Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Julia Baird's Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark


We are having bumper meetings these days, because due to COVID-19 us retirees are not travelling the way we usually do through the cooler months. It's lovely actually, though with 10 or more at meetings, the enthusiastic discussions can be hard to follow! I apologise to members whose ideas I've missed, in other words.

This month's book was by Aussie journalist and biographer, Julia Baird, who has had a very tough cancer journey over the last few years. Her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, ostensibly the lessons she has learnt to help herself and others through such times. Some of the essays were written (in some form) before her illness, which suggests that these ideas have been swilling around her head for a longer time.

As usual, we started with ...

First impressions


We basically broke into two camps, those who loved the book, and those who liked it but with reservations.

Those who loved it found the writing wonderful, commenting on the way she draws the reader in by observation and experience, and on the personalised, moving way she shared her ideas. They liked the way she drew different threads together. One listened to Julia Baird, herself, reading it on Audible, and found it excellent, so much so that it made her want to buy a print copy to refer back to.

Those with reservations all liked much of the content, and didn't disagree in any major way with what she had to say. Like those who loved it, they found her a bright, intelligent woman, and thought her writing excellent. The reservations varied a little but boiled down to feeling that the book:

  • contained many ideas we could relate to, but offered nothing new;
  • feels disjointed, or as some said, the "phosphorescence" theme didn't play through the book as clearly as was expected;
  • was tedious at the beginning, but liked it more when it became apparent that it was a book of essays; and/or
  • felt a bit glib, and repetitive, which made it somewhat unsatisfying.

The discussion


The discussion, just like some felt the book was, was somewhat disjointed!

Members identified aspects of the book that particularly struck them, which included (excuse the lazy dotpointing!):
  • Baird's looking for nurturing experience from the natural world
  • much of the language and her descriptions 
  • the memoir aspects
  • her encounters with a wide range of interesting people, which we felt was partly due to her journalist career bringing her into contact with such a variety of people (like the millionaire financier in New York)
  • the way she seizes the day
  • the book's beautiful cover
We also talked a little about Baird's discussion of faith and doubt. One admired her being one of those women of faith who can relate to/reach a broad audience. We shared a couple of her comments about doubt:

The mark of a civilised woman, too, is to doubt the wisdom received from men for so long...

Another that several of us liked came during her discussion about its being ok to doubt scientists, who, themselves, recognise that things can change and that they need to "embrace doubt, and see shades of grey...". She says scientists have been wrong in the past "as have politicians, teachers, priests, principals, CEOs and all sorts of authority figures". And then, she adds in parentheses:

(Although, seriously, if you can't accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it's not doubt that is your problem.)

We all loved that.

We talked about the various references to Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. The prevalence of Japanese thought was interesting given she talks about visiting various places, but not Japan. The ideas, which are hard to express in Western words, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, about the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); YĆ«gen (about grace and mysterious experiences that are hard to explain); Wabi sabi (about imperfect or transient beauty); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (about repairing broken pottery in ways that the repair can be seen, making the damage part of its history and beauty); and Moai (about the groups created among newborns in Okinawa which provide social support through life).
Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is beautifully called "We are walking each other home" (Ram Dass). One member loved the concept introduced in this section of Freudenfreude, which is a term coined, Baird says, by psychologists to describe the opposite of Schadenfreude

Another wonderfully named section that we discussed a little is "We are all wiggly" where she talks about accepting and/or embracing failure and imperfection. She describes her own spectacular failure as an activist for the ordination of women in Sydney's Anglican church. She argues that we should appreciate and recognise failed activist action, that we should honour the effort and the commitment. We should also recognise that quite often the issue keeps building and is eventually achieved. 

We also enjoyed her discussion in this section of the pressure on women's appearance - their dress, their hair, etc. We loved that the term "mutton dressed as lamb" was initially positively intended. (Oh, and most of us were surprised to hear that she has a big nose! We hadn't noticed!)

We laughed at some of the stories, such as her son's delightful hoarding of his underpants for the memories they are associated with, and her sock-chewing groodle, Charlie. Other stories that interested us included the story of hope as exemplified by Jim Stockdale who spent over 7 years in Vietnam's most notorious and brutal POW prison, and the subsequent concept of "The Stockdale Paradox".

Some of the other messages we took away included living life deliberately (by paying attention), the (counterintuitive) idea that the clue to happiness is to have low expectations, the value of awe (including "the overview effect"), and the importance of searching for our "ert" (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin to oppose "inertia").

One commented, gratefully (ha!), that Baird didn't talk about the current "in" idea that she's hearing everywhere, gratitude!

The book provoked much thought among many of us about our own lives and values, but what was shared in the room will stay in the room. Let's just way that in the end we decided that, whether we agreed that the work was fully coherent or not, it was a book in which Baird was able to share many of the things she wanted to say and pass on, and that the book can work as "a salve for the weary".

Present: 11 members

Friday, 9 October 2020

Erotic stories for Punjabi widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal


September’s meeting was very well attended and everyone enjoyed our book, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows.

The story is about a young Punjabi woman called Nikki living in contemporary London who has dropped out of a law degree and is trying to work out what direction her life will go. She knows she does not want to be a lawyer (against her father’s wishes) and she does not want to have an arranged marriage but she is undecided about her future career and life. Her immediate goal is to assist these ladies who want to tell stories to relax and enjoy life.

