Lisa, on a train journey with their mother.  Elderly women passengers note that the children are peaky and underdressed and their mother ignores them entirely.  The women try to strike up a conversation, more out of curiosity than friendliness, but nobody answers.  Though the omniscient narrator reveals Sara’s anxieties, and it is clear that the little family is making an exit from rural poverty to the city, there is no explanation for the mother’s hostile demeanour until the last shocking line.  I believe that this story can also be found in Australian Short Stories (1991) edited by Carmel Bird, and it’s also in Olga Masters’ Collected Stories, UQP, 1996, reprinted 2001). 

Next up, Helen Garner and a strange little story called ‘The Dark, the Light’, published in 1985.  Narrated in the first person plural, the story traces the flurry of excitement about the return of an unnamed man who had moved on and left these friends behind.  They are astonished and then rueful and embarrassed by the changes that they discern. 

We thought we saw him getting into a taxi outside the Rialto, outside the Windsor, outside the Regent, outside the Wentworth, outside the Stock Exchange.  Was it him? What was he wearing? What did he have on? A tweed jacket, black shoes.  Even in summer? His idea of this town is cold.  He’s been away.  He’s lost the feel of it. He’s been in Europe.  He’s been in America. He’s been in the tropics.  He’s left.  He’s gone.  He doesn’t live here any more.  He’s only visiting.  He’s only passing through.  […]

We saw them in a club.  We saw her.  She was blond. They were both blond.  They were together.  They were dressed in white, in cream, in gold, in thousands of dollars’ worth of linen and leather.  They sat at a table with their backs to the wall. The wall was dark.  They were light.  Their hair and their garments shone.  They knew things we did not know, they owned things we had never heard of. They were from somewhere else.  They were not from here. (p.275) 

I’m not sure that the narrator is to be trusted when, with hopes of recognition dashed, she concludes that they turn and go away, humbly and without bitterness…

‘Caffe Veneto’ (1985) is not like other fiction that I’ve read by Beverley Farmer. This Water: Five tales had a mythic quality, but ‘Caffe Veneto’ is brutal realism: a sharp and inconclusive dialogue between a philandering father and his exasperated daughter.  I didn’t like it much; I prefer Farmer’s quiet, thoughtful reflections…

Janet Turner Hospital’s ‘After Long Absence’ (1986) is brilliant. An inversion of The Prodigal Son, it’s the story of a daughter’s discomfort on returning from America to her very religious parents’ home..  It begins well enough:

For years it has branched extravagantly in dreams, but the mango tree outside the kitchen window in Brisbane is even greener than the jubilant greens of memory.  I could almost imagine my mother has been out there with spit and polish, buffing up each leaf for my visit.  (p.303)

But her irritation soon surges as quixotically as the Brisbane River in flood as her mother ‘gives thanks’ because nothing has ever been secular in this house.  Her childhood memories of school are scalded by the time her teacher denounced her as a ‘killer’ in front of the class, and named her parents as religious fanatics because they refused permission for vaccination. (Oh, I do hope this isn’t happening to the unfortunate children of anti-vaxxers now.)  Even more embarrassing is being recognised by a heartthrob called Patrick Murphy when she is made to join the circle of the faithful outside the Commonwealth Bank while her father offers the peace that passeth understanding to all the lost.  

On this visit, her father manages to make a small concession to her beliefs, but she can’t reciprocate.  This story is  a powerful evocation of a gulf that can’t be breached when strong beliefs are in conflict. 

Marion Halligan is one of my favourite authors: I think I’ve been reading her novels ever since her debut with Self-Possession in 1987.  I particularly liked Spider Cup (1990) and Wishbone (1994) because she is so brilliant at detailing fine art aspects of her settings: fabrics, china, flowers and so on.  ‘Belladonna’ (1988) is about an English trompe l’œil artist who stumbles into one of Canberra’s less salubrious suburbs in a quest for work in the capital.  The irony is that a capital designed to be beautiful by the team of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion, is compromised by unfeeling public servants with a limited vision of what public housing can be.  It’s a poignant story, penned by someone who knew that poverty is not just about not having money. This story is also in a collection guest reviewed by Karenlee Thompson, The Hanged Man in the Garden (1989).

Last of all, a story by Amy Witting, from 1990.  As you can tell from the title, ‘Report on a Rejected MS’ is a story not wanted because the connection between the characters is too tenuous. ‘These unconnected characters live in a town on the western plain: Theo the Greek who runs the café; and the young teacher of French.  They share only a bad moment, a middling moment and a joke, but these moments take place while Paris is under Occupation, and later, on the day it is liberated. 

But there they stand, drinking their wine and snivelling discreetly because Paris is free, and what’s to be done with them?  They don’t make a news item, they don’t make a poem, they don’t make a story, so where do they go?  Into the wastepaper basket?  That’s one place they’ll both feel at home. (p.330)

Ouch, that puts Australian complacency in its place, doesn’t it?

The Penguin Best  Australian Short Stories Table of Contents:

Authors named in Bill’s list are in bold, and links are to any authors or short stories that are reviewed on this blog. Asterisked stories are those I’ve included in this post. 

Author Title of short story YoP
John George Lang (1816-64) The Ghost Upon the Rail 1859
Mary Fortune(‘Waif Wanderer’) (1833?-1910?) The Dead Witness; or The Bush Waterhole 1866
Marcus Clarke (1846-81) Pretty Dick 1873
Jessie Couvreur (‘Tasma’) (1848-97) Monsieur Caloche 1889
Edward Dyson (1865-1931) The Golden Shanty 1890
William Astley (‘Price Warung’) (1855-1911) Parson Ford’s Confessional 1892
John Arthur Barry (1850-1911) Far Inland Football 1893
Arthur Hoey Davis (‘Steele Rudd‘) (1868-1935) Dad and the Donovans 1889
Henry Lawson (1867-1922) Brighten’s Sister-in-Law 1901
Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) Billy Skywonkie 1902
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) The Curse 1932
Ethel Robertson (‘Henry Handel Richardson‘) (1870-1946 Conversation in a Pantry 1934
Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) The Lottery 1943
Patrick White (1912-90) Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover 1964
Hal Porter (1911-84) Party Forty-two and Mrs Brewer 1965
John Morrison (1904-98) The Children 1972
Christina Stead (1902-83) Street Idyll 1974
Michael Wilding (1942- ) The Words She Types 1975
Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007 ) A Gentleman’s Agreement* 1976
Peter Carey (1943- ) The Last Days of a Famous Mine 1979
Morris Lurie (1938-2014) Pride and Joy 1979
Olga Masters (1919-86) On the Train* 1982
Helen Garner (1942- ) The Dark, the Light* 1985
Beverley Farmer (1941-2018) Caffe Veneto* 1985
Frank Moorhouse (1938- ) Francois and the Fishbone Incident 1985
Tim Winton (1960- ) Neighbours 1985
Janette Turner Hospital (1942- ) After Long Absence* 1986
Marion Halligan (1940- ) Belladonna Gardens*  1988
Amy Witting (1918-2001) Report on a Rejected MS* 1990
Delia Falconer (1966- ) Acqua Alta 1997
Where authors have died since the book was published, I have added the year of their death.

Editor: Mary Lord
Title: The Best Australian Short Stories
Cover design by Guy Mirabella and Penguin Design Studio
Publisher: Penguin, 2000, updated an earlier edition from 1991.
ISBN: 9780140299694
Source: Personal Library, OpShopFind, $3.00 (still with its original $22 price tag on the back).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2022

Blood in the Rain, by Margaret Barbalet

When Bill from The Australian Legend posted his list of women writers that he’s badged as Gen4, amongst many familiar names, I recognised Margaret Barbalet (b-1949), but couldn’t quite place her.  A quick trip to Goodreads gave me the answer: Barbalet is the author of one of my favourite children’s books, Reggie Queen of the Street. Shortlisted for the 2004 CBCA Book of the Year, and with exquisite illustrations by Andrew McLean, it’s an empathetic parable about moving house and adapting to somewhere new. It was a story that I could relate to and so could so many of my students who had unsettled lives. (See a review here).

My Excel record of reading also revealed that twenty years ago I had read Barbalet’s last published novel, The Presence of Angels (2001).  It was meant to be the first novel in a trilogy but Penguin didn’t publish the follow-ups.  Alas, my thoughts about the novel are riddled with plot spoilers, so I won’t share them except to say that it’s about expatriates in Kuala Lumpur, and the fragility of their love lives.  That makes it sound banal, but it’s not. It’s about adaptation too, and the heartlessness of fate, and Barbalet’s observations resonate with the sights, sounds and smells of city life in a developing nation:

In the city that morning in the dark, the men woke from a sleep that hurt, to trudge towards the building site, from lean-tos and shanties, from old huts that projected out over the creeks, on the sides of the river that pushed down towards the city.  Haniff and Omar, still nourished by food eaten yesterday in Medan, came with the rest, pretending to feel at home with the strange new streets, pretending they had been born here too, praying that no one would ask, slipping in through the gates, not glancing at anything, to where the building cast its huge shadow up to the sky.  As they walked, others, twenty floors up, watched from their small square of space, their knowing place on the hugest of structures. Omar saw a man relieving himself in the grass, squatting so that only his knees and head were visible.  He looked away.  Was that how they would live? The boss, however, had not asked for their papers, or passports: they would live.

(The Presence of Angels, Penguin, 2001, pp.59-60)

I remember the shock of seeing house-builders in Indonesia, clambering perilously over flimsy structures, and working with none of the safety gear or procedures that protect builders from death or injury in Australia.  Without judgement, Barbalet’s novel shows us what it’s like to be in the underclass in places where life is cheap.

That skill in bringing time and place to life is there in Barbalet’s debut novel too, and so is her interest in the lives of the poor.  Blood in the Rain (1986) is an exquisite book, remarkable for the way it recreates the life of young Jessie in the early years of the 20th century as if the author had lived it herself.  Without the dramatic events that populate Ruth Park’s Depression-era trilogy Missus (1985); The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949), Blood in the Rain focusses on the interior lives of two children orphaned by neglect and abandonment.  Little Jessie and Stephen, the older brother she idolises, are separated by well-meaning relations with very different results.

Stephen is admitted into the newly bourgeois life of Mr James, who is unsurprised by the domestic calamity of his sister Clare’s marriage to the feckless Irishman Sheldon.  Neither James nor his daughter Miss Dorothy have any idea about raising children, but there was no doubt Stephen would require very careful handling. 

There was so much in him that had never been  checked, that had run into tangle, into extravagant leaf; dirty thoughts, bad impulses, tempers, tears, insolence, no doubt a passionate desire for his own way.  He had succeed with Dorothy.  All the little crises had been met; she had learnt to obey, to accept, to listen. (p.35)

The nagging about table manners begins on the first day and never stops.

He sat at the table trying to eat his lunch. The voice went on and on.  He wondered how she found time to eat.  This voice never stopped.
‘Elbows off the table.’
‘Cut that: don’t put all that in your mouth at once.’
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full.’
He had been about to ask for some more bread but stopped.
‘Don’t clank.’
‘Don’t hold your knife like that.’
‘There’s no need to gobble.’
‘Elbows at your side when you eat.’
‘Don’t speak with your mouth full.’
He sat back and looked at her dancing knife and fork.
‘Elbows off the table.’
‘Sit up straight.’
‘Please may I: that’s the way to ask. (p.37)

This barrage of middle-class rules contrasts with the rough-and-tumble of family life that Jessie lands in.  Life with the Whaites is more perilous.  While Mr James has risen from clerk to manager, Mr Whaite stumbles from job to job and there’s never much money to spare.  But the welcome is sincere, and motherly:

Jessie followed Mrs Whaite through the front gate.  It dragged on the ground. A face was staring at her through the front window.

‘What a journey we’ve had, Bertha!’ She held out her hand to Jessie. ‘And this is our new little girl.  Shy I’m afraid but I’m sure we know the remedy for that.’

