What a phenomenon Bryce Courtenay is. In a world where we are constantly being told that books are on the way out, he sells them by the barrow-load. They’re big books, too. This one weighs 1.2 kilograms and is seven centimetres thick. It’s the kind of book that makes a reviewer wish she was paid by the number of words read rather than written. Perhaps that is part of Courtenay’s secret: 842 pages, even with reasonably large type, adds up to something approaching 300,000 words. The average novel is probably a quarter of this, maybe a third, but costs $25 or $30. Words per dollar, Courtenay offers value for money.

He also offers a huge amount of factual information. Brother Fish gives us the Korean War, with POW hospitals and camps, the life of a black orphan in 1950s New York, the world of White Russian refugees and Triad gangs in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the White Australia Policy. After surmounting seemingly insurmountable odds with cunning and heroism, the orphan (a Korean war veteran, nay, hero) and the White Russian end up running an international export business in partnership with the eldest son of a fisherman (another war hero) on an island in Bass Strait. Every inch of the path that led them there is explained, along with all the historical circumstances, in large undigested chunks. Nothing remains a mystery.

Except perhaps the inner life of these characters. Jacko, the first-person narrator, has the emotional life of a bright twelve-year-old. He has trouble concentrating on more than one thing at a time. For example, on page 525, Jacko becomes engaged to Wendy, an ‘exquisite’ creature who makes him ‘weak at the knees’ and so on. He can’t believe his luck. However, Jacko seems to become reconciled to the shock fairly easily: the exquisite but apparently forgettable Wendy is not mentioned thereafter until page 782, having by then become a loyal and biddable wife, helping to build up the business.


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    What a phenomenon Bryce Courtenay is. In a world where we are constantly being told that books are on the way out, he sells them by the barrow-load. They’re big books, too. This one weighs 1.2 kilograms and is seven centimetres thick. It’s the kind of book that makes a reviewer wish she was paid ...

  • Book Title Brother Fish
  • Book Author Bryce Courtenay
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Viking, $49.95 hb, 842 pp, 0670042080
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A small bay is a cove, and so is a man, according to old-fashioned slang. The Coves takes advantage of this coincidence: it’s a story about a gang of men that rules ‘Sydney Cove’ in the mid-nineteenth century. But this is not the familiar Sydney Cove in New South Wales. There is another one across the Pacific in San Francisco, where arrivals from Australia, ‘pioneers in … viciousness and depravity’, were said to commit ‘atrocious crimes’, according to the novel’s epigraph from Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast (1933).

We first encounter Sam Bellamy, a resourceful and basically decent boy on the cusp of puberty, attempting to appease the mutineers on a whaling ship en route from Sydney to the Californian gold fields. Alone in the world, he is heading to America in search of his mother. Life is cheap both on the ship and on land. In a lawless society, he survives on finely tuned instincts: telling the right stories when he’s noticed, knowing where to hide when he’s not. He and his dog ‘had survived by reading the faces of men’.

If you like your villains barbaric, your headcount high, and your fallen women soft-hearted, The Coves may be the book for you. Young Sam is likeable and ingenuous: when he rates the Coves’ leader, Thomas Keane, as one of the ‘finest men he’d met’ – despite his being a standover man, a killer, and a thief – it no doubt reflects the quality of humans he has encountered so far.

Whish-Wilson’s prose aims for an antique register with elements of both poetry and contemporary slang, which it rarely achieves, straining too often under adjectival overload. He nevertheless tells a vivid adventure story and at the same time reveals a little-known chapter in Australian–American history.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'The Coves' by David Whish-Wilson
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    A small bay is a cove, and so is a man, according to old-fashioned slang. The Coves takes advantage of this coincidence: it’s a story about a gang of men that rules ‘Sydney Cove’ in the mid-nineteenth century. But this is not the familiar Sydney Cove in New South Wales. There is another one ...

  • Book Title The Coves
  • Book Author David Whish-Wilson
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  • Biblio $27.99 pb, 211 pp, 9781925591279

‘And so I patch it together … I take the liberty of seeking not only an explanation but a connection between what at first might appear to be disparate ingredients.’ The narrator of Gregory Day’s new novel, A Sand Archive, takes many liberties. Enigmatic in various ways, apparently solitary, nameless, and ungendered, this character is nevertheless full of fascinated admiration and affection for an older man who is virtually a stranger, and candid about the feelings and impulses that compel the creation of an intimate account of his life and career. The patchwork is composed of clues found in an obscure publication titled The Great Ocean Road: Dune stabilisation and other engineering difficulties by FB Herschell, along with an archive in ‘the small prime ministerial library at the university on the edge of the water’ in Geelong.

