A Long Way Home

I went to see the movie Lion when it came out in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Dev Patel's performance (and his outstanding Australian accent!) So I was interested to read the autobiographical book by Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home, on which the film was based.

It really is an extraordinary story. Aged 5, Saroo wound up on a train that carried him across India to the city of Kolkata. Unable to tell anyone where he'd come from, he survived on the streets for several weeks before entering an orphanage and very shortly being adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania to begin a new life. Though happy and grateful to his new family, he never forgot his old life and as a student, began a painstaking search on Google Earth for the town he'd left so many years before, with only a half-remembered name and some geographic markers for guidance. 

It was startling to learn that Saroo had vastly underestimated how far he'd travelled to wind up in Kolkata; he was searching the wrong part of the country, and only by chance came across the tiny railway station with the landmarks he remembered. His account of how he managed to reconnect with his family (his mother had never moved, in case he did one day find his way home) and discovered the truth of what had happened that fateful day, is very moving. 

Saroo had garbled the name of his neighbourhood, the name of the town he'd travelled from, and even, most startlingly, his own name -- his family knew him as Sheru. Reading A Long Way Home made me want to go back and re-watch Lion, which brought the lost little boy's experiences so vividly to life.


The Growing Summer


I found this copy of Noel Streatfeild's The Growing Summer in Savers in Footscray, where my big girl has moved. While she was hunting for novelty glasses and board games to furnish her new flat, I was scouring the book shelves. 

The Growing Summer is dedicated to Elizabeth Enright, which is a lovely touch. Enright's books often centre on children exploring their environment and developing their independence, and this novel shares that flavour. The rather sheltered Gareth children are abruptly shipped off to their great aunt in Ireland (topically, their father is researching a 'microbe' that 'might start an epidemic' in the 'Far East' and then falls dangerously ill himself).

Great Aunt Dymphna is highly eccentric, lives in a near-ruin of a big old house and leaves the children very much to their own devices, expecting them to cook and clean and amuse themselves; which over the course of the summer, they gradually become capable of doing. There is an added complication in the form of a mystery runaway boy whom the children shelter, and while his presence provides the excuse for secrecy and drama, he is quite peripheral to the heart of the story which concerns the growing self-sufficiency of the family as they learn to cook, to fish, to do laundry and generally look after themselves.

Poetry-loving Great Aunt Dymphna introduces her nephews and nieces to the 'quotation game' where each player in turn recites a line of poetry, and the next player has to offer a quote where the first word starts with the same letter as the last word of the previous player's quote. Weirdly, I was simultaneously reading Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death, where Harriet and Peter play the same game!  It was the only time I've come across this somewhat esoteric pastime (and I doubt very much that any child of this generation would be capable of playing it -- with the help of Google, maybe!)




Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly was an impulse Kindle buy because I couldn't wait to read it. It's the first in a series of six books introducing Indigenous knowledges to a general reader; other titles will explore topics like astronomy, medicine, land management and architecture and design.

Margo Neale, who has co-ordinated the whole series, is a Senior Research Fellow and Principal Indigenous Advisor to the Director of the National Museum of Australia. Lynne Kelly is an Australian academic, an expert on orality and memory systems, and she draws in many other examples of oral and indigenous cultures from around the world, including Native American, Inuit and Pacific Island learning and knowledge systems.

However, the primary focus of the book is on Indigenous Australian knowledge. I first came across the concept of The Songlines in Bruce Chatwin's book of the same name, and though it's an imperfect and incomplete account, it lit a fire in my imagination which has been burning ever since. Neale and Kelly's book might be less poetic, but it is more authoritative, and fills in some of the blanks that Chatwin couldn't access. It sketches out the way that Aboriginal Australians connect landscape, story, dance and song in a rich web of knowledge, weaving together geography, history, morality, obligation, law, plants and animals, water and weather, stars and seas, and have passed on that knowledge through 60,000 years, generation after generation. There are stories which remember the eruption of long-extinct volcanoes and the existence of long-drowned islands.

I felt overwhelmed with envy reading this book. What an incredible way to live! Imagine being wrapped in such a deep, rich culture, accessible to every member of the community to some degree through performative dance, song, art and story. That is surely the way that humans are supposed to live, in a world drenched in meaning and deeply connected in every facet, moving securely through the universe. And all that knowledge, all that meaning, is still there for all of us to plug into if we choose. What an amazing privilege to be born in this ancient land.


