karen has things to say

Reading, thinking, writing …


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The Eye of The Sheep by Sophie Laguna

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Paperback, 308 pages
Published August 1st 2014 by Allen & Unwin Australia
ISBN13
9781743319598

What a delight this novel is – it absolutely deserves it’s 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award.  On the front cover it is described as ‘A sparkling heartfelt wonder’ by Emily Maguire, and I have to agree. Sophie Laguna has tackled very difficult and dark topics – family violence, difference, loss, inadequacy, disempowerment – without leaving us all ready to go top ourselves immediately. She does it via her central character – the unforgettable and utterly charming Jimmy Flick, a clear-eyed but unreliable child protagonist with a unique take on life. He sees everything as part of a great connected system, comprised of subsystems that are powered by each other, connecting or failing to connect according to laws that are deeply metaphysical. Jimmy sees things like  “the soil refining to mud. I heard the plants drinking, their stems gulping back the drips. The darker the soil, the more it had to drink. It processed water the same way the refinery processed oil.”. He has the charming naivety of a young child – he sees his father, who works at a refinery, as being possessed of superpowers:  “My dad worked at the Mobil refinery in Altona, getting rid of the rust. Rust came back every time it rained, but even if it left my dad raw, his skin corroded so you could see the fibres that joined him, he didn’t stop scraping.” …  He doesn’t understand alcohol dependency, but he does understand his father as being like dark soil – he needs to drink a lot.  When the Cutty Sark ‘sails’ in the living room, the family tiptoes and waits, hoping the waters stay calm.. Jimmy is never quite afraid of his father, but struggles to understand how he works. His mother, on the other hand, is loving and protective. He has an older brother Robby, “Mum’s first miracle. Her ovarian was crusted with cysts like barnacles in a boat. I saw a picture on Dr Eric’s wall. The boat was deep in the water and there was hardly any space. Only one tiny hole that took me six years to find – her second miracle.’

This is an ordinary family, struggling along, trying to make life work. Jimmy’s father is unable to get ahead no matter how hard he tries, he can’t manage the weight of a dependent family, and his frustration is all too understandable.  His mum is sweet and childlike, living in a small, domestic world, overeating and struggling with asthma. Robbie, six years older, is on the verge of manhood, all too aware of what’s going on and we can see how history repeats. Dad drinks and takes it out on mum. Robbie is angry. In this world of not-enough Jimmy is the clear-eyed innocent, the boy who is both too fast and too slow, too much and not enough. He understand the world as a fractal system, with everything being alike and connected – emotions run through his ‘tributaries’ like rivers; his mothers asthma is like ‘clogged pipes’ with ‘dust around her valves’. He sees with absolute clarity what’s going on and is absolutely wrong and absolutely right in how he understand it:

“Her lipstick had a scent that reached his nostrils when she spoke and mixed with the vapours of the refinery still trapped in his head, and made him dizzy. I wanted to warn her, Stand back, Mum. Don’t speak. But it was too late.

I followed the line around the kitchen, seeing it connect my dad’s ears to his head that led to his hair which led to the fluorescent bar of light via the core that hung down from the blind. Then into the quiet pocket of our waiting, I spoke. ‘Are The Good Times Really Over?’ Merle Haggard’s song leapt from between my teeth without warning. Dad looked at me in the land between anger and laughter. A land like a horizon; if you put a foot too heavily on either side, it tipped.”

Life is hard. And in the middle of this, there are moments of lightness and joy – when the dad takes the boys out to play with a frisbee. When he takes Jimmy away for a week. When they all laugh together. But the shadow of things, all too understandable, is too much. There is an incident – so utterly believably drawn – that fractures the fragile family. Jimmy is then sent spinning on a different journey, and this boy, this autistic, innocent, knowing boy opens a conduit of seeing our world that is truly something else.

Jimmy often can’t articulate what he feels, instead projecting it into the world where we see it. We see how enormous and frightening and fascinating and curious the world is through Jimmy’s eyes. We see how adult relationships flare and founder. We see how people cope and don’t. Jimmy himself is either ‘too fast or too slow’, spinning faster when he’s emotionally upset.

“… all of me fast, my cylinders and cells revolving, my tubes turning, molecules colliding…I was as fast as the helicopter when you pull the string and off it flies, rotors spinning fast enough to cut off a head. I was too fast for my skin to hold. If something spins that fast, speed turns it invisible and all the invisible silent languages come at you in a rush and blow you apart, like a bomb.”

