Our Eva by Anna Jacobs

Our Eva JacobsThis saga has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for ages. I picked it up because I’m determined to read more historical fiction, stories about our ancestors and nation-building, having been inspired by tales told to me by my 93-year-old aunt who is writing her memoirs. How do authors bring the past alive? How do they incorporate research without swamping the reader with unnecessary detail? These are the questions on my mind when I read.

Our Eva by Anna Jacobs was first published in 2002, Book 3 in the Kershaw Sisters series, which includes Our Lizzie, Our Polly and Our Mary Ann. The family hails from Lancashire, where Jacobs herself comes from, although when she wrote Our Eva she was living in Mandurah in Western Australia. When I mentioned to Anna on Facebook that I was finally reading one of her novels, she quipped, “Only seventy-four more to go.” She celebrated her 75th publication in May of this year! Surely one of Australia’s most prolific authors – if she counts as Australian. Some of her books do include an Australian setting, I’ve discovered. Coincidently, when I asked a local librarian the other day to help me find any fiction which deals with bounty migrants from England to Australia in the 1840s, one of the strands of my own family background, she recommended Jacobs’ book, The Group Settler’s Wife. I looks like I might have to go on a Jacobs reading binge. It won’t be a hardship.

Our Eva has all the hallmarks of a rattling good yarn, as my elderly aunt might put it. I remember hearing Jacobs speak at a writers conference years ago, giving advice about plotting: “Put your heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her.” Our Eva exemplifies that in every respect. Eva Kershaw is the less-attractive sister among the Kershaw girls, happy to live a quiet life with her guardian Alice at the end of the Great War, with the expectation that she will eventually inherit Alice’s estate and be well-provided for. When Alice is dying, the unexpected arrival back from the war of her estranged and possibly ne’er-do-well nephew Gus puts an idea into her head. Instead of leaving her estate to her unmarried ward unencumbered, she changes her will. You can guess at some of the mayhem that ensues when she dies and Eva discovers her plan.

With a spin on the marriage-of-convenience trope and insights into village life in Lancashire in the 1920s, Our Eva romps over 500 pages. The prose is simple, the characterisation more than two-dimensional, the twists enough to keep the reader turning the pages.

I’m looking forward to my next Anna Jacobs yarn.

~

Author: Anna Jacobs
Title: Our Eva
Publisher: Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
ISBN: 0340821329

I’m submitting this book as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 – even though I’m not sure it qualifies. What do you think?

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson – a timely read

Devil's Madness WilsonWow! What a timely read.

The structure of That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson is almost a double helix, seeming parallel narratives of France and Algeria from the late 19th century onwards, and Australia and Algeria in the 1960s. It follows the fates of four generations of French-Algerian-Australian immigrants and Algerian Berbers, narratives which come together in a thriller-like denouement.

The main point of view character is a novice photo-journalist, Nicolette de Dercou, who as a child immigrated to Australia from Algeria with her mother and grandfather, and who returns there to re-connect with childhood friends and cover the news of the president’s imminent death. Nicolette gets caught up in turbulent events as Berbers fight for liberation from the oppression they have suffered since Algeria’s independence from France after World War Two, a historical struggle illuminated by the other narrative which follows Nicolette’s great-grandfather from France to Algeria and her grandfather from Algeria to Australia.

This story interests me on numerous levels. It illuminates the complexity of post-colonialism and Christian-Muslim relations in North Africa; it gives a historical context for present-day political unrest, dissatisfaction with injustice and the root causes of terrorism; and it acts as a reminder for Australian readers of the tentativeness of our claims to sovereignty over Indigenous lands, and the historical and cultural blindness that attends our attitudes to “boat people”.

The novel also highlights the technical difficulty of wielding two disparate narratives. The risk is that the reader might temporarily lose interest at the point of changeover – not for lack of engagement, but because of their investment with the narrative thread already underway. Wilson manages to hold the reader’s attention in both stories until they come together in a powerful ending: no mean feat!

~

This is my first review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: That Devil’s Madness
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Date: February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-921924-98-9

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

Anchoress CadwalladerIf The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader isn’t already on your radar, it should be.

Told in exquisite prose, it’s ostensibly the story of Sarah, a medieval nun who, at the age of 17, locks herself away from the world in a tomb-like room to pray; but it’s much more than that.

It’s a tale of grief as Sarah comes to terms with the loss of both her mother and sister in childbirth. It’s a narrative of gender politics, as she negotiates her weekly interaction with her father confessor, Ranaulf; fends off the unwanted advances of the local feudal lord, Sir Thomas; and bears witness to the scars inflicted on village women who have little power in a patriarchal, church-dominated world. It’s also a story about art and its possibility of liberation and redemption, whether it’s the art of the illuminated manuscripts that Ranaulf works on, or the art of living, of attuning to the least sensory inputs, the sounds, smells and glimpses of Sarah’s rural medieval world.