The World of Elizabeth Goudge


I ordered The World of Elizabeth Goudge from Girls Gone By. Goudge was one of my favourite authors as a child (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians, Smoky House) and I also read some of her adult titles which my mother must have borrowed from the same library. I enjoyed them too, though some of the  content would have gone over my head; but I do remember the lovely atmosphere of the Cathedral books. More recently I got hold of The Dean's Watch, a masterpiece which I think I must have also read when young, as so many bits chimed in my memory.

Elizabeth Goudge is such a joyful, sensitive writer, and her later books are deeply spiritual, compassionate and forgiving. Perhaps it's not surprising that the daughter of a clergyman would be preoccupied with spiritual matters, but note that I'm using the word spiritual rather than religious. In Goudge's work, solace is often found in churches and wisdom in vicars, but there is surprisingly little overt religiosity -- it's the tranquillity of ancient buildings, the beauty of nature, the faithful love of animals and the very human qualities of kindness, laughter and forgiveness that ultimately give salvation.

The World of Elizabeth Goudge is part biography, part travel guide, part personal reflection, as Sylvia Gower journeys around the various towns and counties where Goudge lived and worked. Elizabeth Goudge enjoyed a relatively peaceful and uneventful life, embarking early on her writing career, but she did live in various parts of England, as well as visiting Jersey where her mother's family lived. She took deep inspiration from all these places, in fact the notion of place and belonging is particularly strong in her work and one of the elements that drew me in, even as a child. 

This book has convinced me to go Goudge hunting. Many of her books are still in print and I think I might try to collect as many as I can.


A Presumption of Death


I enjoyed A Presumption of Death very much. I think was the first of Jill Paton Walsh's forays into Lord Peter Wimsey territory and it's excellent. Sensibly Paton Walsh realises that Harriet Vane is the better part of Wimsey-world, and for most of the book, Harriet is detecting alone at Talboys during the war while Peter is off doing mysterious Top Sekkrit spying stuff in Europe. 

During the war, Dorothy Sayers wrote various magazine columns purporting to be letters between members of the Wimsey family, discussing their wartime activities; Paton Walsh has used this material as a canon source for their whereabouts and attitudes, which provides a solid foundation for the story. There is lots of well-researched detail about rationing, black market shenanigans, spy fears, evacuees and so on -- the one nit I would pick is that Peter refers openly to sending a coded message to Bletchley, at a time when Bletchley was super-secret and I doubt he would have mentioned it even to Harriet and Bunter (though Bunter no doubt knew all about it already -- hm, perhaps it is excusable? No secrets from Harriet, obviously!)

Elements of the central mystery were enjoyably guessable, and the relationship between Harriet and Peter is beautifully depicted. It's so nice to see them working together, very much in love but not sickeningly so; it's the rock solid partnership hinted at in Busman's Honeymoon, and thoroughly satisfying.


The Stones of Green Knowe


First published in 1976, too late to make it into the Mt Hagen library, The Stones of Green Knowe remained unknown to me until adulthood, and rounds off the series with a look forward rather than backward in time, as young Roger d'Aulneaux, in 1120, becomes the very first child to live in the brand new house that will become Green Knowe.

He discovers the two immeasurably ancient stones on the hilltop which will take him briefly forward (or once, terrifyingly, backward) in time, so he can see what will become of the new stone house of which he is so proud. He meets Linnet and Toby and Alexander, Susan and Jacob, and Tolly, and there is a lovely scene where all the children are able to gather together across time.

However, there is a melancholy undertone to this final book. Moving forward to Tolly's time, Roger is dismayed to notice the devastation of the wildlife -- so few birds and animals, hardly any insects, the wild profusion of plants disappeared. If it was this bad in 1976, one can only imagine how horrified Roger would be in 2021 (unless there has been some rewilding at Green Knowe). And the books ends on an abrupt, brutal note as the ancient stones are uprooted and carried away. It's not a comforting note to end on, rather like the catastrophic ending that The Last Battle provided for the Narnia books. And like The Last Battle, I think if I'd read The Stones as a child, I would have avoided re-reading it. But I do enjoy the glimpse of twelfth century life, seeing the first carving of St Christopher and the newfangled wall-fireplace, and Roger is a worthy ancestor.


