Here is a second speech from 2016, made on the delightful occasion of the launch of Rashida Murphy’s novel The Historian’s Daughter (UWA Publishing) last August. I decided not to edit out my concluding comments—a few tips on how readers can help books make their way in the world—as people often ask me about this…
The Historian’s Daughter is a special book. First, and most importantly, it is a beautifully written, page-turning, multilayered novel with engaging characters and something worthwhile to say.
Second, it is a debut novel, which always occasions a particular kind of interest, because reviewers, the media, bookshops, readers are not only wondering What story do we have here? but also Who do we have here?
Third, this book started its life as a PhD. It has been loved and laboured over, even cried over, throughout many years and it has been the centre of its writer’s life through all that time. It has jumped through many hoops, been read by many eyes, been critiqued and reviewed and examined and, as a thesis, honoured with the Magdalena Prize for feminist writing.
And speaking of honours… The Historian’s Daughter made the shortlist of an international award for an unpublished manuscript, the Dundee International Book Prize—no small achievement.
And finally, it caught the discerning eye of Terri-ann White, and has found for itself a good match for publication.
The Historian’s Daughter had me hooked from the very first page, which consists of only one sentence: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. Is there a person alive who would not immediately want to know what is this story? Who is this he who seems to have some power and an expectation that what he wants is what will come to pass? And, especially, who is this narrator who is defying that voice?
Hannah is the narrator. I love her, and I think you will too. She comes to us first as a little girl, a daughter, a sister, a sharp observer of all around her, growing up in India in a ramshackle house with too many windows and women—and, drawing on a rich literary image, a madwoman in the attic. It is ruled equally, and unequally, by her father, The Historian, and her mother, The Magician, and overrun by largely unpleasant aunties who remind me of a flock of nasty budgies—Hannah describes them more musically as dervishes with their dusters and dupattas and constant chatter who fill the house like smoke on a winter’s day. Hannah adores her older sister Gloria, who smells of honey, and tolerates her brothers, who are named Clive and Warren after two of the conquering thugs celebrated in a set of ornate books in her father’s library called The English Conquistadors of India.
The uneasy equilibrium of young Hannah’s world is disrupted when a stranger arrives, one of her mother’s strays, and a revolution in Iran strands him in India. These events, and the secrets and lies threaded through the weave of the family, lead to its fragmentation, and by the time we meet Hannah as a young woman in the second part of the novel she has taken a life-changing journey to Australia not of her choosing and is soon to embark on another, more dangerous, one to Iran that is.
I have been skimming across a brilliant surface of plot and relationships and family, a seemingly domestic sphere, but The Historian’s Daughter has depths and layers that resist any attempt to classify it. It is indeed a feminist novel. Hannah’s childhood world is patriarchal, where women’s voices are silenced within the family and within society. It is also post-colonial, portraying an India that bears the traces and the consequences of a most complex colonial past. And the novel reaches into a world where extremism and violence can break from the margins and make a refugee of anyone. The novel is written with great compassion and intelligence, with a sensibility that the personal is political. It reminds us that notions of self and other, home and elsewhere, centre and margin, are always contingent—and what a timely reminder that seems to be in the world we live in now.
Perhaps the things that shine most brightly for me are the great heart of this novel, its hopefulness, the empathy and compassion it has for its flawed and endearing human characters. The first of two short pieces I’d like to read for you is a beautifully realised little childhood portrait of Hannah and Gloria, with a glimmer of the humour that can also be found in the writing:
It was a quiet afternoon. Most of the aunties and cousins were out on mysterious errands, and our brothers were playing badminton outside. They were supposed to be looking after us. The Magician was busy with the tailor all day, measuring the windows for summer curtains. After that, we were going to be measured for new dresses. Gloria was in a dilemma. She wanted new clothes but she couldn’t stand the tailor. Abdul Master was a ratty little man with greasy hair, brown teeth and a leery laugh. The Magician thought he was worth his weight in gold. He raised our arms and circled our bodies with measuring tape, brushing his fingers over our chests and hips and stomachs while coughing up phlegm. He had sour breath and stained fingernails. I didn’t like him either, but reckoned it was a small price to pay once a year for clothes that hadn’t been previously worn by Gloria. We dawdled in the library with Grandpa Billy and his conquistadors, and I gathered up old newspapers to spread under our feet before the toe-painting ritual. These were rare, these moments alone with Gloria, without her noisy friends, without the Magician or the Historian, without the aunties calling us unfortunate half-breeds. Here were were—the two of us.
In the second piece, just a short paragraph, we fast-forward to Australia, where Hannah has just moved in with the man she loves, Gabriel. I love it for its lyrical qualities, its gentle restraint, and the sensory nature of the prose:
Afterwards, in the quickening chill of early winter, we made coffee and sat on the verandah with an open packet of Tim Tams resting on my lap. The garden smelled of crushed peppermint and chocolate. White cockatoos flew past the marri trees, their calls fading as they disappeared over the crest of the hill. The sky glowed briefly before plunging us into a moonless night. Silence then, except for the crickets, cidadas and butcherbirds.
You can tell, can’t you, that Rashida is also a poet.
The Historian’s Daughter deserves to be recognised and discussed and intelligently reviewed. I hope that it finds a very wide readership. And it struck me that, in a gathering of friends and family and well-wishers keen and willing to help out, I could give you a few suggestions on how you can do just that.
Obviously, please buy many copies tonight, and have them signed. But there is more. Talk about the book, recommend it to the readers you know—the good people of the world, as I like to think of them. Make sure your local library has copies and that your local bookshop orders it in and that it’s displayed prominently on their shelves. When you do see it on a shelf, take an ‘in the wild’ photo and post it on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. If you belong to a book club, consider choosing it when your turn comes up next, and you might even be able to persuade the author to visit. If you’re on Goodreads, post a review, even if it’s only a few words. If you have a blog, or write reviews, or take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge or any other reading challenge, please know that whatever attention you choose to focus on this book will make a difference, because genuine enthusiasm and engagement always do, and those of us who write are immensely grateful for it.
Rashida talks about The Historian’s Daughter here