Monthly Archives: March 2014

Book review: A Very Unusual Pursuit, by Catherine Jinks

Very-Unusual-Pursuit-234x346I used to read more junior fiction when I was editing more often than I currently am. But recently I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Catherine Jinks at the Perth Writers Festival, which prompted me to read the book she was talking about: A Very Unusual Pursuit, Book 1 in the City of Orphans series. Not long after I finished it, I heard that it had won the children’s category of the 2014 Adelaide Festival Award for Literature—a well-deserved win, and congratulations to Catherine!

Set in London c. 1870, A Very Unusual Pursuit gives us a Dickensian grimness leavened by gallows humour, a world sharply divided along class lines, an unsentimental portrait of childhood in which children work or they don’t eat—and, even then, they don’t eat much, or well. There are cafflers (rag-and-bone men) and costers (street sellers), dippers (pickpockets) and toshers (sewer scavengers), lurkers (criminals) and moochers (tramps), mumpers (beggars) and shirksters (layabouts). Nearly all of them are gammoners (liars). There’s Sarah Pickles, a matron with a gang of young pickpockets doing her bidding, and she’s far more ruthless than Fagin ever was. Life is cheap in Bethnal Green.

Into this realist portrait of time and place, Jinks introduces a coexisting supernatural realm held in fear and spoken of in hushed voices, populated by creatures inhabiting dark places like chimneys, drains, privvies. Children go missing here, presumed eaten.

Enter the Go-Devil man, Alfred Bunce, who, for a few shillings and an extra charge for materials (salt), will lure out and exterminate these creatures, generically called ‘bogles’. And what does a bogler use for bait? A child. The novel’s central character is Bunce’s ten-year-old apprentice, Birdie McAdam, whose sweet, pure singing voice draws the bogles from their lairs.

The orphan Birdie is a beautifully realised, wholly believable character. Jinks arms her with a Victorian version of ‘girl power’ that would resonate strongly with young female readers especially (although the book’s appeal is wider than that), but she never breaches the boundaries of plausibility. Birdie is gutsy and forthright but always within the context of her time and place, her social position. If she says too much, if she oversteps the line of authority, the curmudgeonly Bunce hauls her back, and Birdie accepts his right to do so. But it will not stop her speaking her mind or overstepping again.

Birdie is fiercely proud of her work—‘It’s a good living, and a respectable one’—and at the same time is aware of her vulnerability: the threat of the workhouse or Sarah Pickles is always looming should anything happen to Mr Bunce.

A rogue doctor preying on the weak is at the centre of a satisfying plot, but there are subplots involving Sarah Pickles and her interest in Birdie, and a refined lady who also takes an interest in the welfare of the bogler’s girl, and offers a gentler kind of future for Birdie. Miss Eames, a student of folklore and the spirit world, dares to suggest that Bunce might try ‘scientific’ bogle-attracting methods instead of offering up little girls and hoping they’re quicker than the bogle. But Birdie is defensive and suspicious, afraid of losing her much-valued apprenticeship, and more generally, like Bunce, afraid of change.

The language of Birdie’s world is delightful, and, together with the rendering of accents and the singular grammar of the slums, is used to effect in the novel’s strong, vibrant dialogue. An example:

‘Seems to me, if they was moved, they must have come from inside the house.’

‘Or inside the privy,’ Birdie piped up…‘Mebbe that’s where it lives.’

‘But the skipper said as how he slept all night in that privy, and weren’t troubled, save by rats,’ Elijah unexpectedly volunteered.

Alfred frowned. ‘Is he a child, this moocher?’

Jinks gives us a glossary at the back of the book, although in most cases it’s easy enough to discern the meaning of unfamiliar terms through the context in which they’re used.

Catherine Jinks has won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year three times, among many other prestigious awards, and has published more than twenty books. I loved this one. If, like me, you’re a bit of a kid yourself, you might love it too.

A Very Unusual Pursuit, by Catherine Jinks (Allen & Unwin, 2013)
ISBN 978 1 74331 306 0
Junior fiction (ages 10–12—and all points beyond!)
There are two more books in this series: A Very Peculiar Plague and A Very Singular Guild.

awwbadge_2014This review counts towards my total for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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Quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis quick tutorial is on a point of grammar that often trips people up. But before I begin, I want to offer an observation and a disclaimer.