A Nursery in the Nineties


I ordered A Nursery in the Nineties because someone in the Antonia Forest Facebook group mentioned it, and it turns out that the pertinent section comprised just one short chapter out of 53 in this memoir by Eleanor Farjeon.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known as the author of The Little Bookroom (after which our beloved Melbourne children's bookshop was named) and also the words to the hymn Morning Has Broken (which I sang regularly at school assemblies), but she also wrote poetry, plays, history and biography. Much of A Nursery in the Nineties tells the stories of her father (emigrated to New Zealand, admired Dickens, worked as a journalist), and her mother (from an American theatrical family) before and after their marriage; the last part deals with Nellie's own childhood. Her family moved in theatrical and literary London circles, and many of the names she drops are forgotten now, but she enjoyed a happy, secure and creative upbringing along with her three brothers. She includes plenty of fascinating quotidian detail about Edwardian life which is worth reading (though the family histories drag on a bit).

The chapter that most interested me (and the whole reason I bought the book) is called TAR, standing for Tessie-and-Ralph, a game she and her older brother played (with occasional input from their younger brothers) for over twenty years. She and Harry would pace for hours, narrating and acting out stories of their own invention based on their favourite characters -- originally Ralph and Tessie, from a children's play they saw when Nellie was five. Harry would announce, 'We are X and Y' (perhaps from The Three Musketeers, Greek myths, or any other story that had gripped their fancy) and then he and Nellie would plunge into absorbing parallel lives, until Harry was forced to halt the game by declaring 'We are Harry and Nellie' again.

Farjeon says that this private game absorbed so much of her attention and emotional life that it really became her life, far more real and vivid than her everyday existence, and reflects that ultimately it was quite unhealthy.

I had no desire for new adventures, friends or experience, outside this powerful game. When I should have been growing up, it was a harmful check on life itself, for its imaginative extension did not include natural knowledge. Because of it, I was never aware of my own sex until I was nearly thirty years old, and it took least ten years more for emotional crudeness to get abreast of mental ripeness.

What an extraordinary admission! Though Farjeon credits TAR with turning her into a writer and giving her 'flow of ease,' it's notable that she never married or seems to have had any adult relationship. The Facebook reference came up during a discussion of Antonia Forest's Peter's Room, which also deals with a group imaginative game which spirals out of control, and which in turn references the Bronte's Gondal games and writing.

This is a topic of particular interest to me. Though I didn't share it with anyone else, all through my childhood and teenage years I had a similarly absorbing and addictive private fantasy life. Unlike Eleanor Farjeon, I deliberately renounced it at eighteen (though there were many later lapses), I think because I realised that the potential dangers that she describes above might be lying in wait for me. I'm trying to write about this experience now. If anyone knows of any similar stories, I'm all ears!


An Enemy at Green Knowe

 I'm reading faster than I can blog at the moment! An Enemy at Green Knowe is probably my least favourite of the Green Knowe books (I was interested to see that someone in the comments nominated it as one of their favourites). Frankly I find it quite creepy, and I don't like the idea of sinister spirits hanging round Green Knowe. The book made from a dead bat that flaps and rattles in a closed drawer; the invisible something that slithers down an outside wall; the battle between the maggots and birds, birds and cats, cats and snakes (though I love the scene when Ping calls up the ghost of Hanno the gorilla to help them); the washing line pegged with dead birds... Horror piles upon horror as Tolly, Ping and Grandmother Oldknow are besieged.

Perhaps the most disquieting episode is when Mrs Oldknow falls into a trance on the river, the hypnotic spell only broken when the boys hang the druid's stone around her neck. I hate the thought of Green Knowe and Grandmother being so vulnerable, even if she and the boys triumph in the end. Incidentally, it's the scholar Mr Pope who finally banishes the demonic Melanie, which is perhaps another reason why I don't enjoy their victory as much as I might.

It's very well done, and someone who enjoys horror and witchcraft more than I do would probably relish the battle between good and evil; but I prefer Green Knowe to be safe and impregnable!


The Attenbury Emeralds


Having discovered Jill Paton Walsh, I've found myself stymied in my search for her children's books. But I did discover (I think I was vaguely aware of these before but steered clear because I didn't realise how good a writer Paton Walsh is) the three books Lord Peter Wimsey books she wrote, using the characters of Dorothy L Sayers. The Attenbury Emeralds is actually the last in the series, but it doesn't matter.

