What we read in Australia: Part two

15 April 2020

As our journey took us through some of Australia’s great film locations, it also gave us a chance to explore some more of its fiction and get to know some of its real life characters and lesser known citizens a little bit better too.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay

When we visited Martindale Hall in the Clare Valley I had already seen Peter Weir’s 1975 film of Picnic at Hanging Rock so I knew the story but having visited the location of the fictional Appleyard College I thought I should read the source material. Joan Lindsay’s novel is a claustrophobic psychological thriller where (SPOILER ALERT!) you never do find out what happened to the school girls and their young teacher who disappeared on at Hanging Rock whilst on a Valentine’s Day picnic. The terror and panic of the first search for the girls builds with every page in which they are not found. It spreads through the school and into the local and wider community. Anyone touched by the tragedy somehow becomes dragged down by it and the mass hysteria that lingers at the school is palpable.

When we finally visited Hanging Rock I half expected the eerie atmosphere Lindsay creates of the place but in reality it was just an impressive rocky outcrop without a hint of anyone falling into a trance or fainting (even during the hot hike to the top!). But don’t let that deter you. It’s a great read.

Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James

Writer and broadcaster Clive James died while we were in Australia and it gave us the nudge we needed to revisit some of his writing. Neither of us had been aware of the beautiful poetry he had written throughout his life, especially in his last years, but it was to his Unreliable Memoir that we turned to learn a bit more about his early years growing up in the Sydney suburbs. A combination of his razor sharp wit and incredible powers of description provide an insight into his life and a window to everyday Australia in the 1940s and 1950s.

With his father heartbreakingly killed in a plane crash on his return from World War II before he even really remembered him, he filled his childhood with the kind of escapades that fly off the page in a laugh out loud catalogue of incidents. The images created in our minds of projectile trapdoor spiders, homemade cart races down local streets and the dunny man tripping over his bike whilst collecting the toilet pan must have had passersby wondering what on earth could be so funny inside a tent. It was a funny yet poignant reminder of the man we had grown up watching on 1980s UK TV and we could hear his voice reading the book to us.

Laughing along to Clive James had reminded Stefan of the similar quick humour of Bill Bryson and his travelogue Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned country. Another laugh out loud, incident packed observation on Australia, its places, people and culture. It is a must read for anyone who has been (you will recognise so much in his foreigner’s eye view) and anyone planning to go (so you are forewarned about the country’s quirks).

A Cargo of Women, Babette Smith

As an A Level History student I read Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore an account of the history, politics and sociology of transportation. It was probably the book which sparked my love of social history. But after a visit to the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, I wanted to read more about the stories of the women transported to Australia, my namesake amongst them. When Babette Smith discovered that her early ancestor’s tale of coming to Australia as a free man was complete fiction, she set about forensically piecing together the lives of 99 women transported to New South Wales alongside his mother, Susannah Watson. It is a highly readable academic study that sheds light on the truth of every aspect of the lives lived by these women, both before the offence that took them there and after they arrived.

Trawling through shipping records, court transcripts, newspapers and other official documents Smith finds incredible detail which gives character to these women way beyond a name on the ship’s register. Theirs’ are stories of struggle and survival, of resilience or broken spirits and of tragedy and hope in a system seemingly designed to dehumanise and disenfranchise them. She quickly debunks the “drunken whore and criminal” stereotype instead bringing every one of these 99 women to life as workers, mothers, wives, friends and lovers living in a strange and often cruel new society.

The Harp in the South, Ruth Park

The next, mercifully slimmer, paperback that found its way into our luggage we picked up after our visit to Susannah Place in Sydney’s Rocks district. After our tour of the terrace of working class housing built by an Irish immigrant and which survived the slum clearances, this was the perfect kind of short fictional account of life in those same streets in the 1940s.

With a cast of characters reflecting the migrant population of the area, the book focuses on the Irish Catholic Darcy family. Hugh and Margaret live crammed into a tiny terrace with their daughters Roie and Dolour and lodgers Irish nationalist Patrick Diamond and mysterious Miss Sheily and her disabled son, Johnny. Whilst the family struggle with tragedy, poverty and hardship, it is Roie’s coming of age story that sheds harsh light on society and religion’s still strict dictates about race and relationships. The family’s everyday interactions with their Italian and Chinese neighbours provide humour as well as exploring a shared migrant experience and there is enough to lift the book from the drudgery of the Darcy’s lives.

If you know Sydney you will recognise a city of not so long ago. If you don’t it doesn’t matter. The book stands alone as a portrayal of working class life in Australia in the 1940s and there is a sequel, Poor Man’s Orange, which we will seek out at some point.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Richard Flanagan

We had both read and loved Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North so when I discovered that he was Tasmanian and had written a novel set in the island’s deep forests it seemed like the perfect birthday present for Stefan’s Tasmanian birthday.

Flanagan is another of those author’s for whom the place of his novels is as important as the people. Here the dark, cold, wet forest of southwest Tasmania is the suitably bleak location for the story of father and daughter Bojan and Sonja. Both are deeply damaged by the experiences of their pasts – Sonja by a childhood defined by her father’s violence and her mother Maria’s sudden, unexplained disappearance and Bojan by his role as a teenage partisan in Slovenia during WWII and his subsequent migrant experience in Tasmania. Switching from past to present it chronicles Sonja’s slow and uneasy reconciliation with her father.

Flanagan has an uncanny knack of not demonising the most cruel of his characters – the murderous Japanese camp commander in The Narrow Road and here the abusive, alcoholic father – allowing the reader to make up their own mind about them. It’s not a happy read but there is redemption of sorts and we would both recommend it.

Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Ian Jones

Much has been written about Ned Kelly. I tried to read Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning The True History of the Kelly Gang back in the 2000s but couldn’t penetrate the vernacular and punctuation less style in which it was written. It is also a fictionalised account. Ned Kelly: A Short Life, however, was recommended to us by the guide at Beechworth Courthouse as a well researched and thorough account of the now legendary stories about Australia’s favourite outlaw. After visiting some of the defining sites of his life we downloaded the book onto our Kindles and set out to learn more about Ned.

We haven’t quite got through this book (is anyone else really struggling with reading during this coronavirus crisis?) but it has started strong, focusing on his background and the circumstances in which his criminal activity arose. It points a finger, not at him as an individual, but at the society of the day which stacked the odds against him. He might not have quite been the Robin Hood some portray him to be but he’s no monster either. It feels like as thorough and accurate a biography as there can be but we’ll let you know when we get to the end!

We read a lot in Australia, probably more than we usually do, and whilst we also squeezed in a number of other non Australia related books too, it was all these books of and about the country that really enhanced our experience and understanding.

Whether you want history, social commentary, a good old mystery or a really good laugh give them a go. There’s something for everyone.

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