A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josphine Rowe

a Loving Faithful Animal Josephine RoweI bought a copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe at Megalong Books in Leura a couple of weeks ago after hearing the author interviewed on ABC radio. During the interview, Rowe read an extract conveying the repercussive horror experienced by one of her characters, Lani, after witnessing a rape during her teenage years. In the book, something seemingly innocuous triggers Lani to a flashback of the abuse, forcing her to hide until the nausea and horror subsides. Rowe’s prose was so crisp, the emotion so accurately evoked, that I instantly recognised that she had suffered what many adult survivors of childhood abuse have suffered, what some call “traumatic witness”. In the interview Rowe spoke of the trauma of having grown up with an abusive father who, in turn, had been traumatised by the Vietnam war; somehow Rowe not only survived, but also found the language, the imagery and form to transmute those horrors into powerful fiction.

A Loving, Faithful Animal is told sequentially from the points of view of Ru, her mother Evelyn, her father Jack, her sister Lani and her uncle Les, with Ru’s story, the only one told in the second person, bookending the novel. Each character has a distinctive voice, their narratives intersecting during a shared period, New Year’s Eve 1990, a time shadowed by the Iraq war and still haunted by Vietnam, the war Ru’s father brings daily into the family’s living room.

Your father. His head is a ghost trap. It’s all he can do to open his mouth without letting them all howl out. Even so, you can still see them, sliding around the dark behind his eyes like a Balinese puppet show. At night he’ll let his guard down. Too bad for everyone. Now he’s out here somewhere. Wasting his New Year’s Eve in a shabby, forgetful room… (p12)

In a time when domestic violence is high on the national agenda, Rowe gives an insight into the family dynamics of abuse, including a sympathetic – but not sentimental – portrait of the abuser and the abused, as well as the effects on the children and extended family. It’s not an easy read; there’s little in the way of comfort; but it has the compelling ring of truth.

~

Author: Josephine Rowe
Title: A Loving, Faithful Animal
Publisher: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253966

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Wild Chicory by Kim Kelly

Wild Chicory by Kim KellyWild Chicory by Kim Kelly is a novella-length celebration of stories, family and migration. Each of its chapters has a theme, indicated by the chapter title: for example, “Good White Bread”, “The Fire Trail” and “The Little Milk Maid”; each presents a snippet of life of the Kennedys, an Irish-Australian family, as they migrate from their ancient rural home in County Kerry in the early part of last century, to the streets of Surry Hills – with scenes reminiscent of Ruth Park’s Harp in the South – and beyond. Threading through the stories is the image of “wild chicory”, a plant that figures in both countrysides, and comes to symbolise both the wildness of the characters and the tales they tell, and the connections between generations over time.

A character who figures prominently in the stories is Nell Kennedy, the only daughter in a family of fourteen children, a feisty redhead who wages a battle with a neighbour and comes a cropper over some stolen forget-me-nots. In the way of children, Nell believes this theft is the reason her family uproots from Ireland and travels with nothing to a new home in Australia.

And after thinking about it for quite some time now, Nell realised that there was only one person in all of her family that could be blamed for what had befallen the Kennedys: and that was her small but wicked self. It was Nell’s fault that they’d had to sell up and leave their farm; it was Nell’s fault that Stanly the stag-pig was killed in his stall with his blood all running out into the med along the edge of the stone path there and reaching towards the back step; it was her fault that they were all here now, tossed on the black sea, bound soon, surely, to hit a subtropical iceberg and plunge to the fathomless depths – just like the Titanic. If only she hadn’t teased and taunted Mrs O’Neill, and squirted her with Maggie’s [the cow’s] milk. (p37)

Nell also figures as “the grandmother”, seen through the eyes of her Australian-born, half-Irish, half-Polish granddaughter Brigid. Like her grandmother, Brigid has a gift for storytelling and knows instinctively the vital role it plays in carrying people through the travails of everyday life. She clamours for her grandmother’s oft-told tales, stories that have taken on the feel of fables, knowing telling them will provide solace for her grandmother as she grieves the loss of her husband and lifelong mate.

Being one of twelve kids from an Irish-French Catholic family, I was primed from the start to enjoy this book. My Irish ancestors came to Australia earlier than these Kennedys, but many of the same values were passed down, including the prayers, the superstitions, the valuing of education, the adventurous spirit, the humour and, above all, the love of tall tales. One aspect that Kelly touches on that I found both interesting and moving is the reason she gives for the loss of language: the shame associated with the use of Gaelic, a marker of poverty and ignorance, which subsequent generations sought to erase. I know I was well into adulthood before I realised that certain idioms and cadences common among my family – especially my cousins in the country – were forms more common to Irish English speakers than speakers of standard English, vestiges of a language no longer spoken.

