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Book review: Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

Personal_Effects_FNL_02_mainEdnYears ago, on the first festival panel I ever took part in, there was a question from the audience that I had heard many times before and have often heard since: Why don’t writers write about happy things, happy relationships? That first time, another panel member, the prodigiously talented Sonya Hartnett, replied: Because happiness is beige. This is not true in life, of course, but I could see Hartnett’s point when it comes to fiction. When we write narrative, we place our characters under pressure in order to explore who they are, to see what they’ll do. In fact, the narrative arc of fiction is sometimes described as: Something happens. Then things get worse.

That is not to say that fiction must deal solely in sadness, nor that happy couples are unknown in novels. When The Guardian posed the question Can happy marriage ever be interesting in books? earlier this year, readers were quick to offer examples (including a favourite of mine, Carol Shields’s Unless). But, on balance, these are less common, because when things get worse, things often get sad, too. And relationships may be the cause or the casualty of that sadness.

I thought of this when reading Personal Effects, the debut novel of Carmel Macdonald Grahame, because at the heart of this beautiful work of fiction is that rare thing: a very long, very happy marriage.

I have looked at Ross countless times and been struck by the depths of our separateness. I am not you is a thought that still has the power to enchant, easily becomes a desire to say, Come here, you. He has been the great force for tenderness, generosity, consideration and kindness in my life … The result, as it turns out, is this mutual symbiosis that never ceases to astonish me and yet is so perfectly ordinary. We have become These Two, You Two, Those Two. Ross’n’Lilith. Lilith’n’Ross. You and I. Us. We.

Personal Effects is not an extravagantly happy novel, however. There is joy in abundance, but grief, too, as the novel’s narrator, Lilith, meditates on the pushes and pulls, the ordinary and extraordinary, in the life of an individual, a relationship, a family.

Lilith, a ceramic artist and former teacher, and Ross, a geologist, are middle-aged empty-nesters whose two adult daughters are making their own way in the world. And now they’re faced with the prospect of, once again, relocating overseas because of the exigencies of Ross’s work in the resources industry. This latest international move is a return—to Calgary, Canada, where they lived many years before.

The narrative progression of the novel is non-linear and almost tidal in the way it moves in slow swells and glancing ripples, gathering in meaning and depth. Things happen, but the circuitous structure means that crucial events from the past, events that have shaped Lilith, are withheld, to be woven into the story when she finds the words to relate them. This sense of holding back is not merely narrative, either; Lilith knows that survival sometimes depends on things being hidden:

You live in an intimate regime with a man you love and your two daughters, but not even they need to know everything there is to know about you. Not everything can be told.

There is artistry here, in the melding of substance and form.

The quote above hints at ambivalences that the neat term ‘happy marriage’ cannot accommodate. Moving overseas for Ross’s work means the sacrifice of Lilith’s teaching career. Suddenly she is ‘a fully fledged dependent’. In an impressive scene showing a gender divide between two people bound together by love, history and respect, Lilith says:

I have no money in my purse and no prospect of putting any there. You have money in your wallet all the time. Money in this day and age is what keeps body and soul together, and now I have to ask you for it. I have to ask.

The final italicised ask comes as a cry, a humiliation, a protest at frayings in the fabric of a relationship between equals. Such cries can destroy or save, and this one brings for Lilith the realisation that ‘I have to find other, unexpected ways of being independent.’

The Pinnacles

The Pinnacles

One of the pleasures of the novel comes from its descriptions of place—Lilith’s childhood home of Cervantes (a small coastal town of Western Australia about 200 kilometres north of Perth, famous for its proximity to the unique limestone formations known as The Pinnacles), Rottnest Island (a holiday island off Perth with a dark history) and wintry Calgary—and the association of place with notions of home and belonging as Lilith contemplates yet another relocation overseas. As she observes, memories cannot be uncoupled from place:

… everything that happens, happens somewhere, a self-evident fact that strikes me as significant and overlooked. Memories insist on staging themselves, so events, moments, periods of a life come back with their mise en scène.

An image that is introduced early in the novel (page 8) is of the mosaic:

Spode_Bl_Room_Background_Cropped-758x749Pique assiette mosaics, for example, are a mode of recomposition. Like fabric applied to a quilt, pieces of a grandmother’s broken cup, say, can be arranged and rearranged, each bringing its particular accidental shape to the whole and determining form. You take damage and convert it into something that will differently endure. You take what is old and preserve it. You revel in disparity as much as harmony. You transform, reconfigure, complete … You take the past and send it, refashioned into the future.

This evocative passage serves as metaphor for the non-linear structure already discussed, and feels apt coming from Lilith the ceramicist. But the full weight, the richness, of the image is not realised until near the end—and I won’t spoil the impact of that discovery by saying any more here.

Personal Effects is a novel to savour, to rest face-down on the arm of your chair for a pause to allow reflection on what you’ve just read, to hug because it has articulated something true and special and perfect.

Carmel Macdonald Grahame was once my writing tutor, and many years ago she and I belonged to a small writing group for a time, and in both these capacities she taught me infinitely valuable lessons about writing. In Personal Effects, she has continued the lesson.

Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame (UWA Publishing, 2014)
ISBN 978 1 74258 534 5
You can read an excellent review by Lisa Hill here and Annabel Smith’s Q&A with Carmel Macdonald Grahame here.

awwbadge_2014This is my third review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

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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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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.

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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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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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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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