‘ A useful reminder that the system is fallible’ – Rough Justice: True Crime by Robin Bowles

rough-justiceThis is a challenging look at the criminal justice system. At a time when governments have responded to the fear of terrorism with extreme measures, it is a useful reminder that the system is fallible. Julian Burnside QC, quoted on the cover of Rough Justice

I picked up my copy of Rough Justice by Robin Bowles through a discount online bookstore over a year ago and it has been sitting on my shelves waiting for a moment when I had the time and inclination to pick it up. That moment came this week when I tripped and gashed my knee, forcing me to take time off. What better way to recover from an injury than to read. As I’m currently writing a novel which involves crime, the “true crime” genre appeals to me: I welcome any insights I can glean into the workings of police, investigative journalists, prosecutors and defence lawyers, as well as the courts, as background material for my fiction. Rough Justice provides plenty of such insights.

Bowles’ book is subtitled “Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts” and it certainly raises more questions than it answers. It discusses eight cases, three in Victoria, one each in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. Some of the cases are well known, including that of Bradley Murdoch, convicted of murdering British backpacker Peter Falconio; and of Greg Domaszewicz, who, despite having been acquitted of murdering toddler Jaidyn Leskie, subsequently had a coronial finding against him. Other cases are less well known, at least to me. In each case, the defendants have protested their innocence. Several have been exonerated; others are still fighting for “justice” – or, at least, to clear their names.

But what is “justice”? That’s the real unanswered question this book poses.

Bowles looks at the processes behind these cases and reveals grave flaws in the judicial system. Her discussion identifies various points at which an innocent person can be unjustly convicted, including incompetence in how evidence is gathered or interpreted, possible police corruption and coercion of witnesses, bias created in the minds of both witnesses and potential jurors by the media, and flawed judicial proceedings. The problems, she suggests, come from our adversarial system which demands two sides play off against one another; the winner, she implies, is often the side with the deepest pockets. Thus wealth, privilege and class – or the lack of these – ensure not a “fair” trial, but what can be successfully argued in court, a recipe for creating an underclass who risk being incarcerated simply because they are too poor to mount a convincing defence.

Readers of reviews on my blog may know of my ambivalence to the fiction of Caroline Overington. Despite being riveted by Overington’s tales, I’m left with an uneasy feeling resulting from a forced encounter with moral ambiguity. I experience something similar when reading Bowles’ book. In her efforts to tell two (or more) sides of the story, Bowles, I feel, manipulates me; it’s as if I’m being drawn to form one opinion, only for the facts subsequently to be presented in an equally convincing, sometimes opposite way. It’s a clever ploy, as it reinforces the book’s theme and underlines the problems faced by police, investigators, jurors and judges in deciding what is “true”. Often, it appears to come down to, not what is true but what is “believable”, and that is restricted by the evidence known or presented at any one time.

I’m also made uneasy by the subtext about class, derived by way of language. In looking for information about these cases online, I came across a thread on a website where people (the “public”) were giving their opinions on the Jaidyn Leskie murder. One commentator mentioned how so many of these sensational cases involve communities where people have names that are spelled with “yn”, instead of (presumably upper-class) names like “Jeremy”. This (somewhat bizarre) comment made me think. Both Favel Parrett in Past the Shallows and Tara June Winch in Swallow the Air write about poor, uneducated protagonists; but both authors depict these protagonists’ worlds using language which is richly poetic. The authors’ beautiful prose has the effect of dignifying the poverty and tragedy of their characters’ lives. Both Bowles and Overington, by contrast, use plain language – a “journalistic” style – combined with, at times, the idioms consistent with the class, background and education of the people they write about; this plainness – and, at times, crudeness – does nothing to disguise the poverty of these people’s lives and values. As readers, we’re forced into an uncomfortable position. Are we meant to judge or empathise with these people? Do we stand above, or do we consider “them” to be our equals?

Bowles weighs down, in my view, on the side of empathy for the defendants, not because she demonstrates their innocence or virtue, but because she shows how these people – guilty or innocent – are equally screwed by the system. At the same time, she shows how they’re equally capable of screwing the system in return – and so is she. At one point, she describes how Denis Tanner, a man who was found by a coroner to have shot his sister-in-law, had an entirely separate charge of assault brought against him. Bowles writes:

At one point, he was charged with whacking a photojournalist in the testicles with his heavy briefcase as he left the coroner’s court. He was acquitted because a visit by the Magistrate’s Court to the scene of the alleged ‘crime’ showed that the police witness who said he saw the whole thing couldn’t have seen anything from his office because of a tree outside his window. They didn’t ask me, though. I saw everything! (161)

What did Bowles see? She doesn’t state. But “everything” could hardly be “nothing”. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for Bowles, in this instance at least, seeming impartiality and actual complicity are one and the same thing. It could be a metaphor for the equally fraught nature of the Australian justice system. Perhaps it was intended to be.

~

Author: Robin Bowles
Title: Rough Justice: Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts
Publisher: The Five Mile Press
Date: 2007
ISBN: 9781741786606

This review counts towards both the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and the 2014 Aussie Author Challenge.

Dreams, books and weird experiences

Do you believe in psychic phenomena?

I was at a reunion of old school friends yesterday and I mentioned how, years ago, I went to India with my mum and sister, and stayed in a hotel in Agra near the Taj Mahal. One of the services promoted there was a reading with a psychic, and my sister and I promptly booked into a session. At breakfast, just before our appointment, I told my sister about a friend whose boyfriend was “jealous and possessive”. Minutes later, the psychic used those same words. “You’re going to marry someone who is jealous and possessive.”

