Tag Archives: reviews

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Brown girls who shout

Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion, and institutes at its disposal. Most of them have now taken up a strident chorus of rightward-tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant. To attack what is contained in these categories is to defend the Western spirit.

Since Edward Said wrote these words in 1993, I can’t say much has changed. Recent events in Australia, as well as globally, in the past few weeks, have sent me scurrying to my boxes of books and tearing them open with the distress of one who usually retreats to literature when confronted, challenged, heartbroken.

Last week, the ABC program, Q&A made headlines as viewers were subjected to the spectre of Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie shouting the oft repeated refrains – ban the burka; deport Muslims; halt immigration. Lambie’s website explains that she puts Tasmania first, advocates the banning of the burka and thinks that Sharia law is an anti democratic cancer. When fellow panellist and Muslim writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied attempted to explain Sharia to the Senator, voices were raised, fingers were pointed and insults were hurled. The so-called moderator of the program interrupted Abdul-Magied when she raised her voice and she backed down. Later, those journals of opinion erupted in a frenzy against Abdel-Magied; the mildest, accusing her of being an apologist for Islam, going on tax payers funded holidays to extremist societies, and the vilest, calling her names that brought to mind the campaign against former Prime Minster Julia Gillard. Abdel-Magied’s sin, in part, appears to have been that she raised her voice in an attempt to be heard. Senator Lambie’s finger pointing and yelling appeared to gain her more support (Go Jacquie) in those bastions of public opinion whereas Abdel-Magied’s defence of her way of life inspired vitriol and a recommendation she be deported. Brown girls must not shout.

Not long ago a similar incident involving Jamila Rizvi and Steve Price on The Project also divided viewers. Rizvi, another brown girl, asked Steve Price to keep quiet because she was talking and refused to let him interrupt her. Well. A Change.org petition demanded an instant apology from Rizvi on behalf of the scowling, misogynistic Price who pronounced himself ‘humbled’ by the support. He also appeared to think that Rizvi’s shouting was unacceptable, but did not see any contradiction in attempting to interrupt her or speak over her to get his point across. A point worth noting here is that The Project’s co-host is Waleed Aly, also a Muslim, whose behaviour is scrutinised closely and whose every utterance is pounced upon. But Ali, because of his gender, star power and intelligence, is allowed to get away with occasional ‘misdemeanours’ as perceived by his white audience. Brown girls, however, cannot. We need to keep our heads down and our voices low. We must be nice. The sub-text appears to be – we understand that your origins, race and religion condemn you and make you inadequate but we are willing to help you if you’re nice. If you’re not nice, we’ll get upset and point out all the things that are wrong with having people like you in our country.

This is the message I hear when I emerge from my self-imposed burial in the books I turn to when I’m upset. As a brown Australian it’s hard to stay apolitical when the country slides publicly into bigotry, as this report indicates. It’s hard to stay positive when the people in my city greet Pauline Hanson enthusiastically. It’s hard to stay buoyant when men in suits order the destruction of Aboriginal and environmental sacred sites and ignore their humanitarian obligations.

But brown girls mustn’t shout. That’s important. And here’s the thing. Brown girls know they mustn’t shout. We were raised to keep our voices and eyes lowered. We were raised by patriarchs in societies emasculated by colonialism. When we left our brown shores for these white sands we already knew how to behave. Despite centuries of conditioning, we raise our voices. Think of the cost. The shame of our mothers. Why do we do it?

In the words of the magnificent Sarah Kay;

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer

I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,

I just don’t always recognise my own weaponry.

Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson- book review

‘Why did no one help?’ This was the question Kristina Olsson reflexively asked at the 2015 Perth Writers Festival, at a panel discussing her memoir, Boy, Lost. It was also the question that haunted me as I read this book, winner of the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards and on the shortlist for the 2014 Stella Prize. In a sense, this is more than the story of Olsson’s beautiful mother Yvonne and her stoic half-brother Peter – this is the story of Australia in the 1950s; the same period romanticised by John Howard and the current Prime Minister as a time of mateship and heroism and optimism. It was also a time of cruelty and neglect and looking the other way. It was a time when children were institutionalised and abused, when neighbours pitied but dared not intervene in marital ‘disputes,’ when the real heroes were the women and children who survived despite attempts to annihilate them.
This story of Olsson’s mother and her brutal first marriage, and the boy who was lost to her for forty years is beautifully written. The stark sentences gutted me with their power. On page 2 – ‘ This is the story my mother never told, not to us, the children who would grow up around it in the way that skin grows over a scratch.’ And a short while later, on page 6, describing the first time 17 year old Yvonne sees 34 year old Michael and foreshadowing the doomed relationship, there’s this: ‘She doesn’t stand a chance.
Olsson says her mother was a woman of ‘infinite tenderness and quiet fury.’ As children they learned not to provoke that fury, although when Kristin and her sister Sharon were teenagers, their mother talked quietly, furiously, about self-control and risk-taking. ‘This is what she tells us when we are in our teens: that we will be fought for, will be physically restrained if need be, if the situation demands it.’ It’s not so different from the lectures I remember giving my own daughter when she became a teenager, more than twenty years after Yvonne lectured her own daughters. Mothering through the ages and between cultures remains essentially the same, I think.
This is a story of love and grief and abuse and the wisdom that comes with surviving and forgiving. Yvonne’s yearning for her lost son seeps into her life with her other sons and daughters and the husband whose devotion sustained her. And that son whose life on the streets and within institutions still did not weaken his belief that a loving mother waited for him, somewhere. Their reunion was just one of a dozen times I had to put the book down and absorb the intimacy and sorrow of what I was reading. This is a powerful, lyrical exploration of how families love and hate and break and heal. Unflinching, ethical and unsentimental, I recommend it highly.

