Category Archives: Book reviews

Books on Shelves

When a friend sent me a photo of my novel on her shelf, my preoccupation with books and how they appear on shelves, inspired me to find pictures of The Historian’s Daughter on various shelves, in bookshops, libraries and homes. Those who know me understand my idiosyncratic shelving of my books – I sort by gender and country in the first instance and may occasionally swap around to accommodate writers who no longer live in the country of their origin. I situate myself on the Australian Women Writers shelf, although I could equally live alongside Indian Women Writers. This system confuses any reader who looks at my shelves, but it works for me. Clearly my friend has a system that works for her – there are men and women, mostly Australian, in this mix. I just know that to be sharing a shelf with Amanda Curtin, Hannah Kent, Josephine Wilson and Khaled Hosseini among others, works for me 🙂

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When I was invited last year to launch my novel in Melbourne at the Eltham Book Shop, I was gobsmacked to be sharing a shelf with Arundhati Roy, whose second novel was surely the most anticipated book in recent times. The bookshop itself is amazing and I could have lived there, happily and secretly, because there are so many shelves to hide behind and enough books to last me this lifetime and more.

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And here’s this picture. I was at the Perth City Library and found myself under Modern Fiction. In my travels as a sneaky author hoping to take pictures of her novel in the wilderness, I have found a reciprocal idiosyncrasy in the way librarians and bookstore owners categorise my novel.

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And this final picture is from the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where, for the first time I saw multiple copies of my novel snuggling up against others. I look forward to this year’s festival, where I’ll be speaking with writers Fiona Harari, Leigh Straw and Fiona Palmer about their new books.

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Bearing Witness

Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue.  More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.

It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.

Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.

There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.

Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents.  They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.

‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?

Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.

When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.

Works cited:

Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016

Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang

Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness.  Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017

Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl.  Australia: Allen & Unwin

Books I loved in 2017

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I started the year as I always do, with a selection of books by Australian writers, this time because I was fortunate enough to be on a writing panel with Carmel Bird, Josephine Wilson and Nicole Sinclair at the Perth Writers Festival. Also on one of my panels was Rajith Savandasa whose debut novel Ruins situated me into the heart of family I felt I already knew, so rich and immediate are the details of intimacy that appear effortless in this novel. Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair, another debut novel, follows the Australian Beth, running away from something she cannot come to terms with, to Papua New Guinea, where she encounters the ‘ugly Australian’ expat community but also immerses herself in a country whose culture will always remain a mystery to her. Carmel Bird’s Family Skeletons made me laugh out loud while feeling like I knew these people in their rich mansions, their extraordinary secrets, their humanity and their cruelty and their inability to let go of a way of life they consider their birth right. And Josephine’s Wilson’s luminous Extinctions which has since won The Miles Franklin and The Colin Roderick Awards, reminded me of the writerly skill it takes to care about a mostly unlikable main character. Frederick Lothian frustrated me while simultaneously allowing me to care deeply about his bumbling and failing relationships. I know brief musings do not do justice to the depth, richness and literary truth of these exceptional novels. Therefore I recommend them with all my heart. Collectively they made me a better reader and human being.

It did seem to be the year of reading debut novels – the next on my list is Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is hard to describe in a sentence, so I invite you to read my review here. Persian myth intersects with political reality and a poetic sensibility that filled my heart with music. And as this is a translation, one of my resolutions over the coming year is to teach myself Farsi, so I can read this in its author’s original language.

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl reminded me of all the things I had either forgotten or learned to live with. And misogyny in all its forms, even when practiced by other women (Ford calls this internalised misogyny), must always be called out. And Ford does this with wit, clarity and anger. I have bought copies for most young women I know, especially the ones that tell me, ‘there’s no need for feminism anymore you know; we ARE equal.’

For different reasons completely, I loved Toni Jordan’s, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts. A farce about couples and marriage and fidelity and integrity, Janice’s sanity is at risk because she is surrounded by the most selfish collection of individuals that would send any vestige of normalcy right out the window.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a book, that I, along with millions, waited 20 years for, plunged me into the iconoclastic philosophy of a writer who will always be hard to define. Both lament and howl, both narrative and politics, this is a tough book, a sprawling and messy book – utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. It made me whisper to myself – my India, what have you done? What have you become?

 I came late to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. I learned so much reading this fierce, sumptuous, honest novel. Every time there was a reference to a piece of American history I was unsure about, I asked Professor Google and came back to the novel with a deeper sense of recognition about its concerns.

I ended the year with Aboriginal Australian writers, as seems fitting.  Kim Scott’s Taboo is written with lyrical precision and invites us to witness years of dispossession and the excesses of colonial abuse. You can read my review here. Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby sings – that really is the only way to describe it. It sings to country, motherhood, loss and love in a way that only a writer like Lucashenko can do. Language and landscape are inseparable and we are such a small part of an ancient connection that predates us, that I’m freshly grieved these stories are not more mainstream. They ought to be required reading in every school. Maybe the power of story can make us better. Maybe we can start treating the men in Manus with the same respect we accord to our trees and wetlands.

