The In-Between

Full disclosure: I used to be sort-of friends with Christos; we had mutual friends in our twenties. Though I haven't seen him for years, I follow his work with warm interest and admiration. I sometimes find Christos's novels confronting, and they certainly aren't comfort reading, but I know he would say that that's not what fiction should be.

However, The In-Between is much closer to 'my sort of novel' than some of his other work. It's essentially a love story, about two middle-aged men who connect later in life, with all the compromises and potential and baggage that entails. Two chapters are from Perry's point of view, and two from Ivan's, and the novel finishes with a section from the point of view of the daughter of Perry's former lover, a woman seeing the couple from the outside. The In-Between is mostly set in my Melbourne -- Preston, the city, the bayside suburbs where my husband's family live (though I'm having trouble exactly placing Perry's Preston apartment -- perhaps Christos... invented it???)

There is simply no better Australian writer on class, and the central section of the novel is the strongest and the most excruciating to read. There is a dinner party where all the shifting fault lines of Perry's milieu are laid bare -- between middle and working class, women and men, gay and straight, parents and non-parents. Conversations about politics become painfully personal, and accepted moral stances are paraded. Do we all have to think the same about everything?? There is raging against the timid conformity of Australia, our inability to face passion, life and death.

The In-Between is a visceral novel, packed with smells and sex, undercurrents of fear and loneliness and violence. But it's also a very tender, compassionate novel, shot through with everyday beauty and yes, love.


The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison's novel The Goblin Emperor was published almost ten years ago, but I hadn't come across it before. It was a recommendation from author Francis Spufford; I know we share very similar taste in books because I was captivated by his 2002 memoir, The Child That Books Built. So I was pretty sure I was onto a winner, and so I was.

The Goblin Emperor is high fantasy, set in a steampunk world of airships, pneumatic messages, elves (white skinned and blue eyed) and goblins (dark skinned and orange eyed). When Maia's father, the emperor, and his three older brothers are all killed in an airship explosion, this eighteen year old half-goblin finds himself unexpectedly ascending to the throne and having to negotiate the intricacies of court intrigues and competing political interests. As Spufford says, Maia succeeds by 'being nice to everyone,' and while it's not quite as simple as that, the story is all the more satisfying for having a solid moral heart of kindness.

The world building underpinning this novel is extraordinary -- trade, language, formal courtesies, food, technology, racism -- nothing is forgotten (there is an extensive glossary at the back of the book and some helpful notes, which I wish I'd read at the beginning). The Goblin Emperor is filed under adult fantasy in my local library, but it could easily be a young adult book (except there's not much sex or romance, which seems to be mandatory for YA books these days), or even a sophisticated older primary reader who would love to be immersed in this complete, complex world.


Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Yes, I'm still Obsessed With Trieste. I was excited when I found Jan Morris's last book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, in the Athenaeum Library catalogue, but imagine my dismay when I searched the shelves and there it... wasn't. The helpful librarian couldn't find it either, but promised to reserve it for me and let me know if it turned up. It transpires that it had been pulled from shelves to be discarded, because it's been ten years since it was last borrowed -- I saved it just in time! (On the other hand, if it had been discarded, it might have been put on the For Sale trolley and I could have bought it for $2... Oh well.)

Reading Jan Morris's wistful 2001 description of the city and its history has made me all the more determined to visit one day. Trieste is a city marooned by accidents of geography and history. At the top of the Adriatic, just opposite Venice, it once served as the major seaport for the Austro-Hungarian empire, and its architecture reflects this Germanic flavour -- majestic squares, grand orderly buildings. But when the empire broke up and Trieste was returned to Italy, it lost its purpose (though in the 21st century, it seems to have reinvented itself as a scientific hub). It was a meeting place for many cultures, the Slavic nations to the south and east, Italy to the west, and Austria to the north. Morris describes a city of 'true civility' and just general niceness (we'll gloss over the brief period of Fascist dominance), and really good coffee.

Trieste seems like a melancholy city, a haunted city, with that air of shabby grandeur that I find so irresistible. More than ever I'm longing to wander the waterfront, to inspect the ill-fated castle of Miramar, explore the medieval old town and fortress, take the funicular up to the harsh wilderness of the karst, stare out over the glassy sea, and shiver in the pitiless gusts of the bora. One day.



