Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

The Girl in the Painting is the first book I’ve read by best-selling Australian author Tea Cooper.

The story follows a young orphan, Jane Piper, who is a mathematical genius. Jane was educated and brought up by a rich brother and sister in Maitland, NSW in the early 1900s.

When Jane’s benefactor, Miss Elizabeth Quinn, had a mental breakdown at a local exhibition, Jane began investigating the cause of her reaction to a painting in the gallery.

The story flips back and forwards in time from around 1850, when Elizabeth sailed to Sydney with her brother Michael to meet their parents who had emigrated to Australia before them, to the present day story which is in 1913. Some of the scenes are set on the goldfields and others in newly settled towns. At the time Sydney was a rough and tumble place.

I was intrigued by Elizabeth’s early romance with a Chinese man, Jing, who worked for her brother. Michael separated Elizabeth and Jing very quickly when he realised they loved each other.

The characters were strong and the story-telling is good, but I felt as if the story was too long, possibly because historical sagas aren’t my preferred style of reading. I will however pass this book on to my mother and I expect she will enjoy it enormously. Mum loves books by Kate Morton and The Girl in the Painting had a similar feel about it to Morton’s books.

My purchase of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (March)

The Rip by Mark Brandi

I read and enjoyed Wimmera by Australian author Mark Brandi some time ago so was happy to come across his next book, The Rip.

The Rip is set in Melbourne. It is narrated by an unnamed young woman who is a homeless drug addict. She has a bull terrier, Sunny, and not much else apart from a sleeping bag and some clothes. She usually sleeps in Princes Park and hangs around with another homeless man, Anton.

The narrator and Anton spend their days trying to get enough money to buy drugs.

When they hooked up with Steve, a friend of Anton’s, he invited them to sleep at his flat. The narrator was uneasy around Steve and recognised that he had something over Anton, but they went with him and settled into a pattern of getting money during the day and shooting up at night. Steve pressured the narrator into begging for cash, although she preferred prostitution, which in her eyes was a more honest way to make money. At the same time Anton was pressured into burgling houses with Steve.

A strange smell in Steve’s flat left the narrator anxious and curious. When Steve caught her trying to pick the lock to his bedroom door to learn what the smell was, he beat her badly. Another time he gave her drugs mixed with an unknown substance which would have killed her, had not an elderly neighbour called an ambulance for her.

I hadn’t expected this to be a story of friendships between homeless people or to learn that theirs is such a genuine community. I often walk past the Salvation Army Centre on Bourke Street which is featured in this story. It offers meals in the Lighthouse CafĂ©, showers, drug and alcohol services, assistance with accommodation and other services to people in need. There are always homeless people sleeping in nearby doorways or sitting on benches, having a chat and watching the world go by.

I also liked that a police officer in this story looked out for the narrator and that she wasn’t judged by hospital staff or people at the needle exchange.

The story doesn’t glamourise drug use, homelessness and the connected issues in any way but in some ways I felt as if the author let go of some events in the story too easily. For example, there were allusions to the narrator’s childhood and the pure misery of being in foster care, but clearly she didn’t want to dwell on these memories, and the same when she was beaten up by Steve. While it is understandable that the narrator did not to want to remember her bad times, it created the glossing over effect which I felt.

I was surprised to find that I liked the narrator. In real life, I would probably not make eye contact and would hold on to my handbag a little tighter than normal as I hurried past her, but as a character in a book I wanted to protect her from herself and from others. I was pleased to learn her name later in the story.

The Rip is not as bleak as it sounds. I think it is equally as good as Wimmera and am already looking forward to Mark Brandi’s next book.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend by Australian author Charlotte Wood is the story of three friends who are in danger of losing their connection after the death of another friend, Sylvie.

Jude, Wendy and Adele have always met at Sylvie’s beach holiday house near Sydney to spend Christmas together, but this year they are arriving the weekend before Christmas to clear out the house as it is to be sold.

Without Sylvie to balance out their differences, the three women’s personalities and behaviour has become more irritating and hurtful to each other than ever before.

The women’s personalities are very different. Jude is bossy and judgemental, capable and confident. She has been the mistress of a powerful married man for over forty years. As he always spends Christmas with his wife and family, Jude stays with her friends for Christmas. Wendy and Adele both hope that Jude will make her pavlova for Christmas this year, but Jude believes that this last visit is work. Withholding the pavlova is a form of control for Jude.

Wendy is a successful author, an intellectual who continues to put her career before her family and her children now see her as a burden. Wendy’s elderly dog Finn is blind, confused and in pain but Wendy refuses to see that the kindest thing would be to have him put down. The very presence of Wendy’s smelly, incontinent dog infuriates Jude. Wendy’s inability to let Finn go is because Sylvie gave Finn to Wendy as a puppy.