My second book review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge

Addition by Toni Jordan

What a joy it is to kick off my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge with Toni Jordan’s debut novel, Addition, published in 2008. Addition is a gorgeous book, funny, sad, intelligent, quirky and involving. I found it in a State Library sale and started reading it while standing in a queue and put it down reluctantly to pay and drive home so I could finish.

Grace Vandenburg is easily the funniest fictional heroine I have come across in recent years. She is 35 years old and she counts the letters in her name (19), the pieces in a slice of orange cake and the number of bananas (10) she will buy. She keeps a photograph of Nikola Tesla by her bedside table and talks to him. Nikola gets numbers, like she does.  When she is obliged to leave Nikola to venture out and buy food, she makes sure she counts the numbers of steps to the supermarket.The boy at the checkout is “a handsome boy, twentysomething, with too much enthusiasm on his pink face,” while the man behind her in the queue is “reading Celebrity Nosejobs, or some other Pulitzer-winning publication picked from the display.” Imagine her horror when she discovers that she has only 9 bananas in her trolley. What is there to do except steal a banana from the man reading the magazine while distracting the boy at the checkout.

Grace, against her better instincts, falls in love. Seamus Joseph O’Reilly looks good in jeans and has sweet teeth, “like the milk teeth of a child.” He makes her blush and asks her if she’s a surgeon after watching her cut a slice of lemon tart into 38 equal pieces and she agrees to see him again. She tells herself sternly to stick to her rules because “who knows what could happen if I start making arbitrary decisions and upset the synchronised pattern of the universe?” What if the “Irish git” is so boring that she will once again lose the will to live?

Grace has a mother with a cat called Mr Parker, and a sister called Jill who “simmers French casseroles in a cast-iron pot and freezes the leftovers,” and a niece called Larry who is “all ungainly arms and legs like a new-born fawn.” She may have had a brother, or a puppy, or neither.

This book packs a punch. I laughed out loud at the acerbic Grace’s observations, even as I grew increasingly concerned with her slow decline into the darkness she dare not name. This is a modern story, set in a modern city (Melbourne) and these are people we may have seen or known without really seeing or knowing them. “Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments.” Exactly. I think I would have missed so much if I hadn’t met this book.

What I’ve been reading

Well, theories of memory, mostly, along with narrative inquiry mixed with a dash of ethnographic self reflexive research. This ‘essential’ reading has been for the essay I’m writing as part of my PhD. When I look at the piles of books on the floor of my study, I realise I’ve also been reading other ‘essential’ books – books that keep me sane, although my husband may have another point of view – it’s all about the definition of sanity, apparently. I read Kunal Basu’s 2007 book Racists, a chilling story about a pair of scientists who decide on the ultimate experiment – to raise a pair of children, one black, one white, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Africa. Set in 1855, it raises disturbing questions on the assumptions of racial superiority and left me with a sense of unease and anger. Just after this I picked up Hari Kunzru’s debut novel, The Impressionist, a hefty 500 page door stopper. This is also about race, set in British India. The main character is an Anglo Indian child dashing through imperial India, England and Africa, alternately searching for and escaping from his true identity. Overly long, with dense descriptions I flicked through, this is still funny and tragic and atmospheric, a book that requires some persistence. I also read the fabulous Joan London’s luminous book, The Good Parents. It taps into every parent’s insecurity over their children while meditating on the nature of choices and relationships that bind and separate. The book follows young Maya from country WA to Melbourne where she inexplicably disappears. Her parents look for her and struggle with their own past among Buddhist nuns, enigmatic Chinese girls and East European gangland bosses. This is a beautiful book, full of loss and poetry. Another book about parents and the choices, often disastrous, they make about their children, is M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. Set on a remote island off the coast of WA, a young lighthouse keeper and his wife decide to keep something that is not theirs. What follows is a beautifully crafted story about the consequences of that act. Local writer Yvette Walker’s book, Letters To The End Of Love left me wandering around lost for a few days, so powerful were the worlds she creates and so beautiful the writing that it spoke directly to me. Three couples in three places in three different times, write letters to each other. The Perth letters are like the city itself, sharp and clear and resonant with foreboding. The Cork letters also reflect the landscape, soft and grey and reflective. The Bournemouth letters are energetic despite the background of war and the difficulties of love. I loved this book. And finally, Annabel Smith’s latest book, The Ark. It is unlike any book I’ve read before and I couldn’t put it down. I read it in two days. I didn’t do anything else, I might add. I tried to feel guilty about the neglected essay I’m supposed to be writing. Then I persuaded myself research is reading, surely. The Ark is set in a dystopian future where a group of people responsible for 5 billion plant seeds bunker down in the facility known as The Ark, while Chaos rules the rapidly diminishing world outside. It’s a clever, funny and disturbingly prophetic sounding book and I will need to go back and read it again, along with the app that invites me to tour the bunker. And now, I really need to go back to the decolonised, subcontinental, post- structuralist methodology I was working on. I’m already traumatised. Feel free to send me some book recommendations.

