Butterfly Song – Terri Janke

Terri Janke was an indigenous woman in her thirties when she published Butterfly Song in 2005. Like her heroine, Tarena, Janke also studied law in Sydney in the early 90s and is of mixed Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage, so it’s probably safe to say many events in the novel follow Janke’s own life.

But what makes this novel different from a coming-of-age indigenous girl makes good story, is the device of telling the story around the fate of a pearl-shell brooch carved on Thursday Island and given to the carver’s lover, and which then turns up forty years later for sale in a Cairns antique shop.

Tarena has just finished her law degree when she’s asked by her mother, Lily, to run a case of misappropriation against the purported owner, and the shop. Lily has recognised the brooch as one owned by her late mother, Francesca and carved by her father, Kit, who died when Lily was a little girl.

Moving between TI, Cairns and Sydney and covering fifty years, or so, Janke introduces us to the love affair of Francesca and Kit, Lily and her brother Tally’s young life in Cairns, Tarena’s childhood and her life as a law student.

Some of these strands are more interesting than others. The scenes of pearl diving and life on TI in the 40s, and life in Queensland for indigenous people in the 50s, were interesting for me, but I found the scenes of student life in the 80s fairly bland.

Music, songs, frangipani trees and the ocean soften the reality of racism and the harshness of some aspects of the characters’ lives.

Throughout, Janke uses the brooch motif to weave all the threads together, and the courtroom scene where the ownership of the brooch is determined is suitable tense and moving.

Butterfly Song is an easy read and I appreciated getting an insight into the life of indigenous people in the Torres Strait and Queensland.

As a footnote, Janke was named NAIDOC person of the year in 2011: she’s now a well-known and successful lawyer specialising in indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights.

The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard

As you can see from the cover I bought this novel many years ago. I would have been attracted by the title and by the setting – Naples. I must have started reading it and found it not to my taste. Looking for something (OK, I admit it – shortish) for the Australian women writers’ reading challenge, I plucked it off my shelf and attacked it anew – only twenty years on the ‘to read’ pile.

I know why I didn’t like it first time around: the prose is difficult and mannered, cerebral and artistic, rather than rich and evocative. It reminds me of Henry James or Patrick White, two writers I’ve never warmed to. Another writer that Hazzard reminds me of is Iris Murdoch with her distancing, clever prose and forensic character analysis. I can’t say I loved this novel but I think Hazzard is up there with Murdoch.

The actual plot of The Bay of Noon is pretty thin. It’s the 1950s and a young woman, Jenny, takes up a job to translate a report at a military base near Naples. Before leaving England she gets a letter of introduction from an actor acquaintance to a woman in Naples who has something to do with films. Immediately she meets her, Jenny feels at home with Giaconda and strikes up a friendship. Jenny is introduced to Giaconda’s married lover, Gianni, a film director from Rome. Meanwhile Jenny is compelled into a friendship with another expat, Justin, a Scottish scientist working in Naples.

With these characters in play, nothing much happens on the surface but it is the undercurrents of love, need, jealousy and betrayal that Hazzard is interested in. If the words ‘love, need, jealousy’ sound trite they are anything but in Hazzard’s hands. The characters, especially Giaconda and Gianni, are too sophisticated, or perhaps too damaged, to reveal themselves easily, and Jenny, from whose focalisation the story is told, is both brutally honest, and something of an innocent.

When I first bought this novel, Naples would have sounded terribly exotic: sun-bleached cliffs, blue bays, Pompeii – but having been there in the interval, I can now appreciate the characters’ ambivalence about it. Hazzard notes how there is really only one open civic square in the whole city; the rest is enclosed, narrow lanes, humanity piled on top of each other. Giaconda lives on the top floor of an old apartment block on one such lane while Jenny escapes the claustrophobia by renting a small apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples, (hence ‘the bay of noon’) affordable because of the difficulty of access.

There isn’t a lot of description of the city in this novel and what there is is certainly not postcard perfect. As with the characters, Hazzard is restrained, detailed and oblique.

I may not have loved this novel but I am glad that I read it; it reads like a classic, by that I mean, a guiding intelligence conveyed through masterful hands.

Puberty Blues – novel versus screen

I loved the recent TV series of Puberty Blues on Channel 10 and prompted by this decided to read the original book by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette. The novel was published in 1979 about the authors’ time as 13 year-old wannabe surfie chicks in Sutherland shire in 1973.