Adele is a taker, a has-been actress who has been out of work for some time. Her most recent love affair has just finished, leaving her homeless. Adele prides herself on her looks and her fitness, and makes a point of using the steep stairs up and down the cliff to the beach house while Jude and Wendy accept the necessity of the inclinator. Although Adele is deluded about her value to others, she is also the best-equipped of her friends to survive whatever life throws at her.

Ageing is hard. My father always said that it beats the alternative, but there comes a time when it probably doesn’t. The three women in this book are doing their best, but poor Finn (the dog) has had it. Despite, or perhaps because of Finn’s state, the dog causes each of the women to have a moment of realisation that will change their lives.

The Weekend is a fairly short book considering how full this story is. I enjoyed watching the three women renegotiate their relationships with each other without Sylvie. The story isn’t really about ageing, although it wouldn’t be the same story if the Jude, Wendy and Adele weren’t facing old age with their differing attitudes and approaches. I loved that they judged, annoyed and were cruel to each other but immediately united when an old secret came out, when a loved one died or when an outsider challenged one of their number.

Charlotte Wood is a quite well-known and well-regarded Australian author who has previously won the Stella Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, although I’ve never read any of her books before this. I will certainly look out for her other books.

My purchase of The Weekend by Charlotte Wood goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko was the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2019 and as such, was the obvious choice for me to begin fulfilling my New Year’s resolution of buying a book by an Australian author each month.

Not only was Too Much Lip the obvious choice, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking, unsettling and worrying look at an Australia that I know exists, but ignore. What am I ignoring? The contemporary version of Australia that many (not all) Aboriginal Australians live in. Why do I ignore this Australia? For my own peace of mind. I’m a privileged white Australian with everything I want and more. I’m automatically trusted and respected, I have choices. I have my family around me, work I enjoy and financial freedom. I have the support of the law. I was encouraged to continue my education. I’ve never been subjected to racism of any kind. I’m very grateful to be who I am, which came about just from being born. Most of the Aboriginal characters in this book don’t have and are unlikely to get what I have. Those that do are what the other characters derogatorily call ‘coconuts,’ Aboriginal people who live their life according to ‘white’ values. The question now is, can I keep ignoring these differences in real life?

Too Much Lip is set in a fictional town in Woop-Woop called Durrongo, in Bundjalung country in northern NSW. The name Durrongo amused me because it reminded me of ‘drongo,’ an Australian slang word for an idiot. I’d love to know if the author planned this. One of the characters refers to the town as the “Place of Centrelink fraud”.

The main character is Kerry Salter, who roared back to her family home on a stolen Harley Davidson motorbike with a backpack full of cash from a robbery her girlfriend had just been sent to prison for. Kerry’s Pop, who was both respected and feared throughout the Salter family and greater community, was dying and Kerry only planned on staying around long enough to say goodbye.

Kerry’s Pop grew up on a mission and did not know where his country was. As an Aboriginal, this meant that a vital part of his self was missing. As a successful boxer he earned some protection from the trouble that most Aboriginal people experienced from white Australians and later in life was able to provide his family with a home of their own and some security. Kerry’s mother, Pretty Mary, a former alcoholic, was nursing him as he lay dying.

Also living in the family home was Kerry’s brother Ken, a big, angry, former football star who had recently been released from prison. Kenny’s violent temper kept everyone around him on tenterhooks as he bullied his way through life. Kerry was horrified to realise that Kenny’s teenage son Donny was very often the brunt of his irrational rages and was suffering from anorexic.

Kerry usually bolted when the going got tough, but when her backpack full of stolen cash was stolen from her by a local politician, Jim Buckley, she stayed on in Durrongo, planning to steal it back. When she learned that Buckley was selling the land on the local river to a consortium who planned to build a jail, Kerry and the rest of the extended Salter family decided to fight the development as a land rights issue. The river and Granny Ava’s Island was more meaningful to them than I could have imagined, as the location of where Kerry’s pregnant great-grandmother Ava had been shot swimming across the river to escape white men. The river was also the home of the totem animal of the men of the family, a shark.

Kerry’s stay in town became more complicated when she met Steve, who she remembered as a dorky schoolboy but who was now a very attractive man. The only thing wrong with him is that he was white. And a man.

Kerry’s trait of ‘too much lip’ referred to her inability to keep quiet rather than voice her opinion, particularly when negotiating her way around Kenny.

While it took me a long time to stop feeling as if I were being assaulted by the constant, often vicious swearing, I accept that this also felt true to how the characters should speak. The language in this book was full of a slang that I recognised but don’t use, but also included words I don’t know, Aboriginal words such as ‘jahjams’ for children, ‘womba’ for crazy and ‘gunjies’ for police.