Jimmy’s central preoccupation is with how things and people work, how he is different and why he can’t cry. By the end of the novel he has made a reckoning with these things and we get to accompany him. It’s a wild and wonderful journey with this little philosophical, observing Bhudda-boy. And it’s shot through with a rich and humorous subtext, an adult world that goes on over the head of the child, a bit like a Pixar movie. This is not a heavy-waters moral tale, but it does take us into the world of those who are neglected by systems meant to look after them, it shows us the gulf between what we think is happening and what IS happening. Mostly though, it’s a heartfelt illumination of the human condition, a tender depiction of characters that are never allowed to be stereotypes, rather, they are contradictory, complex and imperfect. Like the rest of us.

I highly recommend this if you haven’t already read it.


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Nest by Inga Simpson

Nest by Inga Simpson

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Paperback, 296 pages
Published July 29th 2014 by Hachette (first published July 1st 2014)
ISBN13
9780733632341

I liked this book a lot. It has a gentle lyrical rhythm, and whilst it deals with the pain of loss it isn’t bleak or maudlin at all.  Jen has come back to the town she where she grew up; the town where, when she was only twelve, her father and her best friend Michael disappear on the same day. She and her mother then have to live in a small country town, with the inevitable speculation – are the two disappearances linked? Was her father involved in harming a child? She has not been been able to find out what became of either of them, and she has tried to heal her broken heart without success. Thing is, her heart is broken again by a man – that’s why she comes back, to retreat, to plant herself in familiar ground, to mend. Life goes on – and this is drawn in exquisite detail in Jen’s observations of the great fecund roil of life in her garden, especially the life of birds. Then, another child goes missing. Whilst the mystery plays out, Jen takes solace in nature, in the birds on her property, her retreat. She is an artist, and the connections between art and life are beautifully woven into the story. As  is the endless cycle of life – Jen is teaching Henry to paint, a boy of the age she was when her world fell apart. Nature is life is art. It’s just lovely.

I liked very much the dominant place in the novel given to setting; place itself is central, and it is also a metaphor for a sense of belonging, or not. It’s very well done. Inga Simpson’s love of nature and art infuses every page of this novel, and it is quite transporting. I felt the reality of the hinterland setting, the connection between landscape, animals, art and person through passages like this:

“Jen turned off the kitchen tap and stood still. There was a swamp wallaby at the bottom of the garden, ears twitching. He looked towards the house from behind his dark robbers mask. She memorised his stance, the length of his limbs. The ginger bases of his ears. She stepped out onto the deck, keeping behind a post. He sensed her, stood a little more alert.

She took another step, peering out from behind the post. He took off, downhill, each springy hop loud on the dry leaves. She refilled her glass with cold water from the fridge and retreated to her studio, beneath the shifting air of the fan.”

I’m going to read her other novel on the strength of this one.
Oh, and the mystery does get solved. 🙂


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Skin by Ilke Tamke – Review

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Paperback, 368 pages
Published February 25th 2015 by Text Publishing

I finished this novel last night, Tamke’s first and, I fervently hope, not her last. I loved it.  It’s a classic identity quest, combined with a magical love story, set in Iron Age Britain or Albion as it was called then. Our heroine is Ailia, a foundling saved and raised by Cookmother, finding a place within the village instead of being cast outside to be a fringe dweller. She is well loved, but skinless.

Born to the skinless, or lost to their families before naming, the unskinned were not claimed by a totem. Their souls were fragmented, unbound to the singing.

Skin is the organising system, like a clan, and without it Ailia is ‘half-born’ and therefore unable to be a full participant in the life of Caer Cad, her village, or indeed of any village in Albion. She’s a very bright child, gifted with a quick mind and hungry to learn – but, skinless, she may not. She can’t marry; at death she will not be sung to Caer Sidi, land of the dead. She can however, work and unusually for a skinless person, she is in the service of the Tribequeen.

And so the quest is set – Ailia’s most fervent wish is to learn and therefore she must find her skin. With no place to start the search, after all, she is a foundling, she is stymied before she begins. Life goes on. Alia comes of age at menses and so can participate in Beltane, the great festival in which life and joy are freely, wildly celebrated. Here the journey really begins. She chooses and is chosen by Ruther, the glamorous, clever knave just returned from travels in the Roman empire. His is the voice of progress, the future – he wants the Tribequeen, Fraid, to parley with the Romans poised to invade with massive force (and from our place in time, we can see the wisdom in his reasoning), but the old ways – commitment and service to The Mothers who created the world, the independence of the tribe – is strong, sacred, the stuff of life and the threat of loss of freedom and loss of tribe knowledge is too great a price.

