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.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Ever since posting Margo Lanagan’s piece for the Australian Women Writers challenge, I’ve been looking forward to reading Kate Forsyth’s novel, Bitter Greens.

Forsyth isn’t a new author for me – year ago, I read and enjoyed the Witches of Eileanan, a series aimed at young adults – but Bitter Greens is the first adult novel of hers I’ve read. The novel ranges over two centuries, combines history and fairytale, and creates portraits of three different women: a real historical character, novelist Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the girl fabled as “Rapunzel”, and her imagined captor and “witch”, the Venetian courtesan “Selena Leonelli”. It’s more ambitious than any of Forsyth’s Fantasy series, especially in its self-reflexive quality. Central to the tale are themes concerning the art of narrative, and the genesis and profession of story-telling. This ambitious structure is both a strength and a weakness.

While less than a third the way in I was spell-bound, the beginning of the novel didn’t quite sweep me away as I’d hoped. After a page introducing the chief story-teller, Charlotte-Rose, as a child, the narrative jumps to show her as a grown woman. This rapid shift didn’t allow me to get to know Charlotte-Rose, to care about her and know what she wants out of life. I felt little sense of the tragic irony I guessed Forsyth was trying to create, the sense that here is a great character destined to fall. As the book progressed, however, I enjoyed Charlotte-Rose more and more. Forsyth portrays her as a headstrong, sexually active woman, with enough self-interest, stubbornness and resourcefulness to pursue her career in defiance of the mores and life-threatening risks of her time.

I felt more immediate empathy for the other point of view characters, Leonella – the witch – and Margherita – the Rapunzel figure. In these threads of the narrative, Forsyth demonstrates her skill as a Fantasy writer, with the storytelling every bit as enchanting as fairytales of old.

~

This post completes my Aussie Author 2012 challenge, and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. AWW reviews of Bitter Greens include the following:

Kate wrote a guest post for Bree here: Bree 1girl2manybooks.

ISBN-13: 9781741668452
North Sydney, Vintage Australia (Random House) 2012
Borrowed from Avalon Community Library

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

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