On the east coast of Tasmania where the world's sunshine is doled out in full measure, there stands a gaunt, solid house of stone. Pine trees protect...moreOn the east coast of Tasmania where the world's sunshine is doled out in full measure, there stands a gaunt, solid house of stone. Pine trees protect it on three sides from wind and sea breezes; the fourth side faces the sea.
So begins A Fortune for the Brave, where we are introduced first to the house called Fipwood and then its occupants, the four Gogud children and their mother, the nice but vague and clueless Myrtle. Once a large estate, the land has been sold off and Fipwood, originally built by convicts, is shabby and becoming run-down. The Gogud children - handsome Lloyd who thinks very highly of himself; pretty but sour-tempered Gina; smarty-pants Prosper and the youngest, Theodore, or "Tacky" as he's called, who follows where Pros leads - have a new plan for the summer holidays. Lloyd has learned that the survivor of a well-known shipwreck off the coast, an old Dane called Olaf, hid some treasure from the Rua Rua on one of the small islands there. The only person Olaf told was Dr Trivett, after the good doctor saved his life.
Dr Trivett is dead now, but his son is alive and well, an orphan living in England under the care of guardians. They hope that this son, Huon Trivett, has, amongst his father's things, a map to the treasure - in a delirious state, elderly Olaf told Lloyd where to find the treasure, but not which island it's on. They busily formulate a plan that consists of enlisting their friend, Ernest Seward, who's friends with Jacko Burlington who sails his father's yacht, and decide on a time to go looking for the treasure and a way of keeping their mother occupied while they're gone.
In England, Huon Trivett has finished school with failing grades and has no real plans or ideas of what to do with himself next. The arrival of Mr Seward, neighbour of the Goguds and prosperous landowner and sheep farmer, on the houseboat on the River Thames where Huon lives with Mark and Phoebe Writhen, is a surprise to all, as is his offer of employment to Huon. Mr Seward likes the look of young Huon and downplays his aunt Myrtle's invitation to stay at Fipwood ("I rather doubt whether he would fit into that household for long") while offering him the post of jackaroo at Cottlestone instead. In fact, Huon can have his seat on the plane headed to Australia, as Mr Seward's wife and his daughter, Barbara, want him to accompany them on their own European tour by steamer.
Huon accepts the offer, and accepts the invitation to stay at Fipwood until Mr Seward returns around Christmastime. He's a good-natured, friendly lad and is taken aback by the unwelcoming - nay, cold and hostile reception from his cousins. His aunt is affable and welcoming but has no idea what her children get up to, only thinks the world of them and would like to offer them better opportunities in life. Huon brings with him his father's journal, which does indeed contain a map of treasure and a description of the island where it's located, ending with the words "A fortune for the brave, but have I the courage--" Huon, aware that his cousins have asked after the map via Barbara Seward, offers to show it to Gina, but Gina is so put out and hostile that she pretends they don't need it, only to sneak into his room later and try to find it.
Thanks to his unfriendly reception at Fipwood, Huon goes exploring and discovers their neighbour, Jimmy Stone. Jimmy, a lad his own age, lives with his Scottish mother and his uncle, "Unk", in a small cottage nearby. Jimmy's passion is beekeeping, and he teaches Huon all about keeping bees, different kinds of bees and grades of honey. Huon spends many a happy day helping Jimmy with his bees, but it isn't until he learns from Mr Burlington, a lawyer, that he's inherited an island owned by his father that he's galvanised into action and a desire to thwart his cousins' plans to the treasure.
For Huon, though, the real treasure is the island itself, and what it means to him to have a home, and dreams, and a plan for the future. A fortune for the brave, indeed.
Nan Chauncy ("Chauncy" to rhyme with "Nancy") is a well-known Tasmanian children's writer from the last century, who died in 1970. Born in England in 1900, she migrated to Australia in 1912 and went on to write 14 children's books, among them They Found a Cave (1948) and Devil's Hill (1958) - which (along with other novels) was made into a film called Devil's Mountain which I remember watching (and loving) in primary school. In fact, I've never been able to forget it and I've always wanted to read one of her books. This lovely old edition is my mother's, who's had it since Christmas 1960, and knowing my interest in Australian (and Tasmanian) literature and my efforts this month to read Aussie books for AusReading Month, she lent it to me.
It's always very interesting, to me, to see how much the English language and writing styles have changed over the decades. Originally written for children (which would have included teens - "Young Adult" being a relatively recent publishing niche), I think kids and teens today would have a bit of a hard time reading this. As an adult, I found it took a while to get into the style, which is distinctly "old-fashioned" and very much grounded in the period it was written in. Makes you realise how, in historical fiction today, authors don't really recreate the way people would have spoken "back then" because we would struggle to read it! But by no means do I want to give the impression that the writing is old-fashioned in the sense of being formal, or restrained, or - god forbid - dull. It is full of humour, rich in atmosphere and setting, and alive with realistic characters and believable adventure.
The Gogud children are really quite horrid. There's no other word that fits them better than "horrid". Lloyd is vain and superior, and puts the charm on thick when he wants something - Huon dislikes the fakery and it really does put you off him. Gina, only slightly older than Huon, has been soured from living in a remote, isolated house and having to manage so much of its upkeep - she dreams of owning a fashionable dress and being seen. Prosper is a real piece of work, having brains but no outlet except to cause mischief. Tacky has the makings of a nice kid, since he's young enough not to be fixed, but with no father-figure and an older brother who takes advantage of him, he's just as problematic. Yet they work together well - they really only have each other, after all, and they're "thick as thieves", as the saying goes. Very loyal to each other, no matter what. And they harbour great pretensions: pretension to wealth and status that their current situation cannot support.
Huon is very different. He's extremely likeable, and is a wonderful bridge to his world for the modern reader. He sees things differently from the locals, and his observations and thoughts are peppered with insights that we can relate to, like in this scene as he tours Cottlestone with Mr Seward's eldest son, Neal:
'What's this - like a dark smudge over here?' 'Ah, that's the Plantation. That's Dad's great pride - pine trees to make a breakwind, you know, and for timber!' 'It looks as though you cleared out the native trees and then planted pine trees in their place?' exclaimed Hu. Neal saw nothing strange in this and agreed without a smile. 'That's right. Now, we'll hop in the utility and I'll take you a run round and you'll see everything. The shearing shed is almost new - electric machines and all the latest gadgets.' [p.78]
Huon is a wonderful hero and a great character, but it's when he's with Jimmy Stone that he really comes to life - and it's quite possible that Jimmy is the real scene-stealer here. When we first meet Jimmy, he appears to Huon as an old bearded man - except that the hair on his head is fair and the beard, which comes down to mid-chest, is black. As he comes closer, Huon realises that the beard is actually made up entirely of bees! Jimmy is, it turns out, moving his "swarm" of bees, and has a camera ready to go to take a photo of it for the picture prize offered by the apiarists' magazine that he reads (three quid for a photo of bees swarming in an unusual place). Huon takes the photos and so begins their friendship. The two characters play off each other wonderfully, and Jimmy's enthusiasm for bees is catching.
