In the Beginning


A proper grown up literary novel, the first one I've read for a long time. I read quite a few of Chaim Potok's novels in high school and was fascinated by the glimpses into a different cultural world, the world of Orthodox Judaism, that they showed to me; that fascination has never left me, as my recent television adventures with Unorthodox, Shtisel and Unchained have proved. But I haven't read In the Beginning before.

In the Beginning is an adult novel, but for most of its length David Lurie is a child or an adolescent, growing up in the Bronx during the Depression and the Second World War. We see through his eyes the hostility of the goyim, the oppression of history, and he is particularly haunted by his father's past, fighting in Poland. David is a sickly, gifted child, perpetually anxious, dreading 'accidents', and aspiring to a courage he is sure that he lacks. But in the end, the courage he finds is not physical bravery but a more demanding intellectual strength which will rip him away from the security of his tight community and family.

In the Beginning is a slow burn of a novel. Small incident piles upon incident, there is a growing sense of dread, although the violence and horror all occurs either in the past or many miles away in Nazi Germany. And I'm still fascinated that there is a world so utterly foreign to me, the world of Torah scholarship, which is so burningly important to many people and about which I know absolutely nothing.


Exciting News!


The January Stars has been shortlisted for the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Awards!

It's such a thrill and an honour, especially as the authors on the shortlist are some of the Australian authors I most admire: Jaclyn Moriarty! Meg McKinley! Danielle Binks! The only one I don't know is Remy Lai, but her book looks absolutely delightful.

What a lovely day!


Sons From Afar


This is my edition of the sixth Tillerman book by Cynthia Voigt, Sons From Afar. It's actually my least favourite of the covers I've seen.

I like the look of this one -- all the covers on this edition of the series are beautiful, a lovely clean design --  but the illustration doesn't bear a huge amount of relevance to the story.

This version captures the dark danger of the final section of the novel, where James and Sammy trawl the mean streets of Baltimore in search of their long-vanished father.

But I also really like this cover, because the faces of the two boys exactly match the image I have of them in my mind. Sons From Afar is a book about fathers, inheritance, masculinity and choices. Sammy and James are very different characters, each slightly envious of the other's gifts. James wishes he could be physically gifted, straightforward, courageous and popular like Sammy; Sammy wonders why James isn't happier with his brains and problem-solving skills. But together they make a great team, as they belatedly come to realise that their mysterious past is less important than the choices they make for the future.

Sons From Afar moves us forward in time a few years. Dicey is largely absent from this book, away at college; Maybeth is, as usual, a quiet, enigmatic background presence. I like James getting an office job with the two lady doctors (they are described as 'distant cousins' but surely they are a couple!) and Sammy's growing friendship with timid Robin. There is a lot of conflict in this novel, emotional, intellectual and physical, and a variety of ways of solving it, though (spoiler) some readers may be disappointed that Sammy and James don't find the answers they were looking for.


Come A Stranger


There are a couple of uncomfortable elements to Come A Stranger, the fifth book in Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman cycle. Firstly, it is the story of Mina Smiths, Dicey's African-American friend whose we've met in previous books; and Voigt is a white author. In the 1990s this would probably have been seen as a progressive story, but in these days of Own Voices it's a less easy read. Secondly, Mina develops a crush (though she, and interestingly her mother, too, describe it as true love) on a much older minister -- Tamer Shipp, who we met as a high school contemporary of Bullet Tillerman in The Runner). Luckily the relationship never edges into physical territory and by the end of the book has become no more than a fond memory. Still, for a while there the story seems to be heading into dangerous territory.

Mina is unusual in the Tillerman books in not being a loner; she is deeply embedded in an extensive, loving community of friends, family, church, dancing class and school. She only briefly pulls away from this supportive circle after attending an otherwise whites-only dance camp, from which she is painfully ejected in her second year after 'growing wrong.' As always in Voigt's novels, music is a source of joy, solace and connection, and by the end of the book Mina has turned away from dance (a solo activity) but kept up her involvement in the choir (a collective pursuit).

