A few weeks ago I was contacted by Brigid Magner, a lecturer at RMIT who described her current project about literary commemorations in Australia. This project includes several houses where Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel, or Ettie as she was called when she was a young girl) once lived.
The two photographs at the start of this post are of 26 Mercer Street Queenscliff where the author lived in the late 1870s. The second is from a short play I wrote for history week 2016, and shows Ettie (played by Laura McMahon) reading on the veranda. The play took place in the garden, where the audience sat, and on the spacious veranda.
Talking to Brigid and thinking about her project got me wondering about literary pilgrimages and why people travel long distances to visit the homes of their favourite authors.
At the start of Flaubert’s Parrot, author Julian Barnes has his narrator ask, ‘Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough?’
I sometimes fantasise about visiting Shrewsbury in England, where Ellis Peters set her Cadfael series. Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who lived at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul in the 12th century. I imagine the cobbled streets and tiny, close-packed houses. And there would be some corners of the city where my imagination wouldn’t feel let down. But mostly I would have to go about in blinkers. And this is one problem, isn’t it, for literary pilgrims, that places where well-loved authors and characters have lived exist so vividly in our imaginations that we must be letting something go when we travel, perhaps thousands of kilometres, to see them with our own eyes.
One of my favourite pilgrimage stories concerns Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel combining a wonderful mixture of naturalistic and allegorical writing, in which the devil visits Moscow. There is supposed to be a tour where the tour guide takes visitors to see the bench the devil sat on. Now I don’t know whether or not this story is true; it’s simply one of many legends surrounding a famous work of literature. And I don’t care if it’s true, though if I were seriously considering paying for a tour I suppose I would like to find out. I love the story because it’s a mixture of imagination, humour, and the desire to connect with works of fiction that have moved and changed us.
I do not have to go far to visit one of the childhood homes of Henry Handel Richardson.
I can’t get inside 26 Mercer Street since the house is privately owned and not open to the public. I did go inside once, as a special favour, and was disappointed by the modern renovations. The front garden, though, is recognisably what it would have been in the 1870s, when the Richardson family lived there for about eighteen months. Such a short time, at least from an adult perspective. So much happened!
My script for the play features Ettie and her younger sister, Lil, left alone in the house to mind their father, while their mother, Mary, was learning book-keeping and Morse code at the post office. Mary had been told that if she could complete her training in six months she’d be given a job as a postmistress. She had to do something to support herself and the girls since Walter was incapable of doing so.
When the Richardsons arrived in Queenscliff, Walter was still talking about working as a quarantine officer and developing a private medical practice, but it quickly became apparent that he could do neither. Those eighteen months witnessed the rapid decline that ended with him being committed to a Melbourne mental asylum.
From Mercer Street, Walter wandered off and got lost, fell into vociferous arguments with shop-keepers and people in the street, had to be fetched home by his elder daughter, then aged eight years old.
All of this made Ettie furious. She compensated by finding ways to live in her imagination.
I like to walk up and down Mercer Street, paying tribute silently, anonymously. I’m not sure what kind of tribute I’m paying exactly, but that doesn’t matter. The house has always seemed to me a heart of darkness. Even on sunny days it seems surrounded by a cloud of dread. But then there’s Mary’s practical good sense and determination, Mary hurrying home in the dusk, a little figure dressed in black, not knowing what chaos she would find there, but persevering anyway, day by day. And there are the two girls, Ettie bouncing a ball repeatedly, doggedly, against a blind wall of the house – so the legend goes – while she made up stories that took her as far away as possible from Queenscliff.
And my heart goes out to them. It doesn’t matter how often I trudge past, the feeling is the same. Childhood homes are like that, mostly, though a lucky few escape – compounds of misery and hope and desperate fantasies. It’s just that this small girl, whose presence I feel so strongly, went on to become Henry Handel Richardson, and wrote about her family, and created a masterpiece.
The Swan Island Connection, the second of my sea-change mysteries, will be launched in Queenscliff, Victoria, in October. Thanks to everyone who’s helped me get this far, and a special thanks to my publishers, For Pity Sake. It’s possible to order a copy from them now.
The Swan Island Connection features senior constable Chris Blackie, in charge of the small, some would say redundant Queenscliff police station. Anthea Merritt is his young assistant, trained in Melbourne and reluctant to bury herself in a coastal town.
The plot revolves around the secret training base on Swan Island, close to Queenscliff, and the connection between soldiers training at the base, the local police and CIU, and an investigation into the death of a ten-year-old boy.