‘What do you make of the new trade taking hold at the eastern ports? I hear it is very lucrative and the Romans exploit it in ever greater quantities.’

Ruther frowned. ‘Of what trade do you speak?’

‘Do you not know it?’ Llwyd paused. ‘I speak of the sale of our men and women to Romans as slaves.’

There was a murmur around the circle.

‘A foul trade,’ said Fibor. ‘Roman slaves are whipped like dogs and owned until death. What snake would sell his own tribesman to such a life?’

Ruther snorted. ’Do not our nobleman – our tribe kings and queens – also have servants?’

‘Yes,’ said Fraid. ‘But their labour is owned, not their souls.’

Ruther wants Ailia to be by his side in the new world and is unconcerned about her skinless state. But Ailia has met Taliesin (who was an actual person in ancient days, a bard of great renown. He is also the basis for our Merlin, from a whole other mythical tale all of his own), who is a deep part of the old world and very attached to the law of skin. They fall deeply in love, adding to Ailia’s quest an urgent need to find a way to be with him.

And so, we have the basic conflict – which path, which man, which life, which future to choose. Above all of this, Ailai is called to the path of the journeywoman, a sacred and difficult path, fraught with danger and potentially deadly to a skinless one such as her. These three threads – identity, politics, love –  come together to make a very suspenseful story. Tampke has paced it very well, so it is a page turner, and tried as I did to make it last, I gobbled it up as fast as I could!

I loved the ancient history underpinning the story,- it is richly, sensuously detailed and even woven through with fantasy, the world created is very easy to believe. The fantastical elements feel as if they could be true, and certainly, at a symbolic level they contain universal and eternal truths.

The druid ways, or what is known of them, are woven into the descriptions of the journey path, and the societal structure is true enough to the ancient times; deep religiosity is woven into every aspect of daily life:

I inhaled and told her I had stepped into the Oldforest. I told her of the fish, the drop in the water. Heka’s mark on the fawn and the command of life I had shown that day. The only thing I did not speak of was Taliesin.

She listened round-eyed. When I finished she was grave. ‘You must not go back in. I warn you with all my heart. The Oldforest is dangerous to those without training. I know only little, but I have heard of such drops as the pool you found -‘ She paused, her face taut with worry. 

‘What are they?’ I urged.

‘They are holes in our hardworld.’

Women were equal with men in the ‘hardworld’ and superior in the spirit world – after all, Albion is made and governed by The Mothers, not The Father, as is the Roman and Christian world.  As a twenty-first century woman reading about the old ways, I can only grieve for what was lost. Or some of it – the ‘giving back’ to The Mothers, a crucial and sacred duty, was a cruel and bloody affair indeed, served up in evocative detail in the very first chapter. And we’re still doing it, sacrificing the natural world, the Mother world, to the lust for power of the many ‘Fathers’ and the cost is still heart-wounding. It’s a very clever work that can make something set in ancient times, spun through with fantasy feel relevant and sharp to todays word. We know what became of the old cultures under the heel of the invaders.

I did wonder if there might be a sequel – Ailia’s story could well go on. This would also make a very good film in the right hands (not Hollywood). Here’s hoping!


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The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader – Review

“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” – Kierkegaard

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The Anchoress

Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 1st 2015 by HarperCollins Australia (first published January 1st 2015)

ISBN    0732299217 (ISBN13: 9780732299217)

When I was a kid I used to wonder what it might be like if life was other than it was – say, what it might be like to be blind (I practiced being blind by doing things with my eyes closed), or what it might have been like to be a nun. I used to think I could handle being a nun if I was an olden times girl, not because I was particularly devout, but because it would be better than being married off to some gross old man with no teeth and cankers (not that I knew what a canker was). Besides, all that peace and quiet and solitude seemed pretty attractive as the only girl heading up four boys. I had plenty of non-negotiable ‘helping’ to do and I’d be free of it; it couldn’t be that hard, could it?