I suppose this counts as fan fiction, but it's definitely superior fan fiction. In some ways I preferred The Attenbury Emeralds to the later Wimsey novels, which to my mind became a bit arch -- all those bits in untranslated French! Harriet and Peter's love talk! But Paton Walsh takes a sensible, down to earth approach to Sayers' characters, keeping the best bits (Harriet's intelligence and compassion, Peter's wit and sensitivity) and ditching the embarrassing excesses. And if the mystery itself is a little lacking in Sayers' ingenuity, it's a bargain I'm happy to make.

The Attenbury Emeralds is divided into two parts. In the first, Peter and Bunter re-tell Wimsey's first case to Harriet (a wartime story, featuring the horrific bombing of the Cafe de Paris during the Blitz); in part two, highly coincidentally, the emeralds re-emerge in a continuation of the old mystery. The coincidence is awkward, but the setting is really well done -- after the war, when social norms have been upended and the lines between staff and employers are blurring. Bunter and his wife sometimes eat at the same table as the Wimseys, and their children are friends; the elite conventions of wealth and title are more burdensome than ever. It's the personal story of Harriet and Peter's adjustment to circumstance rather than the mystery itself which hooked me into this book. I can't wait for the next two.


A Stranger at Green Knowe

In some ways, even though it involves no magic at all, A Stranger at Green Knowe is the most extraordinary story of the whole series. While I was re-reading it, ten years after I read it aloud to her at the age of nine, my elder daughter picked it up and said, 'Oh, Green Knowe! So sad.' I read her this novel when she was in the grip of an obsession with gorillas, and she made me stop reading before the inevitable tragic end, so that in her imagination, Hanno the escaped gorilla would stay safe and happy in the garden of Green Knowe forever (as it seems he might, in ghostly form, according to the next book).

Displaced child Ping returns to Green Knowe at the invitation of old Mrs Oldknow, and he serves as a surrogate great-grandson to her in place of Tolly. As always, the easy, playful, respectful relationship between the very old and the very young is touching and delightful. And Ping's loyalty and empathy with Hanno, another creature displaced from his proper home, is beautiful.

Of course there can be no happy ending to this book (in fact the last three books in the Green Knowe series are all quite melancholic) but when Ping declares, 'It's all right. I saw him choose,' most readers will accept a fitting conclusion. Not Alice, though. And her solution has its own magic.


The River at Green Knowe


The third of Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe books, The River at Green Knowe, takes the story away from the old house and out onto the river. There is no Tolly in this book, and no Grandmother Oldknow -- instead, the house is leased for the summer (ooh, I just realised the first three books go winter, spring, summer) to two ladies and three displaced children, Ida, Oskar and Ping.

Evidently the magic clinging to the house extends to the river, because the three children have numerous magical experiences -- from flying horses to encounters with a giant. Oskar shrinks to the size of a field mouse, they meet a hermit, and go back in time to a moonlight ceremony older even than the ancient house itself. But there is also the everyday magic of swimming, rowing, picnicking, and shooting through the locks in flood.

As a child, I didn't read The River as often as the other books, being at heart in indoor rather than an outdoor person, but I enjoyed it this time more than I expected. The friendship between the three children is lovely. 'There isn't anything real except thoughts,' says Oskar, so I suppose the magic in this book might be created by the children themselves, just as they create the long river map on a roll of wallpaper. But that's a very grown up attitude, just like Dr Maud Biggins, who refuses to recognise a giant even when she sees him with her own eyes, so I think I'll side with the children instead and say it's all real.


Farewell Little Bunny

In a piece of heavy-handed symbolism that you could never get away with in a work of fiction, my daughter's childhood rabbit has died in the very week that she's moving out of home. 

Maya lived with us for almost eight years, a pretty good innings for a Netherland Dwarf. He was a pretty little rabbit, so cute when he cleaned his face with his paws. He wasn't much of a cuddler, but he would hop over eagerly at the sound of the fridge opening, and allow us to pat his soft brown fur. Originally he and his brother Momo lived in Al's room, but they kept her awake at night -- especially Maya, who would naughtily leap from his enclosure and hop around her room -- so a few years ago we moved his hutch into the living room, where he lived ever since. (Momo died in mysterious circumstances quite early on. I don't want to speak ill of a departed rabbit, but we did wonder...)

