Glenda Guest A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline

Glenda Guest’s follow-up to her prizewinning debut Siddon Rock (2009) is a novel of memory and betrayal. It opens with a brief, arresting scene:

On the kitchen table lies a brown-paper-wrapped package.

Promise, he says.

Yes.

He pushes it towards her.

The ‘her’ is 20-year-old Cassandra Aberline, and the kitchen belongs to the Blanchards, her family’s neighbours in the WA wheat belt. The package contains a large sum of money. ‘Use it to be safe,’ Cassie’s told. ’Buy a house, or make a career.’

Carrying the brown paper parcel securely beneath her jumper, Cassie takes the train across the country to Sydney. But as the novel reveals, the money has come at a hefty price.

These events occurred 45 years ago, and now Cassandra Aberline is an actor of some distinction teaching drama classes at a university in Sydney. She is independent, a loner who prefers her own company; a runner who relishes her early morning routine around the streets of her inner-city neighbourhood.

However, a visit to a neurologist has revealed her vulnerability: she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The diagnosis spurs her to take a trip back into her past, to once again cross the continent on the Indian Pacific, but this time in the opposite direction, and with a luxurious ‘platinum class’ cabin all to herself. Her hope is to ‘somehow in three days and nights … resolve the niggling doubt that has held her to ransom for some forty-odd years’.

It’s a common enough trope, protagonists in search of the past, returning to a particular location and testing their memories, but here the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the mystery of the money add additional layers. How much damage has the disease done to her brain? Are her memories accurate? Or has she spent a lifetime constructing a version of events to justify her own actions?

The novel is structured around the train journey from Sydney to Perth, broken into sections such as Sydney to Broken Hill, Broken Hill to Adelaide, etc, each section moving fluidly between the present of the train and episodes from the past.

Despite her refusal to accept the implications of her diagnosis — she is determined to return to teaching once this trip is over and ‘not forget Brecht’s name again’ — on the train we see the reality of it when mental blanks leave her stranded in confusion, unable to find her way back to her cabin from the dining car. A kindly steward eventually leads her back to the correct carriage: ‘She tries to tell him she is not drunk but lost, but the words are too large and can’t be said.’

She remembers setting out on that first train journey:

Fragments of that day are embedded like stone chips in her mind: the creak and click of the flyscreen of the farmhouse back door more used to being slammed shut than firmly closed on a life; the drive to the siding, a whistlestop for the new cross-continental train; the sudden thought that there might not be a vacant berth, even though she had phoned that morning and booked her passage; and would the driver remember to make the unusual stop, to pick her up?

When Cassie arrives in Sydney, the Vietnam War is still raging and US servicemen throng the streets of Kings Cross on R&R. Having made good her escape from the west and everything she has ever known, and banked that cumbersome bundle of cash, she falls into working at a tattoo parlour.

There’s an immediacy to these memories, even if at times they do feel like a checklist for Sydney of the era, with glimpses of Madam Lash ‘sauntering’ down the street and the heiress activist Nita (who disappears à la Juanita Neilsen) dropping in for a chat at the tattoo parlour. However the scenes with Bammy, the owner of the tattoo parlour, and Cassie’s clumsy attempts to help a homeless woman, beat strongly.

But it’s the more distant past that is calling Cassandra: her childhood and young adulthood at the family farm, Home Ground, with her father, Alec, and older sister Helen. She and Helen fight ‘like two cats in a sack’, and Cassie feels more at home on the neighbouring property with Mary and Hec Blanchard and their identical twin sons, Dion and Coe.

The boys become like brothers to her (Cassie claims only she and Mary can tell which twin is which), and Mary and Hec surrogate parents. Mary had been an actor in her native Greece but gave it up to marry her Australian soldier and become a farmer’s wife. As the children grow older, Cassie comes to accept that the boys are not her brothers, and her relationship with Coe intensifies. When the twins decide to enlist for Vietnam, she has to accept that there is nothing she can do about it, and their enlistment becomes the touchpaper that ignites what follows.

