It seems to me that there are two kinds of historical fiction…
Firstly, there is the genuinely escapist read in the Jean Plaidy tradition, i.e. aristocIt seems to me that there are two kinds of historical fiction…
Firstly, there is the genuinely escapist read in the Jean Plaidy tradition, i.e. aristocrats and the serving class in a long-ago world, with the star-crossed lovers and political intrigues that belong there. The egalitarian nature of Australian society makes this a tricky genre for Australian authors, because they have to draw on hierarchical societies remote from our own, but Elisabeth Storrs has done so successfully with her Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy.
Though I enjoy escapist reading occasionally, more interesting to me is the historical novel which aims to shine a light on some aspect of past life, (including a sub-genre based on a real life which I’ve tagged Rescue A Woman from Oblivion). Australian examples of these from my recent reading include The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley about the forgotten wife of John Gould (see my review); Jill Blee’s novels about the Irish in Australia; Crimes of the Father by Tom Keneally which explores clerical child abuse (see my review); and Long Bay by Eleanor Limprech based on the true story of a woman gaoled for performing abortions in the Federation era. (See my review).
The injustice of a past era is a common theme in these novels, and Treading Air, the debut novel of Ariella Van Luyn, tackles it through her character Lizzie O’Dea who becomes a prostitute in Townville during the 1920s.
Every now and again I start a book and I know straight away that it’s going to distress me to continue reading it. It was like this with Gil CourtemanEvery now and again I start a book and I know straight away that it’s going to distress me to continue reading it. It was like this with Gil Courtemanche’s Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, and with Andre Brink’s The Other Side of Silence: they were harrowing stories that still haunt me because I know that these novels are based on the horror of real life experiences. Ghastly as they are, I feel compelled to continue reading because I feel that we who are enjoying lives of safety and security have a responsibility to know about those who do not. We need to know so that we can use any power that we have to try and help. It may only mean that we are supportive of a generous refugee policy, or that we donate to international campaigns to stamp out the atrocity, or that we pressure our own politicians to care about it and make a fuss in the United Nations. We are not altogether powerless; I do not want to be ignorant about how others live because such ignorance breeds indifference. Even though I may find the reading deeply distressing,
So it is with Song for Night by Chris Abani. It is the tale of a West African boy soldier who has led an appalling life in a mine-defusing unit. At the age of twelve he joined the rebel army in one of those senseless wars which have been destroying Africa for decades, and now aged 15 he has lost his childhood and his innocence. He has learned to hate, to rape and to kill, and to get revenge in swift and horrific ways.
He has no voice, for all the members of the mine-defusing unit have had their vocal chords cut so that they cannot scream when they are blown up. The children have developed a sign language to communicate with each other, and each chapter begins a description of the sign. ‘Light’ is ‘jazz hands and a smile’; ‘town’ is ‘hands making boxes in the air’ and ‘love’ is a ‘backhanded stroke to the cheek’. Whenever the unit rapes the women of a village they have attacked, the boy makes love with his girlfriend Ijeoma, , ‘to make sure that amongst all the horror, there was still love. That it wouldn’t die here, in this place‘ (p66) but now his girlfriend has been blown up in an explosion and he is alone, searching for his platoon.
Tracy Farr is an author I discovered when her debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gault was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2014. (SeeTracy Farr is an author I discovered when her debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gault was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2014. (See my review here). The novel went on to be shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis and the WA Premier’s awards, and it’s been published in the US and the UK as well. The Hope Fault is her second novel.
I’ve tagged Tracy as a Kiwi in my Meet a Kiwi Author series but although she’s lived in New Zealand for twenty years, she grew up in Australia, and The Hope Fault is set in a fictional town called Cassetown in south-western Australia. It feels like the Margaret River region on a very wet day, though the action of the novel takes place almost entirely inside a house. But the rain begins as the extended family arrives at the weekender that now has to be packed up and vacated, and the full-on, pelting deluge persists throughout the weekend. They can always hear it from inside guttering and gushing, sinking into the earth, wetting, muddening, all damp and glorious. Sometimes they feel a bit anxious about the strength and intensity of this rainstorm, but their house is like an ark, with representative souls to carry on into the future, whatever the rain may bring.
A place of family memories, the house brings together for this one last time: Iris, the quiet, reliable one who stitches everything together, and her son Kurt; her ex-husband Paul, his new wife Kristin and their nameless baby; and (arriving late) Marti, the ‘life of the party’ sister of Iris. Marti’s daughter Luce travelled down with Iris, not with her mother, for reasons that become obvious. Not able to join them is Rosa, mother of Iris and Marti, and now mute after a stroke and in aged care. But she is not forgotten – the family is planning celebrations for her 100th birthday which coincides with Kurt’s 21st.
I don’t really know what I was expecting – I only chased up this book because it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – but The Art oI don’t really know what I was expecting – I only chased up this book because it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – but The Art of Time Travel, Historians and the Craft is such a wonderful surprise! To describe it as a collection of portraits of fourteen Australian historians is underwhelming to say the least, yet it turns out to be a captivating book which charmed me from start to finish.
The very first historian chosen is Eleanor Dark. Yes, the author of the much-loved novel that many Australians read at school, The Timeless Land. The choice of a novelist to lead the fray is emblematic of Tom Griffith’s approach: though Griffiths is himself a professor of history, he’s not hidebound by a formal academic definition of what historians might be, or where they might find their material, or what they do with it. So the chapter about Eleanor Dark is a wonderful portrait of a novelist whose research and ways of interpreting it told Australians an important story about who we are as a nation. This chapter kept making me want to retrieve my Eleanor Dark novels from the shelves and read them all over again, with fresh insights.
Curiously, Griffiths held me captive again with his next entry, Keith Hancock. I’d heard of him, but I’d never read his stuff the way I’ve read Eric Rolls, Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds and Inga Clendinnen – all of whom get their own chapter too. So it was from Griffiths that I learned that ‘If there were a Nobel Prize for History,’ observed Stuart Macintyre in 2010, ‘Hancock would surely have won it.’ It was Hancock’s pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972) that provoked this accolade, and by Griffith’s account of it, it’s one I want to read.
I have no doubt that there would be many knee-jerk reactions to this book, and I read it expecting to disagree with everything it said because as theI have no doubt that there would be many knee-jerk reactions to this book, and I read it expecting to disagree with everything it said because as the mother of a young child at that time in the 1970s, I loved motherhood even though it was one of the busiest times of my life. However, the incredible incidence of post-natal depression hints that motherhood is not, for many women, the wondrous experience that they were expecting, and maybe a book like this might make some people stop and think before having a family that they're perhaps not suited to have. The book also needs to be considered in the context of its era. Western societies were emerging from the postwar barefoot-and-pregnant, back-to-the-kitchen era, but there was still enormous pressure on young couples to have children. The Pill was still newish, but some women who'd been on it for a good few years were under pressure from their parents. Whereas now in the 21st century there's nothing unusual about women choosing not to marry or choosing not to have children, back then in the 1970s women resisting motherhood were on their own, so a book like The Motherhood Myth was revelatory and revolutionary. ...more
This is a book for children to explore philosophy, but I think it is probably most useful for a teacher to use because it's not written in a very engaThis is a book for children to explore philosophy, but I think it is probably most useful for a teacher to use because it's not written in a very engaging way for kids. ...more