One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

Another writer bites the dust, dead a few years and all but forgotten. Two reviews of this on GR.

I wonder if others were as irritated as was I by ALL THE BITS IN CAPS. The author was looking for a way to indicate a particular way of talking and although I have some sympathy for her chosen method, nonetheless IT DROVE ME CRAZY. Text in caps is aesthetically displeasing. Turning to a page and seeing them sporadically scattered through the text puts me in a bad mood before I’ve read a word.

Then, the protagonist is a 19 year old girl. Ugggh. You can trust me, I’ve been one, they aren’t worth writing about.

And yet, despite these obstacles to my reading pleasure and the grudging way I picked it up each sitting with it, despite the ending, it’s probably okay. I don’t know! I tried hard to be the girl – mother knows she will die while you are on the backpacking ‘trip of a lifetime’ the one that at least didn’t used to come twice, the one with no technology (pre internet story). No phone calls (expensive) your mother says, the sensible thing to say at the time, but she KNOWS SHE IS GOING TO DIE. So the girl, upon finding out what has happened, naturally sees it as something her mother did to her. WHY? WHY DID SHE DO THAT TO ME? DIE, PURPOSELY WHILE I WASN’T THERE?

In the same pre internet period I was in London, only communicating by letter to Australia on an extended stay. My mother almost died – not as in this story in a relatively controlled way where there was plenty of time to change her mind, beg her daughter to come back and share her death – but still, the decision had to be made about whether to tell me and nobody did. They decided that it wasn’t right to worry me, interrupt my trip, perhaps induce me to come back and it might be for nothing. Indeed, as it turned out it would have been for nothing. But if my mother had died, I wonder if I would have been as troublesome as Wattle Bird was, harrassing everybody over and over and over about WHY? Maybe I would have been just as angry and overwhelmed by it, unable to move on.

Of course, to make things worse, her mother, a single parent by choice, left a will which only let Cecily have the dosh if she gets married. Wow, what a thing to weigh upon a person. If you ask me, that’s worse than how she decided to die. Imagine how bad the daughter must have felt about that. A sort of denial of her life having been okay. My mother wished she’d done it different and is now trying to make sure I do too. I tried to get into those shoes to understand how that would feel.

And in the end, no truth, no revelation to explain any of this. It’s just people muddling along, one can’t even say right or wrong. And Cecily, always inclined to lie, starts hiding things in new ways from her partner, ways that signify that she also sees her own self as being something that must in part at least be secret. Much, I guess, like her mother. And I suppose we are left to understand this, that it is by acknowledging what she is, that she comes to terms with what her mother was too.

I’d love to know what other people think about this book. ARE YOU OUT THERE? TALK TO ME….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

This is an absolute stunner. It gets Australia completely right without the cheapness of St John’s shots. It nails the state of captivity of women without agency. Nora’s need to escape, and taking marriage as the way out is heartbreaking. The role of education, and even more that of reading, which I might add is big in Women in Black and also in My Brilliant Friend comes comes into play here too. To be educated is to escape the poverty and meanness of life in city Australia and country Australia as much as it may extract you from neighbourhood Naples. To forsake education in favour of marriage as one’s saviour is to court utter ruination. To read is to build one’s dreams of escape. Oh, I did this as a child and many must have had it much, much worse than I.

Unadornished truth – put both simply and exquisitely – from her discussions of sex to abortion to family relations, mothers-in-law, the house-wife reduced to pilfering coins from the wallets and purses of those who hold her in captivity. Life alone. I read that in the eighties this was a set text for high school in Melbourne. Harrowing stuff. Bitter-sweet. Sad. True. This is a book I’d like everybody to read.

Easily five stars. I confess I had not heard of Anderson, and I shall most eagerly be seeking out more.

Death in the Limelight by AE Martin

Plot-wise I can’t say I liked this as much as The Chinese Bed Mysteries, but it was still surprisingly fresh. Anybody who likes the old-fashioned pot-boiler murder mysteries should give Martin a go. As well as an engaging style, he knows his stuff, the world of his action is the world he actually lived in for many years prior to WWII, and this really makes a difference, not just because he is technically knowledgeable, but because he adds that air which comes from your subject matter being part of you.

I’ve a couple more on the shelves and I’m curious to see if they stack up. Will report.