I remember the book was a sensation at the time and I vaguely remember a certain amount of disapproval. This normally would have sent me out to beg, borrow or buy a copy, but I didn’t – probably because I was scathing of surfing culture having spent some of my formative years in a beachside suburb in Newcastle.

I wonder what I would have made of the book at the time? I wouldn’t have been shocked; the carryings on were pretty familiar even if I wasn’t in the ‘bad girls’ gang of underage sex and regular drug taking. All the same, I guess I would have read it avidly, empathising with the girls.

But all these years later, and having seen the TV series, I was surprised that the book has none of the appeal of the TV show: no ravishing mise-en-scene (description), no sympathetic complex characters, nothing, in fact, beyond the closed world of the two teenage girl principals.

The book’s strength, on the other hand, is that it portrays a sociological snapshot of a particular subculture at a particular time. It is like reading a teenager’s diary with its preoccupation with friends, boyfriends, appearance and going out. That the authors were so young when they wrote it meant they could capture that claustrophobic, limited world where you’re still dependent on your parents yet you live in a tribal reality with your group.

But for an adult reader it is pretty dull and unrewarding. The traditional YA novel usually has a sensitive loner at its heart, someone who looks on the world they inhabit with fresh eyes and an understanding beyond their years (the gap between the adult writing the book and the teenager they are ‘inhabiting’).

Puberty Blues, the novel, doesn’t have this. The main character, Deb, merely narrates in a deadpan fashion her daily life as she and her friend Sue infiltrate the ‘cool’ kids gang and then have to drink, have back-of-the van sex and sit on the beach watching the guys surf. Deb is mildly ironic and this helps make the whole palatable but she is not, for the most part, reflective or critical – unlike in the TV series where Deb and Sue rescue Frieda who is regularly gang-banged by the boys, in the book, Deb thinks, ‘well, that’s what happens when you’re fat and ugly and can’t get a boyfriend’.

In the book Deb and Sue are fairly indistinguishable but in the TV series the writers (Tony McNamara, Fiona Seres and Alice Bell) present two distinct individuals – Sue more confident and sensible, Deb, flighty, imaginative and sensitive. In the book the parents hardly figure, while the TV series created a rich portrayal of 70s sexual experimentation, gender roles and social strictures. The two worlds in the series, the parents and the teenagers, play off each other giving a context to why the kids act the way they do, lending the viewer a much more nuanced, involving experience than that of the book.

It was interesting to see all those parents in flares, clogs and caftans: I guess some parents must have, and let’s face it, in those days, a teenager’s parents were probably only in their early thirties. My mother, I’m sure, was more like conservative teacher, Claudia Karvan, with her A-line skirts and belted-at-the-waist dresses, no trousers, no jeans (yes, young ones, there was a time where it was frowned on for women to wear pants). But, I have to say, I paid no attention to what my mother wore in the 70s. I was like Deb and Sue – the ‘olds’ didn’t exist.

I also take my hat off to the stylists in the TV show – I had the exact same horoscope poster on my wall that Deb had – however, apropos of the flares in the scene from the show above, Carey and Lette make it clear that the girls’ only ever wore straight-leg Levis!

Fortress – Gabrielle Lord

This is one of those books I missed reading as a young person. I remember it being referred to as confronting and a thriller, but also a children’s book. As far as I was concerned being Australian and a kids’ book, I was unlikely to read it (I missed out on so much through my youthful prejudices!).

Six years after its initial publication in 1980 it was made into a film starring, Rachel Ward.No wonder the novel was adapted for the screen: it’s tight and suspenseful.

Sally teaches at a one teacher school in an isolated town. The school day starts with Sally getting ready and reflecting on her personal situation (billeted out to stay with local families, thinks she might be pregnant from a one night stand, despite all the difficulties she wants to see her posting through). Immediately the reader is drawn to Sally: she’s smart, a bit cynical, amusing and, although she’s tough, she also has self-doubts.

When Sally arrives at the school house, she organises the little kids into a reading group in the yard while the older ones start cleaning up the classroom preparatory to the inspector coming the next day. Like all good horror the ordinary has to be established before the scary things begin. We don’t get much ordinary, though, before four men wearing comic masks and carrying sawn off shotguns appear, and it all begins.

