Last year was a bumper year for me regarding reading. All my life I have been a slow reader, something that didn’t help me when I studied English Literature (yes, there was such a category back then). In 2019 I read 68 books, a record number for me. I put this down to two things: I no longer work part time and only now do occasionally editing, as well as appraisals and my own writing, leaving me more time for reading. Also, I have become a devotee of audiobooks, going through most of the ones I wanted from the local library and then having to bite the bullet and subscribe to Audible, which opened up a cornucopia of titles. I had the sort of thrill over this I used to get going into a gorgeous big, well-stocked bookstore such as the old Collins at Broadway, Borders in Pitt St (also gone long ago) and Dymocks in George St. (I still get it at the overwhelming but wonderful Kinokunya near Town Hall).
When my credit comes up in Audible, I’m almost frozen with the choice available. I will say, though, that there is an added level of decision-making with audiobooks because even my most anticipated or desired title can be ruined by the narrator. Conversely, a wonderful narrator can take a book to another level of enjoyment and appreciation – I think this was the case with the incredibly good narrators for Anna Burns’ Milkman (Brid Brennan), the Elena Ferrante books (Hillary Hubert) and The Goldfinch (David Pittu). As a rule of thumb, I would caution authors against reading their own works (yes, I’m talking about you Philip Pullman). There are, of course, exceptions: who can go past Christopher Hitchens reading Hitch 22 or Helen Garner reading Everywhere I look?
It is interesting that listening to audiobooks, rather than substituting for reading, have added to it. I can listen to an audiobook doing housework, or gardening or going on walks. When I’m tired, or my eyes are sore, I can lie back and be taken away into a wonderful parallel world. One other cautionary note, I can’t listen to difficult (i.e. violent, or frightening, overly complicated) audiobooks before going to bed or I won’t get to sleep. The same can be said for a page-turning thriller – I have to keep listening until I get to a pause in the action. This is the same with the physical act of reading a paper book or ebook, but because I’m sitting up, having to hold an object and turn pages, somehow it’s easier to put the book aside and turn the light off.
Favourite Book Literary: Milkman by Anna Burns. Honourable mentions, Overstory Richards Powers, The Goldfinch Donna Tartt, Machines Like Me Ian McEwen and Ghost Wall Sarah Moss.
Favourite book fantasy/SF: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman. Honourable mention, Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie.
Favourite NF: Not a great year for this, but I enjoyed Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs and Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi – both insightful and enthralling family biographies.
Favourite audiobook: There have been some wonderful ones. Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, The Goldfinch and Ancillary Justice are stand-outs.
Most disappointing book: The Carer Deborah Moggach. I had high hopes for this novel and it let me down badly.
Book that didn’t live up to its hype: The Wall John Lanchester and My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite. How either of these two were long-listed for the Booker prize, I don’t know. The Wall is a fairly lightweight dystopian novel that might have been favoured because its subject matter of refugees being held at bay by a wall surrounding Britain was topical. It started out well, but the storyline became more and more unconvincing. There is nothing wrong with My Sister, the Serial Killer but, again, it is very lightweight. Braithwaite had a fun idea of a woman covering for her sister who seems to have a penchant for disposing of boyfriends, but she didn’t really take this premise anywhere particularly interesting. There are amusing, short chapters and it’s a quick read; and that’s the most I can say for it.
Best comfort read: Their Fractured Light Amie Kaufman, the last in the Starbound Trilogy – the couples at the centre of the previous novels join together to take on the very nasty LaRoux Industries who think nothing of a bit of genocide when any of their terraformed planets go wrong. It sounds tough going but it’s really a lot of hijinks, action and URST.
Best Australian: Joan London’s beautiful and sad Gilgamesh
Book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading: In the Garden of Beasts Erik Larson. Long and tedious. Larson pulls off the extraordinary – making Berlin in the 30s boring.
Here are three best-selling fantasy series: Harry Potter (of which I have read all several times over), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (of which I have read all, including the latest: The Secret Commonwealth) and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, of which I have read the first title, The Trials of Morrigan Crow – there are two more: Wundersmith and a third instalment due out in 2020, Hollowpox.