Over the years, some of the writers whose work I’ve edited have expressed embarrassment over their lack of grammar knowledge. But, as I always tell them, it’s probably more to do with failures of the education system than with any lack of aptitude on their part. From about the 1960s, education theorists decided that grammar—the structural basis of language—inhibited children’s creativity. It imposed on them too many rules. It was boring. It was hard. And so it was pretty much wiped from the curriculum. (You can read more here and here.)

Thankfully, grammar is making a comeback in today’s schools (more about that here)—too late, of course, for those generations who missed out.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who was ‘good at English’, and I’m so glad she instilled in me a few boring rules when I was in primary school. I want to emphasise that: I was lucky. And then, in high school, I learned more about English grammar by learning French and German than I had ever learned in an English class. Since then, my work as an editor has required the study of grammar, and frequent revision, although I don’t consider myself to be an expert—a term I reserve for the few editors I know who studied Latin and for whom the parsing of a sentence was a primary school exercise as familiar as reciting the times table.

So that’s the context for my posts on grammar. For greater authority than mine, there are any number of tomes available, though I confess to a fondness for one that is delightfully quirky and satisfyingly gothic: Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: the ultimate handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager, and the doomed.

And so on to today’s quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise.

 ~~~

Being able to identify the subject of a sentence is important, because the verb needs to agree in number with the subject—that is, a singular subject takes a singular verb; a plural subject takes a plural verb.

The girl is eating ice-cream. (singular subject = The girl; singular verb = is eating; object = ice-cream)

The girls are eating ice-cream. (plural subject = The girls; plural verb = are eating; object = ice-cream)

But the subjects above are simple subjects, and subjects are not always simple. They can come carrying baggage in the form of modifiers. Take a look at the following sentences. In each of these, the subject (including all of its modifying baggage) is highlighted in blue:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.

As you can see, these are complex subjects with many modifiers (words that tell us something about the subject), but the base element of the subject is The girl. She’s the one eating the ice-cream. She’s the singular subject taking the singular verb. In terms of the sentence, all these other words, all these other people, are subordinate to her, performing the following modifying roles:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one who told us about the snakes

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.
gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar, is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas; and gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, and her friends are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl is the subject of the action. Power to the girl!

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A March photo-reminder…

Don’t forget to look up at night, too…

DSCN3414

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Book review: The Memory Trap, by Andrea Goldsmith

This is my first review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My tardiness can, in part, be attributed to the delightful experience of participating in this year’s Perth Writers Festival. And it was through that participation that I had the pleasure of reading the book I’m reviewing here: Andrea Goldsmith’s seventh novel, The Memory Trap.

the_memory_trap_cover1The Memory Trap is an engrossing character-driven novel underpinned by ideas about obsession, memory and memorialisation. Four of the five main characters whose relationships are the novel’s engine are sets of siblings: brothers Ramsay and Sean, and sisters Nina and Zoe, who grow up in suburban Melbourne as next-door neighbours. Ramsay is a child prodigy pianist who is nurtured and cosseted into a musical genius; he is also a poor excuse for a human being. Sean, his acolyte, is cast aside in adolescence and becomes estranged from his brother; he grows up to be a restless, diffident man, a travel writer who spends most of his life away from home and his long-term partner, Tom. Zoe, also a musician (a cellist) but not in Ramsay’s league, loves Ramsay from the earliest days when they played duets together, and her continuing devotion allows little space in heart or mind for anyone else, including her husband and children. Only Nina, it seems, escapes the poisonous influence of Ramsay’s self-absorption and utter disregard for others, but her love for her sister and her closeness to Sean mean that she cannot escape his influence entirely. It is Nina who sets the story in motion when, following the breakdown of her marriage, a work opportunity draws her back from London to Melbourne, back to Zoe, Sean and Ramsay.

