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The White Girl

December 4, 2019

The White Girl Tony Birch, The White Girl, 2019

As a child, Odette Brown was removed from her parents. In the mission, Odette was not allowed to speak to her father Reuben, except after mass. “While Odette had no faith in the Christian God … she was prepared to raise her voice and praise him if it meant she could be reunited with family, however briefly.”

Reuben had taught Odette to sing just loud enough to keep the missionaries satisfied, “because It’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.“

Now Odette and her 13-year-old granddaughter Cecily (Sissy) live on the outskirts of a small town which could be in rural Queensland. It is the early 1960s, when First Peoples were subject to total control. Odette is an artist but, without citizenship, she cannot open her own bank account, and so keeps her earnings in jam tins. Sissy is fair-skinned, and the new Sergeant in charge of the police station is planning to remove her from Odette.

The heart of this novel is the deep love between Odette and Sissy. The vivid portrayal of these two central characters and their close bond kept me immersed in their story, fearful about the Sergeant’s plan. Odette is a strong and resourceful woman, and she won’t let go of Sissy without a fight.

In a generally favourable review in the Australian, Geordie Williamson criticises Birch’s use of “easy binaries” – the characters are either decent people or monsters. On her ANZLitLovers Blog, Lisa Hill says that Williamson misses the point. She writes: “The White Girl is a story about people who’ve grown up in a binary world, among the powerless, the poor, the uneducated and the dispossessed.  They have learned from their history and their own experiences not to trust people in positions of power.”

I agree. It might be aesthetically satisfying if characters are conflicted and complex, but sometimes evil is done by people who may not be conflicted, like the ruthless Sergeant or the cruel Aaron Kane, who poses a serious threat to Sissy. And the racist attitudes that enabled these “monsters” are still with us. It is legitimate for art and literature to portray such evil.

Lisa Hill points out that the “circumstances of this novel are not ancient history … [but] a history that was taking place at the same time that I, a child born 10,000 miles away, was granted an Australian citizenship denied to the First Nations people of this land.”

I was also growing up at that time, when children were being removed to a reserve a few kilometres from my town. But that history is still happening. Indigenous children are now being removed from their parents at ten times the rate of non-Indigenous children, often when their grandmothers, women like Odette, would have been available to care for them, as shown in the documentary After the Apology. And ten-year-olds are still being sent to prison.

Many Australians are still living in the history portrayed in The White Girl.

Note: Sue at Whispering Gums also has an excellent review of The White Girl, contrasting it with Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, an utterly different novel treating similar themes.

Ada Blackjack: Survival in the Arctic

November 18, 2019

Approaching Wrangel Island, July 2019 (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven, 2003

In 1921, Ada Blackjack, a young Alaskan Inuit seamstress, was persuaded to join an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. In this book, Jennifer Niven tells the story of this remarkable woman.

Ada Cover Book (2)

The organiser of  the venture, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, had arranged a previous disastrous expedition to the Arctic, during which eleven men had lost their lives. Now he decided to send four young men to claim Wrangel Island for the British Empire, despite the fact that it was off the coast of the Soviet Union. The men would stay on the island for three years to consolidate the claim and demonstrate how easy it was to live in the “friendly Arctic”.

The men chartered a ship to take them from Nome to the island. They hired several Inuit families to travel with them, the men to hunt, and the women to sew. Seamstresses were vital to make clothing to protect the men from the cold.

When the time came to depart, the Inuit families refused to go because, they said, the trip would be too dangerous. Ada did not want to go as the only female with four men, but eventually agreed to join the trip. She would use her wages to pay for medical treatment for her son, who had suffered from tuberculous.

Lcation map Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island Location Map by Norman Einstein (CC Licence)

They arrived on Wrangel Island in September 1921 and immediately raised the British flag and claimed the island for Great Britain. Then they set up three tents, built the frame of a house and later, when the snow arrived in October, they covered the house walls with snow blocks. Ada worked diligently, sewing and cooking.

After two weeks, Ada changed. She cried uncontrollably and did no work. She had become infatuated with one of the men, and believed the other three were planning to kill her. One of the men, Lorne Knight, was always sharpening his knife.

One day, she disappeared. They followed her footprints. When they found her, she began to scream. She wanted to die and had drank a bottle of liniment.


Ada was terrified of being eaten by a polar bear (Photo by Ann Alcock)

The men tried to discipline her by refusing her food, or tying her to the flagpole until she promised to work.