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean born novelist with a Punjabi family background. She has written 4 books to date and Erotic storiesis her third novel. Her first novel, Inheritance, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian novelist award in 2014. She spent time in Australia and has an Australian husband.


First impressions

  • It’s about relationships, the migrant experience and expectations— Nikki and her sister Mindi are both wanting a happy life. Nikki desires the freedom to have a choice of partner and career versus Mindi, who is more traditional in her life choices and accepting of an arranged marriage
  • I recommended it as I had heard about it on the radio – interesting juxtaposition of modern and traditional approaches to life by these girls and delving into serious topics at times, especially in talking about the frightening males of the community policing the girls. I had to tell myself it was only fiction but no doubt based on fact.
  • Finished too predictably.
  • Thought it was too frivolous at the beginning but then realised that it is about generational change and people who hold on to traditions.
  • It was not my sort of book because I like books that make you think. It was a little too obvious. However, it covers the migrant experience well.
  • Very funny in some places.
  • Very erotic at times – too much so for me! Easy read and not lasting well in my memory as I read it a while ago.
  • Well written, good cultural insights especially showing women as repository of culture
  • I found it slow to start and couldn’t find any beauty in the language – just a story but it was good escapism in our ‘Covid’ times.
  • Found it engaging but a bit prosaic or formulaic. It was a good exploration of women between two cultures shown by Nikki and her sister and their tensions. Nikki didn’t agree with arranged marriage but family connections were very important for her. 
  • The older women in the group gathered around Nikki telling erotic stories exhibited their freedom in England, which they did not have at home in England or in their home country. The book did make you think about the tough restrictions on some women in this Punjabi community even in a suburb in London.

 

Discussion


We started the discussion with a question: Was Jason’s story of an arranged marriage a counterfoil to Mindi’s arranged marriage plot?

Jason’s marriage was very unhappy. Mindi had a view of an arranged marriage where you had time before the ceremony to get to know the partner and eventually develop a good relationship. For Jason there was no chemistry with his arranged marriage (as far as the reader knows) versus chemistry (love) which comes later in Mindi’s idealised interpretation of an arranged marriage.

What did we think of Mindi?

She didn’t like being dressed in the same clothes as her younger sister as a child, although curiously, Nikki didn’t mind it. They were very close and related well with love and respect for each other. Mindi is essentially a practical person and views her life through that lens. She was possibly going to be the ‘child’ left at home to look after the aging parents, especially after their father died.

Would it have been as good a novel without the sexy bits or titillation? 

It was part of empowering the ‘widows’ and proving that they had inner lives and imaginations. Some readers thought it didn’t gel. However, there is the other view that Indian culture is very open to displays of sex through their art, statuary and building decoration especially in connection with their religion, with freizes, and also in written works like the Kama Sutra. Bollywood is a ‘hoot’ or ‘overblown comedy disguising the sex in a fantasy of romance’ according to one of our group. An example is the film Bollywood matchmaker.

Sikhs and Sikh culture


The remainder of the conversation revolved largely around Sikhs and their culture living in London. The author, Jaswal, has based the story in Southall, which is where the largest temple is situated and where there is a significant population of Sikhs. However not all the characters are British. Nikki’s boyfriend is an American Sikh. (Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the UN for the USA is a Sikh, according to one of our members).

One member stated that it is easy to ‘love a man in a turban’ and there was much discussion about the Sikh who is sitting for the Liberals in the current ACT election. There are apparently many items identifying Sikh men, particularly: uncut hair, wearing silver bangles and carrying a ‘figurative’ sword. 

Sikhs often send money ‘home’, and although they have a new life with the move to a western culture, it is often purely for economic reasons. The largest group of Sikh people in Australia live in Victoria. The population in Australia is approximately 132,500. In Victoria, a Sikh man won a court case in the early 1900s to vote as a coloured man living in Australia after Australia had introduced the White Australia policy.

One reader did some research and discovered a thesis which discusses the Sikh heritage and the questions of women’s body identity. It is a patriarchal culture but the women have to negotiate the two cultures when living in a foreign land (such as in England). This is part of Nikki and Mindi’s dilemma and for the all other women too, no matter what age they were.

Nikki’s father in Britain wants his daughters to have a choice in life but then tries to restrict Nikki. There are the many visits back to India too to encourage all the traditional manners and customs in the girls. Honour for the family is vitally important as it is with many other cultures, which makes life extra hard for the young women involved. One member mentioned that the novelist says that Sikh culture can fossilise in a migrant country, whereas back home (in India) the culture moves a bit more with the times.

Kulwinder, the woman who employs Nikki in the novel, was one of the few characters who changes over the length of the story. She didn’t know what she was ‘buying into’ when she interviewed Nikki. She got more than she expected. We thought she was a great character. We liked the fact that there's a wide range of women in this novel ranging from young Nikki at 22 to mature ladies in their 50s and 60s. So there are lots of different opinions, and a push and pull between the generations.

An irony in the story was that Kulwinder moved to Southall thinking that her daughter would be safe there among Sikhs, but sadly that was where she was killed. Southall is a ‘Punjabi on Thames’ where the community lives separately from their English compatriots.

