‘Nothing is so sweet that there’s no taste of bitter in it.’
This novel is set in the fictional Australian town of Corunda in the 1920s and 1930s, and...more‘Nothing is so sweet that there’s no taste of bitter in it.’
This novel is set in the fictional Australian town of Corunda in the 1920s and 1930s, and is the story of four sisters – two sets of twins – Edda and Grace, Kitty and Tufts (Heather). The girls’ father is the Reverend Thomas Latimer. Edda and Grace’s mother died in childbirth, Kitty and Tufts’s mother, Maude, is the Reverend Latimer’s second wife and former housekeeper.
The four sisters leave home, after an eventful afternoon tea, to undertake new-style nurse training at the Corunda Base Hospital at the beginning of April 1926. Each of the sisters has different strengths and ambitions: Edda would have liked to train to be a doctor; Grace detests messes; Kitty wishs that the world would see more than her physical beauty and Tufts would like to better organise the world. Some of the sisters would like to marry, others are far less keen. Away from the meddling Maude, and in a world full of post-war optimism, the sisters each work at finding a life that is meaningful. Edda seems certain of what she wants and, sometimes, thinks she knows what is best for her sisters. Grace doesn’t care for the mess of nursing, and it’s hardly surprising that she leaves nursing when swept off her feet by Bear Olsen, a handsome young commercial traveller. Kitty loves nursing children, and Tufts finds a meaningful platonic partnership with pathologist Doctor Liam Finucan.
‘You might get away with carnations and chocolates, but Tennyson and tripe?’
Time passes, life changes. Post-war optimism is replaced by the hardship of the Depression. While none of the sisters are immune from this change, it is Grace and her family that is hardest hit. Kitty and Edda marry as well – very different men – and Tufts moves into hospital administration.
The consequence of choice, both good and bad, is drawn in the parallel lives of Edda, Grace, Kitty and Tufts. Happiness takes different forms, and Ms McCullough does a fine job of depicting Australia in the 1920s and 30s.
I enjoyed this novel as a comparatively light-hearted read about four very different sisters. It’s no sweeping saga (like ‘The Thornbirds’) – the story is confined to two decades, instead of six. While some elements of the story stretch believability, this didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the story. There are elements of romance and of heartbreak. There are successes, and failures. And weaving the whole story together is wit and humour.
Tom Keely, disgraced, divorced and unemployed, occupies his own eyrie in the Mirador high-rise apartments in...more‘Ten floors of architectural uniformity.’
Tom Keely, disgraced, divorced and unemployed, occupies his own eyrie in the Mirador high-rise apartments in Fremantle. Keely (as he’s referred to throughout the novel) was once a high-powered environmental activist, and his fall is a consequence of his inability and unwillingness to compromise: ‘In both marriage and work he’d become more angry than effective, more impatient than observant and more honest than useful.’ As the novel opens, every detail of the hangover Keely is suffering is described: the lost moments, the pain, and the attempts to alleviate suffering. He needs to escape from this downward spiral, but how? What has Keely got to look forward to? He’d like to measure up to his memory of his father Nev, and his mother Doris and his sister Faith want to help him. The universe keeps intruding despite Keely’s best efforts to hide away.
And then, a chance meeting of another Mirador resident provides impetus and opportunity. Gemma Buck, who lives on the same floor of the Mirador, was one of the children Keely’s parents helped many years earlier. Gemma and her six year old grandson Kai are doing it tough. Gemma needs to work, and this means leaving Kai alone sometimes. As he becomes involved in their lives, Keely finds a sense of purpose: he feels ‘That he might be necessary’. He might be able to make a difference to their lives and to his own.
‘A totally separate life being lived in exactly the same space.’
Tom Keely is a very human and flawed narrator. He is angry, has suffered misfortune, has added to his misfortune and has retained his sharp wit. He wants to help Gemma, and she wants to help him. Both want to do the best for Kai. Each is limited by their own flaws and perceptions.
Parts of Western Australia may be riding high as a consequence of the resources boom, but not everyone benefits. The poor and the broken become more disadvantaged, and children like Kai live in the margins. And the ending? I wanted – more than anything – a happy ending. I felt like I knew these people and I wanted Gemma and Kai and Tom to be happy. Sometimes, though, as Gemma and Kai and Tom all know – in different ways and for different reasons – you don’t always get what you want.
