Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 – Wrap-Up

awwbadge_2014This is the first year that I have participated in the Australian Women Writers Challenge and I have to say that it was a wonderful experience.

I committed myself to the Miles challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books. Despite moving interstate, and then overseas and starting a new job in a new country, I was determined to meet my commitment, and I’m very happy that I succeeded. Not only did I read all 6 books, I wrote reviews for them as well. Participating in the AWW Challenge, I found myself searching for new books to read and in the process discovered some brilliant women authors whose work I had never read before, and also was able to read new works by authors who I already knew and admired. I encountered a host of vibrant characters: there’s Meggie Tulloch, the courageous fish gutting girl, with the flaming red hair, in Amanda Curtin’s Elemental; the aging Ruth who hears a tiger huffing and panting her living room, in Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest; Harry the Victorian dairy farmer, who has an affinity for bird watching, in Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds; the collection of short stories that convey the cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia, and highlights attitudes to life, relationships, death, superstitions and sex, in Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia; orphans Anna and Stephen Quayle and their interaction with middle class North Shore socialites, the Howard family, in post-war Sydney, in Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles; and young Lily, an outsider, who is mesmerised by the Trentham family and the artistic community they create in their home, in Emily Bitto’s The Strays. These characters and their experiences have travelled with me over this past year and reading their stories was a richly rewarding experience, one that I intend to repeat next year.

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THE STRAYS by Emily Bitto

TheStraysFrom the very first page, I was attracted to The Strays, and like the main character, Lily, I was mesmerised by the events that unfolded, drawn back over and over again to the Trentham’s house, to the vibrant chaotic lives of the people that lived there. There is a seductive quality to the writing that compelled me to keep reading.

The Strays tells the story of Evan Trentham, a famous 1930s modernist painter, his wife, Helena, who comes from a wealthy Melbourne family, and the inner workings of life inside their home. Evan and Helena open their home to other like-minded artists, creating an artists’ community. This gathering offers a rich environment of stimulating creative ideas and the expansion of new concepts, however, it also has a dark underbelly of debaucherous parties with lots of booze, cigarettes and ‘reefers’. The lack of a stable, nurturing environment for the three Trentham daughters, Beatrice, Eva and Heloise leads to tragic consequences for the entire family.

The Strays is told through the character of Lily, who as a young girl first meets Eva at school. Lily is mesmerised by the Trentham family, by the bold art that she does not fully understand, by their huge ramshackle house and expansive gardens, and by the glamorous but aloof Helena. Over the years Lily is drawn into the Trentham family fold and witnesses the spirited and often wild artists’ parties, and attends exhibition openings.

“If my mother had seen any one of the familiar tableau of the Trentham circle she would have spun me around and marched me straight back to the car. These were my secrets, the false bottom of my suitcase where the documents of my true allegiance were hidden. Maria as odalisque on the green chaise, being sketched by Jerome, who was still only learning the human figure. Evan in the late sun by the bath-fire, splashes of sienna on his chin, on his skull, between the kite-bones of his pelvis. Jerome and Ugo smoking reefer over a plate of Ugo’s pierogies, swapping the joint for a pickled cucumber. Helena in her kimono at midday, flirting with Ugo at the vegetable patch as he pulled up carrots.”

Evan and Helena are erratic, focused on artistic success and accolades, fame and money – despite claiming to reject capitalism ideals they actually live their life due to the capitalist successes of Helena’s family – at the detriment of their children, whom they neglect terribly. Lily is blinded by her infatuation with the Trentham’s exotic art-infused life and as such she brushes aside the fact that Eva and her sisters often goes without cooked meals, are left to scrounge for bread and jam in the kitchen, receive no comfort from their mother and are emotionally starved for attention. Much of this is a result of Helena carring an underlying resentment over her decision to have children at the cost of her own artistic career.

Lily covets the excitement and glamour of her friend Eva’s life. An only child, she struggles to understand family dynamics between siblings and desperately wants to be accepted by the Trentham family while rejecting her own parents, categorising them as dull and boring.

“I shifted in bed, conscious of the importance of other people lying asleep in the same house, and in some fundamental way, of having surpassed my own parents.”

Lily’s insecurities and desire for acceptance lead her to make a decision that haunts her for decades to come. Out of spite and anger, after being rejected by mother-figure Helena, Lily hides that she knew 15-year old Eva was running away with her 24-year old lover-painter, Jerome.

