Trauma, kindness & starting with a bang: Jessie Cole on Darkness on the Edge of Town

Jessie Cole

Fourth Estate, 2012
9780732293192

(buy paperbackebook)

A woman crashes her car outside Vincent’s house. Vincent attempts to help the woman, and the baby in her arms, which may not have survived the crash. Rachel is her name and her arrival will have repercussions for Vincent and his daughter Gemma, and will draw attention (and judgment) in town. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Jessie Cole’s gripping and emotionally intelligent debut novel. Jessie and I have been getting to know each other for a little while now, sending missives from my urban jungle to her forest and back again, about animals, books, children, place, and more. I finally sent through a few questions to Jessie in order to introduce her, and Darkness, to you:

Darkness on the Edge of Town has ‘thrilling’ aspects, it moves along, it’s compelling, but I’d say it’s a character-driven novel. Could you tell us a bit about setting up the situation, and then letting it unfold? About pacing the story? How much of the whole story did you have when you began writing?

Good question! Firstly, the MS I’d written before Darkness was a very personal ‘family saga’ kind-of-story, set across several generations, and I decided after I finished writing it that I really enjoyed reading books that were more just a snippet of time. Stories that simply picked up in a certain part of someone’s life and stayed with them for a bit. I liked the immediacy of those stories, and the way they almost felt like they were told in real-time. And I suppose, I liked the smallness of them. And that was about as far as I’d gotten in terms of thinking consciously about what I wanted to write next. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ‘a writer.’ Only that sometimes I wrote.

darkness on the edge of townThen, the whole of Darkness came to me in a one big blast late at night. Beginning to end. Hit me like a whack across the back of the head. I have no real explanation for why or how that happened, but it was a very powerful moment and I knew from the outset that it was something special, something whole. It’s difficult to explain how a fully-formed story could come all-at-once, how it could even fit inside a mind in one instant, but it did. I didn’t think at all about setting up the situation, I just sat down and let Vincent talk. I imagined myself as a stranger in a pub who struck up a conversation with him. Him telling me his story— among all the noise and cacophony—and the story being just so hard and so strong he had to get it off his chest. The intimacy of it thrilled me. I wrote the first 20,000 words in a week.

In my mind Vincent and Gemma and Rachel were all compelling characters in traumatic but oddly intimate circumstances, and I was enthralled by them. Part way through the book I realised that I was writing something with some elements of a thriller. This was not purposeful, it was just how it came out. I’m not much of a deliberate writer. I don’t like to plan or over-think things. I do know that when I write I am looking to be thrilled—to feel a kind of wave or nervous tremor of emotion or sensation—and I do use this as a guide to know I’m on the right track. I didn’t think about pacing, the story had its own momentum. I trusted it. At some stage I saw Sonya Hartnett speak at the Byron Bay Writers’ Fest, and she said something along the lines of: ‘I like to start with a bang and end with a bang and have lots of bangs in between’. And I realised that this was what I was doing with Darkness.

Although Sonya Hartnett does plot out her novels, with different coloured sticky notes for different characters or something like that, I’ve been told! That’s what works for her. It fascinates me how each writer approaches a book or a story so differently (and it can be different for each book, too).

Yes, everyone works very differently. Sonya Hartnett has written so many novels, she must have it absolutely down-pat! I guess I just meant that last comment about the bangs in terms of pacing. When I heard Sonya say that, I realised that’s what I was aiming for in the pacing of Darkness, even though I hadn’t really known it. And yes, I think each book is different. I like what Jonathon Franzen says about how you have to become the person who can write the book you want to write, and how with each book you probably have to become a new person.

The connection that forms between the two young women in Darkness, Rach and Gemma, adds a layer to the story. They each come alive a little bit, and maybe grow and make some sense of what is happening to them (separately and together) through their conversations. Could you comment on this aspect of the novel?