I didn’t always enjoy the story in this novel, but I loved the way that Tim Winton told it.
‘He dreamt he was swimming, coursing towards the sea on his own, fleeing shadows, making himself tiny with fear.’
‘I was on a bus visiting Kings Cross for the first time when a woman pulled a knife on me.’
Louis Nowra has written a lively biography of Kings Cross i...more‘I was on a bus visiting Kings Cross for the first time when a woman pulled a knife on me.’
Louis Nowra has written a lively biography of Kings Cross in Sydney, where (despite the knife incident) he has lived since 1997. A biography, of a place? Well, yes. Kings Cross is both a constantly changing physical space and a state of mind – with an interesting history. Officially, there is no such place as Kings Cross. Originally Elizabeth Bay, Potts Point, Rushcutters Bay and parts of Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo became known as Queens (later Kings) Cross because seven congested streets met where the iconic Coca-Cola sign now stands.
‘In other words, the x at one time or another can represent anything you want it to be.’
Until the early 1800s, Kings Cross (known as Woolloomooloo Hill) was a blustery ridge just east of Sydney and was home to windmills rather than people. In the early 1800s, land grants lead to grand estates (such as Elizabeth Bay House built between 1835 and 1839 for Alexander Macleay). One hundred years later, many of these grand estates were sold off and subdivided. Mansions left standing were partitioned into low-cost accommodation. By the 1920s, Kings Cross was the most densely populated area in Australia.
‘Cities need places like Kings Cross – it exists and has existed for decades, as a necessary relief valve for society.’
Louis Nowra takes the reader through Kings Cross, street by street, through the history and the geography, the buildings and characters that have shaped Kings Cross. Scattered throughout the narrative are reminders of Kings Cross’s individuality: the blackouts declared during World War II during which the residents rushed out into the street where a spotter plane pilot compared the sight of thousands of lit cigarettes to ‘a birthday cake with all its candles alight’, and neon lights visible at 5000 feet.
Sex and sin feature in any account of Kings Cross, as well as characters including Bea Miles, Rosaleen Norton, Abe ‘Mr Sin’ Saffron and Renee Rivkin. Perhaps my favourite character of the book was ‘Kings Cross Bob’, the fox terrier who lived at the corner of Darlinghurst and Bayswater Roads for twelve years after his master died. He vanished in 1939, apparently taking up residence in Cygnet, Tasmania with one of his fans, a Mr F. Thompson.
Visiting Kings Cross at least once is a rite of passage for many Australians. I remember staying at the Canberra-Oriental Hotel in 1970 as part of a school visit and being more than a little overwhelmed by the frenetic activity of the Cross. Fifteen years later, I stayed there again, dodging bodies sleeping (I hope) in doorways as I made my way into the city for work.
I enjoyed reading this biography, using the maps provided to imagine accompanying Louis Nowra on his walks around Kings Cross. Kings Cross continues to evolve: what will the streetscape look like in 2113?
‘The rest of Australia has caught up and Kings Cross is no longer needed as it once was.’
‘This was where he started, this was where he began.’
Barracuda is the story of Danny Kelly. Danny, a working class boy of mixed Scottish and Greek her...more‘This was where he started, this was where he began.’
Barracuda is the story of Danny Kelly. Danny, a working class boy of mixed Scottish and Greek heritage, attends a posh private school (only ever referred to as C---s College) on a swimming scholarship. Socially, Danny is out of his depth and is treated with condescension. The only way he can overcome his disadvantage is by succeeding in the pool, by being the fastest and the best. There is one particular golden boy, a fellow swimmer from a rich family, who Danny hates at first and then adores. There are other characters who make an impact, including the Hungarian swimming coach, a subtly rebellious private school girl and Danny’s parents. Danny’s parents (and particularly his mother) make many sacrifices for Danny as he single-mindedly pursues his dream of Olympic gold.
‘He shut his eyes. He was flying and he was swimming and it felt as one. He was swimming and he was flying into his future.’