Even into adulthood and middle age, Lily is unable to accept her own flaws and how her actions contributed to the pain and suffering of her best friend, and that of Beatrice and Heloise. Lily attends a retrospective exhibition for Evan Trentham and reunites briefly with Eva, Beatrice and Helena. Aged in her sixties and still holding on to her anger and resentment, like a long, slow burning flame, Lily announces that she is contemplating writing a memoir about her experiences in the Trentham household. She is unwilling to reconcile her part in the trauma that occurred so long ago. The memoir stands as a subversive act of retribution for being rejected, for being on the outside and never being needed as she so desperately wanted all those years ago.

It is through the reading of a note, stolen long ago, that Lily is finally able to diffuse the anger that has simmered for so long. At last she realises that Helena was a mother figure for her and that in her own aloof way Helena did accept Lily as a part of the Trentham family circle.

Lily is a self-indulgent character and although she records the events that occur in the  Trentham household, she is very fixated on herself and her own needs. I found her to be both likeable and unlikeable. The young child-Lily displays a sense of selfishness that is common among children, but when that self-absorption continues into adulthood, I found her to be distasteful. This complexity, in making Lily at once likable and unlikable displays Emily Bitto’s talent in keeping her characters real – Lily is flawed, as are the Trentham family members. But beyond that, this is a story about the bonds of friendship between girlfriends, how those bonds change, twist and strain, snap back or break. There are heartfelt tender moments amidst the chaos and frenzy of the artists community, which serve to ground and anchor the story.

The Strays and its characters are memorable, and I found them lingering in my mind, found myself contemplating them and their motives for days after I read the last page. It is this quality, that for me, makes The Strays such a great book.

The Strays by Emily Bitto (Affirm Publishing 2014)

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IN CERTAIN CIRCLES by Elizabeth Harrower

InCertainCircles_2This book delves into a psychological exploration of people, relationships, class attitudes and power, and the way in which our childhood and family background influence our actions and decisions.

Harrower casts a searching eye over the postwar Australian middle class through Sydney North Shore socialites, the Howard family, and their reaction to impoverished orphans Anna and Stephen Quayle. The differences between how life is approached, lived and processed by the socially accomplished Howard children, Russell and Zoe, versus the orphans is a major theme throughout the book. Anna and Stephen are emotionally damaged after the death of their parents and years spent living with an unstable Aunt (and her caretaker husband) whose mental illness slowly spreads taking over the household and everyone in it. The Quayle siblings wrestle to overcome the repercussions of their disturbed childhood in different ways, but undeniable damage has been done. The Howard family outwardly appear accomplished, educated and emotionally balanced yet their middle class status is unable to provide protection against corrosion of the mind or personality.

Zoe is young, full of life and confidence in herself. She has only ever know praise and privilege.

“She had discovered this high-handed, high-spirited manner of seeming tremendously well pleased with herself.”

When she encounters Stephen’s disdain and criticism of all that she stands for, Zoe is shocked yet attracted to him. She finds herself strangely drawn to this man who fails to be flattered by her charms, who doesn’t hold her aloft in a glittering light simply because she exists.

“Something in him took her from the pink marshmallow castle of her life to a high cliff over the ocean in the real world.”

Zoe, full of her own confidence, views Stephen as a challenge and is certain that her love can heal his wounds. That she can save him. That her love can soothe the anger, the vitriolic outbursts, the sullen silences, and the extended emotional withdrawal that Stephen exhibits. Zoe succeeds in seducing Stephen but after twenty years of marriage she discovers that she is but a shell of her former self, finds herself unrecognisable and that her marriage is mirage:

“I have the impression that I died two or three years ago, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Russell returns from the being a prisoner of war a changed young man and dedicates himself to helping others less fortunate than himself. It is Russell who introduces Stephen and Anna to the Howard family and draws them into the household and their lives. Despite being engaged to Lisa, a high spirited woman from their wealthy social circle, Russell feels an attraction for Anna that he has not experienced with other women. A quiet tension simmers between the two of them, over years and decades, until it erupts with devastating consequences.

Anna wrestles with her unrequited love for Russell but does not give in to it. Instead she is determined to make her own way in the world, to gain her freedom through work. Regardless of the pittance she is paid, Anna celebrates her independence and escape from her Aunt’s madness through small moments encountered in the everyday with her co-workers and time spent alone on weekends.

“She lay with her face down, her forehead and cheeks and bare arms pricked by the short mown grass. She breathed the fresh earth odours and they fed her. She lay so heavily relaxed and weary that she seemed to sink and grow into the comfortable ground. And as though it were a person, she began to feel fond of the country, from being so close to it.”