Racism was briefly mentioned. It is a subtle theme in the novel. For example, Steve, Nikki’s boss at the pub, noticed some passing references from English people to Nikki and her status at the bar.

Radicalising of migrant men and boys is also important issue in present day London and often mentioned in this novel. The menacing "Brothers" who patrol the streets of Southall have definitely have been radicalised. The security of young women was also mentioned quite often.

There is violent radicalising through the religion but there is also the radical behaviour of the women wanting to be freer and some learning English. The ladies who joined Nikki’s class were radical in that they were not learning English but telling stories they wanted to hear. It was also radical that they allowed themselves to go to the pub to continue the ‘lessons’.

It is interesting that no woman in this story married outside their community but the author did as she is married to an Australian. It is not an option for many Sikhs. (Because of a ruling from Amritsar, many gurdwaras no longer permit a Sikh to marry a non-Sikh in their premises. The basis of the prohibition is that a non-Sikh does not honour the Guru Granth Sahib as a Guru and so cannot show sufficient respect to the Guru Granth Sahib which presides at the marriage. From Sikhs in Australia.)

Sikhs are often persecuted as they don’t fit into the Moslem or Hindu communities. Sikhs do not proselytize so they need to breed and are very proud of their culture and their good works. They have a wonderful tradition of community service and providing free meals at temples in England, India and Australia.

We thought that this novel would make an excellent movie and the rights have been sold to Scott Free productions and Film4.

Present: 9 socially distanced, and 2 via Jitsi 

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Griffith Review 68, Getting on

Our August book, issue no 68 of the literary journal, Griffith Review, was a departure from our usual fare, and yet, although only a third of us read it all, its selection was unanimously approved. Why? Because this issue's topic, Getting on, or aging, was right up our alley. We started, of course, with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it, albeit was sometimes confronting, sometimes heartwarming, a sometimes a bit over the head.
  • Also enjoyed it overall, and also found it confronting in places. Liked that it opened with Garner, and enjoyed some of the poems.
  • Liked that it offered much to think about .
  • Thought that Sarah Holland-Batt's essay "Magical thinking and the aged-care crisis" set the scene well. Was interested in topics like the failure of the health care system, genetics and the definition of ageing. Enjoyed learning new information. Some pieces were very moving, but not all were specifically about ageing. 
  • Loved it all. Every piece had something intellectually interesting to offer about "getting on"; enjoyed the less scientific ones most. 
  • Read most of it but found some too depressing and others too scientific. Liked the Vicki Laveau-Harvie piece, having heard her at the Canberra Writers Festival.
  • Felt it was apposite for us to read, but found it a challenge. However, liked that it challenges our thinking about what sort of aged care we'd like, and thought it offered much food for thought.
  • Read all but last piece, and found it very profound, very moving, overall. So many good articles. Was particularly interested in the Mark Aarons piece about his long road to diagnosis, and could empathise, from her own experience of being an intern, with Melanie Cheng. 
  • Is a Griffith Review subscriber. Found the Garner opening piece a bit mystifying until she got to the end. Enjoyed Kathy Marks "A life in books" and Caroline Baum's "The hungry years". Was interested that many of the pieces were from people in the 60s, with nothing really from 80-somethings to provide an aged perspective. 
  • Read it all and really liked it. Particularly liked Sarah Holland-Batt and Beth Mohle's essays on the aged care system. Amused that one of the unrealistic fantasies described by Holland-Batt - "a geriatric co-op" style plan - was proposed by Burkitt for Gen Xers!

Favourites


Some of us nominated our favourites. One really liked Ailsa Piper's "Old Growth", because Piper is happy to admit to being old, saying "I like saying I'm old!" Our member sees so many people being "in denial". Other favourites included Sarah Holland-Batt's "Magical thinking and the aged care crisis" (3), Kathy Marks' "A life in books" (2) and Beth Mohle's "System failure". Honourable mentions included Helen Garner's "The invisible arrow" and Frank Brennan's "Contemporary loss". One member named Glenn A Albrecht's "One hundred years of sumbiotude"the most obscure article. 

Specific "stories" that individual members liked included that about the grand-daughter who was surprised by how forward-thinking her grandmother was, and the one (in Frank Brennan, "Contemporary loss") about the dying man whose family brought in his paintings to hang on the wall which resulted in conversations that helped personalise relationships between patient, family and staff.

Discussion


With such a diverse set of essays/memoirs/reports/fiction/poems, it was hard to have a coherent discussion, so this report will be a bit "scatty" ...

Of course we talked mostly about aged care in general, referencing in particular Holland-Batt and Mohle for their excellent analyses of the current situation, including how we got here, and for their thoughts about where to next. One member particularly liked Mohle's discussion of the new role of Nurse Navigator that's been created in Queensland and which seen significant reductions in Emergency presentations and overall hospitalisation. Both authors decried the Aged Care Act (1997) which contains no standards, no requirements for transparency or accountability.

We discussed the fact that some articles, such as Jane R Goodall's, discussed the idea of developing the role of "elders" and what this might mean. A couple of us liked Goodall's statement that:

The call of the elders is not to dwell on the past, but to renew awareness of our roots in it, and our place in a longer time scheme.
We also talked a little, though not in great depth, about euthanasia and assisted dying. We liked Blatt's idea of "magical thinking", such as the idea some people have that they will be in a position to take themselves out. We also noted the discussion in Andrew Stafford's "Dying wish" regarding the fine line between euthanasia/assisted dying and palliative care.