Lord uses a very small canvas: Sally and her class of twelve are kidnapped, taken away in a van and held in a cave. For the most part we stay with Sally and the kids and only know what they know, trying to piece together what’s happening and what the men want. The tension is ratcheted up nicely. The beauty is that Sally doesn’t only have to save herself, she has to save the kids – this means marshalling them, telling them only what they need to know, using the skills of the older ones and comforting and cajoling the young ones. She is effectively on her own having to

rely on her own resources but with the burden of the children restraining her.

Sally and the kids are tested to the limit but this is not a simple narrative. Again and again we think they are going to escape, only for them to be thwarted by the men, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. There is murder, there is violence, there is the threat of rape. Like The Lord of the Flies the children are not simply victims, they have agency like adults and the will to survive. Often I thought I had the measure of this book, only for Lord pull out an unexpected twist.

Fortress is a successful book. It was reprinted in 1988 after the film, then in 1998 and 2001. I read one reviewer who said they had read it in school in Year 9 – a writer knows they’ve made it when they’re on the school curriculum. There is also some discussion of whether it is a children’s book or not. It is probably what we would call now a ‘cross over’ novel; a book that can be read with enjoyment by both kids and adults, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Mister Pip, for example.

We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn

We of the Never Never is one of those Australian classics, I never got around to reading in my school years, thinking it would be too twee. How wrong was I. We of the Never Never was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a family story, they’d be children involved, it would cover the establishment of a station, that there would be trials and tribulations and Jeannie Gunn would grow to love the land and nature etc. etc. In fact, the novel does not read like a novel at all; it is basically a series of sketches written in an arch, comic, ironic style – reminiscent of what was printed in the newspapers of the time, or in the Bulletin.

The story starts with ‘the Missus’ (based on Jeannie Gunn herself) arriving at Katherine, having come from Darwin with her husband, on the way to Elsey Station where ‘the Maluka’ (a thinly disguised Aeneas Gunn) is the new manager. A white woman is unheard of ‘in the interior’ and the bush telegraph (the station men) makes it clear they don’t want any woman bringing her fussy ways. The dramatic tension rests on whether the Missus will make it or not. There are undoubted hardships, but the Missus first shows her pluck by agreeing to be winched across a swollen river, and not complaining about it. In fact, the Missus takes most things in good spirit and is not above mocking herself.

When they reach Elsey things are not much better and the ‘homestead’ is really an open frame with the verandah being the only thing that is covered. The men, though, are mighty surprised she’s turned up at all. That she is willing to put up with hardships, earns, if not respect, then at least, not open hostility. The strange thing is that the Missus has her husband there but he doesn’t seem interested in smoothing things out for her, or taking her side against the blokes. He makes jokes at her expense and looks on wryly when she has to face new trials. Most annoyingly of all, he likes t call her ‘little ‘un’ (apparently Jeannie Gunn was slight and only 5 feet tall). But the Missus takes it all in good humour and presents these early slights in an entertaining manner.

Before too long things look up a little. They get a Chinese cook, Cheon, who is a born organiser, their belongings finally come in by bullock team after the rivers have gone down, and Johnny, a rough carpenter starts to work on walls and a ceiling but this work is constantly interrupted by more important things like going out bush for branding or mustering.  Despite some little comforts, like sheets, things are extremely primitive. I was shocked that they thought it was perfectly all right to shoot enough wild birds to get feathers to makes some pillows (the billabong surrounds were, after all, thick with them, birds that is).

One of the most irritating characters is Dan who thinks it soft that anyone should want live in a house. He thinks the Missus needs educating and much is made of this ‘education’. Of course Jeannie Gunn makes it all sound so humorous: as the Missus is exposed to hardships, Dan chuckles – that’s educating her. Like women entering a male-dominated profession, the Missus has to become one of the boys, and there is nothing they do that she disapproves of, even dog fighting. The novel is really a paean of praise, to the bush folk i.e. bushmen.

Perhaps this makes it sound less sophisticated than it is. Jeannie Gunn is a talented writer who evokes well the environment she finds herself in, she has a comic ear and no one can doubt the verisimilitude of what she describes. There is a reason that this novel was a best seller and was revised for use in schools. I wonder what the kids thought of it, though. As far as I can see there’s not a lot that they’d be interested in – while there is drama in small scenes, wild bulls rampaging through a camp and scrambling up trees to escape them, for example, as a whole it is episodic with little unfolding story.

