University of Queensland Press

Circles of Faces by Mary Dadswell & Self Possession by Marion Halligan

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July 1987, no. 92

In her autobiographical sketch One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty wrote of her mother: ‘But I think she was relieved when I chose to be a writer of stories, for she thought writing was safe.’ Can you just imagine the shock on Chestina Welty’s face when she read, as she must have, this sentence tucked away into the middle of one of her daughter’s first stories: ‘When he finally looked down there was blood everywhere; her lap was like a bowl.’ 

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Subtle-tasting experience, dating back more than ten years, has made me suspicious of ideologues who take pen to comment on Their Own. Whether they’re, say, reviewing the fiction or writing the history of Their Own, the continuing good of the Cause tends to be a primary consideration. So my sceptical heart sank when I heard that the biography of James Duhig, Catholic Archbishop in Brisbane from 1912 to 1965, was being written by Father T.P. Boland, a priest of that diocese.

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Dreamhouse by Kate Grenville

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October 1986, no. 85

Dreamhouse, written before the wonderful Lilian’s Story (1984 Vogel winner), was the Vogel runner-up in 1983. Kate Grenville’s writing in this novel is clear-headed, strong, both witty and humorous, and above all lifts the imagination high. Dreamhouse wins my ‘Chortle, Gasp’ Prize for black comedy incorporating a design award for ‘best romantic fiction parody’ (it could have been called A Summer in Tuscany). It’s a darkly delightful book to read. Subversion of romantic expectations is immediate, ingenious, and horribly funny. Louise Dufrey is one half of an unlovely couple whose marriage looks perfect but is actually defunct.

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Professor Hassall’s study of Randolph Stow is indeed a strange country. A text which sets out to establish Stow as ‘a more important writer than is generally recognized’ and to show that his ‘best work bears comparison with Patrick White’s’ promises an intellectual engagement with either critics or the text or both which would lead to reassessment of Stow’s work. It appears that these are Aunt Sally’s – although Professor Leonie Kramer, who is presented as one of Stow’s ‘sterner “realist” critics’, can hardly be seen as such an aunt. Hassall puts her up but barely touches her, leaving the counterargument to Dorothy Green. Perhaps he’s being gentlemanly. However, to quote a paragraph from Green which asserts that ‘One of the greatest weaknesses of Australian criticism has always been its refusal to take religious ideas seriously’ is to take advantage of the lady. Hassall needs to fight his own battle against Leonie Kramer’s judgement of Stow’s work as being ‘quasi-religious’ and misguidedly experimental.

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‘We assume, of course, that we are masters and not servants of facts,’ observes T.S. Eliot in an early essay, ‘and that we know that the discovery of Shakespeare’s laundry bills would not be of much use to us’. The sentence continues, still flickering between amusement and seriousness, futility of the research which has discovered them, in the possibility that some genius will appear who knows of a use to which to put them’. If he had lived a decade or so longer, Eliot may have smiled to hear of the furore which attended the publication of Nietzsche’s unpublished manuscripts, including his laundry bills. And while he may not have been entirely amused by Jacques Derrida’s essay, Éperons, partly prompted by this publication, Eliot would doubtless have agreed with one of the theoretical points that was made: it is impossible to tell for sure which of an author’s writings do not belong to his or her oeuvre.

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Transgressions edited by Don Anderson & The Australian Short Story by Laurie Hergenhan

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May 1986, no. 80

I have a theory that every second Australian is a closet short story writer. And this is a conservative estimate. According to my theory, the so-called ‘booms’ in the history of the Australian short story in the 1890s and 1950s merely reflected fashions in the book and magazine publishing businesses, not the relentless scratching away in exercise books or thumping of battered typewriters which occupies the waking hours of the determined taleteller and which is, I am convinced, a more popular national pastime than dodging income tax. How else to explain the sheer volume of short stories being published? And these are but the tip of the iceberg – a mere fraction of those that have been and are being written.

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Headlands by Bruce Beaver

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May 1986, no. 80

The jacket painting on Bruce Beaver’s highly wrought little book of prose poems is Lloyd Rees’ ‘The Coast near Klama’. It’s an elevated view of virgin green and dun coloured headland, the ochres rising through. Sea swirls into an oysterish bay. There is one distant figure looking down on another distant figure in a rock pool below. The sky, as with so many Rees skies, is egg-shelly yellow near the horizon, a glowing compliment to the taste we form and hold of earth.

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The immediate virtues of this book are not difficult to see: Andrew Taylor is a skilled poet who understands the workings of syntax and rhythm, and who knows how to shape his poems into unified patterns with an apparent minimum of fuss. The poems tend to have a regular and easy pace; their fluency is considerable. Taylor writes with a genuine confidence and a literary awareness which is for the most part sophisticated and supple. His diction is uniform and he is careful not to overreach himself. There is no visible strain in the whole performance.

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A colleague asked if I thought that Elizabeth Jolley’s Foxybaby might have gone ‘over the top’. I assume she meant that the book might be ‘too much’ because the function of its preoccupation with (say) crime and sex, including incest and homosexuality, was not immediately apparent. The question is a reasonable one, but for two reasons I don’t think that her latest novel does go over the top: there is no theme used or technique employed in Foxybaby which has not appeared in Jolley’s writing before; and, ad astra (perhaps per aspera or per ardua), the book represents a logical but highly imaginative development from her most recent work.

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Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville & Bearded Ladies by Kate Grenville

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November 1985, no. 76

What a pleasure to be reviewing Kate Grenville’s collection of stories and her novel!

First, Bearded Ladies: The stories are a delight. Ranging with ease over four continents, they portray women in a variety of relationships – girls brought face-to-face with a sexual world, women coping with men, without men, women learning to be. The writing is witty, satirical, compassionate, clear as a rock pool and as full of treasures.

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