Though the existence of a training base on Swan Island was denied for years by successive federal governments, Brian Toohey and Bill Pinwell, in their book Oyster: the story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service offer some tantalising details.
‘(On Swan Island) the eager young army officers and NCOs learnt the dark arts of demolition, disguise, deception, sabotage, secret communication, and assassination… In one exercise on Swan Island the incorrect line of fire was set on a Chinese medium machine gun so that tracer bullets shot over the sandhills into the rigging of fishing boats in Port Phillip Bay. Fortunately for ASIS the only complaint made to the media was about the noise…’
There’s a special kind of snail that lives in the seagrass of Swan Bay. Because the bay is so shallow, it’s an important fish nursery and the baby fish eat the snails. Marine scientists didn’t know why the snail numbers were decreasing. They did a study and found that the lead in the bullets has been turning all the snails into males. I don’t know the end result of this, but I’d hope that those organising target practice would find other, safer ways than firing into the water.
Local legends date from the time when regular army personnel were allowed to have their families living with them on the island. One woman recalls a birthday when she was a small girl, how she and her friends had gone for a walk in their party dresses and come upon a soldier in full combat gear lying in the marram grass. Another incident involved a night-time exercise, with trainees climbed across roofs and one inadvertently jumping down onto the family dog.
Part of the island is occupied by a golf club and my favourite story is about my mother and a group of critically endangered orange-bellied parrots.
Each winter the parrots used to fly across to Swan Island from Tasmania and my mother, a keen environmentalist and bird-lover, used to observe and record them. Sadly, there haven’t been any for the past few years. My mother was allowed permission to enter the golf club part of the island. One day, engrossed in her task, she didn’t realise that the birds had ventured into the forbidden zone. Following them, she was shocked by a loud voice bellowing ‘Stop!’ and three soldiers in combat gear running through the bushes. Mum was a small woman, though by no means a cowardly one. She stood still, clutching her clipboard to her chest, and explained politely that she was tracking the parrots who couldn’t read the Keep Out signs.
Towards the end of As The Lonely Fly, a mother writes to her daughter about a woman who has been a strong influence on both their lives, and from whom they have not heard for eight years. This woman is the mother’s sister and daughter’s aunt Clara, who changed her name to Chava when she emigrated to Palestine in 1922.
‘My sister was an idealist, and it is possible that in spite of all that has happened she remains one to this day. We are all idealists, why else would we be here, but she was more so. There wasn’t a practical bone in her body. She didn’t know people.’
As The Lonely Fly is an epic work of fiction, with a huge cast of characters, moving from Palestine under the British Mandate, to Russia, to the United States and back to Palestine. But Chava remained for me a focal point throughout. I did not find her impractical, or ignorant of people; quite the opposite in fact. So how is it that Chava’s sister Frieda, who follows her to Palestine and who, with her husband, builds and runs a successful noodle factory, could be wrong? Or am I wrong? What are readers meant to think?
Chava joins the Labour Battalion, draining a swamp, then building roads and planting trees. The battalion attempts to create good relationships with its Arab neighbours. Chava’s beliefs are put to practical tests, which are brilliantly evoked, and for a while it seems as though the group might have some chance of lasting success.
‘It took them a day to dig out the holes and insert the trees, and the next day there were more. They planted them along the shy river. When the sun slipped towards the sea they lit another fire. Stunned by fatigue, Chava stared mutely at the heat shimmering above the flames, everything at the fire’s periphery seeming to lose anchorage and shape.’
Chava helps Zipporah, the niece to whom the letter is addressed, emigrate to Palestine, and helps her find work as a housekeeper, though she longs to be ‘out in the open, building a city, building roads’. But jobs are scarce. Dowse’s descriptions of daily life give her characters and their idealism a very practical core.
When Zipporah is taken to a plantation at Petah Tivkah she’s thrilled.
‘For Zipporah it was all a wonder. Row upon row of citrus trees stretched out, all a neat size, their leaves the same dark ceramic green. The air smelled sweet though the blossoms had gone and the fruit was still ripening; she imagined the sweetness came from the sap itself. The hills were studded with grape-heavy vines, the soil was drained a rich chocolate brown, watered with channels from the river and underground springs. How often had she heard this had once been a swamp? It was another thing to see.’
During the day they work; at night they dance and sing and argue about politics. As time passes, Chava’s group, wanting Jews and Arabs to unite in an international workers’ movement, though divided amongst themselves as to how to achieve this, becomes isolated, as the tension, then violence between Jewish settlers and Arabs increases.