I’m very interested in the power inherent in the kindness of strangers. I think in some ways Gemma’s generosity towards Rachel is a bit of a surprise. Teens are notoriously self-centred and maybe—in the circumstances—it would be natural for Gemma to be quite hostile and territorial. But she isn’t. I think that’s because she’s got this wonderful mix of knowingness and openness; she’s also hungry for adult wisdom and it’s in short supply. People who’ve been deprived can start to bloom with the smallest smatterings of attention, and I think Rachel and Gemma give this to each other in as much as they are able. To be truly heard is a powerful thing, and a lot of the time we don’t give each other that gift. I suppose I wanted to show how a kind of openness to connection can build something worthwhile and healing between people, even in the least likely of situations. I’m also interested in the idea of family. In Darkness none of the three main characters are related by blood, but the bonds that they form are, in many ways, familial. In our culture ideas about family can be so narrow. So nuclear. I guess I wanted to question that a little. What makes a family? How do they form?

I want to ask about the small town Australian setting. It’s really as rich as a setting can be, with its history and tensions, and its rituals (thinking about Gem drinking Jim Beam and Coke from a bottle, fumbling in her friend’s bedroom). How is the setting integral to the story?

This small-town-question always leaves me a little stumped. I know that sounds ridiculous because Darkness is so completely a small town story, but it’s really hard for me to have a lot of perspective on that. I’ve lived in the same small town almost all of my life. It’s funny, when people come to visit who haven’t been to my place before, they always say something along the lines of: ‘Wow, you really live in the middle of nowhere!’ And I always reply: ‘What do you mean? This is the centre of the universe!’ Which is, of course, a joke. But in a sense it’s also true, in that it is the centre of my universe. It’s the only way of living that I really understand with any depth.

In terms of how the setting of Darkness is integral to the story, I suppose for the characters of Vincent and Gemma it is that ambivalent mixture of security and claustrophobia. That sense that they are ‘known’ by the people around them, which is in some ways affirming, but that they are also judged or pigeonholed by who they once were, or how their lives have played out thus far. In a small town the past is not a foreign country. It’s a tangible presence that everyone remembers. And on top of that is the way that the private can be translated in small communities. I mean, once you drive up your driveway in the country no-one knows what goes on inside your house. You have no close neighbours to listen to the rhythms of the household, so I think people make up stories about each other based on whatever facts are at hand, but often these stories lack subtlety, or even truth. Maybe the difference in the city is that people don’t assume they know anything much about the people around them, whereas in a small town more assumptions are made. In Darkness, Vincent struggled to communicate what was happening between him and Rachel. He knew that he’d never be able to explain, but that all sorts of judgments would be made. The friction between what is really happening in the private sphere and what the town at large assumes—and how these assumptions play out—creates a lot of tension in the story.

Just as an aside, I think our culture favours the ‘escape’ narrative. The story where we escape our past and start our lives anew. Makeover. Transformation. Alteration. Just look at how many films turn on that fantasy. Especially now, when moving is so accessible. In some ways it is seen as a type of failure not to leave your past behind. And it is almost a given that anyone with any prospects should leave a small town and make something better of their lives. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. And I’m interested in stories about people who decide to stay. I’m not sure how apparent it is in Darkness, but I feel there is a different kind of bravery required to live with your past, and it isn’t something that is celebrated all that much.

Check out Jessie Cole’s website.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012: how did I go?

awwc2012After completing the recent survey on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website I decided it was time I looked at my reading and reviewing of books by Australian women writers in 2012.

On the Overland website Jane Gleeson-White has declared 2012 the year of Australian women writers, and has provided a fantastic summary of the year in relation to the challenge, the Stella Prize, and the success of female Australian writers in prestigious literary awards. Founder of the AWWC, Elizabeth Lhuede, has also written an extensive report on the challenge for the Huffington Post.

Collective blog/reviewing challenges aren’t something I usually partake in. There are many demands on my reading already (for Uni, for specific festivals and events, for commissioned reviews) but I thought this challenge was important. Personally, in previous years where I’d recorded my reading, I had noticed a bias (about 60-70%) towards books by male authors. I’m not alone in that, it’s something that has been well recorded and discussed recently (and is one of the reasons Lhuede began this challenge). I wanted to consciously break that habit, and share reviews of some of the books I came across. I also probably don’t have to explain the significance for me, as a writer of fiction and nonfiction and someone who intends to have a future in this industry, to publicly address a bias such as this.

So here are the books I have read (so far) by Australian women writers in 2012. See the hyperlinks for any reviews or interviews, and feel free to ask me about any of the others in the comments section below.