I will admit that this novel sent me, from time to time, to atlases, library catalogues, and Wikipedia. It is absolutely anchored in its place and time, as befits a novel about a civil engineer employed by the Victorian Country Roads Board in Geelong in the second half of the twentieth century. To foster the illusion of historical plausibility, there are illustrations dotted through the pages – grainy greyscale photos of sand dunes, car factories, and, tantalisingly, scraps of manuscript from Francis Herschell’s ‘diary’. But he is not in the author catalogue of the State Library of Victoria and no book with exactly that title exists. Gregory Day’s novel is, like the narrator’s construction of Herschell’s biography, built from a powerful mixture of established historical circumstance and imagination.

A road that is built on sand dunes is both an engineering problem to be solved and a potent metaphor for the human predicament. In A Sand Archive, the young Herschell – familiarly called ‘FB’ in the novel – travels to France in 1968 to meet the experts and report on the suitability of a species of grass to solve the problems of the Great Ocean Road, which periodically collapsed.

In the exultation and chaos of Paris in May 1968, FB meets Mathilde, a student from the very coastal area of France he is about to visit. Their affair is brief and intense, constrained not by convention or family disapproval, but by Mathilde’s sense of the historical moment, which makes her ‘return to the fray,’ away from her undoubtedly strong attraction to the shy young civil engineer from Australia. FB’s encounter with a passionate French woman becomes his defining moment. He never marries, spending his life in Geelong wrangling with his unimaginative and suspicious boss in the CRB, quoting Hélène Cixous to the seagulls, frequenting ‘the bookshop in James Street, Geelong’ where one day he meets the narrator. He writes his book, an obscure volume in which the narrator finds ‘no schmaltz, no spin, only knowledge, technique, experience, and, every now and again, an unexpected glimmer of poetry’.

Poetry glimmers in the novel, too. Often enough I found myself gasping with delighted surprise at an apt and original phrase. Paris in 1968 is alive with ‘a festivity of discontent’. When FB is with Mathilde, everything felt ‘both electric and ambiguous’. At his moment of plenitude, ‘this quickening convergence of his heart and mind’ in France, he wonders if he is ‘suddenly homesick for the astringent and slightly defensive version of existence which he led in Australia’. This is a beautiful description of the life of an intellectual in the provincial Australia of this period, when the life of the mind tended to be regarded with suspicion. The narrator writes, ‘Perhaps for my generation in Australia it has been easier to live the examined life, easier at least to find friends who would be excited by Proust’s theatrophone, or Marguerite Duras’s honesty, or the creative experiments of Georges Perec and Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo).’ But we are warned against pitying FB as ‘a single man shut away with his intellectual obsessions in a quiet house on a quiet street in a small regional city’. The narrator emphasises that this is not the man he met only briefly in person but got to know through the written word, in manuscript and print. ‘My feeling upon meeting him was that he was a man who had fully digested the absurdity of human endeavours, in the sense that we as humans so repeatedly get things wrong.’ He could live with knowing that his great contribution to Victorian road safety was doomed to be condemned by later generations as environmental vandalism: ‘that even as we attempt to rectify our old mistakes we are destined to make new ones’. The introduction of European marram grass to stabilise sand dunes in Australia is perhaps not a mistake on the scale of the introduction of rabbits or cane toads, but the grass is nevertheless now regarded as an invasive species.

Gregory Day photograph by Reg Ryan ABR OnlineGregory Day (photograph by Reg Ryan)This novel about sand and engineering is also, of course, a novel of ideas and passions; a novel about writing a book about sand, engineering, ideas, and passions. ‘Can I presume?’ wonders the narrator. For the biographer, inevitably the question arises as to ‘whether the FB I have created, or re-created, in these pages bears any real resemblance to the man who actually lived’. For the novelist, there are other questions. This is an ambitious, multilayered novel, a novel for intellectuals, for bibliophiles; a book to contemplate, to burrow into, to enjoy with ‘a thinking heart’.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'A Sand Archive' by Gregory Day
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    ‘And so I patch it together … I take the liberty of seeking not only an explanation but a connection between what at first might appear to be disparate ingredients.’ The narrator of Gregory Day’s new novel, A Sand Archive, takes many liberties. Enigmatic in various ways, apparently solitary, nameless, and ungendered, ...

