Book Review: The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

This book had been on my peripheral since it had been re-released as part of the Text Classics collection. When I came across the title recently through my online library collection, I downloaded the audiobook to see what it was all about. The novel’s premise of a handful of women working in a department store in Sydney during the post-war period seemed somewhat light, but there was a wide selection of delights in store.

Covering a brief period from the end of the school year to the post Boxing Day sales (a significant retail event, even then), the novel follows the lives of several women working at the fictional F.G Goode department store.  The characters work in women’s fashion where there is a clear demarcation between the general women’s clothing and the high-end Model Gowns section.

The mix of staff include long-term employees such as Patty, a dissatisfied married woman, the younger Fay who is in a perpetual search for a man who is interested in something more than short-term fun, and the exotic cultured Magda, who exudes sophistication and is regarded with suspicion. Magda’s dark background is gradually revealed, and her warmth and generosity challenges initial assumptions. Into the mix  comes a seasonal casual called Lisa, employed for the busy period leading into Christmas and the post-Christmas sales. The shy, clever Lisa is able to provide entry into this world, and one of the many delights of the novel is the transformation of Lisa from a reserved and bookish school girl into a young woman with a bright future.

The conversational tone is evident from the outset of the novel:

Mrs Williams was a little, thin, straw-coloured woman with a worn-out face and a stiff-looking permanent wave. Her husband Frank was a bastard, naturally. He had married her when she was only twenty-one and he a strapping twenty-six and why they had failed to produce any children was anyone’s guess, but it was ten years after the event and still she was working although the house was fully furnished, furnished within an inch of its life in fact, and there was no particular need for the money, which she was saving up in the Bank of New South Wales, not knowing what else to do with it, while Frank continued to give her the housekeeping money which as a point of honour she spent entire, buying a lot of rump steak where other people in her situation might have bought mince and sausages, because Frank did like steak. (pp 4-5)

The shifting character viewpoint provides opportunities for humour and insight which are peppered throughout the novel. Whilst the characters have different backgrounds and motivations, they are created with compassion and depth, making their interactions engaging.

Listening to this book was such a joy that I had to rewind a couple of times as I had been laughing and missed some of the lines. Some of the sharpest humour was in the dialogue between Patty’s sisters as they come to grips with the inexplicable – but not overly unwelcome – disappearance of Patty’s admittedly odd husband.

‘She said do you think he’s gone for good? And I said of course not Mum. Frank won’t get far. I had to say that to stop her worrying about Patty. But I don’t know. Frank’s a dark horse, I’ve always thought so.’

‘Oh God,’ said Joy, ‘Frank’s not a dark horse, Frank’s a drongo. Get far! He couldn’t get here to Manly without a guide. He’s just buggered off somewhere in a stew, he’ll be back, worse luck. Poor old Patty.’

‘That’s no way to talk now,’ said Dawn. ‘Frank’s all right, he’s just a bit -‘

‘Stupid,’ said Joy. ‘Dim.’

‘Quiet, I was going to say,’ said Dawn.

‘And he’s being even quieter at the moment,’ said Joy, cackling with laughter.

‘Joy,’ said Dawn, ‘you’re awful.’

That was Joy all over: awful. (pp 129-130)

The resolution of a number of situations by the end of the book in ways not entirely foreseen made this a very satisfying novel. It left an impression of wit and warmth, of insights into a lost time but with echoes that resonate. The overview of Madeleine’s life by one of her peers, Bruce Beresford, as an introduction to the novel provided some context and offered a glimpse into St Johns’ life. It was an absolute delight.

ISBN: 9781921922299

Audiobook: read by Deidre Rubenstein

[Photo: shop front in Katoomba]

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Book Review: True Stories by Helen Garner

First released in 1996, this collection of non-fiction stories spans a quarter of a century in an extraordinary writing life. Helen Garner is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost writers with a body of work ranging from journalism to novels, screen-writing to reviews. Her recent published works have been non-fiction including This House of Grief and a collection of essays in Everywhere I Look. There are many hints of what was to follow in Garner’s work in some of these essays.