But Australia is not a classless society; ethnicity and sexuality make a difference. Sporting heroes are gods. Danny transforms himself into the Barracuda; he’s going to show everyone how good he is. But no-one can live their life entirely in a swimming pool no matter how hard they try. Danny drifts away from his family and their values, but when he can’t be the best he becomes angry and loses interest in trying. Danny makes mistakes, and one of those mistakes costs him dearly.
‘I am Barracuda, I am Danny Kelly, I am faster than you all and I am stronger than you all and I have survived you all – and it is this that stops him, makes him remember: he has indeed survived them all, but he is not Barracuda.’
Barracuda is told entirely from Danny’s perspective and because for much of the novel Danny has very limited insight and self-knowledge, the reader is aware of Danny’s weaknesses well before he is. But Danny matures and becomes more self-aware, and by the end of the novel the earlier angry, alienated Danny is the adult Dan, making a positive contribution to the lives of others.
It’s an unsettling novel to read: I don’t like letting go of my idealistic dream of Australia as a classless society. I don’t like being reminded that ethnicity and sexuality are issues not just words, that communities are not always inclusive. That hate, as well as love, holds communities together. I didn’t like this novel quite as much as ‘The Slap’, but that’s more to do with the subject matter covered in ‘Barracuda’ than Mr Tsiolkas’s writing.
‘Pulling the machete would only increase the length of his life so he could live with the knowledge of his certain death a little longer.’
In the prolo...more‘Pulling the machete would only increase the length of his life so he could live with the knowledge of his certain death a little longer.’
In the prologue to ‘Infamy’, William Burr is wounded while hunting mahogany thieves in British Honduras. While recuperating, he receives a letter from his former employer, John McQuillan, who is now the chief magistrate of Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land. In this letter, Burr is invited to earn a reward:
‘ … One thousand acres of prime grazing pasture on the Coal River, Van Diemen's Land, if you want it. Reward from our old friend Lieutenant Governor Arthur (Colonel Holier Than Thou), who appears thwarted in his ability to capture an escaped felon.'
The escaped felon is Brown George Coyne, who has offered 20 gallons of rum for George Arthur’s arrest.
It is summer in 1830 when William Burr arrives in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land (now Hobart, Tasmania). This is the era of bloodshed, bushrangers and convicts, and of dispossession of the Aborigines as a consequence of pastoral expansion. It’s a place in which the European settlers try hard to replicate their memories of ‘Home’.
There are a number of key characters in this novel in addition to William Burr. Colonel Arthur himself has a significant role, as does the larger than life Brown George Coyne who lives with his followers in the mountains to the southwest. Coyne has discovered gold and with it considerable power. Other characters include police magistrate Stephen Vaughan and his wife Ellen, the ‘ship trader’ Charles Trentham, a mainland Aborigine – Robert Ringa - who they wanted to use to track down men for hanging, and Tilly Holt who works in Government House. Just after Burr arrives, Ellen Vaughan is kidnapped, and he sets out to rescue her. The story unfolds over a few days, and Burr’s adventures are only part of the story. There is rebellion in Hobart Town, and plenty of violence as bushrangers, convicts, officials and settlers jostle for power.
Will William Burr be able to rescue Ellen Vaughan, and what will happen to Brown George Coyne? And the Aborigines? What is justice in this place?
I found it hard to put this novel down. ‘Infamy’ incorporates history into a fast-paced and riveting fictional colonial crime story. It is bushranger Matthew Brady (1799-1826) who posted a reward of 20 gallons of rum for Colonel Arthur, and references to the Black Line (1830) are a reminder of the shameful treatment of Tasmanian Aborigines. There are a significant number of characters representing different strata of colonial society and this could be confusing, but it isn’t. Each character has a part to play, and each part fits into Mr Bartulin’s portrayal of colonial Van Diemen’s Land. It’s a bloodthirsty world, but the violence never seems gratuitous. Sometimes tragic, often uncomfortable but not gratuitous.
‘Like all terrible news, it made the past seem a simpler place.’
There’s a federal election underway in Australia, and the campaign is thrown into chao...more‘Like all terrible news, it made the past seem a simpler place.’
There’s a federal election underway in Australia, and the campaign is thrown into chaos when the body of Susan Wright - a popular government minister – is found on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. A dead cat is also found nearby.
Detective Darren Glass is one of the Australian Federal Police team assigned to the case, and his point of view provides most of the narrative. Glass manages to get both the Police Commissioner and the Prime Minister offside early in the investigation – he’s not the most tactful member of the force. Meanwhile, as the investigation into Susan Wright’s death gets underway, the body of an unpopular adviser from the Prime Minister’s office is found, together with another dead cat.
‘I mean, I’d hate to see a dead cat bounce in our polling this close to Election Day.’
Darren Glass’s voice is interspersed with snippets from Simon Rolfe, a political blogger, and a live feed from a local reporter, Jean Acheson. These additional points of view and comments provide a news and political context around the investigation. A missing file has the government nervous: no-one admits to knowing what it contains but as always knowledge is power. Darren Glass is keen to solve the case – and to get to know Jean Acheson - but in his haste makes a number of mistakes. Will he survive?
This is a police investigation complicated by political intrigue and power struggles. Truth appears relative and is only shared sparingly. Perception is critical in the run up to the election, and some would prefer that certain events remained hidden – at any cost.
I read this novel in one day as I was keen to find out whether I’d worked out who was the perpetrator, and what was their motivation. I found the story of political intrigue and machination was well grounded by the procedural detail. Darren Glass is a likeable character, and the description of Canberra (both in geographical terms and as a hothouse of political intrigue) was terrific.
‘The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.’
The novel opens on 27 January 1866...more‘The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.’
The novel opens on 27 January 1866, in Hokitaka, a gold-rush town in New Zealand. Walter Moody, who has recently arrived from Scotland with secrets of his own, enters the Crown Hotel smoking room and unwittingly interrupts a gathering of twelve men. Nine of the men are European, two are Chinese, and one is Maori.
Gradually, Walter Moody is told about three events that took place one night two weeks earlier. A reclusive man named Crosbie Wells died in his cottage outside Hokitaka. A young rich man named Emery Staines vanished, while Anna Wetherell an opium-addicted prostitute, who was with Staines earlier in the evening, is found comatose in the middle of the road. Each of the twelve men is somehow involved. Each of them has a piece of the story. But can the pieces be fitted together to complete the story? And what of the people outside of the smoking room? What parts do they play? Gold has been stolen – more than once. Documents appear to tell contradictory stories. Fact and illusion collide, opium and alcohol obfuscate.
It’s a complex story that unfolds over 12 parts. The first part (12 chapters) occupies 360 pages, the twelfth (1 chapter) covers 4 pages. Each part is smaller than its predecessor. From full circle to sliver, there are many angles. Few of the characters are straightforward; some are more devious than others. It’s not always easy to differentiate victim from villain. The cast list at the front of the novel helps to make sense of the characters for the first 300 or so pages. After that, if this book appeals to you, you’ll find that the characters and their personalities become clear.
I loved this novel and found it impossible to put down. Just when I thought I’d made sense of it all and worked it out, a narrative shift or a differently presented perspective would have me question my earlier conclusions. For those interested in the astrological: each of the twelve men has been assigned a sign in the zodiac, six others embody planets, and the titular luminaries – Emery and Anna – are the sun and moon. Those not interested in astrology need not be distracted by it: the story may refer to it and may be structured around it but it does not solely rely on it. The different views of individuals owe as much to occupation and personality as they do to astrology.
‘But the doubled fish of Pisces, that mirrored womb of self and self-awareness, is an ourobouros of mind – both the will of fate, and the fated will – and the house of self-undoing is a prison built by prisoners, airless, doorless and mortared from within.’
As we pursue truth in Ms Patton’s novel, there is plenty of action and adventure along the way. Betrayal, infidelity, piracy and politics provide some of the flavour, as does the search for gold, romance and the tragedy of opium addiction. It’s a hefty book at 832 pages, but I found it one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve tackled this year. I was 300 pages in when it was announced as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I hope that winning this prize at such a comparatively young age is a boon rather than a burden for Ms Catton.
‘So I am to be the unraveller, Moody thought. The detective: that is the role I am to play.’