I went away after listening to all he had to say, impressed but sceptical. The man had a gift. How else could he have lifted that phrase from my mind? But his predictions couldn’t be trusted. He’d mentioned nothing about me being a writer, for instance, which everyone knew was my burning goal. He’d thought I was a doctor or a teacher. With a little prompting, he mentioned that writing would figure in my life, in some capacity. But I was hoping for more than that.

Years later, having obtained my PhD (the doctor part) and having derived most of my paid work as a teacher (despite never wanting to teach), I look back at that exchange and wonder. Have I unconsciously fulfilled the destiny that was predicted for me, despite not wanting to? I remember Oedipus.

In drafting several novels, I’ve often had what I can call minor psychic experiences. A lot of novelists have them, apparently. I’ll choose a character’s name and invent a place, only to discover such persons and places really exist. Once, when I was in London, I had the sudden urge to go to an exhibition at the British Library, only to discover a sign on the first exhibit included the name of my character.

Weird, but rather pointless coincidences.

Now I’m drafting a novel in which dreams figure prominently. I also have trouble sleeping. Last night, I woke up in the early hours and downloaded a podcast from Radio National, a repeat of the Law Report. It’s about children in the US who get mandatory sentences of life in prison, and not just for homicide, but also burglary. (Source)

After finally getting back to sleep, my partner woke me up this morning by bringing me a coffee. The kind gesture interrupted a library caper dream. In it, I was an investigator, looking into the disappearances of rare and valuable books from a library collection. I was just about to let a sweet old couple drive off, when I noticed they had a stack of rare books on the floor of their car. I realised they were stealing the books because the library couldn’t be trusted to look after them.

Instead of dobbing the couple in, I asked if they had taken a particular title. They had. I said, if they’d give me that book, I’d let them go. (I’d become complicit in their conspiracy.)

In came my partner with the coffee, and I woke up from the dream. I tried to remember the details, particularly which book the old couple had given me, and all I could think of was the name “Thomas More” and the word “justice”. That was enough for me to Google and this is what I found:

I must say, extreme justice is an extreme injury: For we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital, nor of that opinion of the Stoics that makes all crimes equal; as if there were no difference to be made between the killing a man and the taking his purse, between which, if we examine things impartially, there is no likeness nor proportion. (Source)
Thomas More

Thomas More

The above quote is from Thomas More’s Utopia, a book I’ve never read. I don’t know whether the podcast mentioned it. Possibly. But I fell asleep. What interests me is not just the applicability of More’s thinking to the situation faced by so many (mostly underprivileged) juveniles in the US (although it’s life imprisonment, not the death penalty they face). I’m also interested in how dreams can tell us things we don’t know we know, make connections that our waking minds struggle to make. Maybe dreams draw on things we’ve heard or read; maybe we draw on a collective unconscious. I don’t know. But when I dream about books, about justice, and make connections such as those described above, I tell myself, it doesn’t matter if I ever get published as a writer. I’m playing my part in something wonderful and mysterious, human consciousness, and that’s enough for me.

~
If you’re interested, Bryan Stevenson was the person interviewed for that podcast. He is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative @eji_org.

On not writing reviews

Twice in the past month I’ve heard writers criticise reviewers for not writing proper reviews. “Some reviewers take a book and use it as a launching pad to write whatever they want,” one complained over lunch.

I kept my mouth shut.

A day or so later, someone emailed me with a list of questions about the current state of on- and off-line reviewing. As I thought about what to answer, I realised one of the aspects I enjoy most about writing reviews online is the freedom to write what I want about a book. I like to write reflections, discussions, musings – and I like to read them, too. I like it when a reviewer gets personal, when s/he admits to feeling provoked, challenged, crushed and remade by a book. Or awed. Or speechless. Or bored.

But are such pieces reviews?

This question has been bugging me, and might account for why I’ve been reading far more than I’ve been posting reviews lately (or writing). The truth is, I’m not sure I want to write “reviews”. Instead, I want to share my experience. I want to give you a glimpse of how I’ve allowed some books to nest inside me, to brood until something cracks, until I feel a stab that tells me: yes, this book has life; this book will take flight in words, inspired-by-this-author musings – or fall, silent.

Whether others catch a glimpse of those words once they’re out and away, whether my impressions flash bright and beautiful, flicker in the shadows or hide invisible, doesn’t matter. The book lives on because it’s helped make me who I am.

So forgive my silence while words brood.

In the meantime, here are some of the books nesting inside me (a few have been there a while):

Do you have books with wings?

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton – the comfort of popular fiction and the lure of narcissism

The cover blurb of The Secret Keeper states:

1961: On a sweltering summer’s day, while her family picnics by the stream on their Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy called Billy, a move to London, and the bright future she can’t wait to seize. But before the idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds – Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy – who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatefully entwined.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is an engaging story that’s easy to read. There were no surprises for me at the end. The clues to the story’s “twists” were laid carefully for any reader who knew this wasn’t going to end in disappointment. For much of the story the reader is led to expect the novel’s message will be about forgiveness and atonement, about “second chances”, spurred on by a mystery: one of the central characters, the present-day actress Laurel, seeks to know explain her mother Dorothy’s seemingly heinous behaviour when she was a teenager. But it doesn’t fully address the question of evil, unless evil can be equated with the consequences of magical thinking in childhood when the child doesn’t mature successfully.

That’s what interests me about the book, its psychological take on its characters.

In between reading, I also listened to two discussions on Radio National’s Counterpoint program. A quick aside: Counterpoint’s new presenter, Amanda Vanstone, the ex-Howard government Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, consistently used the universal “man” in her discussion, swapping to “humanity” only when she referred to an actual woman. To me, this suggests the depth of what women face with internalised gender bias: we’re not even aware it exists, let alone its ramifications, or possible impact on what, as girls and women, we might expect of ourselves; how we can mature to find security, safety, a sense of belonging and self-esteem without falling back on stereotypical notions of “a woman’s place”, or what makes a “good woman”. These themes are also important to The Secret Keeper.