We whinged freely about having to clean out his stinky enclosure, about cutting his nails, and having to feed him with a syringe when he got sick a couple of years ago. But he was part of our family, and yesterday we all had a cry when we said goodbye.


Cosmo Cosmolino


I was spurred to re-read Helen Garner's 1992 novel, Cosmo Cosmolino, after reading her references to wrestling with 'my angel novel' in the latest volume of her diaries, and also how its publication lost her a treasured friendship (not permanently, I believe). 

I read this novel when it was first published, living in a share house in the inner suburbs, quite lonely and probably depressed, working alone on my own writing but not feeling as if I was getting anywhere (like Maxine, the artist/carpenter, I was working in a glorified backyard shed). Cosmo Cosmolino did little to cheer me up at the time. I remember my response being bafflement and a vague disappointment; I didn't get what Garner was aiming at, and parts of the novel upset me deeply.

Reading it again, I have a greater sympathy for her portrait of three lost souls, drifting past each other in an empty house, accidentally hurting and misunderstanding each other, all craving meaningful connection but struggling to achieve it. It's not until the very end of the book that hope arrives in the form of Alby, who manages to draw them together (with a long, perhaps invented story) and ends up joining them in what the reader senses will now be a household, rather than just a house with random inhabitants. It's really a novel about faith, belief and connection, and how hard it can be to trust -- to trust oneself, to trust others, to trust in a greater pattern or power. 

At the time Garner was widely derided for talking about the 'mighty force' she had experienced, described in the novel as haunting Janet (who is surely a thinly-veiled Garner) in the shape of a dark column hovering behind her shoulder. It's a powerful image, whatever it represents. In her diaries, Garner seems to accept Tim Winton's characterisation of it as the Holy Spirit; but in the novel, Janet resists its power with all her being and finally seems to defeat it.

In many ways, Cosmo Cosmolino is a deeply bleak novel. But the ending is a joyous blast of hope.


The Chimneys of Green Knowe


The Chimneys of Green Knowe was far and away my favourite of Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe series as a child; I read it so many times I still know it almost by heart. In contrast to The Children of Green Knowe, which has a dreamy Christmas atmosphere and almost no plot at all, Chimneys is set in spring and absolutely brims with exciting stories -- Jacob's escape from slavery, his and Susan's juju ceremony, Jacob being sent up the chimneys by Sefton, the fire, the gypsies, young Boggis's narrow escape from the press gang in which Tolly plays a helping hand, the lost jewels...

Alas, some aspects of the novel haven't aged well. The N word is used (though never approvingly) and racist attitudes are well to the fore, albeit with the explicit disapproval of the author. Jacob is dressed up as a monkey, his black hands are regarded as dirty by the servants etc; but his character is utterly admirable, he is brave, resourceful, loyal and inventive, and his friendship with intelligent, adventurous, blind Susan is delightful. On the other hand, the description of the gypsies at the very end of the book has no redeeming qualities; the sympathy and understanding extended to Jacob apparently doesn't apply to these stereotypical villains.

Despite these reservations, I still thoroughly enjoy Chimneys and the interweaving of past and present: Tolly's part in the rescue of young Boggis which I mentioned above, the way Susan and Jacob in 1799 hear 'the ghost boy' Tolly singing his sea shanties in the treetops a hundred and fifty years later. The relationship between Tolly and his great-grandmother is lovely, and the motif of the quilt patches which tie past and present together is clever and satisfying. One of my favourites of all time.

(I first read Chimneys as a child in colonial PNG. I think, I hope, that the portrayal of quick-witted, fierce Jacob helped to counteract the racist attitudes to the 'locals' that surrounded me every day.)


Stravinsky's Lunch

I have read Drusilla's Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch before, but not for many years. I wrote above (below, actually!) about the anecdote which sparked her thinking around this subject, at a dinner with Helen Garner and other friends, mostly writers. Stravinsky's Lunch is a biography of two Australian women artists, but it is also a mediation on the clashes between the demands of any creative practice, love, family and the world that women artists experience particularly acutely. (Rachel Power's The Divided Heart is another excellent book on this topic.)

Naturally this is a subject close to my own heart, as I try daily to juggle writing with the multiple needs of family, domestic responsibilities and self-care. The two artists Modjeska writes about, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, took very different approaches to the compromises and conflicts they both endured for their art. Bowen left Australia to pursue her artistic studies, but ended up sacrificing her own work for many years after falling in love with the much older writer, Ford Madox Ford, who was supportive of her work (up to a point) but took it for granted that his writing should come first, barely conscious that a quiet house, regular food, and the pleasures of domestic comfort (including children) require work by someone (not him). Eventually they separated and she enjoyed late success as a war artist, but she died relatively young and under-appreciated.

