18.3.19

The Secrets We Keep

Nova Weetman's acclaimed middle grade novel, The Secrets We Keep, was special to me before I ever read it, because the distinctive cover art was produced by my dear, much-missed friend Sandra Eterovic. It was the one of the first book covers that Sandra had worked on, and she was excited by the prospect of doing more work in publishing. It's one of my particular regrets that I will never get to have one of Sandra's artworks on one of my book covers -- or maybe I'll manage to find a way...

It was especially poignant to read this book because it is all about grief and loss. Clem's house has burned down, and she's lost everything, including her mother. At the beginning of the book, Clem is awash in a sea of sadness, rage and grief and her whole world has been brutally flipped upside down. However, as the novel progresses, Clem begins to make connections -- most importantly with her new neighbour, Maggie, and a girl at her new school, Ellie, who is facing the loss of her own mother -- and she also realises that not everything from her old life has gone forever. Weetman structures this story so cleverly that the final twist took me by surprise.

The Secrets We Keep is a special book, and not just because of the cover.

11.3.19

Green Dolphin Country

I've been reading Green Dolphin Country super-slowly -- a chapter per night in bed, over months and months. It's a very long book. I turn to Elizabeth Goudge for comfort reading -- her steady spirituality, her deep appreciation of nature's beauty and the inner goodness of imperfect people, and her gentle humour, are very soothing. So eminently suitable for bed-time.

Having said all that, Green Dolphin Country is a very weird novel. Written in 1944, it won an international prize sponsored by MGM, and was subsequently made into a movie. By the time my edition was published, in 1956, it had sold over half a million copies -- I imagine it must be into the millions by now: a true blockbuster.

Apparently loosely based on a true story, the novel centres on Marianne and Marguerite, a pair of sisters from 1830s Guernsey, who both fall in love with golden, generous William Ozanne. William joins the navy and ends up settling in New Zealand, from where he writes back to Guernsey to ask for his true love to join him. Alas, poor William muddles up the names of the sisters and it's sharp Marianne rather than gentle Marguerite who steps off the boat in Wellington. (This, the most implausible aspect of the story, is the part based on truth.) The novel follows the travails of William and Marianne as they struggle to make a success of their marriage, their conflict with Maori warriors, and protect their beloved daughter Veronique. Meanwhile, broken-hearted Marguerite becomes a nun and finds solace in the grace of God.

Goudge cheerfully admits in a foreword that she has never visited New Zealand and relied heavily on someone else's memoir to describe those sections (the majority of the novel). It's a brave choice, and it almost works, But it's clear that the chapters set on Guernsey are lovingly and vividly drawn from personal experience, while New Zealand never quite comes to life in the same way. Anyone who has actually visited New Zealand in person couldn't fail to be moved by its spectacular reality, yet the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Country feels like a pale and distant island in comparison to the fresh, bright accounts of Guernsey.

Needless to say, the portraits of the Maori characters, while generally sympathetic, are horribly colonial, dated and patronising. I pushed past them because I love the other aspects of Goudge's writing, but it was an effort. I'd like to think that this is not a novel that would be written today -- at least, not in the same way. A definite relic of the past.

9.3.19

Finding Cassie Crazy

I first discovered Jaclyn Moriarty through her Colours of Madeleine fantasy trilogy (thank you, Suzanne!), which was the freshest, most inventive fantasy trilogy I've read for many years. I wasn't sure if her earlier books, centred around students at two Sydney private schools and strictly realist, would have the same appeal, but I'm delighted to report that Finding Cassie Crazy is just as much fun as the fantasy novels.

In fact, my friend Bridget and I recently bonded over a mutual love of Jaclyn Moriarty, before realising that I had read only the fantasy books while Bridget had read only the school ones. Moriarty weaves a lively, funny tale from several strands of plot and several engaging voices, and she always tucks in a few surprise twists along the way. Told through letters, emails, school notices and diary entries, this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

Finding Cassie Crazy is one of four novels loosely centred around Ashbury and Brookfield schools. Now I have to get hold of the others!

6.3.19

The Biographer's Lover

Disclaimer: Ruby J Murray is the daughter of my good friend and amazing children's writer, Kirsty Murray, but I would have relished The Biographer's Lover no matter whose daughter it was written by.

Since I read this novel, my eye was caught by an article about Nora Heysen, an Australian artist who was the first female official War Artist, a post that Edna Cranmer, the artist at the centre of the book, aspires to but does not manage to attain. The story of women in art is an endlessly fascinating one; I mean woman as artists, not subjects. Overlooked, squeezed out, disparaged, shouted down, forgotten -- it is rare for a female artist, particularly a painter, to achieve recognition in her lifetime. Edna Cranmer, though fictional, is typical of this trajectory, and the novel traces the parallel stories of Edna's uncovering and posthumous celebration, and her (unnamed) biographer's journey to bring Edna's art to the attention of the world.

Two other books on related topics spring to mind here -- Drusilla Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch, and Rachel Power's The Divided Heart, both non-fiction, both exploring the difficult tensions that women face in balancing ambition and family, caring for others with following their own creative path.

As a writer, this is a dilemma that I am somewhat familiar with (as I interrupt writing this blog post to prepare food for my daughter, and run down to the chemist for my mum). But it's easier for a writer to carve out time and space and resources to write. Not so easy for a painter, who needs to buy paint, and canvases, and a space to keep them, a big light space to work and big stretches of time. Ruby Murray teases out these difficult debts of dependence and duty, the tangles of family loyalty and the frustration of repeated rejection.

This is such a rich field for a novelist, it can hardly help but be a winner.