While all this is happening, Chava’s younger sister, Marion, (the anglicised form of her name), and her parents are trying to make a different kind of new life for themselves in the United States. Marion’s story is told in counterpoint to Chava’s and Zipporah’s, often through letters, though Marion does visit Israel at the end of the book.
The dreams of the immigrant are a constantly recurring theme in As The Lonely Fly, expressed in songs, in conversation and argument, in the hope of safety and freedom from persecution, in images of physical toil that mean something because they are contributing to building a home. Always there is the search, through Dowse’s questioning and restless prose, to embed these dreams in daily life, to make daily life in the ‘new’ country a sufficient answer. But in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s, daily life can never be separated from its political context – the machinations of the British, the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
Dowse relates the collapse of Chava’s dream with great poignancy and delicacy, following her deportation to the Soviet Union after she is jailed for supporting Arab riots; while in Palestine, after the 2nd World War, the state of Israel is being forged.
As the title suggests, As The Lonely Fly is quintessentially a story of exile and migration; and for humans, if not for birds, this is a lonely business. Each of the three women the novel centres on must make her own decisions and adjustments, and, perhaps inevitably, end up being misunderstood by other members of the family. Sometimes decisions are taken out of a character’s hands, as with Chava’s deportation, but even without that stark example, an individual’s dreams and hopes for justice, her longing to make a contribution, are bound to be compromised. As The Lonely Fly tells an important, timely story, through its rich variety of characters and beautiful prose.
As The Lonely Fly can be pre-ordered from For Pity Sake Publishing here.
My Big Breast Adventure is a path breaking book which crosses the boundaries between a factual account of one woman’s breast cancer treatment, a philosophical discussion about what it means to be sick – and what it means to be well – and a celebration of humour in the face of adversity.
‘..when one has just had a cancer diagnosis and is about to undergo major surgery, laughter is at a premium and does not come easily,’ Jennifer McDonald writes.
Yet an early chapter heading reads ‘Cut, Poison, Burn and Laugh’ and time and again I found myself laughing while reading My Big Breast Adventure, which is based on the author’s blog posts and includes comments by readers. When I stopped to think and wipe my eyes, I asked myself why I was laughing when the author was going through hell. Answer: I was laughing because she made me laugh. McDonald’s humour is the buffer between her threatened sanity and the daily, weekly, monthly rounds of tests and chemo, radiation, more tests and more chemo.
There are many examples I could choose: here is one about hair loss.
‘I cut all of mine off before starting treatment even though my carers told me the hair probably wouldn’t fall out until about week three. Why wait to be bald I say? No word (or movement thankfully) on the eyebrows and lashes as yet. As my sister reminded me though, we McDonald girls come from staunch Celtic, Methodist stock which means we have eyebrows like John Howard and leg hair like the family dog.’
McDonald’s humour is like a dance with a quick, flicking two-step at the end. It is insouciant, irreverent, compassionate and warm. As readers would expect, anger and sadness, nausea and crushing fatigue are part of the story. They are acknowledged and dealt with. Jokes don’t take the dark side away; they make it into something more.
‘..I believe there are much worse things than death – being kidnapped by Boko Haram, having your business put into general administration, sitting by the bedside of a dying loved one, or living in Tony Abbott’s (Australian Prime Minister at the time of writing) electorate. Hang on, I do live in his electorate –what the FEC?’
FEC is an acronym for an extra chemo cocktail which McDonald took for nine weeks after her twelve-week standard chemo program was finished. For Father Ted fans, it’s also an irresistible reminder of Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea to Father Jack. McDonald of course makes the most of this connection.
When discussing the importance of active acceptance, the author refers to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and on the next page quotes a poem by an ancient Sufi mystic. Quotations and references abound, but they never feel intrusive in the text, or stuck on for effect. They don’t detract from the central story; they enrich it.
McDonald makes the point that, while, she has striven for accuracy in describing her treatment and its effects, both physical and emotional, My Big Breast Adventure is not a therapy manual. Though she refers throughout to aspects of traditional and complementary medicine, she stresses that her approach is personal; she is not setting out to tell others what to do when they receive a cancer diagnosis, or where to look for help and guidance. Yet I’m sure her book will be a help and guide to many, not least because of her unfailing sense of humour.
- My Big Breast Adventure can be purchased for $24.99 paperback and $9.99 ebook from For Pity Sake Publishing.
My double review of the bird man’s wife by Melissa Ashley and The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church was published in the Fairfax newspapers last weekend.