This childish imagining doesn’t seem a mile away from the reasoning of Sarah, our Anchoress in Cadwallader’s fine novel, set in a small village in medieval England. She’s only seventeen when she chooses a life of enclosure, a living death in a tiny stone cell that has been nailed shut on the outside, separating her forever from everyone else. She is between worlds, and her task is to intercede for this world and the nobleman (the vile Thomas) who pays for keep. Her days are forever devoted to prayer and her status as a ‘lover’ of Christ to whom she has pledged her virginity – if Cadwallader’s research is right, and I’m sure it is, the whole notion of ‘bride of Christ’ is oddly eroticised.  She is  to “keep the flesh in need” as a way to stay holy and resist temptations, and we see her struggle as she tries to ‘tame’ the forces of need; hunger, sensuality, craving touch, craving sunlight.  She has the recommended two maids to support her enclosure – Louise, an older one, chosen for her sobriety and wisdom, and Anna, a younger sturdy one to fetch and carry. Much of the story revolves around these three women. Anna is only a little younger than Sarah, and subject to the very forces of emerging womanhood both internal and external, that Sarah is avoiding. 

Initially, Sarah naively imagines the enclosure will be a kind of asylum from the concerns of the body and the emotions, a free pass from the daily stuff of the human condition. In reality, she sickens from brutal conditions, starvation (she calls it fasting) and lack of air and sunlight. I was struck by the almighty deprivation an anchoress, or anchorite, I suppose, must endure in this most extreme of devotions.

Cadwallader (what a fabulous name for a writer of historical fiction) gives us the lie on that notion. She shows us in the fine grain of Sarah’s story what life for an anchoress might have been like – the abnegation required, and to our modern eyes, the self delusion, not to mention communal delusion. An anchoress has a mighty weight of rules laid upon her, contained in a book called, appropriately, The Rule. It is a particularly sadistic and misogynistic little number, though in those days the assumption of woman’s nature as base and blameworthy was as ‘natural’ as the right of the village lord to reduce the circumstances of the people in his charge to something no better than slavery. No wonder the British had such a capacity for cruelty to other peoples – they’d had centuries of practice at home.

I digress.

Sarah knows she will have to be exceedingly pious, more so than anyone else including the various brothers, priests and bishops in charge of her care. She can speak only to women and her confessor priest, and whilst required to give counsel, is not allowed to engage with village life, not even in conversation (deemed gossip). Nothing like an impossible task to keep you awake at night.

Of course, she does become involved with her maids and the village, however tangentially – she learns every sound, which voice belongs to which person, and so on. Several women come to her regularly, and through them we get an idea of what their lives are like (hard). At first Sarah rejects and resents these intrusions on her holy devotion, but as she comes to grips with life, she becomes less judgemental about the needs and wants of the body and the heart. The child, Eleanor, is a particularly appealing character – not yet tamed by the requirements of her time, she asks fresh and innocent questions that underscore the mindset of medieval life. 

She has no counsel save her own mind, and there she is beset by doubt and the uniquely masochistic innerscape of a pious Christian woman in a patriarchal stronghold. We learn the story of St Margaret, revered for her refusal of worldly salvation in favour of eternal salvation – sounds noble, but the poor woman was most horribly tortured (by men, every one a god-fearing devotee of the church). Her salvation crosses into what looks like madness, but as was the nature of the times, people believed in magic or miracles.

This is what brings Sarah to her denouement – having stored all her faith and hope and fervent wish to help the stricken Anna in the myth/teaching of St Margaret, she is bitterly disappointed when it fails, experiencing a crisis of piety, or perhaps of mindless obedience:

“Don’t speak to me of pity or comfort, I’ve no use for that.” Her voice was deeper than usual. “Or prayer.”

“At a time like this, prayer is all we have, sister.”

‘Prayer? I prayed: for days, for weeks; I filled this cell with prayer. I prayed to St Margaret, I read her story to Anna, I gave her book to Louise to keep near Anna. I believed the promises, that she would help if we called on her, that God would listen to St Margaret’s prayers. All those promises in the book that you gave me, Father. All in your hand, letter after letter. I did everything I could and my prayers were as nothing.”

We, the modern reader, can see the superstition, the naivety, the ignorance suffered by Sarah. But in those times, the death of Anna and the failure of praying – all considered Sarah’s failures –  might be akin to our discovering we aren’t the cleverest species after all.

Cadwallader has given us a wonderfully evocative portrait of life in 1255, of the intimate relationship between grief, madness, faith and in the end, the strength of the drive for freedom. A freedom represented by a young Sarah’s impression of a boy flying, a boy she names Swallow. Ultimately, she finds a freedom, comes to a kind of flying of her own, cell, or no cell.