This is the standout achievement of this book, for me: the novel, while beginning as a tale of deprivation and renunciation, ends up celebrating the very embodied world Sarah was determined to reject.

…I could no longer resist the demands made by my senses. I’d had no idea that sounds and smells could separate themselves; as if unravelling a piece of cloth, day by day, thread by thread, I began to recognise them. This is mill wheel, this is cartwheels, this is dragging a sack, this is throwing a bucket of water, this is digging, scything, ploughing, and even, sometimes, whispered seed scatter. (120-21)

The Anchoress has already been extensively reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge, making it, I’d hazard, one of the challenge’s most popular books so far for 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a front-runner for this year’s Stella Prize.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015. You can find other participants’ reviews via these links:

Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Title: The Anchoress
Publisher: Fourth Estate (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978 0 7322 9921 7

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell

imageIt’s probably not fair to an author to start a book in the week leading up to Christmas, especially when you’re in the middle of moving house. That may explain why Lisa Jewell’s novel, Before I Met You, took me a few days to get into. Once I had a stretch of a few good reading hours, however, I became absorbed.

Before I Met You begins with the story of Betty who, as a child, goes with her mother and step-father to the Channel Island of Guernsey to live with her ageing step-grandmother, Arlette. Arlette lives as a near recluse, occupying a suite of rooms in a crumbling old house perched on a cliff facing the sea. Although she appears to dislike almost everyone, she takes a shine to Betty. She introduces her step-granddaughter to “glamour” and fashion, even though, by all accounts, she has never left Guernsey.

Reaching adulthood in the 1990s, Betty has grown fond of Arlette, even though the old woman is increasingly frail and suffers from dementia. After taking it upon herself to stay on the island to look after Arlette until her death, Betty is rewarded with a small legacy and a mystery: she must look for a girl by the name of “Miss Clara Pickle”, to whom Arlette has left part of her fortune. If Clara cannot be found within a year, the inheritance will be Betty’s. Her last known address is in London’s infamous red light district, Soho.

Eager for adventure and wanting to solve the mystery of the bequest, Betty travels to London and settles in Soho, using almost all of her legacy to rent a tiny studio. Before she can look into the mystery, she must first find a job, and this proves difficult. Eventually, she progresses from flipping burgers at Wendy’s to being the nanny for an estranged celebrity couple. In her spare time, she befriends a DJ who helps her follow clues Arlette has left as to Clara Pickle’s identity. Along the way, Betty discovers that her grandmother, far from being a recluse – albeit with a taste for finery and red satin shoes – once led a totally different life, one of excitement, fashion and glamour.

Running parallel to Betty’s story is the story of Arlette’s youth which is dramatised in interleaving flashbacks. Having come of age in the years following World War One, Arlette, a great beauty, travels from Guernsey to London to live with the family of an old friend of her mother. There, at the beginning of the jazz age of the 1920s, she meets Gideon Worsley, a Bohemian artist from a well-to-do family who insists on painting her portrait. Gideon introduces her to one of the great jazz musicians of the age, a black clarinet player from the Caribbean, whose stage name is “Sandy Beach”. Alongside Gideon and “Sandy”, Arlette – a shop girl, by day – frequents the fashionable night clubs of the era, mingling with the famous people who make up the fashionable pre-Bloomsbury set.

As the novel progresses, the two narrative threads converge and the mystery surrounding Arlette’s will is explained. In a dual climax, Betty and Arlette, their lives separated by a gap of seventy-five years, individually face difficult choices which will set the course for their futures.

Before I met You gives us a glimpse of post-World War One London when women were experiencing new freedoms, both in terms of economic opportunity and of social mobility; it also conveys the constraints facing women of that time. The lasting impression of the story for me, however, is one of sadness, with the realisation of how quickly and easily the lives of one generation may be forgotten by subsequent generations. It makes me wish my father’s mother, a contemporary of Arlette, had recorded her life story. It would fill in so many gaps.

~

Author: Lisa Jewell
Title: Before I Met You
Publisher: Century, Random House Group
Date: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

The Winter House by Judith Lennox

imageI’m continuing my binge of books by authors recommended by members of my Facebook group for fans of Nicci French. The group’s readers are an eclectic lot – the recommended authors don’t all write psychological suspense.

This week’s new (for me) author is Judith Lennox whose historical fiction saga, The Winter House, was published in 1996. I haven’t read a historical saga for years. I don’t know why. I used to love them.