I was constantly shocked by the violence which the family took for granted, the crime, the poverty, the drinking, the gambling and the double standards, even those that they used themselves (for example, Kerry was furious when her cash was stolen from her, but ignored the fact that it had been stolen by her girlfriend in the first place). I was also irritated by the Salter family’s attitude towards Centrelink and government benefits, because as a worker, that’s my hard-earned tax the characters were treating as a right rather than a privilege, and their disregard for the law. Despite these moral quibbles, I was on Kerry’s side all the way through, regardless of the terrible choices she often made, as her and her family’s secrets were exposed. It was easy to recognise that their often shocking behaviours were just the symptoms of their family’s problems.

The family’s and local history continued to complicate the present for Kerry and her family. Aboriginal families were split up as children who were considered ‘white enough’ were stolen from their families. The children in the Salter family weren’t always safe from their own family members. Buckley’s grandfather had been a police officer who treated the Salter family and other Aboriginals in the area with terrible violence. The local policeman’s grandfather, who had settled the area and became a cattle baron, was even more violent than the politician’s grandfather, and had fathered a great many of the Aboriginal children in the area. Many wrong deeds continued to impact the people in this book for generations after each event.

Despite the questions racing around in my head, I found Too Much Lip to be a very funny book. There are moments of hope and joy and some inspirational characters, including Kerry’s Uncle Richard who showed Kenny a better way to live, by promoting traditional Aboriginal values instead of expressing himself violently. Kerry’s other brother, Black Superman, is another wonderful man who fosters emotionally and physically-damaged children. I loved reading about the character’s connections with birds and animals and of course, with the land which been built on over many generations of family stories. I also loved the glimpse of mystic connections with all of these elements which I believed in completely.

This has been a very difficult review to write. I’m not just commenting on a story, but on who Australians are. Not only that, but I’m publishing this on the Australia Day public holiday, which Kerry would hate (Invasion Day). Australia Day means something different to all of us, but we are all Australian and this year I’ll be thinking of what it means to be an Australian, thanks to this book.

Too Much Lip has left me with a lot of questions about what we have to do next, as a nation and as individuals, to be the best that we can. I feel as I’ve made a beginning by listening.

Too Much Lip came to my attention after Whispering Gums reviewed the book last year. You can read Sue’s review here:

I’ll be tracking my progress of my New Year’s Resolution to buy a book by an Australian author each month on my ‘Buying Australian’ page.

The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham

The Year of the Farmer is by Australian author Rosalie Ham and will be enjoyed by readers who appreciate dark humour in a novel. Ham’s previous novels, The Dressmaker, Summer at Mount Hope and There Should Be More Dancing share this trait.

The Year of the Farmer is a contemporary story of life on the land featuring Mitch Bishop, whose drought-stricken farm somewhere up in the Riverina has been in his family for generations. Mitch is married to Mandy, who used to be the town bike (I know this is 2020, but in this small town these things still matter). No one likes Mandy, not even Mitch.

Mitch should have married his school sweetheart Neralie, but she left town to make a go of it in the city and left to his own devices, he succumbed to Mandy’s attentions. Mandy suckered Mitch into getting married by telling him that she was pregnant, but as everyone else in town knew, she couldn’t have fallen pregnant as she’d had “an infection.”

When Neralie returned to town to run the only pub in the area for 100 miles, Mitch and everyone else’s lives were turned upside-down.

Not only was Mitch’s marriage a mess, but the drought had been going on for years. Most punishing of all for him and other local farmers was their battle with the Water Authority Board to get enough water from the river to irrigate their land. To make things worse, a pack of townie’s dogs were killing sheep, rain at the wrong time was threatening to ruin the crops and Mandy’s constant need to make other people unhappy was adding considerably to the town’s woes.

There are multiple factions in the district, all with a different opinion about what was best for the river (and themselves). Corrupt politicians and townies were trying to make money from selling the water, developers wanted to siphon water into a man-made lake overlooked by a new apartment building and even the farmers had different volume requirements depending on what they were farming. The farmers weren’t in agreement with each other on other matters, either. Some were using chemicals which were detrimental to the river while others didn’t use chemicals on their crops when they should have which caused weeds to infiltrate their neighbours’ properties. I appreciated everyone’s point of view but think if I had to take a side I’d go with the Riparians, who had the health of the river at heart.

For those readers who struggle with cruelty towards animals that farmer’s consider to be vermin, be warned that a cull was required to set things right.

Not only is the humour in the Year of the Farmer dark, but it is mean. I really enjoyed it.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I loved Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty! I’ve been a bit hit and miss with this author’s books in the past, as I’ve loved the contemporary Australian settings and characters of her stories, but have disliked her story-telling technique her characters all knowing something which the reader doesn’t, and not telling. Nine Perfect Strangers tells the story without harking back to anything and I found this a far more enjoyable read.

