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Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

Infinite Splendours is Australian author Sofie Laguna’s most recent novel (published in 2020).

I’ve previously read The Choke and The Eye of the Sheep by this author. Both told the story of a child or teenager living in very difficult family circumstances.

Infinite Splendours also began with a child as the main character, although this story took on a different direction to The Choke and The Eye of the Sheep by continuing to following Lawrence’s story until he reached middle age, showing how the traumatic events of his childhood affected the rest of his life.

Lawrence and his brother Paul grew up on a 40-acre property at the bottom of a mountain in the Southern Grampians, near Hamilton in Victoria. The small town they lived in, Hughton and their mountain, Mount Wallis were fictional, but as I read I was reminded of Mount Sturgeon which looms above the small town of Dunkeld in the Southern Grampians. I feel sure that Dunkeld and Mount Sturgeon inspired the locations for the book.

The boy’s father died in World War Two and they were raised by their mother, who sadly wasn’t the only war widow in the district. The boys always called her ‘Mother’, never ‘Mum’ or ‘Ma’. Their mother never showed Lawrence or Paul that she loved them in either her words or by physical affection, nor did they often receive praise, although she was proud of Lawrence’s academic achievements. In return, Lawrence and Paul’s behaviour was unfailingly formal, respectful and polite towards their mother.

Despite their mother’s lack of affection towards them, Lawrence and Paul were very fond of each other, and both were caring, kind children.

Lawrence and Paul were quite different to each other in their interests and abilities. Paul was a good sportsman who was mechanically-minded, while Lawrence was an academic and a naturally gifted artist. Lawrence’s school teacher recognised his talent from an early age and encouraged him to draw and paint, although his mother did not value his art.

Their mother worked hard and provided for the family but she saved all of her love for her brother Reggie, who hadn’t been seen since they were teenagers.

When their uncle wrote to say he was coming for a visit, their mother was overjoyed. Lawrence was pleased too, although Paul was not, perhaps sensing that their uncle would come between him and his brother.

Lawrence took to Uncle from the beginning and trusted and liked him. Paul, who had more street-smarts than Lawrence, did not. Uncle groomed Lawrence with attention and presents, and eventually raped him before leaving the district the next morning. Paul guessed at what had been done to Lawrence by Uncle but by then the damage was done. Lawrence suffered a nervous breakdown while Mother was none the wiser as to what had taken place.

Lawrence grew up to be a stammering wreck of a man who suffered physically and emotionally for the rest of his life. He pushed Paul away and was unable to form relationships with other adults. For a short while Lawrence worked at a dairy in nearby Hamilton but left even that after he was beaten up by his co-workers who were suspicious about the nature of his friendship with one of their young sons. By this time Paul had moved into town, leaving Lawrence alone on the property after their mother’s death.

The story then jumped ahead many years to find Lawrence a middle-aged man, still living in isolation on the family property and dependent on Paul for his food and art supplies. Lawrence had spent his years painting Mount Wallis and his immediate surroundings. He was content and nothing would have changed in his future except that a noisy young family moved into the long-vacant house next door to his, shattering his peace.

I didn’t enjoy Infinite Splendours as much as I have Sofia Launa’s other books, because the subject matter made this a particularly difficult read. I hated that Lawrence was abused as a boy and throughout the second part of this story, felt increasingly horrified and distressed wondering if Lawrence as an adult might do the same thing to another child. The question of whether predatory behaviour by adult men towards children is a result of their own childhood experiences and how much sympathy we should feel towards men in this situation loomed uncomfortably over the story, too.

I’ve written and rewritten that last sentence. Is the answer some, or none? I can’t decide. If I feel sympathy for a predator who was a victim himself does that make me a monster too? Feeling no sympathy for a victim whose learned behaviour made him a possible predator seems wrong, but so does feeling sympathy towards him.

While I felt angry that Lawrence was the victim of a predator, I also (and I acknowledge that this is completely unfair) felt annoyed that this was the story of a male victim when so many girls are victims too. I suppose the difference is that female victims of abuse generally don’t seem to perpetuate the abuse they received when they become adults, which means that this story had to be about a boy.

