November is nearly up and we’re hurtling towards the end of the year! This is my last monthly roundup, as the next one that I post will be an overview of the year. This post covers September to November (as last month I was diverted by our focus on Australian Women Writers of Diverse Heritage) and we had some 35 reviews on books that revolved around diverse issues, which is a stellar effort. I’ve collected these under various headings below, but sadly I wasn’t able to include all of them.
Marilyn of Me, You and Books loved Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, a speculative fiction novel set in a near future devastated by climate change, forcing Europeans into a nomadic existence while, in the north of Australia, Indigenous people live by their one healthy spring, which is now home to sunken battleships. The novel offers a number of readings, as Marilyn notes, ‘At one level, this is a very Australian book, full of details of the land and how the government has treated Indigenous people. It is told from an Indigenous perspective. This story, however, is placed in the context of global climate change that can rob us all of our homelands and our sense of belonging. Even deeper, Wright touches the sense of rejection, isolation, and loss that comes from being human.’ Marilyn thought the work even more significant than Carpentaria, which had me moving it from the middle of my to-be-read pile to the top! This book was also reviewed by David at GoodReads who found it provoking, in the best sense of the word, and in turn wrote an interesting review of the effect the work had on him.
Janine of Resident Judge penned a fascinating review of Roving Mariners by Lynette Russell, who is of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent and is director of the Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University. Janine notes that Russell ‘embraces notions of undecidability and uncertainty’, in that she does not privilege her Indigenous heritage over her non-Indigenous heritage, and vice versa, for history is never this clear-cut. Her stance informs her writing of her text about the South Australian sealing industry, which she wanted to be ‘more complex and less linear narrative than has been previously produced for southern Australia’, so as to represent the ethnically diverse seamen and women. Janine was at times ambivalent about Russell’s approach, but appreciated it for being ‘ strenuous and well argued’ and concludes that the work is ‘a beautifully written and nuanced reflective history’. It was also reviewed by Yvonne last month in her Histories, Biographies and Memoirs roundup.
Yvonne, in her own blog Stumbling Through the Past, also reviewed My Ngarrindjeri Calling by Doreen Kartinyeri, who offers her explanation of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy of the 1990s. As Yvonne notes, the book’s construction has an impact on the reader, with ‘each chapter in the first part of the book starts with a memory from the Hindmarsh Bridge controversy before going back to tell the story of Kartinyeri’s early life. This maintains the reader’s focus on the topic and reminds readers that the life she lived is the reason why she was an important source of Ngarrindjeri traditional knowledge and why she was a significant person in the Hindmarsh Bridge controversy.’
Other reviews by Indigenous Australian women writers included Rachel Hennessy’s The Heaven I Swallowed, reviewed by Erin of Healing Scribe, who found its protagonist ‘flawed, yet relatable’, and my review of Dylan Coleman’s Mazin Grace, which I loved for its incorporation of Kokatha words.
Many reviews were penned on Caroline Overington’s No Place Like Home, but Elizabeth of Devoted Eclectic tackled the book head on. It’s the story of Ali Khan/Nudie who, in his grey hoodie, walks into a shopping centre with a bomb around his neck. As Elizabeth writes, ‘As an immigrant and one-time refugee from Tanzania, he has been let down by his community, his rescuer, the Department of Immigration, his landlady, African community outreach workers, and now police hostage negotiators and bystanders.’ It seems to be a text which refracts its issues according to its reader, and Elizabeth, in her marvellous, textured review, interprets it as satire, challenging its readers to think about ‘several of the most important questions facing Australia today. What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of generation do we want to be remembered as? A generation which has allowed dog-whistle politics to whip up feelings of invasion and xenophobia, instead of tolerance and compassion?’ Elizabeth found it ‘exciting to see such issues being addressed in popular fiction’, and she’s not alone!
The Newtown Review of Books posted two reviews on books about refugees. Michael Jongen reviewed Love Versus Goliath, Robyn Oyeniyi’s account of her struggle to marry her husband, an asylum seeker, and to bring him and his children to Melbourne – no easy nor straightforward task. As Michael describes, ‘Time and time again Oyeniyi reels back as she realises that the right and honourable course of action means nothing against inflexible rules and regulations.’ Kathy Gollan also reviewed the recently released A Country Too Far, edited by Rosie Scott and Thomas Keneally, which includes pieces on experiences of asylum seeking and seekers, by Australian women writers such as Gail Jones, Fiona Macgregor, Sue Woolfe, Denise Leith and Geraldine Brooks.
In September, Christine of Freud in Oceania wrote a review of Madness: a Memoir, a striking book by Kate Richards, a doctor who suffers from mental illness. With medication, Kate can just keep her head about water, but without it, she is plagued by delusions. As Christine notes, this account ‘shows the sheer humanness that severe mental distress evokes in the patient as well as her treaters – the psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and nurses. It affects families and workplaces; treating professionals and the institutions in which patients and treaters reside. Kate’s is not just a plea for understanding but also for the recognition of the complexity of mental illness that increased expenditure and thought in the mental health field might address.’
It was also great to see characters with disability portrayed in genre fiction, with Rachel John’s rural romance novel Outback Dreams depicting a character with autism. Shelleyrae of Book’d Out reviewed this work and also interviewed the author about why she decided to write the character of Will Montgomery.
There were a handful of reviews of Australian women writers of diverse heritage aside from those penned for our spotlight in October. Crime writer Angela Savage, author of the recently released The Dying Beach, reviewed If the Moon Smiled by Chandani Lokugé, who was born in Sri Lanka but emigrated to Australia. The story is about Manthri and her marriage to an unjust man who relocates their family from Sri Lanka to South Australia. Angela describes it as a ‘profoundly sad story, almost unbearably intimate at times; and yet paradoxically, a pleasure to read due to the beauty of the writing.’
Marilyn, inspired by Merlinda Bobis’ The Fish Hair Woman, which recently won the Most Underrated Book Award, read and reviewed her earlier work The Solemn Lantern Maker, a ‘compelling story about a mute boy in the slums of Manila, the American woman he tries to rescue, and the furore caused by her disappearance.’
I shall end here, otherwise this post will keep both you and I up into the small hours! Do check out our Listings to read more of these wonderful reviews, which show how widely Australian women writers are exploring issues of diversity, and with such great results.
I’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis. I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.