The first discussion I listened to was with writer R Jay Magill Junior on sincerity. This touched on the question of what we like and admire about people – especially politicians – and how this may differ from their skills in leadership or ability to get a job done. It acknowledged the gap between what we want to think about ourselves and our heroes – that we’re essentially good people – and the political and social realities. Essentially, it presented the old dilemma: how can we have leaders who can make tough decisions when the solutions to problems aren’t always in accord with notions of decency, freedom, altruism and fairness; how can such leaders remain sympathetic in the eyes of an electorate? The result is spin, a seemingly necessary duplicity which caters to both expectations of the audience, the voters.

This might seem a long way from The Secret Keeper and the actions of three strangers in war-torn London, but it’s not: central to the novel is the question of narcissism – or pathological self-absorption – and how it arises as a defence mechanism as a result of trauma; and empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes and anticipate or intuit how they might feel in any given situation.

Such issues are also touched on in the second discussion I listened to, one with psychiatrist Dr George Henry on what makes a good person. Vanstone introduces the discussion by saying how quiet women are often judged as “good”, while “noisy” women – like her, she says – are judged to be “difficult”: “A forcefully spoken man is regarded as strong and a forcefully spoken woman is regarded as aggressive.” But what about the “quiet ones”? she asks. Are they always “good people”?

This dualism is depicted in The Secret Keeper. Servant girl Dorothy is vivacious, outgoing, always good for a laugh and a good time; she is also self-serving, duplicitous and self-deluded. Socialite Vivien is quiet, good-natured, and passive to the point of being a victim. Both are dreamers; both have suffered trauma and loss. The question the novel appears to pose is this: can Dorothy, a perpetrator, be redeemed and rewarded with happiness, family, sufficient wealth and peace of mind, despite her crimes? Crucially, can she, as she approaches the end of her life, be forgiven by her daughter?

It’s an interesting question, and one the novel never answers. Instead, by the wonderful sleight-of-hand that is fiction, we find ourselves in an alternative narrative, one of “Virtue, Patience and Courage Rewarded”. Essentially, we’re snatched away from considering a tough question about what humans are capable of, and what justice, forgiveness, atonement and redemption may really involve, and we’re given spin. Without further thought, the result for the reader could be the same, with our prejudices reinforced. People like “us” are okay; people like “them”, we don’t have to worry about: the allure and comfort of popular fiction.

Recently on Twitter was a discussion which spilled over from a convention on genre fiction held in Sydney; it was about whether the term “literary” is a separate genre. One of the key attributes of literary fiction, suggested one author, is a “realism” which is often equated with pessimism. The key to popular fiction, I heard some time ago, is “aspiration”: the world not as it is, but what we might hope it to be; not how others are, but how we would like them to be; not how we ourselves are, but what we’d like to believe ourselves to be.

There is a conundrum here that The Secret Keeper identifies. Aspirational thinking is symptomatic of the very narcissism and lack of empathy which results in tragic consequences in the novel. Could our craving for popular fiction be symptomatic of a similar kind of pathology? A denial about ourselves and our shortcomings, a recreation of the world as we would have it, not as it is?

Perhaps. But even popular fiction books like The Secret Keeper can be self-referential enough to shed light on this topic. It’s not all spin.

In The Secret Keeper Morton identifies the need for escape into fantasy as a need stemming from trauma and loss. It’s a self-protective mechanism, she shows, and it takes inner strength, courage and hope to break free from. In order to mature into a healthy, empathic adult, one needs conditions for such inner strength to thrive: friendship and love, safe shelter and nourishment, worthwhile employment, humour and imagination, and someone to believe in us, other- as well as self-esteem. When such needs aren’t met – or aren’t perceived as being met by the narcissistic individual – it’s hard to be virtuous.

It’s a gentle take on humanity and a page-turning read.

~

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending a copy. (What a pleasure to read a beautiful, hard-bound book with a ribbon bookmark.)

This review counts as 11/12 for my Aussie Author Challenge 2012 and as part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. The Secret Keeper has been reviewed for the challenge by Jon Page at Bite the Book and Shelleyrae at Book’d Out.

The Secret Keeper
Allen & Unwin 2012
ISBN: 9781742374376

War, history and Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire: An Australian book for this time

Warning: this is going to be another of those part-review, part ramble posts, but for some books – some powerful books, especially – that’s the only kind I can manage.

One of my earliest memories is of a dream I had when I was four or five. My brothers and sisters and I – the youngest of the group – were huddled in our lounge room, listening to a story told by a man who read from a giant nursery tale book. He was dressed like a pilgrim with a tall black hat, and he sat beside a magnificent white goose.

In the dream, instead of listening to the story, I was distracted by a flake of paint that fell from the wall behind the storyteller. Before long a crack appeared in the plaster and grew steadily wider, until I could see through the wall to the other side. Beyond was a man wearing jungle fatigues and a helmet; he was jabbing at the barrier with a bayonet attached to a rifle, widening the crack with each thrust. Behind him other men stole through trees to the muffled rat-a-tat of gunfire.

When the hole was finally big enough to draw the others’ attention and it became clear the soldier intended to break through the wall, panic set in. The storyteller grabbed my older sister, climbed onto the goose and flew off into a golden sunset, while the rest of us ran into the bedroom and hid under a bed. Lying there, next to my brother, my pulse booming in my ears, I tried not to breathe. A steady thump, thump, thump brought the soldier closer until his boots came into view, arm’s reach away.

