Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Book review: Letters to the End of Love, by Yvette Walker

9780702249662The difficulty in reviewing this exquisite debut novel by Yvette Walker lies in not giving away too much. I don’t mean to suggest that Letters to the End of Love is a thriller; on the contrary, it unfolds its stories languorously, dwelling in the quotidian details and rhythms of life. It is this narrative act of unfolding—letter by letter—that gives the novel its cumulative power.

Has there ever been a more perfect title, in its literal aptness and symbolic weight? Love is at the centre of each of three stories braided together through a series of letters. In one, the end of love is likely; in one, inevitable; in one, impossible, even in death. The three sets of letters are otherwise unrelated, other than for the appearance of Paul Klee’s painting Ad Marginem in each story, holding a significance for its pair of lovers, and a concomitant suggestion of the power of art itself.

The Cork letters, dated 1969, tell the story of Dmitri, an exiled Russian painter, and Caithleen, his Irish writer wife. Written, at Caithleen’s request, as daily missives to each other, these letters record the ‘ordinary things, ordinary poetry’ that make up a relationship spanning four decades. The past, in all its tenderness and pain, threads around an uncertain present, as Dmitri and Caithleen reveal intimacies and hauntings that are entwined: ‘I don’t know what comes first, love or sadness, they are perfect twin pearls to me’ (Dmitri). I adore the ‘notorious dog’ who shares itself between them and bridges (or so it seems to me) the silent spaces that the letters also seek to bridge.

The Perth letters, 2011, chart the struggling relationship between two women: stay-at-home bookseller, Grace, and her always-travelling partner Lou, part of the entourage of a musician said to be ‘the new Dylan’. Grace initiates the correspondence as an attempt at ‘something old fashioned, something possibly redundant in a world of speed and light,’ and the resulting letters range across memory and aspiration, the minutiae of (vastly different) everyday lives, the longing both women feel. Lou writes:

Loneliness. Its long white feathers drop and gather around my feet, they blow out of the bar, under the hotel doors and out into the street, into the rain. I want you here and I can’t make it happen.

The Bournemouth letters, 1948, are written by John, a retired English physician, to his lost love, David, a German artist, recalling the time they shared in Vienna before the onset of the Second World War. Prompted by the visit of a man carrying a message from David, these are deeply intimate, elliptical communications to which we bring our knowledge of the horror of those times, reading into their heartbreaking gaps.

I am in love with this writing—its scope, its language—often so profound that it forces you to pause, re-read, savour. Here’s an example (John to David):

You told me painting was working the world out. It was diving into cold, clear mountain water. Crying in the night without dreaming. Ducking a fist in the face. It was boxes of old love letters. Leaflets strewn on the streets like yellow flowers. Suitcases stacked at train stations. These things I whispered to Peter, while the fine muslin cloth that embalms me in the world unravelled itself, like so many used bandages, into an untidy mess at my feet.

The fragmentary nature of letters, their assumptions, their confessions, their allusions, creates an ideal framework in which to tell these intimate stories of ‘love as it is, in all of its strangeness.’ I hope this review has given away no more than a taste of what Yvette Walker’s ambitious, enchanting novel has to offer.

Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker (UQP, 2013)

ISBN 9780702249662

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


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Book review: Harmless, by Julienne van Loon

9781922089045_HARMLESS_WEBThe novella has been occupying my mind a lot lately, mostly because I am working on one myself. As a form of fiction that sits in an intermediary place between two others—the novel and the short story—a novella has the capacity to draw on the strengths of both and find its own kind of power.

Julienne van Loon achieves exactly that in Harmless.

The cast of characters is small, and all are people hovering beyond the edges of mainstream society. Rattuwat, an elderly Thai hotel worker, has arrived in Perth for the funeral of his only daughter, Sua. Dave, Sua’s partner, is in gaol for a half-hearted, unsuccessful armed robbery. Rattuwat is collected at the airport by Dave’s children: Ant, a young man heading in the same direction as his father, and eight-year-old Amanda, a child who has ‘no respect’. There is no sign of the grandchildren Sua had written to her parents about.

The action in the present takes place over a single day. Rattuwat and Amanda have set out to drive to Acacia Prison to visit Dave. The story begins when the car breaks down and the two of them, at Amanda’s insistence, attempt to walk to the prison. Rattuwat cannot handle the heat and the long walk; Amanda leaves him behind. Both get lost, and Dave’s allotted visiting time comes and goes.

Through this slender but compelling arc of events, Rattuwat, Amanda and Dave are put under great pressure. Each must come to terms with grief and loss; each must decide whether to give up or keep travelling.

But the present is only part of the story. Through brief glimpses of what has brought each character to this day’s events—memories, vignettes—van Loon pieces together a grim, bruising story of human vulnerability. These are novelistic techniques used in miniature, compressed to the every-word-counts imperative of the short story.

The narrative’s centre is the absent character, Sua, and it is her story that I found the most heartbreaking—perhaps because of the understated way the horror of her past is revealed. Perhaps, too, because in spite of this, she represents redemptive love, especially for Amanda.

Amanda is a beautifully realised character—difficult to warm to and at the same time impossible not to feel the greatest anxiety for. As I read, I kept remembering Rattuwat’s observation of the ‘impatient and rude’ child at Sua’s funeral:

… he couldn’t help noticing the constant stream of tears coming from the girl in the red dress. She keened and sniffled, wiping mucus all over the back of her hand. Watching her caused Rattuwat physical pain. In some way he had yet to fully understand, that little girl surely belonged to Sua.

Abandoned in different ways by her birth mother, her father and Sua, Amanda is truly lost. In a scene towards the end of the novella, she is transfixed at the sight of an injured kangaroo on the side of the road:

When the second fit began it went on and on, so that the shuddering became all there was to the world. It echoed Amanda’s shifting pulse. Shutting her eyes, blocking her ears, nothing helped. But she could not move away. She stood and stood.

It is a pivotal moment when the child’s unbearable, inexpressible helplessness is visible to her, embodied in the suffering kangaroo.

The novella’s ending is open, the fates of its characters unresolved. For Amanda, however, I sensed hope in her newly found anger, its suggestion that she will be helpless no more, and in the knowledge that she is ‘travelling with Sua in her heart’.

Ian McEwan (The New Yorker, 29 October 2012) has described the novella as ‘the perfect form of prose fiction’—‘long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter’. Harmless fully exploits this satisfying architecture, and delivers depth and weight that belie its 137 pages.

Harmless is Julienne van Loon’s third book, following on from the Vogel Award–winning novella Road Story in 2005 and the novel Beneath the Bloodwood Tree in 2008.

Harmless by Julienne van Loon (Fremantle Press, 2013)
ISBN 9781922089045

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


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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)

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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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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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