Dementia naturally came up a few times during the discussion. Several were interested in the articles which described the different types of dementia. We all felt that dementia would make a big difference to the experience of aging and the sort of care we might need or accept. All bets could be off in terms of our self-determination!

Other takeaways (or things learned) from the book, included:
  • Mohle's extortion not to catastrophise old age.
  • The idea that being young is positive and being old negative.
  • Charlotte Wood's finding that you die as you live: if you are angry or grumpy during your life you are likely to be like that in your final years. We laughed at her concern about when you should reset your default position!
  • The problems of food and eating in old age due to swallowing problems.
In terms of our own feelings about aging, we were generally positive. We felt overall that that there are big advantages to being an older person, that when you are old you can speak your mind more. Most of us seem to enjoy being old, appreciating the opportunity it offers us to express our ideas, the increased time we have to follow our passions. We noted, concurring with Holland-Batt, that our generation is more focused on self-determination versus previous generations which tended to accept authority and do what they were told.

Of course, we shared our various experiences of the aged care system, mostly through our parents. A couple commented that what they looked like loss of agency, from their point of view, wasn't how their parent felt. In other words, it's hard to know how we will feel, how we will perceive the world when we are much older and more frail. One talked about how her mother, who had dementia, initially ended up in a psychiatric facility rather than an aged care one. Another remembered her father's comment that growing old involves having to accept loss, which is expressed in Piper's article as ageing being a continual process of letting go. 

There was some discussion about the volume overall. One commented on the order of the pieces, how it started with 77-year-old established author Helen Garner, and closed with a 70-something debut author, Vicki Laveau-Harvie. She also liked the segues, or links, between the pieces. Another commented that the voices contained in the volume were primarily middle-aged or 60-somethings, and that there were no real aged voices. (We admitted, though, that not too long ago people in their 60s were seen as aged). It sent her back to a book published in 1979, Ellen Newton's This bed my centre, which chronicles the experiences of a 70-something woman with angina who spent 6 years in a nursing home.

Other works/activities we were reminded of, included:
  • Lisa Genova's Still Alice (book/movie)
  • Kate Grenville's One life: My mother's story
  • Ellen Newton's This bed my centre (mentioned above)
  • Webinars being run by Dementia Australia
In conclusion we agreed that it's hard to see how current trends in aged care will pan out given the significant aging of the population. We noted the lessons, that we all know already, such as that exercise, social interaction and good diet are factors that can help us have a good old age. Returning, as we often did during the discussion, to Sarah Holland-Batt we considered her comment that current aged care practice demonstrates a failure of imagination. We'd love to see more imagination - such as along the lines presented by writers like Mohle and Burkitt - applied to the problem. We wondered what impact COVID might have on policies and practices in the future. Will the return to being more people and community-focused that we are currently experiencing carry through to all sorts of people-related policies.  

Finally, one member said she loved the ending of Helen Garner's piece "The invisible arrow". Faced with the idea that his grandmother might stop writing, Garner's grandson said he wouldn't like her to do that.

"Why not?"
"Because," butts in his twelve-year-old brother, bouncing his football in a forceful rhythm, "it shows we exist"
Noice!

Present: 10 members

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Chris Flynn's Mammoth

For the second COVID month in a row, we were able to meet in person - appropriately socially distanced of course. How nice it was - and now full it was. With none of us able to travel, our usual depleted winter turnout was again not in evidence!

Our chosen book was the recently published novel, Mammoth, by Irish-born Australian writer, Chris Flynn. It's a surprising novel, narrated by a mammoth fossil, telling his story to a bunch of other, mostly incomplete, fossils, as they await going on sale at an auction. As usual, we started with our First impressions.

First impressions


While no-one disliked the book, our first impressions fell into two camps, those who loved or really liked it, and those who enjoyed it but didn't love it.

Those who loved, or really liked it, said:
  • Loved it, quirky, humorous. 
  • Enjoyed it, comic.
  • Ripping yarn, great imagination. 
  • Very interesting read, loved being reminded of her knowledge of old/prehistoric history; found the encounters between ancient and modern civilisation interesting; felt the novel was too short to get sick of it; and liked the ending.
  • Didn't like beginning, because the humour felt too corny but grew to like it; liked how it looked at human brutality; loved his commentary on writing (including such issues as veracity and believability, tone) and loved Mammut's statement that "No story’s gold from beginning to end", suggesting that this is the novelist fending off in advance criticisms of the boring parts of his novel.
  • Enjoyed the book, an easy read and an interesting diversion in COVID-infested Melbourne (emailed in.)
Those who liked it, but were more luke-warm, said:
  • Enjoyed it, but the banter was too disneyesque, and the narrative was confusing. 
  • Started with a bang, but got sick of it at the end.
  • Enjoyed the start, but got tired as it progressed, some of it was intriguing, but other parts were laboured.
  • Found it a clever concept, but got tired of the banter; however did enjoy Googling some of the historical information; felt Mammut went on a bit and didn't like T. bataar’s contemporary voice. 
  • Strange, cartoonesque, fragmentary 

Subsequent discussion

Our discussion was rather fragmentary, a bit like some found the book was! It was interrupted by a lively discussion about Blue Cornflower Corningware, which one member had discovered now has vintage status. It was a case of ancient Corningware facing off against ancient fossils!

In terms of the writing, we all agreed that the two epilogues were wonderful, and we also liked the book's opening with Thomas Jefferson's letter. In terms of criticism, besides the style of humour, various members felt there were some unnecessary digressions and some over-explication (such as in the Cuvier section.) 

A member commented that the novel felt like an Irish tale, and noted Palaeo's comment that

"this tale of the Irish siblings is damn fine storytelling. I'm pretty confident none of it is true, but, hey, I'm past that now" (p. 206)

She commented that this reflects the old idea of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, but, she said, Flynn did weave a story around facts. 

Another member commented that the idea of collecting "memories", of exploring the idea "if these bones could talk", was inspired. And one proffered that Flynn was brave to write about America the way he does.

Of course, we discussed his exploration of environmental degradation, species extinction, and climate change. Some felt it was hard to believe that some of the ideas are true, such as the impact of mammoths (and their stamping on the ground) on climate change. However, others pointed to research, such as this and an Economist article shared by a member, which gives the idea some credence. One member shared the mammoth's comment early in the novel:

“Our world was changing and there was nothing we could do about it.” (p. 44)

She suggested this helplessness is exactly how our animals and land would be "feeling" today. 

We couldn't help turning to Australia, with one member noting the impact of introduced hooved animals on the Australian environment. We also discussed recent forecasts that the koala could be extinct in under 50 years. And what are we doing about it, one member asked? Still allowing development to continue in a rare koala habitat area! Unbelievable!

We also noted the reference in the novel to people in the 19th century not believing scientists, such as Cuvier's theory of extinction, just as there are people now who don't believe climate scientists. 

One member quoted the statement made late in the book - “Relentless growth is not sustainable” (p. 252) - and asked how do we find the balance between destructive "relentless growth" and human desire to imagine, create, improve? 

We talked about other contemporary concerns Flynn weaves in through the story, such as racism, speciesism, and the idea of history being in the hands of the survivors.

Related to this is another of the novel's concerns - trophy mentality, or, the idea of self-aggrandisement through big animals. This idea is introduced in the novel's opening - Thomas Jefferson's letter enquiring about the availability of mammoth bones. The fossils talk about the equation of large animals with men and power. Pterodactyl tells the group of being using in Hitler Youth training: 

We were presented to the eager teens as proof that Germany had once been the centre of might in Europe and the origin point for life on earth. Your mastodon friend in particular was elevated as a symbol of strength … I was referred to as the Reptilian Eagle, an apex predator who dominated the skies. It would have been a compliment, had it not come from the mouths of maniacs. (p. 159/160)

The novel was, in fact, inspired by a 2007 auction in Manhattan of fossils - those represented in the novel - that Flynn had read about. One of the novel's two epilogues chronicles some of the outcomes of that auction, at which celebrities like Nicolas Cage and Leonardo Di Caprio vied for big fossils! As Pterodactyl continued from the above:

Yet again the hominid males appropriate motifs of power from the natural world in order to make themselves seem strong. (p. 160)

The novel also provides a potted view of human history through selected - fragmented as some in the group thought - events. The focus, in particular, was human brutality, which is something Flynn himself has seen in Ireland. He has had guns pointed at him, and he has heard nightmarish stories, he has said. In the novel, he chooses historical events/times like British suppression of Irish rebels, the Nazis, the decimation of Native Americans to make his point about the way humans behave and treat others, about their relationship to power.

The novel also represents are rather fun roll call of some of the 19th century's top palaeontologists and naturalists. Many of us enjoyed reading about them, and researching them in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

In the end, this book that garnered mixed responses generated quite a wide-ranging discussion.

Present: 10 members

Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This major novel was the subject for our June book club. It was the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 2019.

The Pulitzer Prize website says:

‘An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.’

This book was a massive undertaking as one of our members said. It is 625 pages long and some readers found the size challenging. In addition it has a large number of characters and time periods.

This novel was also awarded the William Dean Howells Medal in 2020 and nominated for the Man Booker in 2018. This is Richard Power’s 12thnovel. It was published in 2018. It has been critically acclaimed by many major authors including Barbara Kingsolver, writing for The New York Times.

Spoiler alert :


It is the story of 9 main characters living in the United States who all identify with particular trees: chestnut, mulberry, maple, oak (for a married couple), fir, beech and cedar. Each chapter in the ‘Roots’ part of the book includes a small drawing of some leaves and sometimes fruit. (An unusual feature for a novel.) The story of trees in America starts with the first Europeans arriving in the country but the main characters' lives begin in the 1960s till the present day. It is a sad tale of young activism and vandalism trying to save forests and loving trees and their subsequent lives. Some characters stay true to their ideals and one person is killed. The remaining eight find later life very difficult.

The two academics are amongst the strongest characters, they are Adam Appich and Patricia Westerford. He is a psychologist and researcher and she is a scientist. The other two prominent voices are those of an American of Indian ethnicity, Neelay Mehta, who grows up to be a technological wiz with his own company and staff devising fascinating games about ‘natural’ worlds, and an American engineer who is a daughter of a Chinese migrant, Mimi Ma. It is a huge book encompassing very different personalities and different life paths. Some of them cross paths towards the end of the novel.
   

First impressions


  • Wanted to read it as had heard about it. Loved it but it took time to get into. Felt she had a responsibility to read it. 
  • Enjoyed it but found it complex and hard to put it together
  • Well written but grappling with it nevertheless
  • Thought I would love it as I love trees but didn’t finish it 
  • Loved it and wanted to read it as it was on everyone’s list in 2018/19, really liked the way the story was interwoven like the trees with their roots getting interwoven
  • Liked the way trees were characters in the novel
  • Daunted by the size of it but determined to finish it
  • Liked the way the 9 characters set the framework for the novel
  • Enjoyed the ‘Roots’ part of the novel much more than the rest – felt I needed some explanations for it
  • Got engaged but lost the plot and the characters at times, as many of us did, found it a bit contrived also 
  • Is it a polemic or not? Not sure
  • Not a study of human nature but allegorical? 
  • Powers is writing with a purpose and a passion for forests and trees. He has said that this book has changed him forever.
  • Loved the way there were magical parts – like being in a forest – looking at the land from the canopy (walking or sitting up high enough to be part of the forest).
  • Took me on a journey with such joyful and challenging knowledge
  • Need to read it again and again – could be studied in great detail
  • Not a perfect book 
  • Didn’t like any characters except the academic Patricia
  • Reminds me of Tolstoy— depth of knowledge and references to life’s challenges from birth to death and grief and way of living one’s life
  • Does it change your mind about the environment – probably not – talking to the converted

Ensuing discussion


Structure of the work is most unusual – arranged according to the parts of a tree: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. The largest section is the ‘Trunk’ part.

Characters:


We talked about Neelay, the amazing digital wiz whose life is changed by a tree when he falls from a branch. He taps into a fantasy wonderland of Nature more nuanced and wonderful than reality. He keeps wanting his staff to create more excitement for players of his video game.

We discussed Patty (Patricia) who spends a huge part of her life in the forests and succeeds in setting up a seed bank for the future of mankind. She is deaf and has other issues however she, like the others, are all challenged by the society in which she lives. 

We all applauded Patricia’s success in court as an expert witness. She loves the forests with a passion and great knowledge, and we felt very sorry for her when she was ridiculed for her research conclusions which in time turn out to be correct. Powers is showing that we can make a difference but the odds are stacked against anyone trying. That is the trouble with an existential threat. 

We discussed Nicholas (Nick) and his family’s story of looking after chestnut trees until they all disappear. However, one chestnut tree reappears in someone else’s backyard -- Ray and Dorothy’s little suburban forest. A possible spark of hope? There is a beautiful scene when Ray who is greatly disabled by a stroke and Dorothy realise that they are rekindling their marriage, after many unhappy years, by learning more about nature and allowing nature to overtake their backyard. 

An example of more branching images and interconnections – Dorothy and Ray using the ‘decision tree’ to identify the trees in their yard by their characteristics. (page 552)

We also discussed Olivia Vandergriff who is like a spirit of the forest and slightly wacky. She hears voices and takes Nick on a road trip according to her voices. Some people felt that after her experiences and accidentally (?) dying for a second time, the book didn’t progress. However, others felt that Olivia inspired other characters, particularly Mimi, and some others had a reference back to Olivia and her death. She didn’t expect to achieve anything and she didn’t but she tried. 

Each character brings some different aspect of personality and opinions to the story. For instance Mimi’s dad is a sad Chinese man who takes his three daughters fly-fishing in Fish lake which is where Patricia parks on her way to Yellowstone Park. There are these linkages all through the novel. For instance, Powers writes about Mimi: 

‘The oldest girl, named for a Puccini opera heroine, will soon be wanted by the feds for fifty million dollars of arson.
Two thousand miles to the east, a student sculptor …(will) live to walk past the tree again, thirty years later, but only because of swearing to the Puccini heroine that no matter how bad things get, he won’t kill himself.’ (page 165)
Mimi’s dad killed himself so she doesn’t want that to happen to anyone else. We liked the section talking about Mimi’s Dad’s scroll which shows fishing. We also appreciated Winston (Mimi’s dad) saying sorry to the bear near the lake. 

Mimi asks her father what he said to the bear (that was preparing to attack) – he said

'Apologise!… people very stupid… forget everything...where they come from, where they go.. Don’t worry. Human being leaving this world very soon. Then the bear get top bunk to himself again'. (page 47)

Part of the author’s theme of leaving the world to itself to sort out and continue.

We also talked about the scene when the trees are cut down in front of Mimi’s office. This was where she met Douglas and had a moment of enlightenment.

This novel is full of misfits – because they are like us? The reader could draw allusions to Biblical stories such as those of Paul and Moses? 

The author himself moved to live in a forest and felt it changed his life still living in the Great Smoky mountains of Tennessee.

Title: The Overstory


We thought the title was good – it relates to forests and to one of the climactic parts of the book when Olivia and Nick are delicately balanced on the platform high up in the forest’s canopy. One member remembered the story of other people living high in the trees in the Tarkine, Tasmania. It could also be interpreted as having a mythic atmosphere? 

Forests


This book makes people think about forests more – after reading it you don’t feel the same anymore. However we don’t think it will change people’s ideas about climate change if they are not already convinced of it by the science.

There are many sections discussing the landscape of old growth trees. One member discussed Simon Schama’s book on landscape and art. Schama particularly talks about German landscape painting which often shows forests with a range of trees, as well as growth and death. 

Powers, the author, does not talk about the First Nations people of the US in this novel. There is only one small reference to them in one of the protest scenes when the young people are trying hard to save a forest.

In discussing the forests we talked about oaks and their beauty. One member also talked about forest bathing in Japan where you can be at one with Mother Nature. 

Powers is quoted as saying that ‘all good stories will kill you a little’. Books can do this. 

Conclusion


Is this book saying ‘we are stuffed’ as far as saving the trees and thus the planet? There are different opinions on this matter. But we think Powers is saying that personal connections with nature, especially trees, are vitally important and will help save us ? Life will continue despite everything.

Many of us are troubled, even discombobulated, by the news every day so Patricia’s seed bank leads to hope. There are seed banks in place in Australia as well as overseas, which do hold good for some species of flora. 

This month we were very happy to return to meeting in a member’s home, suitably socially distanced.

Present: 10 members

Sunday, 7 June 2020

There was still love by Favel Parrett

This book is short and sharp about life for people living behind the Iron curtain and being a migrant in an Anglo-Saxon dominated Australia. It is largely the story of 2 families, one living in Prague and one in Melbourne. They are related by their grandmothers being not only sisters but also twins. The perspective is from the grandchildren’s point of view. Ludek is the little boy living in Prague with his Babi. Life is hard for Babi and her grandson but also for the population of Prague. Ludek’s Australian great aunt (Mana) and uncle (Vilem) visit from Melbourne and tell him about Mala Liska who recounts the Australian part of the story. Ludek is intrigued why Aunty Mana left Prague and travelled to Australia. 

It’s a story in dated sections beginning in Melbourne 1980, Prague 1980, Prague in March 1968, Melbourne 1980,  Prague 1942, Prague 1980, Melbourne 1980, Prague 1938, Prague 1980 and Prague 1978, Prague 1981 and Melbourne 1981 and then Prague 1921.  We learn a little of Czech history with the invasion in 1968 by the Russians and we hear of the racism experienced by migrants in Australia and the general difficulties of working and living in a country with a different culture and language.

First impressions:


  • Enjoyable, tender, good hearted, perspective from children’s point of view is painful and unusual, structure is good
  • Very little happens but there is a lot going on
  • Delightful, almost not there, such fleeting stories, tricky working it all out, the grandma connection is intriguing, thought it might come to more than it does, not totally satisfied and not totally successful
  • Loved it, poignant, intimate, first person dialogue and perspective
  • Similarities between the children although they live on opposite sides of the world
  • Beautifully written, just gorgeous, slow read which fits in with our current Covid-19 sate of lockdown, gentle
  • Tale of loss for the people and country and with such a light touch for the story and the characters 
  • Enjoyed children’s perspective, enjoyed the author interview with Richard Fidler (see Radio national— Conversations)
  • Poignant, deeply personal
  • Sad, quiet, tale of leaving people and places behind
  • Excited to read it as a 2nd generation migrant from Eastern Europe with knowledge of Prague and Czechoslovakia, a bit dissatisfied too as the story was a bit too spare, would have liked more. Could relate to gherkins (best in the world) and apricot dumplings (love them). Could have been a bit warmer.
  • Was I reading a whole book or just essays stretched out? I read the review published 2 years ago about a 6-year-old going up stairs. Also expected the people to be Jewish as people I knew in Melbourne who lived similar lives were Jewish. (Supposedly lives of migrants not able to re-establish themselves to the way they were in their home country. ) 
  • It also expanded my view of Melbourne from my memories of my childhood.

Ensuing discussion:

LOVE


Why is it called : There was still love ?
‘Still’ has 2 meanings – the stillness and the continuity ? The Magician says:

‘I put the broken in my suitcase and take them with me until they are ready to go home again.
There is still love’ (page 181).

It is an ambiguous phrase – so much loss. There is a sense that the two children are greatly loved although dislocated from their parents. Their grandparents are stepping up. This causes the lives of the grandparents to be constrained. The children look back fondly on their growing years with their grandparents and it makes it all so poignant.

For instance, near the end there is a scene where Ludek has left his grandmother and is living in the country with his Mother and his new family and he misses the dirty city and his Babi. 

‘But sometimes Ludek missed the flat on the third floor, just him and Babi, no one else. He missed his city, where he ran and ran the old streets and was invisible.’  (page 185-6)

We would have liked more detail about the girl’s background which is not explained or told to the reader. Maybe this is what Favel Parrett is trying to say that we cannot know everything or it is too hard to tell.

Ludek’s Mother almost defects from the theatre troupe in Australia but she cannot because she loves her little boy, Ludek still in Prague.  The scene is portrayed through the eyes of the little girl who meets Ludek’s Mother, Alena. 

‘I’m going to try to stay here’ Alena tells Mala Liska (page 84) but it proves too difficult.

Mala Liska’s grandpa says to her 

"...they only let her come on tour because her son stays there, her mother stays there, her brother….It’s very complicated.” (page 85)

This brings up the idea of choice in life – we take it for granted in the west but many people do not and cannot take it for granted, especially pre 1989 in Eastern Europe.