As per all of Sofia Laguna’s books, I loved her actual writing style and felt very connected to the Southern Grampians setting. I also enjoyed reading about Lawrence’s art and appreciated the ongoing joy he received when looking through a book depicting the work of the world’s greatest artists.

My purchase of Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (September).

Both of You by Adele Parks

I raced through Both of You by Adele Parks.

I doubt that I will remember the plot in years to come but I enjoyed the story while I was reading it, despite guessing who did what and why in this mystery-thriller.

The story began with a woman imprisoned in a bare room by an unknown person, before going back a few days to introduce Leigh, the wife of Mark and stepmother to Oli and Seb. It transpired that Leigh and Mark had married ten years ago, within a year of the death of Mark’s first wife. Leigh couldn’t have children of her own and felt lucky to have snaffled Mark and the boys. Leigh was something of a superwoman, running their family like clockwork and managing a high-powered job which took her all over the UK.

When Leigh didn’t come home from a work trip when expected, Mark called in the police.

The story then introduced glamourous Kai, who was married to the irresistibly rich, handsome Daan. When Daan reported Kai was missing after a visit to her mother, the same police officer was called in to investigate her disappearance. She recognised that there was a link between the two missing women.

To write more about the plot would spoil it for other readers.

None of the characters were perfect, although I liked some more than others. The main characters, Leigh and Kai had secrets they were hiding from their partners, families and friends. Their partners, Mark and Daan had secrets of their own. Family friends of Leigh and Kai had secrets, too.

Interestingly, the ‘now’ part of the story was set in London in March 2020 as the world went into the first COVID-19 lockdown. No doubt there will be many more novels set in COVID-19 times to follow, but this was a first for me.

Both of You was the author’s 21st novel. I would read another of her books in-between more serious reading.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career was Australian author Miles Franklin’s first novel, written when she was a very young woman and published in 1901 when she was just 21 years old. Prior to publication the author wrote to Australian writer Henry Lawson asking him to review her manuscript and provide her with advice, which he did. Lawson went on to write the preface to My Brilliant Career where he described Franklin as “a little bush girl” who had “lived her book.”

The story was told in the first person by Sybilla Melvyn, who was a sixteen-year old living with her parents, brother and sister at Possum Gully, a small farm near Goulburn in New South Wales when the story began. The family had been living at Possum Gully in poverty since Sybilla’s father had taken to drinking after losing almost everything from speculating in stock. Sybilla, who remembered happier times when her father had owned three stations in the Tidbinbilla Ranges, was homesick for the family’s old life in the mountains and was desperately unhappy and bored with the never-ending drudgery of farm and housework at Possum Gully.

Like many relationships between teenage girls and their mothers, Sybilla and her mother failed to understand each other’s character and butted heads constantly, so when Sybilla’s grandmother asked her to stay with her at Caddagut, her mother’s family home in the mountains, Sybilla was delighted.

Apart from wishing she was pretty and knowing that she wasn’t, tomboyish Sybilla thrived at Caddagut, where she was surrounded by books and music, loved and made a pet of by her grandmother, her aunt, uncle and the community in general. It wasn’t long before Harold Beecham, the richest, handsomest and most eligible man in the district fell in love with Sybilla and proposed marriage to her.

Sybilla wasn’t in love with Harold and wanted a brilliant career of her own, as either a writer, singer or as a performer, but she agreed to marry Harold on the proviso that they keep their engagement a secret and wait until she turned 21 to marry, in the hope that Harold would fall in love with someone else before then.

When Harold lost all of his money and property Sybilla felt honour-bound to remain true to him, despite Harold offering to release her from her promise to marry him. Then, when Sybilla’s father’s finances went from bad to worse (I can’t be the only person to have noted that a high proportion of the men in this story are terrible business men), Sybilla was obliged to work as a governess/housekeeper to the dirtiest, most illiterate family that ever lived, far from either Caddagut or Possum Gully. After eventually suffering a mental breakdown in service Sybilla returned home to Possum Gully.

Harold, who was possibly the luckiest bloke this side of the Murrumbidgee, inherited a pile from a woman who had loved his father back in the day, so he bought his station back and went in search of Sybilla at Possum Gully, who, despite being terribly unhappy and not seeing anything better in her future, took the opportunity to tell Harold as offensively as possible that she didn’t want to marry him.

