Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian author’

Cosi by Louis Nowra

Cosi is a play by Australian author Louis Nowra. I watched the movie at least twenty years ago and have been meaning to read the book since then.

The play was set in Melbourne in the 1970s. It is the story of a budding director, Lewis, and a group of inmates from an asylum who put on a play.

Roy, a manic depressive, was insistent that they perform Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte and would not budge from his selection, even though no one from their motley group could sing opera or speak Italian. Lewis had just graduated from university and had no idea what he was doing, so went along with Roy’s choice.

The performers included Cherry, who had a crush on Lewis and was obsessed with food, Julie, a drug addict, Henry, an uncommunicative former lawyer who had suffered a breakdown, and Doug, a pyromaniac who had to be constantly watched in case he burned down the theatre. Doug had a smart mouth and was constantly provoking the people around him, to which their universal response was, “Go burn a cat.” It turned out that Doug already had.

Somehow this group managed to overcome the squabbles amongst themselves, their health issues and their stage fright to perform the play once, although the front row of their audience, who included the catatonics, were not terribly receptive to the spectacle they witnessed.

Along the way Lewis’ girlfriend and his best friend, whose main interests were protesting against the Vietnam war turned to each other, which was an interesting parallel story to the storyline of the play Lewis was directing, Cosi Fan Tutte, with its themes of love and fidelity.

Cosi is dated, and politically incorrect, but it is also very funny and the characters are surprisingly endearing for such a short play. Now I really want to watch the movie of the same name, Cosi again and one day, see the play performed on stage.

My purchase of Cosi by Louis Nowra continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (November).

All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

All Our Shimmering Skies is by Australian author Trent Dalton, who wrote the fabulously uplifting Boy Swallows Universe.

The story of All Our Shimmering Skies was set in February of 1942 in Darwin.

At the time Darwin was extremely remote. The rough manners of the town’s residents were not improved by the presence of soldiers stationed there since the town had become an Allied Base during the War in the Pacific. When the Japanese conducted their first air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942 they were able to inflict immense damage on the ships in the harbour, the town and the airfields since the town had been very lightly defended.

Prior to the attack, Molly Hook, whose story this is, was a motherless girl living in a derelict house with her alcoholic father at the town cemetery. Molly’s best friend was her shovel, Bert, which she used to dig graves, or to dig up graves so that her father and uncle, the town’s official gravediggers, could steal valuables from the dead.

Before Molly’s mother died, she told Molly about a curse that had been put on her family by Longcoat Bob, an Aboriginal man with supernatural powers. She also told Molly that all of her gifts would fall from the sky.

When the bombs fell, Molly escaped Darwin with Greta, her uncle’s sometime girlfriend, travelling into the deep-country looking for Longcoat Bob, so Molly could ask him to remove the curse. Along the way Molly and Greta met up with Yukio, a Japanese fighter pilot whose plane had crashed and somehow, found themselves on the same side for what came next.

There were similarities between All Our Shimmering Skies and Boy Swallows Universe in that each contained characters who were either very good and completely evil, but with no one who was just somewhere in the middle. Both stories also featured violent, disfunctional families. I disliked the brutality of Molly’s family life which in her case was caused by her father and uncle, unstoppable alcoholics who drank everything from beer to turpentine.

I felt that Molly’s knowledge of literature and poetry was too advanced for her age, given her circumstances and lack of education, and as a result, her tendency to quote English poets and from Shakespeare’s plays became jarring. The storytelling was also somewhat repetitive and eventually I began skimming to get to the end.

I liked the mystical elements of the story, which circled around Longcoat Bob and the Aboriginal characters, and enjoyed the sections that talked about life in Darwin but was unable to care deeply enough about Molly for All Our Shimmering Skies to capture my heart the way Boy Swallows Universe did.