The Night Watchman

Louise Erdrich is a relatively new author to me. I read her 2012 novel, The Round House, last year, which I thought was amazing, and I've just finished The Night Watchman (which I didn't realise had won the Pulitzer Prize until I was searching for this cover image online -- congrats, Louise!) and which is even better.

I'm not sure which I find more compelling, Erdrich's rich story telling, or the Native American world of her novels. The Night Watchman is partly based on her own grandfather's life and his fight to halt the planned termination of Indian tribes in the 1950s, which was framed as an opportunity for Native Americans to fully assimilate with other Americans, but was really a grab for reservation land, and would have meant annihilation of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe. This actually happened to other tribes. But Erdrich beautifully and movingly weaves in aspects of Native American culture and belief through the political story -- there are ghosts and spirits here, plant medicine, cradle boards and dreams.

Not surprisingly, there are many parallels between the treatment of Native Americans and Australia's First Nations peoples -- a history of dispossession, attempts at assimilation (in America, often through boarding schools; in Australia, through the Stolen Generations), and of course intergenerational trauma, sometimes leading to alcoholism and domestic abuse. But what is most remarkable is the strength and determination of the survivors.

It's so thrilling to discover a 'new' impressive author, especially when they have a massive back catalogue to explore, and even better, when your new favourite library has them all lined up on the shelf.


La Vie de Château

My daughter recently returned from a trip to Europe, and one of the gifts she brought me was this slim children's book by Clémence Madeleine-Perdrillat, La Vie de Chateau. Never having studied French at school, I've been plugging away for a couple of years at an online language program, which has enabled me to at least pick out commonly used words from the subtitles of Call My Agent. La Vie de Chateau was just the right level for me, in that I could get the gist of the story pretty easily, while looking up two or three new words per page.

Briefly, eight year old Violette is orphaned and is sent to live with her uncle, who is a cleaner at the Palace of Versailles. At first Violette is miserable and silent, but she gradually warms up to her new home and her uncle -- but now the authorities have decided to send her away... (I think this book is based on a short animated film.)

It's been a long, long time -- so long I literally can't remember -- since I had to work to read a book. I took it one page at a time so I didn't feel overwhelmed. It was frustrating at times. Sometimes I got the translation wildly wrong, sometimes I deciphered it on the first attempt. I was relieved when a big illustration shortened a chunk of text; I gulped when I was confronted with a long slab of words. It's been a really good reminder of just how hard this reading caper can be. But the sense of triumph and satisfaction when I reached the end was absolutely wonderful.


The Narnian

Another gem from the shelves of the Athenaeum Library. I have read quite a lot about C. S. Lewis but I'd never come across The Narnian. It's not an exhaustive biography, because Alan Jacobs focuses above all on the development and expression of Lewis's inner life -- his ideas and imagination. As a Professor of English and university director of Faith and Learning, Jacobs is particularly interested in Lewis's Christianity, which was of course the central foundation of his work. 

I have to confess I've never read any of Lewis's apologetics or even his adult novels (though I have a dim memory of attempting The Screwtape Letters in high school), but Jacobs does a good job of outlining his arguments. I think Jacobs is right when he says that Lewis's great strength was not actually in debate or philosophy (even though 'no one could best him'), but in depiction -- he shows us a world where goodness and virtue become rich and delightful, and makes us want to live in that world. Could there be a better description of Narnia? Jacobs emphasises Lewis's 'willingness to be enchanted,' for which I am prepared to forgive his dated attitudes.

One aspect of Lewis's personal life which struck me particularly after reading Wifedom was his long devotion to Mrs Moore, his friend's mother, about which Lewis's brother Warnie was apoplectic with fury, seeing his busy, gifted brother running around filling hot water bottles, taking out the dog et etc instead of getting on with his work. For a start, it seems clear that Lewis and Mrs Moore at least at one time were sexual partners, and no one would bat an eyelid if the gender roles were reversed, and a younger wife were caring with equal tenderness to an older, demanding husband, no matter how creatively gifted she might be, and how much her work suffered in consequence -- not that that would be an ideal situation, either, but part of Warnie's horror surely stems from the perceived 'unnaturalness' of Lewis's position. Anyway, it doesn't seem that Lewis's work actually did suffer all that much, and as Jacobs points out, this experience probably taught him much about suffering, and patience, and love, and duty, which helped him toward greater depth of wisdom and compassion in the long run.