The fifth principal character in this web of relationships is Zoe’s husband, Elliot. We first see him through Nina’s eyes as a monster, tormenting Zoe with snide, vicious comments that she, bafflingly, seems able to ignore, even accept. In the first third of the novel, I felt, as Nina does, indignantly hostile towards Elliot and nonplussed at why Zoe would remain in such a destructive marriage. It is a tribute to Goldsmith’s excellent use of shifting points of view that these perceptions changed, to the point where I was able to feel empathy for Elliot.

This shift begins when Nina witnesses a scene between Zoe and Ramsay in which it is painfully clear to her and to Elliot, who is also watching, that Zoe does not love her husband and never has; that she is capable of loving only Ramsay. The story then becomes Elliot’s, and we see the monstrous armour fall away, revealing the naked pain of a man unloved by the object of his obsession.

The use of narrative shifts from character to character works very well, giving us access to interior lives and creating characters of substance (although a short section towards the end of the novel from the point of view of a minor character felt slightly jarring to me).

Some of the novel’s most profound observations about memory come via Nina, who is a much sought-after international consultant to organisations planning to establish a monument to memorialise an event or a life (a role that Goldsmith invented but seems perfectly plausible). In a conversation between Sean and Nina about her work, Sean says:

But remembrance and history aren’t the same thing. Remembrance selects from the past, it appropriates a snippet of history for a purpose, perhaps to justify a grievance or a recent act of aggression, and ignores practically everything else.

As interesting as this is in relation to the building of monuments, it also reflects the way individuals may memorialise their own past, and how obsession can be a trap born of remembering and forgetting.

The notion of entrapment encircles the novel’s two tragic obsessions—Zoe’s for Ramsay, Elliot’s for Zoe. Each is caught in the past, each driven by a memory of a perfect moment that is ultimately shown to have been one-sided, a delusion, not the stuff from which a mutually enriching relationship is possible. And the preservation of that precious memory also requires a determined kind of forgetting. There is no other way to explain Zoe’s continuing adoration of Ramsay after a harrowing scene between them in New York (I don’t want to give a spoiler) that would surely, if not erased from memory, kill all possibility of affection. But Zoe manages instead to enshrine a memory that is, like most memories, partial and selective:

In the years to come Zoe held on to those five weeks with Ramsay in New York as her sojourn in Eden. Brief and complete, that time together remained perfect, a snowdome to be taken out when life weighed in with trouble.

There are interesting ambivalences in the ending of The Memory Trap for all of its main characters—a measure of despair, some reconciliation, some hope, but not of the hearts-and-roses kind. It seems appropriate that this should be so, for sometimes the only hope we have lies in change. As Nina—arguably the novel’s strongest voice—observes on the final page:

So many things—ancient trees, books, memories, monuments—give the impression they’ll endure. But they don’t. And a marriage? You want it to be solid, you want it to be secure. But it lumbers into the future on the back of its past; a past of castles, a past of straw.

awwbadge_2014

Some people say the best endorsement for a book is the desire to track down others written by the same author. So I will just conclude by saying I’m currently reading Andrea Goldsmith’s sixth novel, Reunion (Fourth Estate, 2009), and finding it to be another intelligent, compelling study of character and relationships.

The Memory Trap by Andrea Goldsmith (Fourth Estate, 2013)
ISBN 978 0 7322 9672 8 (pbk)

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3, 3 and 3: Debi O’Hehir, visual artist

IMG_00353, 3 and 3 celebrates and showcases the lives and work of creative people by inviting them to talk about some of the things they love. This month I introduce my first international guest, Irish visual artist Debi O’Hehir.

I first met Debi in 2011, when she and I were both in residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a multi-arts residential workplace in County Monaghan, Ireland. Debi’s work—arrestingly beautiful pen and ink drawings, large bronze sculptures, and figures in wire—takes as its principal subject the horse. But, as I soon discovered, the mercurial energy and intense vulnerability evoked in Debi’s horses speak as much of the human subject who creates them as they do of her animal subject. Last year she also produced a beautiful series featuring human figures—swimmers and dancers.

Debi O’Hehir was born in England, grew up in Kinvara, County Galway, and studied at Galway College of Art. Her work is held in collections in Ireland, Europe and the United States, and she exhibits regularly at the Northcote Gallery in London, as well as at various galleries in Ireland. In 2013 she was a featured artist at the Galway Arts Festival, with a solo exhibition at Norman Villa Gallery, and also took part in a group show, Open Ground, at the Clifden Arts Festival.

