The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

I began by being extremely drawn to this account of dealing with a difficult parent in their old age. My late mother, too, was a (convincing) fantasist who turned on her daughters as we tried to help her as she declined. The incredible tension experienced when my version of things was not believed by others (doctors, health workers, social workers etc etc) was very potently portrayed by Laveau-Harvie when she encountered this.

However, this is not a blow-by-blow description of what happened to Laveau-Harvie and her sister but more a work of creative non-fiction – moving back and forwards in time, withholding, immersing the reader in mood and the beautiful environment of the Canadian prairie where her parents had their large house (don’t be fooled by the barn-like shack on the cover – think more like Dynasty). The author creates the story through carefully-chosen scenes (often blackly comic) and interior musings.

However, as the narrative progressed, I lost the connection I felt in the beginning as I realised this was not (perhaps necessarily) an impartial account. What is very brave about the book is that Laveau-Harvie opens herself up to being seen as unsympathetic (I’m sure most authors would pull hard against exposing themselves in this way. I felt terrible guilt after my mother passed away – did Laveau-Harvie feel something similar that was expiated, to a certain extent in this aspect of the work? Who knows.) I may have been too close to the story to be impartial myself but I had a strong negative reaction to the fate of the mother and the valorising of the father who, after all, had been complicit with his wife in her treatment of the daughters. The Erratics raises a plethora  issues and, after winning The Stella Prize, many more people will get to discuss them.

Skylarking – Kate Mildenhall

Mildenhall’s novel has some lovely descriptive writing of life in a small lighthouse-keeper community on the NSW south coast in the 1880s. Two teenagers, Kate and Harriet, are close friends enjoying a lot of freedom running around picnicking and playing dares at the cliff’s edge. This idyllic time is threatened when the girls’ nascent sexuality emerges and Harriet, in particular, wants romance, and we assume marriage. Kate is more of a free spirit. McPhail, a man in his thirties, arrives on the cape as a fisherman. Despite being an unlikely object for Harriet’s interest, she is aware of her sexual power over him and toys with encouraging him. This complication draws Kate in, and a tragedy plays out. The novel is based on a true story and I think this constrained the writer so that the motivations are sometimes unclear. The ending is extended way too long, lessening the impact of what is already a fairly low-key narrative.

Black Inc have given the novel a beautiful evocative cover.

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

This novel could have been a lot better than it turned out to be. It has an interesting premise. A mother, Anne, takes her autistic daughter for a long bush walk, a moment’s inattention and the daughter runs off and cannot be found, despite searches for her. As times passes Anne comes under increasing suspicion and vilification. Lorenzo writes well and evocatively, and her portrayal of Anne is nuanced, drawing the reader in to her plight. However, the promise of tension and conflict isn’t really achieved. Perhaps we are given too much detail of Anne’s everyday life and Lorenzo is more focused on the dynamics of interpersonal and family relations, rather than on creating a sense of threat and confrontation (although she does do a great portrayal of an ordinary middle-class woman tainted by an accusation of harming her own child and having to face hostility and abuse). This is the strongest aspect of the novel and reminded me of that other great book on a similar theme, Emily Ruskovich’s ‘Idaho’.

I felt Lorenzo and her editor allowed too many extraneous threads to remain in the novel, for example a subplot around an Iraqi asylum-seeker that went nowhere. There was a sort of feel-good bagginess about some aspects of the novel that detracted from the central focus and made for a more pedestrian pace. The cover probably says it all – the publisher categorised it as a family relationships novel, rather than a thriller. Nevertheless, it is a nicely written and insightful account of a woman in extremis.

The Good People – Hannah Kent

I finally ‘read’ Hannah Kent’s novel ‘Burial Rites’ in audio book form. I had avoided novel, really, because of all the hype around it: somehow it came across as a genre-type book because it was based on a gruesome murder, with domestic violence undertones. What Kent did, in fact, write was a wonderfully controlled novel about a particular closed and tight-knit society – 19th century Iceland – in which the ‘truth’ about the murder is slowly revealed as we get to know the thoughtful and sensitive heroine as she is housed with a family awaiting her execution. The novel was based on a real story that Kent came across in her research.

One of the most amazing things about ‘Burial Rites’ was Kent’s ability to absolutely recreate the everyday life of rural Iceland, capturing the small rhythms of the day and year, and the quiet, subtle interrelations of the characters.

The quite staggering thing about ‘The Good People’ is that Kent has done the exact same thing but this time set in Ireland in 1825. The novel is set in a rural valley, where except for going to the nearest market town to sell their butter and eggs, the people live out the grind on their small landholdings – but of course, they don’t own the land but rent it. It is a limited life in the extreme, but Kent takes us there, and it feels utterly convincing. She has the gift of recreating a tiny, closed-in world, in all the interest of its detail, that is as alien to us today, as if she’d set it on another planet.

Our main characters are Nora, who is widowed in the first chapter, Nance Roach who is the local ‘cunning woman’, someone who deals in cures and charms, and Mary, a fourteen year old who is hired out as a seasonal worker and who comes to help Nora with her severely disabled small grandson. This might be Ireland in 1825 but medieval superstition, especially belief in the Good People – the fairies – still exists. While the local, hard-nosed priest, preaches against the superstition, pretty much everyone in the valley believes in the Good People, avoids places where they might gather, like the Piper’s Grave, and go to Nance to get their ailments cured. It is Kent’s intent to get inside this society, and to let us see their lives and actions through their eyes.

The tragedy of the novel is centred on the grandson, Michael. His mother died when he was two and his father dumps him on Nora and leaves. While Nora’s husband, Martin, dies a few pages in (suspiciously clutching his chest, and at the cross roads), we get the feeling that if he had lived they could have cared for Michael together, but grieving after his death, the difficulty of the disability starts to crush Nora, and the child’s mannerisms and the change in his appearance, makes her happy to eventually accept the rumour that he is a changeling – a fairy child left in the place of her real grandson.

As in ‘Burial Rites’, Kent takes a baffling crime and creates a plausible story around it. Here, she has to convince us that the three women she has portrayed as essentially good, could do something, that, on the face of it, is fairly evil. I don’t know if she is entirely successful but, as with, ‘Burial Rites’, I empathised with the ‘criminals’. Nance Roach, in particular, is a finely-drawn character, but it was the details of life in early 19th century Ireland that fascinated me – the earth floor of the ‘cabins’, goats and chickens in the houses, bare feet, even in the snow, the ‘breakfast potato’, (in fact the diet seems to consist only of milk from their one cow, eggs from the chickens and potatoes from their potato bed). There is also mention of the itinerant poor who are accused of nicking the necks of people’s cows and drinking their blood for sustenance.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

nightguestcoverMuch is made of the tiger in this novel, and that may have been a turn off for some readers, thinking this is magic realism in the vein of Life of Pi. I certainly thought so when I saw the cover for the first trade paperback edition with its cartoonish tiger’s paw peeking around a doorway. The new smaller paperback, that’s just come out, has a more mysterious, evocative cover, in keeping, I think, with the contents of this wonderful novel.

The tiger is a metaphor and doesn’t figure prominently but is a catalyst for much of the action. Ruth is an elderly widow left living alone, in an isolated beach house, having retired there with her late husband, Harry. Ruth is a beautifully-drawn character, tough in some ways but also vulnerable, and full of the memories of a childhood spent in Fiji with her missionary parents. In her isolation, these memories crowd back, especially at night when it seems the insects and hot, fetid atmosphere of Fiji crowds in.

Into Ruth’s self-contained world comes Frida— a large, forthright woman, maybe half-Fijian, maybe not—who says she’s ‘from the government’ and come to help out Ruth around the house. Ruth is surprised, but she has a bad back, and some assistance would be welcome. Frida then begins to insinuate herself into Ruth’s life and the power tussle between the two is played out, at first almost playfully and, as time goes by, a sinister note creeps in.

It is to McFarlane’s credit, and her skill at narrative, that this essentially two-character novel, is so riveting. Both Ruth and Frida are comic in their ways, but the drama of the book depends on us having access to Ruth’s thoughts—funny, sardonic, poignant—and to only know Frida by her actions and her words. But, she too, is funny—a force of nature with her energy and her quirks.

nightguestTPThe writing is also beautifully constructed, conveying with its tight prose and rich imagery, the depth and breadth of Ruth’s world:

Frida sat on the unfamiliar chair and looked at Ruth, impassive. Her obstinacy had a mineral quality. Ruth felt she could chip away at it with a sharp tool and reveal nothing more than the uniformity of its composition.

for example, or

Frida’s suitcase still sat on the sandy grass. It could convincingly have grown from a stalk into a grey-white fruit.

or the acute observation,

Ruth was sensitive to criticism of her father, in that tenuous and personal way in which children are anxious for the dignity of their parents. She worried a great deal for him out in the world.