Seeing the covers together like this, it’s clear that both novels are about birds. the bird man’s wife tells the story of Elizabeth Gould, wife of John Gould, the famous ornithologist. It was in fact Elizabeth, not John, who drew and painted most of the illustrations in The Birds of Australia, and author Melissa Ashley has righted a historical wrong in bringing Elizabeth’s name, and life, out of obscurity.
As well as performing this worthwhile task, Ashley has written a fascinating and absorbing novel. Please follow the link above to read my review in its entirety.
Readers first meet Elizabeth in 1828, as a young woman in London, where she first meets her future husband, and follow her to her death, of puerperal fever, after the birth of her eighth child, aged just thirty-seven.
Elizabeth’s life-long curiosity about the natural world links her, across more than a century, to Meridian Wallace, the main female character in The Atomic Weight of Love, who goes bird-watching on her own and is not the slightest bit interested in playing with dolls. Meridian is a brilliant student who falls in love with a physics lecturer twenty years her senior, marries and then follows him to Los Alamos, postponing, then finally abandoning her graduate studies in ornithology. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, Meridian is not forced to endure successive pregnancies – she never has children of her own – but she submits to the husband with whose intellect she first fell in love.
Both books are beautifully produced, the birdman’s wife in particular; it’s a hardback, the end papers including some of Elizabeth Gould’s finest illustrations.
To celebrate Christina Stead week this year, Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers is hosting a selection of reviews and appreciations of Stead’s work. As my contribution, I’ve written an appreciation, rather than an objective review of For Love Alone.
For Love Alone meant a great deal to me when I first read the novel in the mid nineteen seventies, a time when I was teaching myself to write. It is among the top ten, if not top five novels from which I learnt the most. The mid nineteen seventies was also the time I met Christina Stead, while she was a writer-in-residence at Monash University. This post – which is really more of a personal testament than a critique of the novel – is not the place to describe our meeting. Suffice to say, Stead struck me as both gracious and formidable – gracious in that she had taken the time to read and think about a manuscript I’d sent her – formidable, as well as accurate, in her criticism of it.
While I learnt much from For Love Alone, I understood, young as I was, that it would be vain and foolish ever to imagine I could write like its author. But I identified with the struggle of Stead’s protagonist, Teresa Hawkins, to better herself through education, to scrimp and save in order to afford the fare to Europe. I also identified with the mistake she made in falling in love with the wrong man – not only a kind of generic ‘wrong man’ – but a man who was also her teacher.
And I fell in love with Stead’s prose, her language that is rich and deep, extraordinarily well orchestrated, heart-felt.
Jonathan Crow, the tutor who turns out to be nasty and self-serving, is the catalyst Teresa needs to get away from Australia, from Sydney. But what a Sydney Stead creates in the early parts of the book! I can never go to Watsons Bay without recalling her descriptions of the water and the summer heat, and Teresa and her sister Kitty, dressed in their best, heading off to their cousin’s wedding.
Stead’s London is the London of the 1930s, where Teresa finds work with the American radical, James Quick, a man who finally wins her affection and returns it. The title, For Love Alone, I have always read as ironic. It is not ‘for love alone’ that Teresa triumphs and learns to forge her own path; it is certainly not for romantic love, and she turns her back on the duties that might have kept her in Australia as a consequence of loving her immediate family.
During her lifetime, Stead was often maligned and misunderstood, the power of her prose sometimes frightening off readers and reviewers, not to mention the publishers who forced her to re-write The Man Who Loved Children and set it in America. Thankfully, Stead did not bow to the same kind of persuasion when it came to For Love Alone.
I’ve said I’m not going to describe my meeting with the author in this post, but I will finish it by mentioning one thing. It has always intrigued me how, in The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa helps her step mother to kill herself, or at least does not prevent it happening. When I met Stead at Monash, and asked her about this harrowing and memorable scene, she replied, ‘I could be violent with them (meaning her characters) because I was violent with myself.’
Here is a link to another contributor, who has reviewed Christina Stead: A Life of Letters by Chris Williams.
As time goes on I’ll be adding more.
On October 7, eight female crime and mystery writers will converge on Cobargo, just inland from Bermagui on the NSW coast, to take part in their inaugural crime convention.
The writers are an eclectic mix, from a gynaecologist living in far north Queensland, Caroline de Costa, to a former member of the RAAF, who also has a BA in medieval history, Ilsa Evans, to a writer of historical crime (Sydney/1930s), Sulari Gentill, to yours truly, author of a Canberra-based quartet, now embarked on a sea-change mystery series.