She currently lives and works in a wild, remote area of County Leitrim, in the west of Ireland, where I had the great pleasure of visiting her in late 2012.

Over to Debi…

3 things I love about what I do

1. I love that I have vistas of time in which to work (years ago, I worked as a chef and had limited hours in my studio). Being a full-time artist is perilous financially, but this is more than compensated for by the lack of workaday concerns and distractions—other than attending to the needs of my beloved dog, Wilco.

Back Camera

2. I love that I am rarely bored. I am fortunate to have some facility in both sculpture and painting, so if I feel myself becoming bored or just bogged down in one medium I can change both pace and discipline. Painting for me is instantaneous; once I put the ink down on paper, it cannot be erased and must be completed in one sitting, akin to what I imagine writing a poem might be like. Sculpture is more methodical and meditative—also more time-consuming—perhaps like writing and plotting a novel. Boredom rarely strikes when you are constantly challenged, and with every painting or sculpture I attempt I am certainly challenged!

All the bright horses (ink on paper)

All the bright horses (ink on paper)

3. Solitude is my other abiding love about being an artist. It suits me well. I feel I need it creatively and, being naturally self-conscious, I never have to worry about feeling exposed or watched until I am ready to exhibit. By that time, I have already let go of the work and also of my need for solitude.

3 places I’d like to visit or revisit

1. I spent four years of my early childhood in East Anglia, England. Four years felt like a lifetime, then. My sister, father and I lived on a remote farm, where my father had found a job as farm manager. To me, it was a magical unexplored wilderness. We children had total freedom to spend all day in nature, and I harboured an ambition (due entirely to a subscription to National Geographic) to be an explorer. It was here that my fascination with horses began. A local horseman kept some of his horses on our land and I spent an enormous amount of time sitting on a fence, just watching them with an attentiveness bordering on the obsessive. My father always said that no passion you have is ever wasted, and I have used the horse as the primary subject in my work. We left East Anglia—that place both my sister and I recall as symbolising the halcyon days of our childhood—more than 40 years ago, and it is a place I long to revisit.

Pushkin (bronze)

Pushkin (bronze)

2. London was the first major city I both loved and lived in. I moved there from the west of Ireland at 25. At the time, it had everything I was excited by—music and art. In contrast to the then slow-paced Ireland, London had an electrifying energy that I found exhilarating. In its galleries I found enormous and much-needed inspiration. I also found, or was found by, a gallery. The Northcote Gallery, which is still my gallery, allowed me to take my first faltering steps towards exhibiting my work professionally. Today it provides a link to London, a place I need to experience at least once a year, travelling from the remoteness where I now live to a metropolis.

3. I would absolutely love to visit Australia. I first became aware of it through avid childhood reading of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books, then later through the novels of Patrick White and the paintings of Sydney Nolan, especially his Ned Kelly series. Since then I’ve read many Australian novelists (my recent favourites include Yvette Walker, Stephen Daisley and Amanda Curtin), and feel very drawn to visit, seduced, it seems, by Australia’s amazing literature, both past and present.

3 favourite artists

1. Marlene Dumas is an artist I feel indebted to. Like me, she uses ink and water on paper; unlike me, she makes unfailingly spectacular, seemingly effortless work that is both powerful and beautiful in its rawness and immediacy. She once said in an interview that she became a visual artist because she couldn’t play guitar and be in a rock’n’roll band, a longing I too once had!

2. I also feel indebted to Deborah Butterfield, mainly because she uses the horse as her subject. I love her welded scrap metal horse sculptures for their total lack of sentimentality, and I love that through the material she uses the beauty of the horse is present but never overwhelms the work.

3. I love the American abstract expressionist painters, and if I had to choose one today, it would be Robert Motherwell. As a figurative artist, I feel especially drawn to abstraction and feel that if I had to live with a painting long term, I would choose an abstract.

P1030697

RIP my dear friend Debi O’Hehir, d. 1 October 2015
RIP Wilco, d. 28 June 2014
For enquiries about Debi’s beautiful work, contact Gavin Lavelle, Lavelle Art Gallery, Clifden, Eire. Proceeds from sales benefit the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig,
in accordance with Debi’s wishes

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