‘Thirty-nine he was when he went to the lighthouse. Not a great age by any means, but he already had the look of an old man.’
The Cape Bruny Lighthous‘Thirty-nine he was when he went to the lighthouse. Not a great age by any means, but he already had the look of an old man.’
The Cape Bruny Lighthouse, at the southern tip of Bruny Island off the south-east coast of Tasmania is the setting for Ms Wood’s novel. The main character, Essie Lewis, is an oceanographer and aspiring author who goes to Cape Bruny both to research her family’s past and to try to find meaning in her own life. In the novel, in italics, we read fragments of the book Essie is writing. Written as a first-hand contemporary account, Essie writes of her great-great grandfather’s experiences on Bruny Island in the late 1800s. Her account captures this period, with the hardships endured by lighthouse families, the isolation from others and the difficult physical environment.
‘Essie remembers that in stories it is often the silent who end up with the task of the telling.’
The current caretaker of the lighthouse is Pete Shelverton, hunter of feral cats and part-time sculptor. As children, Essie and Peter knew each other briefly, as adults they recognize each other as kindred spirits. The past holds a fascination for Essie, but what of the present, and the future? And what about Peter?
‘She knows the things that the light can’t see, the things beneath the surface that pull and suck.’
I enjoyed the setting for this novel: lighthouses have their own form of magic. While Ms Wood recreates life at the Cape Bruny Lighthouse during the nineteenth century through Essie’s writing, its significance in the twenty-first century is not lost. The light itself is automated now, but lives are still attracted by it and caught up within it. While the characters of Essie and Pete are interesting, I found myself more drawn to the past, to the constant presence and role of the lighthouse.
‘From a break in the rocks where I stand, the country is as big as any whole earth I ever dreamed of.’
Bobby Hale had been in the Union Army a few time‘From a break in the rocks where I stand, the country is as big as any whole earth I ever dreamed of.’
Bobby Hale had been in the Union Army a few times: enlisting, taking the bonus, deserting and then re-enlisting. He can’t forget the action he saw at Fredericksburg and at Chickamauga. Bobby Hale is an orphan, and with no ties in the east, he’s looking to find a new life in the west. In 1869 Bobby Hale, armed with a Colt Dragoon revolver and an Evans repeater rifle, and with his mare Cricket, hooks up with a pioneer wagon train heading to Oregon. The wagon train is led by a man named Theo, and a Crow scout named Big Tree.
‘There ain’t nothing luxurious or enlightening about this part of our country, and I don’t know why people get so rapturous about it.’
In this novel, we journey with Bobby Hale between 1869 and 1876. We see the country through his eyes, see how he tries to do what he considers is right, and see how Bobby relates to the world around him. Bobby leaves the wagon train in Montana to go trapping in the Rockies with Big Tree. After a few years, he heads to Fort Ellis where he winters in a Conestoga wagon with widowed sisters Eveline and Christine. Then, after making plans to return to the sisters, he takes a job as a scout. After killing an Indian who is part of a peace party, Hale deserts. And then life gets complicated. Bobby’s subsequent journey with a new companion named Ink takes him into some dangerous territory, including the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
‘I wasn’t feeling like a hero no more.’
I really enjoyed reading this novel. Bobby Hale is no conventional hero, yet he tries very hard to do the right thing by those he cares about or feels some responsibility towards. He realises, too, that the white man’s treatment of the Indians is unjust and tries to learn more about the country in which he finds himself. I found myself thinking about Bobby and Ink after I finished reading the novel. Would they have stayed together? Could they have been happy? How would their lives have continued? Mr Bausch managed to create a story in which I could smell the coffee, hear the shots fired and appreciate the great divide between the Indian and European cultures of the American west.
‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable.’
And in this slender book, John Hirst, an Australian historian, takes a differen‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable.’
And in this slender book, John Hirst, an Australian historian, takes a different approach to Australian history. His seven questions (each corresponding to a chapter) are:
Q1 Why did Aborigines not become farmers? Q2 How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy? Q3 Why was Australia so prosperous so early? Q4 Why did the Australian colonies federate? Q5 What effect did convict origins have on national character? Q6 Why was the postwar Migration Programme a success? Q7 Why is Australia not a republic?