In Certain Circles was written in the 1971 but withdrawn at the last moment by Harrower, and never published. It’s final publication proves that Harrower’s portrayal of relationships and attitudes of the day are as relevant now as they were then. The story and its characters have been able to stand the test of time, which is no small feat. This is a masterfully written book that reflects the vastly different perspectives between the lower and middle classes and how hardship is understood and dealt with. Another theme running through the book is how women are placed within society, their roles at work and within the home, and the expectations  around marriage and domesticity.

“He should be a professional humorist – asking me what I’m going to do for an occupation. There’s only you, you, you – as the song says. And us, and our harbourside estate, and our cats, and that room full of stuff to be translated, and your printery, and our public life – provided by Russell, and our private life – provided by us…”

The pace is slow and the plot focuses around the internal working of the characters. It is the psychological tension that propels the narrative forward, and it is beautifully handled by Harrower. She manages to deftly present opposing perspectives and insights into the human psyche through her flawed characters. She has created characters that resonate through their foibles. I found myself at times anxious and frustrated with both Zoe and Anna, wanting them to move forward, to take control or action instead of being so passive. I wanted to shout at them and shake them for some of their behaviour. Stephen was both an annoying martyr that I loathed and someone I felt infinitely sorry for. It’s that kind of book. It will bring your emotions to the surface.

awwbadge_2014In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing 2014)

Elizabeth Harrower is the author of The Watch Tower (Text Publishing 2012) and Down in the City (Text Publishing 2013) both of which also explore themes of social class, set against a Sydney backdrop.

HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA by Laura Jean McKay

Holiday in CambodiaI was helping a friend edit her short story, a great travel piece about a trek along the Inca Trail, when she mentioned that a colleague had commented that the story didn’t have enough insight into the emotional background of the characters. I’ve noticed recently that some readers want the characters’ emotions laid out for them, to have the characters presented akin to a reality TV show, where every tedious inch is laid bare and nothing is left to the imagination. The problem is that a short story doesn’t have the time or space to delve into these areas the way a novel does. Also, a well written story doesn’t need the characters’ emotions conveyed in intimate, expanded detail. A good writer can convey intense situations through means other than describing the characters’ emotions. As a reader, I want to be guided, given some insights, but I want my imagination to kick in, to fill the spaces with a richness and vividness that is all my own. That’s the beauty of reading.

What does that have to do with Holiday in Cambodia? you ask. Well, quite simply that this book of short stories does a sensational job of withholding, of giving just enough insight, character development and storyline to get you hooked, so hooked in fact that you want more, you want the stories to go on, only they don’t. They stop. Often quite abruptly. Which, for me, only added to their appeal. I liked that there wasn’t a focus on providing an excess of detail and character emotions, that there was a tension created by the holding back, which allowed me to engage more fully with the stories being narrated.

Holiday in Cambodia is a collection of 17 short stories that portray the cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia, and highlights attitudes to life, relationships, death, superstitions and sex. The stories are cleverly crafted so as to be often fragmented, leaving the reader with the impression of having entered into a conversation halfway through, only to have it end abruptly without a resolution. McKay’s talent is evident in her ability to write intense, brief stories that are precise, yet containing just enough details to bring the stories to life. It would be a mistake to assume that the brevity of the length, or the sudden endings mean that the stories lack weight. Holiday in Cambodia is filled with weighty, powerful stories, driven by well-developed, real characters. Some so real that they’ll make you cringe, others will make you want to comfort the central character. What is certain is that these stories will make you feel a gamut of emotions. It’s hard to believe that such short stories can produce such intense reactions. The Australian characters, in the form of expats, aid workers and tourists, are immediately recognisable by the way that they behave, sometimes badly – from the expat men who frequent brothels to the mother who inserts herself into a grieving family to satisfy her sense of morbid curiosity about death. The stories push deeper beyond the stereotypes to explore Cambodian culture, superstitions and the tragedy and loss experienced by a country ravaged by war and the Khmer Rouge, and the ongoing loss of life and limb due to unexploded ordinances that lie hidden in the soil.

