‘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.
‘My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred.’
This is the eighth instalment in the Sax‘My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred.’
This is the eighth instalment in the Saxon Series, set in 10th century Mercia and Northumbria, featuring my hero Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred, raised by the Danes is a pagan warlord, fighting on the side of the Saxons – especially at the side of King Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed ‘the Lady of the Mercians’.
The forces of Wessex and Mercia have united against the Danes, but the instability of Britain’s kingdoms is made worse by the continued threat of Viking raids. Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians is dying, and there is no clear successor Uhtred supports Athelflaed to be the next ruler, but can a woman be accepted even if that woman is the wife of Aethelred and the sister of the king of Wessex? Uhtred himself is still suffering from the wound he received at the end of the previous instalment and is vulnerable. He’s in a reflective mood as well, thinking of the past and family, instructing his son on how to be a warrior.
‘Leave one alive, that had always been my father’s advice. Let one man take the bad news home to frighten the others,..’
It’s a fast-paced story, with some interesting new characters joining Uhtred and Finan, particularly Dywel, King of Dyfed. There’s plenty of action, but Uhtred himself is using his wits and cunning relying more on his experience than brawn these days.
I enjoyed this story, and while I appreciate that Uhtred cannot last forever, it’s interesting to see how his character continues to develop. This period of Saxon history, with Uhtred at the centre of the action, comes alive. And now I just have to wait patiently for the next instalment.
While it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier seven novels in order to make sense of this one, I’d recommend reading the novels in order.
‘The fates were laughing at me, those three hags at the foot of the tree who decide our lives.’
‘History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.’
Israel, 2007. Bilal, a young Palestinian man a‘History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.’
Israel, 2007. Bilal, a young Palestinian man attempts to destroy the Western Wall. His attempt fails, he is injured, and his life is saved by Yael Cohen, a Jewish surgeon. While treating Bilal, Dr Cohen makes two discoveries. First, she finds that Bilal is holding an ancient amulet that dates back to biblical Israel, and then she discovers that she and he share a genetic connection.
‘You and us, Palestinians and Jews, we have something in common, Bilal … Neither of us has anywhere else to go …’
Yael is keen to find out what the connection between her and Bilal is. At the same time those behind Bilal’s failed terrorist attempt are keen to prevent him from talking to anyone. There’s a high stakes conspiracy afoot, and both Yael and Bilal are in danger. While the conspiracy and the bloodline connection are investigated in the present, the novel takes us to a series of vignettes, in different time periods ranging from the time of King Solomon. The novel therefore spans a period of one thousand years. It isn’t always clear how these vignettes are connected to the present, but the thought that they might be (or could be) adds a different dimension to the novel, complicating what might seem like clear-cut divisions between peoples. What is the connection between Yael and Bilal, and who is after Bilal and Yael, and why? Yaniv Grossman, an American journalist who is investigating the Orthodox Jewish right wing, may be able to help Yael and Bilal find some of the answers they are looking for.
‘In that moment the night before, the labels, the divisions, between Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, seemed so utterly incomprehensible to her.’
This is the first novel in the Heritage Trilogy, I’ve already read the second and am keen to read the final instalment. While I’ve enjoyed the two books I’ve read, I feel like I’m not fully understanding the story. I hope that the various strands of the story will come together so that all is revealed in the third book.
‘My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me dow‘My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.’
Ireland’s economic crisis, with the crash of the bloated housing market provides the background for Donal Ryan’s first novel which is set in an unnamed rural Irish town. Each of the narrators has been affected in some way by the collapse of the local building firm, which used to be the biggest employer of casual labour in the area. Its owner Pokey Burke has decamped, leaving behind despair. Bobby Mahon is the central character: he had been the respected foreman of Burke’s company, and had been overseeing the rapid construction of a new housing estate.
‘One good thing that happened since the recession started is people will work for less than the minimum wage.’
But, as Bobby and his former labourers discover, the benefits of being paid cash-in-hand are outweighed by a lack of access to any redundancy provision. And the two people living on the half-finished estate are not enjoying it either.
‘Since midsummer things are gone pure haywire.’
There are 21 characters in this novel, each with their own part in a story which draws on the past, dwells in the present and (mostly) fears the future. Each of the characters has their own perspective, each adds to a central story of individuals suffering as a consequence of greed. There are darker and smaller individual disasters in this community as well. The labourers are not the only workers to suffer.
