QUESTIONS OF TRAVEL by Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel coverQuestions of Travel is one of those books that touches you, it lingers long after you’ve finished it. I find that images float up and interrupt my day, weeks after reading it, reminding me of the strength of the story, the brilliance of the writing.

This story focuses on the lives of two people, worlds apart. Laura is eager to leave Australia and see the world. Civil unrest in Sri Lanka has devastating effects for Ravi and his family. His world falls apart and he finds himself fleeing Sri Lanka for Australian shores. Both Laura and Ravi become travellers, tourists in other countries, for vastly different reasons. Their lives ultimately come together and they meet as work colleagues at a travel-book publishing house.

A traveller at heart with a fascination for the Other, I related to the concepts of travel, and was intrigued by the questions of why we travel that form part of this story. Laura leaves Australia behind for the excitement and thrill of travel, basing herself in London, and travelling to other exotic parts of the world. She explores many cities and countries but can’t seem to find happiness. There is something missing, it’s indistinct, but haunts her as she moves from place to place.

What I really enjoyed about this novel was the questions of why we travel, and the exploration of Australian stereotypes that made me cringe, partly in recognition of having witnessed this behaviour in fellow Aussies abroad, but also that I may have been guilty of similar behaviour at one point or another. This travel thread is but one part of this rich, evocative novel. There is also the exploration of how visitors feel in Australia, the struggles involved to understand the cultural requirements to ‘fit in’. I particularly liked the portrayal of this aspect because I think all too often as travellers we are quick to cast judgement and opinion about the places and cultures that we visit, yet give little regard for how we might be perceived in the reverse situation. Michelle de Kretser has created a wonderful exploration of culture, looking both outward and inwards that is richly rewarding to read.

The writing in Questions of Travel is alluring, vivid and engrossing. There is a boldness in the depiction of the characters accompanied by a sharp intelligence in the underlying themes and storytelling. I savoured reading this book, and will no doubt re-read it again, and again.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin 2012)

eISBN: 9781743435182

Questions of Travel Awards:

Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2014

Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW, 2014

Winner, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2013

Winner, ALS Gold Medal, 2013

Winner, Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2013

Winner, Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, Premier’s Prize, 2013

Winner, Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, Fiction Prize, 2013

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ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING, by Evie Wyld

All the birds singing_coverAll the Birds, Singing is a brilliant book that deserves the praise and accolades it has received. The tension that stretches throughout the book keeps you just that little bit on the edge of your seat. Never quite able to relax. Coupled with concise writing and compelling imagery, this book makes for addictive reading.

Jake Whyte is a sheep farmer with a tumultuous past now living on a remote, undisclosed, wet and cold island. She keeps to herself, refusing to socialise with the small island community, fearing that he will find her. Jake’s nights are fraught with things that go bump in the night, each sound amplified and distorted, reality and nightmare blending, bleeding into one another. Her days are tormented by some unknown creature that is killing off her sheep, one by one, leaving the carcasses to be discovered in the paddocks on her property. Someone or something is out there. Watching.

Jake is a closed book, refusing to open for anyone, and yet as you read the shadows of her past slowly emerge. Her life is one of solitude and long suppressed pain and torment. Evie Wyld does not shy away from forthright portrayals of harrowing events. There’s no padding to put the reader at ease. Instead there is a raw honesty and intense scrutiny of events that creates discomfort, makes you catch your breath and squirm in your seat.

There is also a keen reflection of Australian culture in her portrayal of life in rural Australia, of a life lived on the fringes, as an outsider and how the events of youth can have indelible consequences on the future. All the Birds, Singing is convincing, electric, raw and, ultimately, beautiful.

What I loved about this book is that it wasn’t predictable. Things that I thought would happen didn’t. There were events and revelations that I never expected. The method of storytelling added to the uniqueness of this book. The story is delivered in a back-and-forth, past and present format, however what makes this narrative so unique is that as the present progresses ever forwards, the past unfolds ever backwards taking you further and further back into Jakes’ past, to the original catalyst point. The two parts of Jake’s life spiral outwards away from each other, rather than meeting at a common point. The present is told using past tense, giving a sense of distance, and the past is told using present tense, creating a sense of immediacy the to the events. It’s a clever technique, and it works incredibly well. It’s Evie Wyld’s talent in writing and construction that makes All the Birds, Singing such an enthralling read. If you haven’t gotten your hands on a copy yet, make sure you do. Soon.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Random House 2013)   ISBN: 9781742757315 (ebook)

Winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award aww-badge-2015

Miles Franklin 2014 Longlist Announced

Mile Franklin Award LogoThe Miles Franklin Literary Award 2014 longlist was announced last week. Regarded as the most prestigious literary award in Australia, I always look forward to the release of the list and the array of literary genius that it contains. This years list is made up of established and debut authors, all of whom are competing for $60,000 in prize money.

Last year’s winner, Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser, was a fabulous read, one that I have shared with friends, and I highly recommend reading, if you’ve not already done so.  I’ve currently only read one of the books on the 2014 longlist, and I’ll no doubt be adding more from the list to my bedside reading pile.

The 2014 longlist:

  • The Life And Loves Of Lena Guant –Tracy Farr
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
  • The Railwayman’s Wife – Ashley Hay
  • Mullumbimby – Melissa Lucashenko
  • The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
  • Belomor – Nicolas Rothwell
  • Game – Trevor Shearston
  • My Beautiful Enemy – Cory Taylor
  • Eyrie Tim Winton
  • The Swan Book – Alexis Wright
  • All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

The shortlist will be announced on 15 May 2014, and the winner will be announced on Thursday 26 June 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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