I came to this book after reading Don Watson’s biography of Paul Keating. On the cover of Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Keating is seen through a window frame, head bent, reading engrossedly, shirt sleeves rolled up – a remote and distant figure. He is seemingly careless of the attention of his photographer, and biographer; a recalcitrant subject.

The contrast with Faith could hardly be starker. On the cover of Marilyn Lake’s biography, Faith Bandler looms large, hands clasped, face alight with laughter and pleasure, in turquoise tones. There is nothing remote about this figure. Faith Bandler wanted an account of her life, and chose Lake as her biographer. This is, Lake tells us, a joint project, the product of frequent discussions between biographer and subject. But why has Lake, Australia’s foremost feminist historian, turned to biography? From the co-authored Creating a Nation (1994) to Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism (1999), Lake’s work has been directed towards writing women into Australian history. Her signature, as an historian, is a concern with the interaction of masculinity and femininity as a dynamic force in history, and with the way Australian citizenship has always been contested along lines of gender, race and ethnicity. From this, it is apparent why Bandler’s role as an activist and campaigner for indigenous rights interests Lake.

This shift to biography is in some ways brave, for Bandler, like Keating, is a difficult biographical subject. It is not just that she is an unlikely public figure: a politically effective woman in a public culture dominated by men; a political leader outside parliament; a black leader in white Australia; and a highly respected public figure. It is also a difficulty generated by her characterisation as a ‘gentle activist’: a charismatic presence, beguiling and disarming; and a black activist who felt at home in the radical, literary circles of middle-class Sydney. Bandler used the art of gentle persuasion rather than factional alliances and party struggles, and this makes her story very different from those of activists such as Charles Perkins. The title of the book becomes metonymically symbolic of Faith’s character, a celebration of a woman with extraordinary creative and spiritual capacities who campaigned in white gloves and elegant shoes. This is the fabric of the biography, and it remains intact throughout. Who would have thought that Marilyn Lake would characterise a woman as the consummate modern wife, mother and hostess, combining political activism and domestic prowess? Thankfully, Lake offsets this somewhat by including the story of the meticulous arrangements Faith made when she invited the feminist activist Jessie Street to dinner. New yellow curtains were made to match the daffodils on the table; the roast veal dinner was perfect. Street was in fine form, and enjoyed the feast. Nevertheless, she reminded her hostess to conserve her energy for the things that mattered most: her politics and public speaking.

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    I came to this book after reading Don Watson’s biography of Paul Keating. On the cover of Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Keating is seen through a window frame, head bent, reading engrossedly, shirt sleeves rolled up – a remote and distant figure. He is seemingly careless of the attention of his photographer, and biographer; a recalcitrant subject ...

  • Book Title Faith: Faith Bandler, gentle activist
  • Book Author Marilyn Lake
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  • Biblio Allen & Unwin, $39.95 hb, 238 pp, 1 86508 841 2
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Marilyn Lake is without doubt one of the most influential historians in and of Australia in the last thirty years. ‘SIGN. US. UP’ writes Clare Corbould, one of the contributors to this festschrift, when describing the reaction of her postgraduate self and friends to seeing Lake sweep through the crowd at a history conference in the late 1990s. Backing up astute critique of others with innovative and field-shaping work of her own, Lake’s scholarship demonstrated the power of feminist analysis in the study of war, culture, and politics, then broke its early national boundaries to explore how the settler colonial world, especially Australia and North America, responded to the challenges of increasingly mobile and articulate people of Asian, Pacific, and African origin. The historian who began with Tasmania ended up taking on the world.

A festschrift works on a number of levels. Designed to honour the significance of an eminent scholar upon retirement, the essays therein also identify their authors as esteemed peers and anoint the coming generation. So it is with this collection. The senior men in the field of history in Australia are well represented. True to their disciplinary training, several of them look to Lake’s place and family of origin, and her undergraduate milieu, to locate the wellsprings of her early intellectual interests. The essays by Graeme Davison and Stephen Garton sketch Lake’s biography and the formative influences on her work, while also identifying both her points of departure and their lingering traces.

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  • Custom Article Title Christina Twomey reviews Contesting Australian History: Essays in honour of Marilyn Lake edited by Joy Damousi and Judith Smart
  • Contents Category History
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    Marilyn Lake is without doubt one of the most influential historians in and of Australia in the last thirty years. ‘SIGN. US. UP’ writes Clare Corbould, one of the contributors to this festschrift, when describing the reaction of her postgraduate self and friends to seeing Lake sweep through the crowd at a history conference in the late 1990s ...

  • Book Title Contesting Australian History
  • Book Author Joy Damousi and Judith Smart
  • Book Subtitle Essays in honour of Marilyn Lake
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Monash University Publishing, $34.95 pb, 264 pp, 9781925835069

In 1902, Australian feminist and social reformer Vida Goldstein met Theodore Roosevelt in the White House during her North American lecture tour. Marilyn Lake retells the story of their encounter in her important new book. Seizing Goldstein’s hand in a vice-like grip, the president exclaimed: ‘delighted to meet you’. Australasian social and economic reforms attracted Roosevelt and other Americans. Lake’s focus is primarily, though not exclusively, on Australia, yet New Zealand was in some cases more socially ‘progressive’. Other antipodean visitors, including Catherine Spence, who lectured in Chicago on proportional representation, and jurist H.B. Higgins at Harvard, also received warm welcomes. Visits to and fro often produced long friendships, and the chain of letters is important in Lake’s impressive reconstruction of a trans-Pacific sensibility.

In Progressive New World, Lake argues that Australasia and the United States were engaged in a conversation of mutual, if sometimes qualified, admiration. Charles Pearson’s friendship with Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton, Alfred Deakin’s with philosopher Josiah Royce, and New Zealander Edward Tregear’s epistolary debates with the labour economist Victor Selden Clark, are explored, among other affective connections. In this light, US historians will need to reassess the assumption that progressive reform was either an internal product or a result of transatlantic dialogues alone.

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  • Custom Article Title Ian Tyrrell reviews Progressive New World by Marilyn Lake
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    In 1902, Australian feminist and social reformer Vida Goldstein met Theodore Roosevelt in the White House during her North American lecture tour. Marilyn Lake retells the story of their encounter in her important new book. Seizing Goldstein’s hand in a vice-like grip, the president exclaimed: ‘delighted to meet you’. Australasian social and economic reforms attracted Roosevelt and other Americans ...

