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The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood – Review

Paperback, 320 pages
Published October 1st 2015 by Allen & Unwin
ISBN13 9781760111236

We live in an age of official gender equality, and it’s true that a great deal has changed thanks to the resistance of women in our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers times. We also live in a time when a great many young women shun the term ‘feminist’ and there is, in general, a regressive pull backwards. And some things are worse. There is a persistent backlash from the malignant masculine element (not all men, not all of the masculine). The loss of absolute power over women has manifested in a virulent hatred of the feminine (in both men and women by both men and women) in this element and these individuals. One of the manifestations of this is in the flourishing of rape culture, attack at the most fundamental and personal level of all – sexuality  – now embedded so deeply in the culture it is hardly remarked upon, and outrage is often disappointingly tepid, or plain missing. The feminine (in both men and women) is still derided and despised, in fact more deeply so by the malignant masculine. Women’s sexuality has been ‘freed’  into odious forms of subjugation – commercial currency in the market place and a truly dismaying level of degradation in the porn industry which these days is a very lucrative forum for rape culture. That old dismaying, revolting double standard is alive and well and more dangerous than ever. It’s still all a girls fault, it is her very nature that makes it so, in fact it’s The Natural Way of Things.

Charlotte Wood has raised her voice in a clear, crystalline, articulate howl of fury against such misogyny in this, her fifth novel. And what a voice it is; fluent, powerful, lyrical, visceral. The novel might fairly be called important. A dark tale, the story feels all too plausible, like it might have already happened, just recently.  It seems entirely possible, disturbingly so, that women deemed to have become inconvenient might easily be snatched out their lives in this case by an entity called Hardings (Hardy’s?), a succinct depiction of how the malignant masculine cares not one fig about morals, the law, or the individual, because it is psychotically focussed on profit and profit alone, for it’s own benefit, alone.

The girls are drugged and whisked away to disappear, possibly forever. They are imprisoned in an abandoned, broken down compound ringed by an unbreachable electric fence, in the middle of nowhere. The parallels with refugee camps and concentration camps, those depositories of other groups of people hated by the dominant powers, is pretty plain. The girls so taken have their identities and womanliness erased – their heads are shaved, they are dressed in identical rough tunics, stiff boots and Amish style bonnets. They are stripped of rights, refused basic amenities of any kind, and set to hard labour on a literal chain gang. They are told nothing, given nothing, barely spoken to except for misogynistic abuse. They are watched over by two men; ‘Boncer’, who is a stupid, violent brute with a stupid name, and Teddy, a vacuous, self-serving, boy-man who just does what he’s told and discharges himself of any further repsonsibility. Their third warden is  Nancy, a skinny, dim girl, supposedly a nurse, who sides with the men. Nancy, like any patriarchal woman who has no real agency of her own, spends her energies snivelling around after the two men, wanting only their attention and approval.

The writing is fierce and darkly sensual and often confronting. The toxic violence in the language used by the men towards the women is absolutely misogynistic, and it is a bit sickening just to read it.  Wood is unflinching in capturing the machinations of everyday hate, and writes with fluid fury on the page. We learn, via the vicious language of Boncer that they are:

“the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll number twelve and bogan gold-digger and gang bang slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.’

I don’t know about you, but writing like that feels liking being punched in the face it’s so real, so vividly accurate. I doubt anyone will miss the reference to the ‘big red box’, and the message that no woman, no matter how prominent or powerful, is safe from the long and bloodthirsty reach of patriarchy protecting itself.

And the crimes of these ten diverse girls of every hue and stripe? Sexuality that has resulted in men being compromised. The sexual actions of the errant men is not in question, it is the women who are blamed and vilified; they deserved what they got, they asked for it.