The story ended without any hint of what Sybilla might do next, or with any hope that she would be able to escape the monotony of life at Possum Gully, although many years later a sequel, My Career Goes Bung was released.

My Brilliant Career should be required reading for all teenage girls. Not only was Sybilla’s story enormously entertaining, as she was an impulsive and headstrong character who as a result was constantly having to apologise for her dreadful behaviour, but she was also funny and clever and true to herself. She wanted what she wanted and wasn’t prepared to settle for less. Miles Franklin is celebrated as a feminist but there is a message in this character for everyone.

The story was written by Miles Franklin to entertain her own friends. It isn’t perfect, and it is easy to see that the story was written by a very young woman, one who liked melodrama and fun and excitement.

However, the settings are written so truly that I could see and smell and touch Sybilla’s beloved Caddagut, as well as her detested Possum Gully. The excitements of bush life were described so well that I felt a part of them, whether it be the thrill of seeing a snake on the road, the smell of smoke and the haze from a bushfire threatening the district, or the interest that comes from being part of a wider community with all sorts of things going on from the excitement and fun of attending bush races, to having a chat with everyone you know after the weekly church service or lively conversations and cups of tea with neighbours and friends who wouldn’t think of passing by without stopping in.

Modern readers will recognise the racism in the book. Aboriginal people are described using derogatory terms and have negative qualities attributed to them, as are Chinese, with one character suggesting to Sybilla that his casually offensive comments wouldn’t offend a Chinese man as the Chinese man didn’t have any feelings to be hurt. The story is a product of its times, although Sybilla at least disagreed with the character who said that the Chinese man didn’t have any feelings.

The author went on to endow the Miles Franklin Literary Award, an annual prize given for literature about Australian life in any of its phases. Recently the Stella Prize came into being as an annual award given to a female Australian author.

It has been far too long since I’ve read My Brilliant Career or any of Miles Franklin’s other works.

My Brilliant Career was book thirty one in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2022.

April Lady by Georgette Heyer

April Lady by Georgette Heyer was a delight from start to finish.

The story of beautiful and young Lady Nell Cardross whose family were known for being gamblers and wastrels, and her relationship with her older, masterful husband after a series of miscommunications left them doubting each other in every way was always going to end with a kiss, but how they got from the start to the finish of this story was fun.

After enjoying a comfortable arrangement for many years with a lady who wasn’t a lady, Lord Giles fell in love with seventeen-year old Nell at first sight, paid off the worst of Nell’s father’s spectacular gambling debts and married her. However Nell, who had also fallen in love with Lord Giles, was unfailing polite and amiable towards her husband but never showed him how she truly felt after her mother warned her not to in case she bored him.

Nell had no idea of how to manage money so spent a ridiculous amount of the generous allowance Giles made to her on dresses, hats and reticules, then against her husband’s explicit orders gave her brother Dysart a large sum to tide him over when he got into trouble.

On learning that Nell hadn’t been paying her bills Lord Giles called her to task before settling her accounts, leaving Nell feeling embarrassed and ashamed of herself, much like a small child who has gotten into trouble from their parent.

When Nell later received a staggeringly large bill for a court dress that she had forgotten to tell Lord Giles about, instead of telling her husband the truth she asked Dysart and his rackety friend to help her to raise the money, which allowed the story to leap from Nell almost going to the money-lenders (shocking!), to Dysart attempting a hold-up so he could steal the Cardross family jewels then sell them so Nell could pay her debts (even more shocking!)

Having caught Nell in several little white lies Lord Giles began to suspect that Nell had only married him for his money and, feeling humiliated and broken-hearted, was increasingly civil and cold to poor little Nell.

The supporting characters added enormously to this story. As well as Nell’s brother Dysart they included Lord Giles’ headstrong younger sister who was madly in love with a young man without any money and Lord Giles’ cousin, Mr Felix Hethersett, who acted as if he were Nell’s lover but was in reality her strongest supporter. Felix’s comments on fashion, particularly when providing advice to the female characters were priceless.

