Who We Were is a debut novel from Lucy Neave, now a teacher of creative writing at ANU but formerly a participant in a leadership program for veterinaWho We Were is a debut novel from Lucy Neave, now a teacher of creative writing at ANU but formerly a participant in a leadership program for veterinary students in the US. A tour of the US Army Medical Research Institute in Infectious Diseases in Maryland was the catalyst for this book…
If your antennae are on alert at the mention of an army’s research institute in infectious diseases, you are on the right track. Set mostly during the Cold War, this novel is very disconcerting because it shows how naïve people can get mixed up in morally questionable situations, and how love makes us blind.
The story begins in Melbourne, where Annabel has ambitions to be a research scientist. It’s 1938 and WW2 is imminent but Annabel is bored by politics and Adolf Hitler, thankfully, is a million miles away. While she waits to see if she has won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, she meets Bill Whitton and falls head over heels in love with him. In one of those strange quirks of fate caused by war, the enlistment of men like Bill saves her from an impulsive marriage and she completes her degree, winning the University Medal because, as she self-deprecatingly tells Bill after he returns, ‘The men were gone.’
The Bill Whitton who returns from years as a POW in Thailand is not the same man as he was:
One day in October 1945, I stepped into a teashop on Swanston Street in the middle of Melbourne. Sitting near a tall window was a man who looked like Bill Whitton. He was ten feet away. He sat at an angle to the entrance so that I saw his profile: his long nose, the blade of his cheekbone, his angular chin. The man was bent forward over the table, reading. He wore wire-framed glasses. Although I couldn’t believe that he was Bill, I was drawn to this person, whoever he was. As the door closed behind me, the bell rang and the man glanced up at me. I saw his mouth open and his hands fall to his sides.
He pushed himself from his seat. He was Bill Whitton; there was no question. By then I was right up close to him. I shut my eyes and slid my arms around his waist and pressed my face against his torso. He drew me so close that I could hardly breathe. Somehow, we let each other go; he pulled out a chair for me and we sat down. We had to touch; we had to keep touching. He took my hands and held them. His palms were covered in rough patches. His face had changed too. It was bones and skin, with little flesh to spare. There was a scar at his hairline, and I reached forward and touched it. He placed his fingers over mine. (p.36)
The changes are not merely physical, but psychological too.
Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story is a book I picked up from the NAIDOC week display at the Parkdale branch of Kingston Libraries, and it raisesMaralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story is a book I picked up from the NAIDOC week display at the Parkdale branch of Kingston Libraries, and it raises an interesting issue in terms of authorship.
This week is Indigenous Literature Week, and I’ve always wanted it to be about books authored by Indigenous people. But in this instance, Yvonne Edwards died unexpectedly just as – after a long and busy life as an artist and activist – she had at last begun working with author Christobel Mattingley on writing her story. Mattingley has therefore constructed Yvonne’s story from interviews and conversations with Yvonne, an interview on ABC Radio’s Message Stick and some input from Yvonne’s family and friends. It is profusely illustrated with beautiful art works by Yvonne and there are some photographs as well.
While the artworks tell the vivid story of Yvonne’s people, the Anangu people of what is now known as Maralinga, the book is written in the third person in English that is simple and direct, and includes some use of Pitjantjatjara. It does not purport to be Yvonne’s own voice but it does appear to be written entirely from her perspective. Although there is a comprehensive author’s note at the back of the book which explains its genesis and her method, still, it’s not possible to glean from any signals in the text whether this perspective or parts of it have been inferred by the author or drawn directly from Mattingley’s interviews and conversations. The reader has no way of telling which of the opinions expressed are the sympathetic opinions of the author or the recorded opinions of the subject. The tone is always respectful of the subject and the draft was approved by members of Yvonne’s family. So it seems to me that the book sits awkwardly in a space between a rather naïve way of writing biography written for the children’s or YA market, and a genuine attempt to reproduce the story that Yvonne would herself have told, in words she would have used, and telling a story that otherwise might not have been told.
Ache is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities. It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowleAche is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities. It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowledge that the author has qualifications in psychology and grief counselling, and wrote her Honours thesis about the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction.
The story centres around thirty-something Annie, who shot to tabloid fame by escaping with a small child from the burning mountain on a horse. (Need I say, this is a classic example of highly risky panic? So many people die trying to escape at the last moment. If you live in, or visit, anywhere at risk of bushfire, including the urban fringe, have a bushfire plan and rehearse it.)
Annie’s grandmother dies, as do other people in the small community. Her mother’s home is ruined, and her daughter is traumatised. And Annie, who lives and works in the city with her husband Tom, feels the urge to return to the mountain to help her mother and her uncle. She also needs to sort out her marriage and deal with her own grief.
The characterisation of the child, Pip, is painful. Quite honestly, if it were not for the author’s qualifications which show that she knows much more about this than I do, I would find it hard to believe that any parent could survive the bratty behaviour of this child and still love it.
A beautiful book, recommended to me by A Life in Books.
It is the achingly sad story of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a hill community in theA beautiful book, recommended to me by A Life in Books.
It is the achingly sad story of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a hill community in the heart of England. She was there on holiday, and she simply vanished. We have all heard stories like this in the media, and we know that these unsolved disappearances resonate long, long after the event. The names of Eloise Worledge, the Beaumont Children and Linda Stilwell are known to everyone my age, and never forgotten.
And yet… the saddest moment in this story comes when, years after the disappearance, one of the characters sees an item of the missing girl’s clothing, and doesn’t recognise it for what it is.
Isn’t that the most splendid cover image? It’s a cartoon called 'Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary' (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of GoethIsn’t that the most splendid cover image? It’s a cartoon called 'Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary' (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of Goethe University in Frankfurt. It graces the cover of Brian Castro’s latest book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, a novel in thirty-four cantos. Like much else in this book, the cartoon is droll, and captivating, and probably opaque if you don’t get the literary allusion.
Well, as usual with Castro’s books, I must confess immediately that there must be plenty of allusions that I’ve missed on a first reading but I am not too bothered about that because I know from reading Katharine England’s introduction to Drift (1994) that Castro doesn’t expect his readers to do that. Quoting here from my own review of Drift:
England quotes a paragraph from Looking for Estrellita in which Castro which explains that he prefers to read books that he doesn’t understand straight away, and that he writes similar books himself. So
"…Castro’s books are for readers who distrust easy certainties in fiction and like to work – and particularly play – with all the nuances of a text, reconstructing to their own individual satisfaction the author’s intentions and concerns". (Introduction, ix)
And what she says about Drift, IMO applies equally to Blindness and Rage:
"…if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you." (Introduction, x)
Castro suggests in this book, however, that it might not just be a case of whether you like a challenge or not… maybe people are losing the ability to play his games. Here in Canto XIII he’s talking about police giving up on their surveillance but they’re obviously not his only target:
… since it take a lifetime to encode high literature they grew disinterested when the digital age began to lose close reading skills and treated all this seeding and dissemination as something trite; too intellectual… (p. 145)
But he also acknowledges that allusions can be very sly. Poor Gracq misses one entirely because it’s based on a coded message with an address and time that an Australian would be unlikely to know:
‘But there is no time… [to meet] there is always no time.’ Lucien started to complain. ‘It’s in the poem by Verlain,’ she said, on this occasion broadcast on 5th June 1944 to signal the Normandy invasion. Je me souviens [I remember] des jours anciens [the old days] It was a quarter past eight in the evening, Lucien.’ (p. 152