When Susan Varga made the momentous, long-delayed decision to commit herself to writing, her first task was to write her mother’s story – that of a Holocaust survivor who migrated from Hungary to Australia with her second husband and two daughters in 1948, when Susan was five. That story, which is also one of a complex and difficult relationship between mother and daughter, became the award-winning Heddy and Me (1994).
Dominique Wilson’s new novel is another foray into the field of historical fiction. Her two previous novels deal with the pain of living through periods of civil strife and migration, and cover long periods of time and several cultures: The Yellow Papers (2014) is set in China and Australia from the 1870s to the 1970s, while That Devil’s Madness (2016) moves from Paris to Algiers to Australia and back from the 1890s to 1970s.
Another book about a mother by a daughter, I thought when I saw this one, summoning to mind Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands (2014), Kate Grenville’s One Life (2015), and Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter (2018). But while each of those books presents an impressive woman cramped – sometimes tragically so – by her postwar circumstances, in this case we have a subject who was nothing short of a national treasure.
In 1942, The Pea Pickers was published by Angus & Robertson in Sydney, garnering high praise for its freshness and poetic invention. A picaresque tale of two sisters who, dressed as boys, earn their living picking seasonal crops in Gippsland in the late 1920s, it impressed Douglas Stewart, literary editor of the Bulletin, with its ‘love of Australian earth and Australian people and skill in painting them’. The author, Eve Langley, was at that time incarcerated in the Auckland Mental Hospital, where she would remain for the next seven years, isolated from her estranged husband and three young children, and from her mother and sister, who were also in New Zealand.
‘Ern Malley’ – a great literary creation and the occasion of a famous literary hoax – has continued to attract fascinated attention ever since he burst upon the Australian poetry scene more than seventy years ago. But his sister Ethel has attracted little notice, she who set off the whole saga by writing to Max Harris, the young editor of Angry Penguins, asking whether the poems left by her late brother were any good, and signing herself ‘sincerely, Ethel Malley’.
Craig Munro’s latest book shines a spotlight on the work of some very different Australian book editors. It begins in the 1890s, when A.G. Stephens came into prominence as literary editor of The Bulletin’s famous Red Page. It continues through the trials and tribulations of P.R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen in publishing and radical politics in the interwar period and his internment during the war for his association with the Australia First Movement. Literary Lion Tamers then moves on to Beatrice Davis’s long career as a professional book editor with Angus & Robertson after World War II. It concludes with Rosanne Fitzgibbon, with whom Munro developed fiction and poetry lists at the University of Queensland Press.
After My Brilliant Career appeared in 1901, Miles Franklin spent a few years living in Sydney, where she enjoyed being fêted as a new literary sensation. Her attempt to earn a living by writing fiction and journalism about women’s issues was less than successful; even the timely and witty suffrage novel, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), was knocked back at first. In 1906, at the age of twenty-six, she left Australia for the United States. She spent the next nine years living in Chicago and working for the Women’s Trade Union League, secretary to its wealthy patron, Margaret Dreier Robins, and editing its journal, Life and Labour, with her compatriot Alice Henry. The two Australians enjoyed recognition as enfranchised women, a status that American women were still fighting for.
The Innocent Reader, Debra Adelaide’s collection of essays reflecting on the value of reading and the writing life, also works as a memoir. Part I, ‘Reading’, moves from childhood memories of her parents’ Reader’s Digest Condensed Books to discovering J.R.R. Tolkien and other books in the local library, and to the variable guidance of teachers at school and university. Its centrepiece is the powerful essay ‘No Endings No Endings No’, which juxtaposes the shock of discovering that her youngest child has cancer with her grief at the death of Thea Astley in 2004. The last words of Astley’s final novel, Drylands (1999) give this essay its title. Adelaide draws out the hope that they suggest as she tells how reading – aloud to her son in hospital, and to herself when he was too ill to listen – enabled her to survive this terrible time.
Kenneth Cook (1929-87) was a prolific author best known for his first novel, Wake in Fright (1961), which was based on his experience as a young journalist in Broken Hill in the 1950s. In January 1972, as I sat in a London cinema watching the film made from this novel by director Ted Kotcheff, its nightmare vision of outback life seared itself into my brain ...
In 2016 A.S. Patrić’s first novel, Black Rock, White City won the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Two years earlier (he told an interviewer) he couldn’t even get a rejection slip for it: not one of the big Australian publishers responded when he sent the manuscript. The independent company Transit Lounge took it on ...