On 15 May 1797 a fishing boat passing Wattamolla, in what is now Sydney’s Royal National Park, spotted three men on the beach. Rescued and returned to Sydney, the trio – tea merchant and supercargo William Clarke, sailor John Bennet, and Clarke’s lascar manservant, Srinivas – told an extraordinary story. After their ship, the Sydney Cove, was wrecked on Preservation Island in Bass Strait, they, along with fourteen other men, had set off in a longboat, hoping to fetch help for the other survivors. But when the longboat was also wrecked off the Ninety Mile Beach along Victoria, the survivors chose to do the only thing left open to them: follow the coast north on foot until they found help.

Jock Serong’s fourth novel, Preservation, takes this largely forgotten footnote to colonial history and uses it as the basis for a compelling study of European rapacity and blindness. Opening with the return of the three survivors to Sydney, the novel reimagines not just the trek north, but also the events leading up to the wreck and the impact the survivors had on the colony in which eventually they find themselves.

Much of our information about the men’s experiences comes from the account William Clarke published in a Calcutta newspaper after his return from India, but work has also been done by historian and archaeologist Michael Nash and others who worked on the excavation of the wreck in the early 1990s. Serong’s version of the story draws upon these sources and many more, fluidly deploying historical detail while also being unafraid to interpolate and reimagine.

Perhaps the most significant alteration is the transmogrification of one of the survivors, John Bennet, into the man we know as John Figge. Ostensibly a tea merchant, Figge is nothing of the sort: when the reader first encounters him, he has just woken up next to the corpse of the real Figge in a Calcutta bedroom and, still spattered with his unfortunate victim’s blood, is already beginning the process of assuming his identity.

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There is a whiff of the uncanny about this scene. Having awoken naked, as if reborn, the new Figge must remember himself, a process that comes with the unsettling observation that he ‘is left-handed this time, it seems’. With its echoes of Moretti and Marx, this eeriness – amplified when it becomes clear that Figge, or whoever he really is, has assumed multiple identities over the years, stealing lives in the Arctic and elsewhere – is suggestive of the book’s larger interest in the rootlessness of capital and the casual brutality of colonial exploitation. This flourish is never really developed, but it doesn’t need to be, for even without it Figge is a truly horrifying creation. Brutal, calculating, uninhibited by doubt or conscience, he conspires with Clark to wreck the ship as part of a scheme to sell its cargo of rum, then wrecks the longboat so he will have Clark at his mercy. Once they are on foot, he sets about ridding himself of the other survivors so there will be nobody to challenge his version of the story.

Jock Serong (photograph by Rowena Naylor)Jock Serong (photograph by Rowena Naylor)

As demonstrated by the wreck of a boatload of refugees in his last novel, the Colin Roderick Award-winning On the Java Ridge (2017), Serong brings both power and intelligence to his portrayals of characters fighting to survive. While there is nothing in Preservation as intense or visceral as some of the scenes in On the Java Ridge, his depiction of the journey northwards is never less than compelling.

This intensity is both amplified and complicated by the novel’s structure, which juxtaposes the accounts of Figge, Clark, and Srinivas with the story of Joshua Grayling – the lieutenant assigned to record and assess Figge and Clark’s stories – and his wife, Charlotte. But these competing versions of what has transpired also allow the novel to explore the different ways the various characters respond to the landscape and, perhaps more importantly, the people who inhabit it. For the self-serving Clark, the land and its people are merely inconveniences, and their only real interest lies in their ability to create wealth (the real Clark is credited with the discovery of coal on the Illawarra escarpment during the walk north). To Clark’s mind, the land is something to be controlled, its mutability offensive to his sensibilities; at one point he speaks of ‘the trading houses’ and ‘mills’ that will rise once the lagoons and shallow pools that line the coast are ‘firmly defined by seawalls’.

This inability to see the place for itself is contrasted with the more watchful eye of Srinivas. Used to being invisible and nameless, at least to his white masters, he sees beauty in the landscape, and kindness in the Aboriginal people who assist them along the way.