Grace Cossington Smith never married, and in fact, never left her parents' home. Her middle class family supported her financially through the ups and down of artistic recognition, though again she didn't receive the accolades she deserved until late in her long life. Cossington Smith doggedly followed her instincts, painting mostly in isolation and suffering the derision of male critics, and eventually amassed an incredible body of work. But again, her independence was bought at a cost -- in this case, her sister Madge, who kept house and cared for their ageing parents, and then for Grace herself. Modjeska is careful to acknowledge Madge's presence and sacrifice which made Grace's achievements possible.

Annabel Crabb's The Wife Drought makes the same point -- any individual who wants to combine a demanding career (in any field) and a fulfilling personal life (family, children, love) needs a WIFE to do the endless, tedious, draining, time-devouring work behind the scenes. Or a Madge, or a faithful servant, or a partner who is willing to sacrifice a bit of their own time or success or leisure to share the load. Only some us are lucky enough to score one of those.


The Mirror and the Light

I asked for the final volume in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy for my birthday back in September, and I've been reading it off and on ever since. The Mirror and the Light is over 800 pages long -- does that mean the whole trilogy comes to about 2000 pages?? The length alone would make this series of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell a magnificent achievement; but these books are also wonderfully written. I'm not really surprised the judges of the Booker Prize didn't feel they could award Mantel a third gong, but this book deserves it just as much as the previous two.

Reading this book, I felt deeply immersed in Cromwell's life -- we see every event through his eyes, and he sees everything. In this final volume, he is especially reflective about his hardscrabble childhood on the mean streets of Putney, and the envy and resentment of his nobly-born fellow courtiers begins to bite as they constantly remind him that he has no 'great family' to back him up, and that his common birth means he doesn't deserve the honours and riches with which Henry has rewarded him (or let's be honest, with which Cromwell has rewarded himself). 

There is a growing sense of dread as we know that Cromwell's life is inexorably moving toward its unhappy end. Cromwell has plenty of blood on his hands, and he is quite stoic in the face of his own downfall, still planning how best to save his household and protect his family until the very end. All the threads of this remarkable life draw together in this moving conclusion.

I must say reading these novels has piqued my interest about the Tudors in general, I've even started watching The Spanish Princess which deals with the life of Catherine of Aragon, who is not portrayed terribly sympathetically by Mantel -- the TV series certainly makes her a much more glamorous figure than the novels do! And it's been fun spotting other characters in this earlier story -- a dour Wolsey, not yet a cardinal, and a very dashing young Henry, but also the scheming Pole family who will make so much trouble for Thomas Cromwell in coming years. I don't think Cromwell himself will even appear. But I'll know he's there, lurking in the shadows, ten steps ahead of everyone else, even if we can't see him.


The Children of Green Knowe


Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe books were among my very favourites as a child and it's such a delight to return to them. They had an atmosphere like no others, partly because of the etching illustrations by Peter Boston, the author's son, which had an eerie, other-worldly feel, very appropriate to a story about a young boy meeting ghostly children in his great-grandmother's house.

However, The Children of Green Knowe is never frightening. When Tolly meets Toby, Alexander and Linnet, it is the most natural thing in the world; the house and garden welcome Tolly and peacefully hold layers of history which occasionally intersect. There is very little plot to this first book in the series, but the magical house of Greene Knowe (based on Boston's real home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey), Tolly's wise and comforting great-grandmother, and down-to-earth Boggis, create such a delightful setting that story becomes irrelevant. 

This was a book that I returned to many times, a book to dwell inside.


One Day I'll Remember This

Reading Helen Garner's diaries is such a treat. I had to ration myself to twenty pages at a time or I would  have gobbled up this volume in a single sitting. One Day I'll Remember This covers the years between 1987 and 1995, when I was in my twenties: living in share houses, going to uni, travelling overseas, single. 

