Out of the Ice by Ann Turner

imageAnn Turner’s second novel, Out of the Ice, starts with penguins. Don’t be put off. This isn’t a nerdy book. It does have environmental themes and it is set in one of the most fantastic and little-known parts of the globe – Antarctica; but it’s also an exploration of the life of a twice-divorced late-thirties woman who’s happy to set her own agenda. “Fearless”, a friend describes her; “reckless”, I was saying at more than one point in the book – but I didn’t mind that one bit.

Laura Alvarado has a double doctorate, a passion for cetaceans (whales and dolphins, etc.), and a healthy thirst for alcohol and adventure. She is typical of the misfits and mavericks who are attracted to life in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Having spent a long, dark winter as a researcher, she’s a bit “toasty”: a term she and her colleagues use to describe a loosening of one’s grip on reality caused by the harsh conditions. Although teamwork is vital and the base’s activities are designed to stop people from isolating, there’s plenty of time and opportunity for introspection and reflection, and sometimes things aren’t what they seem – or are they?

Laura has had lots to reflect on: two failed marriages, the first under tragic circumstances; being frozen out of her career as an academic after she acted as a whistleblower over dubious research findings of her superiors; and a fractious relationship with her ethnically Spanish mother and absent, fellow-academic father. As spring approaches, she is recruited to go to an old whaling town, Fredelighavn, on South Safety Island. The town was decommissioned decades before and is now in an Exclusion Zone to protect its wildlife, including colonies of Adele penguins. Established by Norwegians, it was a local centre of the brutal whaling industry in the early part of the twentieth century, and still has many of the buildings and facilities from that time. Laura and her partner are supposed to survey the township and environs to see if it should become a museum for tourists but, at the last minute, the partner falls ill, and she must begin the task alone. Her base is to be an all-male British research facility located not far from the town, and her welcome there is little short of hostile. Are the British merely protective of their research, or is there something more at play?

Out of the Ice sweeps the reader into larger-than-life events that span three continents and sees Laura travelling from Antarctica, to Nantucket (where the founders of the Fredelighavn spent the Northern Summer), to Venice; in each location, Turner creates scenes in vivid and loving detail. I read the novel from start to finish in a day, but was intrigued enough by the initial setting to stop and look up South Safety Island on the internet, convinced I’d see photographs of the colourfully-painted houses standing out from the white ice, the hulking wrecks of whaling ships, the rusting fuel containers and “flencing” sheds – where the whale meat is stripped from the bone. (Yes, there is some jargon in the book, but it’s seamlessly explained.) I didn’t find it, and I assume the location is a product of the author’s imagination, but it feels like a real place to me now – that’s how well Turner’s prose brings it to life.

I do have a few quibbles with the story, mostly to do with some lack of plausibility: Laura’s boss, an ex-detective and current Station Leader, suddenly has time to go off investigating; an environmentalist concerned about global warming doesn’t have even a twinge of guilt over taking multiple flights across the globe at a moment’s notice; but, for the most part, the quibbles were very minor (any elaboration would necessitate spoilers). The narrative is so engrossing and the settings so fascinating that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

Out of the Ice is sure to please fans of Ann Turner’s first novel, The Lost Swimmer, and deserves to attract many more readers. It’s an excellent, well-written, fast-paced read.

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Title: Out of the Ice
Author: Ann Turner
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Australia
Date: June 2016
ISBN: 9781925030891

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenges. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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I For Isobel by Amy Witting

I For Isobel WittingConfession: Amy Witting’s I For Isobel (1989) has been on my shelf for ages and is the first work of hers I’ve read.

The novel records a decade in the life of Isobel Callaghan, from unhappy nine to unfulfilled 19. Isobel is a loner, someone who struggles to discern the rules other people live by; she always feels offside, “like being a spy in a foreign country having to pass for a native” (116). As a child, she is treated with barely disguised contempt and hostility by her mother, who favours her sister Margaret; she is bullied at school for being bright; she is haunted by her religious education, her seeming inability to be “good”, as well as her real and imagined misdemeanours.

Orphaned at 16, she goes out in the world to earn her living, finding work as a typist and German translator. She resides first at a boarding house, before taking her own room. Her great love is books – and books by Dead White Males comprise the bulk of her reading: Trollope, Dickens, Byron and, later, Dostoevsky, Auden and Eliot.

Isobel loves words, words to describe the people she meets, the places she goes in mid-twentieth-century Sydney. Words connect her to others, to the students she befriends in a Glebe cafe, to Frank the communist outsider where she works; they are also what separates her. Words are weapons to hurt and be hurt, as well as a balm to cure her loneliness; an oppressor and a liberator. Her mind is a “word factory” which never ceases production.

Eyes open, back to the ceiling: ornate plaster, baskets of flowers linked by swags of ribbon, a stain in one corner, yellow, like… sunshine? butter? honey? paler than pumpkin, darker than pee. Dirty old daylight, if there was a word.

There are words. Words we have plenty of, nasty little buzzing insects that they are. Awake two minutes and the word factory is at it already. And you at the loom, zoom, zoom.

It was going to be a bad day. (128)

Isobel isn’t always likeable as a protagonist: she is too passive; she is a “vacuum” that words rush to fill, a listener, a spectator of life rather than a participant. Her behaviour isn’t always admirable, but it is understandable; she is the embodiment of the phrase, “hurt people hurt people”.

The loosely linked chapters of I For Isobel chronicle Isobel’s travails as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, with her dishonesty (she is a “born liar”), with the half-buried hurts from childhood and misunderstandings that keep her yearning and, for most of the book, unfulfilled. At one moment she glimpses her place as the inheritor of a long line of genes that stretch back into history; as she looks in the mirror, hating her face because it reminds her of her mother, she has an epiphany:

the face shaped and softened with the beginning of a laugh because she was thinking those features weren’t her mother’s; she had had the tenancy of them for fifty years but they had been on the go for generations; that nose had taken snuff, sniffed at pomanders, plague posies, smelling salts, rose hip, orris root – things she had never smelt and never would – as well as honeysuckle, gas leaks and lavender… (137).

The book reaches a gentle crescendo when Isobel returns to the suburb she grew up in and comes face to face with an old foe. The encounter reduces her – and me – to tears. Left sobbing for the sorrow of having grown up in a family that failed her, the only comfort she receives is from the rock against which she rests her cheek, “as rough as a cat’s tongue and unyielding”.

I For Isobel may be the first of Amy Witting’s books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

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This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. It’s also part of an effort I wish to make to read more Australian classics.

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Author: Amy Witting
Title: I For Isobel
Publisher: Penguin
Date and place: Ringwood, Vic. 1989
ISBN: 0 14 012624 4

Ghost Girls by Cath Ferla

Ghost Girls FerlaGhost Girls is the debut novel by Cath Ferla from Echo Publishing, the publisher that last year gave us Emma Viskic’s excellent Resurrection Bay. It’s primarily a mystery story, rather than suspense or thriller, though there are thriller elements in it.

The story centres around Sophie Sandilands, an English language teacher, resident in Sydney, who is of mixed Chinese-European heritage. Sophie has memories of her birth place, Hong Kong, and she has experience teaching English in China. With this background, she occupies a unique space in relation to her mostly Asian students and friends, many of whom work part-time in China Town, either in restaurants or in the sex trade.

Other relevant features of Sophie’s background are that her father was a private investigator and she herself has been involved in a missing persons case. These factors provide the motivation for Sophie to become more than a little involved in the death of one of her female students and the apparent disappearance of others. Along with her flatmate, Jin Tao, a local chef, she follows the trail of one missing girl, a trail that leads her into the dark alleys and seedy underworld of Sydney’s illegal strip clubs.

Ferla has a talent for evoking settings and, it seems, a passion for Asian food, and her portrayal of the sights, sounds and smells of this pocket of Sydney life is well realised. Often her descriptions are entwined with characterisation, such as her reference to Sophie and Jin Tao’s tea drinking:

Forget reading the tea leaves afterwards, Jin Tao could read her mood by her choice of brew: oolong was for the weight of the world. The dark amber hue and the burnt bitterness of the leaves worked as a catharsis, helping Sophie clear her mind and refocus her senses. (58)

Another skill is the deft way she refers to characters’ pasts, dramatising them with economy and giving us insight what shapes people’s choices in later life:

[His] childhood had been one of slinking away from things: first from his father’s hand and then from his mother’s sweet, fermenting alcoholic breath. At school he had hidden from the bullies with his head down and shoulders scrunched together. He’d walked along walls and slid around corners, spent lunchtimes in graffitied library carrels and free periods locked in toilet cubicles. (174)

Ferla touches on some sensitive cross-cultural areas, especially in relation to immigrant Chinese women’s participation in the local sex trade. Her treatment of this, at times very dark, subject matter isn’t voyeuristic or moralistic, but rather acknowledges the complexities attendant on these women’s choices.

One aspect of the narrative which, for me, threatened to fall down was Sophie’s motivation for taking the risks she took in her endeavour to solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. Information relating to her mother which strengthens and explains Sophie’s motivation came, for me, a little late. If I’d known it earlier, I would have been more understanding and sympathetic towards Sophie’s choices and actions, and I couldn’t see any strong narrative reason for the delay. This is also the reason, I’d hazard, that the novel didn’t quite work for me as either a thriller or a suspense, despite several thrilling moments: because I didn’t fully identify with Sophie and the reasons she was getting herself into such trouble – until rather late, I wasn’t as engaged emotionally as I might otherwise have been. On the plus side, this is also probably why I wasn’t put off by the violent sequences and could read them with relative detachment (something I don’t find easy to do with more suspenseful stories).

These reservations aside, I found Ghost Girls a very competent debut with an interesting mystery and a fascinating cultural setting; another excellent production from Echo Publishing.

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Author: Cath Ferla
Title: Ghost Girls
Publisher and date: Echo Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781760401177
Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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This review forms part of my contribution to the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and 2016 Aussie Author Challenge.

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