These days, it seems dated and reads like a piece of documentary about colonial life and early settlement of the interior of the Northern Territory. I have to say I found the treatment of the Chinese condescending and verging on racist. Gunn gets away with it with Cheon because he is such a great, larger-than-life character but the only quasi-villains in the whole book are some Chinese cattle buyers.

The treatment of Aboriginal people is also problematic although, I suppose, at least, they are a part of the tale and not excised from it – like the invisibility of Aboriginal people in much of the literature of the time. But I was shocked, totally, when one of the men mentions they need to go on a ‘nigger hunt’. Okay, it was not a massacre, just moving on some Aboriginal people from where they were camping along the river (no doubt on their own land) but the term must have held an echo of real violence to the men using it at the end of the 19th century. Gunn, in typical fashion, makes light of it and the Aboriginal people have left before the ‘hunting’ party gets there anyway. But today, it is hard not to feel a chill at that term used so casually in 1902 (and accepted in 1956).

In fact a paper written in 1990 by Peter Forrest about the settlement of the NT says that there were massacres of Aboriginal people in the Territory in 1903 (after Jeannie Gunn left) because they were accused of harassing and killing cattle that were being introduced to new areas. Forrest says: ‘According to strong oral tradition in the area, one of the ringleaders in these episodes was Jock MacLennon, the Sanguine Scot [one of the characters in the novel]’. I was also fascinated to read Forrest’s thesis that one of the reasons the men were so against white women coming to the stations was a fear they would interfere with the men’s sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women.*

Gunn’s narrative treatment of the ‘station blacks’ was probably enlightened for the day. She shows that they are part of the everyday life of the station – with the ‘boys’ being stockmen and the ‘lubras’ working in the house, or at least some of them – there is some comedy made of the competition between the women to get jobs in the homestead. There is a symbiotic relationship – the Aboriginal people get food and a place to live (in humpies in their own camp) and the station gets workers. Of course, the whites do not remotely question their right to the station, or to exploit Aboriginal people as workers. The Aboriginal people are seen as humorous, and childlike (although, I have to admit, so are many of the white people).

My edition of the novel, published in 1956, still had reference to the *n* hunt but I believe, in the recent reissue, this was expurgated which is a pity because it’s important to realise what attitudes were in 1908 when the book was first published, not to mention the whole issue of censoring literary works. I also understand the 1982 edition, which was published along with Gunn’s only other book, The Little Black Princess, also had these references edited out.

There is not a lot of description of the natural environment in the novel but what there is, is beautiful and evocative. Elsey station no longer stands but there is a replica at Mataranka in the NT and the quite stunning warm mineral pools Gunn describes below are still there in the national park (Elsey station was finally handed back to the Mangarayi people in 2000) – the water is preternaturally clear and, set among palms in the arid environment, they are truly as gem-like as Gunn paints them in the book:

Clear, beautiful, limpid … set in undulating field of emerald-green mossy turf, shaded with graceful foliage and gleaming in the sunlight with exquisite opal tints – a giant necklace of opals, set in links of emerald green, and thrown down at hazard, to fall in loops and curves within a forest grove.

* They of the Never Never, Northern Territory Library Service 1990

The Mystery of a Hanson Cab – Fergus Hume

One of the Text Classic series The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was published in 1886. The introduction tells us it was the biggest selling crime novel of the 19th century — quite amazing as it was written and set in Melbourne, and first published in Australia. In the scheme of things, it was not the first instance of detective fiction, usually ascribed to Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), and in novel form to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), but it is a very early example.

The novel starts with a murder. Oliver Whyte, a man about town is found dead in a hansom cab. The cabman describes a man in a soft hat wearing a light coat, coming up to Whyte, who is drunk, and helping him hail a cab. The man seems to then recognise the deceased, cry out ‘you’ and walk off. He then returns a while later and gets into the cab with Whyte, is dropped off at a street corner with the cab taking Whyte on to his destination, where the cabman discovers he is dead.

It transpires that Whyte was paying his attentions to the heiress Madge Frettlby, who is engaged to our hero, Brian Fitzgerald. Brian, of course, is soon fingered for the murder and stands trial for it. He has an alibi for the time of the murder but will not divulge it because he is protecting someone. So far so good, and this takes up the first third of the novel. I won’t spoil it by saying what happens next but, suffice it to say, this particular complication is resolved (mostly by Fitzgerald’s lawyer Calton) but, in the resolving, another mystery is uncovered.