Suddenly a pair of large arms encircled Jessie.  Her face was dusted with kisses.  Then just as suddenly she was free again as though nothing had happened.  Bertha looked at her beaming. (p.49)

From the bleak environment of a loveless home, Jessie settles into life with siblings Bessie, Frank, and little Albert and eventually there is school.  Although she never stops missing Stephen and craves contact with him, she begins to feel secure.  But fate intervenes (as it did in The Presence of Angels) when Mr Whaite goes away to war and doesn’t return.  Devastated by grief, Mrs Whaite can’t afford the extra child, and Jessie is sent to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to Stephen’s guardian Mr James.  The realisation that she was someone who could be offloaded like this is a cruel moment in the child’s life.  The image of Jessie put to bed in a strange new bedroom with cold white sheets, brings to mind all the lost and lonely little kids who don’t have a secure home:

If this were the Whaite house someone would have heard, she thought, heard her crying and come to comfort her.  But although she had opened the door when she went across to turn off the light, she knew that no one would hear.

There was a dim light on further down the hall and it made her doorway into a square stage of light, a barrier between darkness and light.

No one else would be left like this.  Not Bessie, not Frank, not Albert.  And then she had begun to cry.  Bessie would be lying asleep. Bessie would be able to hear the sounds of the trains as she herself had done only last night.

But you, you, were someone who could be left.

You were someone that even a motherly person might be able to turn away from. That made the tears tear and flood out of her throat.  Everytime she thought perhaps they would stop, she would think that Mrs Whaite had gone away from her.  And then the tears would start again and again, each one bringing back the pain as though she had not thought of it ever before in her whole life, as if she felt it for the first time. You were someone who could be left. (p.81-82)

Not since I read Alva’s Boy by Alan Collins have I been so moved by the plight of an abandoned child.

At fifteen, Jessie develops strategies to strengthen a resilience hard won.  In domestic service at one place after another, Jessie still craves contact with her brother.  Stephen is now maimed by the war that lasted long enough for him to enlist underage and he has to negotiate the Depression with a constant search for work in places far away.

There were no choices on this walk.  It was the way she always took when she had to feel at home with the narrowness of things.  (p.145)

Still very young, she finds love, and loses it, and as Stephen’s cavalier absence from his young family lengthens, she comes to the conclusion that everyone betrays you in the end.  The vista looks bleak:

The open door showed her the bare space of the yard, the dust and curls of peach leaves, that short space, never enough room for the children to play or the washing to dry, all that they owned, all the space they had in the city of the poor. (p.172)

It sounds melancholy, but Jessie is undefeated.  The scent of flowers, which are a motif throughout the novel, brings back that love which she had thought was dead.

It would not die, that feeling.  I might deny it, she thought, control it, or skirt round it, but something ordinary, something so simple it would never fail, it would disappear only to flower again next year.  (p.202)

Jessie is still not twenty by the end of the novel, and the final pages offer a kind of triumph.  I would love there to have been a sequel to this novel!

Author: Margaret Barbalet
Title: Blood in the Rain
Cover illustration and design by Kim Roberts
Publisher: Penguin, 1986
ISBN: 0140089446, pbk, 204 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Dromana Books $7.00



Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2022

The Experts, by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)

Forgive this scanty offering, but I would really like to share this Story of the Week from the Library of America because it shows so clearly the responsibility of educators to be careful with the resources they use.

The Old Plantation c1780 artist unknown (Wikipedia Commons)

At the Story of the Week website, they have captioned this picture with this information:

Virginia: History, Government, Geography, the statewide history textbook for middle schools from 1957 to 1970, reprinted this piece of folk art with the caption, “When the day’s work was over, the plantation Negroes enjoyed themselves.” The accompanying text read, “The amusements of the adult slaves were very much like the amusements of the masters. The white people danced to the music of fiddles in ballrooms lighted by many candles. And the Negroes in the nearby slave quarters danced by the light of pine flares to the twang of the banjoes.”

They go on to reveal an alarming trend in the US:

A few years ago, [2018] the historians Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle wrote in The New York Times about a disconcerting resurgence among prominent Americans of the belief that slavery was a largely benign institution, one of bonhomie between plantation owners and the people they enslaved. This “romanticized interpretation of slavery [is] indebted to a book published 100 years ago,” the authors point out. “In the spring of 1918, the historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published his seminal study, American Negro Slavery, which framed the institution as a benevolent labour agreement between indulgent masters and happy slaves. No other book, no monument, no movie—save, perhaps, for Gone with the Wind, itself beholden to Phillips’s work—has been more influential in shaping how many Americans have viewed slavery.”

When it first appeared, Phillips’s book was widely praised by white historians and critics, but it was excoriated by African American scholars—chief among them W.E.B. Du Bois, who pulled few punches in a review published by the genteelly academic American Political Science Review…

The use of that history textbook promoting racist ‘research’ dating from 1918 and persisting into the 1970s, means that men and women now in their 60s and 70s have not only been taught this racist history but may also have passed it on to their children and grandchildren.

Read the entire article at the Story of the Week website (where you can also subscribe).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2022

Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim

Beasts of a Little Land is the debut novel of Korean-American author Juhea Kim, and the first historical novel set in Korea that I’ve read.   Set in the first half of the 20th century during the decades of Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), the saga begins with a striking prologue in 1917.  A starving hunter saves the life of a Japanese officer when a tiger attacks, in a setting remote from the contemporary images of South Korea that we see on TV.

The sky was white and the earth was black, like at the beginning of time before the first sunrise.  Clouds left their realm and descended so low that they seemed to touch the ground.  Giant pines loomed in and out of the ether.  Nothing stirred or made a sound.

Hardly distinguishable in this obscure world, a speck of a man was walking alone.  A hunter.  Crouching over a raw paw print, still soft and almost warm, he sniffed in the direction of his prey.  The sharp smell of snow filled his lungs, and he smiled.  Soon, a light dusting would make it easier for him to track the animal—a large leopard, he guessed from the size of the print. (p.1)

Nam KyungSoo had set out hoping to catch a rabbit, but the skin of a big cat can be sold to the occupying Japanese for enough money to feed his family for a year.  And as you can guess from the bookcover art, his prey is not a leopard, it’s a tiger, which is a motif throughout the novel.

The brutality of the Japanese and their contempt for their Korean subjects is vividly illustrated by the way Major Hayashi arbitrarily shoots their guide Baek in the back once they have KyungSoo to guide them instead.  He would have shot KyungSoo too if not for the intervention of Captain Yamada—every bit as brutal as Hayashi but with a stronger (albeit warped) code of honour.

“…I have no love of filthy Josenjings, and have no doubt that I have killed enough of them on the field.  But if you harm this man, you would be owing him a debt of life, and nothing is more dishonourable than owing something to an inferior.” (p.20)

The story proper begins in 1918 when the child Jade is sold to the courtesan Silver as an apprentice in Pyongyang.  Unknown to her Japanese clients, Silver is supporting underground resistance, and when she learns that Baek, who was actually guiding the Japanese into an ambush, was buried by KyungSoo, she sends him a ring.  This ring is inherited by his son Jung-ho, along with the cigarette case that Yamada gave to his father.  These items turn out to be significant in the story too.

The narrative covers the lifetime of Jade, and the two men who mean most to her: Jung-ho and HanChol, both of whom come to Seoul to make their fortune.  HanChol is a rickshaw driver aiming for university qualifications, and Jung-ho is the leader of a gang of beggars-turned-standover men.  Although the Occupation and the Resistance is a strand that runs through the novel, it is more about the constrained relationships that were a feature of a stratified society.  Courtesans are wealthy and they have a certain status, but they are washed up by their thirties and need to aim either for a strategic marriage as a second (inferior) wife, or a career as a singer or dancer, stashing away as much money as they can while they are still a commodity.  No respectable family will allow a marriage to a courtesan… and as one of the courtesans finds out, it’s a misjudgement to think that her status makes her untouchable.

Other women represent these limited options.  As a very young girl, one of Jade’s fellow apprentices is brutally raped by the Japanese in Pyongyang, necessitating her removal to Seoul.  Jade goes with Lotus and Luna, where their new teacher is the courtesan Dani.  Lotus and Jade both forge careers in the emerging film industry, but Jade fails to make the transition to the ‘talkies’.  However, even their clothing labels them.

As they kept whispering to each other and smiling I noticed that they were both wearing their hair in the braided updo of married women. But based on their gold-embroidered blouses and skirts and white powder and rouge I put two and two together and figured out that she’d become a courtesan.  It immediately led to a sort of sinking feeling which I brushed aside. (p.157)

Likewise, HanChol and Jung-ho are always constrained by their low-class origins in a world where family and social connections determine success.

Over the course of the story, the narration shifts from third person to first person, featuring both Jade and Jung-ho (who gives a vivid picture of street life).  This is not a romanticised historical novel, not at all.

Occasionally overwritten, and at almost 400 pages a little long for itself, Beasts of a Little Land nevertheless offers a glimpse of Korea’s colonial history and goes some way towards explaining contemporary hostility between South Korea and Japan.

Author: Juhea Kim
Title: Beasts of a Little Land
Publisher:  One World, 2022
ISBN: 9780861543236, pbk, 403 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 16, 2022

Orpheus Lost, by Janet Turner Hospital

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

The catalyst for retrieving this review at this time is that Sue at Whispering Gums has just posted a review of ‘The Insiders’, a short story by Janet Turner Hospital. I have two unpublished reviews of JTH’s novels, Due Preparations for the Plague (2003) and Orpheus Lost (2007) but though I liked them both, I’ve chosen this one because it made such a strong impression on me.

Only a year after Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist, came Orpheus Lost by Janet Turner Hospital, and though JTH’s is an infinitely better novel, it’s no coincidence that these two authors were writing about issues arising from Western governments’ responses to 9/11.  By the middle of that decade there was deep disquiet around the world about the human rights of those suspected of terrorism. The legitimate fear of mass casualties from Al Qaeda’s attacks had led to practices previously abhorred by the West: torture, detention without trial, the abrogation of habeas corpus; imprisonment under inhumane conditions; an excess of covert surveillance; and the suspension of legal representation for suspects on the grounds of national security.  Public panic was exploited by politicians, effectively silencing all objections.  Authors who spoke out against all this were rare.

This is the blurb for Orpheus Lost:

Leela is a mathematician who has escaped her Southern hometown to study in Boston. She meets an Australian musician, Mishka, and from the moment she first hears him play his music grips her; they quickly become lovers. Then one day Leela is picked up off the street and taken to an interrogation centre somewhere outside the city. There has been an explosion in the subway; terrorism is suspected. The interrogator—an old childhood friend—now reveals to her that Mishka may not be all he seems. In this compelling reimagining of the Orpheus story, Leela travels into an underworld of kidnapping, torture, and despair in search of her lover. Janette Turner Hospital, whose works are “richly imbued with a highly lyrical and luminous quality” (San Diego Union-Tribune) again shows her genius, interweaving a literary thriller with a story of passion and the triumph of decency in confusing and dangerous times.

Orpheus Lost, by Janet Turner Hospital, first published 2007

From my reading journal, dated 22nd July, 2007

This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love.

But Mishka goes to a mosque (to hear their music) and meets a man who says he recognises him as the son of a radical Islamist.  This is the catalyst for Mishka, who has never known his father, and whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors, to set off for Baghdad with a false passport.  This is because his identity is fragile and he thinks that finding his missing father will help him to resolve who he really is. He realises that he may not like his father or what he stands for (especially because as a fundamentalist, his father would abhor music), but Mishka feels that he needs to know.

Into this messy situation comes Cobb Slaughter, a childhood ‘friend’ of Leela, the son of a veteran of the Iraq war, and a private security consultant.  He’s a gung-ho military man with a penchant for summary justice and torture.  Slaughter becomes suspicious of these visits to the mosque and Mishka’s association with suspected terrorists.  When Mishka disappears, he gets Leela arrested and has Mishka ‘renditioned’, a practice by which the Americans send their suspects to friendly nations who are less squeamish about torture, to do their dirty work for them.