I really enjoyed Mina's story, and the different slant it provides on the other Tillerman characters. The meeting of Tamer Shipp and Bullet's mother, Gram, at the end, was particularly moving. But somehow the friendship between Mina and Dicey didn't quite take flight for me in this telling, it was hard to understand exactly why Mina would be drawn to Dicey. Though Dicey's courage and self-possession are shown to us, she still presents as being pretty hard work!

I'm not sure if Come A Stranger would be published today, and though I'm glad it exists, I'm also glad that there are more and more stories being told from within, rather than from outside non-white communities.


The Meeting of the Waters


This is the third time I've read Margaret Simons' account of the Hindmarsh Island affair, The Meeting of the Waters. It's a long and complicated story, and it all happened over twenty years ago -- I'm not sure if many people retain a clear memory of what went on. Essentially, developers were seeking to build a bridge between the South Australian town of Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island at the mouth of the Murray River, where they wanted to set up a marina. The local Aboriginal community (principally the older women) were dismayed at the idea of a bridge, because this trampled on the sacred nature of this particular site; however, the precise knowledge about the stories that made the site sacred were deeply secret. Eventually another group of women emerged who denied any knowledge of the sacred secrets. The original group were accused of fabricating 'secret women's business' (that's where the phrase came from!) and after much legal and political wrangling, the bridge was built.

There is so much meat in this story, which deals with the clash of two incompatible cultures, different kinds of power, respect and knowledge and pain.

... it is like an opera. There are so many voices, all singing their own songs with such conviction. the emotions are huge, the narrative grand, almost everyone is infected with a sense of wounded righteousness, and sometimes it seems like a thousand small tragedies harnessed together.

The case dragged on for years, through court cases, inquiries and a Royal Commission. It ripped a community apart, destroyed relationships and ruined careers. The phrase 'secret women's business' was used to discredit Indigenous heritage, despite the last inquiry finding that the stories were not invented. There was a fundamental conflict between a Western European culture that ostensibly values transparency, openness, an adversarial legal system where the strongest argument and the loudest voice often wins, and an Indigenous culture that prizes sacred knowledge by restricting who can know what, and keeping the most precious information secret. As Simons points out:

Information follows the lines of power. Aboriginal cultures make this explicit. Western European culture... likes to pretend that it isn't necessarily so.

It was difficult for politicians and judges to understand that the women were prepared to withdraw evidence and keep their knowledge secret, even at the cost of losing their case and the bridge going ahead. Protecting the sacred secrets was ultimately more important than protecting the country they were linked to. The women insisted that the part of the story they were prepared to share should be kept in a sealed envelope, to be read only by a few women if absolutely necessary. But a judge held that Australian law required that the relevant government minister himself must be able to read the material. (He could have appointed a woman to act for him for this purpose, but he refused to do so.) In desperation, the women gradually revealed more and more; but it was never enough.

There was no recognition of the fact that all Aboriginal women in the same community might not have access to the same level of knowledge. Indeed, most of the 'dissident' women didn't actually deny that such sacred knowledge existed, only that they didn't know about it, but such subtleties were lost in the media outcry about 'lies' and hysteria over land rights. Part of the sacredness of the area centred around the resemblance of the area of the river mouth to a woman's body. Some politicians scoffed at this notion: how could traditional Aboriginal people have seen this resemblance without access to an aerial view? This argument is plainly nonsense to anyone who has seen the map-like conception of country displayed in Aboriginal artworks.

You'd hope that our understanding has improved in the years that have passed since. When I was first researching for Crow Country, this book taught me a lot about how Indigenous cultures work, how they intersect and can fail to connect with white expectations, and the searing pain that this disconnect and misunderstanding can cause. It was the beginning of what has been a long and rewarding journey toward a deeper understanding.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox


I acquired this book from my good friend Chris, and I almost laughed when I started reading it, because if you were writing a book calculated to appeal to Chris, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be that book. For a start, it's set in Scotland, Chris's ancestral home and a country where she lived for several years; and it's also concerned with madness, and the way notions of madness and hysteria have been used to oppress women, which is a topic which has fascinated her for decades.