Having felt impatient with Sarah here and there as I read from my twenty-first century point of view and privilege, wanting her to think with a mind more her own, to make a decisive break for freedom from under the heel of patriarchy, I found the ending entirely satisfactory and entirely credible. I am left contemplating how much any of us is a creature of our time, and how different life is, and yet how much the human condition is the human condition, whether we live in a dank little cell or a high-rise apartment. Sarah is full and rounded and complex, and in the end, I liked her a lot. 

Robyn Cadwallader deserves all the acclaim she is garnering for this her first novel. It’s a good ‘un.


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The Golden Age by Joan London – review

22825770   “Polio is like love, … years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.”
Paperback, 256 pages
 Published August 1st 2014 by Random House Australia
 ISBN13  9781741666441

The story in The Golden Age is straightforward enough –  It’s 1954; thirteen-year old Frank, a Jewish immigrant boy from Hungary, falls in love with Elsa, a twelve-year old local girl, in the eponymous polio hospital for children.  The relationship develops bit by bit as Frank pursues Elsa, and the story, is at its simplest, is about what happens to them. This is pure, passionate, young love, the sort that changes people who experience it forever.

But the book is about so much more. There are myriad complexities – hope, passion and the universal power of love are embodied in Hungarian, Jewish Ferenc, now Frank. The simple world of childhood has long been lost to him and his young years in Nazi occupied Hungary are horrific, filled with terror —

Lie down,” Hedwiga called, ‘and don’t move or the ceiling will creak. Not a sound…”… “But when Hedwiga opened the trapdoor and lifted him down, something had happened to him. For many days he did not speak with his voice.”

…. “ he could still sense that time in the ceiling somewhere deep in his body. … He felt it as the weak spot, the broken part, the gap that had let polio in.”

The Gold family have escaped this nightmare world and arrived Australia, where they are foreign, New Australians, disoriented and struggling to understand this new place, this new culture. Meyer, the father is, at least, able to think about it:

Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife.

Frank knows he must live and do it well because his parents need that from him, need him to to live a bright, unblighted life. It seems he might fulfil that when he wins a scholarship to a good school. Then he contracts polio, perhaps from being sent to the fish and chip shop on this occasion, the Gold family’s first feeling of celebration.  It’s a cruel thing to happen to this much-traumatised family, the proverbial straw. 

Elsa too has to live for her mother – this mother, Margaret, is as unsophisticated in her ‘cloppity shoes’ and dishevelled life, as Ida, Franks mother, is highly cultured. Elsa, the oldest, is aware that she is the centre of her mother’s life, and that her mother is as devastated, perhaps more so, than she herself about polio. Both Frank and Elsa are burdened by being the hope for their parents, the embodiment of a future that will be less disappointing. Both refuse the role. 

In fact, removed from the strictures of their family dynamics, the two children are unexpectedly free :


“Something had happened to her which she didn’t yet understand. As if she’d gone away and come back distant form everybody.

… Without your mother, you had to think.

It was like letting go of a hand, jumping off the high board, walking by yourself to school. Once, you’d done it, you were never afraid of it again.”

In these succinct lines, London captures the developmental arc, the psychology of individuation. Frank and Elsa, right on the brink of adolescence, with all the open possibility and fervour it brings, have lost the assumption of a future in which they can choose how to engage with life. Now, they are forever marked and curbed by the long term effects of Polio.

They are resilient – and the redemptive, creative power of love is explored as these two young people confront the beginnings of the ‘real’ world of adulthood, albeit within the cocoon of the Golden Age. This unlikely place turns out to be a reprieve from the rest of the world as much as it is a place of pain and suffering. The adults in the book are themselves wrangling with life – the Golds, the Briggs, the Sullivans, Sister Penny, all have adult concerns: money, belonging, work, relationships and marriages. All are struggling with loss, especially the senior Golds who have lost their entire families, their culture, even their proper name – Meyer asks himself “was all happiness just a memory of childhood?” What is happiness anyway?

A concert to commemorate the coronation visit – almost cancelled because of the polio ‘plague’ is put on, the Queen’s Concert.

“What monarchists they are, Meyer thought, these colonials. A tiny lost tribe on the coast of a huge island, faithfully waiting for a ship from the motherland.”