Jennifer Niven suggests that Ada was suffering from Arctic Hysteria, but I think such a dubious diagnosis is unnecessary. Ada had not wanted to join the trip, and regretted doing so. She was desperately homesick, and longed for her son and her sister. She was a town girl and “knew little about fishing, nothing about hunting, and guns and knives terrified her.” And she was always frightened she would be eaten by a polar bear. It would not be surprising if she had reactive depression.

By December, she had recovered. Now “Ada worked harder than any of them. She sewed, cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed their clothing clean, and scraped skins. She rose at 6 am to bake bread. She was pleasant, cheerful and friendly.”


Bird cliff on Wrangel Island (photo by Bryce Alcock)

They all looked forward to the arrival of a ship to restock their provisions in June or July. The men were growing fond of Ada, and would miss her when she returned home on the ship.

But the ship could not get through the ice. And it would be another year before Ada was rescued, by then the sole survivor of the expedition. To survive, she trapped foxes for meat. Despite being terrified of guns, she taught herself to shoot, and bagged seagulls, eider ducks and seals. To help with her hunting, she made a skin boat. She scared polar bears away with rifle shots.

Jennifer Niven tells Ada’s story well, and she also brings to life the many other players in this drama. Ada’s character is revealed though her interactions with others, especially the four men. Ada is strong and engaging, full of fear but also full of courage, initiative and cleverness to overcome that fear. Thrown into an ongoing disaster, she develops the ability to deal with it.


Wrangel Island (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

The last part of the book narrates Ada’s life after Wrangel Island, as she tries to avoid her celebrity status. Niven describes her relationships with the families of the four men. This part of Ada’s life is interesting, but not as engrossing as her story of survival in the Arctic. Having recently visited Wrangel Island, I was grateful to immerse myself in this piece of its history.

My thanks to Jenny Gold for lending me the book.


Break the Rules!

November 10, 2019

Bruny Island Map by Kompakt (CC Licence)

Review: Heather Rose, Bruny, 2019

A bridge is being built to connect Bruny Island, south of Hobart, to the Tasmanian mainland. After a bomb damages the partly-constructed bridge, the Premier, John Coleman, asks his twin sister, Astrid, for help. She is a UN conflict resolution specialist and John wants the various factions for and against the bridge to calm down.

To Astrid, known as Ace, something about the bridge doesn’t add up. How can the Australian Government justify the two billion dollar cost for a “bridge to nowhere”? And what is  China’s interest? Tasmania has signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, under which China is supplying the steel for the bridge.

Ace puts her doubts aside and uses her skills, meeting with all the main players in the community, so that they feel their voices have been heard. But her doubts grow, and she is disturbed by the “bridge at any cost” attitude of the Prime Minister, her brother and other creepy but powerful players. John Coleman wants the bridge completed before the coming Tasmanian election. To achieve that goal, 300 Chinese workers are brought in, opening the possibility of importing foreign labour to other parts of Australia.

Ace eventually finds out what is really going on, and it is so outrageous that, if the novel had been written ten years ago, this development would have seemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is quite believable.

Ace reconnects with her friend Becky, now an advisor to the Prime Minister. As teenagers, their mantra was “Break the Rules”. Together they had got tattoos in order to make their mothers furious. Now Ace and Becky break the rules in a much more dangerous way.

There is much exposition in Bruny, which some reviewers have criticised as didactic and interrupting the narrative. Ace explains complex situations, comments on the crimes of Australian governments, and advocates for human rights and against corruption. For example:

There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight. If it’s not the environment, then it’s human rights. If it’s not human rights, it’s women’s rights. Law and order. Gun control. Invasive species. Water pollution. Tax reform. Refugee policy.  Education. Health care. The list is endless.

Heather Rose (Photo: Isabelleocean (CC licence)

To me, this exposition added to the novel, and reflected Ace’s character. Rose treats the reader as an intelligent person who cares about what is happening to Australia. And despite the “interruptions”, I could not stop reading, mainly because I believed in her characters, and was pulled along by her story-telling, desperate to know what the baddies are really planning. As well as political satire and a moving portrayal of a family in crisis, Bruny is a thriller.