One of the festival organisers, in a welcoming email, said that they were washing the streets of Cobargo in honour of our arrival. Thank you, Louise!
While this is an attractive idea, I wonder if it really fits a collection of crime writers, who might be more comfortable with dirty streets, even blood-stained ones?
Jennifer Rowe once referred to crime writers as ‘good housekeepers’, by which she meant that we like to tidy things up, which has an element of truth in it, at least for some exponents of the genre. But even PD James said that order is never really re-established at the end of her novels.
My approach to clean streets is that I like to dig beneath them – hardly surprising since I lived in Canberra for 30 years and turned to mysteries as a way of writing about that city.
Now what exercises my imagination is what might lie beneath the surface of an idyllic coastal town….
Authors sometimes grumble about their editors, and the question I’ve chosen as a title for this post is one I’ve often heard authors repeat.
But I’m pleased to say that I have a wonderful editor for my new novel, titled The Swan Island Connection. This novel is a sequel to the first of my sea-change mysteries, Through a Camel’s Eye, which was published in April by For Pity Sake Publishing.
The editor’s name is David Burton. David, an editor with For Pity Sake, is also an award-winning playwright and theatre director, whose plays include April’s Fool, Orbit and The Landmine Is Me. He has written a memoir titled How to be Happy. As an editor, Dave possesses that rare quality, (rare in my experience), in that he takes the trouble to see into an author’s mind, think about where he or she is trying to get to, and how he might help them to arrive.
Dave read what I am now calling the Dog’s Breakfast Draft (DBD) of The Swan Island Connection and wrote a nineteen page report. When I first saw the report, I felt daunted. There must be an awful lot wrong with the manuscript, I thought, to require this many pages. But the report, while critical, is constructively so, and that makes all the difference. In tone it is far from negative, and is full of helpful ideas and suggestions. And the very fact that someone who know what he’s talking about has paid such close attention to my DBD has given it, and me, a whole new lease of life. Thank you, Dave!
The Swan Island Connection will be my eleventh novel to be published. The first was in 1984, and since then I’ve run the gamut from good editors to woeful. Amongst the good I number Jenny Lee and Lois Murphy, and amongst the woeful, who shall be nameless, the lesbian separatist who read my book about the British atomic bomb tests at Maralinga. This was not, on the face of it her subject, and she made no effort to meet me half, or even a quarter of the way. Another was the editor who used to ring me at 6 PM, just before she left the office, to discuss editorial points that required thought and concentration. At the time this editor was assigned to me, I had a four-year-old and a baby who wouldn’t sleep, plus a deadline for the manuscript. One horrible evening I shouted at her down the phone, ‘Don’t you realise it’s jungle hour!’ I’ve felt ashamed of that outburst ever since.
Then there was my New York editor whose publishing company had bought the first two of my Sandra Mahoney Quartet (mystery novels set in Canberra, where I lived for thirty years). This editor, though I respected him, and of course felt grateful that my books were going to be published in the United States, insisted that I change all my galahs to parrots, all my jumpers to sweaters, and that I massage the text in various other unsavoury ways in order to make it more attractive to an American readership.
Recalling all that, I’ll say again – thank you, Dave!
And thanks to Bill Whitehead the cartoonist for reminding me how much I like Dickens.
My review of Suzanne Leal’s The Teacher’s Secret was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. The review heading calls it ‘a novel of good and evil in a school’ and it is that. Suzanne Leal is very clear where she stands on the issue of political correctness taken to extremes.
Leal’s was a hard novel to review because I found myself more than usually tempted to give away important aspects of the plot. The fact that the ‘teacher’s secret’ is revealed quite late in the story somehow made this temptation stronger. I wonder how other reviewers feel about the problem of having to avoid plot spoilers? Does it make them nervous, the way it does me? Have they been berated by an author for making a blunder, or even giving too much of a hint? It would be interesting to compare notes.
Through a Camel’s Eye, the first of my sea-change mystery series, is now available as a paperback and ebook from the For Pity Sake website.
The ebook is also available on Amazon and other sites.
Thanks to all my friends who attended the launch in Queenscliff. It was an occasion to remember!
Joan Kerr, of Gert Loveday fame, has written a generous review of Through a Camel’s Eye which you can read here.
Thanks again to all the wonderful people who’ve helped me get this far. Through a Camel’s Eye is my tenth novel to be published. I’ve at last reached double figures -yeah! It really does feel like a milestone.
Last Friday (May 6) I gave an author talk at The Book Bird in West Geelong. Thanks to Anna, the bookshop proprietor, for hosting the event, and to everyone who came along!