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Foibles and Revelations

January 11, 2020

The weekend coverReview: Charlotte Wood, The Weekend, 2019 

The three central characters of The Weekend are accomplished, complex, engaging women: Jude the restaurateur, Wendy the public intellectual, and Adele the actor. They cherish and annoy each other, and I found them easy to love.

The three friends are now in their seventies. They come together to clean out the house of the fourth member of their friendship, Sylvie, who has died. Now they are “shuffling around the gap of the lost one … Despite the three women knowing each other better than their own siblings, Sylvie’s death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.”

One of my favourite words is foible: “a weakness or failing in an otherwise sound character”. Wood does not use the word but it seems to me that the action of the novel is driven by foibles.

Adele’s foible is vanity. Jude’s foible is disdain for anyone who is not as capable and orderly as she is, which is everyone. Wendy’s foible is her refusal to have Finn, her seventeen-year-old dog, put down, despite his suffering and incontinence. Finn is the fourth main character, and represents the prospect of demented old age that terrifies the women. And each of them tells lies in “all the expected ways”.

Countering these foibles is the genuine love the women have for each other. But, is the “worn rubber band of their friendship” disintegrating?

Charlotte Wood skilfully structures the build-up of tension as the lies the characters tell themselves become more desperate until the novel climaxes with an explosion of truth-telling during a violent storm.

Afterwards, one of the characters realises “my life has not been what I believed it to be.” Now, “she had to understand her life, her children’s lives, from the beginning again.”

Highly recommended.


The women use an inclinator to access their friend’s house by the sea. (Photo: P. R. King & Sons)



Maybe the Horse Will Talk

December 16, 2019

Maybe Horse

Review: Elliot Perlman, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, 2019

Literary authors turning to high-paced commercial fiction to satirise what’s happening to our society – is this a trend? Example 1: Heather Rose on the greed and immorality of our politicians in Bruny. Example 2: Elliot Perlman on the toxic workplace, corporate greed and sexual harassment in Maybe the Horse Will Talk.

Each of these novels is utterly different from the author’s previous work. Perlman’s preceding novel, The Street Sweeper, is a complex book encompassing the Holocaust and the American civil rights era (my review here).

Maybe the Horse Will Talk is a fast read with many laugh-out-loud moments. The protagonist, Stephen Mazarov, is a lawyer working for legal firm Freely Savage Carter Blanche. The novel begins with his cri de coeur, ‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’ He knows that his psychopathic boss, Crispy Hamilton, will soon sack him, and he will not be able to pay his mortgage.

When Malcolm Torrent, the CEO of the firm’s biggest client, is dissatisfied with Hamilton’s dismissal of a spate of sexual harassment claims, Stephen sees an opportunity to buy time and keep his job. He convinces Torrent to appoint him as the company’s lawyer for the harassment cases with the promise of making the problem go away within a year. He moves to an office at Torrent Industries.

When he reads the four plaintiffs’ affidavits, he is shocked and sickened. “He wondered what he was doing defending Torrent Industries against these sexual harassment claims. This wasn’t why he had gone to law school.”

When Stephen finds out that A. A. Betga, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, is seeking substantial payouts from the company, Stephen objects. The men have committed crimes, so shouldn’t the women go to the police? Betga explains what would happen in court – the women would have their “entire sexual histories … levelled against them” and would be faced with the de facto onus on them to prove that they are not ‘easy’ and that they should be believed. … Not only would they never get their privacy back, but they’d find it hard to get a job of equivalent standing.” For the plaintiff’s sake, money must substitute for justice. It is troubling to think that men who commit crimes can have their employer buy their way out of punishment.

Perlman uses humour, madcap action and clever storytelling to illustrate this and other issues around sexual assault in the workplace. Stephen joins forces with Carla (one of the plaintiffs), Jessica (head of Human Resources) and A. A. Betga to work towards a good outcome  for the plaintiffs.

Perlman insists that his novel is not a satire, as there is nothing in the book that hasn’t happened or couldn’t happen. This reminds me that in Heather Rose’s Bruny, government intentions are so outrageous that if the novel had been written ten years ago, it would have been deemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is all too believable.

Is our world overtaking our ability to write satire?

The Alcock-Johanson Story

December 13, 2019

The book’s front cover photo shows my mother as a baby with her parents and brothers.

I had a frugal childhood without realising that it was frugal. My parents, Stan Alcock and Ellen Johanson, married in 1925 and bought a dairy farm a few years later. Then the Depression hit, and the price of butter crashed. Ellen and Stan survived by  using their skills at making do with little. Their thrifty habits continued after the depression but to me, their farm was a paradise.

Stan’s ancestors included settlers, dairy farmers and a strong woman who took her family  across the world to join her brother, a sheep thief turned landholder. Ellen’s parents were people of Swedish heritage but Russian citizenship who had migrated to Australia from the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. Her Ancestors were mainly crofters or, like her father, sailors on the wheat run between England and Australia.

These migrants and their descendants were remarkable people, and The Alcock-Johanson Story chronicles their lives. The book includes Johanson Family Tree, by Gaylene Johanson, a report of Gaylene’s painstaking research into Johanson genealogy.

My aim in writing this book was to focus on story more than on information. Thanks to those who had previously researched branches of my family tree,  I  was able to include many stories, some true and some tall.

A few copies are available for purchase by libraries and family historians. Contact for details.

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.