This dream – nightmare – came to me in the mid-sixties, when my eldest brother was a few short years away from the ballot that might have sent him to Vietnam. Our family was no stranger to war; my father had been on a ship headed for New Guinea in 1945 when that war ended; his father had been in France during the First World War; but it hadn’t touched me personally, or not in a way I could understand then. We had no television, just an old “radiogram” which we kids would gather round to listen to Kindergarten On the Air. Nevertheless, war – the Vietnam war, in particular – entered via some crack into my world, creating an impression of horror that still remains vivid. Yet until reading Emily Maguire’s Fishing For Tigers, I hadn’t ever really considered how that war had helped to shape my hopes and fears, let alone its role in Australia’s history, or what it might mean for a storyteller in the twenty-first century.

Reading Fishing For Tigers challenged my illusion of distance from Vietnam in a number of powerful ways.

The novel tells the story of an Australian woman in her mid thirties who has made Hanoi her home. Mischa, an editor whose work includes stories about strong women in Vietnam’s mythology and history, is an escapee from an abusive (incidentally, American) husband. Her expat friend, Matthew, has an 18 year-old Australian-Vietnamese son, Cal, who comes to visit. Soon Mischa, starved for intimacy and a sense of belonging, is having an affair with Cal.

The tale is about lust and betrayal, belonging and the meaning of home and family. It’s about expats living in Vietnam, of dislocation and clashing cultures. It’s about trauma and abuse creating the conditions for more trauma and abuse. It’s also, obliquely, about war and its place in history, how it changes lives and nations. Finally, it’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and allow to be told about us. Emotionally, I found it disturbing, the depiction of the older women/younger man relationship being only one of its unsettling scenarios. It was particularly challenging and provocative to read about a woman with whom I identified but couldn’t wholly sympathise with, who behaves badly and refuses to conform to gender stereotypes (and who has been judged harshly by some GoodReads reviewers for that reason).

Most powerfully, however, the novel created for me a crack in the wall of my safe, cultural certainties. It gave me a glimpse of how because of the Vietnam war, because of the atrocities, trauma and dislocation suffered not only by those killed, but also by their survivors, and their children and grandchildren, including the refugees who came to Australia as “boat people” in the 1970s; because of our nation’s barely acknowledged involvement of the part we played in creating the horrors that led to these people’s flight and the ongoing trauma in the lives of those they left behind; because of all this, Australia is what it is today.

It’s in this sense that Fishing For Tigers is a book for this time.

On Sunday night, over a million people watched Underground, the biopic of the early life of the now notorious hacker and activist, Julian Assange. Back in April, Radio National’s Big Ideas Paul Barclay interviewed Andrew Fowler, author of The Most Dangerous Man in the World: A Biography of Julian Assange. The title of Fowler’s book is a reference to whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, whom Henry Kissinger described as the “most dangerous man in America”, after Ellsberg released top secret Pentagon papers relating to the Vietnam war. When prompted, Ellsberg passed the dubious mantle of being “The Most Dangerous Man” on to Assange.

Today, Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London; US Army whistleblower Bradley Manning is enduring his 869th day of solitary confinement; Australian troops are engaged in a war in Afghanistan. Unmanned drones, sent by President Obama, wage silent war on civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. In the past few days, broadcaster Alan Jones has labelled as “terrorism” the protests of people who have objected to his misogynist references to our Prime Minister after our petitioning of sponsors resulted in his station 2GB’s pulling of all advertising from Jones’ radio program – this from a man whose conviction of inciting racial hatred in the lead up to the Cronulla anti-immigration riots of 2005 was this week upheld. Meanwhile, the 2010 release of footage titled Collateral Murder by Assange’s Wikileaks, which documents the deaths in 2007 of two Reuters journalists, remains one of the most chilling texts of our time.

Do most Australians even realise our nation is at war? When politicians and others create panic about the “boat people” “invading” our shores, do we have any idea the extent to which our nation has helped to create the conditions of war and trauma that these people are fleeing?

Speaking for myself, I know that we’re at war in the same sense that I know our earth is moving ever towards catastrophic global climate change. I know it, but I act – for the most part – as if it isn’t true, as if it has no real impact on me. It’s not until a novelist like Emily Maguire takes a seemingly provocative, sexy story about a cross-cultural encounter of a childless Australian woman and a boy almost half her age, and works it up to a climax which includes a visit to a Vietnamese war museum that I really get it. I get how important it is, to me, to us, to the nation and the world, to our future; to the whistleblowers; to the men, women and children risking everything and sometimes drowning in rough seas within arm’s reach of our shores.

By creating a crack in the wall to show the horror of war and its aftermath, Fishing for Tigers helps me understand that what happens “over there” – whether it be Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Syria or Mali – happens here, to us all. We are responsible for the unmanned drones that kill innocent civilians, the legacy of Agent Orange that caused such deformities, the plight of drug-addicted and alcohol-dependent veterans, the displacement of refugees. This is our story, as much as it is Vietnam’s history, even if it’s tales of romance and heroism, innocence and safety, moral righteousness and “national security”, that we’d prefer to hear.

~

Note: Fishing for Tigers has been reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge by Angela Literary Minded, Bree All the Books I can Read, and Janine Shambolic Living. I’m counting it as Book 6 toward my Aussie Authors Challenge.

Thanks to PanMacmillan for providing a review copy.

Fishing for Tigers: Picador
ISBN-13: 9781742610832
September 2012

How can we de-story the joint?

Here’s a test for anyone following the #destroythejoint hashtag. What was the last book by an Australian woman you read? If you had to think about the answer, read on…

Over the weekend I discovered the hashtag #destroythejoint on Twitter.

It was started by Jane Caro in response to the sexist comments of well-known Australian radio presenter Alan Jones about women in politics. Caro issued an invitation to women on Twitter to state just how they were “destroying the joint” and comments rolled in. (For recaps see Caro here and Jill Tomlinson here.) Soon the tag started to trend, first nationally, then internationally. By the end of the weekend Caro was being interviewed by the BBC (starts 36:20).

Men and women, on both sides of the political divide, grew vocal in protesting the misogyny of Jones’ comments. Twitter pictures abounded with remakes of old Stalinist-style posters inviting women to “destroy the joint”. Examples of powerful women in politics, like Africa’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were circulated. Other social media picked it up and a “Destroy the Joint” Facebook page was created “for people who are sick of the sexism dished out to women in public roles in Australia”.

The energy and enthusiasm reminded me of the groundswell of protest that met a reviewer’s misogynist comments on author Tara Moss’s blog last year. Those negative comments led to the creation of the Australian Women Writers Challenge which, throughout 2012, has promoted reviews of books by Australian women for the National Year of Reading. To date, the challenge has generated over a thousand reviews of books by Australian women, and is set to continue in 2013 on a new AWW site (still in draft form, but a team is working on it). It’s a great example of how anger can be channelled constructively.

I started to wonder, could something creative come out of #destroythejoint?

As I followed and used the hashtag, I noticed how many times I kept mistyping “de-story” for  “destroy”. I picked up other writers, including crime author PM Newton, doing it, too. The slip made me think.

Do Australian authors – male and female – help to “de-story” the joint? Do they help to steer the discourse away from misogyny and antagonism, to create something which can have a lasting impact to improve our world?

Their writing can, and does. But they need readers. They need Australian readers who recognise their names, just as they recognise prominent sports people. Why do we get a wrap up of five stories about sport on our national radio and no mention of writers and their achievements? Why is it expatriate novelists like Nikki Gemmel, Geraldine Brooks and Kathy Lette are still far better known in Australia than those living in our midst – fine, award-winning writers, like the crime writers who celebrated this weekend at the Sisters in Crime dinner in Melbourne at the Davitt Awards?

So,  if you had to think hard about when the last time you read a book by an Australian woman, maybe it’s time you checked out the AWW challenge page to see all the wonderful titles that have been read and reviewed this year.

Let’s tell – and listen to – our own stories. Maybe then we can all help to de-story the joint and create real change.

PS: If you’re an existing subscriber and want to follow this blog only for book reviews, you can do so here: RSS book reviews | Email book

Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy and the challenge to moral thinking; or Towards a Systems’ Theory view of Subjectivity.

Every now and then a book comes along that you know will change your life. You may not know how, exactly, but the reading of it touches you in a way so profound, resonates so deeply inside you, that you recognize at once it will become part of your “soul”, for want of a better word, part of your being.

Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy is such a book for me.

For those who haven’t heard of what’s it’s about, I’ll state it briefly. It’s about a boy from an impoverished background in a dystopian contemporary state in Eastern Europe – identified later as Moscow – who is abandoned and finds himself taken in and nurtured by a pack of city-living feral dogs. It was inspired by real-life stories of a dog-nurtured boy and how he was found and “rescued” back into society. Romochka is the name Hornung gives the boy in this book.

I read Dog Boy some weeks ago for part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge and was so rocked by it I wondered how I would begin to review it; I began to think the subject was too big. It was only the prompting yesterday by Sue T from Whispering Gums that made me decide at last to tackle it. Though tackle isn’t the right word. Engage with it. Engage, celebrate, ponder, muse, discuss, extend, subject myself once again to its magic, its tragedy, the challenge it presents to me to think on, feel and embody what it means to be human, what it means to have been touched by – and to love – a species that is not my own.

So this is more than just a review, if it is one at all. I’m still uncertain which blog it belongs to: this “review blog” or my personal one. Because, rather than discuss elements of the story – although they are intrinsic to what I have to say – I have allowed myself the freedom to weave in and around what this story means to me, the way it writes me, the way it helps me to interpret aspects of my own history. If the personal impact of a story isn’t what interests you and you’re looking for a more traditional review, I suggest you skip this and check out what notable Australian bookbloggers Whispering Gums (positive) and AnzLitLovers (not convinced) have written about Dog Boy.

If you’re still here, please bear with me as I grope my way along and try to articulate why this book so touched me.

Anyone who has loved and been loved by a dog will not fail to be deeply moved by Dog Boy. My own history with dogs is fraught. At the age of eighteen months, I witnessed the horrific mauling of my older brother, a three-year-old toddler, by a German Shepherd. My brother’s face was savaged; his cheek required 24 stitches. I don’t remember the event; I remember the emotional aftermath and the stories told and retold to explain the jagged pink scar on my brother’s face. My father got into a fight with the owner of the dog and was charged with assault. At the time, my mother was pregnant with her ninth child, the eldest only just turned eleven. For most of my childhood, I feared dogs, big dogs especially, associating them with a visceral fear of violence.

So when our family finally got a dog – a sprightly terrier named Injun – I didn’t warm to it. I knew other kids loved their dogs and thought I should, too, but I was frightened, even though it was small. It nipped and scratched and yapped and tore my skirt. By then our family was disintegrating and, after some initial excitement, the dog was neglected. Over the years, Injun suffered from mange, grew manic and pined for lack of attention. Its official owner, the brother who had been mauled, left home, abandoning it. My mother, who had grown up on a farm, believed dogs belonged outside, so Injun never became part of the family; it was fed, but given little love. A woman who occasionally cleaned for us eventually took pity and rescued it, taking it to a good home.

That should have been enough. But another dog made its way into our mad family – mad because my father, his behaviour increasingly erratic, had been drinking heavily for years, overwhelmed by the stress of trying to provide for a brood of children that had swollen to twelve, and increasingly disturbed by the mental illness he had never openly acknowledged, though his mood swings, paranoia and violent outbursts certainly made us kids question his sanity. It was a difficult period generally. His own mother was ageing and demented, my mother in and out of hospital with bouts of pneumonia, her own elderly, half-blind, mostly deaf mother an intermittent resident in our household. The new dog’s name was Mutto; she was a stubby-legged cattle-dog, a brick with fur, whose pathological fear of storms amused my father. She came from up north where another older brother had migrated in the seventies along with a generation of hippies.

I did warm to Mutto eventually, but only distantly. She was my dad’s dog and I was glad when he focused his attention on her instead of on us kids who remained at home. His cruelty toward her disturbed me, the way he’d swing her round by her front paws, but I didn’t think to protect her. My father was a big man, and when I finally stood up to him in my own defence, the result was traumatic. I don’t remember how or when Mutto died; just her quivering, shivering, shaking body, the mad scramble of claws on the wooden veranda and her bullish determination to butt through the swing door well before any of us could smell or hear the coming storm.

Fast-forward to adulthood – past the terrible years where my father’s illness erupted into full blown psychosis and tore our family apart – to the time when Dad was finally diagnosed and medicated. For his rehabilitation, my eldest sister bought him another dog, a pretty Border Collie-Kelpie cross with shaggy black fur and rust-tinged ears. Our beloved Peppy.

If it’s true the mental health of an animal reflects the mental health of the family it belongs to, then Peppy’s steadiness and warmth is a sure sign of the healing that occurred within my family once my father was under psychiatric care. But Peppy’s life wasn’t easy. She was my dad’s nurse and companion in many more ways than us adult kids could be. She put up with his occasional cruelty, the way he’d take her paws and make her dance on her hind legs, showing a patience and gentleness that half-convinced me she understood how important it was for him to experience unjudging companionship, loyalty and devotion from another sentient being.

As my father withdrew into himself, distrusting everyone who had sought to protect ourselves against the worst of his illness, it was only Peppy to whom he showed affection. After having been estranged from my dad for years, I finally felt safe to visit, and Peppy would greet me at the gate, her whole body wagging with her tail, pink tongue lolling, lips drawn back in a smile. Slowly under her mute tutelage, I rebuilt the fractured relationship with my father, her unstinting patience teaching me how best to be with him: silent, getting on with the business of helping my mother tend to his and my centenarian grandmother’s needs. In the years I helped nurse him, Dad rarely spoke to me directly – never once used my name. But, just before he died, he responded to my morning greeting with a “G’day, Peppy.”

So what have these memories to do with Eva Hornung’s book Dog Boy and systems’ theory?

In Dog Boy Hornung poses the question: what is it that separates us from the brute? Traditional religion would have us believe it’s free will, the ability to discern good and evil, to reflect on our own choices, to shape our own characters, and to know how – and be willing – to choose the good. Hornung suggests that where we fall on that spectrum of awareness may depend on how “brutishly” we ourselves have been treated. In the story of Romochka, human beings are, by turns, complex and flawed; cruel and compassionate; well-meaning and misguided.  Ultimately, however, Romochka’s treatment by dogs seems far more “human” than the treatment he suffers from members of his own species. So how does Hornung mean for us to understand what elevates humans above the animal?

It is a question that systems’ theory helps to enlighten.

Current thinking on systems’ theory is too broad, complex and subtle a subject for me to attempt to address in an intelligent way here. But it’s a measure of the remarkable nature of our universe, which so often throws up seemingly inexplicable synchronicities – in a quantum manner, perhaps – that just this morning as I woke up in the early hours, pondering how I might discuss this subject in relation to Dog Boy, I switched on the radio and heard a repeat of last night’s broadcast on Big Ideas of the Rollie Busch lecture by Nancey Murphy. Her subject: systems’ theory and the nature of subjectivity; her words found instant resonance with me.

Murphy is a physicist (and Christian) who rejects traditional Christianity’s Platonic dualism between the mind and body. Rather, she sees the “mind” or brain as comprising processes and relationships, with each part influencing and being influenced by the whole in a continuous feedback loop. Human behaviour isn’t pre-determined by our biology, our neurochemistry or genetic make-up, she asserts, nor by our environment. Rather, these elements both influence and are influenced by the behaviour of the system as a whole. While Murphy’s emphasis is on the brain as a complex system, the same thinking can apply to complex systems at all levels, to organs, the body, the family, the community, the state, the nation and the globe. Each can be construed as a system of relationships and processes which create organisms of increasing complexity, where component parts influence and are influenced by the whole.

Significantly, according to Murphy, what distinguishes the human from the animal in a systems’ theory approach is the acquisition of symbolic language which allows humans to learn from and reflect on their behaviour over time. By being able to reflect and choose our response to changes within the complex system of processes and relationships, we gain agency, which in turn creates moral responsibility. And it is this ability to learn, this entry into moral agency which Hornung so graphically and movingly depicts in Romochka’s story.

[Vague spoilers ahead]

By inserting Romochka into a non-human world, Hornung offers us a view of subjectivity that differs from both the dualistic notions of neo-Platonic Christianity, where mind is separated from body, and of Western individualism. In Romochka’s dog-world, each individualis connected to the whole, helping to create a self-supporting, self-regulating organism, the “pack”, which collectively has the intelligence necessary for survival. In Romochka’s identification with and entry into the pack, adoption of its “language”, mores and values, Hornung illustrates a flaw in individualistic notions of subjectivity: without the group, we perish; if we work as a team, nurture the young and vulnerable, individuals may at times be sacrificed, but collectively we survive.

