One of the few advantages a contemporary writer of historical fiction has derives from working in a context with laxer censorship laws. Representations of sexuality and violence once proscribed can be incorporated to better approach the social conditions of the period. With regard to narratives about Australia’s convict history, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life was written after transportation had ceased to the eastern Australian colonies, while farther west Fenian convict John Boyle O’Reilly’s Moondyne was published after he had escaped from Western Australia and found sanctuary in the United States.

Reader interest in the convict period has never flagged, however. More recently, Jock Serong’s magnificent Preservation (2018), together with Peter Cochrane’s terrific The Making of Martin Sparrow (2018) and Rohan Wilson’s award-winning double act of The Roving Party (2011) and To Name Those Lost (2017), are nuanced and comprehensive readings of the barbarism visited upon both the convicts themselves but also upon Australia’s First Nations peoples.

Catherine Jinks’s Shepherd, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, similarly evokes the terrible conditions of the frontier for both convict and Aboriginal subject alike, in the cloth of a highly readable, richly characterised, beautifully written novel. Much like Wilson’s To Name Those Lost, which draws suspense from a central chase plotline, Shepherd too is structured around a pivotal incident, which sets off a chain of violent events and maintains its narrative intrigue from a sustained pursuit.


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    One of the few advantages a contemporary writer of historical fiction has derives from working in a context with laxer censorship laws. Representations of sexuality and violence once proscribed can be incorporated to better approach the social conditions of the period. With regard to narratives about Australia’s convict history ...  

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  • Alt Tag (Grid Image) David Whish-Wilson reviews 'Shepherd' by Catherine Jinks
  • Book Title Shepherd
  • Book Author Catherine Jinks
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 226 pp, 9781925773835
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Everyone knows about the final days of Adolf Hitler – his abject suicide in a clammy Berlin bunker. Many prominent Nazis followed suit, including the master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who broadcast messages to the public espousing the virtue of death over defeat. His wife, Magdalena, wrote: ‘Our glorious idea is ruined, and with it everything beautiful, admirable, noble and good that I have known in my life. The world that will come after the Führer and National Socialism won’t be worth living in, so I have taken the children with me.’ There were six of them, all killed with cyanide.

But what of the everyday people? This is the subject of Florian Huber’s Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The mass suicides of ordinary Germans in 1945, a 2015 bestseller in Germany now translated into English by Imogen Taylor. Huber, an author and documentary filmmaker, examines the tens of thousands of Germans who took their own lives in 1945 – mostly in eastern states, where the much-feared Red Army was brutally advancing (some two million German women were raped during this time).

The first part of the book, Huber’s strongest, focuses on the small north-eastern town of Demmin. From April 30 to May 3, some 700 to 1,000 people took their own lives there – men and women, young and old, Nazi Party members and non-members. Abandoned by the German army, which burned the bridges behind them, Demmin’s civilians were stranded. Corpses filled the rivers and woods; many of those who committed suicide killed their children as well.

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    Everyone knows about the final days of Adolf Hitler – his abject suicide in a clammy Berlin bunker. Many prominent Nazis followed suit, including the master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who broadcast messages to the public espousing the virtue of death over defeat. His wife, Magdalena, wrote ...

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  • Alt Tag (Grid Image) Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself
  • Book Title Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself
  • Book Author Florian Huber, translated by Imogen Taylor
  • Book Subtitle The mass suicides of ordinary Germans in 1945
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 224 pp, 9781925773699
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Melbourne woman Kate Holden’s memoir of being a heroin user and of working as a prostitute to fund her habit opens with a quote from Virgil: ‘To descend into hell is easy. But to return – what work, what a labour it is!’ The quote is at odds with the life story Holden constructs in this brave, explicit, and extremely well-written book. Far from being a kind of hell, Holden represents prostitution – first on the streets of St Kilda, then seven nights a week in brothels – as something she liked doing and was good at. I can’t dispute the second claim, but I did have trouble believing the first one.

Holden describes herself as a princess in her brothel, a glorious, desirable woman decked out in velvet or chiffon, waiting for the ‘rank after rank’ of men who came in to ‘compliment me, worship me, pay for my time, my presence’. Makeup concealed the lumpy scars in the crooks of the princess’s arms. Clients wanted her time, but might not have been so happy to pay for the medication she required afterwards.

Nevertheless, as the author’s sexual skills increase, she feels herself more and more adored. Indeed, the memoir suggests that prostitution was so empowering that it helped Holden to kick a heroin habit of more than half a decade. I say suggest because the book is very much about working as a prostitute rather than about how the author escaped from that grinding life. It is the story of the hard labour required for Holden to fund not only her heroin addiction but that of her boyfriend, a pathetic character who whinges that she spends too much time at the brothel and not enough with him.

The life story constructed by this gifted writer is that of the good girl turned bad, of a privileged young person (a Melbourne University arts graduate no less) who has it all and decides to throw it away. The publicity material from Text plays up the author’s middle-class upbringing in ‘the leafy suburbs of Melbourne’. The writer herself recounts, with relish, the pillow talk about French literature and history that she enjoys with her more educated clients.


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    Melbourne woman Kate Holden’s memoir of being a heroin user and of working as a prostitute to fund her habit opens with a quote from Virgil: ‘To descend into hell is easy. But to return – what work, what a labour it is!’ The quote is at odds with the life story Holden constructs in this brave, explicit, and extremely well-written book ...

  • Book Title In My Skin: A memoir
  • Book Author Kate Holden
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32 pb, 287 pp, 1920885900
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Murray Bail has passed muster as an important Australian novelist for quite a while now.  His 1980 novel Homesickness, with its sustained parodic conceit of Australian tourists forever entering the prefab theme park, rather than its ‘real’ original, was an early national venture into what might have been postmodernism. Holden's Performance, a good time later, was as unyielding in its comedy, its surrealism, and its ungainly effortful lurch towards art. The ungainliness with Bail is part and parcel of whatever triumph there is (and it can be considerable). He is to fiction-writing something like what Buster Keaton was to the life of the body. There is a stoical sadness and solemnity to his fictions (which resemble even the more magical forms of realistic novel writing the way a slab hut resembles a townhouse) that comes it seems from the author’s incomprehension and incapacity in the face of anything like novelese. The husband of Helen Garner seems as incapable of telling an involving transparent story where the characters come off the page as he is of flying at the moon. On the contrary, he is a kind of homespun modernist, the sophistication of whose handling of his material is in inverse relation to his own narrative suavity.

Murray Bail has always written with a bit of a clunk. His sentences sing no tune, and he is always in danger of defying the very comprehension of the reader because his material seems so undramatic.

Somehow, however, by some act of mercy or access of craft, he is, as a writer, aware of this, and his natural disabilities are transfigured into a kind of deadpan humour of nearly bottomless slyness and buffoonery. And his narrative powers, which look, at times, like a man trying to build the house of fiction out of icy-pole sticks, are salvaged by his acute sense of the corniness of every story – particularly the kind of calamitously enfeebled one he might concoct – and the fact that his artistry is therefore a critique of the very idea of structure in fiction.


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    Murray Bail has passed muster as an important Australian novelist for quite a while now.  His 1980 novel Homesickness, with its sustained parodic conceit of Australian tourists forever entering the prefab theme park, rather than its ‘real’ original, was an early national venture into what might have been postmodernism. Holden's Performance, a good time later ...

  • Book Title Eucalyptus: A novel' by Murray Bail
  • Book Author Murray Bail
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.95 hb, 255 pp, 1 875847 63 4
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In Peter Temple’s phenomenally successful The Broken Shore (2005), detective Joe Cashin wonders what the right result might be in the case of murdered businessman and philanthropist Charles Bourgoyne. Lawyer and romantic interest Helen Castleman’s answer is succinct: ‘The truth’s the right result.’ The truth of The Broken Shore was murky, disturbing and came with a price.

Several years later, a minor character from The Broken Shore, Stephen Villani – Joe Cashin’s best friend – takes centre stage as head of Homicide in Melbourne. Truth is marketed as a sequel to The Broken Shore, but it’s not; the only connection is that several other minor characters from the previous work reappear here. Readers will recognise Detective Paul Dove, as well as Detectives Birkerts and Finucane. Cashin hovers on the outskirts of the action, and Jack Irish, from an earlier series of novels, makes a cameo appearance. Women have walk-on roles and, naturally, there is a love interest, but this is a dark, violent world of troubled men and their obsessive allegiance to the dead; men who have not learned from those who came before. ‘I’m several generations flawed,’ Villani says with characteristic self-hatred. ‘The object will soon be unusable.’ Fans will also recognise the gallows humour, the brutal violence and the whiff of decay that rises from the pages.


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  • Custom Article Title Chris Womersley reviews 'Truth' by Peter Temple
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    In Peter Temple’s phenomenally successful The Broken Shore (2005), detective Joe Cashin wonders what the right result might be in the case of murdered businessman and philanthropist Charles Bourgoyne. Lawyer and romantic interest Helen Castleman’s answer is succinct: ‘The truth’s the right result.’ The truth of The Broken Shore was murky, disturbing and came with a price ...

  • Book Title Truth
  • Book Author Peter Temple
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.95 pb, 386 pp, 9781921520716
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If you’re squeamish, this book probably isn’t for you. Each page delivers shocking or mundane violence and descriptions of guts and gore so frank they become a kind of poetry. There is clear relish in Del Amo’s depictions, and there is nothing gratuitous about them; he brings us rivetingly close to each fold of decrepit skin, the agonies of labour, the fantastic indifference of nature. With encyclopedic precision and almost esoteric punctiliousness, Animalia tells the unsettling story of a family of farmers in south-west France from 1898 to World War I, then jumps forward to 1981, the year (perhaps not coincidentally) of Del Amo’s birth.

We begin on a squalid farm, the father prematurely stooped and exhausted, the child, Éléonore, already old, the nameless ‘genetrix’ withered and miserable. When Éléonore is born, after two miscarriages described in gruesome detail, she is laid upon the new mother who lies ‘as still as a gallows’. The body and its physical processes, written with clinical poise, stripped of sensuality and tenderness, seem instruments of anatomical performances: sex is rarely more than perfunctory fornication; birth is parturition; women do not breastfeed but suckle their young. The daily cruelty of life on the farm is normalised to the point of banality: skulls are blithely smashed; still-twitching bodies are flung on the dung heap; a human foetus is left for the pigs.


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The poetic, sensual treatment of the minutiae of deliquescence and dissolution climaxes with the drawn-out decline of the father: ‘in the faecal magma of the abdomen, a silent army emerges’. Del Amo never passes up an opportunity to describe the body’s afflictions, from mild pruritus to rectal prolapse. French prides itself on having le mot juste, the exact word for the specific thing. Frank Wynne, in his brilliant and faithful translation, matches this sometimes tortuous effort blow for blow, conveying the French original’s Adamic pleasure in naming.

While part two begins in summer with a communal washing scene and hay harvest, any hint of optimism is soon quashed: ‘Even the children seem only to remain children for the blink of an eye. They come into the world like livestock, scrabble in the dust in search of meagre sustenance, and die in miserable solitude.’

We are taken to the battlefields of World War I with Marcel, a distant cousin who comes to help on the farm, but first we experience war through the animals. Requisitioned from the farms, transported to the rear, they are butchered to feed the soldiers, who are themselves butchered by the war machine. On these killing fields, the paroxysm of depravity, indifference, and cruelty reaches biblical proportions,  with comparisons to Gehenna and the fourth plague of Egypt. Micro-history meets world history with Marcel’s return, one of millions of gueules cassées, facially disfigured servicemen. His silent trauma is inflicted on Éléonore, who is powerless to protect their  son, Henri, from his violent outbursts.

Nothing is in stasis; things morph from one state to another in a continuous cycle of growth, decline, putrefaction, death, and renewal. In the earlier sections, people dig wells in the earth with their bare hands and pigs forage for grubs in the layers of pigeon excrement and leaf litter; while in the latter, the telluric connection is lost, severed by concrete and a cocktail of industrial chemicals. By 1981 the smallholding is an industrial pork farm and the anus mundi that is the pig shed produces a ceaseless flow of fetid effluent. The fumes and sludge permeate the men’s skin and lungs, no matter how vigorously they scrub themselves, and seep into their waking dreams and sleeping nightmares, oozing in and out of every orifice. We join Henri (now in his sixties), his sons, and their complicated family which deals with its own set of traumas: alcoholism, physical and mental-health breakdowns, silence, incest, deceit.

After nearly three hundred pages of violence and misery, the comprehensive downfall of the final section, ‘The Collapse’, comes as a kind of relief, and the thread of animal–human metamorphosis, in the lineage of Franz Kafka and Marie Darrieussecq, reaches an intense culmination. Here, a level of personal anger pierces through Del Amo’s otherwise quiet voice. We are struck by the cycle’s nauseating senselessness; the toxic legacy of the chemical compensations devised to counteract the genetic deficiencies deliberately created in the pursuit of cheap meat.

It is difficult to compare the grim violence of the first half of the text with the depravity of the second, yet there is certainly a warning against any nostalgia for the bucolic life on the farms of yore. Animal and familial brutality are presented as umbilically linked, the violence of industrial farming embedded in ancestry, transmitted through some inescapable, atavistic magnetism.

Animalia, the first of Del Amo’s four novels to be published in English, continues a steady line of French literature of physical and existential disgust from Rabelais to Houellebecq. It is as magnificent as it is bleak: a sickening and strident alert. In a moment of lucidity, seeing his reflection in a pig’s pupil, Henri delivers an ominous warning: ‘The eye was in the tomb and stared at Cain.’ I wondered whether Animalia is about animals or humans, the body or the mind, our inner lives or our relationship with nature. It seems to be about all of these elements and how they are at once isolated and entwined, bound in language that searches to map and understand them through their complexity and exactitude.

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  • Custom Article Title Phoebe Weston-Evans reviews Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne
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    If you’re squeamish, this book probably isn’t for you. Each page delivers shocking or mundane violence and descriptions of guts and gore so frank they become a kind of poetry. There is clear relish in Del Amo’s depictions, and there is nothing gratuitous about them; he brings us rivetingly close to each fold of decrepit skin, the agonies of labour ...

  • Book Title Animalia
  • Book Author Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 424 pp, 9781925773767

In 1880, Turgenev visited Tolstoy at his country estate after a long period of estrangement, only to discover that the great novelist had, in the interim, renounced art in favour of ethical enquiry. Turgenev was appalled, and dashed off a letter complaining that

I, for instance, am considered an artist. But what am I compared to him? In contemporary European literature he has no equal … But what is one to do with him. He has plunged headlong into another sphere … He has a trunk full of these mystical ethics and various pseudo-interpretations. He has read me some of it, which I do not understand … I told him, ‘That is not the real thing’; but he replied ‘It is just the real thing’.

The reader of Diary of a Bad Year should be forgiven a similar perplexity. J.M. Coetzee has used his formidable skills to produce a novel whose overriding concern with ‘the real thing’ also plunges it into a sphere outside of art. Given a main narrative that purports to be a work of non-fiction by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), one that battles quixotically with a world gone awry, and in a manner not so far removed from Coetzee’s own public efforts, it is hard to escape the connection with Tolstoy’s didactic period: a time when the author’s ethical impulses – the agonising question of how to live well – overwhelmed aesthetic ones, in what the critic Philip Rahv called a ‘willful inflation of the idea of moral utility at the expense of the values of the imagination’.

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  • Custom Article Title Geordie Williamson reviews 'Diary of a Bad Year' by J.M. Coetzee
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    In 1880, Turgenev visited Tolstoy at his country estate after a long period of estrangement, only to discover that the great novelist had, in the interim, renounced art in favour of ethical enquiry. Turgenev was appalled, and dashed off a letter complaining that ...

  • Book Title Diary of a Bad Year
  • Book Author J.M. Coetzee
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $35 hb, 178 pp, 9781921145636

On the face of it, this book represents a strange project: to elaborate for the reader’s consideration the moral beliefs of a man whom the author judges (and judged in advance, one suspects) to be shallow, inconsistent, lacking moral and intellectual sobriety, and to have failed so often to act on the moral principles he repeatedly professes that he can fairly be accused of hypocrisy. What interest can there be in detailing that over 303 pages? The answer, of course, is that the man in question is George W. Bush – ‘the president of good and evil’, as he is described in the book’s title , because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are the terms to which he is repeatedly drawn when he moralises about national and international issues.

It comes as no surprise that Singer judges Bush’s ethics to be ‘woefully inadequate’ and the man to be the same. Even so, this book reminds those who already believed it, and it should compel those who don’t, to acknowledge that the reasons for believing it are powerful. Singer makes his case more persuasive by including, unusually for a philosopher, extensive empirical research on matters that range from Bush’s tax policies to the invasion of Iraq. When I finished the book, I was again frightened by the awful meaning of the fact that Bush is the president of the most powerful nation on earth, again anxious about those aspects of America that make that possible and overwhelmed by a sense of the complexity of that extraordinary nation. Singer’s highly qualified acknowledgment that the news is not all bad because Bush has done more about Aids in Africa than his predecessor didn’t diminish any of those responses. Nor, I think, does Singer believe that it comes to much. Disdain for Bush, for his kind of morality and religion, is evident in many passages in what would otherwise seem to be a book striking for its touchingly earnest attempt to take Bush’s beliefs seriously.

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  • Custom Article Title Raimond Gaita reviews 'The President of Good & Evil: The ethics of George W. Bush' by Peter Singer
  • Contents Category Politics
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    On the face of it, this book represents a strange project: to elaborate for the reader’s consideration the moral beliefs of a man whom the author judges (and judged in advance, one suspects) to be shallow, inconsistent, lacking moral and intellectual sobriety, and to have failed so often to act on the moral principles he repeatedly professes that he can fairly be accused of hypocrisy ... 

  • Book Title The President of Good & Evil
  • Book Author Peter Singer
  • Book Subtitle The ethics of George W. Bush
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $30 pb, 303 pp, 1920885080

Anyone who heard Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures or who has listened to her in any other way will hear her voice clearly in this book: contemplative, reflective, warm, gently paced. Dancing with Strangers seems to have been written as if it were meant to be read aloud. It reaches out to its listeners, drawing them within the world of the settlement at Port Jackson during its first dozen years, from 1778 to 1800. The two leading figures are Governor Arthur Phillip (who departed in 1792) and Bennelong.

Clendinnen’s method is ethnographic history. This offers a way into the past that, in good hands, is full of brilliant possibilities. The trick lies in choosing a period that is richly documented, fastening on the minutiae of behaviour and building up, step by step, the image of a mental universe – another world, vividly patterned and inevitably different from the here and now. Indeed, the reader is invited to move into another here and now.

A great deal depends on the way in which the writer issues that invitation. Ethnographic history, once an exciting aspect of Australian scholarship (especially in Melbourne), has fallen under a shadow lately, and part of the reason lies in the difficulty of persuading readers to take the kind of journey it involves. Questions of identity and ethnicity, leading historical issues since the 1990s, complicate the invitation too much. Readers nowadays don’t leave behind their own here and now, their own identity and ethnicity, as easily as they used to do. History tries to say at least a little about what readers might be themselves, as much as about past Others.

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  • Custom Article Title Alan Atkinson reviews 'Dancing with Strangers' by Inga Clendinnen
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    Anyone who heard Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures or who has listened to her in any other way will hear her voice clearly in this book: contemplative, reflective, warm, gently paced. Dancing with Strangers seems to have been written as if it were meant to be read aloud. It reaches out to its listeners ...

  • Book Title Dancing with Strangers
  • Book Author Inga Clendinnen
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $45 hb, 334 pp, 1877008583
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When Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote The Secret Life of Plants (1975), many critics labelled their attempt to prove a spiritual link between people and plants as mystical gibberish, with a New York Times review chiding the authors for pandering to charlatans and amateur psychics. The review noted that although Tompkins and Bird made a fascinating case for plant sentience ‘suspended in the aspic of their blarney, it all looks equally improbable’. In the ensuing decades, more books have been published on the life of trees and their relationship to humans, some of which have sold well and been enthusiastically received by critics. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate – discoveries from a secret world (2016) topped bestseller lists and earned him a flattering interview in the profile pages of The New York Times.

While an interest in trees has certainly emerged among an educated readership, Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays could be viewed as a heartfelt and timely postscript to much of this tree talk. It’s all very well to read books on trees, but what are we doing to save them and the animals and ecosystems that rely on them for survival? What will become of the groves that cannot replace their felled compatriots fast enough? What irreparable damage will climate change do?

Naturally, it’s a political book, but it’s also touchingly personal, tracing Cunningham’s encounters with trees as she moves across continents and her hometown of Melbourne. Cunningham’s wide roaming acts as an entry point into stories on the trees, gardens, and plants she discovers during her lengthy constitutionals and sojourns. In ‘Escape to Alcatraz’, Cunningham volunteers as a gardening worker over two bird-breeding seasons on the San Francisco Bay island of Alcatraz. She photographs the snowy egret colony and takes a particular interest in ‘survivor plants’, those two hundred or so species that grew defiantly through the forty-year period between the closure of the prison and the start of the garden’s maintenance program. In ‘Tourists Go Home’, she touches on the deleterious consequences of travel for the trees and the broader environment. Cunningham used to preference travel over everything else – superannuation, sensible purchases, meaningful savings – but now she isn’t so sure. Almost nine million people visit Barcelona each year, and it’s getting harder to find places where the locals don’t want you to leave. Tourists, of course, also come in the form of animals and plants, which can sometimes have a severe impact on the biodiversity of the region. In ‘I Don’t Blame the Trees’, Cunningham displays a talent for great observational detail, noting that the debate as to whether eucalypts should be removed from California’s Angel Island is loaded with inflammatory phrases such as ‘immigrant’, ‘invader’, and ‘refugee’. She resists championing the cutting down of non-native species simply because they don’t support local flora and fauna, wondering instead, quite astutely, what will replace the old trees after they are removed and pointing out that these days all of us are from somewhere else anyway.

Cunningham leavens her firsthand stories with summaries of scientific research and interviews. The result is an intriguing mélange of personal journey and journalism. The giant sequoia, we learn, are among the world’s oldest trees and their final numbers can be found along a belt of the western Sierra Nevada. When Cunningham walks through a grove of them, tears streaming down her face, she thinks, ‘I would lay down my life for you’. Indeed, language often fails Cunningham, an accomplished prose writer, when she would like it the most. Standing before old-growth trees, reaching for description, her mind stalls before their majesty. She sketches the trees instead, but even this proves challenging, with Cunningham left to wonder, ‘Is it possible to draw, or write, a forest?’

Sunlight coming through some redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Muir Woods National Monument in CaliforniaSunlight coming through some redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Muir Woods National Monument in California (photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a range of statistics deployed throughout the essays to emphasise the threat that trees face, but a handful stand out: almost all of the baobabs from Africa – many of them more than two thousand years old – have died; and it’s estimated that koalas will be gone from the wild by 2050. Australia fares especially poorly in looking after its habitats, with thirty-five per cent of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 occurring in Australia, yet we have not listed a critical habitat for protection for more than a decade. Furthermore, less than two per cent of the mountain ash estate in Australia is now old growth, prompting Cunningham to ask, ‘In what universe would a reasonable person think it was okay to cut down an 800-year-old tree and reduce it to a few hundred dollars’ worth of woodchips? Ours, apparently.’ Trees do grow again, Cunningham notes, but climate change is accelerating climate variation, making it more difficult for organisms to adapt.

While researching the essays, Cunningham experiences a succession of personal traumas, which become a way of framing the persistent grief she feels for the loss of global species and habitat. Cunningham and her wife, Virginia, return from living in San Francisco at the height of the internecine debate over gay marriage in Australia, ‘which seemed to devolve into the right of LGBTQI teachers to teach and the right of bakers to refuse the supply of wedding cakes’. While she is writing many of these essays, her father, John, who was originally her stepfather before adopting Cunningham and her brother, is in a high-care ward in Melbourne with frontal lobe dementia. She flies home to be by his side at the end, and he dies surrounded by family. Not long after John dies, her biological father, Peter, dies from Parkinson’s disease.

Following these two losses, Cunningham experiences months of insomnia; she takes comfort in animals and the living world. She opens windows around dawn to hear the birds, or rain, or building works, ‘anything other than the sound of nothing at all’. Biologist E.O. Wilson has described the post-extinction landscape as the Eremocene age, or ‘The Age of Loneliness’, and this is what Cunningham really fears: the emptiness that follows when a vital connection – be it with a father or the natural world – is severed.

In this sense, these fine essays convey what factual reporting on the threat of climate change and the loss of habitat cannot: something beautiful is dying, something precious and monumental may be lost forever. The temptation these days is to look away from the sadness, to rant on Twitter about the threat to old growth rather than to visit extant forests, but Cunningham is doing nothing of the sort. The final essay, ‘Mountain Ash’, ends with a visit to ‘Ada’, who has no surviving old-growth companions around her. Cunningham is aware of scientists’ aversion to overstating the consciousness of trees, of how this leads people to jump to conclusions about their supposed personalities. She is, however, unapologetic, telling Ada, ‘I will drive, I will wade, through fields laid waste by clear-felling, through ancient and perfect rainforest, to stand before you, my queen.’ The effect of this highly confessional approach is oddly mesmerising, and while Cunningham’s essays are accounts of her intimate encounters with trees, her gift is in making them feel like they are our stories as well.

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    When Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote The Secret Life of Plants (1975), many critics labelled their attempt to prove a spiritual link between people and plants as mystical gibberish, with a New York Times review chiding the authors for pandering to charlatans and amateur psychics ...

  • Book Title City of Trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest
  • Book Author Sophie Cunningham
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $24.99 hb, 312 pp, 9781925773439
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