Serong makes a point of acknowledging the influence of the work of Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage upon his depiction of Aboriginal life (Preservation’s emphasis upon the material plenty and technological sophistication of Aboriginal life suggests it may well be read as one of the first post-Dark Emu novels). Likewise, its fascination with transformation and the sheen and eroticism of the writing (and indeed the emphasis upon Australia’s place in a larger colonial machine) occasionally recall the work of Rodney Hall, and in particular his magnificent The Yandilli Trilogy (1994). Yet this gripping and extremely accomplished novel never feels beholden to its antecedents or bogged down by research. Instead, it offers a fresh glimpse of the violence at the heart of the colonial project, not just as it was, but as it is.

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  • Custom Article Title James Bradley reviews 'Preservation' by Jock Serong
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  • Book Title Preservation
  • Book Author Jock Serong
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 368 pp, 9781925773125

In the swampy heat of a Brisbane summer in 1986, a young bookshop assistant tries to solve a fifty-year-old mystery involving Inga Karlson, a legendary New York author who died in a warehouse fire in 1939. Caddie Walker, the bookseller, is idealistic enough to believe that books can change people’s lives. Perhaps they can: literally, and in unexpected ways.

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  • Custom Article Title Suzanne Falkiner reviews 'The Fragments' by Toni Jordan
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    In the swampy heat of a Brisbane summer in 1986, a young bookshop assistant tries to solve a fifty-year-old mystery involving Inga Karlson, a legendary New York author who died in a warehouse fire in 1939. Caddie Walker, the bookseller, is idealistic enough to believe that books can change people’s lives ...

  • Book Title The Fragments
  • Book Author Toni Jordan
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 336 pp, 9781925773132

When Clare Wright’s new history, You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, landed in my mailbox, I opened it with some trepidation. It was big, a fact I now realise I should have expected but nevertheless a somewhat disheartening one – arriving as it did at the beginning of our lambing season on the farm. It sat on the kitchen table, slightly out of place beside tractor catalogues, long-term rainfall predictions (depressing), and pamphlets advertising ram sales.

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  • Custom Article Title Maggie MacKellar reviews 'You Daughters of Freedom' by Clare Wright
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    When Clare Wright’s new history, You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, landed in my mailbox, I opened it with some trepidation. It was big, a fact I now realise I should have expected but nevertheless a somewhat disheartening one – arriving as it did at the beginning of our lambing season on the farm. It sat on the kitchen table, slightly out of place beside tractor catalogues, long-term rainfall predictions (depressing), and pamphlets advertising ram sales.

  • Book Title You Daughters of Freedom
  • Book Author Clare Wright
  • Book Subtitle The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $49.99 hb, 432 pp, 9781925603934

If the past is a foreign country, the distant past is a very foreign one indeed. Tim Flannery’s new book takes us deep into the prehistory of Europe. Climbing aboard the time machine that he repeatedly invites us to use, we glimpse pygmy dinosaurs and terrifying terminator pigs the size of cows. We meet, on the island of Gargano in what is now southern Italy, a giant carnivorous hedgehog. Later, we learn of hippos in the Thames and woolly rhinos in Scotland, encounter a cobra in ancient Hungary and a small ape in what is now Tuscany. For much of the past hundred million years, the climate of the zone we call Europe was tropical or semi-tropical. Huge straight-tusked elephants wandered the continent, their dwarf descendants (only one metre tall) surviving in Cyprus until about 11,000 years ago. Europe’s natural history turns out to be dramatic, yet on timescales that are hard for most of us to absorb.

As in his earlier books, Flannery provides a clear but never condescending synthesis of recent scientific discoveries and debates. He is a master storyteller, with an eye for the revealing detail. He offers, for example, an arresting narrative of the asteroid strike, around sixty-six million years ago, that scientists now agree killed off the dinosaurs. It was powerful enough, he explains, to shock quartz, something otherwise achieved only by underground nuclear blasts. Yet the impact was two million times more powerful than the largest nuclear explosion and created more shocked quartz than any other event in Earth’s history. The apocalypse extinguished most life on Earth. A tsunami several kilometres high, followed by volcanic eruptions and huge fires, destroyed most of the forests, and the subsequent reduction of sunlight created an endless winter that killed most of the remaining flora and fauna. Even marine algae were destroyed, those whose skeletons formed the chalk under parts of England, Belgium, and France, notably the white cliffs of Dover. Amphibians and some turtles were the main survivors: the midwife toad, widespread in today’s Europe, is its oldest extant species.

Humans – in Europe as elsewhere – have a pretty dismal record, although they of course behaved like other species. They may have hunted mammoths to extinction. They probably eliminated the cave lions, either by competing for food or by displacing them from the caves. Giant hyenas and scimitar-toothed cats disappeared around the same time. Every indigenous creature on the Mediterranean islands, except for the Cypriot mouse, became extinct after the arrival of humans. Remarkably, there was a respite from extinctions from around 7,000 bce, when the muskox disappeared, until the seventeenth century, when aurochs and wild horses vanished. Beavers, wolves, and wisents (a cross between bison and aurochs) were almost wiped out. European bears probably survived (only just) by becoming vegetarian and hence less threatening. In the twentieth century, agricultural chemicals decimated birds and insects, making some species of ants extinct and skylarks rare.

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A skull of the now extinct scimitar toothed cat Homotherium. This creature could weigh up to 440 kilograms. It survived in Europe until 28000 years ago. A skull of the now extinct scimitar-toothed cat Homotherium. This creature could weigh up to 440 kilograms. It survived in Europe until 28000 years ago. One of the great qualities of Flannery’s approach is his weaving of the history of science into his narrative. Palaeontology and its related disciplines are surprisingly full of colourful characters, like the Transylvanian nobleman Franz Nopcsa Felső-Szilvás, flamboyantly homosexual and arrogantly aristocratic, who first identified some of Europe’s oldest dinosaur fossils. Or Sir Richard Owen, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, ‘one of the most dastardly scientists ever to live’ (the ethical reader is inclined to agree with Flannery’s assessment). More engaging was Dorothea Bate, an assistant at the British Museum who learned enough about fossils from her humble work to track down the remains of hippos in Cyprus, in the process surviving near-starvation, as well as sexual harassment by the British vice consul. Singling out unusual characters risks giving the impression that mental illness is an occupational hazard, since a disturbing number of the scientists he includes killed themselves (although not Owen or Bate). And just occasionally these individual stories, entertaining as they are, hijack the larger narrative.

Yet the interweaving of the personal with the scientific is important. While Flannery never doubts that scientific method will eventually triumph, he recognises that science is inseparable from politics and culture. Academic rivalries sometimes prevented discoveries from being recognised, and so did ideology. It was not only the Nazis who suppressed theories they did not agree with. Anti-German feeling, and the subsequent triumph of neo-Darwinian theory, meant that the important work of Richard Semon and others on non-genetic inheritance was not recognised for a hundred years.

A model of a Neanderthal woman constructed in 2014, shown at the Museum of the Confluences, Lyon. A model of a Neanderthal woman constructed in 2014, shown at the Museum of the Confluences, Lyon. Flannery brings to a wider public many relatively recent shifts in scientific thinking, particularly resulting from advances in genetics. DNA analysis shows that salamanders, newts, and possibly moles evolved in the European zone. It tells us that cows are descended from aurochs (enabling, as Flannery remarks, the creation of a European culture built on milk). And it sheds new light on the complex migratory exchanges between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Perhaps most intriguingly for us, it reveals that dark-skinned Homo sapiens from Africa – arriving in Europe long after they had spread to Asia and Australia – interbred with pale-skinned, blue-eyed Neanderthals, and that all Europeans living between 37,000 and 14,000 years ago were descended from these hybrids. Small percentages of Neanderthal genes survive in many Europeans today. The wider significance of these discoveries, Flannery points out, is to undermine the old theory that species were ‘pure’ and distinct. Hybrids often adapted more quickly to new conditions. These discoveries render old classification systems outdated, and also point to the need to revise legislation, on endangered species for instance. They encourage us to think differently about genetic manipulation. This is a book brimming over with insights and with implications for the present.

It nevertheless does not entirely achieve its stated goals: to explain how Europe was formed, how its history was uncovered, and why it came to be so important in the world. The first two questions are admirably answered, the third less so. Flannery argues that Europe was distinctive because it was a crossroads, and that this produced organisms and a human world that were special because of their hybridity. The continent’s natural history is one of immigration, by species of all kinds, assuredly an important point to make given recurrent notions of European uniqueness and ‘purity’. Yet, on the evidence he presents, areas of today’s Middle East would have a better claim to the title of crossroads of the world, and the argument about the wider implications of European evolution is not developed enough to be convincing.