I pounced on this book from my new favourite place in the world, the Atheneaum Library, on the strength of the title alone: Everywhen: Australia and the language of deep history. When I give school talks on Crow Country, I try to convey something of the pre-invasion First Nations world view -- the deep interconnectedness of Country, the importance of secrecy and accuracy of knowledge in an oral culture, and their different attitude to time. In the simplest possible terms, while Western cultures tend to conceptualise time like an arrow, or a conveyor belt, moving inexorably from the past into the future, First Nations cultures have a much more cyclical experience of time, tied to the movement of seasons and stars, and a sense of the on-going events of the Dreaming as existing in a kind of living, eternal present, rather than in a distant, far removed past. My understanding is pretty shallow, but the authors of this collection bring a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to this idea.

Honestly, if I'd realised just how scholarly Everywhen was going to be, I might have thought twice about borrowing it, but I'm so glad I persevered. Some of the essays are deeply personal, like Jakelin Troy's account of standing between the snowy mountains of her ancestors and the sky, or Shannon Foster's reflections on being locked away from rock engravings around Sydney, on D'harawal land, in order to 'keep them safe.' There are pieces here that examine the role of music and song, that outline the way performance of ancient songs and stories helps to bring the deep past into the present moment, or the challenge for linguistics of trying to recover the languages lost since white settlement.

After the shock and despair of reading Killing For Country, it was heartening to explore these essays and to realise that there are so many people working so earnestly to preserve, to recover and to engage with the oldest living culture in the world, and hopefully to share a new perspective on what it means to live on and with our fragile planet.


Beyond the Vicarage

I enjoyed reading Away From the Vicarage so much that I pulled out my copy of Beyond the Vicarage and re-read it immediately. Away From the Vicarage had filled in a few crucial events, and the story picks up straight after the previous volume, with 'Vicky' on her way home from a theatrical tour in Australia after her father's sudden death.

As it deals with 'Vicky's' adult life and career as a writer, Beyond the Vicarage is less packed with amusing incident and anecdote than the earlier books, but the chapters dealing with Streatfield's experiences of WWII in London are filled with fascinating (and sometimes gory) detail. She volunteered at first as a fire warden and then running a mobile canteen, which went around during air raids supplying hot drinks and food to people in shelters -- it's incredible the amount of organisation which was mobilised to put such a service in place. I'm continually amazed at the way the British (and presumably other) governments were able to marshal their resources to plan and proceed with such complex programs (evacuating children, nutrition programs, fire patrols, etc etc), quite apart from the actual effort of fighting the war -- and all without the aid of computer technonlogy, all done with paper and typewriters! Unsurprisingly, it was often women who filled in the gaps. I'd forgotten Streatfeild's account of the 'Housewives' association, who came to the rescue with tea, sandwiches, clothing and counselling when other groups failed.

Noel Streatfeild died in 1986 at the age of 91, when I was at university. I wish I'd written her a fan letter when I had the chance. I never realised how many adult novels she'd written; she never intended to be a children's writer and yet she is one of the most gifted writers for children who ever lived.


Killing For Country

Killing For Country is a remarkable, scorching book. Journalist David Marr was digging through his family history at the behest of a relative when he stumbled across a photograph of his two-times great-grandfather dressed in the uniform of the Native Police, a notoriously brutal group who specialised in 'dispersing' (ie slaughtering) Aboriginal tribes in Queensland in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Marr forensically lays out the records, from official correspondence, newspaper reports, private diaries and letters, which bulge with proof of large-scale massacres and individual killings on the frontier -- a history we never learned or even suspected at school, a history that was silenced, covered up and ignored for far too long. There are no more excuses for ignorance. This land was brutally stolen, its inhabitants murdered.

David Marr says he doesn't feel guilt for the actions of his ancestor, but he does feel shame. And so should we all. The detail of this clear, intelligent account is incontrovertible. Many times while reading Killing For Country, I had to lay down the book to catch my breath in disbelief and horror. Anyone who still believes that the history of white settlement has suffered from a false 'black armband' view should be made to read Killing For Country.