The Survivors by Jane Harper

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Australian author Jane Harper and The Survivors was no exception. I’m writing this review after sitting up until 1.30am to finish the story so have spent my Saturday feeling tired and sluggish. If my spelling is wrong and my words are in the wrong order, blame Jane Harper.

This story was set in a small coastal town in Tasmania where everyone knew everyone else. There were a few blow-ins to Evelyn Bay each summer but for the rest of the time, the locals had the place for their own and that’s how they liked it. The town had one cafe and one police officer, although when the story began the police station was on the verge of being closed and the service relocated to the next big town. When Bronte, a young artist who was staying in Evelyn Bay for the summer was found dead on the beach, everyone in town became a suspect in her murder.

The main character in this story was Keiran, a young man living in Sydney with his partner Mia and their baby Audrey. They had returned to Evelyn Bay to help Keiran’s mother pack up the family home as Keiran’s father’s dementia had worsened to the point that he had to go to a care-home.

The shock of Bronte’s death dredged up an enormous amount of anger and suspicion, much of which had been lying dormant since a terrible storm twelve years ago when Keiran’s brother and his best friend died in an accident at sea while trying to rescue teen-aged Keiran who had gotten himself stuck half way up a cliff. During that same storm a young local girl also went missing and had never been found.

Keiran’s guilt about the death of his brother and his friend hung over every moment of every day of his life. Keiran’s return to Evelyn Bay stirred up his own emotions, as well as those of his parents, who never actually said that they blamed Keiran for his brother’s death, but never said that they didn’t either. Keiran’s presence also troubled other locals who had been impacted by the two deaths and by the other girl’s disappearance.

I felt very connected with the story’s setting and loved the remote, wild, coastal Tasmanian location. I also enjoyed the various mysteries, which kept me guessing until the author revealed exactly what had happened to Bronte and to the others during the storm twelve years ago.

The only problem I had with The Survivors was that there was a cast of thousands and by the end I still couldn’t remember exactly who was who. To sum up, there was Keiran, Mia and their baby Audrey, and Keiran’s parents, Brian and Verity. Then there was Keiran and Mia’s friend’s Ash, Olivia and another bloke whose name I’ve forgotten, the local cop who had a crush on Olivia, the missing girl’s mother, plus a famous writer from the mainland.

Looming over the rest was Keiran’s brother Finn and Ash’s brother Toby (who died in the storm), Olivia’s younger sister Gabby (who went missing during the storm), another bloke whose name I’ve also forgotten but he owned the cafe and had married Toby’s widow, the cop who had a bit of a thing for Olivia (oh hang on, I said him already, I told you I was tired) and Toby’s son Liam, who was the stepson of the bloke who owned the cafe. Liam desperately resented Keiran for being the cause of the accident that killed Toby, who had been his father.

I’m already looking forward to Jane Harper’s next novel, and am guessing at where it might be set since each of her books have been set in vastly different locations.

My purchase of The Survivors by Jane Harper continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (October).

Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird

Field of Poppies is the first novel I’ve read by Australian author Carmel Bird. The author’s bio says she has written 11 novels and eight short story collections, been short-listed three times for the Miles Franklin Award and won the Patrick White Literary Award. I can’t think why I haven’t read anything by her before.

The story is narrated by Marsali Swift, who with her husband William moved to the fictional town of Muckleton in central Victoria from Melbourne in what is popularly known in Australia as a ‘tree-change’. In Muckleton, Marsali and William lived in a grand old house called Listowel and immersed themselves into the community, even though the locals know that anyone from the city are just blow-ins. To be a local people’s parents, grandparents and preferably their great-grandparents had to have lived in the area too.

First of all, Muckleton. If that place isn’t real, then it should be if only for the name alone. I kept saying Muckleton over and over again as I was reading, just because I like how the name sounds. I have a mental image of Muckleton and think it must be similar to the central Victorian town of Castlemaine, which has an enormously grand Post Office that was built on the promise of gold, gold and more gold being found in the district. Also, there is also a small town called Muckleford just a few kilometres from Castlemaine. Close enough?