When I was reading Nevermoor, I wondered why it didn’t grab me as much as the other two series (which I count as among my favourite books). I did enjoy Nevermoor but I did not rate it as highly as many other fantasy book aimed at the child and YA market. I was more engaged by Christelle Dabos’s Mirror Visitor books, whose strange, exaggerated imagined world, loosely based on a Victorian era mis-en-scene, has something in common with Townsend’s own Nevermoor. Dabos’s books are perhaps aimed more at an older readership, and this lends a certain dark malice to the wacky characters, and her heroine, Ophelia, being older than Morrigan, has more agency. I often found myself being put off by some of the devices in Nevermoor, that seemed like something out of a child’s picture book: the brolly rail which characters can catch by hanging on to their umbrellas, the ever-changing bedroom, the ‘umble, chimney sweeper-like boy who befriends Morrigan. There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to it all – I could never see the appeal in that tale.
So, Nevermoor is aimed at a younger readership but so were the first Harry Potter books (Harry was 11, the same age as Morrigan) and Pullman’s The Northern Lights. What these latter books have is a level of seriousness, and a level of realness. Okay, the Dursleys are pretty exaggerated but you do get a sense that Harry is a normal kid coping with the circumstances meted out to him – school and a difficult home life. I also thought that Lyra’s real life was established at Jordan College where there was a lot of ‘normal life’ going on, like responsibilities, and an adult life of complications just beyond Lyra’s understanding.
With Morrigan, there is no ‘normal’ life, as such, established. She is in a strange, alternative world and she is a strange, alternative person – a cursed child, blamed for every calamity big or small in the region and, who, it is preordained, will die on her eleventh birthday.
I suppose I am saying that I like a real-life anchor to this sort of fantasy to leaven the whimsy and flummery of fantasy worlds such as Nevermoor.
I haven’t read the second instalment, Wundersmith, so perhaps Morrigan grows up and learns to face horrors and find a way through them herself. Certainly, at the end of Nevermoor, this is suggested.
Apparently, Rebecca has not been out of print since it was first published in 1938. It was boosted, no doubt, by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and with many adaptations since (Netflix has one in the pipeline). I first read Rebecca many years ago in my twenties and loved it. First and foremost, it is a very well written mystery. Du Maurier is excellent at misdirection, withholding and building a tense, slightly Gothic atmosphere. It’s not for nothing that the opening line ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’ has gone into the popular imagination.
I have to admit that my second ‘reading’ was really listening to the audiobook narrated by the well-known actress, Anna Massey. Her voice is, I think, too old for the young narrator (in her early twenties) but, in defence of Massey, the novel is narrated in retrospect by the older ‘never mind how many years’ unnamed narrator. I will call her J, for Jane, as the parallels to Jane Eyre are obvious, and we can’t keep mixing her up with the first Mrs De W. Massey adopts a posh, upper class intonation that, initially, is very annoying. However, it is also appropriate – Maxim de Winter is stinking rich. Manderley is a huge stately home with a large number of servants, including the butler, Frith and, of course, Mrs Danvers the housekeeper. She is no char, she runs the large staff, providing Mrs de Winter with a menu in the morning for the day’s meals. It is one of the first instances of her distain for the new Mrs de Winter, that she has no opinion on this. ‘Whatever you think, Mrs Danvers’ is her perpetual reply. Maxim has an estate manager, Frank Crawley, and so doesn’t have to do any very much by the way of oversight. We first meet Maxim, as does J, in a fancy hotel in Monte Carlo where J is suffering the petty humiliations of being a companion to the wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper.