Most reviewers have been positive. For me, the best assessment of the novel is by Louise Swinn, a founder and a judge of the Stella Prize, writing in the Saturday Paper.  Here is her concluding paragraph:

With a collective sigh of relief we’ve emerged on the other side of the writing-class maxim “Show, don’t tell”, a false binary that ignores how a vivid piece of writing can do both. If at times Bruny can be a little didactic, it has a vastness and a spaciousness that seem almost old-fashioned. It has that eminently readable interiority that only a novel can bring, the certainty of opinions from a particular mindset that is unabashedly, almost resignedly, only able to be itself.

Rose dedicates Bruny “For anyone who is still awake”, a signal that this is an issues novel. Perhaps we should expect some exposition and advocacy in such a work. For those who find this hard to swallow, Rose helps the medicine go down with a thrilling plot and characters we care for.

[Note: Heather Rose’s profoundly moving previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, is very different to Bruny. Follow this link to my review.]

The Rediscovery of a Painting

October 8, 2019


Aduh! Pasar Baru Oct19

Wenny Achdiat, whose story is told in Daughter of Independence, was the model for the woman in this painting. Aduh! Pasar Baru is the work of Indonesian Presidential Painter, Basoeki Abdullah. Wenny last saw the painting in 1954, when it was included in an exhibition. Recently, we found out what happened to this artwork, thanks to Amir Sidharta. Wenny now has a photo of the painting and is very happy!

Follow this link to the story of how the painting was created, what happened to it, and its rediscovery 65 years later.



October 2, 2019

HappinessAminatta Forna, Happiness, 2018

A large man strolling across Waterloo Bridge stops to admire the Houses of Parliament. A woman runs into him and bounces back onto the ground. This is how the two main characters of Happiness first meet. Attila is a Ghanaian psychiatrist, a specialist in trauma who spends much of his time in war zones. Jean is an American wildlife biologist who is researching urban foxes in London. She had been running across the bridge, following a fox.

Despite this opening, Happiness is far from being a romcom. It is a deep character study of two engaging people with rich experience of life. They combine to search for a missing boy, the son of Attila’s niece. The doorman at Attila’s hotel enlists other immigrants – security people, street sweepers, traffic wardens – while Jean’s army of fox-spotters, mostly night-workers, also join the search. As the quest proceeds, it pulls in others, such as street performers. This part of the novel brings the city of London to life. Forna portrays immigrants and locals working together to respond to an urgent problem, and shows how coexistence can work in practice.

Coexistence is a strong theme of the novel. Jean’s work is about human-animal coexistence. Her advocacy is opposed by hunters, mayors and shock jocks. In telling Jean’s story, Forna writes beautifully on nature. Her passages about foxes, coyotes, wolves, birds and trees made me stop, reread and marvel at her descriptive powers.


Aminatta Forna (Photo: JurgenMatern CC-BY-SA) 

In his work, Attila has experienced the horrors of war. ‘War is in the blood of humans,’ he tells Jean. ‘The kind of people who torture and rape during war, they’re always with us, every time you walk down a busy street you’re passing killers waiting to kill. War gives them licence.’

But Attila is critical of the growing tendency to diagnose Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after any difficult event. This thread plays out when he agrees to act as an expert witness in the trial of a woman who committed arson sometime after her husband died in a vehicle accident.

‘Suffering does not equal damage,’ Attila says. ‘We don’t blame victims any longer, instead we condemn them. We treat them like damaged goods and in so doing we compound the pain of whatever wound has been inflicted and we encourage everyone around them to do the same’ Attila has often observed joy amongst those who have suffered most.

In an interview, Forna said: ‘The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse — that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition.’

Forna’s novel is absorbing, moving and entertaining. Reading Happiness  is pure pleasure.

Boy Swallows Universe

April 24, 2019

Boy Swallows UniverseTrent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, 2018 

Boy Swallows Universe begins with 12-year-old Eli Bell being taught to drive by Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, convicted killer and expert prison escapee. Slim looks after Eli and his brother August while their parents are delivering heroin throughout the suburbs of Brisbane. August doesn’t talk but writes words in the air.

This novel grabbed me on the first page and didn’t let me go until it ended on page 474 when Eli is aged 19.

Dalton creates characters we care about, then puts them in harm’s way, producing set pieces of almost unbearable tension. He also sets them impossible challenges, like Eli’s plan to break into Boggo Road Gaol to see his mother on Christmas Day. But it is more than a thriller. Dalton recreates 1980s Brisbane and the ubiquitous police corruption of the time. He brings to life the Courier Mail newsroom, ruled over by an editor who demands three-word headlines (hence the titles of the book and chapters).