The book opens with an overview of Garner’s writing career at this point titled ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, before segmenting into four parts: A Scrapbook, An Album; Sing for Your Supper; The Violet Jacket and Cruising. The stories are roughly grouped together by themes, spinning and weaving through a wide range of topics and experiences from teaching students about sex to a series of sisterly interviews (Garner is the eldest of five daughters and one son). The reader follows her into a mortuary and into a registry office, before travelling by train across Victoria and out to sea on a Russian cruise ship. There is time to marvel at the amazing produce at the Royal Melbourne Show, and to gain insight into the professional pride of maintaining a public pool – the Fitzroy baths.

Darker themes are explored rather than evaded. Following the piece on days spent observing at the morgue there is a somewhat surreal visit to a gun show. The shadow of violence and aggression overlays ‘The Violet Jacket’ and ‘Killing Daniel’ is devastating to read, a piece that once read cannot be forgotten. There are fleeting moments captured with clarity, such as an old woman making her way down hospital stairs with the help of a younger woman. She says ‘It gets worse. It gets worse. The grief gets worse.’ Garner’s ear and eavesdropping skill are demostrated throughout the collection.

But humour and honesty is also in evidence. Garner is upfront about her otherness, her role as the observer with a notebook, cataloguing and condensing the essence of human experiences, significant and otherwise. Warmth and wit flows through the sibling interviews with each sister numbered rather than named. The shifting alliances, the similarities and shared histories are documented in such a way as to give a sense of the camaraderie.

In David Jones’ ‘perthume’ department, Two says to One, ‘Here – let me squirt this on you, in case I hate it.’

In ‘Three Acres, More or Less’, Garner writes of a block of land with old orchard trees, a couple of dams, a shed and a house. Her father pays an unexpected visit, giving a brusque overview of all that is wrong or needs work about the place before quietly admitting before he leaves that he could live in a place like that. During the night, the silence is shattered by someone out in the dark with a shotgun. In true Garner style, the story doesn’t finish quite as you might expect.

For all the moments of seeing the world through the prism of other people’s lives and experiences, there are glimpses of the familiar in these stories for me. The drawing of a young, sulky girl by John Brack. The visit to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat on a day so hot that Garner buys a copy of Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton and reads it at the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, sitting under a large sign saying SILENCE.

Garner is generous in sharing insights into her writing process. The collection includes stories of attending writers’ festivals and reviews of other writer’s work, including Elizabeth Jolley and Germaine Greer. ‘Patrick White: The Artist as the Holy Monster’ is an excellent overview of David Marr’s biography, described as a ‘grand and gorgeous book.’

I read the book on planes, in buses, at meal tables. I became deaf, I laughed, I cried.

Some of these stories were familiar, read years ago. But this recent encounter seemed to lose none of the vivacity and humanity despite the passing of the years. I’d found the audiobook on the online library catalogue, narrated by Garner herself. This was an audible treat, a wonderful way to immerse in these individual but not unrelated stories. It has only served to deepen my existing appreciation of Garner and her extensive body of work.

[Photo: view inside the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Soverign Hill]

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

Book Review: The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea by Randolph Stow

Sometimes books live on my peripheral before the time seems right to read them. The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea is one such book. I have glimpsed it over the years on the bookshelves in my Mum’s extensive library, and the title itself became quite evocative and telling in its own way – the image of a merry-go-round conjures up visions of childhood and freedom of a kind. A recent biography of Randolph Stow (Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner) was extensively reviewed earlier this year; enough to remind me of an Australian author who I was yet to read. Then I spotted the audio book recently in the Blue Mountains Library online collection and it was available for instant download. The time was right.

The book steps with confidence into the lives of Rob Coram and his family, living in Geraldton, Western Australia, during the Second World War. Nearly six-years-old when the story begins, Rob is curious and direct and emotional with the intensity of a child. It is easy to believe his excitement at visiting the family farm, and it’s touching to see his affection and admiration for his Uncle Rick. The visit coincides with Rick’s twenty-first birthday, and Rick’s departure for war. Rob’s despair and grief is palpable, and throughout Rick’s extensive absence he maintains an avid interest and belief that Rick will return, even when his mother and aunts seem to lose faith.

Family connections form a constant yet changeable backdrop during the war years. Rob, his younger sister Nan, and his mother stay with various parts of the family as the threat of invasion increases then gradually fades. There are reminders of war everywhere, from trenches being dug into tennis courts to the rough justice in the school yard playgrounds. Rob’s father is an absent presence, initially stationed nearby and visible at odd intervals, only to disappear on war service and return in a perpetually distracted and absent state of mind.