It was a bit grim reading these scenes so soon after watching the violence inflicted on the Resistance by the Nazis in the film ‘Black Book’ [released in 2006, see the trailer here.] JTH writes fragments of text from different times and places interspersed with Misha’s memories and fears and real-time torture in the underground cells formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein. It is disorientating — and very effective at conveying poor Mishka’s confusion and agony at the hands of the guardians of the War on Terror.


JTH is too good a novelist to portray Cobb Slaughter as an unequivocal villain.  He is a crazy mixed-up man who has fruitlessly fancied Leela since they were young together in Promised Land.  His motivation for pursuing Mishka to Baghdad is never quite clear.  Perhaps it’s to exercise his power of life and death; perhaps it’s a realisation that he can never be a man that Leela could love.

The scary themes in this novel include the willingness of the spooks to interpret naïve actions as suspicious, and once tainted by such suspicions, the innocent find it almost impossible to convince the authorities otherwise, as Dr Muhamed Haneef found to his cost when he was accused by Australian authorities of aiding terrorists. It’s also alarming to note the capacity of the authorities to have a difficult person ‘disappear’ and to have other embassies willing to acquiesce in it.  Orpheus Lost shows the cheapness of life and the helplessness of ordinary people caught up in this kind of incident, to deal with it in an effective way.  Justice ought not to depend on having an intercessor both determined and lucky.

Orpheus Lost inverts the Orpheus myth so that it is the man who is captive in the Underworld and his lover brings him back to life.  The relationship between Mishka, Leela and Slaughter is more central to the narrative than the plot, and the dreamlike fragments of thought and memory focus on feelings rather than events (which can cause some confusion for readers.)  But Mishka’s experiences mean that his life can never be the same.  He is a broken man unlikely ever to make music again. There is no banal happy ending after what’s happened. It’s not just Orpheus who is lost, it’s also the values that we purport to hold dear.

As Sue noted in her review, JTH is interested in how human beings negotiate dark matter.  That is a question relevant to my current reading of the Holocaust memoir ‘Take the Child and Disappear’  by Nina Basset.  The child in the photo on the front cover is alive today because one man, for reasons the author will never know, chose to negotiate dark matter in a way different to everyone else around him.  It’s a question that haunts us all.

Author: Janet Turner Hospital
Title: Orpheus Lost
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2007
ISBN: 9780732284411 pbk., 358 pages
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2022

The Visit, by Amy Witting

According to Wikipedia , the writing career of Amy Witting, A.M. (1918-2001) always had to be subordinate to earning her living as a teacher of English and French.  So although Thea Astley’s encouragement led to publication of a short story in The New Yorker in 1965, and Witting had poetry published in Quadrant, her first novel, The Visit, wasn’t published until 1977 when she had retired, and was almost sixty.

The novel was published (with a dreadfully dreary cover) by the inimitable Beatrice Davis, by then at Thomas Nelson rather than at Angus & Robertson where she had made her name.  (Davis went on to reject I for Isobel (see my review) and so did McPhee Gribble, which just goes to show that even the best of editors can get it wrong. Because I for Isobel went on to be a bestseller when it was finally published by Penguin in 1990.  It won the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Barbara Ramsden Award; and it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.  More recognition came in 1993 when Witting won the Patrick White Award, and she went on to publish A Change in the Lighting (1994); Maria’s War (1998), and Isobel on her way to the Corner Shop’ (2000).  (This sequel to I for Isobel was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award 2000, and won The Age Book of the Year Award in the same year.)  After Cynthia was published posthumously in 2001.  Any Witting is one of a small stable of wonderful Australian women writers whose literary fiction was not just a critical success but also much loved by her readership.

Set in the fictional town of Bangoree, (which may have been a disguised version of the NSW town of Kemspey*), The Visit introduces two character types who emerge in Witting’s other novels: Barbara is the introverted, insecure character who is the victim, and her mother-in-law Belle Dutton is the brutal bullying mother figure.  Old Mrs Dutton thinks she has just come for a visit, but in fact her other daughter-in-law Ivy has absconded after years of enduring her.  She’s refusing to come home to her husband Lionel if Mrs Dutton is there, so now it’s the hapless Barbara’s turn.  The cast of characters also includes Barbara’s friend Naomi, the town librarian and a single mother; Cathy, a young teacher yearning for but not ready for a long-term relationship; Peter, an adolescent boy wondering if a relationship with his long-absent father would help him in his search for identity; Phil Truebody whose career as a doctor has been sabotaged by his embarrassingly alcoholic wife; and Brian, a teacher who fancies himself as a great actor, but isn’t. 

The Visit is a work of theatre-fiction.  These characters enliven the cultural life of the town with play readings, but when Beckett’s Endgame is chosen, they decide (with some heavy-handed insistence from Brian) to stage the play because it’s on the sixth-form reading list.  The summary at Wikipedia explains the significance of this play to the novel’s plot:

Briefly, it is about a blind, paralysed man and his servant who await an unspecified “end” which seems to be the end of their relationship, death, and the end of the actual play itself.

Barbara, the town beauty who knows how useless beauty is, is paralysed into indecision and victimhood by the mother-in-law from hell.  Mrs Dutton knows exactly what buttons to push.  Barbara’s solace is Naomi, single mother to Peter, with issues of her own.  This excerpt is a splendid example of Witting’s subtle mastery of multiple meanings:

When [Lionel] asked Robert to take her, what could we say? They’ve had her ever since we were married, eight years.  It’s our turn.’ She winced with reluctant pity for the old woman.  ‘She keeps telling me what a wonderful housekeeper Ivy is, what a marvellous cook.  Et cetera. Everything shines in Ivy’s house, floors, windows, silver….’

‘Ivy uses Wondo, the friend of every housewife.’ Naomi’s voice was sprightly with resentment.

‘That’s right.’ Barbara drooped in comic dismay.  ‘Oh, Lord!’ She has this sweet little laugh, and she looks around her and says, ‘Oh, my poor house.’

Looking round at Naomi’s big, unclassified room: sink, stove, refrigerator, dining-table and chairs, books, posters, calico curtains dyed patchy russet, she reproduced the expression of gentle despair, the little laugh like a shattered sigh, with such accuracy that Naomi was forced to laugh briefly.

‘That’s all very well.  Laughing gets us nowhere.  Have you told her it isn’t her house?’

‘Oh, yes.  Pulled myself together, drew myself up, and told her it was in my name as well as Robert’s and I’d gone back to work to pay off the bank loan.’

‘What did she say to that?’

Barbara reproduced a tranquil and reserved expression which indicated that the wearer would not stoop to such nonsense.  Its tranquillity was suddenly distorted by misery.

‘I didn’t mind that.  I don’t mind that nothing suits her and she’s always picking about my housekeeping.  But this morning she said — she paused to get control of her working mouth — she said, “When I was your age, I had two children.” ‘ Tears rolled down Barbara’s face again as she cried, ‘Why can’t I have children? Why can’t I? It’s so unfair.  It’s so bloody unfair.’ (p.7)

Reading this I was reminded of a brief time in a past life when I was subjected to the same kind of brutally perceptive bullying.  It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but the perpetrator is long gone and so are those who would know who I am talking about.  I had no Naomi to vent to… it was months before I wept in the kitchen of a kindly relative who told me it was jealousy.  But it didn’t feel like jealousy.  It felt like cold, malevolent hatred that had correctly identified all my manifold insecurities for harvest into a daily dose of silkily unobtrusive spite.  It was long, long ago and I’d forgotten how awful it was until I read Barbara’s torment at the hands of this nasty old woman.

But the nasty old woman is not quite who she seems. Naomi is the town’s librarian, and architect of a mystery that runs parallel with the difficulties of the play and the personalities of the performers.  There is a poet of some note who made a visit to Bangoree many years ago and immortalised its river in his verse.  A would-be biographer who liaises with Naomi wants to visit the town to winkle out the identity of a mystery woman, and it turns out that Fitzallen the poet had actually stayed in the house where Barbara lives.  Which was once Belle Dutton’s house, but she denies ever having met him.

The multiple visits of this novel all have more significance than expected.  Peter wants to visit his estranged father; the biographer wants to visit the formative experiences of his subject. A visit to the police cells turns out to be a catalyst for change; Brian’s visit to Bonnie turns out to liberate Cathy from a fantasy of love and marriage.

One visit ends up in sex based on pity, reminding me that Endgame is in part a play about pity:

HAMM: [..] Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe. (Pause). Yes, one day, you’ll know what it is, you’ll be like me, except that you won’t have anyone with you, because you won’t have had pity on anyone and because there won’t be anyone left to have pity on. (Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, Faber & Faber, 1964 p.28)

(Yes, that is my dog-eared copy of Endgame, purchased, I see, for $2.00 from the MUP Bookroom for my English major.  And no, I could not resist re-reading it, cover to cover, enjoying resonances in the novel especially in the way that Witting’s characters are cast into their roles in the play.)

One of my favourite lines in the novel is when Peter has an epiphany, one that only a teacher of adolescent boys might have discerned:

It was at that moment that the phrase ‘friends and fellow humans’ came alive for him, warmed him and involved him.  He didn’t know why, but he knew he could never look at girls again as mysterious and beautiful animals to be captured. (p.166)

Amy Witting, date unknown

(Again according to Wikipedia), Witting’s real name was Joan Austral Levick but she always wrote under a pseudonym.  She chose the name, Amy Witting, because of a promise she made to herself to ‘never give up on consciousness’, not be unwitting, but to always remain ‘witting’.

Most of the photos that we see of Amy Witting show her late in life, so I was delighted to find this photo on an Italian website*.  Since my view of her as an author had been shaped by my reading of I for Isobel and the experiences that created it, I like to think of her enjoying the moment!

Image credit:

*The only reference to Kempsey as an inspiration for Bangoree, that I found was at a bookseller’s site.  Has anybody written a bio of Amy Witting?

Author: Amy Witting 1918-2001
Title: The Visit
Publisher: Mandarin Australia, a division of the Octopus Publishing Group*, 1991, first published by Thomas Nelson, 1977
Cover design and illustration: Jarrett Skinner
ISBN: 1863300708 / 9781863399704
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind


Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2022

Leaving Owl Creek, by Sandy Gordon

From the parched and dusty 19th century goldfields of WA, to a shepherd’s hut in the badlands of 21st century Afghanistan — my reading takes me to all kinds of interesting places!

Drawing on a wealth of experience after a career in Australian security and intelligence, Sandy Gordon has made an impressive transition from writing academic texts to crafting his first novel.  Leaving Owl Creek is a portrait of changes during mid-20th century Australian society, but the novel captures the reader’s attention immediately with the surreptitious diary of Nicholas MacLean, captive of the Mujahedeen.  Over a tense game of chess, he is trying to bargain for his life with a nostalgic religious zealot:

‘Angrezi, my friend,’ he said, bored with the game, ‘why not take the shahada and then you can be one with us—a true friend. My village, it was so beautiful.  I still remember it like it was yesterday.  People had such dignity.  Widows were looked after.  Orphans protected.  Children obeyed their parents.  We had dignity even though we had nothing, nothing.  None of this intoxication, music, women flaunting themselves.’

He blew a thin stream of smoke, his one indulgence.

‘The old imam, he was a simple man, but a true man of God.  I still remember the first time I attended the little mosque with my father.  Such pride.  All is gone.  Gone when you invaded.  You Westerners.  You are so naïve, thinking you can conquer God with all your technology.’

The entries in this diary punctuate the novel, which moves backwards and forwards in time from Nick’s childhood on a property called Owl Creek, to his conflicted adulthood.  The diary reveals that Nick’s captor is an educated man who has enjoyed, and then rejected the values of the West.  While the captive understands that he is a pawn just like the ones on the chessboard, Nick hopes that shared humanity will rescue him.  But since he is ‘off the radar’ for reasons that are eventually revealed, he does not hope for rescue from the West.