According to her biography at the front of the book, Glenda Guest grew up in the wheat belt of Western Australia and she describes life on a farm there without sentimentality, showing the isolation and the sheer hard physical work the land requires, and with a poet’s eye for the landscape.

Cassandra has a longstanding love of Shakespeare and there are echoes of Shakespeare in the ultimate unwinding of the plot: there are twins, tragedy, betrayal, and serendipitous encounters. In this otherwise naturalistic novel these slightly larger-than-life elements undercut some of the real pathos at the heart of Cassandra’s story.

But the passion for Shakespeare that infuses the novel can also illuminate tragedy:

Now it seems her mind is reaching for its own darkness: to be made human by the faculty of memory and then to have it ripped away is the ultimate satire, worthy of Shakespeare.

Unlike Siddon Rock, here Guest eschews magic realism, but with its unreliable narrator and Shakespearean plot dimensions, A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline isn’t a completely naturalistic work either. It exists on the plane of memories, where grief can enlarge small events and erase larger ones. Guest’s transcontinental journey provides an engaging and disturbing account of the terrain.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 20 February 2018.

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Favourite books of 2017

Benjamin Law Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal

A hugely important analysis of how a big lie took hold to derail a progressive policy that had nothing to do with teaching schoolchildren how to strap on dildos and everything to do with harm reduction. Information from Beyond Blue confirms that LGBTI people in Australia have poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide than average, and statistics published by the Australian Human Rights Commission show that ‘80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education’. Written with a measured tone even when describing outrageous calumnies, this essay investigates how an initiative to keep children safe came to be so shamefully misrepresented. Required reading for everyone interested in how sections of the media and politics can work together to further ignorance and intolerance.

George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo

There was just so much hype about George Saunders – ‘a genius!’ they gushed, not to mention that Booker Prize he won earlier this year – that I held off reading this, believing only disappointment could follow such high praise. However, having now read Lincoln in the Bardo I’m determined to read more of Saunders’s work. This is an extraordinary novel – fresh and profoundly moving. Yes, it’s a ghost story that turns on the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie, but read it for its very human story of grief, longing, delusion and hope — and its wonderful wit and flashes of the absurd. Saunders’s habit of putting a speaker’s name at the end of each piece of dialogue/thought was a little confusing at first but in retrospect I can see why he has chosen to treat the voices in this multi-voice narrative in this way. Haunting in very sense.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

Nothing like a crime novel that begins with its hero digging his own grave … Adrian McKinty’s evocation of Belfast during the Troubles is both energetic and chilling, and evokes the complexity of personal allegiances in a city at war. The plot unwinds in a sprightly manner with strong characters and dark twists. I can only salute the judges of the Ned Kelly Awards for giving it a prize.

Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

The complexity of personal allegiances is also a theme of Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, with the choices of Pavaiz Pasha, a young British man of Pakistani background, compromising his sisters in the eyes of the authorities – just as his jihadi father had done before him. This is a big novel and its themes are significant ones – how young men become seduced by extremism, and how those who love them most suffer for it. The novel is told by Pavaiz, his two sisters (the older, responsible Isma and Pavaiz’s beautiful twin Aneeka) and by father and son Karamat and Eamonn Lone. While the Lone and Pasha families are not quite the Montagues and Capulets, the relationship between Aneeka and Eamonn carries the story to its devastating conclusion.