Told from the eyes of the girls themselves, they are not these hateful things, but women – one who truly loved a man who was, for her, The One. He was also also a politician. The ‘yuck-ugly-dog’ is a person  –

‘on the cruise ship dance floor, chin tilted, glossy hair up, the black sequinned boob tube that was in all the photos. Those eyelashes thick with lust and mascara, wide sexy mouth, all teeth and laughing. Before everything that happened, when Lydia was just a pretty Maltese girl at a party, a little drunk and up for it, when even that drug-fucked lowlife in the muscle t-shirt might have called her Lydia instead of that thing, that black ugly dog.’

Not all of the women are victims or dupes, some were just too powerfully sexual to be tolerated, like Hetty:

‘The Catholic cardinal, the never published photographs of almost-underage Hetty, just sixteen and, it was said, lying like a fat, happy baby in the purple satin and gold brocade. What the cardinal had seen so close up, Verla knows now, was Hetty’s wet red mouth, the coarse,black eyebrows, potent with some ferocious carnality. He could see what Verla sees now, that Hetty was a little muscled dog that knew how to bite, and how to indiscriminately fuck. If she were a male the pink crayon of her dick would always be out.’

The two main characters, Verla, who truly loved, and Yolanda the beauty who was raped for it, then cast aside as used goods, quickly understand they have to come to a reckoning with all of this, they must pull the scales from their eyes if they are to survive. They, and the other girls, represent those of us blind to, or seduced by, the patriarchy and like them, we need to wake up and see it for the deadly, toxic thing it is; to both genders.  The hatred of the feminine isn’t restricted to men acting on women. The feminine aspects of men are hated too, and thus Boncer is quick to call Teddy a faggott as soon as he shows any signs of sympathy for the girls. In this, Teddy represents the unaggressive men, those who won’t participate in misogyny, the homosexual, those who put love first, the weak – such men also fall under the stamping boot of hatred. To synopisize hugely Carol Gilligan in ‘The Birth of Pleasure, A New Roadmap To Love’ – power and love cannot co-exist, and patriarchy is about power.

The women do not band together just because they’re all female, in fact they are often cruel and horrible to each other, their alliances shift and fall and they are ruled by fear. Their passivity, the failure of ten able women to work together to overcome their two inadequate jailers attests to the introjection of shame and blame that disempowers women/the feminine so effectively. And, of course, women also participate in it. When Hetty suggests Yolanda give herself up to the lustful yearnings of Boncer, she fully enacts a patriarchal principle – a woman can be easily be sacrificed for the benefit of others.

‘… Hetty says slyly to Yolanda, ‘Why don’t you?’

When the other girls realise what she’s talking about they stop what they’re doing, take a breath and wait for Yolanda to turn on Hetty. With her rusted steel, or maybe simply with one of her strong, filthy paws, grasping Hetty’s throat…

… Verla watches them sneaking glances at Yolanda, assessing her now as Boncer might, as Hetty does. The strong jaw, the high noble forehead. her wide, full mouth, the heavy-lidded Cleopatra eyes. The long, creamy body, somehow in her tatters of rabbit skins even more majestic. …

… Hetty hasn’t finished though, ‘You could get privileges,’ she says. ‘He’d do whatever you wanted.’

Yolanda speaks then, her voice husky from lack of use. ‘Over my dead body.’ Cleavering through bone. 

Hetty taunts, ‘He’d probably like that even more,’ and a snigger ripples around. 

Izzy leans in the doorframe and says plainly to Yolanda, ‘But it’s not like you haven’t done worse, though, is it? Nobody heard you complaining when you did it back then.’

Verla sees a cloud of terrible pain cross Yolanda’s face, then vanish. Nobody moves or speaks. Izzy looks frightened, only now realising what she has said. Yolanda behaves as if she hasn’t heard, working away at the rabbit carcass, ripping skin from flesh, breathing steadily in and out.’