The story follows nine people who meet at a health and wellness retreat in a remote location in Australia.

The main characters include Frances, a middle-aged, overweight author, whose most recent romance novel has been rejected by her publisher, Ben and Jessica, whose marriage is failing after they won millions of dollars in the lottery, Tony, a former AFL star and Carmel, whose husband recently dumped her for a younger woman. More minor characters included a bereaved family of three and an extraordinarily handsome man who regularly holidays at health retreats.

The retreat at Tranquillum House began with massages, mindful (?) walks in the bush and a diet tailored to each of the guest’s needs, along with a five-day period of silence, however things went pear-shaped when the retreat’s director used illegal and unconventional treatments on her guests without their awareness or consent.

Top moments for me included a section where Frances found herself in an imaginary conversation with dead friend and insisted that she was a fictional character, and the protagonist, no less. I laughed out loud.

I also found myself smiling when divorced mother-of-four Carmel realised that in exchange for her husband, she’d got herself an upgrade, because his new wife wanted to be involved in the children’s lives and was mad to take the girls to their ballet lessons and all that that entailed. For those of you who have never experienced children’s dance schools, trust me, you’ve had a lucky escape. Parents are expected to sew costumes, gather wispy strands of baby-fine hair into buns, put make-up on children without making them look like clowns then sit through endless performances of tiny children wandering aimlessly around on stage before their own child finally gets to perform in their own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. And take it from me, when your own child finally makes it on to the stage, you won’t be able see them anyway became they will be hidden behind some other kid who is the size of a truck… Or you’ll be asleep.

Nine Perfect Strangers is a funny book with an over-the-top plot and great characters, The story is light and enjoyable and would make a great beach read.

Preservation by Jock Serong

Preservation is Australian author Jock Serong’s most recent book. I bought this about six months ago, but have a silly habit of delaying things I’m looking forward to in order to prolong the pleasure of anticipation, so have only ‘allowed’ myself to read the book now. Ridiculous, I know…

Preservation is a fictionalised story of the survivors of a shipwreck which happened in 1797, when the Sydney Cove was wrecked near Preservation Island on Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland of Australia). Seventeen people, made up of five British and twelve Bengali sailors, took a longboat to the Gippsland coast where they were wrecked again. The men then set off on foot to Sydney, a town of only 1500 people at that time, by following the coast a distance of 700 kilometres. Only three of them arrived, including William Clark, a Scottish merchant whose diary entries were used as the foundation for this book.

The story has a number of narrators which include the three shipwreck survivors, William Clark, a fictitious character named John Figge and Clark’s lascar manservant, a boy named Svrinas. Other chapters are told by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, whose job it is to ascertain what happened to the wrecked ship and to the men on their way to Sydney. Joshua’s wife Charlotte is also a narrator, and her chapters help to connect that of the British settlement in Sydney with the Aboriginal people who were already there. Each of the chapters is accompanied by a picture which helps the reader to determine who is speaking. Charlotte’s picture is of gum leaves, Svrinas’ is a lotus, Joshua’s is the crown and so on.

Joshua struggles to learn what happened to the survivors (and to those who didn’t make it to Sydney) due to the gaps between what Clarke and Figge tell him compared to what Clark wrote in his diary. It is clear that Clark and Figge are motivated to hide what actually happened on the trek to protect their wrecked cargo, ostensibly tea but actually rum.

The fictional story of the journey from the beach in Gippsland along the coast to Sydney is fascinating. The survivors set off on foot, crossing rivers in rafts they built along the way. They were watched the whole way by Aboriginal people in each district they passed through, sometimes interacting with them in a friendly way, being fed and assisted along their way and other times being treated with hostility. Some of the survivor’s behaviours caused the hostility and was sadly indicative of British attitudes at the time towards people of other races. It was interesting to read of the lascars and the Aboriginals’ respect for each other and more ready acceptance of each other’s ways.

Having lived on the NSW south coast for many years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the areas the survivors passed through and was able to recognise the places where various events occurred, even though they were not named, including a near drowning in as the men crossed the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.

John Figge is a frightening character who almost but not quite, dips into the supernatural. I didn’t like this aspect of the story and thought his character and story strong enough to have been satisfactory without this element. I also thought that the storyline connecting Charlotte with John Figge was unnecessary, although other parts of her story were vital.

I didn’t enjoy Preservation as much as I’ve liked other of Jock Serong’s books (The Rules Of Backyard Cricket is particularly brilliant) but it was an interesting read. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to tell a completely different story in each one of his books.

Tag Cloud