  • Book Title A Sand Archive
  • Book Author Gregory Day
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Picador, $29.99 pb, 302 pp, 9781760552145
Friday, 23 March 2018 14:02

Letters to the Editor - April 2018

Flouting Christian principles

ABR Mar2018 Cover 175Dear Editor,
Paul Collins’s essay ‘God and Caesar in Australia: The Close Nexus between Government and Catholicism’ (ABR, March 2018) was a brilliant piece. What I found most interesting was the huge gap between the teachings of Jesus on human behaviour – compassion, tolerance, love, concern for others, empathy – and the apparent abandonment of such principles by the so-called Christian Right in our parliament. Its approach to the marriage equality issue and the bill led by the courageous Senator Dean Smith seemed to flout all Christian principles. The same situation appears to be so in the United States, How can such contradictory attitudes be deemed Christian?

John Miller, Toorak, Vic.


Trivialising the tale

Dear Editor,
Saul Bellow says somewhere that in fiction sentences should be ‘charged’ – something should quietly beat through them. When you begin reading, this is what you should listen for: imaginative confidence, a sense of sureness. This applies to historical fiction as much as any other. You don’t ask, ‘Is this true to history?’ You ask, ‘Is this true to itself?’ Luke Slattery’s Mrs M is imaginatively true from beginning to end.

Mrs M SlatteryReading Gillian Dooley’s review of Mrs M, I felt as if it were an account of a different novel altogether (ABR, March 2018). Her criticisms are mostly of the pernickety kind, although she conflates them into a vaguely defined sense of disapproval. What I found astonishing was her reluctance to convey to your readers any of the novel’s finer qualities: its energy, its humour, its visual sensitivity, and the achievement of conveying, in a first-person narration, the interior life and adventures of an intelligent and spirited woman of the early nineteenth century. I felt, from the very first pages of Mrs M, a sense of authorial authority.

Dooley provides only two fragmentary quotes, out of context, and they are used – rather clumsily – to scorn the novel. I suspect that her decision not to quote any longer passages was part of a general reluctance to give the book its due. I should add that she never gives an adequate account of the story – the essential matter of the novel – which is the political drama that Macquarie provoked when he insisted that former convicts were the equal of free settlers and that the penal colony at Sydney Cove should become an elegant Georgian town. As a result, she not only diminishes the novel’s stylistic achievements, she trivialises the story itself. The novel deserved better.

Barry Oakley, Wentworth Falls, NSW


Thuggish methods

Dear Editor,
I will believe that the Chinese employ thuggish methods abroad when they have their Marines in Darwin, conduct exercises with our Navy, mandate our military purchases, and exclude Australians from listening posts at Pine Gap and the North West Cape. The rivalry between US and Chinese investors is commercial; only the PR has a different complexion.

David Fitzpatrick (online comment)


Tim Rowse

Indigenous Australians RowseDear Editor,
I’m surprised that Philip Jones was impressed by, and seemingly convinced of, the validity of Tim Rowse’s argument that institutionalisation ‘ensur[ed] the survival’ of Australia’s Indigenous population (ABR, March 2018). Isn’t this just another way of saying ‘at least European invaders didn’t massacre them all’? The reviewer also comments, with apparent disapproval, that ‘For some historians, an appreciation of the actual damage done to Aboriginal people by colonialism can cause bias to affect their work’. I would think that the most objective historians should be rightly concerned about ‘actual damage done to Aboriginal people by colonialism’, and that acknowledging that damage should not draw a charge of bias. I’m afraid I disagree with your reviewer. Rowse’s work sounds very much like an apologist interpretation of colonial policies, at least from this review of it.

Claire Rhoden (online comment)


Beowulf

BeowulfDear Editor,
Bruce Moore, in his review of the new edition of Beowulf, has offered a good review and a useful discussion of translation issues (ABR, March 2018). It would be interesting to know the extent of translator Stephen Mitchell’s knowledge of Old English. Given the wide linguistic range of his other translations (Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese), one wonders how much he himself draws on the work of others, or whether he is one of those impressive intellects skilled in many languages. I agree with Bruce Moore that the Beowulf translations of Michael J. Alexander and Seamus Heaney stand out, but even better is Alexander’s Penguin Glossed Text of the poem where readers (with a fair amount of work) can find their way into the original – Old English text on the left hand page, glossary on the right. Sydney University taught me Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English in the 1960s. Happily, I see it is still teaching others the same.

Robert Wills (online comment)

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    Comments from John Miller, Barry Oakley, Davd Fitzpatrick, Claire Rhoden, and Robert Wills.