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (young adult, review)
A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter (literary thriller, review)
Careless by Deborah Robertson (literary/general)
Sweet Old World by Deborah Robertson (literary/character story, feature interview)
The Sea Bed by Marele Day (literary, review)
Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (popular, mention)
When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett (speculative, review)
The Fine Colour of Rust by PA O’Reilly (general/humour, review)
The Beloved by Annah Faulkner (literary, review [might need subscription])
The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster (literary)
The Meaning of Grace by Deborah Forster (literary)
Knucked by Fiona Wright (poetry)
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (historical, review)
Taking Shelter by Jessica Anderson (literary, classic author, review)
Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire (literary/general, mention)
The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (classic, review)
Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire (literary/general, feature interview)
My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson (literary/general)
After the Darkness by Honey Brown (crime)
Nine Days by Toni Jordan (historical/general, review & ‘five facts‘)
Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe (short fiction)
The Blood Countess by Tara Moss (popular/supernatural, mention)
All the Way Home by Kristin Henry (verse novel, review)
Hannah and Emil by Belinda Castles (historical, interview)
The Burial by Courtney Collins (historical, interview)
Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth (literary)
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith (literary/general, interview)
By the Book by Ramona Koval (memoir/nonfiction, do check out my feature interview with Ramona in the current Big Issue)
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Jessie Cole (literary/general/thriller, interview)
The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss (popular/supernatural, mention)
Black Spring by Alison Croggon (young adult, possible review forthcoming depending on Xmas madness)

I also read my friend Amy Barker’s excellent manuscript Paradise Earth, and I read many poems, short stories and essays by Aus women writers throughout the year in journals and anthologies.

fortunes of richard mahonySo far this year I’ve only read an abysmal 67 books in full (I have started a lot more…). 31 of them were by Australian women and more than half of them were by women in general, so I have done well at creating a positive bias this year. My absolute favourite book that I read this year was The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. I wonder if I would have read Mahony if I hadn’t done the challenge? When The Lifted Brow asked me to review one of the Text Classics I deliberately went for a female author, and ended up with Mahony. It was worth doing the challenge for that alone: one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had.

Will I be doing the challenge in 2013? Not exactly.The challenge has done the trick of making me more aware of my reading choices and has helped me discover some amazing literature. But I don’t need to do it as a challenge in 2013, I’ll just be more considered each time I face the pile. I’m also taking a month’s break from social media in January (!) in order to finish my thesis, and just to give myself some head space. So I’d prefer not to take on any specific challenges. I’ll have plenty of good reading to get on with for the Perth Writers Festival…

Please feel free to link to your own round-ups of the AWWC in the comments below!

Home, strange home: Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire

Picador, 9781742610832
September 2012 (buy paperback, ebook)

A version of this article was originally published in The Big Issue no. 415.

Somewhere around the six-week mark of Emily Maguire’s 2008 visit to Hanoi, she realised she was in love: ‘Actual love—the kind where you wake up smiling in anticipation, and you fall asleep deeply, deeply happy every night,’ she says.

Maguire was working in the English translation department of a Vietnamese publishing house as part of a residency through the cross-cultural institution Asialink, and says falling for the city took her entirely by surprise.

‘I’ve travelled quite a bit and I can find something to appreciate or enjoy about almost everywhere I’ve been, but I’ve never had the experience of loving a place like that’. Hanoi became the setting for Fishing for Tigers, the acclaimed author and journalist’s latest novel.

It’s the story of thirty-something Mischa, who has been living in Hanoi for six years, bearing the scars of an abusive relationship. She is satisfied, living day-to-day, in Vietnam. Then an ex-pat friend introduces her to his 18-year-old Vietnamese-Australian son. Cal is attractive, idealistic and kind. Mischa and Cal explore the city, exchanging ideas. They also begin to explore each other.

‘Mischa is not in Vietnam during a time of war, but she is, like Thomas Fowler [of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American], resistant to the idea that anything going on around her is her business,’ Maguire explains. ‘She thinks of herself as outside of Vietnam’s social and political history and present circumstances. She thinks of herself as a disinterested observer, but Cal forces her to face up to her own complicity.’

Emily Maguire

Cal causes an awakening in Mischa, as do the stories of the Vietnamese women Mischa encounters through her work. ‘Vietnamese history—ancient and recent—is full of stories about incredible female warriors and Mischa admires them even as she recognises that the on-paper veneration of powerful women does not carry over to their lived experience,’ Maguire says. ‘The truly impressive thing about Vietnamese women warriors is that they sacrificed themselves for the good of their people. Mischa has been, necessarily, very self-centred for years… But [her] intensifying relationship with Cal forces her to think about herself again as someone whose actions and words affect others.’

