Win a copy of The Great Unknown

Good Reading Magazine is running a competition to win one of 10 copies of The Great Unknown. Click here to go to the website. The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This collection of strange and spooky stories was perfect reading for the lazy week between Christmas and New Year, providing a dark antidote to the forced cheeriness of the season … Contributors to the anthology were invited to write about the fantastical, uncanny, absurd, or, as editor Angela Meyer  notes, ‘even just the slightly off’ … While the nineteen stories are diverse in style and content, this shared focus on the strange gives the anthology a pleasing coherence that many collections of short fiction lack … The combined effect of the pieces … reminded me of the pleasures of those puzzling and troubling moments in life, and in fiction, when logic is defied and image and association are required instead.

– Rachel Roberston Australian Book Review March, 2014.

The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’

Women’s reading challenge rankings

I had high hopes for my participation in this challenge. I wanted to read Handfasted by Catherine Helen Spence and other 19th Australian women writers but, in the end, I ran out of time. Cravenly I included tiny novellas like Puberty Blues and The Bay of Noon in my ten novels. I even included The Villa of Death, which is by an Australian writer but set in England, and has Daphne du Maurier as the sleuthing heroine!

Here’s my list from favourite to least favourite:

  1. A Kingdom by the Sea – Nancy Phelan (Wonderful account of childhood around The Spit in Sydney in the 1920s and 30s; it is a bygone era beautifully evoked)
  2. Tirra Lirra by the River –  Jessica Anderson (perceptive novel about ageing and looking back over life; I loved spending time with Anderson’s witty and sardonic narrator)
  3. The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard (Quintessentially of its time, the fifties/sixties; an intelligent but naïve young English woman finds herself drawn to the lives of a worldly Italian couple; philosophical and beautifully written)
  4. The Engagement – Chloe Hooper (Very clever Gothic thriller with psychological edge: I love it when Australian writers do this sort of thing well)
  5. Fortress – Gabrielle Lord (Suspenseful account of a school teacher and her class kidnapped by a gang of violent youths, has a great touch in portraying the relationship between the children and, our heroine, their teacher, coupled with clever plot twists)
  6. Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker (Falls between the two stools of a memoir of surviving cancer and literature appreciation; but clear, effective writing and intelligent, perceptive thoughts, redeem it)
  7. The Villa of Death – Joanna Challis (No deathless prose but Daphne du Maurier as the heroine is an entertaining character, the setting of a thinly-disguised Manderley is interesting, the mystery plot ticks away and it is fun guessing links to the real du Maurier’s life and novels)
  8. We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gun (Glad I read this work about a NT cattle station at the end of the 19th century for a particular portrayal of outback life, but it is a series of sketches rather than a novel)
  9. Butterfly Song – Terri Janke (Very readable novel that melds the contemporary life of an indigenous student with a mystery set in the Torres Strait in the 1940s)
  10. Puberty Blues – Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette (a disappointment after the wonderful television series).


Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker

The tag line to Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight is how books saved a life. I wonder why she chose to include this because it at once requires too much of books and also quite the wrong thing. Perhaps it is one way to flag to the reader that this is a book about the threat of mortality, not the romantic sweetness that ‘reading by moonlight’ suggests.

It is also not surprising that a literature academic would see her illness, in this case breast cancer, through the prism of fiction. For me, I picked up this book, to read an intelligent woman’s account of her brush with disease, and this disease in particular. One in four women will get breast cancer at some stage in her life, so a lot of us will have to face what Brenda Walker did.

There are, of course, descriptions of getting the diagnosis and her treatment of surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is honest, and eloquent, about her fear of death. However the medical side is pushed to the background as if it is too painful to dwell there, or that readers would soon tire of too forensic a treatment. Instead Walker looks at literature and what she might find there to shine light on her experience, what might enrich our understanding of the vicissitudes of life.