  • Book Title Progressive New World
  • Book Author Marilyn Lake
  • Book Subtitle How settler colonialism and transpacific exchange shaped American reform
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Harvard University Press (Footprint), $68 hb, 307 pp, 9780674975958

In pondering the construction of public memory in Ireland, the eminent American historian Richard White insisted on the demythologising work of history as a discipline: ‘History is the enemy of memory. The two stalk each other across the fields of the past, claiming the same terrain. History forges weapons from what memory has forgotten or suppressed.’ In Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18, Peter Cochrane wants to jog Australia’s memory by reminding us that the celebrated myth of Anzac obscures a problematic history. But in joining the battle between history and memory, he notes the warning of his friend, the late John Hirst, who wrote: ‘My own view is that history will never beat myth.’ But does this assumed opposition really hold?

Australians rushed to war in 1914, Cochrane argues, not primarily to support the Mother Country in fighting German militarism, but rather to secure the goals of White Australia. To make his case, Cochrane summarises many decades of historical scholarship on the White Australia policy, documenting racial preoccupations that, he asserts, somewhat tendentiously, have been ‘lost to memory’. This is an odd claim in many ways, because perhaps one of the few things most Australians remember from our national history is that among the first measures passed in 1901 by the new Commonwealth was the race-based Immigration Restriction Act, which established the White Australia policy. But in calling on history to challenge popular memory, Cochrane is making a further claim: that behind Australia’s commitment to World War I was intense strategic concern with the threat posed to Australia by the ‘Asiatic Races’, especially Japan.

Drawing on the writings of journalist C.E.W. Bean, and playwright C.J. Dennis, among others, Cochrane documents turn-of-the-century preoccupations with racial virility, national manhood, and the ways in which war journalists – including Bean, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, and Walter Murdoch – eulogised Australians as fighting men. ‘Physically they are the finest men I have ever seen in any part of the world,’ enthused the English correspondent Ashmead-Bartlett. In a private note, Bean recorded his shock at the ‘puny, narrow-chested little men’ who comprised the English armed forces. Clearly they didn’t enjoy the high standard of living enshrined by the White Australia policy, though it was not the institution of a ‘living wage’ that excited upper-class, English-educated Bean. Rather it was the superior type of white manhood he encountered in the outback. The one theme constantly running through Bean’s work is his devotion to manly character.

Cochrane sketches the historical context for the emergence of the White Australia policy with the arrival in the Australian colonies of thousands of Chinese gold seekers, casting them, in the words of alarmist colonists, as undifferentiated swarms, floods, disease-ridden aliens. Liberal political leaders Charles Pearson and his protégé Alfred Deakin began to argue for the necessity of maintaining Australia as a white man’s country, unspoiled by the ‘admixture’ of other races. When Britain entered into a treaty with the new Asian power of Japan, many Australians, rather than feeling reassured, felt more threatened and distrustful. Japan’s historic defeat of Russia in 1905 – the first time in modern history that an Asian power had defeated a European one – deepened their anxieties. Deakin was to the fore in warning fellow Australians about the threat posed by Japan, and as prime minister he bypassed Britain in inviting US President Theodore Roosevelt to send his ‘Great White Fleet’ to visit Melbourne and Sydney, an object lesson, as he thought, at once a demonstration of naval power and racial solidarity. Cochrane documents Australia’s increasing demands in the early twentieth century for adequate self-defence forces, naval ships under Australian control, and compulsory military service (for home defence only), demands that increased imperial tensions. Winston Churchill was unimpressed.

Bulletin 1886 cartoon 685wV2‘The Mongolian Octopus – his grip on Australia’, a cartoon by Phillip May, published in The Bulletin magazine, 1886 (National Museum of Australia)


Fear of Japanese expansionism in the Pacific exacerbated Australians’ simultaneous distrust of, and reliance on Britain. With the outbreak of war, Japan honoured the Anglo–Japanese alliance by entering the conflict as Britain’s ally. To the great consternation of Australians, the Japanese forces occupied the German possessions – the Marshall and Caroline Islands – in the Pacific, and by November 1914, the last German stronghold in China had also surrendered to Japan. The British government assured Australian leaders that all territorial questions would be settled at the end of the war. By that time, the belligerent English-born Billy Hughes was prime minister. At the Versailles Peace Conference, he was vociferous – and successful – in opposing Japan’s proposal of a racial equality clause to be added to the Covenant of the League of Nations. On his triumphant return home, Hughes told Australians that the greatest thing they had achieved in the war was ‘the policy of White Australia’. As he explained to the federal parliament: ‘The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please; but, at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory, and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the Conference.’

In telling this story, Cochrane relies on what he calls the ‘core historiography’. As he points out, this history has been accessible to researchers, pundits, and politicians through the publications of numerous scholars working in the fields of race relations, immigration, foreign policy, and defence, yet, he notes in frustration, it has had little influence on popular memory or the official commemoration of Australia’s participation in World War I. Rather, ‘misplaced patriotism’ rules. Indeed, one of the effects of the militarisation of Australian history in recent times has been the simplification of accounts of Australians at war, prompting an increasing number of historians to interrogate the fraught processes of national memory-making, and to point out what’s wrong with Anzac. In Best We Forget, Cochrane suggests that the main thing wrong with the Anzac legend is that it pays no heed to the racial obsessions that drove Australian participation in the war, that it ignores the ‘race fear’ that encouraged Australians to take up arms for the empire and sustained them in the fight for victory.

Peter Cochrane (photograph by Jason McCormack)Peter Cochrane (photograph by Jason McCormack)But of course it was not just, or even primarily, ‘race fear’ that persuaded Australians to enlist, it was also ‘race pride’. We have the evidence of hundreds of war memorials and monuments that tell us that young Australian men volunteered to fight for king and country, God and empire (if not ‘freedom and democracy’, as school children are taught). It was an imperial as well as a racial war. Significantly, of those who rushed to enlist in the first months of war, the English-born were over-represented. And many thousands of other men simply sought adventure abroad, or escape from the complications – or boredom – of life at home. Even then, despite unremitting official pressure and Billy Hughes’s relentless scaremongering, only one in two eligible Australian men chose to enlist at all. That would seem to be another historical fact lost to popular memory.

In his concluding chapter on the politics of memory, Cochrane, the embattled historian, seems to concede defeat in the face of popular ‘storylines’. Contemporary politics, he laments, plays a larger part than scholarly history, a ‘decisive’ part, in shaping popular memory. But perhaps it is the conceptual opposition drawn between history and memory – or history and myth – that is part of the problem, as it disavows the complicity of so many historians, in the present as well as the past, in ceaselessly shoring up, in the author’s final words, the ‘perpetual commemoration of the Anzacs’.

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  • Custom Article Title Marilyn Lake reviews 'Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18' by Peter Cochrane
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    In pondering the construction of public memory in Ireland, the eminent American historian Richard White insisted on the demythologising work of history as a discipline: ‘History is the enemy of memory. The two stalk each other across the fields of the past, claiming the same terrain. History forges weapons from what memory has forgotten or suppressed.’ In Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18 ...