As is Chauncy's enthusiasm for her local setting. Having grown up in Tasmania, it resonated with me on a deeply personal level, but even without that connection, her descriptions and sense of place are vivid. The east coast of Tasmania isn't just a setting, it's very much an intricate part of the story. For me, it came with deeper layers of unspoken meaning, things left unsaid but discernible to, perhaps, local readers or anyone with an ear to it. Issues of colonisation, white settlement and the noticeably absent Aborigines flirt with the narrative, as do themes of class and family dynamics. Huon, an orphan, barely remembers his parents, who died in England during World War II. His Tasmanian family will never be friends, but it is through the unexpected inheritance of an island that Huon at last connects with his dead father, and finds a kind of home, or sense of place.
This is something I felt I could relate to - not inheriting an island, nor am I an orphan - but the homecoming, that I can distinctly relate to. I also loved the presence of bees and beekeeping, as I love bees, especially honey bees, and wouldn't mind learning beekeeping myself one day. As an adventure story, it was often exciting but not relentlessly so; it worked up to a gripping climax and show-down between Huon and his cousins; and naturally it doesn't follow a neat, straight line. There's a bit of mystery, there's clue-hunting, there's the play of friends-and-enemies, and ultimately it's a genuine coming-of-age story for Huon.
In 1984, when he was twelve years old, Andy was sent to Wakma Reception Centre in Ballarat because Wakma Reception Centre was the type of place kids l...moreIn 1984, when he was twelve years old, Andy was sent to Wakma Reception Centre in Ballarat because Wakma Reception Centre was the type of place kids like Andy got sent. It was the place you went if your dad left your mum high and dry, or put her in hospital for a spell, or they just couldn't afford you. Or if they hated you. You ended up there if the department deemed you 'at risk', or if you'd already risked everything and lost. Nobody stayed there long; it was like a vestibule, a doctor's waiting room. A place you fetched up in until something else came along.
It isn't the first place Andy has been sent to. When he was only ten, his weak-willed mother, Dahlia, allowed her new husband, pony-tailed Victor, to divorce him. He was only adopted, anyway. Unwanted, unloved, isolated, Andy ends up in a place where the young, slightly effeminate social worker, Nigel, took him under his wing. What began as fun weekends trail biking turned into weekends at Nigel's place where the young boys were introduced to cigarettes, drugs and booze - and where Andy was introduced to Nigel's sexual appetites.
Broken, haunted and completely alone, Andy washes up at Wakma after a foster family situation goes badly, and it's there he meets the first person to show him unconditional love. Mary, or "Mez" as she's called, is only twenty-two; a small woman who's endured her own awful experiences at the hands of selfish, entitled men. She is Andy's first real friend, and he easily slips into the practice of thinking of her as his mother. When she leaves for a year of travelling the world, like so many Australians, Andy is taken in by a new foster family, one with a son about his own age. Unfortunately, without explanation (though the truth was that the couple's marriage broke up), Andy is suddenly removed from the home and sent to Ironside in Melbourne. He's only fourteen, and Ironside is not just a "youth training centre", a place where unwanted boys wash up; it's also a remand centre. There are real criminals at Ironside, rapists and murderers, grown men with violent pasts.
At Ironside, the boys live in cells with barred windows, are locked in at night, served bad food and rub shoulders with criminals. It is at Ironside that Andy makes his first friend his own age. Clunky, as he's called, has only a grandfather left, and they're fighting the system to be allowed to live together - something made difficult by his grandfather's history of alcoholism. Later they're joined by a boy nicknamed Spinner, a charismatic but ugly youth who leads Andy astray but teaches him staunchness, and honesty and dignity. It is at Ironside that Andy endures the kind of psychological trauma no child should ever have to experience: watching a cellmate hang himself. It's clear that, while no one knows about the sexual abuse he experienced with Nigel, this faked suicide gone wrong never leads to any kind of therapy or counselling for Andy.
Andy's path begins its new downward trajectory when Spinner, after a Sunday let out of Ironside, convinces Andy and Clunky to abscond, just for the day he says. But several drug deals, drinks and stolen wallets later, Andy doesn't know where he is until he wakes up in a Ballarat police station, strung out and washed up, with Mez there to greet him.
Over the following years, the path repeats itself many times. Absconding, drugs, stolen cars, bad crowd, back in jail again. Every time, Mez is there to catch him and hold him up, but even she starts to despair that the cycle can ever be broken, that Andy could ever have the chance to be the man he could be.
I knew this would be heavy, going in, and I knew it would be heartbreaking. I expected I'd cry quite a lot, but actually it didn't turn me into an emotional mess. Mostly I felt anger, and despair, and empathy. It was a forging kind of read, a story that hardens the heart rather than makes it a soppy mess, and that's just what you need, because it leaves you with a clearer head. I have to warn you, though: this review gets a bit ranty, a bit soap-boxy - sure sign of exactly the kind of emotional and intellectual response Staunch generates in readers.
Oh Andy, poor Andy. Truly - and he is just one boy of hundreds - what he went through, what he experienced, how he ended up, all of it is preventable. This story is a true story, Andy was a real person as are all the other characters, and it is in part inspired by the Forgotten Australians Senate Report, which looked at the fate and experiences of wards between 1930 and 1970. In her afterword, Briggs puts her story into this broader context:
When you read Forgotten Australians, when you read the testimonies, a whole lot of it sounds awfully like the experiences of Andy and other later state wards. Sexual abuse at the hands of a carer; the absence of a proper education; lack of belief, or succour, or affection. Dealing and coping with the horror of childhood. Andy, like so many state wards before his time and after, languished in jail...
When I started this book ... I thought I'd come up with answers to these questions. I haven't. All I have is this: kids need love and family - of whatever stripe - to thrive and grow. Only adults can parent, and many aren't very good at it. But one thing is certain - the state can never parent. When all the kids are waiting at the school gates, no one wants to acknowledge the mother who is cumbersome, impersonal, bureaucratic, twelve storeys high and has a letterhead. [pp. 292-3]
From the very beginning, with the ease with which Victor got rid of him - and for no other reason than that he didn't like him, but bullied and tormented him while Dahlia simply fluttered her hand uselessly - to the sad fact that he never had a social worker, never had anyone talk to him, listen to him, find out anything about him (until Mez, who stepped out of her official role to do so); his file contained short reports on him, terse descriptions of his movements between centres, but nothing about working with him, no attempts were ever made to set him on a healthy, safe path toward adulthood. "No help." [p.160] The state failed him even worse than his adoptive parents did, than his horrible stepfather even.
The letter [Mez] hated most confirmed the end of his wardship. Andy had been done with the government since his fifteenth birthday.
Andrew is still adamant that he wants to be able to go his own way and is confident in being able to do so. Given the firmness and thought put into Andrew's comments, his request for Discharge of Wardship is supported.
Everything possible would seem to have been tried to assist and direct Andrew in the past five years, it is therefore time to try it his own way and allow him the opportunity to make his own plans and carry them through, with voluntary assistance if he chooses to seek it from the networks he knows so well.