We also follow Eli’s investigation of what makes a good person. He tells the Guidance Counsellor that he wants to write about crime. “I’m not interested in crime as much as the people who commit crimes – interested in how they got to the point they got to. I’m interested in that moment when they decided to be bad instead of good.” He speculates: “Maybe all men are bad sometimes and all men are good sometimes. It’s just a matter of timing.”

Dalton is a master of characterisation. The novel is full of characters, each one memorable. From just a few words of speech, we know something of what the person is like. One minor character is Dr Caroline Brennan, who treats Eli when he loses his forefinger. She takes up five pages of the novel, but she made a lasting impression on me.

‘Now hold out your tall man,’ she says, twiddling her middle finger.
I hold out my tall man.
‘Now shove him up your nostril,’ she says.
She sticks her own middle finger in her nostril, raising her eyebrows.
… I follow suit, shove that tall man up my nose.
‘See,’ Dr Brennan says. ‘There ain’t nothing that forefinger could do that tall man can’t, you hear me, young Eli? The tall man can just go deeper.”

Dalton writes dialogue that feels real, and through dialogue, action and humour we learn a lot about the criminal underworld, the illicit drug industry, and life in public housing suburbs. While the novel is laced with violence it is also full of deep love – especially between Eli and his mother, but also between Eli and his brother, stepfather, Slim and, eventually, his real father.

This is a story about a boy swallowing the universe. It is a celebration of accepting the whole of life – the painful and the sublime. A big story beautifully told. Highly recommended.

No Friend But the Mountains

April 14, 2019

Boochani bookBehrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains, 2018, Translated by Omid Tofighian.

Behrouz Boochani came with so much to offer Australia and, instead of accepting this gift, we imprisoned and tortured him.

Boochani fled persecution in Iran and sought refuge in Australia. After nearly drowning, he arrived at Christmas Island in 2013, four days after Prime Minister Keven Rudd banned boat-borne refugees from ever settling in Australia. Boochani was sent to Manus Prison in Papua New Guinea.

Boochani and 400 other asylum-seekers were confined in one section of the prison that was so small it eliminated all personal space. They were not allowed possessions or activities. There was no chance of getting a notebook and pen.

“[T]here is nothing to occupy our time. … It is even prohibited to play cards. In Corridor L, a few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. They began to play, using the lids from water bottles as counters. Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered … and crossed out the game. They wrote over if in bold letters, ‘Games Prohibited’.”

One prisoner desperately wanted to call his father, who was dying. The guards forced him to follow the rules and wait three days. By the time he was allowed to call, his father had died. He reacted with grief and anger, and the Australian guards beat him up and threw him into solitary confinement.

Winner of two Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction

No Friend But the Mountains is a big book, but it was created on a smuggled mobile phone, one text message at a time sent to the translator. Boochani is a superb storyteller. On his first attempt to reach Australia, the rotting Indonesian boat sinks:

“With the weight of a boulder, the boat bashes us onto the surface of the ocean. I penetrate the water, into the darkness of the ocean accompanied by the boat, accompanied by its slashed carcass.
Down … /
I sink further down /
I sink further down /
The boat is pursuing me
Trying to catch me /
Catch me and pull me within it /”

Reading about the cruelty of the prison is harrowing, but the quality of the prose, and the poetry that is mixed into it, kept me reading. I felt a mixture of revulsion at what we are doing to him and delight in the beauty of his art.

Writing about the prison, he is not only describing, but also analysing. He says that Australia’s oppressive regime aims to turn prisoners against each other, and create a situation so harsh it will force the refugees to return to their country of origin, where they are likely to be tortured and murdered.

Boochani calls this system a “kyriarchy”, borrowing the term from the feminist scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who used it to describe interlocking systems aimed at domination, oppression and submission. In the Translator’s note, Tofighian says that this “connects the prison with Australian colonial history and fundamental factors plaguing contemporary Australian society, culture and politics.”

In his foreword to the book, Richard Flanagan writes: “Australia imprisoned his body, but his soul remained that of a free man. … I hope one day to welcome Behrouz Boochani to Australia as what I believe he has shown himself to be in these pages. A great Australian writer.”