Our contemporary protagonist, Iris, discovers to her dismay that she has a elderly relative whose existence she has never known about: Esme Lennox, her grandmother's sister, who has been held in a mental hospital for over sixty years, since she was just sixteen years old. Through Esme's memories and the dementia-affected musings of Iris's grandmother Kitty, we gradually learn the story of how Esme ended up in Cauldstone, uncovering some dark secrets along the way.

I haven't read any of Maggie O'Farrell's fiction before but The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-crafted story-telling. I wasn't a massive fan of the subplot concerning Iris's step-brother Alex, which I felt didn't add much to the central story, but otherwise I really enjoyed this novel.


The Holiday Murders

Robert Gott's The Holiday Murders (together with The Autumn Murders, The Orchard Murders, The Port Fairy Murders) are a kind of parallel series to the comic Will Powers Fiascos. Also murder stories set in wartime Australia, the Murders series is much more serious and darker in tone.

We have a different set of protagonists: Inspector Titus Lambert, overlooked Constable Helen Lord and insecure detective Joe Sable. I appreciated the appalling parallels with the present day -- the rise of ugly fascism, the toxic masculinity of the disenfranchised, the simmering anti-Semitism, the atmosphere of crisis that serves to veil or to excuse actions that might be unforgivable in ordinary times.

Robert Gott is a terrific writer and he does a wonderful job of weaving in his period detail with the twists and turns of the mystery. However, in this book I found the sheer grisly cruelty of the murders themselves so horrific that I couldn't enjoy reading about them. I think I prefer my murders more on the cosy side! So I'm not sure, despite their strengths, that I'll be retuning to the rest of the series.


Position Doubtful

 What an incredible reading experience this was! Belinda Probert alerted me to Kim Mahood's Position Doubtful in her own book, Imaginative Possession, and I'm so glad I tracked it down. Probert's book was a  reflective musing on her experience of trying to belong in what she experienced as an alien landscape; Position Doubtful covers similar territory, but in a more rigorous fashion and from a different perspective.

Mahood grew up on a station in the remote Tanami desert; she is now an artist and poet who draws on her own memories, uneasy sense of place, and collaborations with Indigenous friends and fellow artists to inform her creative work. (Initially I thought Mahood sounded like a Middle Eastern name, but it's actually Irish in origin.) She is deeply reflective and analytical about her art and her relationships with her Aboriginal colleagues. She is particularly close to the older women of the communities of Balgo and Mulan, who share her memories of station days, and she is unsentimental about her ambiguous place in the towns. By virtue of her childhood, she has a skin name and thus a role in the complex genealogy of the local people, a trusted confidant and friend; but she is also a kartiya, a white fella, an outsider, a resource to be made use of. 

Mahood traces her own personal history and the troubled history of the region through map-making projects that involve the whole community, seeing the landscape from multiple points of view, overlaying stock routes and traditional Dreaming sites. She notes that navigation, memory and motion are all located in the same area of the brain:

It is common now to treat the journey as metaphor, but there was a time when the journey and the traveller and the story were the same thing... There was a time when we walked into consciousness through our journeys, when our awareness was brand new... Maybe this is how language began, as a journey and a poem.

Mahood notes a shifting relationship to country in some of the younger generation, partly as a result of mining royalties:

There is an underlying tension that attaches to "ownership," a term that seems to have displaced the older concept of custodianship. It would be interesting to trace that shift, to discover the point at which the subtleties of meaning were transferred from the emphasis on looking after and being responsible for country, to the more Western inflection of owning and gaining benefit from it.

There is so much food for thought in Mahood's account of her twenty-year plus experience of working and visiting these communities. Position Doubtful is highly recommended.