The next part of the novel takes us into the drawing rooms of ‘marvellous Melbourne’ and the lives of Brian, Madge and her father Mark Frettlby. In the first part we were taken into the slums off Little Bourke Street. The mystery in the second part of the novel is then ostensibly solved (the reader has pretty much worked it out any how).

But there is another twist and this is worked out in the remainder of the novel where the taint of the slum threatens to invade the upper classes, and a final revelation is made (and vindicates the ‘hunch’ of one of the detectives on the case, Kilsip).

The novel is plot-driven and this kept me reading when it sagged a bit in the middle. Other pleasures are the physical descriptions of Melbourne and the depictions of social life. I suppose the plot does cleverly fit together but it didn’t feel like it; there is not one central detective, and there is a sense, a lot of the time, that characters are jumping to conclusions only to be found wrong, and the ball is then taken up by someone new in a somewhat repetitious way.

Well done to Text for bringing back one of our overlooked 19th century texts. So far there aren’t any by 19th century women writers included (My Brilliant Career coming in at 1901). Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies, is scheduled for publication in October but, again, they are early 20th century (1902).

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson

This short novel was published in 1978 and I must have read it in the 80s some time and forgotten about it because when I started reading it some images were familiar. What stayed with me were the parts of the novel set on Sydney Harbour in a 1920s bohemian household. Reading the novel now, I was much more taken by the complexities of the elderly narrator, Nora Porteous.

The novel starts with Nora returning to Australia as an old woman after thirty of forty years away living in London. The return to her childhood home in Queensland, after the death of her sister, sparks memories both comfortable and uncomfortable. So far, so not very extraordinary, but there is something about the novel that has made it a favourite for many readers, and the best known of Jessica Anderson’s works. I put it down to the strength of Nora’s voice, the controlled, beautiful writing and a sense of, not so much nostalgia, but of a sad, defiant unearthing of the past – I’m sure the Germans have a name for that. There is also a wonderful structure to the work; I haven’t often seen the interweaving of the past and the present done so seamlessly.

Nora is such a successful character because she is unsentimental; she has always been an outsider – as a child in her family, and as a young adult making a disastrous marriage to a husband who never wanted anything more than a conventional wife. Nora casts a critical eye on her younger self, her self-effacement, but also her coldness to those she thought ‘ordinary’. Once Nora escaped from her marriage, and from Australia, the reader is led to believe she finally found her place – the companions at ‘no.6’ to whom she can say anything, amongst who she is finally ‘understood’. But we are not quite sure why Nora has returned to Australia now, and slowly we find out.

It’s unsettling, but Nora’s humour and sardonic attitude brings the reader along. Jessica Anderson was 52 when Tirra Lirra was published yet it is a convincing portrayal of a woman at the end of her life. In fact, so convincing is the whole novel, that many people (including me) thought it was autobiographical, but this doesn’t quite add up. Nora was in her mid-thirties when she leaves Australia to go to London in the lead up to WWII, so she would have been born around the turn of the century, while Anderson was born in 1916.

Geordie Williamson, in his blog entry on Jessica Anderson’s work (a retrospective prompted by her death in 2010), ponders why her work is not better known beyond Tirra Lirra. He thought part of it was her own ambivalence about her work, part because her work (though not vast) was too varied for a devoted following. And she may have fallen foul of the success of Tirra Lirra with readers wanting ‘more of the same’.

I’m very glad I was reintroduced to Anderson’s novel (in tone similar to an amalgam of Helen Garner and Elizabeth Jolley) and will seek out more of her work.

A Kingdom by the Sea – Nancy Phelan

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.

Reviewed for Australian Women Writers Challenge

Disturbing and funny – Fay Weldon’s Chalcot Crescent

My first introduction to Fay Weldon was Puffball way back in 1980. We were well into second-wave feminism and Weldon’s witty take on exploitative relationships wrapped in elements of a sort of magic realism, had a great impact on me. But when I look at how much of Weldon’s prolific output I’ve actually read it over the years (that I can remember) it adds up to only six novels in all, including: The Life and Loves of a She Devil 1983, The Cloning of Joanna May 1990, Growing Rich 1992 and The Bulgari Connection 2001. Weldon has written over thirty books.

I thoroughly enjoyed Chalcot Crescent but it reminded me how strong Weldon’s voice is; she’s opinionated and she’s going to tell you exactly what she thinks. That’s probably why I can only read one or two of her novels every ten years. Her outspokenness has got her into trouble over the years – I recall she made some comments on immigration that caused a stir and, recently, she put the cat amongst the pigeons by saying women should pick up men’s socks. Her argument was probably that it’s not worth the effort of trying to get men to change their bad habits, but it’s not surprising the remarks were jumped on.