Nick’s predicament is a remarkable contrast with the life of privilege into which he was born.  The narrative shifts to his childhood, when he was heir to Owl Creek in outback New South Wales.  His sister Lilly and friend Richard Connolly form a trio in an era when children were free to roam.  But it’s not an indivisible trio: sectarian, class and gender differences impact on their lives even in childhood. Lilly’s ambitions are compromised by her gender; Dick even as a child does not want to be the next generation of Connollys who’ve always worked for the MacLeans; and Nick wants to follow his creative ambitions, not his father’s expectation that he will take over the property in due course.  They become adults in the Sixties, when the Vietnam War ruptured Australian consensus and estranged families; when feminism rewrote the rules of female behaviour; when the divisiveness of sectarianism waned; and when new educational opportunities bridged the chasm between privilege and disadvantage. The author also captures the era of counter cultures encompassing sexual liberation and substance abuse, along with left-wing intellectual subcultures.  Nick joins the libertarian Sydney Push, much to the disapproval of his family, but that’s not all that he does to earn disdain. (Some readers may remember Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push, (2009) by Richard Appleton, which described some aspects of the Push, see my review.)

Like the best books that chart these tectonic changes, Leaving Owl Creek shows without judgment what Australia used to be without triumphalism about the present. Because the post 9/11 present is shown to be murky in ways that draw on the author’s expertise.  Western cultural and economic power is challenged by fundamentalist Islam, and Nick, shackled in the hut, represents the way both sides have their geopolitical ambitions tested by ambivalent concerns about individuals.  Without being heavy-handed about it, the novel interrogates what is meant by honour and truth.  For Nick’s father, honour is about duty.  It led him and others of his generation to the horrors of WW2, and it means persisting on a drought-affected farm that was never really viable because a man’s duty is to work for his family.  It’s Nick’s refusal to participate in the Vietnam War that is the catalyst for an irrevocable breach with his parents, but the philosophical and political divide between them is wider than that.  Rick, OTOH, confronts the pragmatics of power and the betrayals it confers: should he maintain his commitment to un-electable left-wing Catholicism or ‘enter the Protestant tent’ where the power lies and work from within?

Of all the interesting aspects to this narrative, Lilly’s fate is the one that is most ambiguous.  She transcends the expectations into which she is born, and she is a survivor, but at what cost?  She compromises her integrity and risks her profession for love, but like many women of her generation she doesn’t ‘have it all’.  She holds onto the farm, but the question of its viability for the next generation represented by Olivia, remains, as does the moral authority of its prior ownership.

The novel also interrogates the legacy of this generation, and what is meant by truth.  Highly recommended!

Publication day is February 19th, but you can pre-order with a $5 discount from the publisher’s website.

You can also listen to an interview with the author here.

Author: Sandy Gordon
Title: Leaving Owl Creek
Cover design by Mountain Brown Press and Haddie Davies
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2022
ISBN: 9780994516565, pbk., 338 pages
Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s tenth novel The Roaring Nineties is my first book for 2022, and what an interesting novel it turned out to be!  My first edition ex-Library copy has an interesting history of its own.  Mr and Mrs GJ Pearce of Maitland immortalised their ownership in careful copperplate on the flyleaf but there is also a Maitland Institute Library stamp, accession no. A5012 and a pencil note that it cost 11 shillings and sixpence.  This took me down an intriguing research rabbit-hole where I learned that The Maitland Institute, established in 1859, was one of hundreds of Mechanics Institutes set up to offer adult education to working-class men in Australia.

KSP (1893-1969) with her socialist leanings would have been pleased to know that this, her most important novel, was being read in such a milieu.  However, as I learned from a paper published by the Maitland Historical Society (with photos), by mid-20th century the public library movement had gained enough momentum for new public library legislation to be passed in all Australian states.  The NSW Public Library Act was passed in 1944 and in the ensuing decade, institute collections were taken over by the new public libraries.  If only Mr and Mrs GJ Pearce had noted their date of acquisition we could know whether KSP’s masterpiece survived the initial weeding process and the tensions of the Cold War, or was culled later.

Nathan Hobby, whose bio The Red Witch is due for release soon from Miegunyah Press, tells us that KSP …

… spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). (See Gold Fever: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties at Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth.)

But — much as I liked the novel — I am not surprised by that mixed reception, for two reasons:

Firstly. a reminder from Jean François Vernay, who, in A Brief Take of the Australian Novel, notes that KSP was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1932, and then groups her work into three categories:

  • Iconoclastic novels containing risky heretical topics: (lustful desire (Working Bullocks, 1926); desire for an Indigenous partner (Coonardoo, 1929, see my review); and female eroticism (Intimate Strangers, 1937);
  • Neo-nationalist novels in the romantic tradition and concerned with the wealth that the continent had to offer its settler and indigenous populations: The Pioneers (1915, see my review); Black Opal (1921, see my review) and Moon of Desire (1941);
  • Politically inspired novels [which] can be read as a diatribe against corrupt capitalism: her trilogy about the mining industry in WA: The Roaring Nineties (1946); Golden Miles (1948) and Winged Seeds (1950).

I don’t agree that The Roaring Nineties is a ‘diatribe‘.  It is forceful, but it’s neither bitter nor abusive, and it’s neither ironic nor satirical. It’s Australian realism, and it’s deeply humane. Acknowledging the disastrous impact of European settlement on the Indigenous people of the Goldfields, the novel shows the strengths and the weaknesses of individuals pioneering not just chaotic economic development but also an informal system of governance that was doomed to fail.  Because even in the 1890s, parts of any economy were global and the market for minerals in particular depended on foreign capital. Even so, I can see that some readers, especially those who don’t like any kind of politics in their reading, might have been turned off by KSP’s agenda.

I would have found it boring too, except for KSP’s gift for characterisation.

Which brings me to a possible second cause of the ‘mixed reception’: the novel is framed around KSP’s research which included listening to the reminiscences of two old-timers who in the novel KSP calls Dinny Quin and Sally Gough.  This is what gives the tale its authenticity, but it also means that the reader has to press on past a lot of Dinny’s yarning about the early days of the WA Goldfields.  Seven chapters of this starts to wear a bit thin before the story livens up with the arrival of three women on the goldfields.  And then it’s really interesting and had me captivated to the end, but I can see that some readers might abandon it prematurely.

The three arrivals are the attractive but shallow young bride Laura, who is the long term love of successful prospector Alf Brierly’s life.  She enjoys a rise in social status when Alf becomes a mine manager, and becomes a petty snob who never understands how precarious Alf’s position becomes when qualified engineers from overseas begin to replace experienced men who learned on the job. She reminded me of Rosamund Vincy in George Eliot’s Middlemarchanother vain and shallow woman who thwarted her husband’s efforts to rise in society while retaining the values of his origins.

Marie is the French wife of Jean Robillard and goes to work like a man beside him.  Marie does not aspire to bourgeois respectability, and there is a wonderful scene where, entranced by the song of a French prostitute and overcome with emotion at hearing her native language, she leads her friends into a bawdy house to listen to it.  She explains that the French have a different view of prostitution, which she says, keeps the family together. But *chuckle* the women do not tell their husbands where they’ve been, and there are some droll scenes when this ‘discretion’ is almost exposed.

Then there is the central protagonist Sally Gough, the Australian-born wife of the Hon Morris Fitz-Morris Gough who came out from England to make his fortune, and didn’t.  A perennial failure as a husband, father and provider, he comes from a titled family and the relationship between Sally and Morry is about class and its expectations. Despite roughing it on the fields, he still retains ideas about what his wife should do.  He objected to her supporting him with her boarding-house when he lost all their money in a failed mine investment, and — having abandoned her for two years while he went prospecting — objects again when she finally turns up in Coolgardie and when he’s not there to meet her, earns herself a job with Mrs Fogarty who runs the pub.

Women — too often absent from The Grand Pioneer Australian Narrative — are shown in The Roaring Nineties to have initiative, courage, a readiness to adapt and a determination to achieve economic independence, especially Sally.  She recognises Morry’s flaws and that the great romance and elopement is fading, and she is going to get by on her own, with or without him.  Her efforts are compromised by pregnancies that result from sporadic reunions with her husband, and she succumbs to the filthy conditions with a bout of typhoid fever, but the role she has played in feeding and occasionally nursing single male prospectors means that the diggers’ code of honour protects her and enables her to get back on her feet.  I’ve been to Kalgoorlie where on an historical tour I learned a lot about the number of brothels, but I never heard a word about the women who cooked and fed the miners with nourishing meals that improved the health of the township and provided an alternative to pub meals which led to alcohol abuse.

Sam Mullet and Eli thought the dining-room was a good scheme.  They promised to round up the boys to have meals at Mrs Gough’s, and offered to help getting the bough-shed ready for customers.  They fixed up a trestle and forms, put a sheet of corrugated iron round the open fireplace, and built a table from butter boxes, on which Sally could prepare and serve meals.  (p.205)

It is in this rudimentary Café de Bush that Sally — outdoors in all extremes of weather — cooks and does the washing up in kerosene tins, for 20-30 men, breakfast and dinner, every day.

The other feature of a contemporary visit to Kalgoorlie is that en route to Perth, the traveller sees the the longest fresh-water pipeline in the world running along beside the road all the way.  It’s 566 kilometres long, and it’s the source of a water supply that did not exist at the time of KSP’s novel.  The Roaring Nineties is prefaced by a grotesque incident in which prospectors force a Wongi woman to reveal a water source by tying her up and feeding her salty meat. Her desperation for water breaks her determination to protect the water source for the rest of the Wangkatha people, and it symbolises the way that their survival was at risk from the moment that gold was found. Through the character of Kalgoorla, KSP shows how the Wangkatha came into town because they were starving, and Sally acknowledges to herself that Kalgoorla only helps in the kitchen because it is a way to get help for her people.  And while wealthy Laura retreats to Perth for the birth of her first child, Sally has her first baby with the help of ‘rough diamond’ Mrs Molloy and Kalgoorla, who also enables Sally’s return to work by caring for the infant.

But KSP also shows the impact of the desperate shortage of water on the intruders.  Uncontrolled numbers of people venturing into uncharted desert territory often had fatal results, and Morris almost dies of it.  There were also frequent outbreaks of typhoid fever due to the unhygienic conditions under which people lived and worked.

Wild Cassia (WA Dept of Primary Industries)

KSP’s conversations with those old-timers show in the numerous small details that grace this novel.  Teenager Paddy Cavan brings Sally a bunch of wild Cassia with tiny flowers, like golden boronia, which you could smell for miles along the dry creek beds where it grew.  And after a cyclone destroys Sally’s Café de Bush, Dinny finances Morris to set up a new boarding house and helps dig the foundations for it, binding the posts with galvanized iron bandages to protect them from the ravages of white ants.  

KSP’s grasp of the big picture changes in the economy and society is impressive. The signs of permanence in the town emerge: a school is built and the railway comes, bringing social division with it as selective invitations are issued to the well-to-do, in contrast to previous celebrations where everyone was welcome.  Alf Brierly builds a proper house for Laura not only in contrast with Sally’s primitive accommodation but also to show the way gold-fever made people abandon long-held social values such as concern for their families.  Sally concludes ruefully that the motivation for Morry’s always-fruitless search for gold is that he wants to restore his social position in England and that’s what makes him abandon his values.

As the economy transitions towards foreign investment in reef-mining, there is a stoush over the rights of the diggers to mine the alluvial gold, there are strikes for better pay and there is wild-cat speculation too. The law of the self-governing goldfields which operated through ‘roll-ups’ where the diggers gathered to adjudicate disputes, comes into conflict with new legislation in faraway Perth…

The fact of the matter was, miners and prospectors were a law unto themselves then: the law that mattered most in the scattered camps cut off from the rest of the world, the unwritten law of the fields.  And wealthy strangers, wandering aristocrats and mining magnates, who depended on the goodwill of the working miners and prospectors knew it.  They were glad to fraternise with these men who could make their way through the grey seas of scrub flowing beyond the horizon in every direction: men who could discover gold in the great red bluffs and stark ridges, hundreds of miles away. (p.285)

Radical ideas from William Morris and Frederick Engels emerge in pub talk, and even the Kalgoorlie Miner recognises the principle at stake if the diggers lose their right to alluvial gold.