And his discussion of them makes for interesting reading. I’ve never really thought about why Aborigines didn’t become farmers, but reading this chapter reminded me that not all connections to land are the same. In answer to the second question, it hadn’t occurred to me that convicts had more legal rights in Australian penal colonies than they had back in the UK. I was intrigued to read that:
‘The first case in the criminal court concerned a convict who had stolen another convict’s bread ration.’
I particularly enjoyed this answer in relation to Question 3: ‘The short answer to the question of why the standard of living was so high in convict Sydney is this: the officers who wanted to make a pile and the convicts who would work only for rum had contrived to make the British taxpayer support their lifestyle.’
‘The 1880s was the last decade of prosperity. From around 1890 the economy crashed into depression, which was made worse by a long drought - known as the Federation Drought - that began in 1895/ Australia never again enjoyed the highest living standards in the world.’
While I’m aware of much of the background, I found the discussion about federation (Question 4) absorbing. I spent my childhood in Tasmania: many of us considered ourselves Tasmanians rather than Australians. Of course, that was back in the 1960s, but state rivalry is still alive and flourishing. It’s a tribute, really, to those involved in the drive for federation (which certainly didn’t happen overnight) that the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. I especially liked reading how, at federation:
‘South Australian women already had the vote; if the Commonwealth was too have a uniform law, then the South Australian practice would have to become the Australian practice.’
This was because although the Commonwealth could make its own electoral law after the first Commonwealth election, it could not disenfranchise anyone entitled to vote at that first election.
It’s worth being reminded, too, that the Migration Programme has resulted in Australia ‘having the highest proportion of its people born outside the country of all nations on earth except Israel.’ I think this helps to explain some of both our strengths and weaknesses, tolerances and biases.
‘The disadvantage of drawing migrants from many countries was that old-world enmities were imported.’
This is a book of questions, not a book of answers. Some of these questions can be viewed as more historic than current. But not Questions 6 and 7. Those questions, perhaps in slightly different forms, need to be considered further. Those questions are about our future. I enjoyed reading this book. I hope that Australian history is studied in more detail now than it was when I was in school in the third quarter of the last century.
‘Macbeth brought down his sword and the army roared into life.’
Duncan’s kingdom is crumbling: beset by sedition internally and overseas threats extern‘Macbeth brought down his sword and the army roared into life.’
Duncan’s kingdom is crumbling: beset by sedition internally and overseas threats externally. Macbeth, war hero and patriot, is doing his best to hold the kingdom together. But when Duncan’s thoughts turn towards establishing a hereditary dynasty, contrary to ancient Scots tradition, Macbeth and his wife Skena make their own plans. Encouraged by the weird sisters, they make their own choices. But choices have consequences, and lead Macbeth to other choices which alienate friends and turn them into enemies.
‘I did this, he told himself. I had no choice.’
I read Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ over forty years ago. Since then I’ve read Dorothy Dunnett’s excellent novel ‘King Hereafter’ as well as ‘Macbeth the King’ by Nigel Tranter. This novel, by A J Hartley and David Hewson is very different from the novels by Dunnett and Tranter: it adds meat to the bones of the play rather than focussing on the historical people. Macbeth’s wife (named Skena in this novel) is unstable because of a personal tragedy, and the weird sisters are even more menacing. And there’s the tragedy of Banquo as well.
‘All hail Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter.’
I didn’t realise, until I opened this novel, that it was based on the play. My initial feeling of disappointment didn’t last long: the novel was too good for that. While it will never replace Dorothy Dunnett’s ‘King Hereafter’ as my favourite possible Macbeth, it made me think more about the play. Well worth reading if you’ve ever wondered about the context of the play, and the politics of the time. Sure, you know how it will end. But the struggles between free will and fate, between conscience and ambition are given an entirely different dimension.
‘Without suffering there is no struggle, without struggle no victory, without victory no crown.’
Ludwig van Beethoven (born c16 December 1770 - 26 Marc‘Without suffering there is no struggle, without struggle no victory, without victory no crown.’
Ludwig van Beethoven (born c16 December 1770 - 26 March 1827) was a great composer and pianist. He remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, with his best known compositions including 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. His Ninth Symphony is my single most favourite piece of music, but it is time for me to move beyond the symphonies into his other works. I remember learning a little about Beethoven during my compulsory music classes at high school. I remembered feeling great sympathy for him: I’d suffered periods of intermittent deafness myself as a consequence of infection, and thought how much more tragic a loss of hearing must be for someone whose life was music. But I never really took the time to learn much more about Beethoven until I fell in love with his Ninth Symphony about twenty years ago.