The portrayal of Rick’s war imprisonment is devastating without being dramatised. Insights into the relationships formed during impossible times are shown in various guises, including the mateship between Rick and Hughie, a friendship which survives the war years but is tested in peacetime when the challenges of returning to a ‘normal’ life after near death existence are difficult to overcome, for Rick in particular.

Throughout this, the relationship between Rob and Rick develops, and Rob provides the sometimes brutal insights that children unintentionally make. Rick is direct in speaking of some of his wartime experiences with Rob, disturbing as they are. Rob in turn shares part of the rocky and awkward path towards adolescence with Rick.

The warmth and wit and humour of an extended family who love and mostly support each other is woven throughout the story, including some delightfully eccentric aunts. And then there is the landscape itself, countryside with a changeable beauty tracked by Rob through the seasons. He is saddened when he realises that he is a ‘townie’, wanting instead to be from the land. The harshness of the continent is shown too, but the natural beauty is conveyed with such genuine affection that the sights and sounds are vividly experienced.

By rock pools and creeks the delicate mauve-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs, but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump of branch suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt that he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

Listening to this book in the lead up to Anzac Day made it more poignant somehow, making me wonder how it was received when it was initially published in 1965. I was sad to finish it, and pleased a couple of days later when I found a copy on my own bookshelves at home. I thought I’d picked it up somewhere in my travels.

There is a comprehensive review of the novel on the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog site here.

Have you discovered a hidden gem in your reading lately?

[Photo: flowering gum]

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

A cursory browse of book reviews about the debut novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, indicated that this was a well-written crime novel set in a fictional town in rural Victoria with a strong sense of place and characterisation. It is all this and more.

Aaron Falk, a Federal Police investigator, returns to his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best mate from childhood, Luke Hadler. But the funeral service isn’t just for Luke; it is also for his wife and young son. And according to the police, Luke is responsible for their deaths. Falk’s return to the town to attend the funeral is ensured when he receives a cryptic note from Luke’s father, referring to a secret relating to the reason why Falk and his father were forced to leave the town decades before.

This is a book about secrets, big and small, in a town where everyone either knows everyone else’s secrets or has a theory about what they might be. Falk’s reappearance in the town sparks a spate of attacks, directly and otherwise, as the holders of the biggest secrets become increasingly desperate. There are twists and turns and dead ends and the frustrations of running an informal investigation quickly become apparent. And to make it all the more interesting, Falk isn’t your normal type of detective.

The story is set against the backdrop of the worst drought on record. It is so dry that everything crackles, the heat is so intense and there seems no end to it. The climate is a constant presence in the story.

I listened to this book as read by Steve Shanahan and it was addictive. I found myself arranging pockets of time so I could listen in sections, then during the breaks I was thinking about the characters and what had happened and who might be responsible for the various crimes. The questioning of how well you can really know someone, and how the keeping of a seemingly small secret can have major implications, is cleverly demonstrated.

The portrayal of raw emotions following the deaths is deftly portrayed, from the grief of the parents left behind in a small town to bear the scrutiny of their neighbours, to the anger of memories of earlier incidents. Everyone has an opinion and viewpoints are hard to shift; disdain shows through the pretence of hospitality and there is also blatant narrow-mindedness. But there are moments of humour and mateship too.

This book made me ponder more than once on the role of secrets in each of our narratives, whether intentional or otherwise. I highly recommend it as an engrossing read.

Harper’s website is here, including links to the first chapter, book updates and reviews.

Book Review: Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne

For the last few years, I have been keeping my eye out for local history books based in and around the Blue Mountains. I have managed to find specific books about some of the mountain villages, and some books with a larger scope taking in most if not all of the area from the base of the mountains right through to the Hartley Valley.

If I had a wish list of what I would like to find in a book on the mountains, it would be this:

  • An overview of the mountain ranges to give scope and context;
  • An explanation of the key transport changes – without roads and rail, the mountains would not be a viable place to live;
  • Acknowledgement of the significant role played by fire through the mountains; and
  • A chapter on each of the villages from Lapstone to the Bells Line of Road.