  • Book Title Best We Forget
  • Book Author Peter Cochrane
  • Book Subtitle The war for white Australia, 1914–18
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 264 pp, 9781925603750
Sunday, 26 November 2017 15:48

Books of the Year 2017

Michelle de Kretser

Pulse Points Books of the YearSybille Smith’s Mothertongue (Vagabond) is a thoughtful, brief memoir-in-essays, chiefly concerned with growing up between two places, Vienna and Sydney, and two languages, German and English. It speaks of loss and carves out recoveries (partial, provisional) in moving, lucid prose; a small gem.

In a big year for Australian novels, here’s a shout out for two collections of stories. Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points (Text Publishing, reviewed in ABR 9/17) consolidates her reputation as a remarkable young writer. Her stories are effortlessly global yet strongly anchored in place. They testify to Down’s remarkable powers of observation and her ability to create bleak but engaging worlds – the longer tales are especially potent. Tony Birch’s Common People (UQP, 9/17) also traffics in characters in difficult circumstances, but Birch is tender as well as unsentimental. This sturdily crafted collection, Birch’s best yet, offers illuminating, sometimes harrowing narratives that sing of solidarity and humour in hardscrabble lives.

Geordie Williamson

Draw Your Weapons Books of the YearIn a world where nations are more likely to militarise than to engage in dialogue, to build walls rather than open borders, Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons (Text Publishing, 8/17) is a formally elegant and intellectually rigorous argument for peace. Not a pacifist manifesto so much as a collage built from paradox and juxtaposition – from encounters with images of terror, war, and torture – whose total implication is clear. We in the affluent West cannot remain unsullied by refusing to look at evidence of the multiplying human disasters around us. Sentilles’ book inspires us to be more than we are, to live beyond our historical moment. Not a call to arms so much as a call to the writers’ pen.

Brenda Niall

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin Books of the YearIn too many biographies of political leaders the private self is lost, or not even sought. Like John Murphy’s subtle portrait of Herbert Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16), which revealed a complex human being, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text Publishing, 9/17) explores our second prime minister’s career with full attention to his intense inner life and family relationships. Her title points to the puzzles, but Brett doesn’t simplify; she ponders, suggests, dramatises. Closely observed and psychologically persuasive, this is more than a life-and-times; it is a life. Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible (Viking) looks like an elegy for small-town America, but the degree of loneliness Strout exposes puts paid to any easy notion of community. Strout’s interconnected short stories reveal the isolation of people who have known one another since childhood. As well as lies and secrets, gossip and harsh judgement, there are astonishing moments of compassion. A brilliant, disturbing work.

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Tom Griffiths

Call of the Reed Warbler ABR OnlineCharles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture – a new earth (UQP, 10/17) is a revolutionary and lyrical story of a farmer’s journey towards ecological literacy. It is learned, wise, practical, and full of hope. Another impressive big book is Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s Like Nothing on this Earth: A literary history of the wheatbelt (UWA Publishing, 6/17). It is a brilliant work of scholarship that effectively establishes a new genre; I hope it inspires more regional literary ecologies. Don’t miss Kieran Finnane’s honest, powerful, and sensitive report from the streets and camps of Alice Springs, Trouble: On trial in Central Australia (UQP). This is journalism of the highest calibre. And I love Alex Miller’s new novel, The Passage of Love (Allen & Unwin, 11/17), which delivers an enthralling fusion of fiction and memoir.

James McNamara

Home Fire Books of the YearI should nominate Twitter, because I spent much of the year in America reading and shouting at it. Offline, I hugely admired Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury, 10/17), a magnificent reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone that traces the impact of a brother’s radicalisation on his British-Pakistani family. Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful, magical realist Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) deftly humanises the refugees that Western governments are deftly trying to ignore. Robert Webb’s memoir, How Not To Be A Boy (Canongate, 12/17), is both hilarious and lip-wobblingly poignant. And, without meaning to sound too much of a (tweedy, threadbare) jetsetter, I missed the 2010 Australian release of Ashley Hay’s The Body In The Clouds (Washington Square) while I was living in London, but I delighted in its publication here in the States this year. So I’m going to count it for 2017 and direct some positive shouting towards Hay’s brilliant, multilayered work: ‘huzzah!’

Sheila Fitzpatrick

October Books of the YearIn China Miéville’s October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 10/17) – the liveliest of the centenary publications – the dramatic events of 1917 in Petrograd are related with some wistful regret that things didn’t turn out better. Sarah Dowse’s As The Lonely Fly (For Pity’s Sake, 6/17) is a twentieth-century Jewish family saga encompassing Russia, America, and Palestine – a moving story that makes you think. Chris Hilliard’s The Littlehampton Libels. A miscarriage of justice and a mystery about words in 1920s England (OUP) is a real-crime scholarly history, but Agatha Christie fans should love it. It’s Christie’s world, and those dogged and courteous police officers turn out to be real.

Paul Giles

A long way from home Books of the YearDennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought (Princeton) is a lively and readable account of how two Scottish philosophers conspired to subvert many nostrums of Western culture during the late Enlightenment era. Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home (Hamish Hamilton, 11/17) is an important novel that treats relations between white Australian and Indigenous cultures through a framework of dark postmodernist humour. Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin, 10/17) sensually incarnates her themes of travel and displacement in a work of fiction that brilliantly evokes the climate, smells, and cuisine of Sydney. And Tracey Moffatt: My horizon, edited by Natalie King (Thames & Hudson) brings together Moffatt’s provocative visual exhibition for the 2017 Venice Biennale with a collection of essays from Alexis Wright and others that testifies to the enduring importance of Moffatt’s oeuvre.

Sarah Holland-Batt

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky Books of the YearFay Zwicky’s death was keenly felt among poets and readers of poetry earlier this year, so it is a bittersweet joy to see all of her terse, tough, magnificently spiky poems gathered in one volume. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky (UWAP) reveals a poet whose oeuvre was the product of what she calls ‘the dissenting imagination’; her poems concern themselves deeply with the ethical realm, but also grapple profoundly with agnosticism and doubt. This meticulously edited collection offers all seven of Zwicky’s books, along with a substantial selection of new and uncollected poems at the end; it is a pleasure to be able to read her life’s work in order and trace how her relentlessly contemporary late style developed. ‘Let us talk of now,’ she said in her masterwork ‘Kaddish’, and her poems follow suit. This indelible collection will be treasured everywhere by those who love poetry.