A kidnapping reminds people of other tragedies, and a death bodes badly for Bobby.
‘He was fine except for the drawings all over him and the skinned head. They’ll wash off and his hair will grow back and he’ll forget about the whole thing. May he always be fine and happy, the little darling.’
I could not put this novel down, and at 150 pages I read it in one sitting. Likeable or otherwise, each of the characters has their own individual story and their own interpretation of events. The stories have largely stayed with me.
‘Her head hit the floorboards, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade.’
It is 1874. Tasmania is in transition from it‘Her head hit the floorboards, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade.’
It is 1874. Tasmania is in transition from its penal origins: transportation ceased in 1853. But while the ruling classes are focussed on the structure and law of their society and increasing their wealth, there are a significant number of people struggling for their existence. Many are former convicts. In early 1874, pandemonium broke out in Launceston. The government had imposed a levy on those living near the Deloraine-Launceston railway line after the collapse of the company that built it. Those who riot cause damage, but cannot prevail against the large and well-armed police force.
‘The rioting was confined to the rabble and larrikin classes, scarcely any ratepayer taking part.’ (The Mercury, 9 February 1874)
This is the background to the events in Rohan Wilson’s novel. William Toosey is 12 years old when his mother dies suddenly. He writes to his father Thomas, asking for help. Thomas Toosey (who appeared as a boy in Rohan Wilson’s first novel ‘The Roving Party’) is a grey-haired labourer who has spent 10 years in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, convicted of a dreadful crime. He has stolen £200 in banknotes from Fitheal Flynn, with whom he was in prison, and his three daughters. In short, although Toosey sets off for Launceston to find his son, he appears to be beyond redemption. Flynn, accompanied by one of his daughters, disguised as a male and covered by a hood, sets off after Toosey. Sure, he wants his money back but there’s more to the story than that. Flynn and Toosey are both fathers seeking to make amends for their actions in the past by making provision for their children. Toosey is desperate to find William, and acutely aware of the dangers that befall orphans in the streets. Flynn is keen to track down Toosey: he wants his own retribution.
Rohan Wilson brings the Launceston of the 1870s to life: from Cimitiere Street through the City Park to Princes Square, along Brisbane Street and Charles Street, across Windmill Hill and then later back through the town and across the river into the slums of Invermay. The place and street names remain, and much of the landscape is recognisable today. It’s a dark, bleak story brilliantly told, set in a dark time in Launceston’s colonial history.
‘History is the art by which we live our lives, he said. You have your history and I have mine.’
‘I wanted to cry, but it wouldn’t look good – the new boss crying on her first day of work, April Fools’ Day, no less.’
Thea Dari-Jones, forty and sing‘I wanted to cry, but it wouldn’t look good – the new boss crying on her first day of work, April Fools’ Day, no less.’
Thea Dari-Jones, forty and single, takes over as the Officer in Charge of the Thursday Island Police Station on April Fools’ Day. She’s dreaming of a relaxed lifestyle: after all, her research has shown that there is not a lot of crime on the island. Thea has ties to Thursday Island (TI): her mother was a local, and she’s keen to know more about the island and its people. But there are tensions on TI, some fuelled by alcohol and others by beliefs in maydh (black magic) which have some islanders claiming that others have committed crimes against them. There’s a cultural minefield for Thea to negotiate, and that’s before Thea is made aware that a local woman has gone missing.
‘Not even a small idyllic island was immune to violent crime.’
The missing woman is found, murdered, and then Thea has to try to find out who the murderer is. A suspect is identified - can it be as simple as it looks on the surface?
‘Apart from the unsolved murder hanging over my head, the policing life I originally imagined on TI began to materialise over the next month or so.’
Meanwhile, Thea is settling into life on TI and when she meets Jonah, a local fisherman, her life seems complete. Or is it? And how will Thea’s mother find TI when she comes to visit for a month?
This novel starts as a crime novel, but by mid-way through the focus is more on Thea and her personal life than on her professional responsibilities. Usually, that would be enough to diminish my interest in the story, but I was already hooked. There are some fascinating characters on Ms Titasey’s Thursday Island, and some great cultural and culinary observations (especially if you like curry).
I hope that Ms Titasey writes another novel about Thea and Thursday Island.