Sigh. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. This isn’t surprising because Marsali’s narration was a succession of anecdotes which hopped from one to another. Some of Marsali’s stories were about Muckleton residents, places or events, while others were based on discussions of novels from Marsali’s book group who read Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland after a local Muckleton woman named Alice Dooley disappeared. Marsali’s version of events were occasionally interrupted by William’s Wise Words, where he chimed in to add to the story with interesting and detailed facts.

A great many of the anecdotes were related to Claude Monet’s painting The Poppy Field, or a copy of the painting which was made by Marsali’s Aunt Clarissa, who was a talented copyist artist.

One night, when Marsali and William had driven to Melbourne to attend an opera (La Traviata) at the Arts Centre, Listowel was robbed. The thieves were two local men whose vehicle hit a kangaroo while they were leaving town with the loot. One of the men died in the accident but the other was charged with theft then went back to his Real Estate business, without any loss of business by the locals. Marsali and William’s antiques and collectables were returned to them along with the copy of The Poppy Field, but how they felt about Muckleton changed.

The disappearance of Alice didn’t help, but when a Chinese gold mine started up, bringing jobs and noise and dust to the town and to Listowel in particular, since the road to the mine went past their back door, Marsali and William upped stumps and moved back to a high-rise apartment in Melbourne (in the Eureka Tower, mind you. I’ve been up to the skydeck to look at the view over Melbourne and it is sensational. The Eureka Tower was named for Australia’s own Eureka Stockade, where gold miners took on the English authorities who were taxing them out of existence).

I loved the rambling, inter-connected story-telling style of Field of Poppies. I loved Muckleton and its community. I loved the idealism of the tree-changers. I loved the opinions of the book club’s members of the books they read. I loved the coincidences and the randomness of the anecdotes. I’ll definitely be reading more of Carmel Bird’s stories in future.

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).

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.

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.

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).

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The characters and events of The Spare Room by Australian author Helen Garner seemed so real to me that I could hardly believe this story was a novel.

I suspect this comes down to the skill of the writer. Everything I’ve read by Helen Garner has a truth about it. When she writes non-fiction her stories are straight and include the unflattering details as well as the bits that make her look good, which of course make me as a reader trust her. The voice of the narrator in The Spare Room is also named Helen, which makes this story seem even more as if the author was telling me about something that really happened.

The story began with Helen (the character) preparing her spare room for a visit from her friend Nicola, who was coming to stay with Helen in Melbourne for three weeks while undergoing a treatment for bowel cancer. When Helen collected Nicola from the airport she was horrified to realise that Nicola was much sicker than she had let on, and that the treatment she had signed up for was very likely a scam and would cost Nicola thousands of dollars while pumping her up with false hope, as well as having a detrimental effect on her already precarious health.

Helen found looking after Nicola to be absolutely gruelling, not just because Nicola required around the clock nursing after her treatments, but because of all of the grunt work; ferrying Nicola to and from her treatments, constantly washing sheets, towels and clothes and nursing Nicola through sleepless nights because she wouldn’t countenance taking actual medicine to treat her pain.

The emotional strain on Helen was even worse. Nicola was completely charming but wouldn’t admit she was dying, or even that she needed nursing, and made light of the demands she was putting on Helen and the other people who had been looking after her. Nicola’s refusal to acknowledge her situation or her needs filled Helen with rage.

The story as I’ve described it sounds bleak, but it’s not. The characters’ interactions and behaviours were often funny, such as when Helen told her little grand-daughter to go home as she didn’t want little Bessie to hear her being extremely rude to someone.

I think a novel succeeds when I feel the main character’s emotions as they do and in this case, I veered from hope to shock to rage to sorrow to joy to irritation and more along with Helen. Helen Garner also succeeded with Nicola, although she was dying, I wanted to be her as despite being infuriating, she was also charming, independent, beautiful, bohemian and loved by her friends and family.