Susan Sheridan

The Unknown Judith Wright Books of the YearAs one of the Miles Franklin Award judges, I spend the first part of the year reading Australian novels published in the previous year, after which I set out to catch up on other contemporary fiction. Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire, bowled me over: it is a brilliant rewriting of the story of Antigone, set mainly in London, about two families destroyed by jihad and anti-Muslim politics. Apart from fiction, two new titles from university presses – Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright (UWA Publishing, 11/16) and Thea Astley: Selected poems, edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP, 11/17) – provide fascinating insights into the earliest work of these two giants of twentieth-century Australian literature.

Frank Bongiorno

A Fuhrer for a Father Books of the YearTwo books exploring father–son relationships in the context of changing masculinities and gay life stand out. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (Picador) is as profound as you would expect from this Man Booker winner. Beginning in Oxford in 1940 and stretching over seventy years, Hollinghurst lovingly evokes period detail without allowing it to overwhelm the absorbing drama of lived intimacies. Jim Davidson’s memoir, A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (NewSouth, 9/17), by one of Australia’s leading cultural historians and biographers, explores with enviable subtlety the connections between British imperial rule and the patriarchy of a man inside a family. Judith Brett’s excellent The Enigmatic Mr Deakin introduces this Federation-era giant to a modern audience: a timely reminder of the achievements and failings of a century ago, and perfect summer reading for any Australian politician whose aspirations rise above seat-warming.

Bernadette Brennan

Lincoln in the Bardo Books of the YearI am currently judging an Australian literary award, so will refrain from nominating some of this year’s brilliant Australian fiction. Melanie Joosten’s A Long Time Coming: Essays on old age (Scribe) is an important, moving collection of essays on ageing, mortality, and the ethics of writing. Arundhati Roy’s huge – in every sense of the word – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, 6/17) and George Saunders’s lyrical Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 3/17) extend the novel’s form superbly. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire takes us deep inside the psychology of a disaffected Muslim youth, and draws us into a complex world of loss, pain, filial piety, and (largely destructive) duty. My favourite book of the year is Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible. What a thrill to be returned to the richly extended world of Lucy Barton and her narrative people.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

‘I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved’, to use the words of one of its ghostly narrators, by George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. While it is a novel that is bold in its formal innovations, these never overpower the simple, heartrending premise of a father’s raw grief for the death of his eleven-year-old son. Closer to home, I had my unfairly high expectations met by Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (Picador, 8/17), in which the problems of reconciliation between settler and indigene in Australia were slowly and slyly circled, then seized with breathtaking precision. Both novels rose to a similar challenge, the challenge of all serious literature, which is to narrate the unnarratable.


Felicity Plunkett

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Books of the YearMy list begins with the latest dazzling novel by Ali Smith. Winter (Hamish Hamilton) is the second in a proposed series of four seasonal novels and follows the crisp and crackling Autumn (Hamish Hamilton, 1/17). Set between life and death, closeness and solitude, the mythological and the contemporary, it shimmers with snow crystals, etymology, and thaw. Smith’s winter is ‘an exercise in how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again’. I found Arundhati Roy’s sprawling, magnificent The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a demanding and compelling assemblage of ‘a shattered story’. I have begun Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come and am thrilled by the shape of her every sentence and her acute wit and insight. And Reinhard Kleist’s Nick Cave: Mercy on me (SelfMadeHero) is a rollicking confabulation exploring the Nick Cave universe, all myth, slash, and swagger.

Shannon Burns

The Last Days of Jeanne DArc Books of the YearI particularly enjoyed three works of Australian fiction: Kim Scott’s Taboo combines aesthetic and moral seriousness with unusual success, and is a worthy follow-up to his two Miles Franklin-winning novels. His is a truly generative and urgent brand of fiction. Tony Birch’s Common People is a collection of stylistically unadorned yet artfully wrought stories. Birch hones in on protagonists and communities rarely glimpsed in contemporary Australian literature. Ali Alizadeh’s The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo, 10/17) is lightly experimental and emotionally rich – the kind of novel that invites and rewards close attention without forcing the matter.

On the non-fiction front, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America (Allen & Unwin) – which documents the social history of the ‘waste’ people transported from Britain to the United States – was particularly eye-opening.

James Walter

No End of a Lesson Books of the YearGeorge Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, a cascade of voices observing, mourning, and denying death, is a literary high wire act. The peril of an adventurous literary conceit teetering so close to extremes as to threaten collapse kept me reading: the most arresting novel of the year. Judith Brett achieves something rare in political biography: a synthesis of the public life with the beliefs, doubts, private struggles, and spiritual inquiry that made The Enigmatic Mr Deakin our most intriguing prime minister. She rescues Alfred Deakin from recent ahistorical readings of his ‘Australian settlement’. Not only politically minded but also general readers perplexed by the collapse of confidence in public institutions should read Stuart Macintyre, André Brett, and Gwylim Croucher’s No End of a Lesson: Australia’s unified system of higher education (Melbourne University Press) A compelling narrative history of John Dawkins’s revolution in higher education, it is a revelatory instantiation of the intentions, achievements, and unforeseen consequences of recent policy reform.

Jen Webb

Their Brilliant Careers Books of the YearTara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet), a wonderfully angry, self-deprecatingly funny yet tragic collection of poems, reflects on women’s lives in fiction and in history. Bergin gives voice to famous people, fairytales, and folklore in her rhythmic, beautifully disturbing collection.

Vahni Capildeo’s chapbook Seas and Trees (Recent Work Press) is crammed with vivid images, and language that shimmers and sings. It presents a landscape of possible universes where ‘trees had evolved to eat other trees’, where the familiar sea becomes strange and unknowable. Supple, subtle, marvellous.

Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is probably the funniest literary novel since Tristram Shandy. This unmerciful lampooning of ‘extraordinary Australian writers’ – barely disguised, bizarrely intertwined – doubles as a parodic, playful workshop in OzLit, and a portrait of the literary community and its politics.

David McCooey

The Memory of Music Books of the YearAndrew Ford’s memoir of his extraordinary life in music, The Memory of Music (Black Inc.), seems somehow effortless, but it’s also profound, deeply moving, and often very funny. The ‘composer’s memoir’ might be a niche category, but Ford’s is a classic of the genre.

In Australian poetry, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows what an uncompromising and playful poet Zwicky was. Meanwhile, I loved Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf). Only ninety pages long, Manguso’s book brilliantly extends the literary possibilities of the ancient form of the aphorism. And talking of brevity and renewal, Fleur Jaeggy’s wafer-thin These Possible Lives (New Directions) reinvents the biographical essay. In Jaeggy’s hands, the lives of John Keats, Thomas de Quincey, and Marcel Schwob become nightmarish and uncanny prose poems. Happily, the year also saw the appearance of a new collection of Jaeggy’s stories, I Am the Brother of XX (New Directions).