The story opens with three friends, Robin, Helen and Maia, who, at the end of the First World War and on the verge of adulthood, vow to celebrate the great milestones of their lives: their first jobs, travelling abroad, losing their virginity. Robin is a pacifist from a progressive family whose two brothers fought in the war, one never returning, the other coming home with shell shock. Helen is the only child and dutiful daughter of the widowed local rector, a man who believes himself a cut above the rural labourers and artisans who inhabit the run-down cottages of their marsh-surrounded village. Maia is the beauty of the trio, a girl brought up to expect the finer things in life only to be abandoned by her profligate father in the worst possible way.

Each girl has a dream. Robin dreams of escaping the academic fate her father has planned for her and moving to London to become involved in activist politics, to do something that makes a difference in the world. Helen dreams of having a home and family. Maia wants the security of wealth that she knew as a child, and is prepared to do what it takes to get it.

As the girls become women and pursue their dreams, each has to make choices and compromises, face hardships which test their endurance – and their friendship. The adolescent vow of celebrating milestones isn’t forgotten, but it becomes representative of the naivety – if not always innocence – of their youthful hopes, as well as the differences in their personalities, upbringing and values.

The story covers the period of the aftermath of the First World War, through the twenties and into the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, and ends with Europe on the brink of another war. These great events aren’t just a backdrop to the story; they play a significant part in Robin’s and Maia’s lives, while Helen’s eventual questioning of her faith is indicative of a broader wave of secularism that reflects the changing values of this time.

The Winter House is an interesting and engrossing story, easy to read and, in parts, moving. It makes me wonder why I don’t read more historical sagas.

~

Author: Judith Lennox
Title: The Winter House
Publisher: Severn House
Date: 1996
576 pages

I borrowed a copy from the library

Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread

resized_9781742376295_224_297_FitSquareTrigger warning for survivors of childhood sexual assault.

There aren’t too many books I can honestly say have changed my life, but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread is one of them.

I first came across this title in 2012 when participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge posted their reviews. Eleven reviews appeared that year, the vast majority of which were laudatory. This was a special book, I realised. It could sneak inside your soul, break your heart, move even the most prosaic reviewer to poetry.

Opening the beautiful dust jacket with its glimpse of a galloping horse, I began to read, only soon to slam the book shut again. The initial pages are so horrifically distressing, and yet so beautifully told, I knew I’d need to be stronger to withstand the emotional onslaught.

A few weeks ago I tried again. This time, I persisted. I read about how in the early twentieth-century a young Aboriginal girl, Noah, finds herself in an intolerable situation, battles through as best she can, has children before she’s fully grown up, and marries a man who, like her, is a champion horse rider. I read of Noah’s strength as mother, farmer and farrier, as her husband Roly succumbs to a mysterious illness, the birth of her daughter Lainey who, like Noah herself, has the talent to become a champion rider. I read how the events of those first few pages haunt Noah through the years until she at last comes to terms with them.

For me the beauty of this story isn’t in the plot. It isn’t even in the language – though that is exquisite. It’s in the effect it has had on me personally. One of the facets of certain kinds of childhood sexual assault that many people don’t understand is how survivors can respond. Often, the abuser has the child’s trust; sometimes, the abuser is just about the only person ever to have shown the child kindness; sometimes the child’s own nascent sexual feelings are stimulated by the sexual violation of their boundaries, so that they don’t even recognise the abuse as abuse. They respond to it as if it were love.

Mears has depicted the complexity of this childhood response with remarkable sensitivity. Her portrayal of Noah as a survivor is done with such understanding and compassion that I find myself not only in awe at her skill, but also immensely grateful. I finished this book with a remarkable sense of freedom. For years, I have been filled with rage at my abuser. Mears reminded me of the love I’d once felt, and the reasons for that love. For some strange reason, accepting this reality, opened up a space where, it seems, forgiveness may be possible. We are all capable of being abusers of one kind or another, Mears suggests; “hurt people hurt people”. It’s a remarkable gift for a writer to convey that reality with such a deep sense of compassion.

As its publisher’s page attests, Foal’s Bread has been nominated for and won an outstanding number of awards:

Short-listed, Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, Fiction, 2014
Winner, Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012
Winner, ALS Gold Medal, 2012
Winner, 60th Annual Book Design Awards, Best Designed Literary Fiction, 2012
Winner, The Age Book of the Year Award Fiction, 2012
Winner, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012
Winner, Colin Roderick Award, 2012
Short-listed, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2013
Short-listed, Indie Awards, Fiction prize, 2012
Short-listed, Barbara Jefferis Award, 2012
Short-listed, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2012
Short-listed, Nita B. Kibble Award, 2012
Short-listed, Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year, 2012
Short-listed, West Australian Premier’s Book Award, 2012

Having finally read it, I now know why.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge.

Author: Gillian Mears
Title: Foal’s Bread
ISBN: 9781742376295
Australian Pub.: November 2011
Publisher: Allen and Unwin

%d bloggers like this: