Review 2133: The Secret River

Kate Grenville started out writing a nonfiction account of her great-great-great grandfather’s family, but she ended up with too many questions. So, she fictionalized their story and combined it with what she had read about other Australian pioneers.

William Thornhill grows up in poverty in early 19th century London, but he sees a future for himself when Mr. Middleton, a waterman on the Thames, takes him on as an apprentice. William has grown up with Sal Middleton, his boss’s daughter, and he marries her shortly after he reaches journeyman status. However, things go wrong for Middleton, and William finds his livelihood is much more difficult to earn. Finally, he is caught stealing part of a cargo to support his family.

Although he is sentenced to death for theft, William manages to get his sentence reduced to transportation, and his family is allowed to accompany him. In Australia, although life is primitive, it doesn’t take him long to realize he can make money there and maybe return to England in style. However, when he takes a job ferrying goods from a river where settlers have begun farming, he sees a piece of land he can own by settling on it.

Now begins a conflict, with William realizing he will never return to England and Sal only wanting to return. The conflict is heightened when some of the settlers have clashes with the aboriginal people.

I was certainly engaged by this novel, and I felt that Grenville did a good job of portraying the conflicts with the aborigines. Grenville’s characters are flawed but totally believable. She looks unflinchingly at Australia’s brutal origin story, which is very similar to our own.

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Review 2019: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Cold Light

In this third book of Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy, the League of Nations having closed and Edith’s hopes of getting a job with the United Nations dashed, Edith has decided to move back to Australia, thinking that Canberra will “snap her up.” (I was surprised that she thought this after her last job hunt in Australia.) Her husband Ambrose has managed to get a position with the British but is not happy to be there, and Edith has been back for months without any job offers. Her lack of an official title at the League, its spectacular failure, and sexism seem to be getting in her way.

Then her brother Frederick, who disappeared from the family 20 years ago, makes himself known to her. He is an organizer for the Communist party, a true believer. Talk is building up about banning the party in Australia, and in the U. S., Senator McCarthy is building power around this issue, so Edith isn’t sure what to do about Frederick and his girlfriend Janice.

Edith learns that the Canberra government isn’t hiring married women, but she eventually gets a temporary position organizing a conference about the design of the city. When the opportunity comes, she and Ambrose have just decided to move back to Europe and she thinks the job is beneath her, but by the end of the interview, she is sucked in. Of course, she uses this position to shoehorn herself into more opportunity.

I have been ambivalent about this series. At times, it is really interesting, while at other times it dwells too long on the details of some subject. For, continuing on with the theme of Edith being involved in world events of her time, there is a great deal of discussion of Communism from both sides as well as the ramifications of passing a law against it. (Edith has a long discussion with her old mentor, John Latham, a supreme court judge, who she believes voted wrongly on the issue, and it turns tedious.) The novel also deals with uranium and nuclear bombs vs. nuclear energy, as Edith makes herself an expert on uranium.

My other problem is that Edith has always seemed unconvincing to me as a woman. She is a bold and impulsive woman, true, but some of the things she does and the way she thinks don’t seem like the actions and thoughts of any woman I can imagine.

On a related issue, I was kind of fascinated by the cross-dressing aspect of her relationship to Ambrose and the emphasis on it—because there is no such emphasis on any of her other husbands. Robert is around for a millisecond, and she rarely mentions Richard after she marries him except in terms of his kids—not until she decides to leave him, at which point suddenly a chapter is devoted to their relationship.

Thinking about what Moorhouse chooses to talk about and what he ignores brought me to this conclusion. Authors often invest themselves in their characters by imagining that they are their main character (or some other). For a long time, I thought Moorhouse saw himself as Ambrose, but I finally decided that either he saw himself as both Ambrose and Edith herself or perhaps simply as Edith.

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Review 1882: After the Fire, A Still Small Voice

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice is Evie Wyld’s debut novel about how family trauma can pass down the generations. In alternate chapters, it follows Frank Collard in the present time and Leon 40 years earlier. Maybe I was dense, but it took me a while to realize that Leon is Frank’s father.

Frank has just split up with his girlfriend when he decides to restart his life. He leaves Canberra and drives to a shack on the eastern coast that his grandparents purchased years ago and where he spent holidays as a boy. He gets an occasional job loading boats. It’s a primitive life, and the loneliness starts to get to him.

Leon trains under his father to be a pastry chef and takes over the bakery after his father, in gratitude for the country that took in himself and his wife, World War II Jewish refugees, volunteers for the Korean War. Leon’s father returns damaged, unable to work, so his parents leave Leon, ending up in the beach shack. Then Leon is conscripted for Vietnam and has his own damaging experiences.

I can’t come up with the reference for this, but I remember several years ago reading a post by someone complaining about women writing like men. The implication was that they were doing so to be taken more seriously by male editors and publishers. In particular, Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was mentioned with the remark that you didn’t even know if the main character was male or female for some time. I didn’t agree that (1) just because you don’t know the sex of the main character means that the author is writing like a man (look at The Towers of Trebizond) or (2) Wyld was writing like a man in All the Birds, Singing. I certainly didn’t have that impression. However, the feel of After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is very masculine, which makes sense with her male protagonists.

The only other observation I have about the novel is that it seemed a bit all over the place for me. Perhaps this is because of my initial confusion about the relationship between the two main characters. I guess I wasn’t paying attention to last names, and Leon’s isn’t mentioned right away. In any case, for a long time I wondered where the novel was going. Also, I didn’t much like either Frank or Leon, although Leon was okay until Vietnam. But Frank’s problem isn’t really explained, and he has major anger issues.

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Review 1865: Truth

Of the Peter Temple novels I’ve read, Truth strikes me as the most hard-boiled. It has witty dialogue but not the lightness of some of the others. The ending is lighter but also cynical.

Stephen Villani has just been made the head of the Victoria Homicide Squad, and he’s already exhausted. At a brand new, very expensive condo, the body of a young girl is discovered, in her teens, maybe, and clearly having suffered abuse before her death. Villani is even more affected because she looks like his 15-year-old daughter, Lizzie, who has run away from home.

When his team begins trying to collect data from the building’s security people, they are told there was a big system outage that night because of an opening at the attached casino, so they have no camera footage and cannot tell whose key card was used to enter the condo. Also, the management is reluctant to divulge the names of the owners.

A bit later, they are called to a scene of torture and murder of two thugs in a local gang. The pressure comes down to Villani to concentrate on this crime and drop the investigation of the girl’s murder, but Villani is not willing to do that.

Besides pressures at work, Villani has other troubles. A huge forest fire is threatening his father’s place as well as the forest he and his father planted, and he knows his father won’t evacuate. His daughter Lizzie was returned home but already ran away again. His relationship with his wife Laurie is on the skids. And he is tormented by his relationship with his father, who left him alone at a young age to take care of his younger brothers but has never shown him any affection. Finally, he has kept silent about a major crime committed by a coworker.

Temple never seems to use an unnecessary word, and here the effect is heightened by the tough, affectless cops who only seem to speak in incomplete sentences. The dialogue is witty, although I didn’t understand all of the slang. This is a complex, cynical thriller about family and politics in law enforcement.

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Review 1853: The Broken Shore

Recovering from severe injuries inflicted in an encounter with a dangerous killer, Detective Joe Cashin has left a big-city homicide squad for his home town in a small Australian port. He is living in the wreck of his grandfather’s house.

His superior officer orders him to take charge in the assault on Charles Bourgoyne. An old man but still powerful and respected, Bourgoyne was brutally attacked in his own home and is in critical condition. The initial hypothesis is that the attack was a robbery gone wrong, as his expensive wrist watch is missing.

Cashin’s role is resented by Detective Hopgood, because the crime happened in Cromarty, in Hopgood’s jurisdiction. When they get a tip that three Aboriginal teenagers from the area tried to hock a watch of the same brand as Bourgoyne’s, Hopgood manages to botch their apprehension so that two of the boys are killed. Cashin is told to take leave, but he continues to pursue the case.

This is a dark and moody mystery written in Temple’s usual fluid and witty prose. It’s quite gripping.

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Review 1852: A Room Made of Leaves

Even from the Editor’s Notes of what purports to be Elizabeth Macarthur’s memoirs, we get a hint of what’s coming—the husband getting the credit for establishing the wool industry in Australia while the wife did all the work. The husband revered as an important founder of the nation when he was actually disliked and hated during his life and was away for many years.

As Elizabeth grows, she loses her family—her beloved father to death, her mother to a second marriage, her grandfather to her own marriage. She learns to hide her real self behind a docile, submissive mask. When she meets Ensign James Macarthur, part of her sees him for who he is, but she is curious and has no prospects, and her curiosity ends in her pregnancy. Her first lesson in her husband’s character comes before marriage—James is more interested in the pursuit than the capture.

James is in fact ferociously ambitious, but his touchiness about his lack of breeding makes him angry enough to work against himself. Elizabeth learns he is vengeful and likes to weave vast conspiracies to advance himself and bring down others. But his judgment is poor.

Posted to Gibraltar, James sees the possibility of a posting at the newly established prison in New South Wales as an opportunity and believes the brochures extolling the new colony. Elizabeth is skeptical, but she handles James poorly and finds herself on her way, again pregnant and with a new baby. However, eventually she discovers opportunity when James finagles 100 acres of Australian land by his manipulations of the governor. She and her two convict servants begin establishing a herd of sheep.

I found this novel vivid and deeply interesting, as Elizabeth learns how to handle her horrible husband and make a satisfying life for herself and her children. The novel evokes the raw early days of the 18th century colony as well as, occasionally, its beauties. I read it for my Walter Scott project and liked it very much.

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Review 1809: The Survivors

I haven’t read much by Australian writers, so when I noticed that Jane Harper seemed popular, I thought I’d give her a try. The Survivors is set in Tasmania, and I am attracted to books set on islands.

Kieran Elliott hasn’t returned to his small home town for 12 years, not since the storm. But his father has Alzheimer’s and his mother is trying to move them, so he has brought his partner Mia and their baby daughter back to the beach town in Tasmania to help with the move.

It is late in the season, and most of the summer people have gone home. One of Kieran’s high school friends, Olivia, has had a house mate for the summer, Bronte, and Olivia is glad that Bronte will soon be leaving, because there has been friction. Bronte has been working late at the local bar and restaurant, and after Kieran was there late with his friends, Bronte is found dead on the beach.

The storm years ago has been an elephant in the room, but it’s not until about page 75 that we find out Kieran had been in some sea caves that day and came out too late for the storm rise. His older brother Finn and Finn’s partner lost their lives in the storm trying to rescue Kieran. Some townspeople blame him for their deaths, including his own father.

Although this incident would appear to have nothing to do with Bronte’s death, we don’t learn until about page 120, as if it’s not important, that a girl disappeared on the day of the storm, Gabby, Olivia’s 14-year-old sister. When her backpack appeared in the surf, the police assumed she had drowned in the unprecedented storm surge.

Of course, Bronte’s death is related to Gabby’s disappearance.

I found a few things about the novel a little irritating. One is slight—that Harper remarks on the physical fitness of practically every male character. Maybe this is an Australian thing or maybe it’s supposed to reflect Kieran’s profession as a physiotherapist, but it seemed silly and unnecessary. Then there is a continuity problem—if Kieran’s rescuers died, how did he get rescued? There is no explanation of that. It also bothered me that Harper took so long to tell us what happened during the storm, as that delay didn’t seem to serve a purpose, and even more so that Gabby’s disappearance was treated like an afterthought.

Things get going slowly, but they seemed to be building to a satisfying and exciting conclusion, but no. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that the promised thriller ending sort of fizzles out. That being said, there are some interesting developments at the end of the novel, causing it to improve considerably.

I don’t mean to give this novel a bad review. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged; there are just ways in which it doesn’t quite deliver.

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Review 1802: White Dog

In this last of the Jack Irish novels, Linda has just left Jack for a position in London when he accepts a job from his ex-law-partner Drew. Sarah Longmore, an artist, has been accused of murdering her ex-lover Mickey Franklin. Sarah says she didn’t do it, but the prosecution has a witness placing her near the scene, and the murder weapon was a gun Mickey loaned her. Drew wants Jack to look for evidence that she is innocent.

Jack begins poking around but is unable to find out much except that three of Mickey’s former associates are missing. Against his own instincts, Jack and Sarah become lovers, but later when Jack goes to her studio to meet a witness, the building explodes, killing Sarah and badly injuring Jack.

Now that Jack’s client is dead, Jack is more determined than ever to find out who killed Mickey. The novel does not neglect Jack’s sidelines of learning cabinet making, hanging out with the old men Jack calls the Fitzroy Youth Club, and helping Harry Strang and Cam with horse-racing projects.

Again, Temple has produced a suspenseful and exciting novel in his Jack Irish series.

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Review 1780: Dead Point

Things haven’t been going well at the track for Jack Irish, Harry, and Cam. They just had to shoot a horse, which broke his leg just as he was winning a race. But that’s not the worst. The men’s friend Cynthia was returning from the track with the winnings for a syndicate they put together when she was robbed and brutally beaten. There are no leads, but they soon hear of another similar incident.

Jack’s involvement in these activities has been leading him to neglect a job for Cyril. One of Cyril’s clients wants him to find a man named Robbie Colbourne, who works as a bartender. Jack has barely started looking for him when he reads that the man was found dead of a drug overdose. However, the client asks to see Jack. He turns out to be an eminent judge who had an affair with Robbie, during which Robbie stole a compromising photo album. He hires Jack to find the album.

Peter Temple has written another great thriller, but he has also invented a rich life for his character, who surrounds himself with interesting people. He’s taking the “youth club,” a bunch of octogenarians, to the football, he’s installing a library, he’s advising his ex-partner on his love life, he might be getting back together with Linda. Temple likes his characters and makes working-class Melbourne come to life.

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Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

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