I always hesitate to say that my mum would love this book, but she will; so will my friend Denise. It’s a well told series of connected tales that vividly recreates a slice of Australian-Irish history.

~

Author: Kim Kelly
Title: Wild Chicory
Publisher: The Author People
Year of Publication: 2015

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Woman Writers Challenge. Thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway – a tale of life, love and hope

Dying in the First Person Nkie SulwayAfter finishing Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway, I felt as I did after reading Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. I immediately wanted to talk to someone who had read the book. I wanted to share its insights about love and language, about the near-impossibility of finding the words to express the truth about human existence, our hopes and fears, dreams and desires.

Dying in the First Person is about adult twin brothers who, as children, created a world with a language of its own: Nahum. In this world, single men live on individual islands. At an appointed time, a son appears, brought by the sea or by a bird, and once the boy is grown, the man sails away, because the island cannot carry the burden of more than one man’s heart. With this imaginative world as a backdrop, Sulway weaves a tale of love and loss, of escaping and yearning, of remembering and deliberate forgetting. As a teenager, one of the twins, Morgan, grows wild. He leaves the confines of the boys’ suburban life with their bookseller mother, their father having died in circumstances that the story is slow to reveal. The other twin, Samuel, stays with the mother, and is only reconciled with his estranged brother years later through writing: he translates stories that he receives from Morgan, now based in the Netherlands. These stories, written in Nahum, earn Morgan an international following before his sudden death.

Into Samuel’s world steps Ana, his brother’s one-time lover, whom he lets stay in the cabin he built for his brother on his property in the subtropical Queensland bush. Samuel is challenged by this interloper and also by the mysterious markings in Morgan’s final work, eighteen new letters or words that appear to have no referent in the world he and his brother created. At the same time, he discovers his book-loving and unconventional mother is ill and, as her illness progresses, her ability to distinguish between him and his brother in her memories deteriorates.

Dying in the First Person is fable-like in its resonance, both emotionally and aesthetically. There is much to ponder on; particularly provocative are hints about the erasure of women’s identity and writing, as well as the complexities of writing from an “other” gendered position. While much of the story’s focus is on language, its subjects are life, love and the secrets and inadequacies that keep us, as individuals, apart from our loved ones. The story is about human faults, failings and frailties; it’s also about hope. Reading it, I was reminded of a prayer that helped me through a challenging time in my relationship: “Help me see this person as they really are, not who I want them to be, and not who I fear they might be.” In this novel, through language, through love and loss and hope, Sulway points a way.

~

Author: Nike Sulway

Title: Dying in the First Person
Publisher: Transit Lounge
ISBN: 978-0-9943958-3-2
Date of Publication: 01/05/16

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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.

~

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.

~

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

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

In the months before her arrest, Anne Baxter had many hours to think about her future.

Ligt on Water Olga LorenzoWith this riveting opening, Olga Lorenzo begins a tale of woe, of a woman whose only ambition has been to love and nurture her own children, someone who had survived a harsh upbringing by a mentally unstable mother, whose marriage to a prominent barrister ended because he was unable to give her the emotional support she needed, and whose second child was born with a significant disability. The disappearance of this child, her younger daughter Aida, on an overnight bush walk in a remote coastal area of Victoria is the inciting incident for the novel: the trigger for Anne’s grief, her incarceration, her sense of guilt and the judgement of many among the community and remand centre inmates who mete out ongoing punishment.

On many levels this is a tough book to read. Despite the difficulties of her upbringing and her experience of every mother’s worst nightmare, the awful loss of her child, Anne isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. She displays something which, as I noted in an earlier review, is missing from characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things: the learned helplessness of the victim, the utter mind-stultifying and body-disabling passivity of those who have discovered from a very early age that it’s no use fighting; that the opposition, be it an abusive parent, a judgemental waitress, a drunk outside an airport or a fellow prisoner, is more powerful and will prevail; that survival depends on “copping it sweet”.

It’s a psychologically astute portrayal, but it can also make the reader deeply uncomfortable. For survivors of abuse, it can trigger recognition and empathy for the weakest parts of ourselves, but not necessarily compassion. My own reaction was principally one of anger. I found myself wanting to shake Anne, to say, “Wake up to yourself. Do something. Act. Respond. Fight back. Don’t be such an idiot! Think.” That’s not to say Anne is totally passive: the times she does respond had me cheering, such as when she puts her hypocritical neighbour in her place. But for the most part I found her passivity disturbing, as it dramatised, as it were, the parts of myself that fill me with self-loathing.