Neal Drinnan Rural Liberties

This zesty tale is set in the small Australian town of Moralla, where the old Colchester place has been turned into an establishment called Rural Liberties, ‘a fresh new frontier for love and life’. The local children – and not a few of their parents – believe this is code for orgies. Drinnan has a lot of fun with small-town life, and some wonderful lines: the disappointed father who tells his new son-in-law, ‘You were certainly not what we had in mind for our daughter’s first husband’; the local publican who greets new customers with ‘Welcome to Moralla! Tidy Town two years running!’; and the husband and wife relationship experts, authors of the bestseller Are You Awake Love? who are in town to flog the sequel, Are You Still Awake Love? Yet the novel opens with a tragedy, the death of beautiful teenager Rebecca Moore, and beneath the lightness of touch are darker issues such as date rape, bigotry, alternative lifestyles and the ethics of reality television. But it’s also fun and hugely readable, even when the plot threatens to spin out of control.

This list originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 December 2017 in the article ‘NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017’.  

Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

What happens to those left behind when men go off to fight? This electrifying novel is Pakistan-raised, London-based Kamila Shamsie’s seventh. In her acknowledgements, she says she was inspired by Sophocles’ story of Antigone, the young woman who defies the king’s order that her brother remain unburied on the field of battle.

However, this story of the Pasha and Lone families in contemporary London, Syria, Pakistan and the US also has more than a touch of Romeo and Juliet.The power of family ties infuses the novel – family versus career, versus self-preservation, versus politics, versus jihad.

Home Fire, which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, opens with Isma Pasha being interrogated at London’s Heathrow Airport as she prepares to board a plane to the US, where she will undertake her PhD – studies interrupted by the deaths of her mother and grandmother that forced her to become a surrogate parent to her younger brother and sister, 12-year-old twins Pavaiz and Aneeka.

Now the twins are 19, old enough to fend for themselves. But first she must endure hours of intrusive questions from officials that range from “Do you consider yourself British?” (she was born and raised in London) to her views on the division of Iraq, suicide bombers, and The Great British Bake Off.

We soon learn that this interrogation is not simply because she is a Muslim, but because of the past actions of her father, and the more recent choices of her brother Pavaiz.

Her father died while being taken to Guantanamo. We are not told what drove Abil Pasha towards jihadism; Isma sees it as simply one of a succession of enterprises to which he turned his hand: “guitarist, salesman, gambler, con man, jihadist– but he was most consistent in the role of absentee father”.

The consequences for the family were not just the loss of a husband and father, but the attention of the police. On one occasion, the police take away a photograph album Abil Pasha has sent to Pavaiz with the inscription: “When you’re old enough, my son.” When it is eventually returned to the boy, the pictures of his father with his jihadist comrades have been removed.

Pavaiz is blessed with acute hearing and dreams of being a sound engineer. Aneeka feels the connection with her twin acutely, but now she is studying law she spends more and more time away from home. Pavaiz sees the break-up of their household as a kind of betrayal, a decision that has been made without him. So when Farooq appears, a man of “instant glamour” who speaks of his father as a hero who “understood that a man has larger responsibilities than the ones his wife and mother want to chain him to”, Pavaiz is ready to listen.

Entwined with this story of the Pasha siblings is the story of the Lone family. The Pashas regard controversial MP Karamat Lone with contempt for failing to help them find answers when Abil Pasha died, but now Karamat has been made the country’s first Muslim Home Secretary. His son Eamonn, a drifter living on his mother’s money, falls hard for the beautiful Aneeka.

From this moment the fates of the two families become bound together in an inevitable trajectory towards tragedy.

Shamsie’s last two novels have looped back and forth through history – from Nagasaki in 1941 to the US in 2002 in Burnt Shadows(shortlisted for the Orange Prize) and from Turkey in 515BC to Pakistan in 1930 in A God in Every Stone.

In contrast, Home Fires is compressed into a matter of months. Shamsie reveals the intimate – and conflicting – worlds of each of her five protagonists with enormous skill. The effect is more immediate and heartbreaking than any headline, and shows with devastating power how ordinary people can be caught up in the unthinkable.

This review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 September 2017.

Hannah Kent The Good People

Set in a remote village in County Kerry, Ireland, in the years 1825 and 1826, Hannah Kent’s second novel reiterates some of the themes of her first: like her much-praised debut, Burial Rites, at its heart are the hardships of 19th-century rural life, hardships amplified for women on their own.

However, where Burial Rites focussed on one woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and was propelled by her approaching execution, The Good People focusses on not one but three women, and their efforts to care for the crippled boy Micheál.

The novel opens with the death of Nóra’s husband, Martin, who has simply dropped dead working in the fields. In their tiny cabin, Nóra and Martin have been looking after their daughter’s child, the sickly, fractious Micheál, who can neither speak nor walk.

Nóra cannot manage their smallholding and care for Micheál on her own, so she goes to the hiring fair at Killarney – the nearest town of any size – and returns with Mary, a strong, hard-working girl from a large family. Mary does the washing and cooking and milking, churns the butter, and becomes the boy’s full-time carer. It’s an endless and thankless task, and Mary’s days pass in a haze of exhaustion:

She had never felt so tired. Mary had thought that the winter days, with their lull in labour and their quiet, unfriendly weather, would be easeful after her term of working through harvest. Those days had been unceasing. She had fetched and flailed and stooped until she felt she would die, until she was spangled with chaff and her hands bled from handling flax. But the child exhausted her in a different way. He tortured her with constant, shrill needfulness. Sometimes it seemed that he screamed his throat raw and no amount of soothing would quiet him.

Nance is the local ‘handy woman’, a combination of herbalist, midwife and mediator with the unseen. And it is the unseen – the Good People, the fairies who populate the valley and the imaginations of its inhabitants – that dominates the novel.

Despite their name, the Good People generally bring misfortune – cows refusing to give milk, chickens going off the lay, stillborn babies, illness and death can all be wrought by Them (the pronoun is always capitalised when referring to the fairies).

At every turn, it seems, the Good People must be appeased and dissuaded from meddling in the villagers’ lives. They dislike iron, for example, so fireside tongs left crossed over a baby’s cradle will ensure the fairies leave the child well alone; they also dislike fire, so should a person be suspected of being a changeling, application of a red-hot poker could frighten the fairy out of them.

When the sickly Micheál cannot be healed in the usual manner, by liberal applications of potatoes and buttermilk, and when first the doctor and then the priest say they can do nothing for him, Nóra comes to believe that the Good People are to blame. The boy in her care is not her grandson at all but a changeling, a fairy left by the Good People who have taken the real Micheál.

And so she calls in Nance.

In her afterword Hannah Kent notes that the bones of her story are based on real events. Irish folklore is rich and complex, and flourished in a harsh world where people survived hand to mouth. Butter is churned but never eaten — it is sold to pay the landlord. Doctors are distant and expensive, and even a visit from the priest requires coin to pay for it. Education is something gained from working in the fields and knowledge comes from the gossips who hang around the village well. (Naturally there is no running water in these houses with rammed earth floors and straw-filled windows.)

The accumulation of detail of the daily lives of the characters creates a world that is both recognisable and eerily strange. Despite the familiarity of the witch-trial trope – for surely this is where the story is heading – Kent renders it with a freshness and sympathy that is irresistible.

It’s difficult to read The Good People without comparing it to Burial Rites. Ultimately The Good People has a bleaker feel to it, albeit with a more resilient ending. If Burial Rites was a novel of dispossession and injustice, it was also a novel driven by passion. The Good People operates in a different key, its story driven by poverty, illness and desperation.

Above all, this is a novel about the love for a child, and the lengths that Nóra goes to for her grandson are both shocking and deeply moving. Perhaps this is where the Good People truly reside – inside ourselves, embodying our deepest fears and desires.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 27 July 2017.

On editing

People most often associate editing with things like spelling and grammar – getting rid of double negatives, tidying up dangling participles and making sure accommodation is spelt correctly.

All these things are important, of course, but for book editors working with fiction and creative non-fiction, they are but the tip of the iceberg – relatively straightforward matters compared to diagnosing a manuscript’s structural problems, checking for consistency of voice and internal logic, determining whether the story begins in the right place, if the characters are credible, the timeline plausible and whether the reader has been given too much or too little background information. Above all, this kind of editing is about understanding the author’s intention and setting about finding ways to assist the author to realise it.

It’s a process that requires empathy and imagination as well as technical knowledge of how stories work, and it’s not often that editors get together to discuss their craft.

At the beginning of May 2017 I was one of three mentors of a select group of mid-career book editors at the Residential Editorial Program, a week-long intensive development program held at Mt Eliza, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay.

The REP first ran in 1999 and has been held every two years since, with the exception of this year, which was run after a three-year break. Funding is always tight for a program like this, and it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that it has been able to continue with support from the Australia Council and the Australian Publishers Association.

It’s a unique program that focuses on editing fiction and creative non-fiction and on editors at mid-career. While there are numerous programs covering the basics of editing (many of them run by institutions such as RMIT, Sydney University and UTS, among many others), the REP is the only one for mid-career editors.  The centrepiece of the program is the opportunity to workshop the edit of an unpublished manuscript – a rare opportunity indeed for an editor, and testament to the generosity of the authors who have allowed early drafts of their work to be used in the program over the years. The workshops are complemented by guest speakers, which this year included author, editor and publisher Sophie Cunningham, authors Jared Thomas, Ellen van Neerven and Maxine Beneba Clarke, publishers Eva Mills and Robert Watkins, and editor Nadine Davidoff.

Authors understand how important editors are to making their work the best it can be, but it’s not something that’s well understood in the broader publishing industry, where it’s more likely to be sales and marketing personnel who get the status and higher salaries within publishing companies. With some notable exceptions, the trend for publishers’ editorial budgets is down, not up.

As publishers squeeze editorial resources, increasingly authors are turning to freelance editors to fine-tune their manuscripts before submission. (Should you be looking for a freelance editor for your work, may I recommend the Freelance Editors Network to you.)

It’s a contrast to the situation in the US. Among the REP’s guest speakers was Annabel Blay, recipient of the 2015–16 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, a biennial award for an Australian editor to spend 10 weeks in New York pursuing a research project. Annabel set out to investigate how developmental and structural editing was done in the US.

Developmental editing is exactly what it sounds like – an editor helping an author develop a manuscript, exploring ideas, characters, themes and plots. Structural editing generally focuses on what the author has already created, and whether all the elements are working as they should.

Annabel’s account of US publishing and editing was fascinating (and here’s the link if you’d like to read her full report, Developing ourselves, developing our authors: developmental and structural editing of fiction in the US) , but I think we were all stopped in our tracks not just by the revelation that a number of New York editors preferred to edit on screen using four screens (surprising as that was) but by the fact that in the US it is not uncommon for a manuscript to go through seven or even eight rounds of editing. Some of these are done by the agent, some by the editor. While too little editorial attention is clearly undesirable, it’s impossible not to wonder whether having too much may create a new set of problems, with too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Nevertheless, whatever challenges the profession of editing faces in Australia, having spent time with the editors at the REP it’s impossible not to feel optimistic.  Australian literature has skilled, sensitive and passionate hands to assist it into the world.

This article originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 16 June 2017.

Michael Sala The Restorer

Why would a woman return, with her children, to a relationship she believes to be unsafe? And if that decision leads to catastrophe, is she to blame? Or is she the victim?

Questions of agency lie at the heart of Michael Sala’s second novel. His first, The Last Thread, won considerable critical acclaim when it was published in 2012, and The Restorer shares many of its characteristics – there is the Newcastle setting, the mother who is a nurse, the impact of the mother’s relationships on her children, and the assurance of the writing. In these respects The Restorer could be seen as the distilled essence of its predecessor.

But where The Last Thread ranged widely over continents and decades, and was told from the point of view of the son, The Restorer confines itself to Newcastle and the span of a year or so around 1989 – the year of the Newcastle earthquake and the murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh at Stockton Beach – and is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Daniel’s teenage sister, Freya, and his mother, Maryanne.

We know from the opening pages that this will be the story of a catastrophe – we are shown the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles outside the family’s home, and then taken back to the moment when they first arrived at the derelict house near the beach in Newcastle. The father, Roy, is a builder, and the plan is to restore the house and the marriage – Roy and Maryanne have been separated for year, and this is to be their fresh start.

However, like the old mining tunnels that run beneath all the houses in the area, there are subterranean issues in the marriage that remain unresolved.

It is a testament to Sala’s skills that despite that early glimpse of the story’s outcome, the tension is maintained throughout. In this respect it’s a bit like watching a car crash – you know things are going to end badly but you cannot look away. When it comes, the conclusion is undeniably powerful.

But the novel is also a resonant character study of mother and daughter. Each keeps secrets from the other, and both keep secrets from Roy.

Freya would have much preferred that they had stayed in Sydney with her grandmother, and is repelled by the state of the house when they arrive. She acts out her unhappiness, skipping school, smoking pot, shoplifting and binge drinking at parties. Eventually a teacher tries to talk to her: “You need to take charge … we can’t always control what happens around us, but we get to choose what all of that makes us … You have more control than you think.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard, their concerned neighbour, and he tells Maryanne: “[Y]ou might be making choices, but they’re the kind of choices, I don’t know, a cow makes when it’s being herded into a corral.”

In her work as a nurse at the nearby hospital Maryanne is skilled, confident and respected. She stands up to the doctors if she believes one of her patients is in danger. Yet at home she seems struck by a kind of emotional exhaustion.

Why does Maryanne give Roy another chance? Even as they leave Sydney she feels her certainty slipping away. Does she really believe that this is best for her children, as she tells Freya? Is it because of her mother? Her father? Because she married too young and cannot now forge a path for herself without him? Or is it all some terrible folie à deux?

In telling the novel from Maryanne’s and Freya’s points of view, Roy’s motivations are largely unexamined. He remains an unsettling presence beyond the control of any of them, despite what Maryanne likes to think.

The landscape of Newcastle’s cliffs and beaches is strongly present in the book, as is violence towards women – one of Freya’s classmates is encircled and spat on by a group of boys, and, like the real-life Stockton murder, a girl in the year below Freya is killed at a party.

This is a sensitively rendered novel with a fine eye for emotional and physical detail. The questions it raises are as disturbing as they are compelling.

This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 May 2017.

Two recent biographies of Australian women

I love a good biography. During my career I have been fortunate to publish two award-winners: Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin and Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift. Each was written by a trained historian, each involved a mountain of research, and each took over 20 years to write. They exemplify some of the difficulties of writing biography in Australia: to produce a work that is authoritative, carefully crafted and thoroughly researched takes a long time, and mostly publishers’ advances are modest and the writing has to be financed by other work.

The traditional biography unfolds in more or less chronological order as the biographer assembles facts about the subject and her times, weighing evidence, offering interpretations when they can, leaving open questions when they can’t.

Two recent books about Australian women upend this traditional model in different ways.

Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly: The astonishing life of Ned Kelly’s mother, in fact spends more of its 500-odd pages on Ned, his associates, the extended Kelly/Quinn/Lloyd families – and what feels like every moment of the often incompetent police pursuit of Ned and his gang during the Kelly Outbreak – than it does on Ellen Kelly. There are even sketches of the unedifying life of Ned Kelly’s hangman. Told in a lively present tense, for all its racy readability it nevertheless is not a book with Ellen Kelly at its centre.

To add insult to injury, Mrs Kelly’s raven hair (mentioned several times in the text) is rendered chestnut on the cover.

Perhaps the author began his book intending to write about Ellen Kelly, but too late discovered there was not enough material for one, or that while all the action was happening, his subject was in gaol. Or perhaps he really wanted to write a book about the Kelly Gang all along, and calling it Mrs Kelly was simply a way to promote a familiar story with a fresh angle.

Kerry Davies’s book A Wife’s Heart is subtitled The untold story of Bertha and Henry Lawson, and it paints a sad picture of the breakdown of the marriage of one of Australia’s most famous poets. Unlike Ellen Kelly, who was illiterate, Bertha left a trove of letters as well as writing her own account of the marriage, My Henry Lawson. One of the pleasures of the book is the way it makes use of the letters, and the insights they offer into Bertha’s personality.

Bertha Bredt was raised in a radical family. The month before she married Henry in April 1896, her younger sister married Jack Lang, who would go on to become premier of New South Wales. At one point Bertha seems to have had some literary ambition of her own, as there is a reference to her sending a story to the Bulletin which isn’t published

Many of her letters to Henry vividly convey both her affection and concern for him, as well as her frustration with his inability to provide. Bertha suffered a mental breakdown when the family went to England; whether this was the result of loneliness, postnatal depression, the strain of poverty or all three is unclear.

 The Lawson marriage was plagued by financial difficulties – Henry may have had fame, but money was always a problem. And then there was his drinking. The book opens with an affidavit Bertha filed in the Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in April 1903 accusing Henry of ‘cruelty towards me’, including that he ‘struck me in the face and about the body and blacked my eye and hit me with a bottle …’ This is followed by a letter from ‘Harry’ that begins ‘Girlie, Do try to forgive and forget.’

Henry Lawson had numerous spells in hospitals in an effort to stop drinking. Once the couple separated and his maintenance payments fell too far into arrears, he also had spells in Darlinghurst gaol, which he christened ‘Starvinghurst’.

However, the central theme of the book is single motherhood, and woven around Bertha’s experiences as a separated woman bringing up two children in the early 20th century are the author’s experiences of single parenthood in the 21st.

And for me this is where the book struggles. In the author’s account of her own experiences there is her supportive mother, there is paid employment, there are payments (albeit erratic) from her child’s father (who is not an alcoholic but an itinerant jazz musician), and she is living at a time when separation and single parenthood does not have the stigma that it did in Bertha’s day. This isn’t to say that single parenthood was easy for her – clearly it was not – but rather that the resonances one might expect from such a juxtaposition don’t seem to go much beyond the obvious: that marriage breakups are painful and raising a child/children alone is hard work.

Nevertheless, there is much fascinating material here. But I do wonder what is it about the Lawson women that invites authors to inject themselves into their stories. Brian Matthews’s biography of Bertha’s mother-in-law, Louisa Lawson, also features the biographer, who interrogates the anxieties of his lot as he attempts to piece together the life of his subject. When it was published in 1987, Louisa was acclaimed for revealing not only the life of Louisa Lawson but the art of biography itself.

Yet is it just a little unfair that these women, relegated to supporting roles in history – mother of the great man, wife of the great man – should have their lives examined not on their own terms but to illuminate their authors’ own concerns?

But then, don’t all biographies do that? All biographies pick and choose which episodes of a life to emphasise, which to elide, which to omit. We know the biographer chooses how the story is shaped. There are many ways to tell the story of a life. Perhaps in putting themselves into the work, these authors are exemplifying the obsession biography requires, and the result is more honest for it.

Peter Doyle Crooks Like Us

Peter Doyle seeks to unlock the stories behind this extraordinary collection of police mug shots from the early 20th century.

Around 1910 the New South Wales Police began photographing some of the people who passed through Sydney’s Central and other inner-city police stations.

Peter Doyle has collected around 200 of the pictures here, and they present a remarkable and diverse slice of Sydney life. Doyle calls the photographs ‘informal mug shots’ and they are certainly a far cry from the expressionless police photographs we know today.

