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 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 route. I have bought a couple of things through 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.

Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge

I’m joining the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge. A quick look at my reading for 2011 shows I read seven books by Australian women across several genres including the recommended The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge, Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and a book I had meant to read for years, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. There were also the guilty pleasure reads of Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours and Jesse Blackadder’s bloodthirsty historical thriller, The Raven’s Heart.

I’ll have to up the ante for this year so I’m committing to read 10 books by Australian women writers and to review at least four at Bookwoods (apparently this category of the challenge is a Franklin-fantastic).

I have wanted to reread Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson for some time, so I’ll definitely do that. I’m also keen to read some more 19th century women writers. I’ve been intrigued for some time by, but have never read, Handfasted by Catherine Helen Spence, an early Australian speculative fiction work, so I hope to read that if I can find a copy. I’d also like to get in some contemporary writers: Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy, has been on my ‘to read’ pile, as has Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog. A recommendation on Waleed Aly’s ABC RN program, for Honey Brown’s The Good Daughter also interested me.

I’d definitely like to read some more women’s fantasy novels. We have top fantasy women writers here: Isobel Carmody, Glenda Larke, Fiona McIntosh, Traci Harding, Kim Wilkins, Kate Forsyth to name a few, so I’m spoilt for choice.

Best reads 2011

My book reading for 2011 was rather sparse for some reason – so many books in the world, so very few read. The top book from those I read this year is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This was the novel that affected me the most and, I thought, was the most masterfully conceived and written. A quite good film was made of it and released during the year, and it is well worth checking out but, of course, it’s better to read the book. The book is written in the somewhat prosaic voice of Kathy who is an orphan (we think) living in a boarding school in the English countryside. From her limited perspective we find out more about the children in, what becomes more and more apparent, is a very strange institution. The reader is very subtly brought into this unsettling world, so that the horrifying is normalised. I thought the novel was beautiful, sad and very challenging on a number of levels.

In supporting short stories I commit to reading one short story a week. Not a lot, I know, but I find I’m always reading a novel and it’s easy to forget stories. There is an idea going around that short fiction will come into its own in the age of the smart phone and the tablet, peoples’ busy lives and a commuting culture. Let’s hope so. Okay, my favourite short story for the year is one I just chanced upon while browsing the net. The story is “One Last Winter Moment” by Kathleen Kennedy and this was publishing online in the Canadian Room Magazine. So you can enjoy it yourself here. It’s poignant, sad and beautifully written.

Room by Emma Donoghue – review

I note that this novel is one of the Book Depository’s four top crime books for 2011. To put it in the crime genre is a bit of a stretch, although there is a crime at the centre of the narrative. I don’t think it is giving anything away to say that the novel uses as its central device the amazing fact that Josef Fritzl kept his daughter locked up in the basement of his house for 24 years. He fathered, through rape, seven children with her, three of whom stayed in the basement all their lives until they were discovered. Of course, anyone who heard this story was fascinated with what it would be like to have suffered what Fritzl’s daughter and grandchildren suffered.

Donoghue takes up this challenge but never in a sensational or prurient way. It is the great achievement of the book, narrated through the eyes on five-year-old Jack, that the (to us) the strange, even unbelievable, idea of being confined to one room and being dependent for your life on the support of your captor, is normalised. For Jack, born into the room, it is natural, it is all he has known.

So begins the novel as we are introduced to the room through the engaging eyes of Jack. Donoghue is excellent at portraying the world through the eyes of a child (even if he sometimes he has a vocabulary and thought processes way in advance of his age). Before I started the novel I wondered whether the author could sustain a book wholly centred in one room. As it turns out she doesn’t have to (but I won’t spoil it by saying how). Funnily enough, though, it was the section set in the room with Jack and his mother that I thought was the strongest – we find out what’s going on through Jack’s eyes, and this is beautifully done. When the outside world is introduced I think the narrative loses some of its inherent interest, and the device of using Jack’s point of view skirts the boundary of being too cute.