Coming to this book the second time around, there were things that irritated me quite a lot. One aspect was the leisured lifestyle of de Winter. Somehow, because Manderley is so beloved by Maxim, that makes the idea of his immense wealth acceptable. Because of J’s meekness and mildness, there is no suggestion she is desirous of this wealth. In fact, her main concern is not being up to the job of lady of the house. Her, tastes, we are led to believe, are modest and simple: she has shabby clothes that she doesn’t appear to update when she arrives at Manderley, ‘I can see myself now … with straight, bobbed hair and youthful unpowdered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation.’ No wonder Mrs Danvers looks on with cold disapproval. Du Maurier cleverly deflects any criticism of J and Maxim by presenting them first to the reader in their exile in Europe: for reasons unknown to us until late in the narrative, they can’t return to their beloved Manderley and are instead made to live a quiet life in small hotels awaiting their the English papers and their tea (No, don’t be silly, they can’t find something useful to do. Poor old Maxim is born into the idle rich. No, they can’t take an interest in the countries they are in. It’s not England. The light is too bright and hurts J’s eyes!) Their exile is obviously painful, (and we want to find out why) so we forgive them their xenophobia.
Then, of course, J is a nobody. She is well-bred and middle class, and has finer feelings, because she cringes at the overbearing antics of Mrs van Hopper. We first meet Maxim when he lunches at the next table in the hotel. Old Hopper pounces on him and, of course, he has to put up with her because she’s wealthy and upper-class New York. Luckily, the old termagant gets a cold and Maxim can whisk J around in his car. Here is the romance trope – wealthy, distant, confident man falls for poor (usually beautiful) but good and sensitive girl. The ordinary woman reader puts herself in place of the girl (if only, she fantasises). Like Jane Eyre, J is not beautiful but ‘plain’, although we suspect the plainness is really a lack of confidence (it is interesting in film/TV adaptations the actresses are not ‘plain’). Of course, thinks the heroine, this rich, confident man couldn’t love me, and from this comes the trials and the tribulations of our Janes.
This brings me to my next gripe. I couldn’t stand J’s diffidence in the face of Mrs Danvers and the county types she has to deal with at Manderley. J is forever hiding behind doors so as not to be seen, breaking expensive ornaments and hiding them, scuttling upstairs when visitors come … Perhaps as a younger reader I could relate to this but now I wanted to scream at J. When Danvers catches J in Rebecca’s old room, J acts like she’s a child caught out, she’s terrified and rooted to the spot while Danvers goes around showing her all Rebecca’s beautiful things – even the nightdress she wore before she died still crinkled with use (icky, but nice touch Daphne!). Yes, I know, du Maurier has to work it so that J is intimidated and jealous of Rebecca so that she can set up the betrayal scene at the ball, but does J have to be that wet?
I also took objection to J’s continual deference to Maxim – yes dear, no dear, of course dear. Somehow in this romance trope, it doesn’t matter what the man is like – that his character, at least on the surface is obnoxious – he has to be distant, brusque, self-confident so that the ‘winning’ of him is all the sweeter. Maxim is pretty much a self-centred arrogant toff. He doesn’t really share things with J, but plonks her down in Manderley and expects her to work things out for herself. He infantilises her but at least she is aware of this and it begins to grate on her. Why he should choose her for his attentions in Monte Carlo is not made clear. The reader hopes it is because he sees that J is fundamentally decent and kind and is in need of rescue from the horrible Hopper. Like Rochester in Jane Eyre his feeling have to necessarily be opaque (they are both hiding secrets) so that the heroine can misconstrue them. However, as the story progresses, we can see that he needed someone compliant, who would love him without making demands of her own, she would lack her own agency, so much so that she would forgive him his transgression. As in Jane Eyre this power relationship is reversed somewhat in the end – Rochester is blinded and disfigured in the fire at Thornfield Hall and needs Jane’s assistance – only after this can she say, ‘Reader, I married him’ at the end – another iconic line. Maxim is emotionally scarred after Manderley’s fire and needs our Jane to aid him in his ‘exile’ and she will keep his secret forever.
[SPOILER – BELOW I DISCUSS THE ENDING]
It is telling, that when J finds out about Maxim killing Rebecca, she is not shocked, is not appalled, only says over and over again ‘he did not love Rebecca’ – there is no moral issue in this murder, only an emotional one. Du Maurier has painted Rebecca so blackly that we want Maxim to get away with it, so J can get her reward i.e. to be with him and to have him confess his love for her.