Yolanda and Verla do form a tentative alliance based on the recognition of the other’s capacity to see what’s happening  as they each come to grips with what they face. The alliance is fragile, tested by the very different response of each. One goes inward, finding a ‘natural’ and elemental self that would never be possible in the civilised world they have been taken out of. She becomes more and more wild, and simultaneously, more and more herself. She is the female body. The other meets hate with hate, plotting and planning a way out. She is the female intellect. We root for both and they need each other. Both grow freer and stronger as they ‘get it’ about their own situation and the general situation – they become liberated women with a real relationship to each other, develop a real and respectful acceptance for who each other is.

The first half of the novel draws the world the girls find themselves in, the reign of absolute masculine power. Just as that starts to feel unbearable, there is a shift in the story. Yolanda and Verla start to engage their own powers. There is an actual power failure, but the electric fence stays live. They’re all still trapped behind the fence, waiting for Hardings, but now power starts to shift and things start to change. Yolanda and Verla change. The rest, less so, they are less fully drawn.

The ending is brilliant, almost mythical; I won’t say too much about it here since it might change how you read the story. I did love the ending though; it is both big enough to satisfy and small enough to be likely. And sadly, most of the women willingly, blindly unable to see the truth that stares them in the face about the situation they’re in, fail to take the chance they have. Two do. No prize for guessing which two. And the very end, there is the realisation about what it is that matters – oh, so perfect.

Wood does not give us a predictable plot nor even what we might expect; she never makes it clear whether Yolanda is free or mad, or if Verla is a murderer. We don’t get told what Harding’s role is about, nor what the point of the imprisonment might be. We have to think about it and form our own opinion. It’s fitting with the theme, and refreshing to not be told what to think.  She doesn’t take us into the interior worlds of most of the girls. She is taking the long view, shouting to the world – see this, see what is, see what it does, get off the damned bus!

In short, it’s a brilliant piece of work, and despite the heavy theme it is not grim or depressing or preachy. I think you should read it.

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The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth


Paperback, 538 pages
Published March 18th 2013 by Random House Australia (first published March 13th 2013)

Kate Forsyth, that modern bard spinning and reweaving the old, old tales so they regain relevance in the world as we know it has applied her magic once again.  Although the parallel to Dortchen’s life is cast as “The Singing Springing Lark, to my mind, the tale of Dortchen Wild is a retelling of Cinderella; Dortchen grows up under the heel of her tyrannical father, and her situation becomes worse and worse until it seems utterly hopeless. However, her love for her neighbour, Wilhelm Grimm is the light in her darkness, even if at times it is a light from a guttering candle. It is a frustrated and frustrating love story – the two are destined, but my lord it takes them an age to overcome the hurdles and finally, finally get together!

The personal story is set against the history of the region, at the times of the Napoleonic invasions and the fall of the old Kingdoms. Forsyth does a terrific job of conveying what it might have been like to live through those times in those circumstances; the town of Hessen-Cassel is steeped in the old ways, some of which aren’t so marvellous, and the ‘modern’ thinking of the invaders is shocking to some, welcome to others such as the newly liberated serfs.  It was of course hard, frightening and replete with loss and grief as the country’s resources are depleted and plundered to fund the war and the unchecked royal extravagances.

“In the meantime, the town was full of French soldiers. They drank and gambled and danced, taking what they wanted forth shops and houses, and paying with paper assignments that were virtually worthless.” …

… “The Grimm family was suffering even more. Jakob had quit his job at the War Office, exhausted by the demands upon him and unable to bear working for the French. He had applied for a job as the librarian at the palace, but had been passed over for someone with fewer credentials but nobler blood.”

Both the Wilds and the Grimms were ‘good’ families, something akin to our middle class I imagine,  but even so, they were poor and hungry most of the time, and the girls had to hitch up their petticoats and get on with the endless rounds of chores and hard work. Next door, in the Grimm household things are indeed grim, and only get grimmer – Wilhelm and Dortchen cannot marry because he is too poor to seek her hand, and her hard, pragmatist father will not release her without ‘prospects’. Besides, he wants her home for more sinister reasons.

The portrayal of family life is richly detailed and educational – day to day life is made accessible and we readers get a vicarious taste of life back then. Forysthe has done her homework particularly well int his respect. . Each Wild sister is a finely rendered individual, although I did find them a touch stereotypical – the spoilt, materialistic Gretchen who marries a rich man as early as she can; the pious, religious, pain-in-the-proverbial Rose, who, when the sickly, opiate-addicted mother needs tending, says she wants to “immolate myself on the altar of filial duty” (she’s the most eye-roll inducing sister. Burn away Rosie!), the rebellious Hanne who throws over the mores of the time to defiantly fall in love with an unsuitable boy and elope; the ever naive and vulnerable younger sister, Mia, who Dortchen protects at great cost to herself.

Dortchen ends up being the only one left at home, working like a navvy  and fending off her increasingly drunk and abusive father. Once it’s just her in the house, she suddenly finds a backbone she totally lacked up to that point. Perhaps it has to do with a sudden telescoping of time in this later part of the novel.  Father finally dies (three cheers!), perhaps unwittingly helped along by Dortchen’s sleeping potions that keep him out of her bed. Eventually, after further tribulations –  it takes nearly two decades altogether to get to the altar, with plenty of misunderstandings and unspoken feelings -she finally marries Wilhelm. The end.  This unrequited love thread was just a bit too overdrawn for me. I found myself wanting to give Dortchen a good shove Wilhelm-ward every now and then. Of course, the ever-glowering father didn’t help, but really the years spent not talking to each other could have been avoided! Forsyth has obviously created a reality from a few scant bits of information about these two, and has added a goodly measure of artistic interpretation to bring it to life. It seems it may well have happened like this, so when they DO finally get together I was most relieved.  Anyway, everyone ends up more or less where they deserve to be, and that’s the least likely aspect of the book, but very true to fairy tales as we know them. That Dortchen ends up with the life she wanted is what it makes me think of Cinderella – grinding harshness, endless work, an unattainable prince, a fairy god’mother’ (ok, brother in law) and in the end all is redeemed by love. She even gets a new dress for the ball.

Within this overarching story, Dortchen tells the folk stories of the region to the brothers Grimm for their new book. It seems the writers life has changed little in the intervening centuries; the brothers Grimm lack money to live on, and lack a publisher or the means to publish their work themselves, so the project stalls repeatedly for the want of a benefactor or champion. Dortchen carries on anyway, telling Wilhelm all the old tales and stories she knows, just to keep talking with him. Of course, in the telling she tells us too – it’s very interesting to see these well known fairy tales in their original forms – they have barely a fairytale ending between them, and are very dark and dire, for the most part being cautionary tales, moral principles, a how-to behave-or-else.  The darkness of those old tales is paralleled in the dark turn in Dortchen’s life – there are parts of the story that some people may well find highly confronting, but Forsyth handles it well, using a russian doll technique to tell us about Dortchen telling Wilhelm the old tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ to try to signal to him what is happening to her at home.

This is a big book, some 530 pages of rich immersive reading. Forsyth is a proficient and efficient storyteller and a master at story-structure, so it’s a pleasurable read, not an unwieldy or overly weighty one. As in Bitter Greens she brings a woman story teller out of the thick fog of obscurity laid down by history, and makes it clear that the Brothers Grimm owed a hell of a lot to the Sisters Wild, particularly Dortchen. At the end, Forsyth draws on the tale of Sweet Roland and The True Bride – and has Wilhelm propose to Dortchen on Christmas  Day. Thank God. And, in splendid fairy tale mode, the book ends with “I told you love works magic.”

And, so it does.


The Eye of The Sheep by Sophie Laguna


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

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.


Nest by Inga Simpson

Nest by Inga Simpson


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

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. 🙂


The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader – Review

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


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.


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.