It sounds like a shitty ex-girlfriend, thought Mez. Fine. Try it your way. No one had invited Mez to this meeting because she had no official role in Andy's life, despite the fact that she had supported him emotionally and sometimes financially for the past three years. They dumped him. As if he would have said anything else but that he wanted to try it his way. What good had their way done? Andrew had a Grade Six education because they hadn't helped him at school, and no family home because their placement families never stayed around. No family, because they adopted him out to a nutter; and no job, because they didn't give him an education. And no love.
The state was a shithouse parent. And then, she thought, some bastard will have the gall to blame him when he breaks into their bloody car. [pp.160-1]
Aside from the blatantly obvious fact that clearly no one actually cares about these kids - else they would watch over them better, make sure they didn't get taken advantage of by pedophiles like Nigel, or end up in what was essentially a jail when they'd done nothing wrong - the system seems set up to ensure these boys end up exactly where they end up. And then we, us "nice ordinary people" with loving families, an education, a roof over our heads and jobs, we look askance at these kids, these young men. We blame them, and then we dismiss them. All the stupid things they do, the mistakes they make: it's all their fault, we think, because we assume they have the same understanding of life that we do, have had the same childhood experiences and that it's merely a question of "turning their life around".
What gets me is that we know that children need safe, loving, supportive environments in which to thrive (and for sure, going in the extreme opposite direction doesn't help them much either), so who in their right mind thinks that the system set up for these defenceless, unwanted, vulnerable and often abused kids is a good idea? I would never ever want my own son to go anywhere near the places Andy was sent to live in, because I know how bad that would be for him. Briggs mentions that some changes have been made since Andy's time, and there's more of a focus on prevention - keeping them out of the ward system and with their families - but that, when that fails, once they're in the system nothing's changed.
Everything about Andy's story hurts. The picture of a little ten-year-old boy being taken away with no explanation, being divorced from his family, as shitty a family as it is, while his mother tells him he was "too naughty" and must seek forgiveness from God, oh that makes me so mad! And then, when I thought things couldn't get any worse after Nigel's predatory abuse of him - and young boys like Andy are prime targets, so desperate are they for a father figure, a role model, a friend - to see him end up in Ironside! What bloody stupid idiot thought putting young wards into the same place as criminals was a good idea?! These are kids with no role models of their own, no positive father figures, which makes them hugely susceptible not just to abuses but also to learning the "wrong", or destructive, kind of normalcy, the wrong kind of being. And if I can just point out the obvious: make these boys' "home" a jail, with its cement walls, barred windows, locked doors, regimented structure and strip-searches and rules, and it's not surprisingly that it becomes a kind of comfort zone for them. Getting sent to prison when they actually do something wrong isn't much of a punishment: it's their life story. It becomes normalised.
It is, of course, more than just the environment and lack of nurturing that shapes Andy and his friends. It's also the ready access to drugs, the lack of an education (he never finished grade 7), and the comradely community of cons and druggies and shifty types. It's the perfect combination for the creation of a shiftless young criminal stuck in a cycle of drugs, poor decisions, and incarceration.
'You'd hate me if you knew. You'd hate me if you knew what I have to do to survive in here.' He seemed to nod off for a bit. 'Victor was a cunt to me, wasn't he, Mez? I should go get him. When I get out. Need to get it out of my system. Beat the fuck out of him. How come Mum never came for me? No family for me. Feelin' sorry for meself, Mez,' he said decisively. 'I'm letting it get to me, in'I?' He started crying. 'Wasted time. All of me youth. Now I'm old and I'm all screwed-up. Don't want to be in here anymore, Mez.' 'I know, I know.' She'd never heard him talk so much. 'I'm just saying, Mez. I've been trying to stop it in my head. I don't have any blood, don't feel like there's blood in my body. Maybe that's why the drugs. That's why they don't even work no more. They work but... Hard to explain... That's why I get so out of it. Need drugs, sometimes, to stop thinking. I remember Victor beating me up all the time. I think about it all the time. Why didn't Mum stop him?' [p.185]
Brigg's novelisation of Andy's life is highly readable, nicely structured and well plotted. It's not told in straight chronological form, which would lack tension and drama, but organised in such a way that the story builds on our curiosity and empathy and creates more just when you think you know it all. It's not just Andy's story, it's Mez's story too, and it's the story of all those kids - not all of them wards of the state, some just made bad decisions or had bad relationships with their parents or just didn't care - who become druggies and lost causes. Through Andy's story, all of us who've never experienced what they had, who probably just think it's a matter of will power to not do drugs, or stop taking them, who can't understand why they keep making such stupid, stupid mistakes when following the rules of society and law seems so easy for us - all of us gain a clear understanding and an empathetic perspective of those like Andy. Not all of them are as sympathetic as Andy is, but then we don't learn the full stories of many of them.
Overall, it's simply tragic. It doesn't end well. It doesn't make you feel very positive about the situation. What this novel does do, very successfully, is give voice to these "forgotten Australians", these kids who never really had the quality of life that we consider every child to have the right to in our cosy, affluent country. Staunch humanises these wards of the state, sheds a light on their life and opens it up for understanding. And the importance of this shouldn't be underestimated: this book, books like Staunch, this is our education, this is our chance to gain some insight, because without it nothing will ever change, we will never demand change, and we will simply go on creating more juvenile criminals and druggies and "hooligans" that we can dismiss and blame and castigate without guilt or remorse or the slightest smidge of empathy. Staunch is a memorial to kids like Andy, and it is a very powerful, emotionally-intense, moving, thought-provoking one. It taught me plenty, and it should be required reading if we ever want to really consider ourselves to be enlightened thinkers and compassionate civilians. It would be a start, anyway.(less)
Fifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how to...moreFifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how to fish. His mum is worn out raising seven kids and doing the laundry; she's got no teeth left and her one pleasure is reading Mills & Boon novels and smoking. The second oldest, Blacky's only talent seems to be coming up with nicknames, including his own. He's the second ruckman in the Port's under-18 football team and almost never touches the ball, which is alright by him. But in the lead-up to the much-anticipated yearly Premiership, it's discovered that the first ruckman, an Aborigine called Carol, is really Carol's older brother Colin and is thus disqualified from playing. Their coach, Mr Robinson - whom Blacky calls "Arks" because that's how he says "asks" and it gives Blacky a thrill to hear it - has no choice but to make Blacky the lead ruckman.
The effect this has on Blacky is immediate. He feels like a sinking ship. The whole town wants the footy team to win and it all comes down to the ruckman - to Blacky. He can only watch with admiration the true stars of the team, the Aboriginal kids from the Nunga reserve at the Point. The Aborigine players are the best on the field, only they don't really play by the rules - they don't play to win so much as play for the sheer joy of it. Blacky watches one player in particular: Dumby Red. A handsome kid with perfect white teeth, Dumby is vain but immensely talented. Despite the fact that playing on the footy team is the only thing they have in common, the two become friends.
But Blacky is at a crossroads. He's old enough to notice and recognise the inherent racism and bigotry he sees and hears all around him, but he's not yet old enough or educated enough to really understand it. He still has a childlike innocence to his worldview, one that both shelters him from the worst of it and makes him a vulnerable target. When Dumby makes a deadly choice and the repercussions resonate throughout the Port, Blacky comes face-to-face with the blasé racism Australia is notorious for, and has to decide for himself whether he'll accept the status quo, or follow his heart.
Phillip Gwynne's 1998 novel, which was made into the 2002 movie Australian Rules (a nice play-on-words there), pops up on school reading lists across the country - and for good reason. The book is not only a classic coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in a small town experiencing financial downturn and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it; it also gently explores Australia's inherent racism towards the first inhabitants, the Aborigines. It doesn't explicitly pass judgement, though it certainly takes a side; and it doesn't exactly explain anything, only provokes emotion and thought in readers - which is ideal.
For a people as "relaxed" and "down-to-earth" and "fun-loving" and "carefree" as Australians are portrayed and known as across the globe, it is frightening to witness and experience the kind of blasé racism - notably that towards the Aborigines - that exists here. You will hear people make derogatory, stereotypical comments and statements that are highly offensive, but they are made with a kind of "you know what I mean" offhandedness, a matter-of-fact "everyone understands this" evenness that appals. It is the dismissive casual attitude with which the comments are made that truly offend and dismay because it makes it clear just how inherent and thoughtless such attitudes are. Non-Aboriginal Australians (can't say "white Australians" anymore because the irony is that it's a country of immigrants and it's only in outlying rural areas that you see a majority race - white - in effect) have inherited an attitude of complete contempt towards the Aborigines, a ridiculous "I wash my hands of them" dismissiveness that implies that we tried in the first place.
The inhabitants of Gary Black's small town on the coast of South Australia are very typical of Australians at large. At times it's subtle; other times, blatant; but always casual. No one wastes much energy in doing anything about it. Everyone seems to think the same way, and anyone who disagrees - like possibly Blacky's mum - keeps their opinions to themselves. The idea that someone would speak up and denounce a person for making a racist comment is laughable. And of course, the kinds of things said about the Aborigines are things that white Australians are just as guilty of: alcoholism, laziness, theft etc. When the white kids - Blacky and his friends - hear that a group of young Nungas are heading into town, they get all tense and antagonistic - a kind of inherited rivalry exists between them, something they've picked up on from their parents and other adults in the community, and imitate without really understanding just what they're perpetuating.
"There's some Nungas heading this way," he said. "A big mob of 'em." Everybody looked up. Usually the Nungas came into town, got their supplies and left again. But sometimes a mob would walk all the way from the Point. I'd heard them talking in the front bar about the good old days, about huge brawls down the jetty, Nungas against Goonyas. But I'd never been in one. I wouldn't want to, either. Those Nungas were tough, much tougher than us. "Where are they?" "They're coming down the main street." "How many?" "Dunno. Fifteen, twenty, a lot." "What is it?" said Cathy, sitting up. "Boongs," said Pickles. "Abos," said one of the Maccas. "Coming up here. A tribe of 'em." "Are they allowed up here?" said Cathy. "Yeah, of course they are," I said. "They shouldn't be, said Pickles. "It's our jetty, not theirs." "Bloody oath," said Deano. I could see them now, at the start of the jetty. They were mucking around with the ropes that went out to the dinghies. "If they touch our dinghy," said Pickles, "I'm gunna go get the old man." [pp.190-191]
Of course, the Nungas just muck about, go swimming, have a laugh and leave. Perhaps part of the fun for them was putting the white kids on edge. What's noticeable is the vast disconnect between them. Not only are the two groups on opposing sides, not only are the locals distrustful of the Nungas, but no one ever makes any attempt to actually learn if any of it's true or not. No one wants to befriend an Aboriginal, to learn about them, understand them, see another perspective. That's what makes Blacky unusual, and that's what makes his position in the town somewhat precarious. As anyone who's ever been caught up in schoolyard bullying knows, it's pretty difficult to go against the status quo without making yourself a really vulnerable target. Easier - and often safer - to go with the flow, keep your head down and your mouth shut at best, or join in.
When Blacky takes the unprecedented step of walking all the way to the Point, his first impression is one of confusion.
The Point was not a big chance in the Tidy Towns competition, I can assure you of that. Not even in Section B. The streets weren't sealed and there were hardly any trees. Most of the houses were fibro, but there were a few brick ones as well. I kept thinking. But that's not right, something's wrong. Then I realised what it was. The houses all had doors and windows. And according to the front bar the first thing Nungas do when they move into a new house is rip the doors off their hinges and smash all the windows. So that was the image I had in my head. No doors. No windows. Well, not any more. [p.222]
It's such a crappy equation, though: either the Aborigines do things they're way and the way they're comfortable with, which earns them everyone else's disapprobation and scorn and contempt, or they assimilate and do things in ways that are familiar to us, which make us feel safe, and abandon their own culture in the process. Because here's the thing: Australians won't respect the Aborigines unless they make an effort to look and behave like us, but in actuality it doesn't matter what they do, we will always look down on them. They can't win, in this equation. And the second thing is: they don't want to. They don't want to assimilate, and become "Australian" according to our (white) definition. Why should they have to? The problem lies in the sad fact that colonial Australia not only degraded them, but made sure there would be no place for them, regardless. They're stuck in a kind of racist Catch-22, and honestly, I can't blame them for being royally pissed about it.
The title Deadly Unna? refers to an expression Dumby Red often uses. "Deadly" meaning "cool" or something similar, and "unna?" akin to "isn't it?" or "right?" or, in Canadian, "eh?" (It doesn't say so in the book, but you can get the gist from the context.) The story is a quiet, fairly understated kind of tale, carried by Blacky's endearing and humorous narration. It has just the right amount of plot balanced by just the right amount of characterisation and character development to please me and keep me engaged. Truly I found it to be very well written and beautifully told. Blacky's voice is convincing for his age, his demographic and his environment. I found the publisher's blurb to be rather misleading, in that it implies much more drama than actually happens and much more interplay between Blacky and Dumby. It does make your expectations go off in rather the wrong direction, sadly. As long as you take the story as it's told, you will get a lot out of it.
There's a lot of subtlety and depth to this novel, tucked away within and without Blacky's observations. Much of it is sad and poignant, like Blacky's mum's life and marriage to his rather horrible father; the town's poverty; Mr Robinson's dead-end career; the way the "blacks" are ignored and treated like second-class citizens (or barely citizens); the poor state of the town library; the sense that this town and its people are largely forgotten - noticeable in the state of its community buildings, like the footy oval, and the local member's grandiose speech cataloguing his own achievements, none of which have any relevance to these people. Yet Blacky's voice remains largely upbeat and optimistic, in an adolescent way, and his observations of other people and his world overall are both insightful and humorous, epitomising that other stereotypical quality Australians are known for: the ability to avoid self-indulgence. No one wants to be a "bloody whinger", right?
With its understated approach to a sensitive, contentious issue nicely balanced with a humorous yet intense coming-of-age story, Deadly Unna? is unforgettable and thought-provoking. It's a story that takes its young and generous-hearted hero on a tentative journey exploring the grey areas between black and white, boyhood and manhood, love and hate, to discover the price of not just standing up for your values, but the price of formulating said values in the first place.
Blacky's story continues in the sequel, Nukkin Ya.(less)
In 1994, thirteen-year-old Daniel Kelly begins his first year at one of the swankiest boy's private schools in Victoria - a place he and his best frie...moreIn 1994, thirteen-year-old Daniel Kelly begins his first year at one of the swankiest boy's private schools in Victoria - a place he and his best friend, Demet, nickname Cunts College. His mother's a hairdresser and his dad's a long-distance truck driver, but after he wins a local swimming competition and is spotted by Coach Torma, he's offered a scholarship and a place on the swim team. Coach Torma is a large, obese man who dishes out praise sparingly, but he's a great coach even though he hasn't yet turned out an Olympic swimmer.
Danny doesn't want to go to Cunts College, where he feels like an impostor, but he loves to swim. And he's good at it, he's the best on the team. Over time, he rises above the taunts and ostracising of the other boys and becomes friends with a popular rich boy, Martin Taylor. Through Taylor, Danny gets a taste of what it's like to live with affluence, posh holiday houses, private swimming pools and crotchety old grandmothers who rule over the whole family. Danny wants to be successful, he wants to win, he wants to be an Olympic champion and provide for his family.
So when he competes at the Pan-Pacific in Japan and his dreams come crashing down, he doesn't bounce back with renewed determination. He sinks, fast and hard, and lets his feelings of failure consume him until everything culminates on the night of the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony, when Danny's dreams and failures collide in tragic, violent way.
Tsiolkas's new novel begins in the present, when we meet an older, more grounded Dan still trying to piece his life together after a spell in prison. He's in Scotland with his partner, Clyde, but the two are at a breaking point since Danny wants to live in Australia and Clyde wants to stay in Glasgow. As older Daniel's first-person, present-tense narrative slips slowly back in time, young Danny's experiences at the private school, in training and competitions, at home and with friends, travels slowly forward in third-person, past tense. In the second part of the book, post-jail Dan takes up more of the narrative, filling in the gaps of the story to build a comprehensive understanding of the character and how the past has shaped him, while child-Danny comes in shorter and ever younger sequences, until we arrive back at the day when he's five and his dad is teaching him to swim at the beach.
This richly layered and grittily realistic novel explores themes of class, race, nationality and identity, what it means to be a success or a failure, and our preoccupation with sport and sporting heroes. Tsiolkas has an astute eye and brilliantly captures class warfare, hypocrisy and snobbery; beautifully brings to life both Danny's working class family and his peer's upper-crust, moneyed and totally alien home lives with wit and flair; and creates in Danny a young, idealistic boy who lacks perspective as much as he lacks a proper father figure. Because he's at odds with his own father, he has no male role model to turn to in his own home. He fills this gap with Coach Torma, but he's only a boy and he doesn't have the experience or the empathy to really understand adult dynamics, or what the coach might really be thinking. His relationships with others, especially adults, are tarnished with adolescent arrogance and selfishness.
Even so, Danny is a sympathetic and even likeable character, partly because we can all relate - and none of us were particularly lovely as teenagers, that would be something of an oxymoron - and partly because we can see where the adults in Danny's life stuffed up, or at the very least didn't help. They, too, are plagued and hobbled by their own shortcomings and insecurities. Danny is on a rocky coming-of-age journey, one where his own ego is his worst enemy, and his determination to hold onto his own failure takes over.
There is a strong sense of urban Australia in Barracuda, in all its nuances and vagaries, its good points and flaws. I am always happy to read a book that embraces and explores Australia and what it means to be Australia, without the cultural cringe. Maybe it's my generation, or the fact that I've lived in other countries, but I'm all for embracing the virtues and flaws of my native country, and I think we're long past the stage of feeling like we don't have anything real to add to the international world of art and literature. We do, and we are. Writers like Christos Tsiolkas, by focussing on Australia rather than writing about Britain, or Europe or the Americas, is leading the way. And he's not doing it in some contrived, overly-nostalgic way either. There's no sentimentality to Barracuda, no smugness, no pretension.
The writing is strong, extremely readable with lovely flow, and brimming with intelligence and wit. It's not that Barracuda is a funny book, but it has black humour moments, and the descriptions of certain characters will trigger in Australians certain understandings and some chuckles. The idea being that nothing in Australia is sacred, but that doesn't mean you can't be proud of something you're taking the piss of. However, I did find that the last, oh, hundred pages were a bit slow and uneventful after the strong surge of the previous four hundred pages. It lost its wind, lacked direction and felt almost like padding. Granted, it rounds out Danny's story and finishes filling in the gaps, but it doesn't feel as well tied-in to the rest of the story. Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that it feels a bit depressing, too, those last hundred pages. No longer on a forward momentum, the story seems to slowly sink into a muddy swamp, not going anywhere, not really adding much, accompanied by a feeling of apathy. That's always the problem with ending with the beginning: you know where it goes, how it ends, and the sense of optimism you began with is completely gone. Rather like looking at the Christmas tree on Boxing Day: bereft of cheery presents, ignored and forgotten, beginning to go brown and sad looking.
Barracuda touches on a lot of secondary themes, and several of them really connected with me. Dan's discovery of books and reading while in prison was one of these, captured in this passage:
Dan had discovered that he had been mistaken, that books did not exist outside of the body and only in mind, but that words were breath, that they were experienced and understood through the inseparability of mind and body, that words were the water and reading was swimming. Just as he had in water, he could lose himself in reading: mind and body became one. He had taken the Chekhov story with him on release ... That story was a song: in reading it he believed he was opening his lungs and singing. [p.341]
Another, rather more entertaining theme was Australian national identity and our relationship with Britain, captured so unerringly in scenes between Demet and Clyde:
Dan had heard the mantras before; Clyde's dissection of Australia had become both more bitter and more resigned the more his frustration with the country grew.
So Dan sat and listened while Clyde listed all the things he found perplexing and annoying about Australia. 'You all think you're so egalitarian, but you're the most status-seeking people I've met. You call yourselves laid-back but you're angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you're terrified of the poor, and you say you're anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don't climb there, don't go here, don't smoke and don't drink here and don't play there and don't drink and drive and don't go over the speed limit and don't do anything fucken human. You're all so scared of dying you can't let yourselves live - fuck that: we're human, we die, that's part of life. That's just life.'
And Demet was his chorus; Demet answered every insult, every jibe with her own litany of complaints that Dan knew off by heart - he could have recited it along with her. We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we're toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks; it was an antiphony between Demet and Clyde. [p.401-2]
There's a lot going on here, and it all brings into sharp relief the fact that a kid like Danny, an adult like Daniel, isn't shaped in a vacuum. He isn't even an isolated "case", if I can call him that for a moment. He's a pretty normal human being, flawed and insecure and afraid but also generous at heart, yearning to love and be loved, to succeed and make his loved ones proud of him. He's a child, and he's an adult suffering from the after-effects of a child's decisions. This was almost one of my favourite books of the year, if not for the lacklustre final lap - ha! How indicative. Definitely a book worth reading, and while I haven't (yet) read Tsiolkas's previous novel, The Slap, which established him as a powerhouse writer, Barracuda is a strong novel and puts Tsiolkas squarely in the forefront of contemporary Australian literature - a writer accessible to the world, too.(less)
Sarah Avery has returned home to Tasmania in secret, silent disgrace. She's broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job at a fish farm in Queensland...moreSarah Avery has returned home to Tasmania in secret, silent disgrace. She's broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job at a fish farm in Queensland, and is back in time for Christmas. Her family has a beach shack in the isolated Bay of Fires national park and head there every year for Christmas and New Year's. Her parents are there: Philippa, or "Flip" as she's known, a pharmacist; and Dr John Avery, a history professor at the university. Her younger sister Erica as well - a flight attendant, pretty and a bit vapid. The Bay of Fires village is a small one, consisting of a guest house made from a converted Nissen hut; three beach shacks and a shop; the Shelley's holiday house; and a campground. The Avery's own one shack; the one closer to the guest house belongs to Flip's best friend, Pam, and her husband Don; while the blue one farther away belongs to Roger Coker, a strange fisherman who lives there year-round with his cats.
On the day after Boxing Day, Roger discovers the body of a dead woman on the beach: topless, wearing a red polka-dot bikini, her body covered in gashes and partially eaten by sea creatures. Sarah, going to see, recognises the woman: a Swiss tourist called Anja who was staying at the guest house. It's clear to everyone in the community that Anja must have been murdered, probably by the same psycho who is behind the earlier disappearance of Chloe Crawford, a teenager who was holidaying with her family. Almost instantly many of the assorted holidayers and campers point their fingers at Roger, the oddball, the freak, as the guilty party. Personal, small-minded judgements against each other begin to fly as the community starts to turn on itself out of suspicion and fear.
The day after the discovery, a journalist from a local paper arrives for an extended stay. Hall Flynn is in his forties and single, a bad driver who can only sleep with a woman when he's drunk. He takes a shine to Sarah, who is the first woman he's slept with, drunk, in a long time who he'd like to spend more time with. Sarah becomes slightly obsessed with the mystery, and shares her theories with Hall, but she's prickly and hard to get to know.
Sarah has her own issues to contend with. There's the ugly truth of her breakup with Jake, her heavy drinking and her growing fear that she's a violent person. Her opinion of herself is sinking, especially after she wakes up on Boxing Day morning in the sand, lying in a pool of vomit with her fly undone and the last thing she can remember is picking up seventeen-year-old Sam Shelley and letting him have a drink. She doesn't know what happened but she fears the worst, and she fears the others in the bay finding out - especially his clingy mother, Simone, an American woman who runs a successful furniture business and has the only posh, new beach "shack" in the area.
There aren't many suspects in such a small area, but both Hall and Sarah contemplate them all while the community turns on itself, tensions run high and Roger is targeted. These are people Sarah's known all her life; what will she do with the truth when she learns it?
Mystery novels are not my usual fare - it's one of the few genres I don't generally read, with the exception of a few literary mysteries like this one, from time to time - so I can't really compare this to anything else. However, I absolutely love reading books set in my home state, and Poppy Gee hasn't written some bland generic novel here. Her debut is intelligent, literary, nuanced and deeply embedded in the local scenery. It touches on a range of issues, prominent among them the environment and environmental practices, fishing infringements, sensationalising media, scapegoating (especially of defenceless, vulnerable individuals who perhaps suffer from an intellectual disability of some kind), the appropriation of Aboriginal lands by white graziers, the ethics and morals around sound reporting, alcoholism, violence, marital woes, sexism, feminism and judgemental women. That might seem like a long list, but it all comes out through the narrative with natural ease.
I really enjoyed Sarah as a character. She was a woman in her thirties struggling with the decisions she'd made, struggling to understand what kind of person she was and whether she even liked herself. She was intelligent but moody, a bit of a hard-arse who really, secretly, wanted to be loved and cared for by a man she could respect and be an equal to, but she doesn't know how to open up. So used is she to working with - and being the boss of - all-male crews, and absorbing the sexism and crude opinions that come with them, that she's quite the opposite of girly-girl Erica. Sarah is athletic and very strong, and because she doesn't dress up or wear make-up or make her hair pretty, she's been mistaken as a lesbian more than once.
Hall seems an unlikely partner for Sarah, at first. He's no alpha-male, no macho Aussie bloke. He's a good reporter saddled with a bad editor, he's smart and not unattractive, but after his girlfriend of many years left him for his best friend, he's been unable to have meaningful relationships with any woman - and not interested in it either. He drinks, too, and smokes, and his driving made me cringe, but I really liked him. He seemed so down-to-earth, honest, not pretentious or posturing. Both Hall and Sarah are misfits in their small universes, suffering from insecurities and a lack of confidence, and I couldn't help think that they'd be great together - if they could give up their silly insecurities.
The mystery side of the story played out nicely, albeit slowly. This is a mystery narrative that revolves around the characters, getting to know them, learning and then unlearning them as new evidence comes to light. It's the kind of mystery that is designed to make you suspect almost all the characters at one point or other. The actual truth would have been anti-climactic but was made more interesting by the ethical and moral dilemma it threw up at Hall and Sarah.
Because I don't generally read mystery or crime or thriller novels, I can't really give you a sense for how successful it was as a mystery-suspense novel, only as a literary novel. I can say that there were a few scenes that were nicely creepy, some that were full of tension that would come out of nowhere and unsettle you nicely. While I did find that the plot was at times a little slow and uneventful, for a literary mystery-suspense story, it worked quite well and at a more intellectual level. Gee unwound the story of Sarah's Queensland disgrace slowly, letting readers balance the new information with a growing sense of Sarah as a person, which enables her to remain a sympathetic character.
The landscape itself was the strongest element to the whole book. The descriptions of the location where vivid and realistic, and peopled as it was with distinctly Australian characters, the world of Bay of Fires came vibrantly to life - which is what you want when your mystery novel depends on the interactions between the characters to maintain both the mystery and the suspense. While at times Gee's language was a little awkward and slowed me down, there were also some really beautiful lines as well, like "At the bar, a flannelette row of farm workers peered from beneath caps." [p.158] Gee's love for the real Bay of Fires Conservation Area (which does not, in reality, have a campground or guest house or shop as it does in the novel, only some shacks) comes across strongly, and the novel carries with it a real sense of place.
The mystery of the two missing women is loosely based (inspired, but not a recreation of) two real-life cases: the disappearance of German woman Nancy Grundwaldt in 1993 and the death of Italian Victoria Cafasso in 1995, tourists to the Bay of Fires whose cases were never solved - though in 2011 a retired police officer came out publicly with information on the Grundwaldt case. In a place like Tasmania, with its peaceful, beautiful scenery and small, half-a-million population, the two cases gripped everyone's imaginations and are yet to be forgotten. In this way, too, Poppy Gee's novel will resonate with Australian readers at a more personal level.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, which I read as a literary novel more than a mystery - the mystery propels the story forward but it is the stylistic writing and the incredibly well-captured characters that keep you reading. It's gritty and realistic, and any time you add sinister tensions to a scenic landscape, you're going to get a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. There aren't many stories set in Tasmania, and in general, Australian authors seem overly conscious of the "cultural cringe" and avoid that sense of familiarity with location that, conversely, American authors embrace so whole-heartedly. Personally, I love reading stories set in places I recognise, and have lived in. Gee incorporated plenty of local sites and landmarks and places, without a trace of the dreaded cultural cringe, and for that I thank her. I'm very interested in what Poppy Gee writes next, because she's a talent to watch out for.
On a side note, I was a bit put-off by something about this book: this is an Australian writer, the story is set here, my edition was published in the UK, and yet the spelling is American. It was very jarring to read "color", "harbor", "tire" and so on, when everything else was so distinctly Australian. A pet peeve of mine.(less)
Sarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and,...moreSarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and, sometimes, death, but growing up in the 80s, Sarah knows it's home and doesn't think of the future much. Her older brother Cameron will inherit, according to the family patriarch, her grandfather Angus Gordon. Angus has inherited his own father's determination and arrogance, and doesn't see his own son, Sarah's father Ronald, a worthy successor. But Angus is a meddler, and when he hires Anthony - first as a jackaroo and later as station manager - he already plans for him and Sarah to marry, to keep it all in the family.
And then tragedy strikes: young Cameron is killed while riding his horse, and Sarah learns he was only her half-brother. Her mother, Sue, had an affair with a wool grader. It doesn't change her love for Cameron, but her mother seems to hate her and she feels like even her grandfather considers her second-best and not worthy of Wangallon. Angus is determined to pass the station down to a Gordon, and her brother wasn't even a real Gordon! Having finished high school, Sarah leaves Wangallon for life in Sydney as a photographer, where she meets Jeremy, a yuppy accountant who offers her a very different way of life.
But her grandfather calls her back to the station time and again, even after her parents pack up and move to the Gold Coast. It's just Angus and Anthony on Wangallon now, and Angus lays out his plans for Sarah: she can inherit Wangallon, but she has to move back to the land and marry Anthony. His heavy-handed, dictatorial approach only alienates her further, and Sarah's convinced Anthony knows all about it and doesn't trust her attraction to him, or his to her. She doesn't know her own heart, and baulks at the idea of moving back to Wangallon if only because her grandfather demands it. It will take more than a directive from Angus to clear up the doubt and anguish in Sarah's heart.
Alongside Sarah's story, which takes place between the years 1982 and 1987, is the story of Wangallon Homestead itself, which is the story of her great-grandfather, Hamish Gordon. Having left Scotland in anger with his younger brother Charlie following in 1854, he ends up in the gold fields of Victoria, struggling to strike it rich. After his brother dies, Hamish embarks on a new plan: to steal a lot of sheep (a common enough occurrence), establish his own farm and become a big landowner. His plan includes marrying Rose, a young woman in the nearby small town in New South Wales, but their marriage is a cold, unfriendly one and they never see eye-to-eye. It is a hard life, in rural Australia in the mid-1800s, and it takes its toll on Rose, while Hamish has his eye on a girl he saw once in Sydney.
It is Rose's story as much as it is Hamish's and Sarah's, a story about the deep connections forged between individuals and the unique Australian land, shaped by humans but never conquered. It is a story about love and loyalty, about belonging, identity, and following the heart.
It is partly my own fault that I struggled with this novel, and partly the novel's fault for being a bit sluggish. I had just arrived back in Australia after nearly eight years overseas, and was eager to try a Rural Romance. I'd seen plenty of them reviewed on other blogs, and they have very distinctive covers - covers just like this one. And when I read the blurb, I read it through a "rural romance" lens, and ended up misinterpreting it. This is a case of a book misrepresenting itself, and it all comes down to the cover. Covers not only serve to catch the eye; they also give browsers a quick, instant genre label. Every genre has its own style, and while the styles change over the decades, and there's room for movement within a style, they still scream "ROMANCE!" or "FANTASY!" or "YA!" or "MYSTERY-THRILLER!" and so on. Even literary, or general fiction, books abide by this, and you'll have noticed that books that publishers think will appeal more to women readers have covers that they think will appeal more to women (the downside being that men will never pick up the book). So this book has a Rural Romance cover, and that's what I thought I was getting: a romance, set in rural Australia.
The setting is correct, but this isn't a romance. It's fiction, a blend of contemporary and historical. It's also long - too long - and rather slow. While Alexander successfully conjures up the setting, especially Australia in the 1860s, the 1980s was too often a messy, vague picture in my head. I found the writing to be a bit weak at times, especially in Sarah's chapters. The story was much stronger in the 1860s setting, for some reason. I was much more invested in Hamish and Rose's story than I was in Sarah's. Hamish was a bit of a scary character, and I totally felt for Rose, who was separated from her daughter Elizabeth and who struggled with loneliness and depression on Wangallon Homestead. Hers is a tragic story, but while Hamish's side of the story helped explain Angus, the son he had when he was rather old, Rose's story doesn't really add anything to Sarah's.
I never came to like Sarah very much. In fact, I never really understood her. She was one of those frustratingly stubborn heroines who would get the bit between the teeth and that was it. There was no chemistry between her and Jeremy, and none between her and Anthony. Anthony was one of the most likeable characters in the whole story, if perhaps the only likeable character. But he's not very well developed, there isn't much to his character aside from being a good station manager.
There's quite a lot going on in this story, which concentrates around family dynamics, the mistakes of the past and lost love. Sue, Sarah's grumpy mother, has a fair bit in common with Rose, but aside from the characters feeling reasonably realistic and true to life, I never felt particularly empathetic with any of them. I even had trouble remembering some of their names - and there aren't many characters to remember. Sarah's trip to Scotland towards the end of the novel was a bit messy and slipped into cliché-land, and didn't add much to Sarah's character at all. I found her hollow and confusing. I never understood what her problem was, really, because she was never able to reflect on it, articulate it or show it. It was all rather frustrating.
Where the story is strongest is, as I mentioned, in the chapters set in the 1800s, Rose and Hamish's story. It's quite dark at times, and there's a palpable sense of tension and even a brooding kind of threat in the air. Hamish is rather merciless and ruthless and doesn't stop at having people killed to serve his own ends. The period settling is recreated convincingly and realistically. I found it a bit implausible that Angus would be Hamish's son, not because Hamish would be incapable of having a kid in, what, 1901? when he was in his 70s perhaps? But because his wife would have been too old, especially in those days. The dates and ages didn't quite add up, a niggling detail that bothered me throughout. Maybe, instead of the 1980s, Sarah should have been growing up a couple of decades earlier, and Angus born earlier.
While the history of Wangallon and Hamish's story added a bit of depth to Sarah's story, Sarah's story added nothing to Hamish and Rose's story. I found Sarah's story to be slow, long-winded, and rather dull. She's a self-indulgent sort of character, and that's a big put-off for me. For a debut novel, The Bark Cutters is rather ambitious and only half-successful; it doesn't make me inclined to read the next book in the Gordon family saga, A Changing Land - the story of Wangallon is quite interesting, but I've had enough of Sarah. (less)
A contemporary retelling of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I Take You introduces readers to blonde waif Connie Carven, once a model and now th...moreA contemporary retelling of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I Take You introduces readers to blonde waif Connie Carven, once a model and now the dutiful trophy wife to an aggressively successful American banker, Cliff. After a youth of unsatisfying sexual encounters with men who never tried to awaken her, Connie finds herself married to a man she can't even stand kissing. But after his horrific skiing accident leaves him paralysed from the waist down, Connie submits herself further to the role of submissive wife by sharing her dormant desires with Cliff, opening the door to a new and more sexually exciting relationship - as long as Connie believes in her role in it.
Yet her newfound love for her husband is a façade that begins to crumble after he pushes their dominant-submissive relationship a step too far, and emptiness fills Connie. It isn't until she sees the new gardener in the communal garden of her home in London's Notting Hill that something comes alive in her. Mel is a seemingly taciturn, aloof man, separated from his wife and wishing nothing more than to be left alone. His first impression of Connie is replaced by one of concern and growing love after he sees what her husband has done to her, and their illicit relationship sets Connie free.
Or does it? She is still the wife of a dominant, domineering man who, now more than ever, needs to retain control over everything in his sphere of influence - especially his wife. Connie's presence by his side is not something he's willing to lose; and Connie has little experience fending for herself or living a life of low income. Can she find the courage to make a new life for herself? Can she find the courage to realise what she really wants in life, and give herself permission to grab hold of it?
Forbidden love. Repressed desire. A coming-of-age fairy-tale. The interesting thing about this retelling of Lawrence's classic novel is how it starts. Gemmell turns the current popularity for dominant-submissive, sexual-awakening stories on its head by presenting a couple who have already established such a relationship, and then drawing the heroine away from it. Unlike other erotic-based novels, in which the female narrators discover their own latent desires and then find the courage to explore them and express themselves in positive ways, we meet Connie in what seems like such a relationship, but which slowly dissolves into a different kind of repression.
Instead of Connie suppressing her submissive desires, she has embraced them for the sake of her relationship with her husband, Cliff. She has unconsciously recognised in him the need for control, for keeping up a particular appearance that will benefit him in his work; and in herself, a self-sacrificing element to her personality that ensures she will martyr herself - both to prove his family wrong in their judgement of her as a gold-digger, and to prove to herself that she made the right decision in marrying him.
Her cage and she has constructed it, of course. With her obedience, her compliance, her truth. Cliff continues reading the paper, lost in his mergers. Connie now gazing out the window, thinking of Picasso, how he said that all women were goddesses or doormats and if they weren't doormats at the start of the relationship then he'd do his level best to crack them into it. Herself? She's never been any threat. It's why his tight, moneyed family likes her, she knows that. One of those sweet ones who will not rock the boat; a pleaser, primed for a rubbing out; instinctively his family of strong women recognized it despite the slight niggle of a gold-digger, she can sense it; but she's sure they're like that with anyone who comes into their fold. [p.75]
She's allowed herself to be subsumed by Cliff and is torn between the genuine excitement and thrill and sensual pleasure she gets from their new sexual relationship - not to mention the first orgasms she's ever had - and a new feeling of coldness, rawness, of being "skinned by her husband." She's lost herself and is only now realising it.
Cliff wants to participate with an observer's coolness, wants others to admire, covet. Draws power from envy and adulation; is smooth with it, silvery with his thatch of greying hair, buoyant. Has always seen his hedge fund clients as objects rather than people - fools, sops, muppets - and Connie wonders how far this extends into other areas of his life.
To her it means almost nothing except that she gives herself to him, as the good wife. It is a kind of love, what he allows her to do now; no, it is love, she tells herself. Generosity of spirit, finally, yes; to be fulfilled by other men. The small price to pay: that he be allowed to watch. Control, yes, always that, for he is a controlling man. Pure head, no belly, no heart. And she is his adornment, his most beautiful trinket, her pliancy and servitude his triumph. [p.81]
It's been many years since I read Lady Chatterley's Lover - a class at university, though I can't remember which one - and I wasn't terribly impressed at the time. A bit obvious, I found it; can't help that dose of presentism sometimes. But I really don't remember it well, so I can't give any kind of proper comparison or analysis in that respect. Yet, the symbolism is present and correct, and still obvious. Cliff: moneyed, controlling, abhorring of nature, children, all things untamed and out of his control. Tight, heartless, cold, all those adjectives that position him clearly in the mechanical spectrum.
Contrast Cliff with Mel, the gardener, who is posited as "a real man". Not afraid to get his hands dirty, lives amongst the plants and trees and weather, understands the true patterns of life and death. Has no money, possibly not much education, but is everything Cliff is not. He represents nature. Connie, meanwhile, has been dazzled by wealth and glitz, comfort and ease, but has lost her soul in the process. Her shift back to reality, to the natural world and the path to discovering her real self, is a journey akin to many other fables that position the modern, industrial world as the antithesis, or enemy even, to the natural one. It's not original, no; it's as old as industry itself. So where does Gemmell break free of the tropes and make her own mark?
Possibly, it's in the language. Gemmell's prose - written in third-person present tense (and we all know that the use of present tense is a pet peeve of mine these days) - is both lyrical and poetic, but also oddly awkward and at times even jarring. You could say it is reflective of Connie's life and journey itself, but I'm never convinced that it's all that consciously done (in the past I've been impressed by McCarthy's The Road and Saramago's Blindness, applauding their prose as artistically creative and reflective of the nature of the stories themselves, only to discover afterwards that those authors always write like that - so I've learned not to give authors too much credit, sadly).
There were passages that I loved, lines that spoke volumes and that grasped the heart of the matter. At other times the prose style seemed almost an obstacle to real understanding, character development and a kind of integrity that stories like this need in order to feel grounded. I Take You never quite planted its feet firmly on the ground; it always seemed to float in way that gave it a daydreaming quality, a lack of realism even. But there were also great insights, not just into human nature but into the wider worlds of art, storytelling and truth. This one gave me pause for thought:
Are all female narratives of empowerment narratives of escape? [p.197]
I Take You began strongly, with a great sense of atmosphere, suspense and that thrill of uncertainty that invigorates the reading experience: you assume things that turn out not to be true, and you have to reassess quite often in the first, oh, hundred pages. But the drawn-out ending lacked a sense of oomph. The mystery was gone, the thrill and eroticism completely vanished, and it ends up a simple narrative of "will she won't she" leave Cliff. My interest in Connie - as a person, as a woman trying to write her own narrative after years of living someone else's - waned. In truth, she reminded me rather vividly of a Christine Feehan-esque insipid romantic heroine. She is bland, not just lacking in strength of character but in personality as well. She ended up Cliff's beautiful but simple wife because she really is simple. She comes across as frighteningly naïve, and while it's true that the story wouldn't quite work if she wasn't, it still makes it a little, well, dull.
There are strong, important and interesting themes in this novel, but for me their impact was overshadowed by the plot, the under-developed characters, even the prose, which was hit-and-miss for me. Each short chapter is prefaced by a quote from Virginia Woolf, and the one thing Gemmell did succeed with here, was to make me want to tackle Woolf again and see if age, experience, maturity and so on, would give me a better experience with her work than I had at university. The fact that my final thoughts on this novel centre around a completely different author will tell you that I didn't find I Take You as satisfying as I'd hoped, but I did find it thought-provoking and while I didn't love it, it has its merits.(less)