Flannery’s enthusiasm is infectious, though. Scientific gravity does not prevent him from dubbing the period from about 23 to 5.3 million years ago the ‘Marvellous Miocene’, ‘arguably Europe’s most enchanting epoch’, or from regretting that humans did not manage to see certain ancient frogs and toads. And he remains an optimist. Despite climate change today occurring thirty times faster than at any time in the last 2.6 million years, he still sees a bright future for Europe, believing that its people can create a natural environment in which humans and other creatures (including recreated megafauna) can coexist. I sincerely hope he is right.

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  • Custom Article Title David Garrioch reviews 'Europe: A Natural History' by Tim Flannery
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    If the past is a foreign country, the distant past is a very foreign one indeed. Tim Flannery’s new book takes us deep into the prehistory of Europe. Climbing aboard the time machine that he repeatedly invites us to use, we glimpse pygmy dinosaurs and terrifying terminator pigs the size of cows ...

  • Book Title Europe: A Natural History
  • Book Author Tim Flannery
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $34.99 pb, 357 pp, 9781925603941
Thursday, 21 December 2017 11:11

2017 Publisher Picks

To complement our 2017 ‘Books of the Year’, we invited several senior publishers to nominate their favourite books – all published by other companies.

Madonna Duffy

The Museum of Modern LoveTwo Australian novels have stayed with me through 2017: Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in ABR, 1/17) was brilliant in every way. Challenging and engrossing, it reminded me that it takes courage to live well. Rose is such a keen observer of human nature in all its tortured forms. It also featured Sandy Cull’s gorgeous design work on the cover, so anything within had to be worth reading. Kim Scott’s Taboo (Picador, 8/17) asks the questions that many of us are asking ourselves. How do we make a shared future out of a fractured past? He reminds us that the power of Indigenous storytelling transcends time, race, and politics. They were the first storytellers, and we still have so much to learn from them.

Madonna Duffy is Publishing Director at the University of Queensland Press.

Michael Heyward

Simon LeysPhilippe Paquet’s monumental biography of the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans is entitled Simon Leys: Navigator between worlds (La Trobe University Press/Black Inc.). Superbly translated by Julie Rose, this book explores an extraordinary life. Ryckmans was born in Belgium, where he trained in art history but wanted to become a painter. He first went to China when he was nineteen. Later, he became a scathing critic of Mao and Maoism, writing under the nom de plume Simon Leys, before landing up in Australia where he raised his family, and wrote his unclassifiable masterpiece The Death of Napoleon, along with the masterful essays that were collected in The Hall of Uselessness.

Michael Heyward is Publisher at Text Publishing.

Meredith Curnow

The Life to ComeMichelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin, 10/17) is a quietly brilliant piece of work that left me rather sad at the end, but happily so. The hopeful and abiding love of Bunty and Christabel will long stay with me. The intent of the novel is clear from Part I, The Fictive Self. We all tell ourselves stories and ignore or reinterpret what is too hard to digest. Confronting, cutting, moving, and funny in equal parts. Long may this storyteller continue to absorb fact into her fiction.

Meredith Curnow is Publisher – Knopf, Vintage, Penguin Random House Literary.

 

Phillipa McGuinness

Mirror SydneyI was hopeful that Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe (Black Inc.) would be free of the ‘clunky philosophical dialogue that made the protagonists sound like Marxist gramophones’, a criticism Glover has Orwell direct at another writer. I hoped too that Glover’s prose might hold its own alongside one of the century’s greatest writers. It exceeded my hopes on both counts. I can’t read or publish enough about Sydney it seems. Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney (Giramondo, 1/18) was a joy. It made me want to set off to find the Wrigleys factory in Hornsby, such is its power to make the marginal and the lost seem much less so.

Phillipa McGuinness is Executive Publisher of NewSouth Publishing.

Mathilda Imlah

Terra NulliusFor me this year, Stuart Kells’s The Library: A catalogue of wonders (Text Publishing, 12/17) is an easy choice for any bibliophile. On a vivid tour of the world’s great libraries, both real and imagined, Kells is a magnificent guide to the abundant treasures he sets out. In fiction, Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (Hachette, 12/17) is a powerful and skilful novel – I could mention speculative fiction, but it transcends that tag. It offers a vision of Australia’s future and past whose twist, quite as intended, took me completely by surprise.

Mathilda Imlah is the Picador Publisher.