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt

Lynne Leonhardt’s debut novel takes us to a gentler and a more violent time in our history – a paradox that is managed in this novel with grace and clarity. This is a book about people and relationships in times of change, of war, of displacement. And it’s so much about the place of displacement that the landscape becomes as much a character in this book as its four feisty women and the lost heroic Jasper of the title.

The post-war West Australian landscape of the 1950s is rich with loss and abundance in equal measure. ‘All that remained of the backyard was a tangle of dried grasses. Gold, brown, silver. Everything half-dead, drab, blurring into the landscape. The forest in the distance was simply a smudge -‘ (page 109). Against this background, three women, the fourth still a child, learn to co-exist.

There are three generations of women on a farm in a remote corner of the south-west of Western Australia. There’s matriarchal, colonial Audrey, lost in memories of Ceylon and a soldier husband, her world-weary daughter Attie who keeps body, soul and farm together, the English war bride Valerie and her young daughter Gin. Gin realises early in life that there are two distinct worlds. ‘One for children. One for adults. One for her mother and one for herself, and nothing in between.’ (page 11). Valerie, the languid Englishwoman, with her cigarettes and headaches, bitterly committed to hating the rude country that marriage to Jasper has brought her to, is barely likeable. Her flaws are presented in contrast to the good-tempered Audrey, the sensible Attie and the neglected Gin. Yet, like all deeply flawed characters, tragedy follows her like a ghost, making her actions believable , if not excusable.

This is a gentle, meditative book, one that reveals its insights slowly. It situates its characters in their time and landscape convincingly. I loved Attie and Gin and the way they grow to love each other, this aunt-and-niece pair who reminded me of my own relationships with my aunts when I was growing up, in another time and place. I look forward to a second reading.

Finding Jasper
Author – Lynne Leonhardt
Publisher – Margaret River Press, 2012

Book Review

Perth – David Whish-Wilson

I have called Perth home for the last 30 years and what a fabulous home it has been. I came to Perth as a young adult and raised a family, acquired friends and employment and learned to accept life, as the poet says, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child. Reading Perth reminded me why I love my adopted hometown. This biography of Perth by David Whish-Wilson is not merely a loving one; it is an intuitive and acute rendering of a city that so many (including one of my favourite West Australians, Tim Winton) have called Dullsville.

The book has four sections which flow as seamlessly as the title of the first section – The River. There is a poetic presence in this section especially and the novelist’s eye for detail, as this passage on page 30 reveals – ‘So the river was a haven for me. It was a place that reminded me of the one I’d left behind, where spiders and goannas and parrots and eagles had ruled the gullies, mud crabs and hermit crabs and mudskippers had populated the mangroves, and wild donkeys and kangaroos had filled the spaces now taken up by people. It was in the yellow sands and quarried limestone crags and bronzed shallows that I felt most at home as a child newly arrived from the desert.’ Whish-Wilson moves between the personal and the political effortlessly, allowing glimpses of the city through his viewpoint while adding historical and geographical details in a way that doesn’t read like a history lesson. Of particular delight to me were the frequent and generous references to portraits of Perth rendered by other West Australian writers. Whether it’s Gail Jones describing jellyfish or Robert Drewe’s characters walking through ‘this double city’, each literary reference links to a fascinating feature of the city and its inhabitants. ‘For a child of the suburbs, the city was never heard and it was never smelled –’ p.47.

All the colourful characters from Perth’s boom-bust 80s are mentioned – Alan Bond and his failed enterprises, along with a poignant description of Bond’s empty offices on the fiftieth floor of the building that had carried his name when he was at the height of his popularity. My sympathy dissipated with the knowledge that Bond’s ugly tower was built by demolishing the luxurious late 1800s Palace Hotel.

It isn’t easy to describe the light Perth people know too well – the light that makes you squint at 6 am on a summer morning and hold your hand in a half salute when looking towards the sun. David Whish-Wilson knows this and describes it beautifully – the ‘double effect of the scalpel-sharp light and the general impression of space and silence and stillness –’ p.120. Of course, space and silence and stillness – it must be Perth. I wish I’d written that sentence.

As a Perth-dweller, this book was just what I needed. The writer has captured my city’s ambiguity, careless sprawl, stunning landscape, weird characters and an essential Perth-ness. My experience of my city is richer for it and I recommend it highly.