Counteracting the toughness of this emotional response is the pleasure derived from the novel’s use of language. Lorenzo is a teacher of creative writing and it shows. Running through the text are images drawn from nature: fish, insects, the coastal tides and the weather. At times the beauty of these images counterbalance the horror of Anne’s experiences; at other times, they echo them dispassionately or reinforce them:

Life has picked her up and carried her away on its own tide, lapping her up in its various eddies, disgorging her on these dangerous shores. (155)

Anne’s contemplation of the fish in her home aquarium stimulates reflection on her own passivity:

Is there something in her that demands that she not be comforted and helped? She’s sure there’s a pecking order among human, just as there is among her mollies, who vie for supremacy the minute two are put together in the aquarium. So does she need to have her fins shredded and her eyes picked out to remind her of her rightful place in the scheme of things? (75)

There is also a philosophical thread in the novel, an insistence that, no matter what, suffering can be endured and will be overcome. At times, this lifts the narrative into a paeon to women’s work, the work of mothering, of nurturing and enduring. Anne comes to remember with fondness the bliss of everyday, ordinary activities associated with motherhood and caring for a family:

[S]he had loved washing day, the satisfaction of the clean smells emanating from the laundry, and then the calisthenics of bending and lifting and wrestling everything onto the clothesline. She had loved the breeze catching her family’s sheets and making them billow, as if they were setting off to new lands. She revelled in the sunshine trapped in the clothes when they were brought indoors. She had felt this was a way to love her family – folding their socks and t-shirts and underpants felt akin to stroking each person. (325)

This satisfaction is made all the more remarkable for the fact that women come to the – often thankless – tasks of domestic life and child-rearing unprepared:

No one trains them, explains the countless, simple lessons mothers give their children every day. The patience required. The mind-numbing patience. (262)

There are many more aspects of this book to praise: Lorenzo’s ear for Australian idiom and depiction of class differences; her deft thumbnail sketches of incidental characters that make these people come alive on the page; her use of powerful verbs; her insights into psychology and character; her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes harsh, portrayal of different types of families; as well as her skill in portraying a range of difficult and subtle human emotions:

Looking out over the water, life at that moment seemed sad and sweet and as fleeting as the day.

This was something she felt sometimes as a child – a wistfulness, but also a tentative inkling of future possibility, of life renewed and waiting, and of the transience of her own being. (242)

Despite the toughness of the reading experience, despite the harshness and horror of much of what is portrayed, Lorenzo leaves the reader with a sense that everything will be okay.

~

Author: Olga Lorenzo
Title: The Light on the Water
Publisher and date: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781925266542

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

imageWhen a review copy of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner landed in my post office box, I thought, “Great, some new Aussie crime fiction!” Publishers know that I’m dedicated to reviewing works by Australian women and it’s rare they send me anything else.

So when I discovered the book was set in the UK and the author is a former journalist of The Guardian, I was a little taken aback; but the publicist who sent the book had done her homework. Those of you who know I set up a “We Love Books by Nicci French” group on Facebook will know I’m a sucker for dark and moody books that centre around a flawed female protagonist. Missing, Presumed is one of these and it doesn’t disappoint.

The main point of view character in Missing, Presumed is DS Manon Bradshaw, a cop in her late thirties whose biological clock is making ticking noises, sometimes loud, sometimes buried beneath a mountain of work or drowned out by disastrous encounters while internet dating. She drinks too much, doesn’t take care of herself, is scared off by polite, kind, gentlemanly types. She has a good best friend, a seemingly ever-optimistic partner on the job, and a fraught history with her sister.

When she is called on to investigate the disappearance of a young Cambridge grad student, Edith Hind, the daughter of a GP and surgeon to the royal family, she senses the case will be big. For a small regional police force with a chequered history where it comes to missing persons cases, it’s a high risk, high opportunity endeavour: bungling it could mean career death; solving it could establish her career and guarantee promotion.

Manon proves herself up to the task, but only barely. Throughout an extended investigation that sometimes looks and feels like it’s going nowhere, she suffers the ups and downs of affairs of the heart, strained office politics and family estrangement, all the while growing fond of a neglected ten-year-old boy whose elder brother is killed in suspicious circumstances.

While Steiner’s characterisation of Manon is deft, Manon is only one of several point-of-view characters, all of whom are equally well rounded. There’s Miriam, the missing girl’s mother; and there’s Davy, the Detective Constable, who works with Manon. Each has a story to tell and a journey navigating through fraught human relations.

The novel is carefully crafted and beautifully written. I kept wanted to stop and savour some of Steiner’s images – not always what a reader wants from a crime novel; but even if, at times, the language drew attention to itself a little too much, I didn’t mind. As well as the finally honed language, there’s a sensibility in the book that attracts me. This is a book you read not just out of curiosity for “whodunnit?” of “what happens next?”. It’s also a book which portrays both the best and worst of what it means to be human.

When I finished it, I immediately looked up the local library catalogue to see whether it has Steiner’s first novel, Homecoming (it doesn’t). Given that I’ve dozens of books on my To Be Read pile, I’d say this means Steiner is an author to watch.