He, perhaps more than ‘these colonials’ knows he cannot rely on any presumed order or authority. Perhaps that’s why Meyer comes to terms with his new country much more ably than Ida. She, having lost her brilliant career and not having touched her piano since Frank fell ill, agrees to reprise her role as a concert pianist as  a thank-you note for Frank’s recovery. To the Golden Age, but also to Fate. They could not risk ingratitude.

And Frank – as he says himself – has “two devils, war and polio and two angels, love and poetry.” A lovely metaphor for how, although we are shaped by that which befalls us, we respond to it from our essential selves as do all the people in the story; Meyer is remote, too remote to even have an affair. Ida struggles with disappointment and bitterness, and everything is about the war. Elsa’s mother finds strength. Sister Penny becomes wise. For Frank/Feri loss, repair, repatriation come to together in love and poetry.

The whole book is itself a poem of sorts. Perth in the 1950s is beautifully rendered, and of course it’s nostalgic for anyone who has lived there. The characters are multi-dimensional and given to us as whole people with flaws, hopes, dreams, disappointments. Frank, no longer a child, not yet a man, discovers the Third Country, that of love, which is  … like poetry. It felt right or it didn’t. If it was given to you, you had to take it.” He becomes a poet; it’s where he is free.

I loved that. I loved the book.


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Knitting by Anne Bartlett – Review

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Paperback, 288 pages
Published August 9th 2006 by Mariner Books (first published April 16th 2005)
ISBN: 0618710477 (ISBN13: 97806187

I picked this up for $3.50 in an odd little shop in the middle of nowhere much because it was about a writer and a knitter – both things I like to do. It looked like a pleasant piece of fluff. And it is. This 2006 quick little read might best be described as a “cosy”; there’s nothing particularly challenging, nor is the anything particularly thought provoking. It’s like a scone – you know what you’re getting and sometimes it’s just the ticket. Of course, not all scones turn out well, they lack the lightness to be truly great. In this novel the characters are well enough drawn, there is some tension between them, each has a conflict, there’s a bit of a problem to overcome though it’s not exactly life and death, but the author has slipped a stitch or two in the plot department.

The story circles around two women – Sandra, a bereaved academic who is locked in grief and unable to let her rigid emotions flow, and Martha, an ‘eccentric’ woman of indeterminate age who is emotionally labile, but also locked in the past in her own way. They meet accidentally when the itinerant Cliff passes out in the street and no-one but them stops to help. Sandra is interested in the history of textiles and Martha is a top-gun knitter (can there be a ‘top-gun’ knitter? Yes, I think so). Sandra conceives of an exhibition featuring Martha’s fabulous knitting, interwoven with her own textualized history of women’s work and knitting. What Sandra doesn’t understand, because she is too self-absorbed and emotionally numb, is the effect of the heavy work schedule on the emotionally unstable Martha.

That’s all fine and good. But … the conflict isn’t conflicted enough, and the crises isn’t critical enough and Martha’s recovery from mental illness via kidney infection is unbelievable. It could have worked if there were some dark night of the soul explorations,but no, she just wakes up with the light in her eyes. Then, just to wrap everything in a pink ribbon, Sandra suddenly sees the light and realises she better mend her ways if she wants to be the nice person she thinks she is. 

The writing shines brightest when Bartlett writes about knitting – she clearly loves it, knows it, does it, but the story is a lot like the church group set within it – Nice, with the capital ‘N’ firmly in place. 


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All The Birds Singing by Evie Wyld

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Published July 1st 2013 by Random House Australia (first published June 20th 2013)

I’ve just finished this much lauded book, which deserves every accolade it has gathered. The back of the book casts the story as a mystery or a thriller “Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It’s just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights one is picked off and left in rags.” All of which is so, but I don’t think that is what this story is about, or at least it’s only a thread in the overall canvas. The first thing is that if you haven’t read the back of the jacket, it takes a wee while to cotton on that the central character is female. She is ferociously independent, antisocial, unsentimental. However, like her sheep she can be tremendously passive in the face of what threatens her, and what threatens her is present on every page and in every chapter. Animals and birds feature extensively, used to deepen, mirror or counterpoint Jake’s emotional state.The overarching sense of menace in this book is plain unsettling; and Jake is unsettled, despite having fled to a remote little island and rebuffing any approach or attempt at contact. We know very early that something very bad has happened to her, and before we are too far into the book, we understand two things – this is no ordinary thriller or whodunnit, and, it’s not at all certain whether the heavy foreboding is coming from something or someone outside Jake, in which case she is quite sensibly as skittery as a squirrel; or, whether it is inside Jake, in which case she might just be a little bit mad. Either way would explain why she wakes at night screaming, why she sees things that may or may not be there, why she keeps a hammer under her pillow and knows exactly where all the knives are – this is what kept me reading through all the darkness, I had to find out!