‘It has been a principle on the goldfields of all the colonies that the alluvial gold, the easily obtained gold, is the property of the nomadic population who will get it out quickly and distribute it, while the reef or lode gold, entailing heavy expense and machinery, could be leased to the mining companies.  (p.294-5)

Mining seems to beget political issues to this day.  In our own time we saw the mega-rich frustrate reforms to the Mining Tax which would have seen the Australian people recompensed for mining that takes place on land that belongs to all of us.

The Roaring Nineties is a lively introduction to the trilogy which is followed by Golden Miles (1948) and Winged Seeds (1950), both on my TBR and I hope to read them before the biography of KSP finds its way to me!


Image credit:

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: The Roaring Nineties (The Goldfields Trilogy #1)
Publisher: The Australasian Publishing Co by arrangement with Jonathan Cape London, 1946.
ISBN: none, hbk first edition, 411 pages,
Source: personal copy, purchased via Abebooks

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2022

Australian Book and Author Anniversaries 2022

I got this idea (and the graphic) from Literary Potpourri but I’m adapting it for Australian and New Zealand books and authors.  So although for millennia our Indigenous people have told stories here for entertainment, education and to preserve historical memory, that limits the concept of anniversaries to the period after the introduction of print in 1788, and for the purposes of this post to books that in 2022 turn 25, 50, 75, 100, 150 and 200.

FYI The earliest known Indigenous contribution to print that I know of is Bennelong’s letter to Mr Phillips, Lord Sydney’s Steward, in 1796.  It is reproduced in the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Aboriginal Literature edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter.

However, this meme turned out to be harder than I thought.  1997 was easy,  I found books in my own reading record because I’d read them, and just as well because the entry at Wikipedia is surprisingly scanty.  1972 was harder.  I’d read hundreds of books by then, but not many by Australians.  I had to supplement the list of what I’d read with books I hadn’t read, but at I was familiar with the authors who were listed at WP and read their books that were published in other years. 1947 was the same, except that with the exception of Miles Franklin and Norman Lindsay, I hadn’t read anything by the authors that WP lists.  I had read only two books published in 1922 and one of those authors was from New Zealand, and after that I was again in unfamiliar territory.  As for 1822…



From my reading record (links are to my reviews):


  • Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
  • Secrets, by Robert Dessaix, Amanda Lohrey and Drusilla Modjeska
  • The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan
  • Shiver by Nikki Gemmell
  • One for the Master by Dorothy Johnston
  • The Custodians by Nicholas Jose
  • The French Mathematician by Tom Petsinis
  • The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

Non fiction

  • The Fiftieth Gate by Mark Raphael Baker
  • A Biased Memoir by Ruth Cracknell
  • Rooting Democracy by Moira Rayner
  • Port Arthur, A Story of Courage & Strength by Margaret Scott
  • Healthy Vegetarian Eating by Rosemary Stanton
  • Snake Cradle by Roberta (Bobbi) Sykes

Plus three I haven’t read from the list at Wikipedia

  • Rod Jones (author), Nightpictures (fiction)
  • Barbara Blackman, Glass after Glass (NF)
  • Lynne Hume, Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia (NF)


Just three from my reading record (links to my reviews), all fiction:

But Wikipedia lists these novels:

  • David Ireland – The Flesheaters
  • Sumner Locke Elliott – The Man Who Got Away
  • Russell Braddon – End Play
  • Jon Cleary – Man’s Estate
  • Sumner Locke Elliott – The Man Who Got Away
  • Catherine Gaskin – A Falcon for a Queen
  • David Ireland – The Flesheaters
  • Peter Mathers – The Wort Papers


From my own reading record, two novels and a play by Patrick White (which I’ve seen on stage too.)

From the list at Wikipedia

  • Jon Cleary – You Can’t See ‘Round Corners
  • Erle Cox – The Missing Angel
  • Miles Franklin – The Thorny Rose
  • Arthur Gask – The Dark Mill Stream
  • Catherine Gaskin – With Every Year
  • Ion L. Idriess – Isles of Despair
  • Norman Lindsay – Halfway to Anywhere 

100: PUBLISHED IN 1922

From my own reading record:

  • The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield (NZ)
  • The Sentimental Bloke by C J Dennis

And from the list at Wikipedia

  • Mary Grant Bruce — The Stone Axe of Burkamukk
  • Hilda Bridges — The Squatter’s Daughter
  • Mary Grant Bruce — The Stone Axe of Burkamukk
  • Bernard Cronin — Bluff Stakes
  • Jean Curlewis — Drowning Maze
  • Dulcie Deamer — The Street of the Gazelle
  • Edward Dyson — The Grey Goose Comedy Company
  • Havelock Ellis — Kanga Creek: An Australian Idyll
  • Mary Gilmore — The Hound of the Road 
  • Nat Gould
    • A Dangerous Stable
    • Racing Rivals
  • Vance Palmer — The Boss of Killara
  • Alec H. Chisholm — Mateship with Birds (NF)
  • Mary Gaunt — Where the Twain Meet (NF)

150: PUBLISHED IN 1872

Now it gets difficult…these are from the list at Wikipedia.

  • Louisa Atkinson — Tressa’s Resolve
  • Harriet Miller Davidson — A Man of Genius
  • B. L. Farjeon — Bread-and-Cheese and Kisses
  • Maud Jeanne Franc — Jem’s Hopes and What They Grew To

200: PUBLISHED IN 1822

There isn’t even a page for this at Wikipedia. I’ve searched through the Macquarie PEN Anthologies of Australian Literature and of Aboriginal Literature and I can’t find anything published in this year.  A complete blank…



  • 2 August — Geoffrey Dutton, poet and author. He died in 1998. I have his Tamara on the TBR)
  • 28 August — Jacob C. Rosenberg, poet and novelist He died in 2008.  I have read East of Time and Sunrise West, pre blog but I’ve contributed brief reviews at Goodreads.


I don’t know any of these authors except David Unaipon so the links go to Wikipedia.

Over to you dear readers.  Have you read any of these books, and can you suggest any others?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 2, 2022

2021: ANZ LitLovers stats

Yes, you knew I would, I have succumbed to the lure of analysing my stats….

I’ve read 211 books this year.  Some of them were very short novellas but seven were chunksters which helped to make up a total of 58,400 pages (according to Goodreads, that is).

Reading by nationality, region and diverse heritage

Which nationalities did I read?   More Australian authors (109 books), and 6 from NZ. Europe & Russia (27 + 8 respectively) edge out books from the UK & Ireland (19 +1 (N. Ireland)+6 Ireland), followed by the US & Canada (7 & 8 respectively). It felt like I had read more than 13 books from African countries but that was because some of the UK books were from authors with African heritage.  There was only one from Asia and SE Asia, well down from when I was an active member of the Indonesian book club.  There were none from the Indian subcontinent and the others are negligible.

One of the strengths of Australian literature is the diversity of our authors.  We are an immigrant nation, and increasingly, our literature reflects it.  Excel plots this data on a map, which gives an approximate indication of the heritage of the authors I read in 2021.  The colours indicate the numbers so blue shows that I read 10 Indigenous Australian authors, followed by 4 from the UK (actually from Scotland, England and Wales but Excel doesn’t play nice if they’re not combined), and 2 from Swaziland (which is hard to see).  Other countries shaded green represent one author: from Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Ukraine and Vietnam.

And as always, plotting the diversity of the authors I read is always a matter of intelligent guesswork using whatever is in the public domain.  I have no doubt that there are others not represented here and if you visit my Diversity page and find errors or omissions, please let me know.

New releases vs the TBR

I do my best to keep up with new Australian releases and (up from 76 in 2020), I read 87 books published in 2021 and 65 of those were AustralianHowever, you can also see that I made progress with the TBR for C20th books , but progress with 1001 Books was a measly 7 books and I think I will probably die well before I get anywhere near 1001!


This looks pretty much like last year’s results.

In 2021, 48% of my authors were male, 55% were female, and 2% were co-authored by male and female authors (mostly anthologies).  Overall, the percentages for male/female reviews over the life of this blog (i.e. since 2008) remain stable, currently 52% male authors, 48% female and 2% M&F co-authored. I’ll repeat what I’ve said in previous years— if there are still people claiming that women don’t get a fair go when it comes to being reviewed, then they are choosing to ignore what’s happening online and privileging the prestige of print over digital.  (Which also means that they are privileging the authority of male reviewers over female ones because male reviewers dominate the print media.) 

Exploring new horizons

Tracking whether one is reading familiar authors or venturing into new territory is an idea that comes from Annabel Queen of Reading Stats, but this year I have tracked it separately for Fiction and Non Fiction.  Authorship tends not to matter so much to me with NF because I’m more interested in the subject matter.  Though the graph doesn’t show it, I read 19 Australian authors who had their debut in 2021.


Fiction vs NF

Now for non-fiction and fiction: the graph looks almost the same as 2020. 21% of my reading is non fiction (a little less than last year) and 78% is fiction, (conversely, up a little.) This year I also charted anthologies (Griffith Reviews) which are a mixture of both.


I don’t bother to analyse patterns in the NF genres I read. I like to read history and current affairs (mainly journals), but I also read biography — though in 2021 *gasp!* I didn’t read any literary bios, a deficiency I shall be rectifying this year.  I’m not keen on memoir, so I only read four of them.


19% of the books I read were translations, all but one fiction.  As usual I read more from Europe than anywhere else, but as I’ve said before that’s hardly surprising because Europe provides a lot more support to translations and there’s more variety in what’s available.  I’ve also read four books in French this year.


29% of the translations I read were by female authors compared to 71% of males, an improvement on my starting point in 2018 i.e. 25% / 75% respectively, and better than the oft-quoted norm of under 15% women writers in translation.  I read less in translation overall because my priority during the pandemic has been to support the local writing and publishing community.


Where did all these books come from?  45% came from my own personal library (print & eBook); 36% came from publishers (all Australian except for Glagoslav, Bonnier UK & QC Canada); 20% from my local libraries.

Once again, a shout-out to these publishers who’ve kept the books coming in 2021.  Melbourne is a City of Literature and its publishers and publicists were hard hit by what seemed like endless lockdowns.  Interstate publishers battled with state border controls affecting freight, while the federal government abandoned its responsibility to support our cultural industries. Nevertheless an amazing team of authors, publicists and publishers managed to keep me busy with 75 books to read and that’s not counting the ones in my pile of books to review.  Thank you to all of them.

State of the TBR

For those who worry about these things (not me!), my TBR has grown again:  At the end of 2020 I had 1012 in fiction and 209 in NF; and at the end of 2021 I have 1061 in fiction and 242 in NF, enough to last me five years or so if libraries and publishing go entirely digital.

Readership Stats

Of course, without you, my readers, none of this would matter a scrap.  So what do the stats say about my readership?

In October 2021 I passed another milestone: 1,500,000 hits on the blog.   I didn’t notice it at the time, but I took a screenshot 3516 hits later when I saw the numbers, and I Tweeted it.  Thank you to everybody who visits, I’m very grateful to you all.



In the process of amassing my readership stats for 2021, I discovered that I made a major error last year.  Instead of graphing the total of views for the year, I used the total only for December.  So I’m going to have to go back and fix that…

In the meantime. Here’s the average views per day from 2008 to 2021…

I’m expecting it to drop when the pandemic eases, but right now, with so many of us in Do-It-Yourself Lockdown, more people seem to be reading my little blog and I expect that they are reading books too!

Where do these readers come from?


This is the WordPress map for 2021.  It looks pretty much the same for most other years, and for all time since 2008.  Of course most of my readers come from Australia but there are plenty of visitors from the US, not so many from the UK but an audience from India that surprised me until I checked and realised I’d reviewed 34 books from there.  I’m still surprised by the reach of this blog: when I began, I assumed that many of the random hits were from people Googling something else, but no… those visitors from the Philippines and Kenya are reading reviews of their most iconic authors: José Rizal and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I’ve even got two readers in the Falkland Islands!

What’s popular? This year I did a separate post about my Top Twenty-Five Posts, you can see it here if so minded.