All reading is a matter of taste and the works Walker includes to write about in detail are personal favourites of hers, or works that she can use to illustrate an idea. I did find the connection between many of the books to Walker’s experience of illness at times difficult to discern, or tenuous. They are hugely diverse – from Poe, to Tolstoy, Patrick White to Philip Roth. And there is a lot on Samuel Becket, a favourite of Walker’s. I found it hard to believe that anyone would choose Malone Dies as their book of choice for a hospital stay!

I did enjoy Walker’s discussion of The Tale of Genji and White’s Voss interesting, but others I found less enthralling.

That said, I enjoyed reading Moonlight. Walker’s style if crisp, studied, but also easy to read. The book reminded me, not that books can save a life, but the study of books within, or without, a tertiary institution certainly enhances your life. Walker, herself, explains what books mean to her:

When I tell myself that books can save a life, I don’t mean that books can postpone death. That is the job of medicine. I mean that certain books, by showing us the inner fullness of the individual life, can rescue us from a limited view of ourselves and others.

Reading reminds me that we are not so singular after all, that there are crowds, whole populations, in the stack of books at the end of my table. Some of these people will trouble me, some will appear in thoughts and dreams, and they will all still be here … when my own books are out of print, when my writing table is just another chipped piece of furniture at a clearing sale.


This is the final of my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge 2012. There will be another one next year – a great initiative to support women writers in this country. (See link in sidebar). 

The Engagement – Chloe Hooper

Liese Campbell is on a working holiday in Australia at her uncle’s real estate firm: she shows clients around fancy apartments to rent. One day in a crazy-brave spur of the moment decision she seduces a client, wealthy farmer Alexander Colquhoun, in one of the empty apartments. Maybe because he acts surprised at this, but is also willing, after the act she asks him to pay.

This is the premise The Engagement is based on. If you’re prepared to go with it, as I was, then you’re in for a tense, psychological thriller. The novel is basically a two hander – between Liese and Alexander – as the power in the relationship shifts from one to the other and back again.

The reader is given the backstory of how the two met and Liese’s background in England, but the novel starts with Alexander driving Liese from the station to his remote property for their first weekend away together. Liese has misgivings from the beginning about moving their relationship out of the artificial fantasy of meeting in other people’s apartments, but she’s about to leave Australia and the money Alexander is paying her for the weekend is more than welcome.

But as the car moves through the landscape and finally pulls up in front of the crumbling pile that is Alexander’s inheritance things take a more and more gothic hue. The weekend becomes a psychological cat and mouse game between the two protagonists. The reader sees things through Liese’s focalisation so we are initially sympathetic to her, but things are not that simple. Is Alexander just lonely, mistaking sex for love? Is Liese emotionally damaged in some way, seeing threats where none exist?

As I read this novel I kept thinking of Daphne Du Maurier thrillers like Rebecca or Don’t Look Now where the reader is never sure who to believe, although I found Hooper’s work darker and more claustrophobic.

I loved the nuance of this book and the twists and turns; it’s the hallmark of an accomplished writer that she can convince the reader to believe one thing and then a few pages later almost its opposite. Couple this with some very effective writing and you have a potent thriller that builds to an almost hysteric, deeply disturbing conclusion.

Out the truck windows there was chaos on either side, the vegetation dense and scrappy. We rushed past bursts of brilliant yellow wattle, bushes with bristling pod-like extrusions, the bulbous pigmy trees erupting in countless long green spikes – plants all designed in a radical workshop. Nowhere in England would you move so fast from pastoral land into vast, wild disorder.

Butterfly Song – Terri Janke

Terri Janke was an indigenous woman in her thirties when she published Butterfly Song in 2005. Like her heroine, Tarena, Janke also studied law in Sydney in the early 90s and is of mixed Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage, so it’s probably safe to say many events in the novel follow Janke’s own life.

But what makes this novel different from a coming-of-age indigenous girl makes good story, is the device of telling the story around the fate of a pearl-shell brooch carved on Thursday Island and given to the carver’s lover, and which then turns up forty years later for sale in a Cairns antique shop.