Fiona Wright

One of my favourite books this year felt like a call to arms: Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy (Scribe). Doyle’s book is about how difficult it is for our generation to come to terms with our own adulthood, because so many of the markers of that stage – a house, a stable career, a marriage – are so often unavailable to us; the book seemed to articulate something (some things) that I’d been feeling, vaguely, for years. It’s smart and funny and fierce, but never angry or divisive – it isn’t interested in the intergenerational slanging wars that so often categorise this kind of discussion in the media (there’s nary an avocado toast in sight), rather, in a much more personal muddling through that’s somehow still hopeful and affirming and bold.

James Ley

Age of Anger Books of the YearThis year I particularly enjoyed reading Laurent Binet’s witty and irreverent novel The 7th Function of Language (Vintage), a parodic thriller that pokes fun at the influential cohort of French philosophers and literary critics (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, et al.) whose work colonised the humanities in the latter decades of the last century. In a rather more serious vein, I also enjoyed thinking about the arguments proposed in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A history of the present (Penguin), which seeks to understand the political volatility of our own time by tracing its origins all the way back to the eighteenth century. It is an impassioned and rather narrowly focused book that draws some long bows, but one that nevertheless contains important insights.

My final hat-tip is to Wayne Macauley’s Some Tests (Text Publishing), a subtle and quietly moving novel about illness and death. Macauley’s stylised and artfully paced narrative, which gradually takes on a dreamlike quality, is a fine example of his ability to evoke the inchoate sense of dissatisfaction and existential disquiet that lurks beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Nicholas Jose

The Windy Season Books of the YearI loved the mix of vaunting ambition, vendetta, and sheer madness in Their Brilliant Careers, Ryan O’Neill’s wicked re-imagining of Australian literary history. A weird mob, these great writers. O’Neill acknowledges Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas as essential background, and Vivian Darkbloom walks on wonderfully from Nabokov. Satire is its own reward. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is darkly comedic, too, combining formal inventiveness with a poker face in a particularly sharp collection of short stories. ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ is surely a classic. Then there is Sam Carmody’s The Windy Season (Allen & Unwin, 11/16), an emotionally charged novel that kept me awake at night, raw and self-scrutinising in its exploration of the ‘toxic masculinity’ in a West Australian fishing town, scarier than any shark.

Jill Jones

Equipment for Living Books of the YearMany terrific Australian poetry books have been released this year – how to choose? I was impressed by volumes from many small, indeed, micro publishers, such as Sydney’s Subbed In. But Alison Croggon’s New and Selected Poems 1991–2017 (Newport Street Books) is a long overdue highlight, a deliberate reconfiguration of her poetry, thus, a ‘new’ work. Croggon, again, shows us how to do things with lyric in ways I can only envy. Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives reads like meticulous yet dreamlike collage. The essay on John Keats is worth the price of admission alone. Equipment for Living: On poetry and pop music (Simon & Schuster) by Michael Robbins is an intense, if at times overheated, exploration of the consolations of poetry and music. He’ll never get me to love metal, but his Basho-to-Rhianna ‘playlist’ is a smart coda.

Mark Edele

The Unwomanly Face of War Books of the YearEvgeny Finkel’s eloquent Ordinary Jews: Choice and survival during the Holocaust (Princeton) shows how serious historical research can benefit from the perspective of a political scientist. Claire L. Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, community, and Soviet identity, 1917–1991 (Cornell) is a landmark in the history of disability and the Soviet welfare state. A stunning first book, it covers the entire Soviet experience from a thought-provoking perspective. Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin, 11/17) was published in Russian in 1985 and in a hard-to-get English translation in 1988. This stunning oral history remains unsurpassed. Finally, it is back in print. Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon Books), finally, makes short work of scientific sexism. Male evolutionary biologists sometimes claim that men evolved to be promiscuous because they can, allegedly, make 100 babies a year with 100 different women. The schedule involved would be punishing, as Fine points out.

Morag Fraser

Light and Shadow Books of the Year Australians should long remember Mark Colvin – for his authoritative ABC voice (its British modulations raised Bob Hawke’s hackles) and his exemplary integrity as both radio presenter and foreign correspondent. So the publication of Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a spy’s son (Melbourne University Press, 3/17), a few months before Colvin’s untimely death, was an unexpected bonus – revealing the extraordinary life behind that Radio National sangfroid. Colvin, committed journalist and seeker after truth, was the loving – and loved – son of a Cold War MI6 spy. I found his story psychologically complex and professionally inspiring.

Alex Miller’s new novel The Passage of Love is capacious, wise, and startlingly honest about human frailty and the permutations of love over time. Frankly autobiographical, it is also a work of fully achieved fiction, ripe with experience, double-voiced, peopled with unpredictable men and women, and set in Miller landscapes that characteristically throb with life.

Glyn Davis

An Odysee Books of the YearFor sympathy and insight, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a welcome contribution to analysis of Australian politics. A difficult subject, often deliberately elusive, is captured with skill. Through close and compelling reading of Deakin’s private writing, Brett brings to life his political thinking and spiritual wrestling. An important book.

For sheer reading pleasure, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: a father, a son, and an epic (Knopf) is compelling. This classical scholar leads us through a semester teaching The Odyssey with his father in the classroom, reflecting on parallels between Odyssey and Telemachus while he displays the hidden weaving in Homer’s text.

Alice Oswald is a precise and powerful poet. Her latest collection, Falling Awake (W.W. Norton), is about change in the natural world, with reflections that speak to motion among people. The opening poem about rain, ‘A Short History of Falling’, approaches perfection.

Anna MacDonald

Blind Spot Books of the YearA number of books have remained with me this year. Teju Cole’s captivating collection, Blind Spot (Faber & Faber, 11/17) rewards slow reading. Cole’s photographs are presented in abstract relation to short texts that read as part prose poem, part metaphysical investigation, and part memory fragment. The whole is often heart-stopping. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is challenging in the most necessary sense. A polyphonic epic, this novel incorporates stories of hijra, Kashmiri rebels, Guajarati Muslims, and is clearly a counterpoint to Roy’s political activism. Beverley Farmer’sThis Water: Five tales (Giramondo, 6/17) is a lyrical and resonantly interwoven rewriting of myth, fairytale, and folklore. Farmer’s last work, This Water affirms her place among Australian literature’s pre-eminent stylists. And Eley Williams’s collection, Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press), playful and genuinely original, is a joy to read.