In this book, Jan Swafford, himself a composer and author, has tried to present the facts about Beethoven, without the romanticised myths that started growing about him while he was still alive. While Beethoven was a great artist, it seems that he had a very limited capacity for life outside music. He was idealistic and irascible, and at times quite petty. He quarrelled with his friends and benefactors, and spent many years in a bitter custody battle with his sister-in-law over his nephew Karl. He fell in love with women who were unattainable, and he never married.
‘For well and ill, what Beethoven had been in his teens had not fundamentally changed. He had never grown into social maturity. He was never able to understand anything through another person’s eyes, could see the world only though his own lense.’
For me (a non-musician) the most interesting parts of the book were those that provided biographic detail, and properly set Beethoven’s life in the history of the times (which quickly moved from the Enlightenment to revolution and war across Europe). Was Beethoven a revolutionary? Mr Swafford portrays him as a composer whose work evolved, whose work drew from earlier composers including Mozart and Hayden. Intriguing. I felt sorry for Beethoven as he battled his progressive deafness, his ill health, his increasing paranoia. I may not understand the technical aspects of his music, but I love listening to it. Especially the Ninth Symphony.
‘The gulf between Beethoven’s music and his life, the exaltation and the darkness, only widened in his age.’
Twice my life has turned on the step of a girl through a doorway; first when I was fifteen and my new, first-ever sister-in-law came walking into WolfTwice my life has turned on the step of a girl through a doorway; first when I was fifteen and my new, first-ever sister-in-law came walking into Wolf Hall.’
I thought, when I picked up this novel, that it would be about Jane Seymour’s marriage to Henry VIII. A reasonable expectation, I thought, given that the tagline states ‘Marrying the King was Jane Seymour’s destiny and her revenge’. No, the novel is about Katherine Filiol’s marriage in May to Jane Seymour’s brother Edward when Jane was aged 15, and their subsequent friendship.
The story is told by Jane, and starts when Edward brings his bride Katherine home to Wolf Hall. Katherine is aged 21, and is a breath of fresh air to the Seymour household. Jane, the quiet dependable daughter, is captivated and the two become good friends. Katherine is left at Wolf Hall while Edward serves the King in France and then pursues his career at court. But then, after two sons are born, Edward makes shocking allegations against his wife and his father. Edward puts Katherine aside.
‘This is over now and the rest of your life can begin.’
Jane joins Catherine of Aragon’s household, and then sees Henry VIII put Catherine aside in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Then Anne herself is put aside, and on 30 May 1536, Jane becomes the May Bride of Henry VIII.
While the novel wasn’t what I was expecting and I enjoyed aspects of it, I wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d realised it wasn’t primarily about Jane Seymour’s marriage to Henry VIII. We don’t know why Katherine Filiol was put aside by Edward Seymour. And although Ms Dunn’s take is interesting, Katherine Filiol is not the May Bride I really wanted to read about. If you enjoy fiction set in Tudor times, if you want a novel that deals with aspects of Jane Seymour’s life before she married Henry VIII, you may well enjoy this novel more than I did. But if you are looking for a novel about Jane Seymour’s marriage to Henry VIII, this is not it.
‘Indonesia’s diversity is not just geographic and cultural; different groups are essentially living at different points in human history, all at the s‘Indonesia’s diversity is not just geographic and cultural; different groups are essentially living at different points in human history, all at the same time.’
Indonesia is a country of between 13,466 and 17, 504 islands, depending on whose figures you accept. Of this number, between 6,000 and 7,000 are inhabited and they stretch over 5,200 kilometres Aceh at the north-western tip of Sumatra to Papua in the south-east. This vast nation of islands hosts hundreds of different languages, six recognised religions (differentiating Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism) and many different ethnicities. Indonesian, a form of Malay, is the official language. Java, with just 7% of the landmass, is home to 60% of Indonesia’s 260 million inhabitants. In 1945 Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch:
‘We the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible. Indonesia has been working on that ‘etc.’ ever since.’
