Harmless by Julienne van Loon

With the right kind of mindfulness, William Blake tells us, one can behold infinity in a grain of sand. – Janette Turner Hospital on Harmless

When a writer like Janette Turner Hospital pens a back-cover blurb for another Australian author, I pay attention. What is it about Julienne van Loon’s novella, Harmless, soon to be released by Fremantle Press, which has attracted such a gifted admirer? The snippet from Hospital quoted on the front of the book states: Harmless is “suffused with a tough and totally unsentimental compassion”.

harmless-van-loonI notice, too, review words like “unsentimental”; it seems to be used often when female literary authors are praised. Sentimentality implies emotional manipulation, and a lack of subtlety and nuance. The term has been used to dismiss the work of a plethora of “female authors”, especially those writing in genres such as romance. But what does “unsentimental” mean? I’m tempted to think it’s code for “writes like a man”, or “give this book a girlie-looking cover at your peril”. It’s praise, but is it gendered praise?

In van Loon’s case, unsentimental certainly doesn’t mean unemotional. Far from it. Nor does it mean she avoids topics commonly associated with so-called “women’s writing”, such as relationships, children and family; it even has a female protagonist. What it might mean is a kind of unflinching courage to face the darkest aspects of human frailty and vulnerability while avoiding pathos or despair.

Harmless is another one of those “devastating” books that has been my privilege to discover through the Australian Women Writers challenge. It tells the story of an eight-year-old girl whose Thai step-mother has just died, and who is on the way to visit her feckless father in prison, accompanied by the dead stepmother’s frail elderly father. This father, who speaks little English and who is fresh off the plane from Bangkok, has no idea where he is or what to do with this child who has unexpectedly been placed in his care; he believed his daughter to be happily married to a good man, and with children of her own.

The two get lost on the way to the prison; they abandon their car on the edge of scrubland and are separated as they wander off to find help. The landscape is desolate, like the lives van Loon portrays; their survival uncertain.

This novel is about people on the fringes of society, “losers” one might say. Issues of race and class are central, but understated. There’s no obvious moral compass given, no superior perspective the reader is invited to occupy from which to judge these people. Rather, the focus is on love, and lack of love, and what might constitute a family.

By the end, I felt wrung out, hurt by the author’s bleak picture of humanity and yet consoled, too.

Who will enjoy this novella? Anyone who relishes subtle and emotionally powerful prose; who is interested in a portrait of contemporary Australian life that doesn’t shy away from issues of social disadvantage; and who can bear the heartbreak.


This review counts towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 challenge. My thanks to the publishers for supplying a review copy.

Title: Harmless by Julienne van Loon
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781922089045

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt

A couple of weeks ago, small Western Australia publisher Margaret River Press sent me a review copy of their first fiction offering, Finding Jasper. It’s by debut novelist Lynne Leonhardt, was successfully submitted for a doctorate in creative writing, and earned Leonhardt the Dean’s Prize.

According to the cover blurb:

It is 1956, and twelve-year old Ginny has arrived at the family farm, ‘Grasswood’, in the southwest Western Australia.  She has been left in the care of her lively, idiosyncratic aunt, Attie, while her mother, an English war bride, returns home for a holiday.  Ginny is the youngest of three generations of very different women, whose lives are profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper: son, brother, husband, father.  A fixed point in all their lives is the landscape, layered with beauty and fear, challenge and consolation, isolation and freedom.

The novel is beautifully written.

I read it almost in one sitting and promptly rang up my mum to see if she wanted to borrow it. Then I emailed an elderly poet and memoirist in WA to ask her if she would like to review it for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. As I hit “send”, I thought of another friend I think would enjoy it, a writer of historical fiction. It’s that kind of book: it deserves to find readers and I’m happy to recommend it and pass it around.

Yet, as I was reading Finding Jasper, several other texts kept clamouring for attention at the back of my mind. Sometimes these texts echoed the content, sometimes they were in counterpoint, until it seemed I wasn’t just reading one book, but several. Each sang together in a rich, complex, intricate piece – a fugue, if you will.

The musical metaphor is apt, as music is central to Finding Jasper.

The main character, Virginia – or “Gin”, plays the piano initially and wants to be a professional musician. During the Second World War, Virginia’s mother worked in the British army as a Morse Code specialist; Leonhardt makes the point of telling the reader that the opening bars for Beethoven’s 5th – the famous, “da-da-da-daah” – is the Morse signal for “V”, and came to stand for “Victory”. In the lead up to the novel’s most emotionally charged moments, Virginia plays a sombre Bach prelude as an act of defiance toward her neglectful, card-playing mother. The aftermath is devastating.

Music haunts Finding Jasper, by turns sad, angry, evocative, challenging and hip.

Of the various texts that echoed as I read Finding Jasper, three are recent releases by Australian women. The first is Emily Maguire’s Fishing For Tigers: it, too, more tangentially, deals with the impact of war on the lives of Australians (reviewed here). The second is Liz Byrski’s novel, In the Company of Strangers – another book I was happy to pass on to my mum. Like Finding Jasper, it’s set in WA’s south-west, and touches on the lives of English immigrants after the Second World War. The third is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens (review forthcoming). All four novels depict women who don’t conform to gender-typical roles, some of whom behave “badly”.

I want to see more women like this, I’ve decided. Flawed women. Women whose poor choices and less-than-desirable mothering is explained by their personalities and their histories, histories of trauma, abuse and dislocation. These kind of women feel real to me.

Already the characters of Finding Jasper are haunting my memory.


Thanks to Margaret River Press for the review copy. It counts as book 9/12 for the Aussie Authors Challenge and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers challenge.

Finding Jasper
ISBN-13: 978-0-9872180-5-6
Published: 2012

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