Which brings me to my next gripe – the portrayal of Rebecca. Rebecca has to be beautiful and glamorous so the more ordinary J is jealous of her and her feelings of inadequacy heightened. Mrs Danvers taunts J with all the lovely things in Rebecca’s room that she keeps as a shrine to her. Rebecca keeps herself well-groomed, wears expensive clothes, goes up to London to shop. So? She’s an upper-class woman married to an extremely wealthy man. Maxim would have known this about her, as well as her love of the good life before he married her. We are supposed to believe she can make herself charming to everybody and she hoodwinked him. On her honeymoon on the French Riviera she tells him the truth (at the very spot he takes J on their first outing – on a cliff overlooking the sea). Maxim is so incensed that he contemplates throwing Rebecca off – nice! Never heard of divorce, Maxim? Rebecca’s ‘sin’ and what makes the shooting of her understandable, and forgivable to our heroine, is that she has some unspecified unsavoury tastes. As far as we can tell, these are parties, drink and promiscuity – the same ‘sins’ that if a man showed them, the wife would be expected to put up with them. Maxim has to kill her because she’s taken to inviting her not-very-nice friends down to his beloved Manderley. By the way, no one else has an inkling Rebecca is anything other than wonderful but to rub it in Du Maurier has her hit on Maxim’s sister’s portly, old fuddy-duddy husband, Giles, possibly for a laugh, possibly because she’s insatiable – she also has an affair with her smarmy cousin, Favell, again, for no understandable reason. In fact, Rebecca is even at fault in her own death, smiling as Maxim shoots her in a sort of suicide-by-husband, we are supposed to believe. The one thing that does make her plainly reprehensible is the threat to put Ben, an intellectually disabled man, ‘in the asylum’ if he breathes a word of her goings on in the cottage on the bay. She should have been able to charm him the way she did everyone else but Du Maurier needs this threat to build tension in the inquest section near the end. I’m sure Du Maurier does not intend it, but Rebecca’s venality here is offset somewhat, by our heroine (and Maxim) referring to Ben as the ‘idiot’ and imputing him with a ‘sly smile’.
This is not to say Rebecca is not a good book in many ways. I admire the control du Maurier has over the story – the structure is masterly, the reader is led down several garden paths, and the atmosphere is beautifully evoked. Many novels (and novelists) go out of favour because of the values they inhere but some, such as Rebecca, manage to dodge this. Perhaps the novel is not seen as literature, and so it gets a leave pass, or we convince ourselves that a life of comfortable idleness abroad is sufficient penance for a murderer and his wife (an ‘accessory after the fact’). But, who cares? She gets her man and that’s the main thing.
This is a book of (mostly) gentle anecdote as Susan Hill discusses books she is reading, and has read, the comings and goings of animals and birds around her house, and reflections on writers she has known (quite a lot of well-known ones such as J B Priestly, Iris Murdoch and Julian Barnes) – all set amidst the changing seasons. Of course she also reflects on her own writing and her writing life, quite amusingly about being pestered by school students to explain the meaning of ‘The Woman in Black’ which is a set text (it would never have crossed my mind to do this when I was a student but email is a double-edged sword). There is a sense of nostalgia but she is never sentimental and, to me, there is something very satisfying about an intelligent person just speaking her mind as though you are a long-standing friend who doesn’t require being pandered to.
Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.
Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of
Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.
The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.
It’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is writing a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.
My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.
My New Years resolution as always is to watch less television and to read more books. There are very few television dramas, and even documentaries, for that matter, that can match the enjoyment, creativity and soul-uplifting moments of a good book. Yes, there’s Game of Thrones, I’ll give you that and I did like The Code and Homeland but the rest I can live without (I took objection to True Detectives).
So of the books read in 2014, which stood out? There are three that I loved and admired. The wonderful and gut-wrenching Nigerian saga Half of a Yellow Sun. This is one of those books you can just immerse yourself in confident the author knows her stuff and will take you into another world. You go along with the characters of the sisters Olanna and Kainene, and their torrid downfall from middle-class women to desperate refugees, but it is not depressing – the beauty of Nigeria, the hope of a new, fairer state and the interesting, complex characters make this such a rewarding book. After I’d finished reading it I felt an interest in Nigeria, the way you do when you visit a country, and then somehow feel you have a stake in it, so immersive, wide-ranging and detailed is this book.
My next standout was The Bees by Laline Paull. I so admire how Paull managed to make a fascinating and compelling drama out of life in a bee hive, yet she managed this brilliantly. From the first page we are right in there in the life of our heroine Flora 717. Like all good heroines Flora has something to hide so that she is the odd one out so that we see the hive, with its strict hierarchy, from an outsider’s point of view. The life of the hive is wonderfully realised, from the pheromones the Queen emits to keep all the bees compliant, to the tough ‘sages’ who protect the Queen, to the freedom felt by flora when she becomes a forager bee going outside the hive for the first time. Paull’s imaginative recreation is completely stunning.
But, I must say, my top book for 2014 was The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. This is a small book in scope (the life of an elderly woman and the ‘carer’ who comes to look after her) but huge on control and nuance. I loved the pace of this book and how cleverly McFarlane spooled out the narrative. The novel is all about controlled point of view so that the mystery of who is telling the truth and what exactly is going on is kept in balance right until the end. I love this type of book because there can’t be one wrong note – it has to be as taut as a wire, and The Night Guest achieves that.
So the top three:
The Night Guest
Half of a Yellow Sun
BTW – for those interested in the gender issue – 23 female authors read, 10 male. I guess I’m typical there.
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.
True North by Brenda Niall is a joint biography of the writer Mary Durack (Kings in Grass Castles) and the painter and artist Elizabeth Durack. The north that is referred to in the title is the Kimberley region and the Durack cattle stations at Argyle and Ivanhoe carved out by their grandfather Patsy Durack in the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century their father MPD Durack was running Argyle Downs and Mary and her older brother Reg spent time there when they were very young. However MPD thought his wife shouldn’t live in such rough conditions and he set her and the children up in a grand house in Perth while he remained for most of the year in the Kimberley.
The north, and the family history in the area, was a potent idea for the children, and they loved it when they could stay with their father on the stations (taking a steamer up from Perth to Wyndham). Two sons, Reg and Kim, fell under the spell so much that they tried, with varying degrees of success to make a go of it in the north. The stations, though, were not as lucrative as they once were and the family (once one of the top pastoralists) suffered straitened circumstances.
Mary and Elizabeth longed for the north and were averse to the Perth socialite scene, so when they left school they went to work on the stations as cooks and general help. It was only for two years, and the conditions were very primitive, but this time impressed itself indelibly on both women.
For Mary it would eventually prompt her to write her family’s history in Kings in Grass Castles and to write her children’s books about Aboriginal themes such as The Way of the Whirlwind. Elizabeth collaborated with Mary doing illustrations and covers and when Elizabeth struck out on her own as an artist the royalties from these joint projects kept her going.
The biography shows Mary to be the more considered and sociable of the two, and a ‘soft touch’. She had six children with an older man who chose to live in Broome for most of their married life while Mary remained in Perth, trying to write and raise the children. Elizabeth, by contrast, was more of a free spirit, acting rashly and repenting at leisure (she fell in love in the outback with an attractive but unstable man who’s wealth basically allowed him to drink himself to death). After the death of her first love she then fell for the bohemian writer Frank Clancy but Elizabeth was too much of a free spirit even for him, and the marriage failed leaving Elizabeth broke with two small children. She slowly built up a career as an artist but she was never really financially secure until much later in life.
By entwining the lives of the sisters, Brenda Niall is able to portray a picture of the whole family, and how the bonds of the sisters enriched their respective creative careers (lucky for Niall the sisters wrote prolific letters to each other). Niall also explores how encountering so potent an idea/experience when young can determine the direction of the rest of one’s life.