The Night Guest is an affecting, psychological study with a surprisingly taut, suspenseful element lying somewhere between S J Watson’s thriller Before I Go to Sleep and Jessica Anderson’s wonderful Tirra Lirra by the River. In fact Nora Porteous, of the latter, has much in common with Ruth. Both are fantastic portrayals of older women looking back and assessing their lives, while struggling and dealing with the present.

The Great Unknown – review

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

The problem with a lot of literary anthologies is that they are very diverse. This showcases a range of writing but most readers will only find a few stories in the collection that speak to them. Angela Meyer’s anthology of ghost/speculative/strange/uncanny stories circumvents this. If that’s the kind of writing you like, you can read The Great Unknown from cover to cover.

The writers in this collection were asked to take as a starting point the sort of eerie, otherworldly feel that the TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’ produced. As such, you know that these stories are not going to follow conventional trajectories.

Kathy Charles’ story Baby’s First Words starts off with an everyday situation. A dad is picking up his young child for an access visit. From the beginning Charles’ deftly builds up the tension between the mother and the father. The wife needs the husband to look after the daughter but she tries to keep him talking at the front door unsure about him. He gives one-word answers but the reader has access to his thoughts and he’s ranting and bitter. As he drives away with his daughter he fumes about how his wife thinks the child has learning difficulties because she can’t talk. The reader is fearful for the child but is it the child we should be worried about? I loved this story.

Krissy Kneen’s ‘The Sleepwalker’ deals with an annoying but benign problem—Emily and Brendan are grappling with Emily’s habit if sleepwalking. The easy, mundane relationship of the couple is counterpointed to the growing strangeness of Emily’s behaviour. She starts to take photographs when sleepwalking but Brendan laughs it off—the photos are mostly blank. Then Emily develops some more and they see something in them. From there the story only gets creepier.

Damon Young’s ‘Art’ is clever and scary but not in the way the reader initially believes. It blurs the line between the erotic in art and the response in the viewer. Ben’s excitement at the artworks he sees at an exhibition spills over to what he feels towards a girl he’s just met outside the gallery. As in Baby’s First Words, the reader is led to be so afraid for a particular character that we don’t see the blow when it comes.

Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Sticks and Stones’ starts with the wonderful trope of so many horror stories—finding an unusual book in a second-hand bookstore. Blackwood, a philology professor, takes home Ten Terrifying Tales but finds what’s written in the margins more interesting than the stories themselves. The ‘anonymous critic’ purports to know enough about black masses to suggest the description in the book is inaccurate. Blackwood is amused by this, until he turns around and sees a row of letters written across the blank wall behind him. After that the words come after him. This is a clever and satisfying mirror within mirror story.

P. M. Newton’s story ‘The Local’ also uses a horror/mystery staple—small (almost empty) pub in the country, the out-of-towners who come in for a drink, the strange stories, a mysterious figure who seems to know more than he should about bizarre weather phenomena, the people who don’t listen to the warnings. Newton builds a hot, fetid atmosphere effectively.

One of my favourites in the book is the beautiful story by Marion Halligan ‘Her Dress was a Pale Glimmer’. The setting for the story is a simple one—dinner in the garden of a restaurant with a father and his two grown-up daughters—but the description of the girls’ dresses, the beauty of the evening as they begin their meal, and the lusciousness of the food imbues the scene with a fairytale feel.

The sun was low in the sky, nearly setting, shining under the branches into [my father’s] eyes but he said it didn’t matter, it would be gone in a minute. It took longer than that but finally it went down behind the mountain with very little colour, the light became pearly grey and the candles winked in their little glasses.

The beauty is muted because they are sad. The mother has disappeared some time ago and they don’t know whether she is alive or dead. Then one daughter gets a cryptic, yet lovely, message on her phone and all eyes are on the empty chair at their table.

The achievement, and the satisfaction, of these stories is that they take the everyday, the quotidian, and slowly and relentlessly turn it into anything but.

www.goodreads.com/review/list/16022645-helen-bookwoods

Win a copy of The Great Unknown

Good Reading Magazine is running a competition to win one of 10 copies of The Great Unknown. Click here to go to the website. The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This collection of strange and spooky stories was perfect reading for the lazy week between Christmas and New Year, providing a dark antidote to the forced cheeriness of the season … Contributors to the anthology were invited to write about the fantastical, uncanny, absurd, or, as editor Angela Meyer  notes, ‘even just the slightly off’ … While the nineteen stories are diverse in style and content, this shared focus on the strange gives the anthology a pleasing coherence that many collections of short fiction lack … The combined effect of the pieces … reminded me of the pleasures of those puzzling and troubling moments in life, and in fiction, when logic is defied and image and association are required instead.

– Rachel Roberston Australian Book Review March, 2014.

The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’

Women’s reading challenge rankings

I had high hopes for my participation in this challenge. I wanted to read Handfasted by Catherine Helen Spence and other 19th Australian women writers but, in the end, I ran out of time. Cravenly I included tiny novellas like Puberty Blues and The Bay of Noon in my ten novels. I even included The Villa of Death, which is by an Australian writer but set in England, and has Daphne du Maurier as the sleuthing heroine!

Here’s my list from favourite to least favourite:

  1. A Kingdom by the Sea – Nancy Phelan (Wonderful account of childhood around The Spit in Sydney in the 1920s and 30s; it is a bygone era beautifully evoked)
  2. Tirra Lirra by the River –  Jessica Anderson (perceptive novel about ageing and looking back over life; I loved spending time with Anderson’s witty and sardonic narrator)
  3. The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard (Quintessentially of its time, the fifties/sixties; an intelligent but naïve young English woman finds herself drawn to the lives of a worldly Italian couple; philosophical and beautifully written)
  4. The Engagement – Chloe Hooper (Very clever Gothic thriller with psychological edge: I love it when Australian writers do this sort of thing well)
  5. Fortress – Gabrielle Lord (Suspenseful account of a school teacher and her class kidnapped by a gang of violent youths, has a great touch in portraying the relationship between the children and, our heroine, their teacher, coupled with clever plot twists)
  6. Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker (Falls between the two stools of a memoir of surviving cancer and literature appreciation; but clear, effective writing and intelligent, perceptive thoughts, redeem it)
  7. The Villa of Death – Joanna Challis (No deathless prose but Daphne du Maurier as the heroine is an entertaining character, the setting of a thinly-disguised Manderley is interesting, the mystery plot ticks away and it is fun guessing links to the real du Maurier’s life and novels)
  8. We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gun (Glad I read this work about a NT cattle station at the end of the 19th century for a particular portrayal of outback life, but it is a series of sketches rather than a novel)
  9. Butterfly Song – Terri Janke (Very readable novel that melds the contemporary life of an indigenous student with a mystery set in the Torres Strait in the 1940s)
  10. Puberty Blues – Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette (a disappointment after the wonderful television series).

 

Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker

The tag line to Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight is how books saved a life. I wonder why she chose to include this because it at once requires too much of books and also quite the wrong thing. Perhaps it is one way to flag to the reader that this is a book about the threat of mortality, not the romantic sweetness that ‘reading by moonlight’ suggests.

It is also not surprising that a literature academic would see her illness, in this case breast cancer, through the prism of fiction. For me, I picked up this book, to read an intelligent woman’s account of her brush with disease, and this disease in particular. One in four women will get breast cancer at some stage in her life, so a lot of us will have to face what Brenda Walker did.

There are, of course, descriptions of getting the diagnosis and her treatment of surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is honest, and eloquent, about her fear of death. However the medical side is pushed to the background as if it is too painful to dwell there, or that readers would soon tire of too forensic a treatment. Instead Walker looks at literature and what she might find there to shine light on her experience, what might enrich our understanding of the vicissitudes of life.

All reading is a matter of taste and the works Walker includes to write about in detail are personal favourites of hers, or works that she can use to illustrate an idea. I did find the connection between many of the books to Walker’s experience of illness at times difficult to discern, or tenuous. They are hugely diverse – from Poe, to Tolstoy, Patrick White to Philip Roth. And there is a lot on Samuel Becket, a favourite of Walker’s. I found it hard to believe that anyone would choose Malone Dies as their book of choice for a hospital stay!

I did enjoy Walker’s discussion of The Tale of Genji and White’s Voss interesting, but others I found less enthralling.

That said, I enjoyed reading Moonlight. Walker’s style if crisp, studied, but also easy to read. The book reminded me, not that books can save a life, but the study of books within, or without, a tertiary institution certainly enhances your life. Walker, herself, explains what books mean to her:

When I tell myself that books can save a life, I don’t mean that books can postpone death. That is the job of medicine. I mean that certain books, by showing us the inner fullness of the individual life, can rescue us from a limited view of ourselves and others.

Reading reminds me that we are not so singular after all, that there are crowds, whole populations, in the stack of books at the end of my table. Some of these people will trouble me, some will appear in thoughts and dreams, and they will all still be here … when my own books are out of print, when my writing table is just another chipped piece of furniture at a clearing sale.

 

This is the final of my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge 2012. There will be another one next year – a great initiative to support women writers in this country. (See link in sidebar).