Women in Black and The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

Given that St John is one of those Australians who leave and declines ever to come back, I was in an uneasy state whilst reading Women in Black. Is the satire affectionate or spiteful? One might assume the latter. And yet, thinking enough of it to try another, The Essence of the Thing set in the London in which she spent most of her adulthood, it is evident that she does have the necessary sympathy for her subjects to keep the reader onside.

Women in Black was her first novel and it was promising; promising enough to expect more of later work. The Essence of the Thing is generally considered her best – shortlisted for the Booker evidently is a legacy a book keeps for ever.

I thought it was a terrific brief observation on the little that most people manage to make from life. All the happy people were dull, but so is the protagonist and her partner. Not surprisingly, unhappiness makes their stock rise in the interest dept just a little, but the author doesn’t overdo it. There are no Heathcliffs and Catherines here.  As one review on GR put it:

It’s not a great story, it doesn’t have great characters, you won’t be swept up in the emotions of the read, but you’d struggle to find a more familiar retelling of a falling out, a telling closer to your own story. GR 

I don’t really understand how one could read it and not be moved.

Reading hint: don’t be put off by people comparing it with Austen, it’s nothing like it.

These two books show a writer who does her own thing and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I don’t understand why my GR friends, even the Australian ones, have apparently not given St John a whirl. Women in Black is quite a nice portrayal of how Australia was, and just for that is worth picking up.

The Chinese Bed Mysteries by AE Martin

I hope to put together a more detailed picture of AE Martin at a later date. I became curious about him because we sold an extremely rare set of The Gadfly, a short-lived Adelaide magazine put out by CJ Dennis between 1906 and 1909. Martin was the assistant editor and that was in his early twenties. Others involved included Alice Grant Rosman.

He went on to have a fascinating life in the circus, becoming a promoter who brought shows to Australia. Consequently we can have faith in his picture of the carnival freak characters he portrays in this whodunnit. It was his world.

After WWII he reinvented himself and became a writer of popular regard after winning a substantial prize offered by the Australian Women’s Weekly.

More on him anon.

As far as this one goes, it is very much set in its period, dated in every way one could imagine. That didn’t bother me at all, it was alternately charming and sociologically illuminating, but some people will hate it. 2.5 stars?

Apparently it was published first as The Bridal Bed Mysteries.

Having a gecko

I was having a gecko at the internet today because this morning at breakfast I heard an English expression that was entirely new to me. ‘Having a dekko.’

One can suppose, having discovered this expression, that gecko is rhyming slang for dekko. But what on earth is dekko rhyming slang for?

It turns out to be nothing of the kind. Phrase Finder says it is

‘Dekho’ is a Hindi word meaning ‘look’. The expression first began to be used by the British in India in the middle of the 19th century and soon migrated back home with soldiers on leave. The phrase was originally ‘have a deck’, which derived in the same way but which has now gone out of use. ‘Have a dekko’ is first found in print in January 1856 in an appropriate place – Allen’s Indian Mail, a newspaper devoted to news of India and China aimed at the families of servicemen stationed there:

The natives of the place flock round, with open mouths and straining eyes, to have a dekko.

‘Have a dekko’ was (and is) used mostly in the London area, as are two other phrases with the same ‘have a look’ meaning – ‘have a Captain Cook’ and ‘have a butchers’, which are both rhyming slang rather than foreign imports.’

Don’t say you don’t get the important stuff here.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

I thank heavens I didn’t give up on this one, having started it a couple of years ago and let it drift onto some nominal pile of ‘not sure why I’ve put this down’ books. Last week it got its second chance when I took it to Berlin figuring it would either get read, or get left. In fact my nose was scarcely out of it.

It’s a stunning achievement, Australian through and through, but utterly universal in its themes: at the risk of this being a spoiler, it is about the journey to understanding there is not us and them, only us. The book’s 25 years old – there is probably a generation of people who could learn something for our time by reading it.

Much as I loved the idiom, the settings both rural and urban, the philosophy and the story-line, for me the thing that stood out was the depiction of men and women. I was constantly reminded of The Man Who Loved Children made good, its odd flaws fixed by Winton’s empathetic touch for his struggling characters. They are all wonderful, but gosh he has a deft touch with the females. Oriel is a masterpiece, a character who should not be forgotten, the more so because she stands for the vast sea of strong, suffering women that are our history. Their deprivations made our material wealth. We walk on their graves and we should be forever mindful that we do so.

Five stars!