Gregory Day

Staying with the Trouble Books of the YearArundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been misread by some critics as being untidy and too polemical. But well-kept gloom or neat literary dystopias won’t satisfy this reading heart. Roy has said that her return to fiction was prompted by a frustration at ‘winning the argument but losing the battle’. Well, her return has produced the most virtuosic and emotionally affecting response to our era’s profit-driven barbarities that I know of. In many ways it makes real some of the ideas prescribed by ground-breaking Californian academic Donna Haraway in her Staying With The Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke). Like Roy, Haraway is responding directly to our age with what could be described as a permacultural approach to organising human society. Staying With The Trouble sits alongside Charles Massy’s wonderful The Call of The Reed Warbler as the most regenerative non-fiction stimulants I digested this year.

Patrick Allington

Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons, a word collage, is a complex and original reaction to violence, warfare, and conscientious objection: I’m still thinking about it, still dipping back into it. Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a reminder that meticulous scholarship can also be elegantly written. Kim McGrath’s Crossing the Line: Australia’s secret history in the Timor Sea (Redback) chronicles decades of Australian misbehaviour, notwithstanding developments since the book was published in August 2017. The quarterly Mekong Review continues to impress with its mix of Southeast Asian-related criticism, analysis, reportage, fiction, poetry, and more.

Susan Wyndham

A writing life Books of the YearWe’ve had a feast of Helen Garner with her reissued Stories and True Stories (Text Publishing) for her seventy-fifth birthday, and Bernadette Brennan’s ingenious A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (Text Publishing, 5/17), which gets around the subject’s resistance to biography by viewing her life through her writing, as Garner herself does. Michelle de Kretser warns that The Life to Come may be her last novel. If so, I will miss her mastery of metaphor, her laser insight into the yearnings and pretensions of characters – writers, shopkeepers, travellers; friends, lovers, neighbours – and her scrutiny at once of the domestic minutiae and the global context of their lives.

Living with a bird-watcher, I welcomed The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al. (CSIRO Publishing, 10/17) as a gorgeous lure to spend more time in nature.

Andrew Fuhrmann

The Last Garden Books of the YearI am enthusiastic about the two new Fleur Jaeggy translations published by New Directions this year – a collection of essays called These Possible Lives and a collection of stories called I Am the Brother of XX. Everyone seems to be talking about this enigmatic Swiss writer, now in her late seventies, and with good reason. Two Australian novels stand out. The first, Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden (Text, 6/17), is a cut black gem of a book: beautiful, compact, and sinister. The other, Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, overflows with intelligent, incisive observations about identity, imagination, and privilege. I am currently working my way through The Tracker (Giramondo) by Alexis Wright, and it’s proving something of a revelation. It’s both an exhaustive account of the life and work of activist Tracker Tilmouth and, crucially, an experimental form of ‘collective’ memoir.

Beejay Silcox

Drawing Sybylla Books of the YearMy literary heart belongs to the rule breakers – to the form smashers and narrative knotters. George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won me over early and easily this year with his fragmented tale of Abraham Lincoln’s transcendent grief for his lost son. A novel haunted by its spectral cast, but also by the ghost of an American future yet to come. Sarah Sentilles’ tender collage essay Draw Your Weapons was an unexpected marvel: equal parts treatise, history, meditation, and prayer. Her premise – that art can vitiate violence – is unapologetically idealistic and deeply necessary. Closer to home, Odette Kelada’s début novel, Drawing Sybylla (UWA Publishing, 12/17), was a mercurial wonder, illuminating the inner lives of Australia’s women writers. And finally, The Sarah Book (Tyrant Books) – an almighty wallop of a book. I wouldn’t have encountered its author, West Virginian Scott McClanahan, had I not lived just across the state line – I’m deeply glad I did.

Bronwyn Lea

Lionel Fogarty Books of the YearRobert Hass’s handsome Little Book on Form: An exploration into the formal imagination of poetry (Ecco) begins: ‘A single line is a naked thing. It is both light and heavy. It is, obviously, the basic unit of all lyric forms.’ I could read his prose all night long. One of the contemporary masters of the line is Alice Oswald, whose Falling Awake is ever awake to the repetitions of the natural world. In a hat-tip to Wallace Stevens, ‘Slowed-Down Blackbird’ ends with her blackbird on the edge ‘trying over and over its broken line’. Also in pride of place on my bookshelf are The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky and Lionel Fogarty: Selected poems 1980–2017 (re.press). ‘Do yourself a favour’, Fogarty says borrowing from a Stevie Wonder song – ‘educate your mind’.

Marilyn Lake

The most imaginative Australian history at present comes from young women, who locate our past in a wider world. Sophie Loy-Wilson’s Australians in Shanghai: Race, rights and nation in Treaty Port China (Routledge), an evocative account of the transnational lives and chaotic mobility that challenged the White Australia Policy, prompts us to rethink national history. Katherine Ellinghaus’s fine study, Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and assimilation policy (Nebraska) digs deep into American archival sources to show how ideas about ‘mixed-blood’ facilitated the white take-over of Indian land. In locating her subject in a broader consideration of settler colonialism, Ellinghaus helps us to understand the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Further afield, I recommend Harvard historian David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A history in ideas (Yale). It reminds us that civil wars are now the most common kind of warfare and refugees – including the almost five million from Syria – their most vulnerable victims.

John Hawke

Fibrils Books of the YearMichel Leiris’s Fibrils (Yale) is the third and latest volume in Lydia Davis’s translations of Rules of the Game, his ground-breaking experiment in ‘creative non-fiction’. A meditation on the relationship between literature and politics, set against the 1950s background of a visit to Mao’s China, Leiris’s self-excoriating writing includes a description of his own suicide attempt. This year saw the first visit to Australia by legendary US anthologist, Jerome Rothenberg: a new and expanded fiftieth-anniversary edition of Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (California), described by Nick Cave as ‘the greatest anthology of poetry ever created’, has just appeared. Among local poetry, Lionel Fogarty’s Selected Poems gathers the best work of this important Indigenous poet in a single volume. Also recommended are three volumes by younger authors, Matthew Hall’s First Fruits (Cordite), Bella Li’s Argosy (Vagabond), and Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo), each of which indicates intriguing new directions for our literature.

Catherine Noske

The Museum of Modern Love Books of the YearI was fascinated this year by Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin), and thought it a deserving winner of the Stella Prize. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Alexis Wright’s ‘collective memoir’ The Tracker, which is creative and important, challenging expectations of the biographical form. Weaving several voices together in a unique cultural history focused on the life of Tracker Tilmouth, Wright’s work is testament to the power of Indigenous modes of storytelling. Finally, this year’s poetry titles from UWA Publishing have been exciting; of the eight offerings from their series, Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure stood out for me. Separately from UWA Publishing came The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, poignantly released only days before Fay passed away. Edited with love and subtlety by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, it is a rich body of work from an important poet.