So (assuming my data collection and maths is all ok), there it is for 2020!  Don’t forget to visit Annabel’s version of stats for the year as well.  (Hers are much classier than mine!)

As in previous years, these are the books I really liked and admired during 2021.  They are books that I read in 2021, not necessarily published in 2021.  The contenders are ANZ authors only.  If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, there are plenty of other sources singing the praises of books published elsewhere.  All links go to my reviews.

The Longlists

Fiction Longlist, in alphabetical order

I read 76 works of fiction from Australia and 6 from New Zealand this year. As in previous years, I’ve longlisted the books that I rated 4 stars, if I felt a felt a warm glow remembering them when I looked at their covers at Goodreads..  (NB I reserve five stars for exceptional books not just something I really liked.  The only book I read this year that I rated 5 was Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, and he’s not Australian).  New Zealand books are in Italics.

  1. Now That I See You, by Emma Batchelor (2021 Vogel winner)
  2. Wearing Paper Dresses, by Anne Brinsden
  3. From Here On, Monsters, by Elizabeth Bryer
  4. Remote Sympathy, by Catherine Chidgey
  5. The Price of two Sparrows, by Christy Collins
  6. Death of a Coast Watcher, by Anthony English
  7. The Disinvent Movement, by Susanna Gendall
  8. Maestro, by Peter Goldsworthy
  9. The Dogs, by John Hughes
  10. Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), by Anita Heiss
  11. No One, by John Hughes
  12. Travelling Companions, by Antoni Jach
  13. From Where I fell, by Susan Johnson
  14. Our Shadows, by Gail Jones
  15. The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane
  16. A History of the Great War, a novel, by Peter McConnell
  17. Love Objects, by Emily Maguire
  18. Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy
  19. Caravan Story, by Wayne Macauley
  20. Believe in Me, by Lucy Neave
  21. Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe
  22. Sincerely, Ethel Malley, by Stephen Orr
  23. Chasing the McCubbin, by Sandi Scaunich
  24. The Beach Caves, by Trevor Shearston
  25. Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin

Non Fiction Longlist including Life Stories in alphabetical order (I read 41 books of Australian NF, but none from New Zealand.)

  1. More Than Halfway to Somewhere, by John Burbidge
  2. My Forests: Travels with Trees, by Janine Burke
  3. Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War, by Carolyn Collins
  4.  Signs and Wonders, by Delia Falconer
  5. Australian Native Cuisine, by Andrew Fielke 
  6. Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay
  7. The One That Got Away, Travelling in the time of Covid, by Ken Haley
  8. Where the Water Ends, by Zoe Holman
  9. Aflame, by Subhash Jaireth
  10. Incantations, by Subhash Jaireth
  11. The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen, by Evelyn Juers
  12. Vandemonians, the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria, by Janet McCalman
  13. Finding the Heart of the Nation, by Thomas Mayor
  14. Last Letter to a Reader, by Gerald Murnane
  15. Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson
  16. Judy Cassab, a portrait, by Brenda Niall
  17. Imaginative Possession by Belinda Probert
  18. ‘Pivot to India’ by Michael Wesley, in Australian Foreign Affairs #13: India Rising, Asia’s Huge Question, edited by Jonathan Pearlman 
  19. The Case for Courage, by Kevin Rudd
  20. Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki

My favourites of 2021

I could never be a literary prize judge: I hate whittling lists down to some arbitrary number and I really don’t know why I do it.  I chose one of the two titles by John Hughes because it doesn’t seem fair to have two of his, but really I liked them both.

Most Memorable ANZ LitLovers Australian Fiction Books of 2021 in alphabetical order

  1. Now That I See You, by Emma Batchelor (2021 Vogel winner)
  2. Remote Sympathy, by Catherine Chidgey
  3. The Price of Two Sparrows, by Christy Collins
  4. Death of a Coast Watcher, by Anthony English
  5. The Disinvent Movement, by Susanna Gendall
  6. No One, by John Hughes
  7. Love Objects, by Emily Maguire
  8. Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy
  9. Sincerely, Ethel Malley, by Stephen Orr
  10. The Beach Caves, by Trevor Shearston

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Most memorable ANZ LitLovers Non Fiction and Poetry Books of 2021 in alphabetical order

  1. My Forests: Travels with Trees, by Janine Burke
  2. Signs and Wonders, by Delia Falconer
  3. Australian Native Cuisine, by Andrew Fielke 
  4. Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay
  5. The Dancer, a biography for Philippa Cullen, by Evelyn Juers
  6. Vandemonians, the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria, by Janet McCalman
  7. Finding the Heart of the Nation, by Thomas Mayor
  8. Last Letter to a Reader, by Gerald Murnane
  9. Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson
  10. Imaginative Possession by Belinda Probert

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The ANZ LitLovers Non-Fiction Book of the Year is.. 

The ANZ LitLovers Fiction Books of the Year are… 

*drum roll*

(One from Oz and one from NZ!)

Over to you

Your thoughts on my choices?  What was your most memorable book of the year?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2021

Last Letter to a Reader, by Gerald Murnane

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Gerald Murnane, it’s that it’s impossible for me to write the kind of review that writing of this calibre deserves.  And this is just as true of Last Letter to a Reader as it is of his enigmatic fiction.

This is the blurb:

In the first days of spring in his eighty-second year, Gerald Murnane–perhaps the greatest living writer of English prose–began a project that would round off his strange career as a novelist. He would read all of his books in turn and prepare a report on each. His original intention was to lodge the reports in two of his legendary filing cabinets: in the Chronological Archive, which documents his life as a whole, and the Literary Archive, which is devoted to everything he has written.

As the reports grew, however, they themselves took on the form of a book, a book as beguiling and hallucinatory, in its way, as the works on which they were meant to report. These miniature memoirs or stories lead the reader through the capacious territory Murnane refers to as his mind: they dwell on the circumstances that gave rise to his writing, on images and associations, on Murnane’s own theories of fiction, and then memories of a deeply personal kind. The final essay is, of course, on Last Letter to a Reader itself: it considers the elation and exhilaration that accompany the act of writing, and offers a moving finale to what must surely be Murnane’s last work, as death approaches. “Help me, dear one,” he writes, “to endure patiently my going back to my own sort of heaven.”

Last Letter to a Reader is not like Murnane’s other books.  Murnane is addressing his own legacy as a writer…

In the essay about his book Invisible but Enduring Lilacs, he explains the obligation to compose something worthwhile, something worthy of the attention of the personage that I know only as my Ideal Reader, one of a select band of those that I call readers of good will. 

Well, I like Murnane’s books, and he has my enthusiastic attention, and I have the good will. But I am not his Ideal Reader, and I approach his work well aware of my limitations.  This is partly because in his previous fiction he has been explicit about what he expects of his readers.  He is unabashed in his scorn for most reviewers and for a certain sort of reader.  In his essay about Velvet Waters, he writes:

A certain sort of reader of these paragraphs might have cause to complain that an author of my sort denies him or her what readers of fiction have traditionally sought and obtained: meetings-up with complex but credible characters ; insights into human nature.  My reply to such a complaint would be the claim that the alert reader of my fiction obtains therefrom an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of its implied narrator, the personage who created it.  The mouse behind the mesh, the grey-gold monastery/brain, and the sky of melting colours — each of these and of the host of their counterparts throughout my fiction is an item of evidence, no matter how fragmentary, of the workings of the mysterious invisible entity that we call Mind. (p.54)

What might distinguish me from that certain sort of reader is that while I do like fictional meetings-up with complex but credible characters and insights into human nature, I don’t complain about fiction that offers something else.  I often relish it.

This is what happens when Murnane reads:

The reading of a work of fiction alters — sometimes briefly but sometimes permanently — the configuration of my mental landscape and augments the number of personages who are its temporary or permanent residents.  Morality, social issues, psychological insight — such matters seem as fanciful and inconsequential to me as my talk of shapes and dissolving imagery might seem to my conjectured reader. (p.53)

Again, although I generally find commercial and genre fiction disappointing, I enjoy complex novels that explore morality, social issues, and psychological insights.  But equally, I like reading books that reconfigure my mental landscape in the way that Proust, James Joyce, Borges and Murnane do.

He also says:

…as I’ve said often in recent years, that I write fiction by reporting the contents of my mind is to explain nothing. Nor would I take what seems the easy way around the matter by declaring that my fiction is the product of something called the imagination. The word envisage is useful.  The same word is also unpretentious, and I use it sometimes from a fear of seeming in any way pretentious.  Mostly I refer simply to fictional events and fictional personages, hoping thus to prevent my fiction from being taken as a report of things that once happened in the world where I sit as I write it or even of things that may have happened there. (p.59-60)

Murnane would probably find the idea of a literary pilgrimage absurd, but next time I’m in Malvern I’m going to slow down in homage as I pass the double-fronted brick Edwardian house in what is now a fashionable precinct, where sixty years ago, Murnane lived in the rented room with gas-ring and shared bathroom at the rear.  Not long ago, he revisited the address, (which is given in the book but I’m not sharing it online) and his memory of it was vivid:

I became again the young primary-school teacher with no money, no car, no girl-friend, nothing published, and little hope of remedying any of these deprivations.  It would have seemed quite in order for me to open the wrought-iron gate and to stride down the driveway towards the place that had seemed to promise much when I first moved in but had soon lost its look of being the place where I first came into my own as a writer.  What I struggled to write in that narrow space was mostly poetry, although some of what I entered in the book that I called my journal suggests that I thought sometimes of attempting a novel, as I would have called it then.  When I wasn’t trying to write, I was reading, but little of what I read seemed of any help.  Most of it had been written on the other side of the world by people whose pedigrees and upbringing had destined them to be writers, so I thought.  I had already, if only I could have understood the matter, the material for half a dozen works of fiction.  (p.70)

Today, Murnane knows that the man bearing my name becomes a different person whenever he sits at his desk in order to write fiction.  That he is then concerned with matters different from the usual, and that the events pressing on the man-at-his-desk. so to call him, are such that their precise origin seems to him irrelevant.  What we have in this collection of essays is a glimpse into the world of the book before it becomes final shape and we can see some of the complex work done by its author.

I see that what I’ve done here is to engage with Murnane’s text as I usually do, meandering through the pages and sharing the way they impact on me.  If I consider his way of assessing the value of a book as he does in the essay titled A Million Windows, that is, to ask myself how much I recall, long afterwards, of the experience of reading the book,  I would say that his is a criteria very close to one I used to use to explain the difference between reading literature and popular fiction to my students. The comic novels of Paul Jennings are fun to read, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story to remember all your life because of the moral quandaries it explores.  It changes the way we think about things.  The experience of reading Murnane is to savour a different way of thinking about things, and it is sad to think that perhaps we have seen the last of his sublime fictions.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Last Letter to a Reader
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781925818840, pbk., 126 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo, but I also had a copy through my prose subscription.

I’m not sure why I reserved this at the library; and I’m also not sure why I persisted with it when it was a bit of a slog to read.  Was it because I’d never read anything set in Morocco before? Nope, I read four: Desert by Nobel Laureate JMG Le Clezio, translated by C. Dickson; The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Indian author Joydeep Roy-Battacharya; and two by Australian authors: Watch Out for Me by Sylvia Johnson, and Closer to Stone by Simon Cleary.  Maybe it was because I thought it was time to read an author who was Moroccan?

The blurb sounds interesting.

After the Liberation, Mathilde leaves France to join her husband in Morocco. But life here is unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman.

Suffocated by the heat of the Moroccan climate, by her loneliness on the farm, by the mistrust she inspires as a foreigner, and by their lack of money, Mathilde grows restless.

As violence threatens and Morocco’s own struggle for independence grows daily, Mathilde and Amine’s refusal to take sides sees them and their family at odds with their own desire for freedom.  How can Mathilde — a woman whose life is dominated by the decisions of men — hold her family together in a world that is being torn apart?