For just over 12 months, Elizabeth Pisani travelled around Indonesia where her fluency in Indonesian and willingness to take part in the lives of people she visited and stayed with stood her in good stead. Her curiosity and capacity to fit in, to accept difference and to observe what is going on around her makes this book particularly enjoyable. There’s information about family and clan, about the importance of gifting, obligation and food, cultural and religious observance. There’s also a wealth of information about the effects of politics of democracy and decentralisation. And observations like this:
‘Two-thirds of households in Savu don’t even make it to Prosperity Level I, the lowest of Indonesia’s four wealth classifications; they are, in the government’s delicious phrase, ‘pre-prosperous’.’
I enjoyed reading this book, about learning of parts of Indonesia in addition to Jakarta and Bali. It’s an energetic democracy, with many challenges - and opportunities - ahead. Confusing and contradictory, memorable and vibrant.
Thus begins Omar Musa’s novel. It’s written in a combination of poetry and prose, and examines the alienation, disempowerment‘Where are these c---s?’
Thus begins Omar Musa’s novel. It’s written in a combination of poetry and prose, and examines the alienation, disempowerment and dislocation of three young men on the fringes of Australian urban society. The three young men, Solomon Amosa, a Samoan, his ‘beige’ coloured half-brother Jimmy and Solomon’s best friend Aleks Janeski, a Macedonian, attend a local greyhound race meeting. The men talk about dog racing (it will be the last race for a dog called Mercury Fire), about women, about hip-hop. Solomon, who went to a private school on a basketball scholarship is both the most personable and the most self-aware. Jimmy, who doesn’t know who his father is, doesn’t know where he belongs. Aleks, married with a small daughter, is trying to improve their situation. He does a bit of graffiti (‘graff’), but ends up in prison in association with drug trafficking.
‘This has always been a land of fire.’
So, what makes this story work? Does the poetry fracture the prose, or unify it? What forms will their individual struggles for identity take? And how does hip-hop work as a unifying force? There’s constant movement in this novel, the rhythm of the poetry, the beat of the music underscore the activity, and the environment itself is not passive. There’s sense of foreboding, of possibility and of danger.
‘The day hot and strange and flattened, almost monochrome.’
Although in many ways Solomon was the most likeable and articulate of the characters, it was Aleks I felt most sympathy for. I could sense his loss: trying to provide for a family, lost between the Macedonian culture of his youth and the Australian culture of his adoption. Jimmy has even less of a clear identity, and sense of belonging, and this is going to erupt somewhere. Somehow.
At times I found the blend of poetry and prose dislocating: different languages, differing ways of communicating. But it worked well as a vehicle of telling the men’s stories and for grounding the hip-hop culture which unites them. This, for me, is a different way of exploring alienation and dispossession. One in which I am an outsider and have to work hard to understand. One in which I hope for positive new beginnings. This book is well worth reading.
Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian rapper and writer. He has released three albums, published two poetry books, and this is his first published novel.
‘The most ancient and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse.’
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was canonized by Pope Benedict‘The most ancient and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse.’
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in October 2012. I knew very little about her, except that she composed quite a lot of glorious music. While some of the chronology of her life is contested (was she aged eight or fourteen when she was enclosed with an older nun?), her life and achievements are amazing. In this novel, Mary Sharratt has the eight year old Hildegard (born in Bermersheim vor der Höhe, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire) given to a ‘holy’ anchorite named Jutta. Hildegard is then walled up with her companion at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest in what is now Germany.
An anchorite, as I discovered, was usually a woman (an anchoress) who chose to live alone in a small house with a screened window through which she conversed with the outside world. Life as an anchoress was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but Jutta (who was often regarded as a living saint) was a fanatic.
This novel, told as a first-person account by Hildegard in old age, depicts their life together, the consequences of Jutta’s extremism on both herself and on Hildegard. While depicting the horrors of Hildegard’s life with Jutta for three decades, the novel also encompasses Hildegard’s life once Jutta is dead: where she goes public with the visions she has experienced and eventually founds and leads her own covent where she becomes a beloved abbess. Her life was not without controversy.
‘I am not afraid’, I whispered, ‘ What can they do to one old nun?’
I found this novel interesting for its depiction of Hildegard’s life as an anchorite. Ms Sharratt imagines a Hildegard consistent with the times in which she lived, possessed of a deep religious experience. While my focus remains on her music, I can only marvel at the spirit which, having endured so much, was inspired to write such soaring music. An amazing person.