This is compounded when Mischa’s sister back in Sydney becomes very ill. For Mischa, Maguire says, ‘that tension between self-protection/fulfilment and care for others becomes kind of unbearable.’

In Fishing for Tigers, Mischa and Cal’s relationship is treated with maturity, as are the other complex, charged bonds between characters in Maguire’s novels Taming the Beast (2004), The Gospel According to Luke (2006) and Smoke in the Room (2009). It’s plausible that the characters are drawn together, and their age difference is not sensationalised. Concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are explored as being both separate, and fluid. Maguire herself feels ‘powerfully tempted’ to stay in Vietnam whenever she is there, but says she also misses her family back in Sydney. ‘If I’m away, I’m missing them painfully and if I’m home, I’m yearning to be gone. Still, it’s a nice tension—being pulled between love and wonder and back again.’

In the character of Mischa, Maguire is investigating a more extreme and disorienting form of tension between competing ideas of home. Mischa has come to Vietnam to remove herself from a damaging situation. ‘Home has been kind of a horror for her,’ Maguire explains. ‘But even as she comes to love Hanoi, she doesn’t “belong” there in any real sense of the word. She doesn’t speak the language or have more than a shallow understanding of the culture,’ Maguire continues. ‘And yet, in terms of feeling a sense of rightness with where she is… then that’s Hanoi. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t be true and yet it is. She feels right being there and that’s that.’

Cal’s background provides contrasting ideas of belonging. He is overwhelmed by many aspects of Vietnam, including what he perceives as commercialisation and Westernisation. In the scene where Mischa and Cal visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground network that once served as a base for Viet Cong guerrillas, Cal, disturbed, asks: ‘What kind of country turns this kind of shit into a goddamn tourist park?’ Mischa’s reply is: ‘Every kind.’

But there’s an awareness that grows in Cal, especially once he visits the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (which most of the characters still call ‘Saigon’): ‘He doesn’t want to think of Vietnam’s history as his, but it absolutely is,’ Maguire says. ‘His life is what it is, because his grandparents chose to take their kids and become part of the diaspora.’

As with Maguire’s other works, both fiction and nonfiction, the style is natural and elegant but the essence is deep. There are questions here of not just where but how and with whom (if anyone) a person can belong. And there are even bigger questions regarding one’s place in existence. The characters are memorable and the descriptions of place have the ability to stir longing in the reader.

Maguire has been back to Vietnam for at least a month every year since 2008. She’s seen significant changes in even this short time and, as her relationship with the city deepens and her experiences gain context, she begins to notice more, or see the same things differently. Now, the very familiarity of the place works on her: ‘[When] I arrive now I have this whole physiological reaction as soon as I hear and smell and breathe Hanoi. I feel lighter and happier and ultra-alert,’ she reflects. ‘I head out on long walks without a map and I feel alive and alert and weirdly, impossibly, home.’

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

20 classics #13: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I haven’t yet reviewed an Australian classic in this series, and The Lifted Brow also asked me to choose one of the Text Classics range to introduce for their October issue. There was a lot I wanted to read on the list so I pretty much chose at random. When the book arrived I baulked at the size of it: almost 1000 finely printed pages. But I do like a challenge.

When was it published?

It was published in three volumes, in 1917, 1925 and 1929 and as a full novel by William Heinemann in 1930. The new Text Classics edition is introduced by Peter Craven.

What’s it about?

The life of the restless Richard Mahony, from the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s, via many adventures in Australia and abroad, to the latter part of the nineteenth century. It’s also a stunning portrait of a marriage, and an incredibly detailed account of colonial Australia: Ballarat, Melbourne, the bush and the seaside.

Tell us more about the author.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born in 1870 in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as is Mahony) and tragedy struck the young, affluent family when he was admitted to Kew mental asylum and died of syphilis when Richardson was nine. Her mother took the children to Maldon where she worked as postmistress. Richardson boarded at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College from age 13 to 17 and the experience formed the basis for her 1910 novel The Getting of Wisdom, the only one of her books that has been faithfully adapted to the screen (by Bruce Beresford in 1977).

Richardson’s family moved to Europe in 1888 where she studied music at the Leipzig Conservatorium (and Maurice Guest is set in Leipzig). In Leipzig she also met John George Robertson, a Scot, who was studying German literature. They married and moved to London in 1903. Richardson only returned to Australia once, to conduct research for Mahony. She died in 1946 in Hastings, East Sussex. Her other works include The Young Cosima (novel), short story collections and a supposedly unreliable autobiography.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Yes. I would not hesitate to tell you that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a masterpiece, a great novel. Reading it was one of the most fulfilling literary experiences I’ve ever had. This is mainly due to the character of Richard Mahony and his self-induced tribulations, and the intimate details of his marriage to Polly (later known as Mary). But it is also due to the historical aspects: Mahony provides complete immersion in the experience of the past, through the eyes of just a few characters. It’s also an incredibly compassionate novel. I only read afterwards that the character of Mahony was partly inspired by Richardson’s father, and that just broke my heart all over again.

Why is this not as well known or regarded as, say, the work of Patrick White? I was speculating to G, upon finishing, that it may not be well known because it hasn’t been adapted for the screen. And Craven in his introduction, when I read it afterwards, suspects the same. It hasn’t become ‘a shared myth’, he says. I can imagine, given its breadth and depth, it would be very hard to adapt, but a miniseries seems doable. Or maybe it is the sheer size of the novel that puts some people off. Well, don’t let it, I implore you. Indulge.

The novel is so large that the characters become more than complex, they become real. The style is naturalistic, and the characters’ mental states are given as much attention as the surrounding landscape. I found myself exasperated at Richard (as Mary is), for his impractical flightiness, but at the same time I was so fond and forgiving of him. And I related at times to his need for peace, quiet; to not be bothered (and then sided with him, too, in his annoyance at Mary’s complete rationality). The Mahonys are truly both kind-hearted—Mary charitable with her being and her space, to her friends; Mahony a gentle doctor who hesitates to chase up bills, and who often rethinks his first, rash opinions of people—but they also are at times hateful, frayed, even cruel. Mahony is a terrible listener, and unable to adapt to colonial attitudes (holding onto notions of gentlemanliness without realising it sometimes makes him a laughing stock). But then! When they go to England he reacts to their snobbishness. You think it will change him…

Mary slowly becomes perceptive to Richard’s foibles—particularly the ones that get them into trouble—and becomes stronger, and less materially motivated. At the beginning you can see how well they match: it centres around their kindnesses, they way they (attempt to) perceive the good in others (though Mary soon learns that sometimes Richard will maintain a grudge). Mary is more likely to see the ‘good’ and that is where she is kind, whereas Richard will crumble when faced with the ‘weak’. Richardson exquisitely renders a long-term relationship: the way they misinterpret each other and begin to keep secrets, the way they manage each other, sometimes fear each other. The novel is an incredible, humble, love story.

The weirdest thing is, writing this, I simply cannot capture it. You just have to read it. Each revelation of character comes about through sections of the novel that are book length. That makes it sound dreary, but it’s not. There are seeds planted (sometimes in conversations with other characters), events foreshadowed. When you begin reading it, you think it is all about the goldfields, and the men (and it is). But then Polly/Mary and a new cast of characters come along. Way, way down the line there are windfalls and travel and children and tragedy. Each ‘event’ is, as mentioned, a book of its own, so I can only be vague here. The whole that these events add up to is so revealing. As an Australian, too. (Though I think this holds up against European novels set in the 19th Century, is in fact much more accessible than many of them.) I had, for example, never thought very much about the way the gold rush messed up the class system for those who clung to it, fresh from the old country, and what that meant, how confusing it could be for them. More generally there is so much to learn (and so much colour) in regards to colonial Australia and the foundation of Victoria.

But what do I want to talk about? I want to talk about Richard (though I really cannot possibly capture him). He is self-absorbed, he is manic at times—bursting with excitement for an idea, mainly a change—and then he sinks into deep depressions. He is over-sensitive: ‘How strange Richard was… how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people’. He is definitely fickle, an ‘unpractical old dreamer’ as Mary thinks of him at one stage. He is paranoid and nervous, more so as he gets older. He loves isolation, but becomes bored of that too and surprises Mary (and the reader) with bouts of socialising. He is a skilled doctor, he is curious (a great reader, at one point becoming obsessed with spiritualism: ‘He believed and would continue to believe it impossible wholly to account for life and its phenomena in terms of physiology, chemistry, physics’). He is not humourless but his sensitivity sometimes gets in the way. He is sometimes confused. He is embarrassing to his son, Cuffy. Cuffy is such a surprising and wonderful voice added to the novel in later parts. Cuffy allows the reader to see the relationship of his parents, the places they live, their life and his father from a different angle. The way Richardson writes him captures the wonder and confusion (and temper) of childhood.

I’ll share one longer extract which is revealing of Richard. After a description of travel and all of its difficulties, this is what follows:

Yes! there was always something. He never let himself have any real peace or enjoyment. Or so thought Mary at the time. It was not till afterwards, when he fell to re-living his travels in memory, that she learned how great was the pleasure he had got out of them. Inconveniences and annoyances were by then sunk below the horizon. Above, remained visions of white cities, and slender towers, and vine-clad hills; of olive groves bedded in violets; fine music heard in opera and oratorio; coffee-drinking in shady gardens on the banks of a lake; orchards of pink almond-blossom massed against the misty blue of far mountain valleys.

This gives you an idea of the contradictions within, and the changeability of Richard, and how he values having experienced different things (no matter how troublesome at the time). It also gives you an idea of the rhythm in the prose, and the humour in the novel, too. It is not a solemn affair, even tragic circumstances are often given fresh views (ie. by Cuffy, the son).

And I’ll leave this rather disordered (but honest) blog post here. I hope I have at least inspired you to give The Fortunes of Richard Mahony a go. I certainly would like to add Richardson’s other novels to my collection, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have anything to say on those also.

What’s next?

I’ve finally started on my first Raymond Chandler novel: The Lady in the Lake.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Treasures from the past: Belinda Castles on Hannah and Emil

Belinda Castles is the author of Falling Woman and The River Baptists (for which she won the 2006 Australian/Vogel Award). Her latest novel is Hannah and Emil, which traces two characters across Europe, the UK and Australia and charts their complex struggles, and the love that pulls them through. Emil fights for Germany in WWI but is forced from his home with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Hannah is independent, talented and resourceful. As a child she longs to be an adult, and as an adult she bravely faces the challenges thrown at her. Hannah and Emil’s childhoods make up the early chapters, they are completely vivid and absorbing and help us, as readers, to understand their decisions later on.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Belinda a few times as we are/were both members of the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. We were also at the same conference in London last year. I thought I’d get in touch with her to ask her a few questions about Hannah and Emil

I know that the story of Hannah and Emil emerged from the story of your grandparents. What did you first find out about them that led to your interest and research, or is it something that’s been in the back of your mind for a long time?

I had always found my grandmother Fay an interesting figure. She was a widow and translator, living in a large flat in West Hampstead surrounded by books, papers and typewriters. She still travelled for work when I was a child. Dad told us that when his father Heinz died, he learned two things about his parents that he had not known before. Fay told him that she was Jewish, meaning that so were her sons: Dad and my uncle. The other thing she told him was that Heinz had had a German wife and son before she met him, and that the son had grown up to fight in the Hitler Youth Army. This pair of secrets, along with the many other intriguing things I had learned about their lives, seemed magnetic. Whenever the subject of the war came up, those secrets were what I thought of.

Their stories do give us a unique perspective (in terms of English language literature) on war, particularly WWII. Emil’s experiences of persecution and discrimination, and the way these experiences distance him from those he loves, makes up much of the narrative. Can you tell us a bit about this struggle? And perhaps about some of the research you must have done on refugees of this era?

I got the impression, perhaps from my father, perhaps from pictures, that Heinz was a loner. His experiences in the First World War, his political opposition to the Nazis, his losses and his ultimate exile from Germany set him apart from others, in my mind at least. It seemed from my reading about the men who came to Australia on the Dunera that the camp at Hay, although unusual in its vibrant intellectual and cultural life, was like other institutions. They may be sociable places, with some of that sociability enforced, but there’s also loneliness, made sharper in this case by the strangeness of the landscape to Europeans and the worry about all those they had left behind. For my character Emil I felt that even when he is among those he loves, and although the people he loves are deeply important to his sense of himself, he is always on some level alone. Perhaps that’s why I gave him a friend on his journey—Solomon Lek. Sometimes the people who go through the same things we do hold a special place, because we don’t have to explain to them what has happened to us. They know because it’s happened to them too, and so there’s no danger of being misunderstood.

Hannah is such a well-drawn character. From her childhood on she is liberal-minded, independent, smart, creative. You’ve talked a bit about finding your grandmother Fay an interesting character. Can you tell us a bit more about developing Hannah’s story? Did you have fun doing it?

It was different to writing the character of Emil. I knew my grandmother for one thing and I remember her as forthright, talented at languages and intellectually engaged. She was fairly crotchety in old age but I was given various documents that stripped away the frustrations of old age and revealed what she might have been like as a girl and young woman. It’s a strange gift to have your memories of someone supplemented in this way. Her unstoppable momentum was in these documents but also her youthful idealism and unwavering loyalty to my grandfather. It was very moving to me to read her memories of childhood, coming back to her fifty years later, as her more recent memories failed her. And in letters to friends in Australia after she had returned to England she remembers when she was ill her friend Valentine climbing in her window with chicken soup and then washing and hanging out the nappies. It felt like discovering treasure to have such moments survive and find their way to me.

One of the reasons I love reading novels is that you feel that you come to understand a person who is not necessarily the most perfect of beings on the outside, because you get past the awkward surface of people. Writing Hannah was that process magnified. I did feel very moved by my grandmother’s life as I learned about it and imagined it into a new form. I felt enriched and expanded by the process.

I’m sure she would be so proud of you, too. The warmth of your discoveries comes through in the character. Finally, there are some stunning images in the novel, particularly of people and bodies: the darkness at the soldiers’ throats comes to mind. These descriptions give the story such resonance. Could you tell us a bit about creating these images? Are observation and note-taking part of this process? Do the images come before or during writing, or even in the rewriting?

Thanks, Angela. Well, during writing I suppose. I am not a big note-taker, although when I’m in the middle of something bits and pieces come to mind and I write them down. But it’s a very enjoyable part of writing to find all these moments waiting for you. That feeling of: I didn’t know I knew that! I think all writers enjoy that. It’s why days with writing in them are better than days without writing in them. Always something new.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Parsley and blood: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

April 2012
Random House
9781741668452
(buy paperback, ebook)

I love a good historical novel: the ability to contrast past and present, to be absorbed in a world that’s (mainly) unfamiliar, and to experience vastly different circumstances, pressures, and social customs. Kate Forsyth allows us to taste, smell and feel 16th Century Italy and late 17th Century France in Bitter Greens. What does it feel like, in these eras and places, to sit for an artist, to go hunting, to be locked up with the fleas in the Bastille, to be pregnant? Bitter Greens revolves around three female characters who are, in many ways, restricted, but who celebrate their small freedoms. We have Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a true historical character—one of the first writers of literary fairy tales and historical fiction (much of it written while she was locked-up in a nunnery). She is known as the author of the story ‘Rapunzel’. Besides giving Charlotte-Rose her own narrative, with plenty of sass, intrigue, romance and danger, Forsyth embeds within it a fleshed-out version of Rapunzel, and within that, the story of the witch in that tale.

The Rapunzel story is about a girl called Margharita, who was promised to the witch during desperate circumstances at her birth. The witch and courtesan Selena Leonelli (or ‘La Strega’) comes for her when she is seven years old, renaming her Petrosinella (meaning ‘little parsley’). She puts her in a home until she is old enough be of use to her.

My favourite story was that of Selena, the witch. How does one become so fearful and desperate that they turn to dark magic? And how do they learn it? The ensuing tale is rich, dark and plausible.

Forsyth has obviously conducted much research and, as mentioned, she brings the senses of history to life, the good and the bad (though the bad is often more fun): the stenches, the cold, the blood. One of the main themes is entrapment, particularly for women, but men also suffer duties to parents, royalty and religion. Margharita, thinking about why her parents might have given her away, wonders if being taken in by La Strega were simply another choice (of few): ‘She could have been sent into service, apprenticed to a craftsman, enclosed in a convent or, in time, married—all of these were different types of imprisonment.’ This theme is echoed throughout the book. Charlotte-Rose, for example, is at different times trapped into roles in the court of the French king (due to a lack of funds, her bloodline and her ‘heretical’ Huguenot background): she is thrown into jail, she becomes involved in courtships because the ‘walls’ of marriage may at least allow her time to write, and she is physically locked up in the nunnery: ‘I had thought I could bend the world to my will. I had thought I could break free of society’s narrow grooves, forging a life of my own desire. I had thought I was the navigator of my soul’s journey. I had been wrong.’