Jake doesn’t fit in, and never has. On her chosen island she is the foreigner, the weird woman farming alone. In Australia she was the weird she-bloke, working on remote sheep stations as ably as any man, in the Pilbara. At least that’s where we meet her, but the reverse timeline takes us back into her childhood home even further north, where she didn’t fit in either. She doesn’t even fit into her gender and there’s nothing feminine about her – – she has a boy’s name, she’s tall, strong, has a man’s arms, can throw a sheep no problem, and is referred to more than once as “a good bloke” by other men. Yet, she has also fled from Darwin to the the Pilbara, a hard, dry, remote place, where she falls into the oldest profession known to womankind.

We learn all this backwards – that’s the next thing about this novel; you aren’t in for the familiar forward-driving storyline of the thriller. Nope. This one has two timelines; the English storyline goes forwards and the Australian storyline goes backwards. Pay attention reader! The effect of this is two marry together the two intensifying threads of dread as the stories move towards their culminations. So, in the middle of the book, on the English island, it has stopped raining and we have Lloyd, the fellow who turns up and might be an axe-wielding sheep killer, being freaky:

“… the mist came down thicker than I’d seen before. It lapped at my feet when I opened the door, like my house was an island.”

… “Outside, Lloyd was shaking his finger at Dog. I started when he yelled, ‘No!’

Dog sat at Lloyd’s feet, with his ears back and one foot raised. He looked pissed off.

‘What’s going on?’

Lloyd ignored me and said Dog’s name in a creepy way. He was saying it the way people talk to a baby, with too many ups and downs so it sounded like ‘Doo-erg’, and looking Dog right in the eye at the same time. The hackles on Dog’s shoulders were up every time Lloyd said it, until Dog couldn’t take it any more and barked his warning bark, the high-pitched one that meant Get lost. As soon as he’d barked, Lloyd yelled ‘NO!’ in a deep voice and Dog cowered down, but his ears flicked about and he looked ready to murder.”

It turns out Lloyd is simply being a bit of a twit, thinking he needs to train Dog, but along with Jake, we wonder and feel anxious. Meanwhile, the very next chapter, back in Australia, ramps up the awfulness. Here, we know exactly who is killing the sheep, but we build up to knowing why, in reverse. (This is where I put the book down for four days); the younger Jake still a teenager at this point, has made a decision to go home with an older john called Otto. He never wants anything other than a ‘normal’ and he always buys her dinner and chats. When he offers her a place at his sheep farm she jumps at the chance. So, Jake leaves a note for her friend Karen, who she is sure will understand her taking the chance to get out, and climbs into Otto’s ute and drives off into the middle of nowhere.  At first Otto is paternal and solicitous; Jake gets the tour and we know immediately this isn’t going anywhere good:

“Well, here we are then!’ says Otto brightly, and I can tell he’s excited to show me the place. An old dog, far older than the photograph he showed me, lumbers up to us.

“This must be Kelly?’ I say in a voice I reckon a dog would like. The dog looks at me blankly through clouded eyes. She’s got a grey muzzle and patches of dry skin show through on her flank. Poor old thing I think.” …

… “I get a small tour. ‘Like I said, we’re pretty much self sufficient here,’ says Otto, and I wonder if there’s a greener patch around the back for vegetables. There is a hairy looking paddock next to the house, but it’s dry and wild. ‘We slaughter our own sheep, and so really it’s just basics we shop for, twice a month or so. Bread, eggs , beer. I’ve tried a few chickens, but they don’t last long – Kelly doesn’t take to them too well.’ I wonder if ‘we’ means there’s someone else around the place or if he just means his dog.  There is no green space around the back, there’s just the dunny and then, beyond that, the rest of everything. The watering hole has dried up because of the drought, he tells me …”

And so begins life with Otto. We learn via Otto’s attitude to sheep that the softness Jake thought she saw is very limited. She thought she was coming to a farm with a nice old bloke who told her his farm near Marble Bar “is a beaut spot, green in the winter, good watering hole to swim in in the summer … I imagine it, the fat woolly sheep, the rows of carrots and strawberries sprouting out of the ground. The fruit trees. I think up a tyre-swing and hang it over the watering hole, imagine ducks landing there on their way over.”