In the rainy season, mines slide under the mud. Landmines are travellers. They shift like worms and you have to find them again. Old ones rise to the surface and ones marked as found sink and disappear. You could end up with one next to your house, they warned, where your children play. (A Thousand Cobs of Corn)

The question of why we travel, and the desire to view the plight of others as a form tourism is raised in Route Four. ‘I’m going to India after this,’ says the rich man and the lady laughs. ‘You have to go. It’s dire.’ Three backpackers from western countries insist on catching the train to Kampot, and an orphan boy accompanies them, hoping to make some money from the rich foreigners. The tale starts slowly,  keeping pace with the rhythmic shunting of the train, but takes a dramatic turn that has brutal results. This story, among others, still haunts me, the imagery was vivid, and the ending caught me off guard.

The impact of the stories in Holiday in Cambodia is strong yet poignant, and they will stay with you after you have finished the book. Route Four, the first story in the collection, is a great leading piece, and from there I found myself consumed and fascinated by the characters, by their circumstances, and the cultural insights and perspectives that I had gained access to.

awwbadge_2014Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay (Black Inc. 2013)

Holiday in Cambodia was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award 2014. 

MATESHIP WITH BIRDS by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship with BirdsCoverMateship with Birds focuses on the lives of dairy farmer Harry, and his neighbour, single mother Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Set in countryside Victoria, in the 1950s, the book subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) explores themes of desire, courtship and sex against a backdrop populated with Australian iconic birds.

Harry has long been single, his wife having left him for another man, and he fills his days with tending to his dairy cows, who have endearing names such as Pineapple, Enid, Fatty, Big Joyce and Pauline, to name but a few, and distinct personalities to match. The cows have a presence all of their own and I love this scene (below). It is filled with power and movement, and brings an every day moment in the dairy to the fore:

“On these wet mornings the world seems close around them – Harry and the herd. It is the same greasy rain that hits them both, that sticks to hide and skin, that gushes down their legs and gathers in their eyelashes. Harry opens the gate and pushes in among them. Their blood is hot. Each cow gives off her own great heat and takes in the heat of her sisters. They are urgent with milk and hunger, stamping and bellowing and thrusting out their necks.” (p.4)

Harry also has an affinity for bird watching, in particular the kookaburra family that has taken up residence, and his binoculars are never far from hand; Harry observes the kookaburra family’s interactions with regularity and affection. Carrie Tiffany brings birds to the forefront in this book and they offer a charming and delightful segue throughout the narrative, giving a voice to Australian birds that we know well but are generally relegated to the periphery of human life. In some sections the life of birds is just as dramatic as the lives of the main characters. The birds are not only seen but also heard, their partnerships are vibrantly alive, and losses are keenly felt. Carrie brings into focus the large space that birds fill through songs, colour and plumage, and their battle to survive nature and machine.

“A honey eater,

tongue drunk

on nectar,

sleeps it off

beneath a flowering gum.

Until Dad, perched above,

notices the jerky

intoxicated cycling of its twiggy legs.

That’s dinner sorted.”  (p.90-91)

One underlying theme is the rhythm of farm life, its solidity and receptiveness, but we are also exposed to the harsh realities, experienced through moments of violence, and the peculiarities of country life. Sex, life and death are explored through the discerning eyes of adults and the curious eyes of children.

Harry has come to care deeply for his neighbour Betty and her two children but his gentle, shy nature sees him dance about the object of his affection without openly declaring his feelings. Betty wrestles with her own feelings for Harry but rather than voice them, she indulges in fantasies of desire. As Michael approaches sexual maturity, Harry, taking on the role of surrogate father, decides to offer advice on the act of sex. A man of few words, Harry makes some clumsy attempts at explaining sex to young Michael and resorts to writing letters, using farming anecdotes and scientific analogies as his rationale. For example, in one letter to Michael, Harry covers the topic of kissing:

“The male and female kissing equipment – mouth, tongue, mechanisms of salivation – are strikingly similar, excepting scale.” (p.169)

For all of his well-meaning attempts, Harry tends to see the female body in more mechanical terms, and neglects to advise Michael of the emotional aspects, the importance of love, and this could be indicative of how men viewed women and relationships in the 1950s.

Mateship with Birds is composed of a series of narratives, moments in time, poems (that Harry writes in the columns of an old ledger), and letters. The pace is unhurried but not slow, and for me it was akin to strolling along a country road, where everything on the horizon is visible but then a bird, a cow or person comes into sharp focus and my attention is fully engaged, watching, listening, before moving on. There is beauty in the everyday but also recognition of the banal and Carrie Tiffany manages to convey these elements without overly romanticising country life.