In a perfect world, this information would be presented in an interesting, easily accessible fashion with appropriate references, key timelines and fabulous photos. Images are really important in helping to define the essence of the villages, particularly as for many people most of the villages are merely signs or points along the Great Western Highway when the speed limit drops and you have to slow down, again. There would also be an index so I can locate whatever specific place I need to find at any given time.

When I came across a tweet from a local bookshop that they were holding copies of the newly released Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne, I knew it was the book for me. Even sight unseen it promised to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about many of the villages, along with over 500 photos. It is all that I hoped for and more – check out the website to get a glimpse here.

The book provides an overview of how each village came about. For example, near Wentworth Falls there was another village called Brasfort which was incorporated into Wentworth Falls in 1895. I was aware that Wentworth Falls had been known previously as Weatherboard, but it was interesting to know how this name came about. The beautiful lake at Wentworth Falls was originally dammed to provide water for steam trains. There are many historical stories and snippets to pique interest as well, including the life and death of Mary James at Twenty Mile Hollow (Woodford), and the tragic fate of her eldest daughter whose body was found on the Victoria Pass. The ghost of Caroline Jones was said to haunt the area, and there is a poem by Henry Lawson called ‘The Ghost at the Second Bridge‘ about a spectral encounter.

I have barely scratched the surface but that is one of the joys of a book like this. It is perfect for dipping into, or reading chapters on villages of particular interest. The further reading section will encourage the expansion of my book collection and there is a stack of websites to explore. It is a fabulous read for anyone with an interest in the Blue Mountains.

Have you been lucky enough to find a dream book on an area you are interested in?

[Photo: mountain views near Leura/Katoomba]

Book Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

The full title of this book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It has been out for a while now (first released in 2012) and it was one of those books which seemed to hover on the edge of my awareness until I began to think that maybe I should read it. After all, I am a self-labelled introvert.

I’m not sure what I expected when I began to read this book, but it felt like a continual surprise in the way that I kept reading of habits or mannerisms that related to an introverted temperament. Examples include the ability to mix with others and enjoy it, but knowing that after a while there is an overwhelming urge to retreat into a quiet place for some alone time. I have thought of it for years as hauling up the drawbridge when I get home: I can be sociable and polite and even a little extroverted at times, but only for so long. Too much time with other people and I start to get irritable, wondering why they need to be so loud, to talk so much – is there anything that they think and don’t say? Of course, this is an exaggeration and I love being around vibrant people, but I know that for my sanity I need my quiet time too.

The book builds progressively along the classic definitions of introversion and extroversion from their popularisation by Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types, and there are many academic studies cited which provide insights into why introverts are the way they are. There are interesting interviews with academics and introverts, and the author lays bare some of her own habits and mannerisms. Cain’s approach to public speaking includes a how-to guide for introverts, and the way in which she was able to overcome the worst of her fears was illuminating. You can see her in action on her TED talk here.

It is more than introversion in the individual that is under consideration here. The cult of personality in the United States from the turn of the twentieth century is outlined. Who hasn’t heard of Dale Carnegie’s tome, How to Win Friends and Influence People? Carnegie embarked on his journey of self-improvement and discovery after struggling with public speaking for years. Over the decades, the traits of confidence and self-assertion became increasingly admired. Signs of introversion in children were deemed as unfortunate, and something that should be overcome. Cain’s own parents were very supportive of her quiet temperament, but the book is full of examples of people who feel as though they are struggling against the norm simply because their natural inclination is towards introversion.

Introversion is put under the spotlight in a global context, and there are cultural differences in the way introversion is viewed. The contributions made by introverts are acknowledged: the book commences with the story of Rosa Parks, the introvert who quietly stood up for her rights and played an integral part in the civil rights movement in the 1950s. There is emphasis on how to create environments that foster the contributions that introverts can make, and how powerful it can be when introverts and extroverts play to each other’s strengths.

For me this book was an ongoing revelation, meticulously researched and well written. I found that I had to – and wanted to – read it slowly, to absorb the ideas presented, to take the time to think slightly differently about things I had previously accepted without question. My own style of thinking and behaviour made more sense. The accompanying sense of relief that what I thought was a bit quirky in myself was relatively normal for an introverted temperament was significant and powerful. I am so glad that I finally read it, and will be dipping back into it again as needed.

What have you read recently that has changed your self-perception?

[Photo: there was a power failure whilst writing this post – thank goodness for candles!]