To be able to call either of the main characters in The Spare Room your friend would be a wonderful thing.

The Yield by Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch won Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2020 with The Yield.

I haven’t read any of the other books that were nominated in 2020 but since The Yield left me feeling almost overwhelmed with a variety of emotions, I think this book was probably a worthy winner.

The story is told alternately by three narrators over three different times who are all linked to the same place, Prosperous House, a farm on the banks of the Murrumby River at Massacre Plains.

The present story is told by August Gondiwindi, whose story began with her returning home following the death of her grandfather. August had been living overseas for the past ten years so it came as a shock to her to learn that her grandmother was soon to leave Prosperous House because a tin mining company had taken possession of the land and was about to commence mining operations.

August and her sister Jedda had lived with their grandparents at Prosperous surrounded by a swag of Aunties, cousins and members of the local indigenous community after their parents went to jail when the girls were quite young. In some ways the girls’ lives improved enormously, but not in others; they were subjected to daily racism from their fellow schoolmates and many of the town’s adults, and were sexually abused by a predator from their family’s trusted community. Later, Jedda went missing and was never found, her absence leaving a terrible gap in each of the family member’s hearts.

On August’s return to Prosperous, she learned that her grandfather had been writing a dictionary of the native words of the Wiradjuti people. As the threat of the tin mine destroying their home loomed ever closer, Ausgust continued to search for her grandfather’s missing dictionary and Aboriginal artefacts from the area which if found, would prove the Gondiwindi’s ongoing connection with the land and hopefully, stop the mine.

The narrative written by August’s grandfather held the entire story together. Albert Gondiwindi had begun the dictionary with the intention of documenting his ancestor’s words, many of which he could barely remember, before they were lost forever. Each dictionary entry started with the English word, then the word in the language of Albert’s ancestors, followed by a story prompted by each word. Albert’s stories told the story of his own life as a young man, that of his parents and his ancestors, as well as the story of his life with Elsie and the family that they created. Interestingly, Albert also documented the times he time-travelled to speak and learn from his ancestors. Magic realism usually irritates me as I feel it interrupts what I see as the ‘story’ but in this case, I believed every word Albert said.

The third story in The Yield was told in letter written in 1915 by a Lutheran man who had founded the Prosperous mission in an attempt to protect the Aboriginal people in the Ngurambang or Massacre Plains area. The Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf had been unable to prevent Aboriginal children being stolen from their parents by white people, Aboriginal women from being raped and abused by white men or Aboriginal men being hurt or killed by white men, but he tried. Sometimes he got things wrong, too. Greenleaf expected the Aboriginal people at his mission to become Christians and to live an English/European life.

The three stories connected at the end and created a very satisfying whole.

The place names are fictional but they are also recognisable. There is a Massacre Bay in Victoria whose name is reputed to have come from the Aboriginal people of the district having been driven over the cliffs to their deaths. Australia has actual places called Poisoned Waterhole Creek, several Skeleton Creeks and other place names which describe terrible events that took place at these locations.

Although the story that takes place in The Yield could have been set anywhere in Australia, in my imagination the setting was somewhere along the Murrumbidgee River near Narranderra in NSW.

The Yield left me with a sense of shame for my country’s past and guilt at being a present day beneficiary of the actions of the white settlers who wanted Australia for their own and so took it. I felt sad for the many losses of connections that Aboriginal people have suffered as a result. This is not the first time I’ve felt these emotions when reading a novel by an Indigenous author. Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko had a similar effect on me too.

I cried when I got to the last section of the book, The Dictionary of Albert Gondiwindi. This section contains pages and pages of Indigenous words and their meanings, many of which are on the brink of extinction. Who knows how many of these words and phrases have been lost forever?

The Yield also left me feeling hopeful for a better future. None of the characters were perfect, but Albert Gondiwindi’s words have the ability to inspire others to do better, too.

Tag Cloud