Nancy Phelan was born in 1913 and wrote this memoir of her childhood at The Spit on Sydney Harbour in 1969. The book captures the enthusiasms, the excitements but also the discomforts and questionings of childhood and adolescence. But perhaps the strongest thread is her love for the beautiful setting of their house by the harbour, and summer days spent exploring and swimming. In the 1920s, this area of the North Shore on the harbour was semi-bushland. Nancy’s father was a keen sailor and much of Nancy’s time was spent on boats, where she and her siblings were expected to become expert sailors.
Nancy’s childhood was also populated by numerous aunts and uncles, many of them eccentric figures. Her mother’s sister was Louise Mack, Australia’s first female war correspondent, romance novelist and writer of books for girls. Her novel Teens (1897) figures sporadically in A Kingdom by the Sea and was obviously a favourite with Nancy and her sister Sheila (they could work out the thinly disguised portraits of their relatives). Another of her mother’s sisters was Amy, much more lovable than the mischievous Louise. Amy edited the women’s page of the Sydney Morning Herald for many years and wrote bushland stories for children.
Nancy’s childhood home was full of music with the children able to sing the scores of Mozart and Bach. Her mother missed out on the literary careers her sisters achieved but channelled her creativity into music. Both parents were eccentric in their ways. The father was a successful lawyer but, in the manner of the times, Nancy knew nothing of his work and indeed he didn’t bring it home, instead indulging in amateur inventions, sailing, reading and listening to music in his spare time.
Nancy also creates a loving but complex picture of her mother: sharp of wit, given to mockery of others, like her sisters, but also reserved and timid. Nancy gives the anecdote of going to the theatre with her mother and her Aunt Louise. Louise decides to sit in better seats belonging to someone else. Nancy’s mother doesn’t stand up to the usher and allows him to move them, to the utter scorn of Louise:
“I told you so!” Louise hissed white with rage as we trooped back the way we had come. “I told you not to ask! You should have just looked as though they were our seats!” Nor did the arrival of owners in any way lessen her fury.”
Nancy writes that she was singled out by Louise to be a writer early in the piece, and while her aunt was placing a burden on young shoulders, such encouragement did send Nancy out on a life of travel and adventure. She travelled extensively through the South Pacific and wrote about this in Atoll Holiday (1958). She also travelled through Turkey on her own and related this in Welcome the Wayfarer (1965). Her experience of post-war Japan appeared in Pillows of Grass (1966).
But this was all in front of Nancy at the time of A Kingdom by the Sea. By the end of this memoir Nancy is on the brink of adulthood, and that cusp between the security of childhood and the opening up of the future is beautifully portrayed:
Months passed without a sense of time, golden days running together. Each morning I looked out on the glittering bay, the eternal dark form of the fisherman in his frail boat, each night fell asleep to the sound of water, whispering, washing the sand…
… though the sun shone, the bay glittered and living went on, I knew that childhood was over.
This is a lovingly remembered portrayal of childhood, funny and insightful, which captures the young Nancy’s paradoxical naivety and shrewdness. It is also one of the most effective portrayals of the beauty of Sydney Harbour in the 1920s. In one chapter the older Nancy, who is writing the memoir, goes back to try to find an aunt and uncle’s grand house and garden in Hunters Hill. There is, of course (and this is in the sixties) precious little left.
In the wilderness is a grove of Kitty’s camellias, high and covered with buds. It is astonishingly poignant that they should have escaped, gone on growing without her. Trying to get my bearings from here, from the pine, the ghost of the lawn, I stand wondering. Where was the house? If I could just find a trace, a tangible sign. Nothing. Only the adamant arch of the new Gladesville Bridge overhead, the crumbling stone embankments above the drive, which, in my childhood, were covered with moss and ferns.
This nostalgic regret, the modern reader feels at Nancy’s depiction of the lush wildness of a bygone harbour, and simple lifestyle of sun, bush, sea, music and literature.