Suzy Freeman-Greene

On John Marsden Books of the YearIn Being Here: The life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Text Publishing), French author Marie Darrieussecq animates the short life of a passionate German artist with vivid, spare prose. The first woman to paint herself naked and pregnant, Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, at the age of thirty-one, soon after giving birth. This taut biography, written in the present tense, has the urgency and poignancy of the best novels.

In Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles reflects on war, art, the ethics of looking, and how we should respond to the violence governments enact in our name. Sentilles mounts her argument with an accumulation of detail, employing metaphor rather than polemic. Her examination of drone warfare is especially powerful.

Alice Pung’s On John Marsden (Black Inc.) is ostensibly a tribute to an author of Young Adult novels. But this wise, political, heartfelt essay is about so much more.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

The Trauma Cleaner Books of the YearMohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West uses an unexpected fantasy device to disrupt a mode of realism so precise and sharply focused that it would feel like reportage if not for some truly breathtaking writing. His style builds ideas into its very grammar, and gives its account of a world in conflict an extra dimension of meaning and reflection — and sometimes a horrible beauty as well. Closer to home, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (Text Publishing) is a superbly written book about the redoubtable Sandra Pankhurst and her work as a trauma cleaner: someone who cleans up after hoarders, murders, meth labs, and suicides. This is the startling life story of Pankhurst, a trans woman with a heart the size of Uluru, written in Krasnostein’s irresistibly warm, frank, intelligent voice as she describes sites of sadness and horror that take the reader straight to the dark heart of the human condition.

Geoff Page

Transparencies Books of the YearTo narrow the excellent new Australian poetry collections I’ve read so far this year down to four is an almost arbitrary exercise. Among them, however, would have to be Clive James’s unerringly formal and poignant Injury Time (Picador). A comparable technical achievement is Stephen Edgar’s Transparencies (Black Pepper, 8/17). Edgar’s cleverly rhymed poems often end in a single powerful image, leaving us with an awareness of the poem as a resonant whole. A third highly formal book is Euclid’s Dog by Jordie Albiston (GloriaSMH). It’s a pleasure to be carried along by her unfailing metres – and to be surprised by the unpredictable internal rhymes which have so long been a part of her armoury. Melinda Smith has an innate feeling for irony and humour but can also produce poems of extreme tenderness and emotional depth. Her new collection, Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt Street Poetry), displays all of these and more.

Jane Sullivan

Half Wild Books of the YearSometimes a year produces a novel that is head and shoulders above everything else, and for me that was George Saunders’s wonderfully weird Lincoln in the Bardo. It reads like a play of fragments performed by ghosts; it weaves historical accounts, fiction and mythology into an inextricable tangle; it is outrageously grotesque, satirical, comical, scary, and poignant. How daring a writer he is: and how well he shows our lack of daring, our skill at deluding ourselves, even beyond death.

Plenty of bold new Australian writing, but perhaps the standout was a first novel that dared to tackle a rich but hugely challenging subject. Pip Smith’sHalf Wild (Allen & Unwin, 12/17) transforms the true story of a transgender man accused of murdering his wife into something far beyond the sensational: it is a sensitive examination of a secret life that for all its subtlety also conjures a sense of rollicking adventure.

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  • Custom Article Title 2017 Books of the Year
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    To celebrate the best books of 2017 Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser, Susan Wyndham, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Jane Sullivan, Tom Griffiths, Mark Edele, and Brenda Niall.

Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:25

Broken Nation

If you read only one book about Australia’s experience of World War I, as the deluge of commemorative publications marking the outbreak of the war becomes a veritable tsunami, make it Broken Nation, an account that joins the history of the war to the home front, and that details the barbarism of the battlefields as well as the desolation, despair, and bitter divisions that devastated the communities left behind.

As the war claimed more and more lives, enlistments steadily declined. It is not an uplifting read, but Beaumont’s comprehensive and relentless narrative is a fine achievement, and it will surely become the definitive account of its subject. Bringing together military history and the extensive historiography on divisions on the home front, within a conceptual frame that highlights the process of memory-making, Beaumont provides a path-breaking and sobering work.

As its title signifies, Broken Nation underlines the destructive impact of the war on Australia, thus challenging the official view that the war was a creative experience, ‘giving birth to the nation’ and the celebrated ‘Anzac spirit’. Beaumont’s clear-eyed account of the obscene carnage produced by industrialised warfare – and the seeming indifference on the part of military commanders and political leaders to young men’s lives as they were mown down, again and again, by enemy machine guns – draws on the often eloquent diaries and letters of the men (and women) who served. ‘God help us all,’ wrote ‘Pompey’ Elliott amid the slaughter at Fromelles – ‘it is cruel indeed’. At Pozières, boys became, in the words of another witness, ‘horrible, putrid masses of flesh’. At Polygon Wood, one survivor recalled, ‘there were on all sides the groans and the wailing of mangled men’. Across battle sites, wounds became infected, amputations were rife, gas destroyed lungs, faces were smashed beyond recognition, and soldiers cried like children. Men exhorted to prove their manhood on the battlefield felt ‘utterly crushed and unmanned’.

Considerng the war from the perspective of the men themselves was an approach popularised by Bill Gammage in his influential book The Broken Years (1974), which placed the individual soldier’s experience at the centre of the story, an approach also made vivid in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli (1981). But, as Beaumont notes, sympathy for the Anzacs can deflect anger from those who sent them to war and kept them there. It can also obscure the larger politics of the war, including Britain’s use of colonial forces to prevent Germany from becoming the dominant power in Europe and to achieve its aim of dismembering the Ottoman Empire – ‘with consequences that still haunt the Middle East’ – which is surely an understatement.

Beaumont reminds readers that, at Gallipoli, the Turks fought not as a nation – then non-existent – but as defenders of the multinational and largely Muslim Ottoman Empire. When Ottoman forces launched a counter-attack on the Allied forces on 19 May 1915, their infantry could be heard moving forward ‘chanting a rhythmic “Allah! Allah!”’. And just as the British Empire deployed colonial forces at Gallipoli – including Australians, New Zealanders, and Indians – so the French used Algerian soldiers. ‘World War I was … a European war,’ Beaumont reminds readers in the first chapter, but ‘one that, thanks to imperial global stretch, sucked into its maw millions of people around the world’. Later, in Chapter Four (‘1917: The Worst Year’), contemplating the costly war of attrition on the Western Front, she again reminds us of the value of colonial forces to the British Empire. With ‘global imperial resources, Britain had the capacity to outlast Germany’.