 

Barry Scott

The Book of DirtIncreasingly, international publishers are the the first to publish books by Australian writers. As the wealth of local talent grows, it is probably inevitable that some authors will bob up elsewhere. Peter Barry’s The Walk (New Internationalist), a delicious satire, tells the story of a charity worker who brings Mujtabaa, a young Ethiopian man, to London and has him walk from Heathrow to Trafalgar Square to raise funds for famine relief. The hilarious McDonald’s scene is worth the price of admission alone. I found Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (Text Publishing, 11/17) impossible to forget. Penetrating, soulful, and surprisingly welcoming, it reminded me of my own ancestors and how easy it is to sidestep the past.

Barry Scott is Publisher at Transit Lounge

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Rachel Bin Salleh

Common PeopleIt is unusual to read a short story and feel the kind of satisfaction that comes with finishing a great novel. I felt this about each one of Tony Birch’s stories in Common People (UQP, 9/17). In this collection, Birch reveals himself as a master of the short story. He draws you in from the first paragraph and leaves you both satisfied and with cause for reflection. The stories are surprising and diverse, and Birch’s sense of humanity pulls you in. I loved the grittiness, the dark humour, and quiet celebration of human resilience.

Rachel Bin Salleh is Publisher at Magabala Books.

 

Rod Morrison

From the WreckJane Rawson is one of our most gifted and unpredictable – and under-appreciated – writers. I really enjoyed her fourth novel, From the Wreck (Transit Lounge, 4/17), a densely poetic, imaginary tour de force that combines seemingly familiar scenes and characters – an historical shipwreck – with surreal and speculative leaps of fancy. Overseas, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner) by Jesmyn Ward is a spare and searing portrait of just a few of the countless faultlines at the heart of American society. A dysfunctional family drama and modern road novel in one, it is painful, shocking, and illuminating reading, but you dare not turn away.

Rod Morrison is Publishing Director at Brio Books.

Nikki Christer

City of CrowsThe one that got away! This year I devoured Chris Womersley’s rich and gothic City of Crows (Picador, 10/17). With each very different novel Womersley exposes the wanton sides of human nature, and looks for beauty. This dark, visceral book is a brilliant piece of historical fiction. Rural France and Paris, scenes familiar to us from centuries of fiction, are drawn here in many layers. I particularly enjoyed wallowing in the blood and magic of the underground rooms and clusters of trees where most writers do not linger. Charlotte’s quest to save herself and Nicolas stretched the imagination of this reader in the most enjoyable ways.

Nikki Christer is Group Publishing Director at Penguin Random House

Georgia Richter

Our man elsewhereTwo portraits of writers provided excellent reading this year. Thornton McCamish’s Our Man Elsewhere: In search of Alan Moorehead (Black Inc., 9/16), an ‘in the footsteps’ narrative, returns a legendary war correspondent to public view, revealing an author whose wit and self-deprecation make him an ideal companion on the discovery journey. Helen Garner’s writing has influenced my teaching and thinking about style like no other. In A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (Text, 5/17), Bernadette Brennan offered fresh perspectives with her thorough, immensely readable portrait of one of Australia’s finest authors.

Georgia Richter is Publisher at Fremantle Press.

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  • Custom Article Title 2017 Publisher Picks
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    To complement our 2017 ‘Books of the Year’, we invited several senior publishers to nominate their favourite books – all published by other companies.

‘Paris has gone crazy.’ There are people everywhere; ‘players and officials have been arriving like migrating birds’. The German team – including Hermann Hesse, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Gropius,Thomas Mann, Martin Heidegger – have already arrived, but their officials will permit no interviews. The Americans, amongst whom are Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Amelia Earhart (who flew her single seater in from New York) are raring to go. Hemingway speaks for them all: ‘Great to be here … The plane was high in the air. I slept and then I ate and drank and then I slept again. The sun came up. I drank again and then I slept. Then the plane banked and came in and landed and stopped and I could hear the great big engines being turned off. That’s the way it is.’

And that’s the way it goes. In the first few pages of this extraordinary and daring piece of work, John Clarke effortlessly maps out the ground rules simply by taking the whole thing as read. There is no anxiety to explain massive anachronisms, outlandish juxtapositions, wild propositions: these are part of the satirist’s armoury. Jonathan Swift modestly proposed that babies might be eaten in a ‘good’ cause. Clarke, with equally little fuss, puts selected canonical figures on court and lets them fight it out.