The climax of Dog Boy occurs at the point when Romochka must choose either to abandon the idea of being a dog, one who belongs to a pack that no longer exists, or “go back” into human society. According to Murphy’s thesis, the moral choice he makes in the story is moral, not brutish, because it shows him having learned from the past, from Mamochka’s actions during a lean winter. The decision he makes regarding his pup “brothers” results is an action which, by then, given our empathy with the dog-world, appears to be an act of brutality; yet such is Hornung’s skill in creating this moral dilemma, the act also strikes the reader as a tragic sacrifice, as Romochka recognises that he cannot nurture himself as a dog, nor is he willing to raise the next generation if they cannot be considered his equals, his “pack”, his tribe.

The bigger picture here – and the reason I thinkHornung chose to write this story – is the question it poses to humanity. Our world is threatened. Millions of people are dying of hunger, disease, poverty and malnutrition; others are locked up and chained, languishing in prison for their religious and political beliefs. Women are subject to untold violence. Habitats are being cleared; non-human species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate. Billions of plastic bags are manufactured daily, used once and discarded, left to choke our waterways and strangle our marine life. Catastrophic climate change is growing ever more likely. Our traditional ways of seeing our relationship to animals and nature, one of separation, dominion over and exploitation is killing us. Yet we have not been sufficiently educated to realise that we are component parts of a giant, creative, living, intelligent system, and that without those larger systems in balance we place at risk the very things that give us life and sustain us, our food, our water, the air we breathe, let alone the loving relationships among other sentients that makes our souls sing. “It’s all alive,” as the Bioneers say. “It’s all intelligent. It’s all relatives.”

So where is our sense of moral agency and responsibility? If faced with catastrophic conditions that threaten not just our individual survival, but also that of our communities, our species and Earth’s living systems, will we have the emotional intelligence and courage to make sacrifices, to choose tough moral decisions? Or are we so blinded by out-dated notions of what makes us human that we will continue to act like brutes, unable to reflect on our own behaviour, to learn and adapt, respond and change?

You might say it’s a long stretch from Dog Boy to systems’ theory, let alone to a revolutionary project of changing the very basis of how we live. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Hornung’s story is a fable, nothing more. You might suggest that Mamochka’s and Romochka’s decisions are driven by instinct and imitation, not considered reasoning. We, on the other hand, are human, we’re civilised; we’ll know what to do when the crunch comes. Maybe. I hope so. But books like Dog Boy bring these questions alive for me in a way few others have managed – without pessimism, and with such beauty.

And Peppy?

Peppy died when Mum and I spent a week in St Petersburg a few years ago. It was my second visit. I’d been there as a student in the days before Perestroika and I was staggered to find that the Communist propaganda symbols which had once dominated every venue had been swept aside in favour of the gilded iconography of the Russian Tsars. We visited in February with its long dark nights, snow turning to slush in the streets and grey, icy river. We stayed in one of the best hotels on Nevsky Prospekt and were chauffeured around the city by a fur-coated guide and a driver in a limousine. Outside a Russian Orthodox church, where priests chanted the service and men and women queued to kiss an icon of the black virgin, we saw old men begging, communist war veterans with amputated legs, scarfed matrons crouched on blankets offering for sale a meagre bunch of carrots and straggling bunches of herbs; we saw beautiful young women in high heels and glossy leather coats striding by, oblivious to the red-faced survivors of an older generation who had given decades of their lives to a corrupt regime and been left with nothing. We saw stray dogs scrounging for food down darkened allies…

And came home to news of Peppy.

Back then, Dog Boy had already been published. I can’t help thinking that its stark, beautiful prose might have helped me through my grief – the loss of a dog, a friend, a beautiful soul, one last painful link to my father – if only such brilliant books by Australian women were better known.

Dog Boy, Text Publishing 2009

  • winner, Fiction category, Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, 2010
  • shortlisted, Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2009
  • shortlisted, ASL Gold Medal, 2010
  • shortlisted, Literary Fiction Book of the Year, ABIA, 2010

A note on Australian ebook pricing craziness:

Dog Boy can be bought as an ebook from Aussie e-platforms: ReadCloud and Booki.sh stores, including:

  • Megalong Books ebookstore: $23.95 (my local bookshop in Leura).
  • Pages&Pages ebookstore has 2 editions, one for $23.95, another for $32.95.
  • Avid Reader ebookstore advertises one edition on their website for $14.95 but notes: “We’re sorry, this book isn’t for sale in your country.”
  • Avid Reader has another edition, the same one available from Megalong Books and Pages&Pages, but on sale for $15.80.

(Pages&Pages and Avid Reader bookshops have staff signed up for the AWW2012 challenge and have a AWW challenge tab on their ebookstore webpages.)

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Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy and the challenge to moral thinking; or Towards a Systems’ Theory view of Subjectivity. by Elizabeth Lhuede is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at elizabethlhuede.wordpress.com.
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A woman’s voice – Ruby Hunter

A few yearsago while creating a WebQuest for high school students I came across the work of singer and songwriter Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman. What struck me was that Ruby had died without me ever having discovered the special power of her voice, her music, her lyrics. I read some work by Aboriginal writers; I’d read poems by Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert, heard Archie Roach’s mesmerising rendition of Davis’s poem John Pat, and listened to stories of the tragic efforts of David Unaipon. I’d come across Indigenous Australian women writers, too, had been moved by Oodjeroo‘s powerful poems while she was still known better as Kath Walker, and had read Sally Morgan’s My Place with fascination. But the truth was I knew more about Aboriginal culture from the perspective of non-indigenous writers such as Katherine Susannah Prichard, Dame Mary Gilmore, the Jindyworobak poets and Thomas Kenneally – even from singer-songer writer Paul Kelly and Paul Keating’s acclaimed “Redfern Speech” – than I did from Indigenous writers themselves.

