Monthly Archives: March 2013

Australian Women Writers Challenge: January–March progress check

awwbadge_2013This year I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, opting for the Franklin level: a commitment to read ten books by Australian women writers and to review at least six. When I did a quick tally of how I’m going, I was surprised to see I’ve already reached my reading target. And what a pleasure it’s been to discover wonderful new writers, as well as catching up with titles I’ve been meaning to read for a while. With some brilliant new releases coming up (I’m looking forward to Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites) and the recent announcements of the Stella Prize shortlist and Miles Franklin longlist, there are now so many titles on my ‘to read’ list that I suspect I won’t have any trouble doubling, perhaps trebling, the reading challenge; I just have to keep reminding myself about the reviews!

Here’s my list so far:

Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Emma Chapman, How to Be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013)

Caroline Hamilton, Consumed (ABC Books, 2008) *reviewed here

Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin, 2012)

Iris Lavell, Elsewhere in Success (Fremantle Press, 2013) *reviewed here

Lynne Leonhardt, Finding Jasper (Margaret River Press, 2012) *reviewed here

Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (Fremantle Press, 2010)

Kirsty Murray, Vulture’s Gate (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Hachette, 2011)

M.L. Stedman, The Light between Oceans (Vintage, 2012)

fractured coverhowtobeagoodwife cover165133the mistake cover9781921888540_ELSEWHEREINSUCCESS_WEBSetWidth465-Coverwhatisleftoveraftervulturesgatepasttheshallowslightbetweenoceans

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Reasons to love a novel: sense of place

I love being taken somewhere else, somewhere unknown, when I read a novel—whether that journey is geographical or, in the case of historical fiction, temporal (often it’s both). I also love reliving, through a novel, the experience of a somewhere-else I do know, comparing notes with the characters—their impressions, their interactions. And there is a special thrill in finding your own place in the world you are reading about.

The following extracts give us the perceptions of characters who are strangers to a new place, and it occurs to me that the well-used expression sense of place is particularly apt in thinking about how these writers succeed in taking us there: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste.

Although I’ve not yet made it to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia—a rare cool-climate pocket of South-East Asia—or Dubrovnik or Moscow, all three are on my list of places to visit, and it’s partly thanks to these beautiful novels. I can’t help feeling that when I do, I will be unconsciously searching the streets, the clouds, for a glimpse of the Eurasian Ghislaine de Sequeira looking for herself in the space between Tudor guesthouses and her uncle’s house, or the wide-eyed traveller Rosa, or Hannah showered in ice crystals.

6509137The house clung to the curve of a hill that overlooked a valley about halfway up the highlands, between the kampongs in the dust of the foothills and the clouds. Above the clouds were the rose gardens and the tennis courts, strawberry farms and mock-Tudor guesthouses where the English expatriates spent their holidays. Ghislaine strained her eyes looking for a gap in the clouds. There, in the very spine of Malaya, on the other side of the cloud, were so many ideas of England. Standing on the verandah of Journey’s End, Ghislaine was struck by the distance between herself and these ideas. She sat and felt another wave of cold sweat wash over her. She smelled the white flowers stiff as wax and fragrant as coconut rice that grew in the bed against the verandah, but did not know their name.

—Simone Lazaroo, The Travel Writer

crewAlong by the sea is a city of stone with columns and statues and marble stairs and salt in the air. It is a walled city and the road winds around the perimeter and sugary parcels fall from the fig trees. They rot sweetly all around the limestone walls and on pink-veined marble. It is silent and a salty breeze blows.

I am facing the great white walls of Dubrovnik, a fortress-city that clings to the floor of the sea. I walk across the drawbridge, under a pale guardian saint that stands over the Gate of Pilê and into a portal of steps. This is an ancient city. I stand in a dip worn into the marble step. The stone is almost conscious, exhales its history into the soles of my feet. My breath is distinct, this is just the beginning, I will stand upon history all over Europe. I can hardly wait, the thrill of it shakes inside me.