“[Harry] leans against the Waratah, one hand resting on the strip of Axminster glued to the tank, the other cooling around the beer. The net curtains are drawn across the long window in the front sitting room; they hang a foot or so short of the floor. A few dead flies lie behind the glass and further in he can see three pairs of slippers, the mottled flesh rising out them like puddings.” (p.196)

Mateship with Birds shows country and farming life through a different lens, one that is at times both gentle and cruel, comedic and peculiar, practical and romantic. The story unfolds through a multitude of different heartbeats and a reveals a tenderness that will stay with you. A truly delightful book.

Carrie Tiffany is an award-winning author and her second novel, Mateship with Birds, was the winner of both The Stella Prize (2103), and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (2013), and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2013).

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador 2012)

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THE NIGHT GUEST by Fiona McFarlane

THE NIGHT GUEST by Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The Night Guest is a well-crafted story that focuses on Ruth, an elderly widow living alone in a beach house on the sand dunes of a NSW coastal town.

Ruth awakens one night to hear a tiger huffing and panting in her lounge room. While she knows it’s not real, the arrival of the tiger unleashes in Ruth a flood of memories from her youth spent in Fiji that begin to overlap, encroaching on her nights in hot, steamy, cloying clarity. In the midst of this fraying tapestry appears Frida, a carer claiming to be “sent by the government” to cook and clean for Ruth. Frida is larger than life with hairstyles that change on a daily basis, and a robust enthusiasm for cleaning, and she soon insinuates her way into Ruth’s life, house and heart.

Ruth’s eldest son Jeffrey is conflicted: he’s suspicious of this new arrival but also glad that someone is there to look after his mother. Frida charms Jeffery into complacency, yet he remains uneasy. Nothing dramatic happens but as the story gently unfolds over days spent together in the beach house, Ruth begins to detect an underlying foreboding that she can’t quite define. She is aware that her childhood memories are colliding with the present but struggles to untangle the threads. Ruth reaches out to Richard, an unrequited love from her teenage years in Fiji, and after 50 years apart they reunite to discover their love is for one another is still alive. They begin to plan a life together, however, Frida and Ruth’s deteriorating memory conspire against the couple’s newly-found love.

McFarlane has approached this story of love, ageing loneliness, and deceit in impeccable style. The writing is subtle and sensitive, the pace slow and meandering in some parts, chaotic and in others, until the underlying tension accelerates to reach a sinister crescendo.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Published by Penguin Books Australia.

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ELEMENTAL by Amanda Curtin

Elemental

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such an evocative, richly woven story that drew me into the depth of the pages so convincingly that I felt I was experiencing the life of the character in Technicolor.

Elemental is the story of Meggie Tulloch, a Scottish lass from Roanhaven, who promises that she will never resign herself to the harsh life of the cold, wind-blown fishing village that generations of her family were born into and never left. She promises herself that she will never carry a man on her back from the shore to the fishing boats so that his socks may remain dry.

We first meet Meggie as an old woman who, sensing she is dying, decides to write selected stories of her life as a gift for her granddaughter, Laura. Meggie’s story is one of love found and lost and of family and secrets that are fiercely hidden from prying eyes but that live on, eating away at the hearts of those who carry their knowledge. Meggie’s life is about many things but one element that stood out to me is her remarkable strength and endurance: the enduring determination in her young heart to follow her dreams and leave Roanhaven and venture into the world, taking her from the icy cold winds at the top of the world to the endless blue skies and scathing heat of Fremantle, in Western Australia; the physical endurance of fingers eaten and disfigured by salt through her working as a fish gutting girl on the Shetland Isles; the endurance to keep going in the face of despair at the loss of so many people that she loves; and the endurance to overcome her fears and open her heart to the joys that life delivers like sunshine on a rainy day. Spanning several generations, Elemental highlights the strength of women, their capacity for love and friendship, laughter and forgiveness, and just getting on with things in a world dominated by men, because that’s how it’s always been.

Elemental is a testament to Amanda Curtin’s ability to turn words into beautiful, evocative and haunting lines of prose. Contributing to the success of this book is the vivid characterisation and voice of Meggie as she tells her story. The depth of Curtin’s historical research is evident and this has allowed her to create the rich background against which the story is told. The use of Scottish, Doric and Shetland words enhance the sense of connection to time and place, bringing Meggie and her family members to life. There is a succinctness to the writing that drives the narrative forward and each sentence has been weighed and considered, shaped by the sharpness of an editor’s eye, resulting in prose that flows, and rolls, and swells. It’s magic.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin. Published by UWA Publishing.              

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