The books that disappointed me thoroughly were ones I had long looked forward to reading. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, despite its intriguing setting in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was tedious in execution and lost its way several times in bylanes that went nowhere. And Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, again, despite the fascinating Marina Abramovic as subject, introduced me to Arky Levin, who will go down in my reading memory as the most irritating and irredeemable character it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. His sudden transformation at the end into a caring husband inspired me to fling it across the room.

And finally, 3 slim volumes of poetry made me grateful for the gift of being able to read. Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths by Sholeh Wolpeh with its precipice of loneliness and women who unfold, sin by sin, is a deeply evocative and sensual commentary on the things we didn’t know could break our hearts. Charlotte Guest’s Soap reminded me of those lodgings at the end of girlhood and how when things become bearable; it is actually the most unbearable part. Lovely, musical and highly recommended. Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms made me care about snakes and algae and insects and told me that black water fish shudder once to light/then darken into gone. The woman is a magician and everyone should read her.

Writers who trusted me to read their finished first drafts were a special treat. While I cannot reveal the names of these wonderful and hopefully-soon-to-be-published writers, I can say that one of them has been shortlisted for a major award, another two have found literary agents, while yet another has won a writing residency. I anticipate being able to add them to my next year’s reading list.

And before the year is done I look forward to reading Kohinoor by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.

 

Taboo by Kim Scott

Taboo starts with an out-of-control semi trailer freewheeling down a street, a hillside, spilling wheat, two humans and a skeleton as it crests to a stop in ‘massacre place.’ It is a powerful beginning tempered with a warning from its author – ‘this is no fairy tale, it is drawn from real life.’ In his Afterword, Scott concedes that his fiction touches on ‘real events, people and landscape.’ Storytelling, particularly in the hands of someone as accomplished as Kim Scott, will always be a political act, and this story is no exception. As a work of fiction, it is incomparable; as a work of fiction based loosely on real life, it is devastating.

West Australian writers often feature landscape as a character in their fiction. Tim Winton, Craig Silvey and Scott himself in earlier works. The landscape in Taboo is more than a ‘character’ though. Taboo’s landscape is particular, intense and deeply intuitive, holding and excluding its inhabitants alternately. Whether he’s describing the old woman concealed within bougainvillea, or the way people become fragments in ‘scattered shards of sunlight,’ Scott’s landscape moves, speaks and encourages the reader to see differently. Trees conceal scars, bristle when a bus approaches and toss their noisy leaves when a thunderstorm threatens. Wind, rain and evening shadows exhale, shred and roar. And yet this is not an alien landscape, not deliberately positioned as either malign or benign. This is landscape as part of the universe, just as we are, in all our flawed, occasionally heroic and mostly despairing lives.

And it is on those flawed lives that Scott’s eye lingers. The young woman who emerges from the runaway truck, Tilly, brave and resilient perhaps or filled with secret harm, is the pivot around whom the stories turn. Her white mother and Aboriginal father are both dead and she has returned to that place, the massacre place where her ancestors, her foster father and his son would claim her, and she must resist these claims. Is she the wrong girl, the girl who must not be touched or given, or is she the product of her environment and displacement? The rag tag band of hopefuls who journey towards reconciliation, for the opening of a Peace Park, hold her in their midst, sensing the disquiet but unable to heal. Because the country itself is frizzing with discontent; weeds, stones, gullies, rocks erupting, punching and lunging about in ‘an enormous space. The big old sky above.’

Landscape becomes language in Scott’s unerring hands. In what appears to be a deliberate and enticing device, the people in this story speak the ‘old language,’ which is mostly referred to as such; ‘Gerald spoke its name in the old language.’ Parrots, eagles and cockatoos all speak, as do earth and sky and bolts of lightening. The old people and the young ones who watch them, speak in circular ways, familiar to those who come from oral storytelling traditions. And they speak ‘now and in the future, the drunks and addicts, the old people and their carers and all those otherwise lost but wanting to help.’ Scott’s people describe generational despair and sit within their losses. Their tears rise and meet the sea. They understand what it means to be Noongar, ‘proper Noongar things, not museum made-up stuff.’ Their grief manifests itself in language that recognises they could have done things differently. Breath and feeling and fire sing them to language.