The reality is so far from such a childish dream, we can almost feel Jake’s spirit cracking:

“In the morning, because the land is so flat, I can see that the sheep, far off in the distance, are penned… As we get closer I can see how ill they look – patches of wool missing, ribs poking out. There’s a smell of shit and you can see the maggots eating their hind-quarters. Man-up, I tell myself. He’s an old bloke, he’s doing the best he can.”

The sheep are kept next to the slaughterhouse-come-shearing shed where the floor under the meat hook is black with dried blood and the place smells of vomit and bleach.  “… ‘this way, they don’t know if they’re getting a hair cut or if they’re getting they’re throats cut, so really, it’s calming.’ I try to look like I agree with him.” 

It takes Jake a long time to understand her situation, but we already know because we get the bad bits first and then, in the backwards unravelling of how things came to be this way, we understand Jake’s naivete and why she doesn’t see what’s coming – like the sheep. To Jake, Otto seems to be a good guy – he teaches her to shear, and gives her a driving lesson, promises her her own truck. But her increasing competence unsettles him and he becomes controlling. Like the sheep, she doesn’t use her strength or act when she could, and by the time she realises Otto isn’t just a “kind, lonely old man” she is trapped.  Otto doesn’t actually beat her – it’s far more sinister and far more mundane; she can’t go anywhere. She makes an escape attempt but fails.  This part of the story is a brilliant encapsulation of the slow, insidious creep of violence and abuse.

“In the morning, he greets me with a grim look in his eye.

‘Low on meat,’ is all he says and takes me by the wrist to the truck where Kelly is already waiting, panting with excitement. We drive out to the sheep and from the back of the truck he brings a heavy black canvas bag. I think about the shoe under the house. The earring in the woolshed. The things Kelly finds to eat in the tall grass.

Otto grips a ewe with a dreadful kind of strength I haven’t seen before – like he’s been keeping his muscles in hibernation until this point. It’s different from the strength he uses when he is shearing – it’s cruel, like he wants her to know what’s coming. He swings her up the ramp in front of him, and she gives out a terrible sound, and I stand there outside the woolshed, mute.” … “Get in here girl, I want you to see how it’s done,’ shouts Otto, and I pretend I can’t hear him, because I can’t move. I see him shake his head and the sheep’s cries rattle my bones. He takes a wide bladed knife from his bag and slices once across the white throat of the sheep and she is still alive and trying to bleat.”

It’s horrifying, foreboding and so well written I was as terrified as Jake and wanted to scream right along with her. The whole book is like this –  like Jake, we don’t know if there is a bad person killing her sheep, a monster, or nothing at all – but we know there are bad men and we know bad things happen and they happen to us. Well, to Jake.

As the English story has things improving for Jake, the Australian story takes us back to the beginning  – to what made her flee at fifteen, leaving behind her family, leaving behind everything. She phones from England, but when she does, she doesn’t speak. She just wants to hear their voices.  She may be on the other side of the world, she may have her own place, she may be as tough as old boots – but she can’t leave behind who she is or what has happened.

As I read my way to the source of the shadow I wondered how Wyld could make it work; what could possibly be bad enough to have set in motion such a terrible trajectory? She pulls it off seamlessly – the ‘inciting’ incident, told nearly at the end of the book, makes sense of the whole thing, including the mysterious scars on Jakes back, and is entirely believable.It’s all so very ordinary, and all so very terrible, it left me pondering deeply the vagaries of fate and circumstance. Had Jake been prettier/shorter/girlier/more loved/less frightened what may or may not have happened?

The story stops in England – we are, in a sense, brought up to speed, to where life is at now, and left there. Jake and Lloyd stand together, two sad and battered souls – and that’s where it ends – in the middle. Except for that mysterious little epilogue, which seems to me to be saying that Jake is who she always was, no matter what has happened to her.

So did I like it? It’s very powerful, disturbing, thought provoking. The writing is absolutely fantastic; Wyld has got the pitch of Jake exactly right all the way through, from being a dewy-eyed teenager to a traumatised loner. She gets the pitch of all the minor characters right too, and leavens the whole dark thing with just enough humour and light to make it bearable. So, I reckon thats a yes, I liked it.