Away From the Vicarage

A week ago, I did something very exciting -- I joined the Athenaeum Library! (Thank you Kirsty for putting the idea into my head.) I've long been aware that there was a library upstairs in the same building as the Athenaeum Theatre, but I'd never investigated it. It's the library of my dreams -- a perfect combination of second hand bookshop and a library, in that it's stocked with lots of the kinds of books I love to read -- including the middle volume of Noel Streatfeild's thinly-veiled autobiographical trilogy, Away From the Vicarage, which I've never been able to get my hands on. Huzzah!

I'm looking forward to exploring the collection; even on my flying visit to sign up and pay my subscription, I saw at least ten books that I want to borrow immediately.

Away From the Vicarage covers Streatfeild's twenties, which were also conicidentally, the 1920s, which she spent training and working as an actress, quite a scandalous career for a vicar's daughter in the years after WWI. As usual, Streatfeild's prose is conversational, easy and always engaging as she sweeps us through horrible theatrical lodgings, plays of varying quality, extended tours of South Africa and Australia, and always affairs at home, in the very different world of the vicarage. 

I've also been dipping into Francesca Ware's Square Haunting, which deals with the lives of five women who lived at Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, where Streatfeild lodged, and I realised that Dorothy L Sayers and Noel Streatfeild probably lived close to each other at the same time. I wonder if they ever met? Neither of them thought of themselves as writers at this time, and it's unlikely that their paths crossed then, but I wonder if they ever did?


A Question of Betrayal

I only borrowed A Question of Betrayal because it's set (partly) in Trieste, but I shouldn't really have bothered. Newbie MI6 agent Elena Standish is sent to the city in 1933 to rescue another agent, who broke her heart a few years ago, the charismatic Aiden Strother. There ensues pages of tortured conversation about treachery and back-stabbing, a convoluted plot about Nazi money-laundering through MI6 (really??), second-guessing about which side Aiden is really on, some historical detail about Dollfuss and the Austrian Fatherland Front, plotting to install Hitler as overlord. 

There is a small amount of description of Trieste's streets and canals, and the clothes sound gorgeous -- bronze-coloured evening dresses, grey silk and sequins, but I found it hard to summon up much interest in the story, despite the fascinating setting. A Question of Betrayal feels quite loosely edited; there were a few annoying inconsistencies in the plot, and a huge amount of yakking -- there was huge urgency to get Aiden out of the city as his cover was blown, and yet they spent days wandering about exchanging smouldering looks. 

A Question of Betrayal is book 2 in a five book series. Author Anne Perry died a year ago, but luckily completed this series before she left us. I'm sure there will be Elena Standish fans who are relieved about that, but I don't think I'll be seeking out the other volumes.



Penelope Lively is an author who is interested in the intersections and echoes between the present and the past, whether it's through the presence of a very real ghost (Thomas Kempe) or a kind of mass possession channelling an ancient ritual (Hagworthy) or a straightforward time-slip story (Cross Stitch).

In Astercote, though there are hints that this might be a time slip story at the beginning (the character of Goacher, who seems almost medieval at first meeting; the sound of the bells), the novel is more like Wild Hunt of Hagworthy in that historical patterns and fears begin to play out in the present day (albeit 1970, when the book was written). The village of Charlton Underwood is haunted by the lost village of Astercote, deserted after the Black Death, and when the chalice that is supposed to have protected the village is lost, people start to behave in irrational ways, barricading the village and fearing an outbreak of the plague.

It was weird to read this book so soon after the pandemic, when quarantine was a sensible response to danger and not a bizarre echo of a vanished past. These days it's irrational to disbelieve in the plague. There is more evidence of Lively's love for a good ruin, giving us not only the overgrown medieval village but also a collapsed manor house with trees growing out of it. There are many borderlines here -- between village and countryside, childhood and adulthood (intellectually disabled Goacher sits in the middle), new and old parts of the village divided by the road, as well as past and present (and is there a hint that young nurse Evadne, the children's ally, might be mixed race?)

Ultimately though, Astercote is a story of mass hysteria rather than magic, as as such, less appealing to me than Lively's other more supernatural stories.