Garner was negotiating a very different stage of life: mired in an affair with a married man ('V'), then marrying him herself; moving to Sydney to be with him; working on the screenplay of The Last Days of Chez Nous, about the breakdown of her own previous marriage, and writing the 'angel' novel, Cosmo Cosmolino. This volume of the diaries ends with the publication of the hugely controversial non-fiction book, The First Stone, about allegations of sexual assault at Ormond College. This was the book that has poisoned her reputation with young feminists (though not with me), as she was seen to be way too sympathetic to the man in the case. I'm guessing most of the fallout will appear in Volume 3.

Garner has always grappled with relations between men and women, in a way that might seem old-fashioned and almost deterministic to a younger generation. I was excited to read one entry where V recounts an anecdote about Stravinsky: that when the great composer was working on a piece, he would demand that his wife and children remain absolutely silent at lunch, so as not to wreck his mental concentration. Later, this story is repeated at a dinner with friends (including Garner's writer friend 'E'). All the men are admiring or at least understanding of Stravinsky's demands -- this is what Art requires. All the women are up in arms -- why didn't Stravinsky eat his lunch in his room, on a tray? How dare he impose his own whims on his whole family in this arrogant way? Why couldn't he prepare his own damn lunch? It goes without saying that a female artist would find it extremely difficult to impose herself on the rest of her household in this way. 

The reason I was thrilled to read about this discussion is that I had recently bought (to re-read) the book Stravinsky's Lunch by Drusilla Modjeska (who is surely 'E'), who also tells the same anecdote in the introduction and says it came up at a dinner with friends. Stravinsky's Lunch tells the story of two Australian women artists and the struggles they faced in carving out space for their work -- a struggle that most female creatives must still grapple with.

Reading about Garner's own difficulties with 'V' made my blood boil. He assumes that she will leave their tiny flat when he is working, even if she is also writing. She finds herself tiptoeing around his feelings, yet he accuses her of being 'moody' and 'hypersensitive.' I wanted to give him a slap and give Helen her own flat.

The saddest episode concerns a long-standing friendship, with R and O, which is wrecked after Garner hurts 'O' by using him as a character in Cosmo Cosmolino. When the volume ends, a tentative rapprochement seems to be taking place; I hope the friendship can be rescued. Overall, these mid-life diaries seem to be wrestling with the price of making art, the cost in independence, in love and friendship, in money, in time. The costs are huge, and yet the need to keep writing is a compulsion that refuses to be denied.


Knowledge of Angels


I'm embarrassed to say that it took the death of Jill Paton Walsh late last year to bring her to my attention. I had never read any of her books before, though I've since been assured that Goldengrove/ Unleaving and A Parcel of Patterns will be right up my alley (now on the hunt), and I'm also looking forward to reading her Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

I wasn't aware, either, that she'd almost won the Booker prize for Knowledge of Angels, which despite being an established author, she had to self-publish. This is a beautiful, cruel and shining book that chimed well with Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light (where heretics are also tortured for their beliefs) and also, oddly, with the jigsaw I was working on at the time:

Escher's Cascata captured the austere, medieval feeling of the book perfectly. At first I read with delight of this Mediterranean island, with its olives and snows, its sparkling seas and serene nuns, each image as rich as an illuminated manuscript. I was intrigued by the discovery of the wild wolf-child and the arrival of the civilised stranger, naked from the sea. For a while, all unfolds peaceably. The stranger, an atheist, disputes philosophy with the learned ruler and the scholar; and the snow-child is slowly tamed.

But then the inquisitor arrives, and everything turns dark and senseless and brutal, and I read reluctantly, knowing what the inevitable end was going to be. 

Knowledge of Angels was written under the shadow of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, but it takes faith seriously. Neil Philip has said he doesn't consider this book her finest work, because it lacks humour, and I could see what he means. Still, this is a novel that will haunt me for a long time.




Beyond the Vicarage


This was a sneaky last minute Christmas present for myself, and I enjoyed it so much! Noel Streatfeild wrote three volumes of fictionalised autobiography: A Vicarage Family was one of my very favourite books as a child; Away From the Vicarage covers the years of her acting career (including a tour of Australia in the late 1920s!); and Beyond the Vicarage (1971) describes the war years and Streatfeild's writing career. I still need to get hold of Away From the Vicarage, but Beyond the Vicarage was a huge treat.