—Donna Mazza, The Albanian

9780646496610_frontcover.jpeg.jpgGorky Park in winter, under snow. She tried to take a picture with her camera, but it was so cold the mechanism refused to work—as did the hand she had exposed for some minutes. They sat on a wooden bench in the park. It was so beautiful, so cold, that for some minutes they were wordless.

Their eyes traced the rise and fall of snow mounds in the park. Here a splash of colour thrown off by the carousel, there the stark black spindles of a tree. Two figures flashed past them, arm-in-arm, cut across the ice, then were gone in a spray of ice crystals.

K. Overman-Edmiston, The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity

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What’s made your week?

For me, it was just a box… 🙂

I hope you’ve had a great week, too!

DSCN2915

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Book review: Finding Jasper, by Lynne Leonhardt

SetWidth465-CoverI first read Lynne Leonhardt’s wonderful novel Finding Jasper some years ago, when it existed as a stack of A4 pages and had a different title. At the time, Lynne and I were both PhD candidates at Edith Cowan University, Perth. I think I had just handed in my thesis (the creative component of which became The Sinkings), and Lynne was a year behind me but well advanced with her novel. It is always a privilege to read another writer’s work in progress. I felt confident, as I read this one, that it would find a publisher. (I should add, however, that it’s damned hard to do that these days; the hard truth is that not all good manuscripts do get published. As Annabel Smith observed in an interview recently, it often it comes down to the precarious business of finding the one right person who will fall in love with the work.)

Tonight I finished reading Finding Jasper as a published novel—a fine production, Margaret River Press’s first full-length fiction title (2012).

Finding Jasper spans twenty years of the twentieth century—1945 to 1965—and is told in three discontinuous parts representing different phases in the life of its main character, Virginia (Gin). For West Australians, especially those of the baby-boomer generation/s, there is the special delight of recognition in the novel’s evocation of Perth and the South West in these years, but you don’t need to be West Australian to appreciate the richness and authenticity of the re-creation of that past—the prevailing social attitudes to women and children, ‘the Hun’ and ‘the yellow peril’, the ‘long-haired layabouts’ of the sixties; world events (such as war, postwar displacement, the unease of the Cuban crisis period, the Kennedy assassination); the sometimes cringe-inducing idiom (from ‘bally blighters’ and ‘sods’ to ‘tickety boo chums’); the accoutrements of the times, details such as fox furs and Bex, soda siphons and Craven A cigarettes.

The title character, Jasper, is the phantom of the story, a World War II fighter pilot who does not return from his last mission. Although absent, he is central to the lives of his daughter (Gin), wife (Valerie), sister (Attie) and mother (Audrey). But it is not Jasper’s novel; it belongs to these women, each of whom is materially and psychologically affected by that absence. Gin’s loss is perhaps the greatest, as she has no personal memory of her father and must rely on photographs and the stories of others.

 Images of her father were always contained in one-dimensional shapes, missing fragments in a puzzle.

Cross-generational relationships are skilfully drawn, and the casual disregard with which the self-absorbed Valerie treats Gin is often painful to read. I was interested to observe that Valerie provoked some strong reactions at a Perth Writers Festival session recently; however, I found myself feeling some empathy for her. As a homesick British war bride and new mother transplanted to rural Australia, she is a stranger in a strange land at a time of social chaos and emotional upheaval. The property ‘Grasswood’, Jasper’s pride, tended so lovingly by Attie, is remote and, in Valerie’s eyes, desolate, and there are genuine threats from the natural world (bushfire, storms) and the human too (an unhinged neighbour). I was reminded of my late mother-in-law’s stories of having arrived in Australia from London in the 1950s and being sent to a tiny town in the Wheatbelt; the aching cries of the crows were, she said, the loneliest sounds on earth.

In contrast to Valerie’s perceptions are the lyrical passages showing us ‘Grasswood’ through Gin’s eyes.

Down here [at the dam] everything was calm and peaceful and the water looked inviting. Past the oily shallows, green and gold reflections shimmered, undefined, penetrating the constantly merging brown and silver streaks that stretched across the water. Back and forth above the ripples, metallic dragonflies hovered, then darted, their wings a brilliant blur of blue.