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  • Custom Article Title Brian Matthews reviews 'The Tournament' by John Clarke
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    Paris has gone crazy.’ There are people everywhere; ‘players and officials have been arriving like migrating birds’. The German team – including Hermann Hesse, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Gropius,Thomas Mann, Martin Heidegger ...

  • Book Title The Tournament
  • Book Author John Clarke
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing $28 pb, 280 pp, 9780786888948
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The Spare Room marks Helen Garner’s return to fiction after a long interval. Since Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), she has concentrated on non-fiction and journalism: newspaper columns and feature articles. She has speculated in public about her distance from fiction, while giving us The First Stone (1995) – an account of an incident at a Melbourne university and its bizarre aftermath – and the lancing, forensic Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004).

Why this new work is presented as fiction is not immediately obvious. Read as a long essay in a magazine, it would be convincing, perhaps more so than this novella. The subject, the sensibility, are very familiar by now. The narrator’s name is Helen (‘Hel’ to her friends); she is a writer and a journalist, in her mid-sixties; she lives in an inner suburb of Melbourne and rides a bicycle; she has a friend called Rosalba in Newcastle; her daughter lives next door; a ukulele is always at the ready; her marriages she describes as ‘train wrecks’.

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  • Custom Article Title Peter Rose reviews 'The Spare Room' by Helen Garner
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Thursday, 31 October 2013 19:26

Maya Linden reviews 'Zac & Mia' by A. J. Betts

Authentically owning a character’s experience is one of the great challenges faced by fiction writers, especially when it is something as intensely felt as living with terminal illness. It is testimony to A.J. Betts’s talent that she does so in Zac & Mia without lapsing into melodrama, rather, maintaining a voice that is youthful, contemporary, emotional when it needs to be but never clichéd.

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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 310 pp, 9781922147257

When Mark Twain arrived in Watsons Bay in 1895, he called out from his ship that he was going to write a book about Australia. ‘I think I ought to start now. You know so much more of a country when you haven’t seen it than when you have. Besides, you don’t get your mind strengthened by contact with the hard facts of things.’ I expect it’s an injustice to Twain to explain his joke, but one reason it works is because you can feel the temptation: stay on board and, before you see anything, decide exactly what you’re going to find and what you’re going to say about it. Much of the wonder of A History of Silence lies in its steady revelation of what can happen when you choose, instead, to question what you know and allow places, and the secrets they contain, to speak to you afresh.

Lloyd Jones’s memoir comes as an important addition to a remarkable and wide-ranging oeuvre from probably New Zealand’s best-known writer. We meet family members who may, as Umberto Eco put it, want to ‘migrate’ from this work of non-fiction to our reading of Jones’s novels. Certainly, a very moving portrait of his mother, who, at a young age, was given up for adoption, seems to support the author’s view that ‘a writer’s works have a way of tracking back to his wellsprings’. It’s hard not to think of Mr Pip (2006), a novel in part about a girl’s loss of her mother at the same time as she falls in love with reading and storytelling. Or, indeed, Hand Me Down World (2010), in which a woman is tricked into giving up her son for adoption.

Both works, the author’s most successful novels, won a suite of awards, and Mr Pip has been made into a film (2013). But Jones’s career to date witnesses an immensely varied writing life seemingly animated by a desire to experiment with form and voice, a stylistic openness much on display in A History of Silence. The memoir brings together what might at first seem rather disparate subjects: the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch and certain omissions that have, until now, remained in the account that Jones’s family gives of its past. That Jones manages to relate them in an organic way is the reward of years of thoughtful and at times unconventional use of long-form prose, but also I think a result of the work’s third, quieter strand: the author’s reflections on what it means to write about places and the ‘hard facts of things’ in an open, responsive way.

JoyceLloyd Jones's mother, Joyce (image courtesy Text Publishing)

One wonders whether doing so becomes more complicated with success. In his capacity as a cultural figure with an international presence, Jones might well feel bound in some way to speak about the Christchurch disaster on behalf of the nation. At the beginning of the book, he describes being asked to write about the quake shortly after it happens, but ultimately declining the offer. It seems that Jones, a master of intimate perspectives, doesn’t quite suit the role of author–spokesman, however flattering it is to be asked. In the first days after the quake, he wants more than anything to help out.