'Mrs M’ is the second wife of Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821. Luke Slattery explains in his Author’s Note the impulse behind his novel – Elizabeth Macquarie’s voice coming to him, romantically, in a dream. It was not quite unprompted. He had been visiting her home territory in the Hebrides, having already written a short book about the Macquaries’ last years in New South Wales (The First Dismissal [2014]). But this book is different; and it is Slattery’s first novel.

Mrs M is an ‘imagined history’, but a skeleton of historical fact is fleshed out in it, with a few inconvenient ribs missing, and some joints slightly realigned. The Dromedary, the ship on which the Macquaries travelled to New South Wales, was not a convict ship, with or without a certain convict architect aboard. Slattery’s Elizabeth suffers from unfruitful pregnancies, as the historical woman did, but Slattery dispenses with the son she actually did bear, along with the real-life architect Francis Greenway’s wife. His Elizabeth is a woman of decided opinions and strong feelings who has grown up solitary and proud as a member of the Campbell clan. She is ruled not so much by social constraints and mores as by her own system of alliances: loyalties she has formed based on deliberate choices she has made.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'Mrs M: An imagined history' by Luke Slattery
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    'Mrs M’ is the second wife of Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821. Luke Slattery explains in his Author’s Note the impulse behind his novel – Elizabeth Macquarie’s voice coming to him, romantically, in a dream. It was not quite unprompted. He had been visiting her home territory in ...

  • Book Title Mrs M
  • Book Author Luke Slattery
  • Book Subtitle An imagined history
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Fourth Estate, $29.99 hb, 314 pp, 9780732271817

Simile haunts The Pacific Room. So many sentences begin ‘It’s as if ...’ that the phrase seems like an incantation.

Michael Fitzgerald writes that he agrees with Robert Louis Stevenson that ‘every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it. They alone take his meaning.’ For the reviewer coming from outside the circle, this book does not so much erect screens as exist within a lush, enticing forest of signs which seems indifferent to one’s presence. As Teuila, the Samoan fa‘afafine, confidently climbs to the summit of Mount Vaea in the dark, we are told, ‘For an outsider there is no hint of what lies ahead, so inscrutable is the dense foliage.’ One is aware that given time and multiple readings, the forest might become as familiar as it is to Teuila. On a first reading, the best option is to let the strangeness of the book seep into one’s consciousness and resist the temptation to seek clarification at every twist in the path.

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    Simile haunts The Pacific Room. So many sentences begin ‘It’s as if ...’ that the phrase seems like an incantation. Michael Fitzgerald writes that he agrees with Robert Louis Stevenson that ‘every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it. They alone take his meaning.’ For the reviewer coming from outside the circle, this ...

  • Book Title The Pacific Room
  • Book Author Michael Fitzgerald
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  • Biblio Transit Lounge, $29.95 pb, 240 pp, 9780995359550

In 2015, Nikki Gemmell’s mother, Elayn, took an overdose of painkillers. Gemmell’s new book, After, chronicles the difficult process of confronting her mother’s death and resolving the anguish it brought to her and her children. It is also an impassioned appeal for changes in Australia’s laws on the right to die.

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  • Biblio Fourth Estate $29.95 pb, 300 pp, 9780999162316

Until 2015, Australian Literary Studies was still a printed artefact. It appeared in the mildly erratic pattern endemic to Australian humanities journals, which depend on busy people finding time for the rewarding but often unrewarded task of editing. Nevertheless, despite rising production costs and increasing competition from the online world, it remained impressively extant, with a good number of articles and reviews in each issue. An issue of Australian Literary Studies in 2015 contained about ten articles, probably 100 to 150 pages. The focus of my review then would have been on the content: the editorial choices, the standard of scholarship, the range of topics.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'Australian Literary Studies' edited by Julieanne Lamond
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  • Biblio www.australianliterarystudies.com.au/

Some ‘only’ children have revelled in that status. Iris Murdoch called her family unit ‘a perfect trinity of love’. Caroline Baum sees her family less happily as a triangle: ‘There’s something uncomfortable about a triangle: it’s all elbows, suggesting awkward unease.’ We find out in the following 380-odd pages the whats and whys of this discomfort. Some of it is historical; perhaps most is historical. Her father came to England with the Kindertransport. Her French mother had an equally traumatic but more singular childhood. Both were deprived of a normal family life as children.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'Only: A singular memoir' by Caroline Baum
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  • Book Author Caroline Baum
  • Book Subtitle A singular memoir
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  • Biblio Allen & Unwin $32.99 pb, 384 pp, 9781760293970

Extinctions takes its time giving up its secrets, and there are some we will never know. One of its most persistent enigmas is what kind of book it is. I wondered, during the first half, whether it was a powerful and perceptive example of the Bildungsroman for seniors: an elderly person (usually male) meets someone new who teaches him to be a better person, to pay attention to the important things in life, to treat those he loves properly, to reconcile himself to his past – in short, to grow up.

