Shirley Walker

Susan Sheridan’s Nine Lives, a ‘group biography’, analyses the life stories and literary achievements of nine Australian women writers. The purpose, according to Sheridan, is not only to rediscover the life story of each, but also, by exploring their publishing and aesthetic context, to create a ‘fresh configuration’ of our literary history.

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The reissue in one volume of three of Ruth Park’s much-loved novels The Harp in the South (1948), its sequel Poor Man’s Orange (1949), and the prequel Missus (1985) is welcome. The trilogy completes the family saga, taking the Darcy family from its emigrant beginnings in the dusty little outback towns where Hughie and Margaret meet and marry, to their life in the urban jungle of Surry Hills, then for-ward to the 1950s when the next generation prepares to leave the slums for the imagined freedom of the bush. These are Australian classics, but classics of the vernacular, of the ordinary people. They should never be allowed to disappear from public consciousness.

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Some stories deserve to be told more than once. Retold, they cannot be the same. Even when the teller is the same person, the shift in time and experience will make the story new. In The Ghost at the Wedding, Shirley Walker returns to the material of her autobiography, Roundabout at Bangalow (2001), in order to focus more closely on the saddest and most powerful memories therein: those of the young men of her family who served in two world wars.

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Alex Miller, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award for Journey to the Stone Country (2003) and The Ancestor Game (1992), is one of our most profound and interesting writers. His latest novel, Landscape of Farewell, tells the story of Max Otto, an aged and disillusioned German professor of history, devastated by the death of his beloved wife. He knows now that he will never write the historical study of massacre that was to have been his crowning achievement. Instead, paralysed by a sense of guilt-by-association – he has good reason to think that his father took part in the atrocities of World War II – he has retreated to a remote and bloodless historical study, that of intellectual upheaval during the twelfth century.

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Graeme Kinross-Smith, the author of Long Afternoon of the World, is a prolific writer, perhaps best known for his poetry – and it shows. This narrative is infused with the poetry of landscape and the joy of music: ‘Down the rooms of the past I hear music ... Music informs landscapes, the patient streets, the city’s lights spreading across the hills.’ The world of Tim Menzies comes alive on the page, and it is quintessentially Victorian. He recalls the Melbourne of his childhood, ‘shop and vacant block, rare beach, street games, lumbering planes in the sky that sound like the War’; present-day Melbourne, ‘its relentless, tired, opportunist rhythm’, and the family farms in the Mallee and the Wimmera. Most of all, Tim’s mind lingers on the wild coast of western Victoria, where he meditates and writes in an old church. The seascapes, as well as the notion of the healing power of the sea, account for some of the most lyrical passages in Long Afternoon.

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While Australian women in particular have been avid diarists and letter-writers, the activity du jour is overwhelmingly the writing of memoir, inspired by the notion that everyone’s life is memorable and worth recording. Some memoirists are searching for the truth of their lives, to recover the past or perhaps recover from it. Some are simply recording their story for family consumption. Others, the more ambitious, are seeking publication and fame. Carmel Bird’s advice to them – ‘Stay young. Stay Beautiful. And maybe climb Everest with your eyes shut’ – is the only pessimistic comment in this whole book.

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Jill Golden’s Inventing Beatrice is a fictionalised account of the life of her mother, Beatrice (or B). This is life writing at its most precarious, right out there on the borderline of ‘fact’ and the ‘inventing’ of the title. Is it a novel or a biography? The media release labels it a novel but concedes that it ‘crosses the genres of biography and autobiography, fiction and non-fiction, speaking in several voices’. What is certain is that the point of view, and of judgment, is constantly shifting as the narrator sets out to unravel the enigma of her mother’s emotional frigidity and to find out the real circumstances of a childhood that, she feels, has destroyed her. Why did B send her three small daughters – the youngest only eight months old – away from home for more than five long years? They spend this time in foster care, then boarding school.

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Dove by Barbara Hanrahan

by
October 1982, no. 45

In Dove, the familiar Barbara Hanrahan ingredients – acute realism and the fantastic, the grotesque – are combined once again to produce yet another powerful and moving novel. The scale of realism and fantasy is, as always, finely balanced. The various locations of the novel, for instance, are beautifully realised. Hanrahan has the eye of the graphic artist for the broad canvas, the sweep of light and sky, and the telling detail. Her eye ranges from the Adelaide Hills to the suburbs of ‘pebble dash and pit­tosporum’ to the Mallee: ‘an antipodean jungle of stiff splintered branches, a mysterious pearly-grey gloom’ interspersed with the ‘faraway rash of green’ that is the wheat. Yet there is more to landscape than this; place is used throughout to evoke psychic states. Appleton, for instance, suggests beatitude and primal innocence. Arden Valley the fairytale potential for the transformation of life, and the Mallee the promised land of plenteous crops and realised love.

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