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Viking

Tommo & Hawk by Bryce Courtenay

by
June 1998, no. 201

I suspect that Bryce Courtenay’s novels about early Tasmania, The Potato Factory and Tommo & Hawk, have introduced countless general readers to aspects of Australian literature which might otherwise remain terra incognita. For this reason, I applaud his enterprise.

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The Sitters by Alex Miller

by
May 1995, no. 170

Intimacy, someone has said, is ultimately unintelligible. Yet this novel suggests that intimacy, to the self and to others, may well be all we have. Miller’s three previous novels move in a similar direction. But in them there was a good deal still of the world of the likeness, of the external world as it seems to be. The Sitters, however, is about drawing a portrait of an ‘art of misrepresentation’, which interrupts our historical consciousness and unmasks the pretentions of rationality, taking us out into the dark beyond common sense, touching something else beyond words.

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It’s a clever and provocative title that Patsy Adam-Smith has chosen for her autobiography. She is a woman who has said many ‘goodbyes’ in her rich and adventurous life; and she is of an age and disposition where ‘girlie’ is heard as an endearment, not a put-down. Patsy Adam­Smith is one of Australia’s greatest writers, although you will rarely hear the literati or the academics say so in public. As an historian she has been more widely read than Manning Clark (it would be interesting to know how many of the purchasers of Clark have been able to finish each volume); and she and Wendy Lowenstein have listened to the histories of more Australians than probably the rest of us put together. But she remains insignificant in the eyes of the theorists of oral memory and historical consciousness.

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When most of literary publishing is in the doldrums, literary biographies are seen to be the one bright line in the publisher’s balance sheet. Such is the enthusiasm for biographies that a bevy of scribblers are at this moment casting about for a writer who hasn’t already been ‘done’. I find something unset­tling about this voyeuristic fascination where the life of a writer has come to possess an inherent interest, quite apart from the work for which the writer became famous. On this, if not much else, I agree with the caustic Gore Vidal:

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‘Years ago we threw the old didacticism (dowdy morality) out of the window; it has come back in at the door wearing modern dress (smart values) and we do not even recognise it.’ John Rowe Townsend’s words, from more than a quarter of a century ago, retain a fresh ring of truthfulness. I recalled them after reading The Girl with No Name (Puffin, $8.95 pb), Pat Lowe’s first novel for children.

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The trial of Lindy Chamberlain drew the fascinated attention of most Australians when it was reported day and night in every media outlet. It moved into a different but equally popular mode with the publication of John Bryson’s documentary novel Evil Angels and the screening of Fred Schepisi’s film of the same name. The novel not only won a clutch of awards but was translated into nine languages, a sufficient achievement to earn its author an enduring international reputation and to globalise what might otherwise have been a short-lived local curiosity. Bryson’s account picked up the dramatic intensity of the Central Australian setting and the human agonies of the players, as well as the universal issues, such as justice and prejudice, that towered over the Rock and the courtroom.

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I discovered Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney in a Sydney second-hand bookshop in 1980. Published in 1973, it was already out of print, probably because it evokes a Sydney that no longer existed. In the early 1970s, Park writes, ‘Sydney was beginning to pull itself to pieces, the air was full of fearful noise, the sky of dust … And the terrible sound of the rock pick tirelessly pecking away at Sydney’s sandstone foundations was over all.’

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Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel takes a leap into the past, to a large hospital in wartime England where Veronica Wright, an awkward girl just out of a Quaker boarding school, endures the discomforts and humiliations of a trainee nurse. As we have come to expect from this writer, there are all sorts of marvellous things tucked away in odd corners. Sharp observations of hospital routine – preparing bread and butter for the patients’ trays, chasing cockroaches with steel knitting-needles, shivering on night duty, and trying to keep warm in old army blankets – are mixed with passages of grotesque comedy, and with one or two memorable instances of the macabre, nowhere more effectively than in the death of a gangrene-ridden, maggot-infested patient.

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It seems strange to describe Diamond Jim McClelland as, really, rather an old-fashioned man. Few septuagenarians have anything like his energy, his forthrightness, his optimism, or, most of all, his receptivity to new ideas. But if there is a continuous thread in his extraordinarily full and complex life, it can probably be best summed up as a very untrendy, passionate commitment to morality. The catch is that his ideas of what constitutes morality – or at least what is the best way of achieving it – have gone from here to there and back again.

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As I became more and more engrossed in this wonderful novel, I asked people I came across ‘Thea Astley?’ And they’d answer vaguely ‘I keep meaning to read her’ or ‘she’s meant to be good’ or ‘I don’t know why I haven’t, she’s written quite a few, hasn’t she?’ Who does read Thea Astley? Me, now; and people I come across will. I’ll make sure of it.

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