The novel ends as it begins, reminding the reader of the circularity of stories, how beginnings and endings are shaped by intent and weighed by landscape. It is a story of dispossession, abuse, colonialism, addiction and racism. Scott’s prose is lyrical as well as melancholy. He reminds us of the importance of bearing witness with unflinching precision. The men and women who walk through these pages are startlingly aware of their failings and equally forgiving of those failings in others. There are no quick fixes and the story vacillates between despair and hope. Yet this is not a grim story. The lucidity of its prose lifts it beyond the despair in its pages and reminds us that there are no perfect words and no easy resolutions to the trials of our First Nations people. Matilda-Tilly, girl-woman, both descendant and ancestress, haunted me in the way that fully realised figures in fiction and memoir often do; reminding me of Amanda Curtin’s Meggie in Elemental and the young Sally Morgan in My Place. This book needs to be read, reviewed, discussed and recommended widely. My life is richer for it.

Publisher: Picador, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Veils, Halos and Shackles

 

Book Review: Charles Ades Fishman & Smita Sahay’s ‘Veils, Halos & Shackles’

The books I loved in 2015

2015 was the year I submitted my PhD and the year I intended to read ‘differently.’ I wanted to step out of my comfort zone by reading writers I had never read, or had not read for a long time. For several years now, my focus, while reading fiction and memoir, has been to read Australian women, followed closely by Indian and Iranian women. I thought I should make an extra effort to read more books by men, especially men of colour. I decided to make 2015 the year of reading more of the world, particularly because I knew I would be attending the Edinburgh Writers Festival in August.

I started the year by reading four American and one Canadian writer. Teju Cole’s Open City is about a Nigerian doctor who walks the streets of Manhattan, seemingly aimlessly, and encounters his past and present lives. A meditation on identity, race and love, this is a deeply introspective and cerebral novel.

I followed this by reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. Strayed walked in far more inhospitable terrain than the streets of New York. She trekked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of America, after her mother’s death from cancer. It’s honest, funny and difficult and details the casual misogyny she faces along the way.

Junot Diaz’s This is how you lose her, is a hybrid beast of a novel that reads like memoir, especially because the author/narrator, Junot/Yunior appear interchangeable and mercurial. The language and themes are often confronting but also poetic.

Finally, Toni Morrison’s Home rounded off the quartet of Americans I had decided to read. Morrison’s spare, elegant and devastating prose quietly tells the story of a black soldier returning home in 1950s America. “There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for someone else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.” Sentences like these mark the brutal emotional landscape of Morrison’s characters.

Padma Viswanathan’s novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, takes its inspiration from the real life tragedy of the Air India flight which exploded over the Irish Sea in 1985. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and you can read my longer review, published in Westerly.

The Edinburgh Writers Festival in August 2015 introduced me to a raft of writers, both Scottish and international and despite taking virtually empty suitcases to stuff with books, there is a limit on how many you can lug around a little island for 4 weeks. I was pleased (and guilty) that I bought 14 books, and could have bought a dozen more. Here are some of the books I bought and read.

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Fishermen is rightly described as magnificent and remarkable. There is a strong dream-like quality to the storytelling but the story itself is grounded in tangible things like family secrets and nation building.

In Edinburgh, I listened to Val McDermid perform her stunning short story, The Road and the Miles to Dundee, from her collection, Stranded. I read, too, her re-telling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, set during the Edinburgh Festival, a delightful and easy read. And I bought poetry, lots of it, Auden, Morgan, Burns; in Scotland it seemed impossible not to – the landscape demanded it and I obeyed.

Finally, my world literature list would not be complete without Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. A beautiful, clever, poetic, maddening book – fitting sequel to that other equally maddening Life After Life. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

Then, it was time to come home. I finished the year with 4 stunning Australian women writers. The first of these was Karen Overman-Edmiston and The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity. A richly philosophical novel about the vagaries of chance meetings and deep love, snow-bound landscapes and heartfelt conversations, this is a reflective and gentle book, almost languorous in its unfolding tragedy and hope.

In stark contrast is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. This novel has been described as a howl of despair and fury, and it is a fair description. I have never read anything like it and I don’t suppose I ever will. It is chilling, furious and brutal and it requires emotional strength to finish reading it. But I had no doubt whatsoever that the dystopian world these characters inhabit is real, or has the potential to be. As a woman, it was a reminder that men can and will hunt, capture and control women if they are not stopped. Read Karen’s excellent review here.

S.A Jones’s novel Isabelle of the Moon & Stars is beautifully West Australian in its evocation of how fraught our lovely city can be for a young woman battling her ‘dark place.’ I fell in love with Isabelle and Evan and was reluctant to let them out of my life and was only able to do so when another delicious book appeared – Susan Midalia’s third short story collection, Feet To The Stars. The stories in this collection glow with intelligence, humour and compassion; a different, refracted light shines on each story. The title story of the collection explores the relationship between a teacher and his student, full of insights, dark truths and hope. It’s hard to pick a favourite so I’ll pick three – Feet to the Stars, Inner Life and Because were the ones I went back to.

There were several other books I read, and not all of them were wonderful. I realised something I’ve always known, as the song goes – that I feel most at home when I read Australian (women) writers. The further I travel, the more I need to come home to them.