Luckily, Weldon has the vehicle of novels to convey her (more nuanced) ideas. The narrator of Chalcot Crescent, a dystopian novel set in a near future (2013) Britain, is an 80 year old woman, Frances, whose reminiscences closely resemble the life story of Weldon herself. I’m sure Weldon doesn’t give a toss whether we think the narrator is Weldon or not. In fact she has a lot of fun in the book playing with the idea of whether memory is reality, or whether a narrator’s version of things is truth or not. The book itself is a manuscript the narrator is compiling on her laptop for posterity consisting of revisiting things past, relating what’s currently happening, and ‘fictional’ accounts of things that might or might not be occurring in the lives of those around her. She’s housebound in her crumbling terrace, so she has no choice but to make these bits up.

Weldon also has a lot of fun portraying the ramifications of left-leaning ‘nanny state’ governments and the financial crisis, taken to the extreme. In her dystopia, Britain is running out of food and fuel, and a National Unity Government (NUG) is taking over every aspect of life, including providing a national meatloaf rumoured to be created in vats from stem cell-created flesh (which, Frances says, tastes remarkably good).

Holed up in her house with the electricity out and bailiffs at her door, Frances ponders her complicated past of lovers and children, plus what might or might not be going on with NUG. She has some inside knowledge because her son-in-law is high up in the National Institute for Food Excellence (NIFE). Yes, prior to joining NIFE he was a genetic researcher. And her grown-up grandchildren appear to be involved with Redpeace, a political offshoot of Greenpeace. The narrative is convoluted and the many stories of the family difficult to slot into place, but you go with it because Frances’ acerbic, ironic wit is so compelling. At 80, Weldon still has plenty to say about sexual and national politics and it’s well worth listening to.

New outlet for stories (but there’s a catch or two)

Since the digital/ebook revolution (you know the one that took Australian publishers two years to catch up with) I’ve thought about ways this could be made to work for we struggling writers. Also, being a long-distance commuter, I saw how much reading people did on the train. I’ve also been very frustrated at the few outlets for writers and their short fiction in Australia. Tens of thousands of students stream out of creative writing courses every year all competing to get their stories into the, maybe, ten literary journals that take two or three stories each.

With digital publishing it’s cheaper and easier to publish works plus the constraints of the ludicrously small word count for short fiction (usually 2,000 to 3,000 words) don’t apply – there longer possible word count means there is space for meatier, more complex stories. The problem of course is how to get these stories out to a readership, and how to get the readership to pay.

Shortfire Press did it one way in the UK (the press is run by an ex-mainstream publisher so she had contacts which is a big start). They set up a website and sold stories off the site in various e-publishing formats for 99p a pop. They got quite good media coverage of their venture plus some fairly well-known contributors, although they do take unsolicited submissions as well. They have been going for over a year and I would have expected them to have hundreds of stories to choose from on their site by now but if you have a look you’ll find they have thirty or forty, not a critical mass. Lately they have also sold some of their stories through Amazon for Kindle. But somehow to get the model to work you have to have readers subscribe to stories on a regular basis like they might subscribe to a newspaper.

This brings me to the new venture called Review of Australian Fiction. This is a digital-only publication that delivers two pieces of short fiction per issue for $2.99. The idea is to have one established writer (so far Christos Tsiolkas and Georgia Blain) and for these writes to nominate one emerging writer (Kalinda Ashton and P M Newton) for the second story. If you subscribe you will get two stories every two weeks. AFR has used the Booki.sh format so you don’t download the stuff to your device but have to log on to the web every time you want to read your purchase.

This is a good option for those with tablets or who are prepared to read fiction on their smart phones, or anyone who reads stories on their laptops (does anyone?). It will be interesting to see what the take up is for this, and while I commend the emerging writer thing and think it’s good to use established writers as the bait (OK, the cherry), it is a blow for other writers that inclusion is by invitation only. If you subscribe you will automatically get new stories every two weeks.

If the subscription model works, then I think that is the way to go but, personally, I don’t like the Booki.sh route. I have bought a couple of things through Booki.sh to read on my iPad but I’m always forgetting the log on when I’d think of reading something while I’m out. I’d much rather get the stories on my Kindle all in one place with my other reading matter.