Some subjects are natty dressers, others are in their shirtsleeves, some appear to have no criminal record at all. Their expressions range from hard-eyed defiance to cool confidence, from resignation to the verge of tears. …

You can read the complete review in the Newtown Review of Books here. It originally appeared on 24 January 2017.

 

Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs (eds) Sex and Death Stories

This anthology could have developed in many different ways – sex and death are the daily fodder of the tabloids, after all …  The settings range from Petina Gappah’s African ladies’ hair salon to Hobbs’ bleakly futurist fake nuclear reactor. What they all have in common is their intimacy; they describe deeply private moments that their protagonists may never be able to explain to themselves, let alone share.

This review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 2017. You can read the full review here.

My top books of 2016

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood

This year was Charlotte Wood’s year, with The Natural Way of Things winning not only the Stella Prize but also sharing the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. It’s a book of considerable power, beautifully written, and has made a significant contribution to the ongoing discussions about misogyny this year. I hesitated to pick it up when it first came out (which is why it is on my list this year rather than last year, when it was first published) – the subject of women being unjustly imprisoned seemed just too depressing, and I was not entirely convinced by the set-up (how have they come to be imprisoned? By whom?) But within pages I was hooked and found it not only a compelling page-turner but rich in its delineation of character and vivid in its evocation of the landscape. Make no mistake, this is challenging material, but Charlotte Wood has crafted it into a novel that burns brightly and its energy is difficult to resist.

An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

An Isolated Incident also deals with issues of misogyny and violence towards women. It subverts the usual tropes of crime fiction by refusing to dwell on the details of the victim’s death (and it’s true, what you imagine is always worse), and instead keeps its gaze firmly on those trying to cope in the wake of the crime. Chris, the victim’s sister, is a compelling mix of feistiness and grief and her voice is pitch perfect. I wrote a more detailed response to the novel here.

The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard

Earlier this year I read Hilary Mantel’s article in the Guardian about Elizabeth Jane Howard, and sought out The Long View (first published in 1956). It is considered by many to be Howard’s finest novel, and it is not difficult to see why it is so admired. Technically it is superbly controlled, as the narrative proceeds backwards through the life of an unhappily married woman, and it is simultaneously sharp-eyed, compassionate and thought-provoking. Its world-view is very much of its time, but not uncritically so. The protagonist, Antonia, is expected to do little more than marry well, and despite her father being an academic, her education has equipped her for little else. Yet in its delicate unpeeling of a relationship, and what it leaves unsaid, it is timeless.

The Dyehouse, Mena  Calthorpe

1956 is also the year in which Australian Mena Calthorpe set her novel of inner-city factory life, The Dyehouse, which was first published in 1961. This has recently been reissued in the Text Classics series and has a handy introduction by Fiona Macfarlane that sets out some of the background of Mena Calthorpe’s life. Calthorpe had worked in factories herself, and brings liveliness and compassion to her stories of the workers in the dyehouse, from Hughie, who has given the dyehouse his working life and can mix dyes like a magician, to Patty the innocent young office girl who believes the boss when he says he’ll marry her. The manager, Renshaw, manipulative and mendacious, is himself beholden to the managers in the city. There is romance, corporate and individual bastardry, an unplanned pregnancy and a premature death. While the author has put a disclaimer at the front to say that the Macdonaldtown of the book bears no relation to any actual place, it’s clear that it’s set in what is now called Erskineville, next door to Newtown, once home to many factories. Told through the eyes of the different characters, the novel breathes life into each of them so that we care what happens to them.

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer

Finally, David Dyer’s fresh account of the sinking of the Titanic in this debut novel, had me dreaming of icy seas for some time after I had finished it. The conundrum at the novel’s heart is a perplexing and tragic one: how could the SS Californian, a mere 20 miles away, not have seen the Titanic’s distress rockets? How could it not have gone to help? I wrote a more detailed review here and pondered how we humans can have the capacity to refuse to see what is in front of us.

This was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 December 2016.