That fact strikes me as incredible now, but it goes to show how easily and quickly talented artists can be overlooked within their own time and culture. When looking to provide an autobiographical link for Ruby, I was stunned to discover she isn’t listed on the Australian Women’s Register. What stunned me more is that even the Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing challenge has even managed to get a mention on the register, but not Ruby…

In the early hours of this morning, I finished reading PM Newton’s The Old School, a brilliant crime fiction novel, which I hope to review at some point on my book blog. Set in Sydney during the time Keating spoke at Redfern, Newton’s story touches on the fraught question of the genocide of indigenous men, women and children in the early days of settlement, as well as ongoing issues of alcoholism and homelessness which has challenged the resilience of many of the descendants of those original tribes. The fate of one of Newton’s characters – referred to as “Mabo” in the novel – reminded me of Ruby Hunter’s song, Down City Streets. Ruby died too soon for me to hear her sing live, but it has been a privilege for me to discover her words, to be able to listen to her voice, and to be moved by her personal story of courage as she battled to overcome homelessness and addiction, to create a life where she touched so many.

What better way to celebrate Australia Day than revisiting one of her songs?

(Lyrics for Down City Streets can be found on page 16 here.)

For more on Indigenous Australian women’s writing, see the guest post by Dr June Perkins on Aboriginal women’s writing, as well as a list of author Dr Anita Heiss‘s top 10 fiction reads by Indigenous Australian women, to be posted on Australia Day on the Australian Women Writer’s blog.

Have you read any books or authors you could recommend?

The Danger Game: A great message, fairly rendered

Australian left-wing author Kalinda Ashton’s 2009 debut novel, The Danger Game, came to me indirectly. Recently I downloaded a collection of Aussie short stories on an iPad app from Sleepers, a small press based in Melbourne. Sticking out from among hundreds of stories was the bright shard of Ashton’s short fiction. Its sheer painful brilliance prompted me to hunt down her novel.

To claim The Danger Game is a “worthy” book seems miserly. But it’s true. It is worthy. It depicts suffering with compassion; doesn’t shy away from the complexities of poverty, drug use, sex, failure and loss; enacts the tensions of union politics, the under-funding of state schools and the shortcomings of the welfare system. It does all this with glimpses of that same lyrical grace that sang to me in Ashton’s short stories and had me wanting more.

What it didn’t do was grab me by the scruff of the neck and impel me through the narrative.

It interested me; and I persisted; but I can’t say I was riveted. Instead I found myself tempted to skip parts and I felt guilty.

Before writing this review, I checked out other reviews. Among those lauding the writing style and worthy politics were ones that found the story boring, including a reader who “wanted to know what happened at the end” and felt deflated because the ending wasn’t a surprise. The comments were depressing mostly because I’d felt twinges of the same. So, apparently, did one independent publisher who, according to Ashton,  saw an early draft and didn’t find it “compelling” enough.

Yet the structure is clearly intentional, as Ashton has stated: “I think what I’ve tried to do in the book is have a structure almost like an ‘anti-thriller’ where in fact all the information [the characters] find when they go on this quest is not in fact what is the catharsis or release but the journey back into their lives now, and finding something collective out of the experience.” (From an interview with Rebecca Starford in Readings.)

All this got me wondering. About Ashton. About what it means to want to write a value-rich work that is still page-turning, riveting, engaging enough to grab hold of that middle ground of readers who might be indifferent to the politics but who want that “quest” and catharsis; who, like me, want a great read. It got me thinking about the implications of my own desire to write such a book; the ambivalences of such a desire, as Ashton might say.

The questions I come away pondering are these. (Warning: some jargon ahead.) Are the dominant linear narrative forms of Hollywood exemplified, say, in the writers’ craft phenomenon Story by Robert McKee, inherently reactionary? By opting for such insistent, pervasive narrative structures is an author inevitably sustaining, supporting and upholding an existing system, one irretrievably implicated in injustices to do with gender, race/ethnicity and class? Is it only by abandoning such structures for more experimental forms that a truly political writing can be achieved?

If it’s true that the only way to be truly effective politically is to opt for experimental narrative structure, I can take a stab at why. The argument goes something like this. With the narrative drive to know “What happens next?”, readers identify with characters’ goals, and enjoy the tension-and-release produced as those goals appear successively attainable and farther away. But such a drive lulls the reader into a type of unconsciousness, where readers demand only the addictive “fix” of a narrative “pull”, punctuated by a satisfying cathartic denouement or (in the case of thrillers) surprise ending. By manipulating the reader into becoming such a future-seeker, the writer may make her book a page-turner, but in doing so she potentially takes attention away from the detail, the mundane and numinous, the insights into character, moments that a writer like Ashton evokes and celebrates with ease. Takes away, too, perhaps, the opportunity for thoughtfulness, for engagement, the mental space in which one’s preconceptions can be challenged and, possibly, transformed.

On the other hand…

If a lack of narrative drive tempts the reader to put the book down and not pick it up again, what has been achieved?

I’m not saying say that The Danger Game doesn’t have narrative drive: it does; but it’s subtle, weaves in and out of present and past, spreads itself over three characters’ stories told in three different narrative styles (first, second and third person). More importantly, the objects of desire – knowing the truth of what happened in the past and the whereabouts of a lost parent – are never felt to be imperative, let alone vital. They’re sought more as a bandaid is looked for when the gash requires stitches or, worse, when the life blood is seeping away. The real desires, love, wholeness, meaning and connection, seem so far beyond the likelihood of being achieved, the characters barely recognise them as needs. Thus when they stumble over them the achievement feels almost accidental.

Ashton’s narrative may not be especially gripping in terms of story, but it does keep faith with the experience of what it means to be human. Considering the result, I’m sure Ashton’s happy.

The Danger Game by Kalinda Ashton (Sleepers Publishing)

Creative Commons Licence
Review of The Danger Game by Kalinda Ashton by Elizabeth Lhuede is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at elizabethlhuede.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.elizabethlhuede.com.

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