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Family Memoir

Slipstream is both a memoir and an essay on migration. It hangs upon the story of one family, who migrated from Yorkshire (where this book was published) to Sydney in 1949. The narrator was their first-born in the new land and, as she tells it, her life has been one of constant oscillation, both emotional and physical, between England and Australia. It is a tale of her parents’ ‘exile’ and her ‘returns’ – to the country she only ever knew in stories, as she was growing up, but which became ingrained in her imagination.

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As a poet Robert Gray is a magical storyteller. His first poetry collection, Creekwater Journal (1974), marked out his key territory of interest: the small towns, rural communities, landscapes, and people of the New South Wales north coast. Although he has travelled widely and written about other cultures, cities, and characters, his poetry’s richness is still tethered to the textures, talk, and rhythms of his country town childhood. His word pictures immediately transport the reader to another place. The idea that ‘eucalypts are the blue of husky voices’ or the recognition of a long jetty and ‘a few gull­molested fishing boats’ are the images of a beguiling writer.

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‘Let’s get this death thing straight’, declares Julian Barnes in his recently published memoir-cum-meditation Nothing to Be Frightened Of. He sets out to confront mortality, the titular ‘nothing’, but manages only to peer at it through parted fingers. He takes short peeks, which calls to mind the title of his death-haunted novel Staring at the Sun (1986).

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In the sixteenth century a Swiss physician and alchemist by the name of Paracelsus claimed that everything was potentially poisonous, as long as you took enough of it: ‘the right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.’ There is plenty of evidence to support this point of view. Legal claims for damages caused by asbestos and passive smoking are reminders that what may be a safe environment for some can be toxic for others. Indeed, one of the most common forms of contemporary poisoning is known as an ‘overdose’. The substance was fine. The amount was wrong.

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After a three-month journey to Madagascar by steam-ship, the first thing to greet the newly married missionaries Thomas and Elizabeth Rowlands were fields of wet sugar cane. Brightly painted wooden cottages surrounded the harbour; former slaves and Arab, Indian, and Chinese traders filled the streets. ‘Rain fell heavily, but covers of rofia cloth, which swelled and thickened in the wet kept the travellers dry.’ Their granddaughter, Joan Rowlands, describes their inland journey in Voluntary Exiles. Crossing crocodile-infested rivers, bearers held the Rowlands aloft, ‘shouting and beating [the waters] with branches and poles to ward off attack’.

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