April Lady probably isn’t one of Georgette Heyer’s better stories, but even so, it was fun and there is no one like this author for historical romance, plus I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I started A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra knowing so little about Chechnya, the country where the story was set, that I couldn’t have pinpointed the country’s location on a map. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even know what continent Chechnya was part of. I vaguely recalled hearing the name on the television news and associated the country with bearded-guerillas armed with military-grade weapons and buildings so badly damaged by bombs that they need to be demolished, but like many people I ignore news stories that I don’t want to see or think about.

Several chapters into this book I realised that a whole new world had been opened up to me. I turned to Wikipedia to learn more about Chechnya and the country’s history, and learned of ferocious wars, genocide and disappearances of people of recent times. Very recent. I amended my search to ‘images’ and came up with photos of the country’s president, a jovial-looking bloke, then skimmed through an article where he said that he considered his wife (presumably his first wife since he has several) to be his property.

I exited the article and scrolled down further, hoping to see were photos of the countryside, the cities, the parks and the people but instead came across photos of many, many dead bodies lying in trenches. Never in a million years did I expect to see photos of the dead, so many photos of so many people who were killed on the edges of these terrible trenches for the convenience of their killers. I can’t stress enough that these photos were taken in my times. Our times. What kind of world are we living in?

My horror was compounded by the events that have been taking place in Afghanistan while I was reading this book. This time, I did pay attention to the news. Again, I have to ask what kind of world are we living in?

Don’t answer that.

We’re all living in the same world, but some of us are luckier than others. I’m lucky to live in a country where I am valued. I have clean water to drink, enough food to eat and a roof over my head. I received an education, I like my job and have the satisfaction of knowing that I contribute to society in a meaningful way. In general, the people in my country celebrate each other’s differences at best and tolerate or ignore them at worst. My country has rules that are fair, most of us follow them and recognise they exist to keep all of us safe. Our laws are the same for everyone regardless of their differences of gender, religion, age, education level, or their background. I know how lucky I am.

However, back to my book review.

I found A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to be a fascinating story. This was Anthony Marra’s first book who has since written several other well-received novels.

The main story was told over just a few days and featured a handful of characters linked to eight-year old Havaa, who were either as her family, neighbours or family friends from her village.

The very first sentence in this book described, in a very matter of fact way, the Feds burning down Havaa’s house and taking her father, Dokka.

Akhmed, a family friend and neighbour, found Havaa hiding and surreptitiously snuck her past various military checkpoints to a hospital in the nearby city of Volchansk, where he promised the doctor in charge that he would work for Havaa’s keep. Akhmed knew that if Havaa were to remain in the village she would soon be killed by the Feds in retaliation for a past event committed by others.

Akhmed was a doctor, but not a very good one. Prior to Akhmed’s arrival Sonja had been the last doctor remaining in the Volchansk hospital which had once employed hundreds of medical staff. Despite have little faith in Akhmed’s medical ability Sonja and the elderly nurse who assisted her agreed to Akhmed’s request out of necessity.

Due to extensive practice caused by people stepping on landmines, Sonja had become particularly skilled at performing amputations. I was partly horrified and partly amused reading about Akhmed carrying out his first amputation under Sonja’s instruction. ‘Amused’ may seem like a strange word to use, but Sonja made fun of Akhmed’s surprise to learn what colour a living person’s bone marrow was since he had only previously known marrow in the form of a cooked meat. In real life I probably would have passed out.

The story slid back and forwards over a ten year period from 1994 to 2004, between the first and second Chechen Wars. It told of Sonja and her relationship with her missing sister Natasha, Ahkmed and his friendships with Dokka and another of their neighbours, Ramzan, and of Ramzan’s father, Kassan. The friendship between the men had splintered after Ramzan became an informer on the people of their village after he and Dokka miraculously returned from the Landfill, a place where most detainees never returned from. The descriptions of the torture inflicted on almost all of the characters at one time or another was horrific, although to the characters themselves the torment was commonplace and they did not dwell on these events.

The history of Chechnya was also included in this story and it was complicated. Sonja and Natasha were ethnic Russians whose grandparents had been sent to Chechnya in Stalin’s time to populate the country. The remaining characters were Chechen Muslims and were considered to be less importance in their own country, but the references to the country’s history went back far beyond these characters and that of their grandparents. Chechnya doesn’t appear to have had much peace for at least 600 years.

The connections between the characters was woven together like delicate lace, with multiple strands connecting them and their stories.

In between telling the story of the main characters there were tiny little detours here and there into the lives of the minor characters. Some were precious memories while others were glimpses into the future. In their own way these little stories, almost asides, were souvenirs much like those that Havaa had collected from the refugees who stayed with her family as they passed through her village, leaving Chechnya on their way to somewhere else, somewhere safer, somewhere they could have a better life.

Despite the terrible times the characters were living in, there was plenty of humour in this novel, although much of it could be described as gallows humour. Ahkmed confused Ronald Reagan with Ronald McDonald as all American names sounded the same to him. A gangster was driven around and around his driveway in the backseat of his BMW by his driver since there were no intact roads left to drive on in the city. Deshi, the elderly nurse from the hospital had fallen in love twelve times previously and had hated oncologists ever since a love affair with a philandering one had left her heart-broken many years ago.

The constant personal losses suffered by the characters in this novel were heart-wrenching. Everyone carried their home address somewhere in their clothing in the hope that when they died their bones would be returned to their families (or whomever was left of them) and their homes (again, or what was left of them). Extraordinarily, those who didn’t die in violent circumstances would live to be an enormous age.

Anthony Marra’s writing was beautiful. I loved his story-telling style and felt connections with each of his characters without feeling as if I was wallowing in grief or terror or any of the other emotions they were feeling as they faced their terrible situations. The characters were sometimes brave and sometimes cowardly. During terrible events they were often resilient but at other times, minor issues devastated them. At all times they were human and I didn’t like to think too much about how I might have behaved if I had been in the situations they were in.

I would warn other readers that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena should be read when you have the time and energy to pay it full attention, because it isn’t a story that can be read lightly.

I’ll certainly read Marra’s other books.

The Strays by Emily Bitto

I loved The Strays by Australian writer Emily Bitto. The story was set amongst a group of bohemian modern artists living on a grand property in Melbourne during the 1930s. I am so interested in this topic and liked the setting and character’s stories so much that this book could have been written for me especially.

The story was narrated by Lily. As the only child of straight-laced, hard-working parents Lily’s suburban home life was what most of us would call ‘normal’.

When Lily met Eva Trentham at school they became friends. Lily had never been exposed to anything like Eva’s bohemian family and their world and she became completely fascinated by the Trenthams. Eva’s father Evan was a supremely confident and successful modern artist whose work pushed the boundaries of acceptability in Melbourne society. Helena, Eva’s mother, had inherited the grand property where they threw wild parties for other modern artists in their circle. Evan and Helena’s daughters Eva, Bea and Heloise were loved but neglected.

Lily’s parents didn’t much like Evan or Helena but they were slightly star-struck by the Trenthams and encouraged Lily and Eva’s friendship, and after Lily’s father suffered a serious accident were relieved when the Trentham’s offered to have Lily live with them. What Lily’s parents didn’t realise was that a houseful of other artists had also made their home on the Trentham property. Evan and Helena hoped to create their own form of Utopia as the artists worked in a shared space with Evan and made the Trentham home their own.

As young teenagers, Lily and Eva’s friendship was extraordinarily intense. They smoked marijuana (which in the spirit of the times when the book was set was called ‘reefer’) and drank the dregs of the alcohol discarded by the adults at the Trentham’s parties, attended glamourous art exhibitions and opening nights, and listened to the adults spout about their ideals. They saw Evan’s artwork seized by the police because it was considered to be debauched, and posed semi-naked for an attractive young male artist living amongst them.

Eventually, the fun stopped when two of the Trentham’s daughters became sexually involved with one of the artists.

I think everyone has been fascinated by someone else’s family at some point in their life, and know that I was. My conservative family background meant that when I was exposed as a teenager to a friend’s hard-living household I thought it all very exciting and desperately wanted to be part of it. I didn’t see then that what I thought was glamourous and wild was actually a fairly unhappy and sordid way to live. However, looking back at her time with the Trentham’s in later life, Lily’s experience was different to mine. Her exposure to the Trentham’s formed her in that she went on to become an art historian and used her personal exposure to the Trentham era to document their times.

I was interested in the connections between the Trentham daughter’s names and that of their parents. Bea, who name didn’t echo either of her parents, was the only child who escaped the tragic consequences of neglect and debauchery and as an adult, live a functional life.

After finishing this book I’m keen to read and learn more about Sunday and John Reed and the group of artists who lived at their home at Heide in Melbourne during the 1930s. The property is now the Heide Museum of Modern Art. I’m planning a visit as soon as Melbourne comes out of these seemingly never-ending lockdowns.

Emily Bitto won The Stella Prize in 2015 with The Strays. The Stella Prize is an annual award given to a female Australian author. The prize itself was begun in 2013 to address the under-representation of female winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Both prizes are named for Australia’s Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who wrote as Miles Franklin.

I thought The Strays was terrific.

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

While I enjoyed Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg, I’m writing this review several days after finishing the book and can’t really remember what the story was about, however can safely say it was one of those heart-warming small-town stories with good-hearted people looking out for each other in the style of Fannie Flagg.

A re-read of the blurb reminded me that the central character was an elderly woman who ran baking classes. Lucille wasn’t the most diplomatic person living in Mason but she had a good heart and her wonderful cakes went a long way towards smoothing over hurt feelings.

The story soon enlarged to include that of Lucille’s neighbours and friends. They included the young family living next door to Lucillle whose lives had recently been turned upside down because of ill-health, a newly-divorced woman who was also new to town, a sweet waitress from the local cafe and the local giant (an enormous handyman called Tiny) who were in love with each other but too shy to let each other know.

I’m not sure what the book’s title had to do with the story, but the mismatch didn’t matter. The story was light and happy and sometimes that’s exactly what I want.

The only thing which would have improved Night of Miracles for me would have been the inclusion of Lucille’s recipes, or better yet, actual slices of her Orange Cake, Cinnamon Rolls or Caramel Cake.

After reading this book I baked a Chocolate Cake. Don’t you love it when a book inspires you to eat more cake?

Life, Bound by Marian Matta

Life, Bound by Australian author Marian Matta was recommended to me by Sue from Whispering Gums. You can read her review here:

https://whisperinggums.com/2021/05/06/marian-matta-life-bound-bookreview/

Life, Bound is a collection of short stories. Some are very short, not even two pages but I liked that the author recognised when her stories were finished and didn’t waffle on.

The first story, The Heart of Harveys Lane tells of a photographer who became obsessed by her home in the country, which prior to her occupancy had been empty for many years. The photographer eventually became a recluse. I’m a little bit of a hermit myself so felt as if I understood this character. I liked the story and wish that this beautifully located, private house with the ornate timber carvings was real and that I lived in it.

Climb was the story of Fergus, whose father had been replaced by a man his mother wanted him to call Daddy Ray. Fergus spent the whole of this story in a tree, climbing higher and higher as the sense of unease surrounding his family’s circumstances grew.

Danny Boy had a happier ending. Danny was very young and trying to find out who he really was and what he wanted, and by the end of this story, I think he had.

Babies-In-Their-Eyes told the story of a couple who ran away together when they were very young before creating a life together that excluded all others, even their own children. Babies-In-Their-Eyes is the story I’ve thought the most about since finishing reading this collection. I imagine there are couples who always put each other first ahead of their children but I don’t know any of them. The couple’s behaviour seemed unnatural to me although the story explained why their relationship had developed this way.

Summer of Place was a wrong time, wrong place romance and Lovely Apples provided a reminder that life goes on regardless of who dies. Three-Sixty left me with the hope that karma might actually exist.

Desire Lines will remind readers of their own Mr or Ms Wrong, and why they shouldn’t ever return to the wrong person no matter how tempted they are. In Desire Lines, the reasons for Matt being tempted by and trying to resist his own Ms Wrong were more complicated than most, since she was the mother of his children and a heavy drinker, and he was a recovering alcoholic.

Waterwise told of an unlikely friendship between an old loser and a young no-hoper. I finished this story feeling hopeful that the main characters, Jimmy and Finn would be good for each other.