Charlotte-Rose begins to work with Sœur Seraphina in the garden at the convent. In one scene the bees in the garden act as a metaphor for the sexual politics of the time. Seraphina has to explain to Charlotte-Rose that there is no ‘king bee’, but a queen, who spends all her life within the hive. Charlotte-Rose is amused: ‘Why, it is said that the beehive is the best example of how a kingdom should be run, with all the workers serving the king. And we’re always [at court] being preached sermons about how His Majesty the King must rule with sweetness and the sting, just like the king bee’.

There are moments of relief, for the three main characters, from their walls: moments of passion, nature, art, songs, secrets and stories. And a bit of magic.

I enjoyed Bitter Greens. I liked how rich (and also fecund) it was. There were a few moments where I had to suspend disbelief, such as when no one notices a particular character is not just ‘getting fat’… but it didn’t matter too much because the central stories are fantastical anyway. The book reminded me a bit of Angela Carter, but otherwise I haven’t read many more like this. Despite the fairly feminine cover I really think this book would be enjoyed by both men and women, just as Forsyth’s fantasy books are. It’s a juicy book that places you in the mind and bodies of these historical (and fictional) women.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Casual fate: Taking Shelter by Jessica Anderson

Published in 1989, by Penguin

Jessica Anderson (1916-2010) won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice, for Tirra Lirra by the River in 1978 and The Impersonators in 1980. Taking Shelter is one of her less lauded novels (they all sound quite different). I picked it up mainly because of one of the cover blurbs: ‘A provocative blend of Jane Austen domesticity, Iris Murdoch androgyny, and Australian sensuality’—The Washington Post Book World.

Taking Shelter is mainly about Beth and her shifting group of friends in Sydney in 1986. It has what I think of as a very Sydney, ’80s feel about it. AIDS is starting to make itself known, and the sexuality of Beth’s boyfriend Miles is dubious. He seems to be setting Beth up as a beard, as he has a specific, successful image of his life. Much of the story is told through (quite naturalistic) dialogue, and through Juliet’s dreams. Juliet is a friend of Miles but remains friends with Beth once the truth is known, after Beth has (very quickly) moved on.

Juliet is an odd character, older than her friends, a bit racist, and supposedly asexual. She writes down her dreams and then insists on linking them to the ‘detritus’ from her day. But as the novel progresses she begins to realise that her dreams may have more power. Fate is one of the main themes of the novel. One of Beth’s most vivid memories from childhood is of a day in Rome, on a family holiday, when she met a little boy who was making a list of creatures. She meets a guy called Marcus at a party. Could he be that same little boy?

Beth moved from Melbourne to Sydney and I did enjoy the references to her football-mad family. (I moved from NSW to Melbourne.) The beginning of the novel is confusing, with too many characters introduced and lots of dialogue, but the reader soon settles into the style, and the characters become clear and separate. Many do remain on the periphery though, and I think Anderson is saying something about groups, and family; the way we all, always, have people around us. At one point (perhaps the sweetest in the book) Beth and her new lover both get the flu and lock themselves up for days, in a delirium of fever and lovemaking. Fate will continue to play a role in their relationship.

Not a lot happens in this book, and it’s written plainly, but characters care for each other, dream, come together, fall apart. It reminds me a little of Australian films like He Died With a Felafel in His Hand (I haven’t read the book), or something like Praise (1998), though less gritty. Even though it’s set when my Boomer parents were around the age of the characters, it feels more Gen X. I think that’s partly the casual, urban, Sydney element.

As mentioned, Anderson’s other novels sound quite different. The Commandant is part of the new Text Australian Classics range, and The Impersonators is in the Sydney University Press Australian Classics range. And there’s a great review of Tirra Lirra by the River by Claire Corbett on the Overland blog. Have you read Jessica Anderson’s novels? I’d love to hear what you think. I was so surprised I hadn’t heard of this acclaimed Australian author before picking up this book.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.