Here’s a guest post on Amanda Curtin’s blog, ahead of the launch of The Historian’s Daughter on 31st August.
looking up/looking down
It’s my great pleasure to be introducing Rashida Murphy’s accomplished debut novel twice this week—first, here on looking up/looking down; second, on the occasion of her book launch on the 31st (details here)
I absolutely love The Historian’s Daughter—the intelligence and vulnerability of young Hannah; the tender relationships between the sisters, between them and their mother, and between Hannah and her ‘mad aunt’; the novel’s pace alongside its sophisticated use of restraint; and the lyrical prose that sings from the page as the narrative takes us from India to Australia to Iran and back to ‘home’.
Here is the book’s blurb…
In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies…
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My publishers have just told me that The Historian’s Daughter is now featured on their website as a forthcoming title. This is tremendously exciting and is now starting to feel real. I will post updates and other book related news as it happens 🙂
I’ll be speaking about my novel at the New Norcia Writers Festival in August. Meanwhile my face is beginning to crack with the smile I haven’t been able to wipe off since this afternoon 🙂
I have been doing a bit of that lately – neglecting the blog, I mean. I’ve been immersed in submissions for two journals I’m currently editing (both, as guest editor). Then I was distracted by the fabulous Perth Writers Festival which coincided with my sister’s soul-warming visit. And finally, I’m pinching myself because I actually have a publisher for the story I’ve been living with for almost ten years; the story that became the novel that I submitted for my PhD. The year so far has been busy!
I find I’m happiest (and saddest) when immersed in the stories of women who triumph against odds. Most of my PhD research was linked to stories of survival and as I edit the special issue on Female Genital Mutilation for Cafe Dissensus, I find myself drawn back into the spirit that enables women to go on, often after everyone else has given up. But I feel angry as well, especially when I see and hear women being heckled or abused for doing what they can in order to circumvent the awful misogyny, that in Australia at least, seems to be just waiting in the wings to swoop.
At the recent Perth Writers Festival, I was privileged to attend a panel discussion with the fabulous Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things. When the time came to ask questions of the writers, who included Helen Ellis and Guinevere Glasfurd, a man in the audience stood up and instantly made me ashamed I was breathing the same air as him. This man told Charlotte Wood that most of the characters in her novel were “pathetic” and one of the main characters, Yolande, “was just like a man” and that’s why he liked her. Charlotte Wood maintained her grace and composure but some of the women in the audience that I spoke to afterwards wanted to howl with rage or shout him down. But we didn’t. We behaved like nice girls; ironically Wood had started the discussion by saying that she didn’t write about nice girls.
So why do women play nice when men don’t? Are we taught perfection and niceness instead of bravery and fairness? And why is our silence always construed as weakness? As I transcribe the interviews and read the testimonies of the women who have come forward to speak of female circumcision, I hope this will change. I hope our voices will be louder than the ones that shout us down. I hope we will continue to say uncomfortable things and I hope that my voice doesn’t falter the next time I need to raise it.
‘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
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.
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.
Author – Lynne Leonhardt
Publisher – Margaret River Press, 2012