I think many of us dream of doing what the main character did in Roadkill. Emily was a lonely, down-trodden, frumpy, hard-working woman who found an opportunity and took it. Good for her, I reckon.

Talk of the Town told the story of a bloke whose missus had shot through. It happens. He Turned Up was similar in that it was the story of a couple who weren’t always there for each other, although in this story it was the wife who had to be the strong one in the relationship.

The characters in this collection of stories generally made the most of the hand they were dealt, although some had better luck than others. Not all of the stories had a definite ending, but life is like that. Sometimes things just continue. Some relationships don’t work out how we want them to. Some of these stories left me wondering what happened next, which I think was the author’s intention.

My purchase of Life, Bound by Marian Matta continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (August).

Maigret by Georges Simenon

Maigret is the second Inspector Maigret novel I’ve read by Georges Simenon. I was hopeful that because the title was so simple that this might be the first novel in the set, but no. Pietr the Latvian was the first and Maigret turned out to be novel #19.

This story began with Maigret and his wife being woken in the middle of the night by an unexpected visit from their dopey nephew Philippe, who had foolishly managed to get himself framed for the murder of a gangland crook. Maigret had retired, but returned to Paris to clear his nephew’s name and save him from going to jail for a crime that he knew Philippe hadn’t committed.

Maigret soon realised that although Philippe was also a police officer his former colleagues in the police force had little interest in investigating the murder any further, so although Maigret had no official power, he immersed himself in the world of nightclubs, prostitutes, petty criminals, drug dealers and murderers, endangering his own life in his attempt to prove Philippe’s innocence.

It was clear by the second half of the story who the murderer was, but the interest came from wondering how and if Maigret might be able to prove his case.

As in Lock 14 (The Carter of La Providence), I found Simenon’s writing style to be quite terse but this time I enjoyed it better. More details of Maigret’s character and personal life were included than in the previous novel I’d read and I’m looking forward to discovering more about him as I read more of this series.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Readers who love words will adore The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams.

Esme’s story began when she was just a little girl living in Oxford in the late 1800s. Her earliest memories were of sitting beneath a table in a shed called the Scriptorium while her father and his colleagues composed entries for Dr Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary.

The words for the dictionary were provided to Dr Murray by an army of volunteers. The volunteers submitted words by mail on slips of paper with an example of the word’s use, often a quote from a great author. As Esme grew older she realised that although certain words were submitted they wouldn’t make it into the dictionary, usually because they were vulgar, or were slang predominantly used by women and considered unworthy of becoming an entry. Esme began collecting the paper slips bearing the unwanted words for herself along with words on slips that had been lost by the adults working in the Scriptorium.

Esme’s own story was told amongst the slips of paper containing the words and their meanings. Her father, his colleagues and the work being done at the Scriptorium were always at the centre of Esme’s world, but her closest friend and ally was Lizzie, who was the Murray family’s uneducated maid. At a very young age Esme found the word ‘bondmaid’ and was able to relate the meaning to Lizzie’s status as a servant. Realising that Lizzie would probably be a servant until her death, Esme stole the slip of paper bondmaid appeared on in an attempt to remove the word and meaning from existence. Esme also stole other words that appealed to her for a variety of reasons.

As an adult Esme became a researcher at the Scriptorium herself, all the while continuing to collect the words of the poor and uneducated women that she met while accompanying Lizzie to visit the market, all the while knowing that these words would not become entries in the dictionary.

When a new friend introduced Esme to the idea of women’s suffrage, her world opened up even further. The theme of women in England having the right to vote continued to be important to Esme throughout her adult life, although she was never brave enough to starve herself or enter into physical protests to advance the cause as some of her friends did.

Eventually World War One began and Esme’s world changed again.

I was very interested to learn that Dr Murray, his family, his staff and the dictionary that they collectively compiled were real people, although Esme was not. The actual work to create the Oxford English Dictionary took years and years, with editions being published as the entries for various letters of the alphabet were completed. The word ‘bondmaid’ was really omitted from the first edition of Oxford English Dictionary.

I preferred reading about Esme’s childhood and the words she collected than about her romances and the friendships she formed as an adult, but I still found The Dictionary of Lost Words to be an interesting and heart-warming read.

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