I knew that Streatfeild had written novels for adults as well as her huge output for children, but I hadn't realised how many she'd written. Several of her adult titles were lost when her publisher's warehouse was bombed during the war and the printing plates were destroyed, so I guess we'll never know exactly what they were like. It surprised me that Streatfeild was rather dismayed by the sudden success of Ballet Shoes, which has of course remained immensely popular and really set herself up as a children's author. In the fifties she decided to give up writing for adults, sensibly understanding that her style of adult novel was going out of fashion in an over-supplied market, and from then on focussed entirely on writing for children.

Like Nancy Mitford, Streatfeild's writing strategy was to write in bed for a few hours before getting up -- that way, naughty friends couldn't entice her out on excursions until she'd done her work for the day. It was fascinating to read about her experiences in London with the WVS during the war, running a mobile canteen which travelled around to bomb shelters providing hot drinks and food. She saw some terrible sights and her lovely flat was completely destroyed. I must say, reading about the horrors of wartime London (and, as Streatfeild points out, things were far worse in Europe) puts our pandemic whinges about border closures and isolation into perspective.

Beyond the Vicarage ends with Streatfeild sliding into comfortable old age. She was to live for another fifteen years, dying at the grand old age of one hundred: a pretty good innings.


Reading Round Up 2020


Thank God that year is over -- though 2021 might be just as difficult, who knows. Getting through 2020 for me was all about comfort reading, jigsaws, knitting, and riding my bike through empty early morning streets. So last year featured lots of children's books and lots of re-reading of old favourites, both of which I am completely unapologetic about.

For most of the year I had three books on the go simultaneously -- one children's or YA, one adult fiction and one non-fiction book. I think my concentration was a bit all over the place and it was easier to hop from book to book, chapter by chapter, than try to maintain my focus for a whole book. Maybe this is just modern life, maybe it was COVID, anyway it seemed to work. I read a total of 85 books this year, seven fewer than last year.

Kids/YA vs Adult

I read 30 children's and YA books, and 55 adult titles (which does work out to about a one third/two thirds ratio, as mentioned above). Mostly I read children's books, I wasn't really in the mood for YA this year, I needed comfort and reassurance, and the majority of those children's books were plucked from my own shelves. (Oddly, I read 9 fewer kids books this year, though I felt as if I read more!)

Author gender

Another one third/two thirds split! 56 books were by female authors and 29 by males, and about one third of those were by one author, Alan Garner. It did work out to slightly more books by blokes this year, but the proportion is fairly steady.


My impression was that the need for escape drew me toward fiction this year, and again the three-books strategy led to a rough one third factual, two thirds fictional split. Actually, comparing to 2019, I'm surprised to see that I actually read more non-fiction in 2020! Fiction was 51 (down from 63), non-fiction 34 (up from 29).

Book source

I bought only two new books this year (I actually bought a lot more than that, mostly for my children) (down 12 from 2019); my daughter and I invested in a mystery box of books from Book Grocer which actually ended up being pretty poor value, for me, at least. Oh well, it was still exciting to unpack the box!

33 books were purchased secondhand (down 7), all from Brotherhood Books, some leftover from last year and some bought through the year. I managed to borrow 13 books from the library, despite lockdown (down from 24). A whopping 24 titles were re-reads that I already owned (up 20!). I borrowed 6 books from friends (down 3), and bought 7 e-books on the Kindle (up by 5 -- instant gratification was particularly important this year!)


Because of all the old favourite re-reads, UK authors were heavily featured this year with 38 titles. Next came Australian authors on 23; US writers with 15 books; one Irish author, Tana French, with five titles; and four authors from assorted other countries (Finland, Germany, Japan). I haven't done a very good job of reading foreign books lately!

Notable books of 2020

The year began with the tail end of a Noel Streatfeild binge, and progressed with binges of several other authors, notably Tana French (5) and childhood favourite Elizabeth Enright (6). I had intended to re-read all of Alan Garner's books this year but I didn't quite manage it -- I read nine of his works and still have a couple to go which I'll finish off this year. I had a Jane Austen mini-binge as well, starting with a biography that sent me scurrying back to her novels. (I'm looking forward to re-visiting Pride and Prejudice when my remaining school age daughter studies it this year.)

In spite of all the comfort reading and re-reading, my standout reading experiences were actually mostly non-fiction, and mostly by Australian authors. Sarah Krasnostein's The Trauma Cleaner and Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist both made a deep impression early in the year. Judith Brett's From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage was both educational and thoroughly enjoyable. I lost myself in Richard Fidler's Ghost Empire, and as usual was bewitched by Robert Macfarlane as he took me Underland.