Tarena has just finished her law degree when she’s asked by her mother, Lily, to run a case of misappropriation against the purported owner, and the shop. Lily has recognised the brooch as one owned by her late mother, Francesca and carved by her father, Kit, who died when Lily was a little girl.

Moving between TI, Cairns and Sydney and covering fifty years, or so, Janke introduces us to the love affair of Francesca and Kit, Lily and her brother Tally’s young life in Cairns, Tarena’s childhood and her life as a law student.

Some of these strands are more interesting than others. The scenes of pearl diving and life on TI in the 40s, and life in Queensland for indigenous people in the 50s, were interesting for me, but I found the scenes of student life in the 80s fairly bland.

Music, songs, frangipani trees and the ocean soften the reality of racism and the harshness of some aspects of the characters’ lives.

Throughout, Janke uses the brooch motif to weave all the threads together, and the courtroom scene where the ownership of the brooch is determined is suitable tense and moving.

Butterfly Song is an easy read and I appreciated getting an insight into the life of indigenous people in the Torres Strait and Queensland.

As a footnote, Janke was named NAIDOC person of the year in 2011: she’s now a well-known and successful lawyer specialising in indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights.

The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard

As you can see from the cover I bought this novel many years ago. I would have been attracted by the title and by the setting – Naples. I must have started reading it and found it not to my taste. Looking for something (OK, I admit it – shortish) for the Australian women writers’ reading challenge, I plucked it off my shelf and attacked it anew – only twenty years on the ‘to read’ pile.

I know why I didn’t like it first time around: the prose is difficult and mannered, cerebral and artistic, rather than rich and evocative. It reminds me of Henry James or Patrick White, two writers I’ve never warmed to. Another writer that Hazzard reminds me of is Iris Murdoch with her distancing, clever prose and forensic character analysis. I can’t say I loved this novel but I think Hazzard is up there with Murdoch.

The actual plot of The Bay of Noon is pretty thin. It’s the 1950s and a young woman, Jenny, takes up a job to translate a report at a military base near Naples. Before leaving England she gets a letter of introduction from an actor acquaintance to a woman in Naples who has something to do with films. Immediately she meets her, Jenny feels at home with Giaconda and strikes up a friendship. Jenny is introduced to Giaconda’s married lover, Gianni, a film director from Rome. Meanwhile Jenny is compelled into a friendship with another expat, Justin, a Scottish scientist working in Naples.

With these characters in play, nothing much happens on the surface but it is the undercurrents of love, need, jealousy and betrayal that Hazzard is interested in. If the words ‘love, need, jealousy’ sound trite they are anything but in Hazzard’s hands. The characters, especially Giaconda and Gianni, are too sophisticated, or perhaps too damaged, to reveal themselves easily, and Jenny, from whose focalisation the story is told, is both brutally honest, and something of an innocent.

When I first bought this novel, Naples would have sounded terribly exotic: sun-bleached cliffs, blue bays, Pompeii – but having been there in the interval, I can now appreciate the characters’ ambivalence about it. Hazzard notes how there is really only one open civic square in the whole city; the rest is enclosed, narrow lanes, humanity piled on top of each other. Giaconda lives on the top floor of an old apartment block on one such lane while Jenny escapes the claustrophobia by renting a small apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples, (hence ‘the bay of noon’) affordable because of the difficulty of access.

There isn’t a lot of description of the city in this novel and what there is is certainly not postcard perfect. As with the characters, Hazzard is restrained, detailed and oblique.

I may not have loved this novel but I am glad that I read it; it reads like a classic, by that I mean, a guiding intelligence conveyed through masterful hands.

Puberty Blues – novel versus screen

I loved the recent TV series of Puberty Blues on Channel 10 and prompted by this decided to read the original book by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette. The novel was published in 1979 about the authors’ time as 13 year-old wannabe surfie chicks in Sutherland shire in 1973.

I remember the book was a sensation at the time and I vaguely remember a certain amount of disapproval. This normally would have sent me out to beg, borrow or buy a copy, but I didn’t – probably because I was scathing of surfing culture having spent some of my formative years in a beachside suburb in Newcastle.

I wonder what I would have made of the book at the time? I wouldn’t have been shocked; the carryings on were pretty familiar even if I wasn’t in the ‘bad girls’ gang of underage sex and regular drug taking. All the same, I guess I would have read it avidly, empathising with the girls.

But all these years later, and having seen the TV series, I was surprised that the book has none of the appeal of the TV show: no ravishing mise-en-scene (description), no sympathetic complex characters, nothing, in fact, beyond the closed world of the two teenage girl principals.

The book’s strength, on the other hand, is that it portrays a sociological snapshot of a particular subculture at a particular time. It is like reading a teenager’s diary with its preoccupation with friends, boyfriends, appearance and going out. That the authors were so young when they wrote it meant they could capture that claustrophobic, limited world where you’re still dependent on your parents yet you live in a tribal reality with your group.

But for an adult reader it is pretty dull and unrewarding. The traditional YA novel usually has a sensitive loner at its heart, someone who looks on the world they inhabit with fresh eyes and an understanding beyond their years (the gap between the adult writing the book and the teenager they are ‘inhabiting’).

Puberty Blues, the novel, doesn’t have this. The main character, Deb, merely narrates in a deadpan fashion her daily life as she and her friend Sue infiltrate the ‘cool’ kids gang and then have to drink, have back-of-the van sex and sit on the beach watching the guys surf. Deb is mildly ironic and this helps make the whole palatable but she is not, for the most part, reflective or critical – unlike in the TV series where Deb and Sue rescue Frieda who is regularly gang-banged by the boys, in the book, Deb thinks, ‘well, that’s what happens when you’re fat and ugly and can’t get a boyfriend’.

In the book Deb and Sue are fairly indistinguishable but in the TV series the writers (Tony McNamara, Fiona Seres and Alice Bell) present two distinct individuals – Sue more confident and sensible, Deb, flighty, imaginative and sensitive. In the book the parents hardly figure, while the TV series created a rich portrayal of 70s sexual experimentation, gender roles and social strictures. The two worlds in the series, the parents and the teenagers, play off each other giving a context to why the kids act the way they do, lending the viewer a much more nuanced, involving experience than that of the book.

It was interesting to see all those parents in flares, clogs and caftans: I guess some parents must have, and let’s face it, in those days, a teenager’s parents were probably only in their early thirties. My mother, I’m sure, was more like conservative teacher, Claudia Karvan, with her A-line skirts and belted-at-the-waist dresses, no trousers, no jeans (yes, young ones, there was a time where it was frowned on for women to wear pants). But, I have to say, I paid no attention to what my mother wore in the 70s. I was like Deb and Sue – the ‘olds’ didn’t exist.

I also take my hat off to the stylists in the TV show – I had the exact same horoscope poster on my wall that Deb had – however, apropos of the flares in the scene from the show above, Carey and Lette make it clear that the girls’ only ever wore straight-leg Levis!

Fortress – Gabrielle Lord

This is one of those books I missed reading as a young person. I remember it being referred to as confronting and a thriller, but also a children’s book. As far as I was concerned being Australian and a kids’ book, I was unlikely to read it (I missed out on so much through my youthful prejudices!).

Six years after its initial publication in 1980 it was made into a film starring, Rachel Ward.No wonder the novel was adapted for the screen: it’s tight and suspenseful.

Sally teaches at a one teacher school in an isolated town. The school day starts with Sally getting ready and reflecting on her personal situation (billeted out to stay with local families, thinks she might be pregnant from a one night stand, despite all the difficulties she wants to see her posting through). Immediately the reader is drawn to Sally: she’s smart, a bit cynical, amusing and, although she’s tough, she also has self-doubts.

When Sally arrives at the school house, she organises the little kids into a reading group in the yard while the older ones start cleaning up the classroom preparatory to the inspector coming the next day. Like all good horror the ordinary has to be established before the scary things begin. We don’t get much ordinary, though, before four men wearing comic masks and carrying sawn off shotguns appear, and it all begins.

Lord uses a very small canvas: Sally and her class of twelve are kidnapped, taken away in a van and held in a cave. For the most part we stay with Sally and the kids and only know what they know, trying to piece together what’s happening and what the men want. The tension is ratcheted up nicely. The beauty is that Sally doesn’t only have to save herself, she has to save the kids – this means marshalling them, telling them only what they need to know, using the skills of the older ones and comforting and cajoling the young ones. She is effectively on her own having to

rely on her own resources but with the burden of the children restraining her.

Sally and the kids are tested to the limit but this is not a simple narrative. Again and again we think they are going to escape, only for them to be thwarted by the men, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. There is murder, there is violence, there is the threat of rape. Like The Lord of the Flies the children are not simply victims, they have agency like adults and the will to survive. Often I thought I had the measure of this book, only for Lord pull out an unexpected twist.

Fortress is a successful book. It was reprinted in 1988 after the film, then in 1998 and 2001. I read one reviewer who said they had read it in school in Year 9 – a writer knows they’ve made it when they’re on the school curriculum. There is also some discussion of whether it is a children’s book or not. It is probably what we would call now a ‘cross over’ novel; a book that can be read with enjoyment by both kids and adults, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Mister Pip, for example.

We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn

We of the Never Never is one of those Australian classics, I never got around to reading in my school years, thinking it would be too twee. How wrong was I. We of the Never Never was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a family story, they’d be children involved, it would cover the establishment of a station, that there would be trials and tribulations and Jeannie Gunn would grow to love the land and nature etc. etc. In fact, the novel does not read like a novel at all; it is basically a series of sketches written in an arch, comic, ironic style – reminiscent of what was printed in the newspapers of the time, or in the Bulletin.

The story starts with ‘the Missus’ (based on Jeannie Gunn herself) arriving at Katherine, having come from Darwin with her husband, on the way to Elsey Station where ‘the Maluka’ (a thinly disguised Aeneas Gunn) is the new manager. A white woman is unheard of ‘in the interior’ and the bush telegraph (the station men) makes it clear they don’t want any woman bringing her fussy ways. The dramatic tension rests on whether the Missus will make it or not. There are undoubted hardships, but the Missus first shows her pluck by agreeing to be winched across a swollen river, and not complaining about it. In fact, the Missus takes most things in good spirit and is not above mocking herself.

When they reach Elsey things are not much better and the ‘homestead’ is really an open frame with the verandah being the only thing that is covered. The men, though, are mighty surprised she’s turned up at all. That she is willing to put up with hardships, earns, if not respect, then at least, not open hostility. The strange thing is that the Missus has her husband there but he doesn’t seem interested in smoothing things out for her, or taking her side against the blokes. He makes jokes at her expense and looks on wryly when she has to face new trials. Most annoyingly of all, he likes t call her ‘little ‘un’ (apparently Jeannie Gunn was slight and only 5 feet tall). But the Missus takes it all in good humour and presents these early slights in an entertaining manner.

Before too long things look up a little. They get a Chinese cook, Cheon, who is a born organiser, their belongings finally come in by bullock team after the rivers have gone down, and Johnny, a rough carpenter starts to work on walls and a ceiling but this work is constantly interrupted by more important things like going out bush for branding or mustering.  Despite some little comforts, like sheets, things are extremely primitive. I was shocked that they thought it was perfectly all right to shoot enough wild birds to get feathers to makes some pillows (the billabong surrounds were, after all, thick with them, birds that is).

One of the most irritating characters is Dan who thinks it soft that anyone should want live in a house. He thinks the Missus needs educating and much is made of this ‘education’. Of course Jeannie Gunn makes it all sound so humorous: as the Missus is exposed to hardships, Dan chuckles – that’s educating her. Like women entering a male-dominated profession, the Missus has to become one of the boys, and there is nothing they do that she disapproves of, even dog fighting. The novel is really a paean of praise, to the bush folk i.e. bushmen.

Perhaps this makes it sound less sophisticated than it is. Jeannie Gunn is a talented writer who evokes well the environment she finds herself in, she has a comic ear and no one can doubt the verisimilitude of what she describes. There is a reason that this novel was a best seller and was revised for use in schools. I wonder what the kids thought of it, though. As far as I can see there’s not a lot that they’d be interested in – while there is drama in small scenes, wild bulls rampaging through a camp and scrambling up trees to escape them, for example, as a whole it is episodic with little unfolding story.

These days, it seems dated and reads like a piece of documentary about colonial life and early settlement of the interior of the Northern Territory. I have to say I found the treatment of the Chinese condescending and verging on racist. Gunn gets away with it with Cheon because he is such a great, larger-than-life character but the only quasi-villains in the whole book are some Chinese cattle buyers.

The treatment of Aboriginal people is also problematic although, I suppose, at least, they are a part of the tale and not excised from it – like the invisibility of Aboriginal people in much of the literature of the time. But I was shocked, totally, when one of the men mentions they need to go on a ‘nigger hunt’. Okay, it was not a massacre, just moving on some Aboriginal people from where they were camping along the river (no doubt on their own land) but the term must have held an echo of real violence to the men using it at the end of the 19th century. Gunn, in typical fashion, makes light of it and the Aboriginal people have left before the ‘hunting’ party gets there anyway. But today, it is hard not to feel a chill at that term used so casually in 1902 (and accepted in 1956).

In fact a paper written in 1990 by Peter Forrest about the settlement of the NT says that there were massacres of Aboriginal people in the Territory in 1903 (after Jeannie Gunn left) because they were accused of harassing and killing cattle that were being introduced to new areas. Forrest says: ‘According to strong oral tradition in the area, one of the ringleaders in these episodes was Jock MacLennon, the Sanguine Scot [one of the characters in the novel]’. I was also fascinated to read Forrest’s thesis that one of the reasons the men were so against white women coming to the stations was a fear they would interfere with the men’s sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women.*

Gunn’s narrative treatment of the ‘station blacks’ was probably enlightened for the day. She shows that they are part of the everyday life of the station – with the ‘boys’ being stockmen and the ‘lubras’ working in the house, or at least some of them – there is some comedy made of the competition between the women to get jobs in the homestead. There is a symbiotic relationship – the Aboriginal people get food and a place to live (in humpies in their own camp) and the station gets workers. Of course, the whites do not remotely question their right to the station, or to exploit Aboriginal people as workers. The Aboriginal people are seen as humorous, and childlike (although, I have to admit, so are many of the white people).

My edition of the novel, published in 1956, still had reference to the *n* hunt but I believe, in the recent reissue, this was expurgated which is a pity because it’s important to realise what attitudes were in 1908 when the book was first published, not to mention the whole issue of censoring literary works. I also understand the 1982 edition, which was published along with Gunn’s only other book, The Little Black Princess, also had these references edited out.

There is not a lot of description of the natural environment in the novel but what there is, is beautiful and evocative. Elsey station no longer stands but there is a replica at Mataranka in the NT and the quite stunning warm mineral pools Gunn describes below are still there in the national park (Elsey station was finally handed back to the Mangarayi people in 2000) – the water is preternaturally clear and, set among palms in the arid environment, they are truly as gem-like as Gunn paints them in the book:

Clear, beautiful, limpid … set in undulating field of emerald-green mossy turf, shaded with graceful foliage and gleaming in the sunlight with exquisite opal tints – a giant necklace of opals, set in links of emerald green, and thrown down at hazard, to fall in loops and curves within a forest grove.

* They of the Never Never, Northern Territory Library Service 1990