Part 3 of the novel, set in the 1960s, charts Gin’s coming of age, and seems to mirror an escalating pace of life. Despite several heart-breaking tragedies in this section, the trajectory is ultimately hopeful, without being prescriptive, and I felt a sense of elation for Gin in the final pages.

If you were to ask me about the changes made between the manuscript I read years ago and this polished debut novel, I could not tell you. Enough time has passed for the experience of reading the work as it stands today to feel brand new. I do know that it would have been honed and redrafted many times, because that is what good writers do. And I can tell you that I was so immersed, again, in Gin’s world that it was a wrench when I had to leave it behind.

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt (Margaret River Press, 2012).

ISBN 978 0 9872180 5 6

This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.awwbadge_2013

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Reasons to love a novel: imagery

Sometimes a writer will create a mental picture so compelling that it seems, in its beauty or its depth or its tenderness, or its raw, shocking slap, to open up a neural pathway, connecting me to something never before felt, or seen, or heard. It changes the way I am wired. It writes itself on my memory. It becomes permanently implicated in all of the reasons I love to read and want to write. I always wish I’d written it myself. I always feel—as my friend Marlish Glorie said recently of Annie Proulx—grateful that such writers exist.

Here are three images I love, from books I love:

419MMJTJS6L._SY300_This is what she had seen, earlier that day: An Indian man had been climbing the bamboo scaffolding of one of the high colonial buildings, with a large mirror bound to his body by a piece of cloth. His white dhoti was flapping and his orange turban was atilt, and he hauled himself with confidence from level to precarious level—altogether a fellow who knew what he was doing—when some particular gust or alarum that carried the dimension of fate caused him to misjudge his footing and fall through the air. Because he could not release the mirror, but clutched at it as though it was a magic carpet, he landed in the midst of its utter shattering, and was speared through the chest. The quantity of blood was astounding. It spurted everywhere. But what Lucy noticed most—when she rushed close to offer assistance along with everyone else—was that the mirror continued its shiny business: its jagged shapes still held the world it existed in, and bits and pieces of sliced India still glanced on its surface. Tiny shocked faces lined along the spear, compressed there, contained, assembled as if for a lens. She simply couldn’t help herself: she thought of a photograph.

—Gail Jones, Sixty Lights

resized_9781741140651_224_297_FitSquareI would not wish for you to think that I was a nice child. I was not. Mother called me a storm child. A foundling, she said, washed up on the beach beneath the lighthouse in a storm, without so much as a scrap on my little body. She looked as if she wished she had left me there. If she cut me, she said, I’d bleed icy-cold sea water all over the floor. Once, she said that she was only waiting for the tide that would come up high enough to wash me back out into the sea where I belonged.

—Danielle Wood, The Alphabet of Light and Dark

resized_9781741755763_224_297_FitSquare‘The first Swiss to ski in Antarctica,’ Hurley said. ‘He makes it look dead easy.’

Ginger would have bowled X over had her chain been longer. She nuzzled under his arm as he untethered his skis. He scratched her back and she leaned her weight against his leg, her tongue lapping at the air.

Then the dogs pricked their ears in unison; penguins halted in their tracks. Douglas watched X smile with the sweetness of the melody rising from the hut.

Ginger laid her ears flat when X hoisted her up by her front legs and placed her paws on his chest. He stepped from side to side, one hand on his dance partner’s back, the other resting on her paw. Mertz and Ginger swayed to ‘The Shepherd’s Cradle Song’; the lullaby playing on the gramophone spilled across the bay. On each turn Ginger hopped and shuffled; with each step she licked her master’s chin.

Douglas nodded. ‘The first to dance.’

—Robyn Mundy, The Nature of Ice

Serendipitously, these are all Australian women writers, in a year when I’m taking part in the Australian Writers Women Challenge. And today is International Women’s Day.

I’d love to hear about the images that have caught your breath and you know will remain with you forever.

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