Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Book review: Elsewhere in Success, by Iris Lavell

9781921888540_ELSEWHEREINSUCCESS_WEBElsewhere in Success begins with a little vignette: Harry and Louisa hear that a previous owner of their suburban house buried a lawnmower in the back garden, and Harry decides to dig it up. Louisa would rather he didn’t. It’s a bizarre and telling image. The notion of burying is richly suggestive of drama and mystery—buried bodies, buried secrets—and here the item being dug up is that terribly ordinary suburban artefact, the lawnmower. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the territory of this novel. For the idea that we can never tell what lies beneath the surface of ordinary lives, ordinary hopes and dreams, ordinary quotidian existence. And for the drama of the ordinary itself.

Harry and Louisa are a baby-boomer couple who come together in middle life, both of them carrying the baggage of previous relationships. It is a surprising and hopeful merging of two lives, but the relationship is derailed in its infancy by the death of Louisa’s son, Tom, which leaves her struggling with grief and depression. Now, some years later, they are unsure of what they want and what the future holds for them.

Lavell, a debut novelist and a psychologist, handles the darker themes of the novel well. I found it hard to read a couple of chilling scenes involving domestic violence and the debasement of women, and it is the mark of a fine writer that these episodes derive their power through restraint, through under-statement.

‘I love you,’ he’d say, while she cowered on the floor, humiliated, bleeding. The kids always seemed to be somewhere else, in their rooms asleep. She would try to be damaged quietly so she didn’t wake them up.

Male violence circles this novel, threading through the lives of several characters and across generations in the form of abusive husbands and fathers, war, and casual cruelty.

This is not, however, an overwhelmingly dark novel. There is a lot of humour to be enjoyed, and the characters’ ability to laugh at themselves is endearing. Louisa’s wry, gentle humour is a foil to Harry’s—brash, obvious and often infantile. As he observes at a neighbourhood get-together:

There is plenty of rough banter, accompanied by laughter, a common language of what it is that constitutes acceptable humour. It’s hard-hitting but never nasty. Life’s not easy but with loud enough laughter you can get through just about everything.

Well, maybe!

Elsewhere in Success is a gentle, compassionate, funny novel that takes us on a journey almost without leaving the house. It is a contemporary story underscored by the grief of loss and the grief of ageing. It reminds us that ‘ordinary’ does not mean ‘simple’—or perhaps just that there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

Elsewhere in Success, by Iris Lavell (Fremantle Press, 2013)

ISBN 9781921888540

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

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Book review: Consumed, by Caroline Hamilton

Consumed, Caroline Hamilton’s first novel, is an assault on the senses—not just taste but smell, texture, sound, sight. Its territory is kitchens and kitchen gardens, markets, restaurants, gourmet stores, farms. Cellars, too, although by the time you reach those scenes, you are in the thrall of a new kind of territory, one best left for readers to discover for themselves.165133

The novel is driven by a first-person voice, a present-tense consciousness: the voice of Amelia, a lone, food-obsessed soul hungering for more than just food, with a singular view of the world and a penchant for the absurd. I wondered at first whether she has Asperger’s but she is too complex a character to wear such an easy label.

Hamilton’s prose draws readers in from the first paragraph: a series of direct questions that seduce us with chocolate frosting and announce Amelia as no ordinary narrator. Descriptions of food are sometimes sumptuous and sensuous, sometimes raw and visceral, sometimes just charming; for example, Amelia’s observation of pig hocks lined up on a store counter for a difficult-to-please customer:

ankles touching, feet together, like debutantes expectantly waiting their turn to dance.

In her search for the secret ingredient in a perfect sauerkraut, Amelia finds Katarina, a feisty elderly Polish woman who becomes her mentor and brings light, love and purpose to Amelia’s solitary life. Katarina teaches her that food is life, and both require death, and the scenes involving the backyard killing of a chicken and, later, on Gianni’s pig farm are uncomfortable to read, as indeed they should be.

The death of Katarina pivots the story completely. Amelia’s grief is intense and deeply affecting, and then becomes shocking, and the meaning of stray threads of suggestion are suddenly clear, revealing the story of Amelia’s destiny that they have been weaving. At this point, the pace accelerates, racing towards Amelia’s outrageous moment of triumph—something I think I’m unlikely ever to forget!

Consumed draws on myths involving the strength of women: different versions of Vassalissa the Brave, and Lilith in the Garden of Eden. It is also laced with recipes and lavish devotions to food that will make you hungry as you read.

This ambitious novel won the 2008 FAW Christina Stead Award for Fiction. I found it compelling, quirky and original.

Consumed by Caroline Hamilton (ABC Books, 2008)

ISBN 9780733320910

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

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Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

awwbadge_2013I’m signing up for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge, which supports and promotes books by Australian women. There are various levels for the challenge, and you can participate as a reader/reviewer, or just as a reader. I’ve opted for the ‘Franklin’ level, with a target of reading at least 10 books by Australian women during the year and reviewing at least six.

I didn’t participate formally in the 2012 challenge, but here are some of the books by Australian women writers that I read in 2012 (* indicates reviewed for The West Australian). Each one gave me something to think about—and taught me something about writing.

A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter

A Dissection of Murder by Felicity Young

All that I Am by Anna Funder

An Unknown Sky by Susan Midalia

Animal People by Charlotte Wood

Black Cow by Magdalena Ball

Black Jack Anderson by Elaine Forrestal

Creepy & Maud by Dianne Touchell

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Forecast: Turbulence by Janette Turner-Hospital

If I Should Lose You by Natasha Lester

Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy

Losing It by Julia Lawrinson*

Shallow Breath by Sara Foster

Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe*

The Bookshop on Jacaranda Street by Marlish Glorie

Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith

9781922089144_WHISKYCHARLIEFOXTROT_WEBI suppose I could also describe Whisky Charlie Foxtrot as ‘reviewed’, as I wrote the back-cover endorsement to this fabulous novel.

I look forward to all this new year will bring from Australian women writers.

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