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.