Frederick Lothian, a youngish retiree at sixty-nine, is living reluctantly in a ‘retirement village’ with the ghosts and relics of his past cluttering up his mind and his confined living space. He resists making friends with the other residents, especially Jan, the woman next door, whom he despises because she keeps budgerigars. One day she knocks on his door and asks for help with her bin. Ah, you think, I know where this is going. But do you? ‘This isn’t some romantic comedy set in a retirement home,’ Jan warns Frederick, and the reader, likewise, is duly warned.

She is right. This is no romantic comedy. Though sometimes very funny, it is dark and full of tragic power. The title promises extinctions and the narrative delivers, in blow after sickening blow, as Fred’s life passes through his memory and onto the page. I started keeping a tally of traumatic events. Most people in Fred’s life have died or suffered catastrophes. One of the few survivors is his daughter Caroline. But Caroline is in London, and Fred is in Perth. They communicate only by telephone these days.

Frederick was an engineer, a university lecturer; a world expert in concrete. The book is in five parts: Columns, Bridges, Eggs, Trench, Hyperbolic Paraboloid. Each of these titles has multiple resonances, as does the book’s title. There are illustrations: grainy grey-scale photos which are not always mentioned in the text, but which all have a haunting and sometimes shocking relevance to the words on the page. Not that Wilson is ever at a loss for words. She wields the English language sometimes like a surgical instrument, sometimes like a weapon, but always with complete mastery of allusion and resonance. There is no doubt, when she writes a sentence like, ‘For a woman close to extinction, sex was merely palliative’, that she has judged its impact precisely. We don’t yet know Caroline well enough to understand exactly what it means, but the effect is almost like a physical blow. We laugh later when we realise the literal meaning, but that doesn’t quite remove the uneasy undertone.

Equally, by the time Fred muses that ‘Residents at St Sylvan’s were scared witless of losing their memory’, we are au fait with his almost compulsive propensity for playing with language and recognise this is a typical attempt at satire on his part. Language is, for Fred, a puzzle and a fascination. He is constantly challenged by figurative language. Even though ‘Engineers were not supposed to concern themselves with figures of speech’, he feels it necessary to spend ‘hours in the reference section of the library’ trying to sort out paradoxes from metaphors, but emerges ‘none the wiser’.

In the first two parts of the book, we see everything through Frederick’s irascible point of view. It is a triumph of free indirect style, and we find out a great deal about Frederick’s many failings as a father and a husband without a hint of authorial commentary. The third part, Eggs, takes us to meet Caroline in London, where she is curating an exhibition about extinction: ‘Perhaps because it was because she was thirty-seven, perhaps it was because she was adopted, but Caroline could not stop thinking about a child of her own ... when she imagined being pregnant she felt such a mixture of terror and longing it left her breathless.’

Caroline is living with her own history of trauma – not Stolen Generation, not quite that, but the consequences are similar. She meets a stranger, on the chilly pavement outside her London flat. He sees that she, like he, is black: ‘one of those real Australian Aborigines they’re always writing about in the Guardian’. He is disabled, like her brother. Their differences and similarities connect them readily, allowing them to talk freely on taboo subjects. But they remain strangers: events intervene, at least for the moment.

Josephine Wilson 300Josephine WilsonWe also spend a short time viewing this world through Jan’s eyes, and we realise that she is beset by her own problems: ‘I’m not the angel here – or the priest. I’m not here to save you from yourself, or absolve you of your sins,’ she tells Fred. But she does have a dramatic effect on him. It is possible that Fred will mend his ways and finally start acting like a responsible adult. Or not. The ending allows for hope but doesn’t preclude exasperation as the women in Fred’s life face the fallout from a new wave of impetuous decisions. Wilson offers her readers not closure but the impetus to continue imagining how these characters – how we all – impinge on each other, whether we like it or not. We may draw morals from this dark novel, but let us be warier than Fred of the impulse to take drastic action to atone for past failings.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'Extinctions' by Josephine Wilson
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    Extinctions takes its time giving up its secrets, and there are some we will never know. One of its most persistent enigmas is what kind of book it is. I wondered ...

  • Book Title Extinctions
  • Book Author Josephine Wilson
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  • Biblio UWA Publishing $29.99 pb, 286 pp, 9781742588988
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