‘Australian governments were never consulted about the decision to go to war, the formulation of war aims, or changes in military strategy’

They were resources that the British government could deploy as they wished. Beaumont reminds us several times that as a result of Australia’s lack of political independence, Australian governments were never consulted about the decision to go to war, the formulation of war aims, or changes in military strategy. ‘As ever,’ she writes in Chapter Seven, when reporting discussions about the leadership of the Allied effort in France, ‘the British government did not consult Australia’. The Australians were colonial forces under imperial command and were deployed, as it happened, in some of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front, with some of the highest casualty rates.

Beaumont’s title echoes Gammage’s, but there is a significant change of emphasis. It was not just the lives and morale of soldiers that were broken by the war, but the élan of the nation itself. World War I broke the nation’s spirit. The new Commonwealth of Australia, which had already achieved a global reputation for advanced legislation, lost its boldness, independent-mindedness, and capacity to lead the world in democratic reform, succumbing instead to the forces of conservatism, imperialism, insularity, and xenophobia. In World War I the Australian nation, despondent and debilitated, lost its way.

Embarkation of HMAT Ajana from Melbourne, 8 July, 1916  (photograph by Josiah Barnes, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial [AWM PB0084])Embarkation of HMAT Ajana from Melbourne, 8 July, 1916 (photograph by Josiah Barnes, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial [AWM PB0084])

Rather than a new sense of national independence arising from the trauma of war, a new breed of imperial ‘loyalist’ appeared on the scene, demanding the repression of dissent, the imprisonment of opponents and deportation of agitators (including Adela Pankhurst) and aliens, Bolsheviks, and Catholics, all in the name of ‘loyalty to the British empire’. ‘The Australian patriot,’ one Protestant church leader insisted, ‘is a British patriot.’ Following his trip to Britain, where he was famously lionised, and the defeat of his proposal to introduce conscription, former Labor prime minister, British-born W.M. Hughes assumed the leadership of the new Nationalist party and became the most vociferous of Empire men. (Beaumont makes much of Hughes’s Welsh identity, which he certainly liked to project, but he was English-born, in Pimlico, London.) ‘We are loyal to the Empire first and foremost,’ Hughes told an Australian election crowd in 1917, ‘because we are of the British race.’ For its part the Victorian branch of the Labor Party denounced him as an ‘Imperial sycophant’. If he accepted an invitation to join the Imperial War Cabinet, claimed the Labor Party, Hughes would forfeit Australia’s power of self-government and that would be ‘disastrous for Australian ideals’. What were Australian ideals? In 1902 H.B. Higgins had written an essay on ‘Australian Ideals’, in which he predicted that Australia would have to choose between militarism and social equality. Clearly, Australian ideals were being contested and redefined by the war itself.

‘In World War I the Australian nation, despondent and debilitated, lost its way’

The Labor Party, which had formed the first national Labor government in the world before the war, was shattered by division, disempowerment, and recrimination. Its members were accused of disloyalty and treason, as were a wide range of other vulnerable groups, including the feminist pacifists who liked to sing, ‘I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier’. German Australians, some of whom had lived in Australia for decades, or had even been born in the country, were reviled as ‘enemy aliens’. At the end of the war, 6150 people of German and Austrian descent were deported in an act of persecution for which Sir William Deane, as governor-general, issued an apology in 1999.

Six long chapters of Broken Nation cover a year each from ‘1914: Going to War’ until ‘1919: Peace and Memory’, with the middle chapters giving substantial attention to the battles against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, including the work of the Light Horse in Palestine; trench warfare on the Western Front in Europe; and the conscription and election campaigns in Australia, characterised as another kind of warfare, fought along class, sectarian, and gender lines. Beaumont’s military metaphors emphasise the parallels. Debates over the desirability of conscription for overseas service ‘re-inforced existing battlelines’. Unfortunately for Hughes, in 1917, political warfare at home and the forthcoming federal election prevented him from attending to military strategy at the Imperial War Conference in London.

In a prologue to Broken Nation called ‘Joe Russell’s War’, Beaumont tells us of her own relationship to those who fought in World War I. Joe Russell, her great-uncle, enlisted in 1917, after his girlfriend sent him a white feather. She dedicates the book to her father, ‘a child in World War I, who, as a man, believed that no one should be forced to kill’. It seems to have become de rigueur in recent years for Australians to preface any commentary on the war or the Anzac tradition with a statement of their family’s own military service (‘my grandfather served at Kokoda, my great-grandfather was at Fromelles’), which is itself a resuscitation of one of the divisive legacies of World War I, the divide between the privileged status of those who served and the less honourable ‘stay-at-homes’ or ‘shirkers’. Now, with new online access to military records, made possible through massive government funding, military history has spawned a new and flourishing form of family history. And family history has in turn become the new face of military history.

At the same time, as a result of what Beaumont calls ‘today’s memory politics’, war experience has been promoted as Australia’s definitive historical experience. Intertwined with the historical narrative, Broken Nation provides a series of reflections on the ways in which particular battles – including Gallipoli, Fromelles, Pozières, Amiens, Passchendaele, Beersheba – have been commemorated in monuments at the battlefields and at the Australian War Memorial, and in other cultural forms such as painting and film. After John Howard’s election as prime minister in 1996, there was a flurry of new memorial building. And for the first time, veterans and their families could make fully funded pilgrimages to battle sites across Europe, the Middle East, New Guinea, and South-East Asia. Shaping historical memory has become an increasingly expensive business as the costs of war continue down the ages.

In discussing the great strike of 1917, which began in the New South Wales railway workshops in an effort to defend working conditions and attracted support from other unions and working people across Australia, Beaumont notes that this event, unlike the battles of war, has largely been erased from modern Australian memory. She attributes this to changing political values: with neo-liberalism triumphant there is no interest in recollecting the collective struggles of workers. But in whose interest, one must ask, is the excessively funded commemoration of Australia’s foreign wars? Discussing the argument over what constituted ‘the finest single feat’ of World War I, an accolade for which there would seem to be many contenders, Beaumont notes, in passing, that ‘[collective] memory and historical accuracy are not one and the same’. This observation might be applied more broadly to the understanding of historical memory and narratives of war. The myth of Anzac was promulgated to enable Australians to live with the otherwise unbearable carnage of World War I. Broken Nation helps explain its provenance and continuing power.

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  • Custom Article Title Broken Nation
  • Subheading Linking the history of the Great War to the home front
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    Marilyn Lake reviews Joan Beaumont’s magnum opus on Australians in the Great War and lauds it as the book to read amid the tsunami of books on the outbreak of the Great War.

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  • Book Title Broken Nation
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  • Biblio Allen & Unwin, $55 hb, 656 pp, 9781741751383