The trouble is, it reads like the family history it is, turned into a rather long-winded novel.  (There are 313 pages and this is only Volume One).  The intent is worthy: Mathilde’s struggle for self-determination in a patriarchal society is an analogy with Morocco’s struggle against colonialism under the French.  But it’s a messy analogy because Mathilde is French, and thus her desire for freedom comes from her French background and the independence that she had in the Resistance.  Her ideas about feminism and autonomy come from an ‘external’ culture, and the implications of this are amplified by the extensive and often brutal commentary about how backward Morocco was in the postwar period when the novel is set.

Odd bits of detail are disconcerting: puzzling irrelevances break up the flow of the writing for no apparent purpose.  This paragraph prefaces Mathilde intervention in her niece Selma’s rebellious behaviour.

When Mathilde reached the old hobnailed door, she grabbed the knocker and banged it twice, very hard.  Yasmine opened it — she’d lifted up her skirts and Mathilde could see that her black calves were covered in curly hairs.  It was almost ten in the morning but the house was quiet.  She could hear the purring of the cats stretched out in the courtyard and the slop of the wet mop that the maid was using to clean the floor.  Yasmine watched in astonishment as Mathilde took off her djellaba, tossed her headscarf onto a chair and ran upstairs.  Yasmine coughed so hard that she spat a thick, greenish wad of mucus into the well.   (p.90)

Apart from the fact that this is a bad case of Tell Everything, why does Yasmine lift up her skirts, and what are we meant to infer from the sight of those curly hairs? And how does Yasmine from the doorstep cough her disgusting mucus into the well?

Here’s another one, chosen at random:

(Previous paragraphs do not explain why she is not wearing her shoes when she arrives.  Maybe she drove there barefoot?)

She put her shoes back on and climbed the stairs that led to the post office.  A smiling woman greeted her at the counter.  ‘Mulhouse, France,’ Mathilde explained.  Next she headed to the main room, where the hundreds of post office boxes were located.  Little brass doors, each one with a number on it, covered the high walls.  She stopped next to box number 25: the same number as her year of birth, she’d said to Amine, who was always indifferent to this kind of remark.  She took the little key out of her pocket and inserted it into the lock, but it didn’t turn.  She took it out and put it in again but still nothing happened and the box wouldn’t open.  Mathilde repeated the same actions with increasing impatience, and her annoyance was soon making people stare.  Was this woman stealing letters sent to her husband by another woman?  Or was she trying to take revenge on her lover by opening his post office box?  An employee walked up to her slowly, like a zookeeper who had to return an animal to its cage.  He was a very young man with red hair and a protruding jawline.  Mathilde thought him ridiculous and ugly with his enormous feet and the pompous look on his face.  (p.159)

Seriously, half a page about a key that doesn’t work?  Describing post office boxes??

The Country of Others explores race, class, interpersonal conflict and domestic violence in the context of a mixed race marriage, and also ignorance, superstition and education in domestic and agricultural settings.  The personal gets political when family members take different positions in the struggle against colonialism.  But the story gets bogged down in superfluous detail and a narrative that seems hidebound by its origins in family history.  I won’t be reading Volumes 2 and 3…

Other reviews: Tessa Hadley in The Guardian liked it more than I did.  Mary O’Sullivan in the Irish Independent acknowledges that Slimani’s style takes a bit of getting used to…

Author: Leïla Slimani
Title: The Country of Others (le pays des autres)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Faber, 2021, first published 2020
ISBN: 9780571361625, pbk., 313 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2021

2021 A Year in First Lines

First Lines woodcut by Kent Ambler

With thanks to Brona from Brona’s Books as the catalyst, here is my year in first lines.  The rules are that we should post the first line of the first post from each month, but as you will see, some months, I posted twice on the first day.  Plus, I have my own additional rule: if the first post was #6Degrees which always begins the same way, I add the second line as well.


Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.  Which (as predicted) I did not find time to read during the festive season.


A Close Run Thing, by David Treweek

I’ve been reading some sombre books lately, so I was pleased to turn to this light-hearted romp, authored by one of the librarians at my local library.


Present Darkness, (Detective Emmanuel Cooper #4), by Malla Nunn

It’s Southern Cross Crime Month at Reading Matters, and my choice of Present Darkness by Swazi-born, Sydney-based author, screenwriter and film-maker Malla Nunn is an apt choice, if I do say so myself, because it’s set in South Africa where (except in Spring) they too can see the Southern Cross in the night sky!


Six Degrees of Separation: from Shuggie Bain, to…

This month’s #6Degrees starts with the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.  Just this week I read a review of this which compared it to a thinly disguised misery memoir, evoking memories of Angela’s Ashes.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated by Chris Schaefer

Once again, a recommendation from the Johannesburg Review of Books has turned out to be excellent reading.


The Watermelon Boys, by Ruqaya Izzidien

The review of The Watermelon Boys in the Asian Review of Books was intriguing: a retelling of WW1 from an Iraqi perspective.


Announcing 2021 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

2021 is the 10th anniversary of ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week: a virtual event that has always been about encouraging Australians to read and learn from Indigenous authors and to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing.


The Dialogue of Two Snails, by Federico García Lorca, translated by Tyler Fisher

It’s Spanish Lit month over at Winston’s Dad, so it’s time to venture into the work of the avant-garde poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936).


Triangle, by Katharine Weber

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with its eerie resonances to 9/11 and a recent documentary to mark its anniversary, is well-known in New York.


His Only Wife, by Peace Adzo Medie

The cover of my edition of His Only Wife by Ghanaian author Peace Adzo Medie includes comments from Wayetu Moore that it’s ‘hilarious, a gem of a debut’ and from Kirkus Reviews that it’s ‘a Crazy Rich Asians for West Africa, with a healthy splash of feminism.’ 


Book Giveaway winner: The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

It’s time to draw the winner of the giveaway offer from Upswell Press.


The Disinvent Movement, by Susanna Gendall

To kick off Novellas in November (#NovNov), let’s start with a very interesting novella from New Zealand that nods to the real problem that underlies COP26.


The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

There was lively discussion at the blog of the late Kevin From Canada when The Sentimentalists was nominated for the 2010 Giller Prize, much of it focussing on the difficulty of Skribsud’s poetic prose and her way her layered text often demands re-reading.



What do these first lines reveal about my blog in 2021?

While none of us expected that 2021 would be pretty much like 2020, it was.  For some of us, the stoicism began to falter a bit.  To counter that, I did pretty much what I have always done, but I did it with renewed purpose.  Yes, I kept on reading, writing my reviews, and joining in memes and other litbloggers’ ‘weeks’ and ‘months’.  I reported on the virtual festivals that I ‘attended’ and I shared whatever bookish news came my way.  But I did this with an awareness that for some people in lockdown or isolation, this little blog could help a bit with loneliness or boredom.  Writing it certainly stopped me from doomscrolling!

These first lines link to ten reviews of books I did read and two that I haven’t read yet.  Two are Australian and one is from New Zealand, and the others are international.  Did I read more international fiction in 2021?  I don’t know.  I’ve reviewed 61 new Australian releases this year, down a bit on the previous year, but still, that’s just the new releases.  Once again I am weighing whether or not to invest time in doing stats for 2021…

As in 2020 you can see #6 Degrees making an appearance because we are supposed to post it on the first Saturday of each month: Thanks to Kate from Books are My Favourite and Best who maintains the meme in all its zany manifestations.  Thanks also to Kim and Stu for hosting their respective ‘months’, and to the contributors at both the Johannesburg and Asian Reviews of Books.

This meme has triggered some observations not immediately apparent.  There are two books that I’d never have come across if not for lockdown.

  • David Treweek’s A Close Run Thing has a special place in my memories because I found out about it from chatting to the librarian at the Click and Collect desk when 2020’s long lockdown eased a bit. (Does it sound crazy when I say that I still remember the feeling of joy at being allowed to go to the library?  Not to other library lovers in Melbourne, it doesn’t.)
  •  The review of Triangle by Katharine Weber came about from references to it in an online course about Yiddish Women writers that I took through the Melbourne Jewish Museum.  Chez nous, we are loving the online #NoTraffic #NoParking opportunities that have come our way courtesy of the pandemic…

October’s giveaway symbolises a remarkable thing.  The giveaway is from a new publishing company started by former UWAP publisher Terri-Ann White..  It’s a brave thing to start a small indie publishing business at any time — but in the middle of a pandemic, it’s heroic!

What do your first lines say about you? 


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2021

Griffith Review 74: Escape Routes, edited by Ashley Hay

Such an arresting image on the cover of the latest edition of the Griffith Review!  It makes me think immediately of the Challenger tragedy and the risks taken when mere mortals try to escape their earthbound existence…

As editor Ashley Hay says in her introduction to Escape Routes, ‘getting away’ has come to have a loaded ambivalence in our new normal.  This is the blurb from the publisher’s website (where you can buy it and other issues in the archive):

Sometimes, we all need to get away…

Griffith Review 74: Escape Routes plots the course of our daydreams, our transformations and our jailbreaks. It takes us across borders and through open minds to places once out of reach, lighting out for the territory to access new worlds.

Edited by Ashley Hay, Griffith Review 74: Escape Routes features the winners of our Emerging Voices competition – Delcan Fry, Alison Gibbs, Vijay Khurana and Andrew Roff – plus new work from Behrouz Boochani, Madeleine Watts, Kim Scott, Peggy Frew and Beejay Silcox, among many others.

I’ve decided to focus first on the poetry in this edition.  ‘Soap’ by Jodie Lea Martire is a startling set of verses about an artist called Walter Inglis Anderson who apparently escaped from the Mississippi State Insane Asylum in 1939.

hold, he prayed, and
wrenched the sheet into a rope.
heft, and twist.
heft, and twist.
tie a knot when the fear is greatest;
loop when thinking of elegance. (p.25)

He takes some soap and makes art with it against a red brick wall as he slides to the freedom close below.  Do have a look at some of his work at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art and consider the circumstances which led him to make this perilous escape.


At Masterclass for Writing Poetry, I discovered what a haibun is via ‘In America 1979’ by New Zealand author and poet Lloyd Jones, (some of whose wonderful novels I have reviewed.)  

One of the most challenging and evocative poetic forms is the haibun, which combines elements of travel writing, haiku, and poetic prose into a wholly unique artform.

It begins like this:

In America, I was no longer who I thought I was: one time in America, I was a white person helping an elderly black woman with her heavy suitcase across the platform. A tall back men holding a Bible bowed his head at me, and said, ‘God bless.’

In America, I was often God blessed —

The rest of the time I got things wrong — ordering a pot roast in East Texas, that was a mistake. (p.39)

Later in the haibun we see a haiku that reminds me of Jones’ novel Hand Me Down World about the plight of a woman refugee…

A limpet unstuck from its
World has nothing left
But providence and chance. (p.40)


We see the ugly side of America in Haley Zilberberg’s short poem ‘After three years in Australia’.  While she still calls a cinema a ‘movie theatre’ as she would in her home state of Florida, her sense of belonging in Australia means that now  she can take for granted’ that she can go into movie theatres/without checking for guns.  But oh! how chilling to think that it takes three years for that kind of internalised fear to subside.  I hate the thought of little children going to watch Disney films having that fear in the back of their minds…


Written in Burmese and translated into English by the author, ‘The day Khet Thi was tortured to death’ by Ko Ko Thett is another sombre poem.   Khet Thi was a prominent Burmese poet whose disembowelled body was returned to his wife after torture in 2021.

Just like in Akhmatova‘s Russia,
people learned to speak Whisper.
Even in Whisper, they murmured. (p.109)


Cate Kennedy, winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry for her collection The Taste of River Water, has penned a riveting piece called ‘The night sky from the surface of Mars’.

all is uncanny: the planet’s surface cold and empty as death,
and the surface of Mars like the ground
in the video games you played
before Xbox, hanging around
with the big machines in some dim arcade
putting coins in and smelling sweat and spilled Coke and Blue Stratos cologne
glad for the darkness,
throat swollen with crying over something at home
and grimly traversing, like a minesweeper, some dystopic nightmare landscape (p.150)

As the pandemic swept across the globe in March 2021, do you remember this? there was the miracle of footage on Facebook, coming to us from unfathomable distance:

the night sky from the surface of Mars
because wonders never cease, and the probe has the capability to scan sky none of us will ever look up and see (p.150)

I think that was the night I broke curfew to walk out onto my street to gaze up at the night sky… a very small escape but it was a wilful breach and could have cost me a hefty fine!