~

Author: Susie Steiner
Title: Missing, Presumed
Publisher and date: HarperCollins, February 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-812328-4

 

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 Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Halfway through reading Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, I felt compelled to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading The Natural Way of Things

Such is the power of this book that after I finished it, immediately I searched for someone to discuss it with. I rang a friend who had been to the book launch on Monday night, hoping she might have read it already. She was only a few chapters in, but she told me a friend of hers, after finishing it, had rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.

I wanted to weep while reading this book. I felt like there was a lifetime of tears – behind my rage – waiting to be shed. But I didn’t cry and I think I know why.

This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.

Two such characters, Verla and Yolanda, are given points of view in the narrative. Verla is the educated former mistress of a politician who denied having “relations” with her; Yolanda is a beauty from a working-class background whose boyfriend dumped her after she was gang raped by a group of footballers. Such is Wood’s mastery of narrative that it took me a while to realise Verla’s story is told in the present tense, Yolanda’s in the past – so seamless are the transitions.

Throughout the story, Wood’s descriptive power is stunning. She describes the violence wielded by the girls’ warden, Boncer, in ironic terms as having the ease and fluidity, if not the beauty, of ballet:

[S]he didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and the leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

A few paragraphs later, she extends the picture created with a vivid, terrible simile:

Turning his brown leather stick in his hands, its hard, lumpy stitched seams like a botched wound. Like a scar that would make worse ones. (25)

One of Wood’s techniques I particularly noted was her use of adjectives to add sound, texture, movement and atmosphere to her descriptions: “skittering footsteps”, “thickening bush”, “busy fingers” and “noisy silence” are a few examples chosen at random; while many others form powerful triplets, such as “slow, long-bodied wasps” and an ice-chest with a “hoary galvanised-metal face”.

Throughout the story Wood shows her mastery of figurative language, often drawing from domestic situations to create beautiful, fresh and deceptively simple images:

A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet. (199)

A pleat of blue has opened up in the clouds. (249)

With such language, a terrible tale is wrought. The girls in the story suffer, endure, survive, collapse under pressure and revive – or not, each in their own way.

What the story didn’t do was something which from the outset I had unconsciously expected it would: depict from the inside the ultimate psychic degradation of abused women; that is, the learned helplessness and hopelessness of internalised misogyny, the self-hatred and self-abuse that leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm, that makes women believe they deserve whatever bad things happen to them. While girls with such attitudes are portrayed in the story, they remain somewhat at a distance, seen through the eyes of the point-of-view characters. Both Yolanda and Verla are far more empowered. Even the crisis Verla suffers towards the climax of the book isn’t one of self-worth or self-doubt; she and Yolanda are women whose sense of agency and ability to withstand is not seriously threatened – even as their physical survival isn’t assured. For me, there is a third, silent, untold narrative that haunts the book: the woman whose sense of self-worth doesn’t survive.

It’s that narrative, I think, that would have summoned my tears, but perhaps it’s just as well Wood didn’t write it. I might never have stopped crying.

I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.

~

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Order of things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: October 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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

Entitlement by Jessica White

Their daughter, when she stepped onto the platform, looked to Leonora as hard and weary as a soldier. There were blue circles beneath her eyes and she was scrawny, her hair dull. Leonora embraced her. The girl’s body was like steel, but her mother didn’t care. It was Cate, and she was home. (p 2)

So Jessica White introduces the main character of Entitlement, Cate McConville, a thirty-year-old doctor who returns from her practice in Sydney to the small Queensland town of Tumbin, to face her ageing parents’ desire to sell the family farm.

It is eight years since Cate’s brother, and Leonora and Blake’s son, Eliot, went missing. As well as burying herself in work to the point of malnutrition, Cate has spent every spare moment searching for her beloved brother. She blames herself for her brother’s disappearance, for the choices she made and the company she kept; and she blames her parents, for encouraging Eliot to stay on and work the farm instead of following his passion for music; but she never gives up hope that one day she will find him: one day, he will come “home”. With this hope still alive, Cate doesn’t want to sell the farm, and, having made her and Eliot partners in the venture, her parents need her signature. Her unwillingness drags up old family tensions that come to a head as secrets about the past are revealed.

Entitlement is a moving story about grief and loss. It deals with these themes on more than one level.

Alongside the story of the McConvilles is that of Mellor and his extended, Aboriginal family who have kept almost continuous ties to their ancestral land, the land now “owned” by the McConvilles and other white families who have bought or inherited it. It’s a complex and challenging endeavour to write from the point of view of an indigenous character when you’re white, and Sue from WhisperingGums discussed this very point in her review of Entitlement published last month. Like Sue, I think White handles this sensitively.

image

~

This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers 2015 Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. I own a copy of the book which I won in an AWW competition and received from the author.

Jessica White
Entitlement
Melbourne: Viking, 2012
ISBN: 9780670075935

%d bloggers like this: