Australian Writer

Review: “The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley [1986]

The Well is a spine-tingling and deliciously sinister story in a non-traditional way. Set in the vast dry and dusty Australian countryside, the novel explores the relationship between the elderly Hester Harper and her young ward and companion Katherine, an orphan Hester has unofficially adopted one day.

“What have you brought me then?” …

“I’ve brought Katherine, father,” Miss Harper said … “But she’s for me.” – p. 10

For the lonely and isolated Hester, who also struggles with a lame leg, Katherine is the only companion or friend Hester has had in a long while. Having been alone with her father for most of her life on the desolated farm, with the exception of the family’s accountant, Mr Bird, and Hester’s one time governess, Hilde Herzfeld, Hester craves companionship.

From the beginning, there is an instant connection between Hester and Katherine and the bond only strengthens after Hester’s father dies. Now a free and relatively wealthy woman, Hester spoils Katherine and satisfies her every whim. Their lives descend into a slight hedonistic haze, giving themselves decadent and wasteful banquets every night,  going on shopping sprees and getting into the habit of drinking champagne with their cornflakes at breakfast. Katherine is flushed with life and Hester, never given the opportunity to quite live, is living through Katherine. Because of this, and somewhat due to her upbringing, Hester becomes quite possessive of Katherine. She holds contempt against Katherine’s only other friend who she writes to constantly, but not without Hester reading each and every letter first, and the two women eventually become extremely isolated when the main house is leased, and they to a small out-of-way cottage with a dried up well.

It is while Katherine, still learning, is driving recklessly the two women back home from a party on the dark and usually deserted road, that she hits something. When they decide to dump the creature into the unused well, it is when all their troubles begin and the relationship between Hester and Katherine begins to unravel when Katherine starts hearing a voice coming from the well.

This was a thrilling read and, while it is spine-tingling and sinister, it is unlike other any other thrillers. The Well focuses more on the psychological aspects of the sinister, of the emotionally deprived Hester and the somewhat blank and unformed Katherine. Their relationship bordered somewhat onto the homoerotic and as Jolley dangled them along the ledge, I was constantly reminded of another female relationship in a subsequent novel, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (which of course came after Jolley’s).

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Wheeler Centre Highlights: Helen Garner

This post is called ‘highlights’ because I have a ridiculous short term memory, especially when I’m giddy from being in close proximity to my writing idols who are rock stars in my geeky world, and because I don’t like taking notes at events.

This evening, I tripped along to the newly open Wheeler Centre for a session called ‘In Conversation with Jennifer Byrne: Helen Garner‘. The title suggests that it is part of a series and I certainly hope so although Jennifer already hosts a similarly titled series on the ABC to complement the First Tuesday Book Club she also hosts.

The session started off with microphone issues. I was somewhere in the middle of a quite small (and sterile looking, I must say) auditorium and there was difficulty hearing Jennifer’s questions. I felt sorry for the little old ladies sitting in front of me who were a little distressed at not being able to hear. I’ve never heard Helen’s voice and it was a very nice, soft lilt. She comes across quite harsh in her photos but her voice was very warm and kind. I never tire at being surprised by authors’ voices.

Highlights:

  • I couldn’t hear the question but Helen began to talk about coercion. She read out a paragraph by Philip Roth from the latest Paris Review so you can check it out if you’re interested. I think it was the last paragraph. She adores Philip Roth’s work.
  • Helen spoke a bit about her writing. She writes everyday, either in her journals or whatever she is working on. She’s always kept journals but, rather sadly, the ones before 1980 have been destroyed.
  • She loves going to court proceedings and wonders why more writers aren’t as interested, particularly for cases which concerns human morality (not the run-of-the-mill drugs and gangs). She’s gotten me all interested in going to court cases but I’m too afraid to simply show up to watch.
  • Currently, Helen’s in the middle of writing a non-fiction book on the Robert Farquharson case but it has been put on hold. Farquharson was found guilty in 2007 of murdering his three sons by driving the family car into a dam on Father’s Day in 2005. However, Farquharson was granted a re-trial which is starts in April 2010.
  • What Helen had to say about this case has really stayed with me. She recounts the 2009 summer where Melbourne went through a long heat wave and a devastating bush fire. She noted, in a wonderful expression that, unfortunately, I can’t remember, that the heat made people go mad and do crazy things. Helen recalls the day in January when four-year-old Darcy Freeman was thrown off the West Gate Bridge by her father. That day, Helen was driving her three grandchildren to the beach in the same area and consequently had to drive under the bridge during the time the girl was being resuscitated (although Helen didn’t know what was going on at the moment). With the three grandchildren acting up in the back of the car and the oppressing and stifling heat, what made that father snap, and what didn’t in Helen, was something very small indeed. It could have easily been anybody else.
  • What makes some people ‘snap’ and what holds others back is what fascinates Helen. Paraphrasing her words, ‘there are only 30 steps of difference between them and us’.

Helen then briefly talked about her other books – The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, and The Spare Room. She wryly quotes Simone de Beauvoir “I write so I will be loved” in response to the backlash she received when The First Stone was released.

It was a great evening. I started off writing this review in the formal manner and referred to both Jennifer and Helen by their last names but it felt so cold so I switched to their first names and now I sound like their best friend. Oh well. I’m still pulling my hair out at not being able to stay behind to get a book signed. Hopefully, there will be a next time. I always get incredibly nervous at book signings though – what do you say to them besides “I really, really, really liked your book/s/writing”? My alternative is to stand there and smile eagerly. 🙂

A Gala Night of Storytelling

Last night, I attended the opening session of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, of which I blogged about recently (ok, it was more like I boasted 🙂 ). The inaugural event was a good old storytelling session by a lovely mix of leading Australian writers, a comedian and a musician. I knew the event was sold out but I had absolutely no idea how many people or popular it was going to be. My friend and I were late but it didn’t matter since the line sneaked right around the corner and around 500 metres up the next block. Ironically, I ended up standing outside the antiquarian book store. I wished I had taken a photo of the line because it was pretty exciting to know how many book geeks were out there last night.

The theatre was a lovely room with bygone decor and architecture. Here are some photos I sneaked while waiting for the show to begin:

The mixture of stories told were marvelous and they were all equally captivating. Some were sad and wistful, as were the stories told by David Malouf about his mother and the simplicity and beauty of family love by Tara June Winch, who read out her piece in a most lovely sing-song and gentle voice.

There were funny stories by Cate Kennedy, who regaled the audience with funny anecdotes of her eccentric but lovable grandfather, Judith Lucy, whose family was not big on storytelling but, in turn, provided her with stories to tell, and John Safran, who told us that it was his father who first urged him to test the boundaries and to always …err…poke at things.

There were also stories with morals. John Marsden spoke about a recent incident which caused him to muse over consequences where the youth of today are not part of a community and are never, informally or formally, initiated into society as an ‘adult’. Christos Tsiolkas spoke about the alienation of migration, where grandchildren and grandparents become worlds apart and, in many instances, are no longer even able to speak the same language.

These were just some of the stories told and I was enraptured from the beginning. The finale song by Paul Kelly was both uplifting and sad, teaching, or warning, us about the importance of distinguishing between chance, fate and destiny.

It was a great night and a great welcome and introduction to the Wheeler Centre and christening of Melbourne as a City of Literature. Hurrah! For those who are interested in seeing the event, the session was filmed and it should be available to watch online soon.

It was also great to meet Elena, from With Extra Pulp, after some slight confusion, phone troubles (on my part) and chasing each other around the city on a Saturday night. We enjoyed a Booty Call and weird tasting vodka while talking about books and writing. 🙂

Review: “Things We Didn’t See Coming” by Steven Amsterdam [2009]

I rarely read novels set in a dystopian future with the only other I can remember being George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I find many inaccessible and, quite frankly, I’m not all too interested in reading about bleak futures. We’ll get there eventually. There’s no need to rush it forward. 🙂

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of vignettes set in the not too distant future. We follow an anonymous male from childhood where the world as we know it is on the brink of some catastrophic collapse on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day. This is not dissimilar from all the hype that surrounded the Y2K bug when everybody thought that everything would collapse due to computers being unable to recognise the year 2000. The narrator’s father packs up the family and heads to the relative safety of the country at the boy’s grandparent’s property. The boy’s father warns and apologises for the bleak future the boy is facing.

We are arrogant, stupid – we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us. What we call knowledge, what you learn in school about fossils and dinosaurs, it’s all hunches. What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We didn’t worry about the right things.

The future is a hospital, packed with sick people, packed with hurt people, people on stretchers in the halls, and suddenly the lights go out, the water shuts off, and you know in your heart that they’re never coming back on. That’s the future. – p. 22

We follow the boy through to the future as he grows up. As a teenager, it is clear the boy has lost his innocence, being a small time thief, and living in a fractured world. There is deep division between the city and country communities, both with advantages and disadvantages such as medicine and food. The boy’s parents have disappeared and he is being looked after, or rather looks after, his grandparents and attempts to escape back out into the country.

In another flash, the boy is grown up and working as a government official. The weather is a constant downpour of unrelenting rain and food is extremely scarce. Bark, rats and cushion stuffing make up some meals. Struggle for survival and struggles against the government officials is on-going for those who are still independent. Strange diseases are rife and part of the boy’s bargain for working as a government official is that he gets medicine.

In further flashes, the environment stabilises somewhat although disease is still prevalent. The boy experiences love but loses her somewhere along the line. At one stage, he works as a speech writer while embroiled in a menage-a-trois with his girlfriend and the politician he works for. Children and medication are particular scarce although medical treatment is readily available for those who have the right amount of money. Sound familiar?

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a very accessible and rather sad read. It shows the possible, and not so unrecognisable, future and leads us from our current environment into what might be. While the novel appears in a series of vignettes, this works especially well as we follow the boy from an innocent and recognisable childhood to a future filled with sickness and corruption. The ideas of our heavy reliance on industrialisation and unsustainable mass consumption, health care, heavy medication of the human body and climate and environmental change are some of the issues that underlies the stories.

You’ll have a clean slate, a world of opportunity, you’ll never look back. But nothing heals because, if you lose everything once, running becomes part of you and you’re always looking back. – p. 91

Review: “A Child’s Book of True Crime” by Chloe Hooper

I wished I really were a little girl. Little children can transform themselves from magic birds into flying strongmen. At play, children wear intense expressions and make a range of hero noises … running with their arms stretched straight ahead, the children become the most powerful and beautiful – the most super – people in the universe. – p. 19

Kate Byrne is a 22-year-old primary school teacher living alone in a sleepy, quiet town of Endport in Tasmania, Australia. She is having an affair with the father of one of her brightest pupils and whose wife has recently released a novel based on an unsolved crime in Endport of a young adulteress – Murder at Black Swan Point. With an vivid, and unnerving overactive imagination, Kate retells the unsolved crime through the eyes of a community of local animals which is interwoven with her narrative.

“Wally,” said Terence breathlessly. “Whatever has happened?”

“Oh dear!” sobbed the usually gruff wombat. “Poor Ellie Siddell …”

Terence raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” Wally murmured, slightly shamefaced, “I guess you’ve heard about her torrid personal life?” – p. 10

Ellie Siddell was the young assistant and lover to the local vet, Graeme Harvey, until she was brutally murdered, having been repeatedly stabbed in the face and chest. The most obvious culprit of the crime was Margot Harvey, Graeme’s wife, but she was never seen again after that night. Her car was found parked at the Suicide Cliffs and, although her body was never found, it is assumed Margot was the murderer.

As Kate becomes more paranoid about her affair being discovered, she increasingly begins to draw parallels between her life with Ellie Siddell’s. Kate further discovers clues that her lover’s wife knows, with strange late night phone calls to her house, an eerie scratching on her classroom door ‘I know’ and with her brakes tampered with, Kate fears for her life.

But Kate herself is an unusual character and an unreliable narrator. She is a teacher, an adult, but she is fascinated with the world of children and is almost a child herself. She asks her fourth-graders philosophical questions and it utterly rapt with their responses, particular her lover’s son’s replies. In some more slightly disturbing passages, she baby-talks to her lover.

Chloe Hooper’s debut novel is an amazing read. It reads like a hybrid of true crime fiction, a thriller, a children’s story and history. The plot is tightly written and consistently builds up the tension leaving you to constantly wonder how the story could possibly end? The downside to this is, of course, the ending might not reach people’s expectations. I thought it was slightly an anti-climatic ending and a little disappointed. However, this was a thrilling and extremely enjoyable read and I finished it in one sitting.

Review: “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas [2008]

At a suburban barbeque, where family and friends of Hector and Aisha have gathered, a misbehaving child is slapped by an unrelated man.

The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin…he saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight. – p. 40

And so begins the story. The novel is narrated through eight of the characters, of various ages, who were present at the barbeque. What transcends is an intricate detailing and commentary of modern suburban life. There is the idea of marriage and what it means: for the middle-aged couple, Hector and Aisha, whose marriage have become stalemate and both approaching their potential mid-life crisis; for Hector’s elderly father, a nice juxtaposition, once a hard done migrant from Greece who worked hard to raise a family who now ponders the meaning of life while watching the lives around him slowly dissipate.

There is also the questions of raising children, the idea of discipline and restraints and what it means to be a parent. There is Anouk, who is successful, well-paid scriptwriter for a trashy soap but desires nothing more than to be serious author but is afraid to make the jump. She finds herself pregnant to her actor boyfriend who is younger than her by twenty years. There is Rosie, the mother of the misbehaving child, Hugo, who cannot seem to accept her situation in life and refuses to see her reality. She refuses to accept her husband is an alcoholic and refuses to set boundaries for Hugo. The question of child-rearing in today’s society is questioned when the next generation do no understand that enough is enough, when too far is too far and that there is a line that cannot be crossed.

The ideas of friendship and family plays a significant role. There is the question of where loyalties should lie. This is particularly emphasised as Hector’s family are Greek, where family is everything, while Aisha believes her loyalties should lie with her friends.

There are so many other interesting issues weaved throughout the novel: the idea of status, of private schooling, domestic abuse, sexuality, love, dreams, sex, drugs, race and ethnicity. Above all, the idea of what is means to be a grown up, an adult.

The novel is an interesting exploration of what it means to live in our society today and Christos Tsiolkas is a fantastic writer. While the idea of eight different narratives put me off at first, it is ultimately a smooth and seamless flow throughout the novel. I did not get attached to any of the characters because none of them were particularly likeable but it was precisely that quality that I liked the novel – the deeply flawed characters. And I’ve got to say, it was particularly fun to read about my city in a novel.

Review: “The Seance” by John Harwood

The Seance is the second novel from Australian writer John Harwood. His first was the amazingly creepy and wondefully gothic The Ghost Writer and his second novel carries on the gothic theme. Unfortunately, and most disappointingly, the novel largely falters and the writing never quite captures the atmosphere it deserves.

The novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century where mesmerism, spiritualists and seances were at its height of popularity. A young girl, Constance Langton, is emotionally shunned by her mother who is overwhelmed by grief after the death of Constance’s younger sister, Alma, and is ignored by her father. Constance grows up lonely and detached and wonders if she is really a foundling, an orphan or child put up for adoption, since her parents never appear to hold any love for her. When her father abandons the family, a desperate Constance takes her mother to a seance where there is an understanding between Constance and the medium. Her mother is momentarily happy again when she thinks she has spoken to Alma but Constance’s mother soon tragically dies.

Not long after the death, a lawyer named John Montague, gets in contact with Constance who has now inherited a mysterious and desolate manor called Wraxford Hall. She is advised the hall is a place where dark misforgivings has occurred in the past and to burn it down as nothing good has ever come to anybody who has owned the hall. The hall is also the site of a twenty-year-old mystery which has never been solved.

In order for the story to be told, the narrative has been broken up into several sections from several different characters as it skips through the century. While it does work to some extent and it draws out the suspense, it never quite meshes and it jarrs the story. Constance’s narrative is not particularly interesting and it takes quite awhile to work into the story.

It’s a good read but, unfortunately, it’s nothing memorable.