‘Frederick the Great’ by Nick Mansfield recalls the future king of Prussia’s doomed escape from his tyrannical father. His best friend, a young officer called Hans Hermann von Katte, was caught with him and Frederick was forced to watch his execution.  He went on to become Frederick II…

Later, Frederick wrote sonatas that are not so bad,
And Immanuel Kant chose his poetry as an excellent example of the aesthetic.
He reformed the bureaucracy along rational lines
And was famed for his military victories
And deft masterstrokes of diplomacy. (p.175)

But he could not escape being haunted by himself, not even with the unreserve of the dying.


Peter Skrzynecki’s ‘My mother disliked the sea’ is about a different kind of escape, an effort of the will.

My mother disliked the sea
after we arrived in Australia.  She would say,
‘Four weeks on a ship. Waves. Waves.
that’s all it was… And
the horizon never getting closer. (p.198)

For her the ship was a prison, and once she escaped it, she turned her back on it.

Returning from her day job
She would bring home
seedlings and packets of seeds
from the nursery
to add to the flower garden.
It took me decades to learn
that’s where she belonged —
and she’d reached her horizon
by turning her back on the sea. (p.199)


Amongst the fiction offerings, there is Madeleine Watts poignant ‘Unaccompanied Minor, Growing up in between’, which is available online at The Guardian.  There’s also an intriguing short story called ‘Displaced’ by Jessica White (author of Hearing Maud) which shows the way relationships can cage us, necessitating escape every now and again if we are to remain true to ourselves.

There’s lots more in this anthology of course, but this post is too long already!

Editor: Ashley Hay
Cover image: ”Brave’ by Kathrin Longhurst, 2020 (detail)
Title: Griffith Review #74, Escape Routes
Publisher: Griffith University, 2021
ISBN: 97819222212658
Source: review copy courtesy of Griffith Review

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2021

Christmas Song Book Tag 2021

Becky at Becky’s Books has just come up with a rather challenging Christmas meme which riffs on Christmas songs!

She writes that she got it from Pine Scented Blog, who got it from Words About Words after it started  at That Artsy Reader Girl.

There are no rules about having to use this year’s books, so that makes it a bit easier, but I decided to use all Australian books.  According to my records, that gives me about 1800 books to choose from…

1. “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Favourite bookish couple

Ruth Park (1917-2010) and D’arcy Niland  (1917-1967) were and I suspect still are Australia’s foremost literary couple. She was more successful than him in the sense that she won the Miles Franklin for Swords and Crowns and Rings, plus her trilogy that consists of Missus (1985); The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange was made into a popular TV series, but he wrote some beaut novels too, notably The Shiralee which was made into a film.


2. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: Name a book where a character is away from home (school, holiday, etc.)

There are countless possibilities for this, especially in Australian novels about convicts and settlers in the colonial period and memoirs from the Stolen Generations.  But written as a counter to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), which is itself a book about a character away from home — Benevolence, by Julie Janson, features an Indigenous woman called Muraging whose father leaves her in the Parramatta Native School believing that she would be ‘better off’, and she never has a home again.

3. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Name your favourite “little” book (children’s book, short story, novella, etc.)

Confining myself to just the books I read for Novellas in November, I’m selecting Caravan Story, by Wayne Macauley because (like all his books), this satire about the commodification of ‘culture’ in Australia made me laugh.

4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town“: What book(s) do you hope Santa brings you this year?

Ah, too easy.  I dropped some sledge-hammer sized hints for this one, and I know it’s on its way.  Robyn Annear’s new book Adrift in Melbourne.

5. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: Which book turned your nose red (made you cry)?

I’m not very good at crying, but Holocaust memoirs always move me.  I’ll never forget Bella and Chaim, The Story of Beauty and Life by Sarah Vidal.  It’s an unusual form of memoir, formed from a collage of memory, historical record, fragments of the 1950s, real-time journal entries and musings on the light, dark, and potential of being alive.

6. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Your favourite book/kind of book to read during the holidays.

I don’t like the hot summer weather, so I’m always up for a book that conjures up vivid images of being cold.  This year I recommend Robyn Mundy’s new book Cold Coast, which is about the first female trapper in the frozen wastes of Norway.

7. “We Three Kings”: Your favourite trilogy.

That has to be Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which consists of Australia Felix, The Way Home, and Ultima Thule.  I am embarrassed that although I’ve reviewed other books by and about HHR, and I’ve read the trilogy three times, I don’t have a review of it here.  Maybe I will re-read it again this year and put that right.

8. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”: A character you would love to be snowed in with.

I’d like to choose the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s books because he is so well-read I would be entertained for weeks, but he is adamant that the personages in his books are not characters, so…. I’m going to cheat a bit and choose Rosa, from Rosa, Memories with Licence because Rosa is a lot like my irrepressible friend the author Ros Collins and not only would there be lots of talk about books and writing to keep us amused, but the lunches would be scrumptious too.

9. “Last Christmas”: A book that seriously let you down.

No, I don’t want to do this one.  I had some severe disappointments this year with books from authors whose previous work I’d really, really liked, but I am not going to name them.

10. “White Christmas”: An upcoming release you’re dreaming about.

I think this might be Alexis Wright’s new one, if it’s a novel.

To finish up, two of my favourite Christmas jokes, both from the Parish of Blessed James Bell:

and this one from 2020:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2021

ANZLitLovers’ readers Top Twenty-Five posts for 2021

Popularity is not really something that works for a niche LitBlog like mine, but here are the Top Twenty-Five most popular posts for 2021.  Australian titles are in bold; New Zealand titles are in Italics.  BTW None of these stats include views by subscribers who receive my reviews by email or those who view the reviews from the home page.

Stats for 2021

  1. In the Fog of the Seasons’ End, by Alex La Guma.  This review is a stalwart, growing from about 2000 viewers when it was first posted in 2014, and growing now to 4010 views in 2021.  Almost certainly a set text for students somewhere in the world.
  2. The Concubine by Elechi Amadi.  Probably also a set text.
  3. Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran, (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an), by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
  4. Cousins, by Patricia Grace has raced into the Top Five this year.
  5. The Labyrinth, by Amanda Lohrey.  An Australian title!  The Labyrinth won the Miles Franklin, the Voss Literary Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
  6. Samskara, a Rite for a Dead Man, by U.R. Ananthamurthy, translated by A.K. Ramanajan
  7. The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray.
  8. The Yield, by Tara June Winch
  9. The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams
  10. Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum
  11. The Dressmaker’s Secret, by Rosalie Ham
  12. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, winner of the Booker Prize in 1997
  13. ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (This is a page, not a post, but hey, let’s not quibble.)
  14. ‘The Singers’, by Ivan Turgenev, translated by David Magarshack, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
  15. Ways of Dying, by Zakes Mda
  16. Bruny, by Heather Rose
  17. The Solid Mandala, by Patrick White
  18. Death of a Coast Watcher, by Anthony English
  19. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, by Richard Flanagan
  20. The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson, by Leah Purcell
  21. ‘Dead Roses’ in The Burnt Ones, by Patrick White
  22. Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan.  The only NF title in tis list.
  23. From Where I Fell, by Susan Johnson
  24. Potiki, by Patricia Grace

What does all this mean?  A look at the stats for all time, that is, from the time this blog started in July 2008, suggests to me that the enduring popularity of texts written a good while ago are the ones on student book lists and not necessarily the Australian books that my blog celebrates.

Stats for all time: 2008—2021

My all time, most popular reviews ever (rounded off a little bit) are:

  1. In the Fog of the Seasons’ End, by Alex La Guma (27000+ views)
  2. The Concubine by Elechi Amadi (22000+)
  3. Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803, by Lyndall Ryan (16000)
  4. Ways of Dying, by Zakes Mda (16000)
  5. Faceless by Amma Darko (16000)
  6. Potiki, by Patricia Grace (14500)
  7. The Ladies’ Paradise, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson (13,000).  This one is an outlier.  It had thousands of hits when the book was a TV series in the US in 2013-4).
  8. Voss, by Patrick White (11,500)
  9. ANZLL Books You Must Read (10,500)
  10. ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List  (9,500)

Notice something?  The first six of these titles are by or about people of colour.  I am rather pleased about that and I like No 10 too.

So, what are the Top 25 popular posts featuring reviews of only Australian and New Zealand titles for 2021?  The results are very different if I exclude any books not published for the first time in 2021.

Top 25 ANZ published anytime


Top 25 ANZ first published in 2021


  1. Cousins, (1992) by Patricia Grace
  2. The Labyrinth, (2020) by Amanda Lohrey.
  3. The Yield, (2019) by Tara June Winch
  4. The Dictionary of Lost Words, (2020)  by Pip Williams
  5. The Dressmaker’s Secret, (2020) by Rosalie Ham
  6. ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List
  7. Bruny, (2019) by Heather Rose
  8. The Solid Mandala, (1966) by Patrick White
  9. Death of a Coast Watcher, (2021) by Anthony English
  10. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, (2020) by Richard Flanagan
  11. The Drover’s Wife, the legend of Molly Johnson, (2019) by Leah Purcell
  12. ‘Dead Roses’ in The Burnt Ones, (1964) by Patrick White
  13. Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803, (2012) by Lyndall Ryan
  14. From Where I Fell, (2021) by Susan Johnson
  15. Potiki, (1986) by Patricia Grace
  16. Voss (1957) by Patrick White
  17. The White Girl (2019) by Tony Birch
  18. The Tree of Man (1955) by Patrick White
  19. A Fringe of Leaves (1976) by Patrick White
  20. There Was Still Love (2019) by Favel Parrett
  21. Sincerely, Ethel Malley, (2021) by Stephen Orr
  22. Baby No-Eyes (1998) by Patricia Grace
  23. Tu, (2004) by Patricia Grace
  24. After Story (2021) by Larissa Behrendt
  25. The Beach Caves (2021) by Trevor Shearston
  1. ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List
  2. Death of a Coast Watcher, (2021) by Anthony English
  3. From Where I Fell, (2021) by Susan Johnson
  4. Sincerely, Ethel Malley, (2021) by Stephen Orr
  5. After Story (2021)by Larissa Behrendt
  6. The Beach Caves (2021) by Trevor Shearston
  7. Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), (2021) by Anita Heiss
  8. Locust Summer (2021) by David Allan-Petale 
  9. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers (2021) by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
  10. Small Acts of Defiance, (2021) by Michelle Wright
  11. The Kindness of Birds, (2021) by Merlinda Bobis
  12. The Case for Courage, (2021) by Kevin Rudd
  13. Scary Monsters (2021) by Michelle de Kretser
  14. An Insider’s Plague Year, (2021) by Peter Doherty
  15. Signs and Wonders (2021) by Delia Falconer
  16. Pietà (2021) by Michael Fitzgerald
  17. Indigenous Literature Week – a Reading List of Indigenous Women Writers
  18. O (2021) by Steven Carroll
  19. Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2021
  20. Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba, (2021) by Robert Wainwright
  21. Ein Stein, (2021) by Joe Reich
  22. In Moonland, (2021) by Miles Allison
  23. The Chloroformist, (2021) by Christine Ball
  24. Love Objects, (2021) by Emily Maguire
  25. The Performance (2021) by Claire Thomas

FWIW I think these stats are meaningless.  I got the idea for doing this from the Newtown Review of Books, but as they say, it skews a little to reviews from earlier in the year (as there has been more time for readers to discover them).  They say it’s one way to get an overview of the books that caught our attention in 2021.

But I think that the only thing my stats show is that my reviews have longevity.  Leaving aside the reviews obviously sourced by students seeking input for their assignments, (which also correspond to badly-spelled search terms) I have no idea why some posts are more popular than others…

Over to you.  Any thoughts?

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