A small army of student volunteers appears to make this unnecessary, but, five weeks on, Jones decides to leave his home in Wellington and travel to the site of the disaster. By now, he goes also as a writer researching and shaping a story. Perhaps that’s why the first part of this memoir reminds me of an author’s apology that might once have prefaced a travel book: partly, Jones is giving us a key with which to read the remainder of the work. He recalls a painting by William Hodges, the artist on Cook’s second expedition to the Pacific. X-ray images have revealed that Hodges’ picture, a ‘romantic invention’, is in fact painted over ‘perhaps the first ever sketches of Antarctic icebergs’. It seems that the artist had failed to realise the startling originality of his first picture, and so was able to make the ‘devastating step towards easing the wilderness into pastoral familiarity’.

It is devastating, one supposes, because the artist’s first, authentic response has been replaced by a return to convention, but also, perhaps, because Jones is on the verge of doing something similar. Before leaving home, he’s heard stories about the earthquake and its aftermath. His hairdresser tells him about an aunt with a broken leg and how a toilet seat has had to be made for her out of a beach chair – one of those narrative-rich images around which a novel might just gather. When Jones travels to Christchurch, he takes the image with him: ‘like Hodges, I found myself seeking to overlay what I had seen with a story I’d heard.’

The way in which Jones changes his mind and responds to the scene before him, provides the philosophy of this book, but also its thematic link to the events in Christchurch: there will come a moment in life when you have to look openly and directly at past foundations, even if those foundations seem long to have disappeared out of view. A silent history is not the same as a lost history. ‘Nothing had been lost after all, just hidden.’

Jones Carolin SeeligerLloyd Jones (photograph by Carolin Seeliger)

Walking through the ruined city, Jones finds himself shocked by a perfectly suburban scene, one that in this context seems strange because of its normality: a woman crouched at a flowerbed. For, as suddenly, it’s a vision of the street of his own childhood. He abandons the project he’s brought with him, and as convincingly institutes a new one, a work that at its heart will try to better understand his mother and father, and the circumstances in which they were separated from their parents.

When I interviewed Jones at the Brisbane Writers Festival this year, he said that the earthquake had provided him with ‘a language by which to comprehend and write about the ancestral silence’ in his family. I think it also gave him a structure, one in which a series of childhood recollections are allowed to collide with the author’s present-day research into his family’s past. ‘Out of the vanished or vanishing world of my childhood, figures come and go.’ In A History of Silence, they come and go rather in the way that the strangely familiar figures of everyday life – a postman, a gardener – make their way through a radically altered city.

Together, Jones’s personal search for his origins and his impressions of the earthquake frame a wonderfully patient and tense discovery of his family’s central fault lines. Perhaps the most startling of these relates to the illegitimacy of Jones’s mother and a decision by Maud, Jones’s maternal grandmother, to give up her daughter at the request of the man she later married. But throughout this brilliant memoir, the ultimate impact of the book lies with how openly and humanely Jones responds, as an author and a son, to a truer picture of his family. In this, it does what I suspect we’d like all family memoirs to do. Before filling the silence, it listens for what might lie behind it.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Kári Gíslason reviews 'A History of Silence' by Lloyd Jones
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    When Mark Twain arrived in Watsons Bay in 1895, he called out from his ship that he was going to write a book about Australia. ‘I think I ought to start now. You know so much more of a country when you haven’t seen it than when you have. Besides, you don’t get your mind strengthened by contact with ...

  • Book Title A History of Silence
  • Book Author Lloyd Jones
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 273 pp, 9781922147332

For some sixty years Donald Friend kept a diary, making his final entry just days before his death in 1989 at the age of seventy-four. The National Library of Australia published them in four massive volumes between 2001 and 2006. They were intractable. You needed an axe to cut through the stream of consciousness which flowed from an uncensoring pen.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Patrick McCaughey reviews 'The Donald Friend Diaries' by Ian Britain
  • Contents Category Features
  • Custom Highlight Text

    For some sixty years Donald Friend kept a diary, making his final entry just days before his death in 1989 at the age of seventy-four. The National Library of Australia published them in four massive volumes between 2001 and 2006. They were intractable. You needed an axe to cut through the stream of consciousness which flowed from an uncensoring pen ...

  • Book Title The Donald Friend Diaries: Chronicles & Confessions of an Australian Artist
  • Book Author Ian Britain (foreword by Barry Humphries)
  • Author Type Editor
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $45 pb, 490 pp, 9781921656705
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