HOME


This is a common theme throughout – quest for home – poignantly in the scene of Eva (Babi) walking home during the invasion in August 1968 

‘The Soviet flags fly. The huge guns point ahead.
“you should get home”. A voice behind her – soft.  A man, bright eyes burning.

“Those bastards!” he says. He is young, maybe a student.  She is old. She cannot do this again. She cannot fight anymore… “You should get home” he says again. … she must get home. (page 133-4)

That links up with Eva in the supermarket in Melbourne when she gets overwhelmed by the choice of products. We can all relate to this feeling. It is alienating. 

Another angle on ‘home’ comes from Vilem in 1942 in Australia. Here he has to call himself Bill to not incur a racial slur.

‘The only way to live now is to keep moving forward and not look back. It is the only way his heart can keep on beating and not break. He must look forward and not behind.
He must never look behind.’ (page 103)

This is the refugees ‘lot’ according to one of our members. 

Another reader talked about the film Goodbye Lenin which was shown in 2003 and is set in communist East Germany in 1989.

There was much nostalgia for the old ways in Eastern Europe. But we were reminded by this same member that those regimes were not benign, but punished their people and the effects have been passed down the generations. There are also a couple of scenes of people being watched to convey the surveillance of authoritarian regimes. Spies in other words travelling and keeping watch on the theatre troupe, for instance.

The book also explores the history of Czechoslovakia. Mention is made of the Munich Agreement before the Second World War and the feeling that the West would not rescue the people of Eastern Europe including the callous drawing of borders done by the allies.  ‘This was a huge scar on the soul of the Czech nation’. This is a quote from our member who has considerable knowledge and love of this country.

Ludek loves his city and the people. He is very kind to Mrs Blaza, the old lady downstairs.  She is all crumpled in her chair. And he discovers that she has died and asks himself where is her family. 

‘The city was full of old women left behind, left to keep everything going – to carry the old goddam world by themselves.’ (page 167) (Atlas metaphor.)

The statue of Atlas is an important feature of the city that he loves. He has trouble finding it then one day he comes across it:

 (Ludek) ‘wanted to tell Atlas how he had tried so hard to find him….’ (page 121).  

This leads him to think about his Mother so far away from home in Australia. 

There is the fun scene of Ludek and his grandma riding the sled which was a bit fantastical. But she came alive for Ludek and they enjoyed each other’s company. (Pages 171-179) But it was an important scene too because they talked about missing those they loved and not living with them – Babi’s sister (Mana) and Ludek’s Mother. 

‘Ludek put his head against her strong frame and hugged her back. And he didn’t care who saw him. His babi.’ (page 179) 

 There is also the scene of him pulling out the old tape recorder and playing the Rolling Stones music so that his grandma could dance. 

The characters have a complicated vision of home and the changes which occur over time.

GRANDMOTHERS


There is the sense that the grandmothers kept the family secure and together which they do in many societies, (such as African and Indigenous ones). They also keep culture going and keep raising the next generation.  

The book is a tribute to grandmothers and their strength. The statue of Atlas is a good metaphor for the grandmothers. 

PRAGUE


1980 in Prague has been largely forgotten about ,including by us in Australia, and how traumatic life was for the population and this book reminds us. Life was very different for them from us in Australia and it was not so long ago. It forced people to look inward and not trust strangers. Czechs tried to feel free away from the city so many acquired summer cottages in the countryside. That was the only place they felt liberated. Our member who knows this part of the world visited Prague in 1981 and found it a grey place where people avoided looking at you and there were no greetings. She also told us you could be imprisoned for leaving flowers at the John Lennon wall and he was singing about peace. However, once the Berlin Wall came down colour was restored to the city and the sun shone and there were flowers.   

Bill was a good character – quite gorgeous. He missed the theatre. It is ‘home’. We talked about his meeting with Mana. We also talked about his feeling that you must keep moving and not look back. But he is sad about their lives in Australia. He wishes it was better than it proved to be. This is particularly so when they are new to Melbourne in 1942 and they have to work on integrating into the new society. Language is a big barrier but they both work hard at it. (pages 102-103)

The Black Light Theatre of Prague is largely unknown to this group of Australians sadly, except for our member who has connections with this part of the world. The Magician is still alive and was the manager of the troupe, someone noted..  

European men in Melbourne eating cake were part of the texture of life growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s. Migrants brought their habits and managed to find little enclaves where they could get together. There was nostalgia for home. Sometimes thought migrants went back to heir home country but found it had moved on. It is a complicated vision of home.

We also discussed the gymnastics that was so popular in the 1960s. Mass displays especially of ribbon gymnastics. Triumph of the gods! We all remember marching at school.

STYLE


A member said ‘I liked the use of the suitcase motif. I loved how tight it was. Not a wasted word and how Parrett made one scene convey the bigger picture, like the scene in the shop when Mana is called a “stupid wog” (to convey racism) and the couple of scenes where the characters are being watched by spies.

Lots of short sentences and sentences with punch or a plea. For example, on page 119 

‘Ludek put his head in his hands.
Please call.’   

We felt that this book is also wispy. We were all trying to understand the story – and the suitcase is the main link throughout the book from the opening page. A book about migration and home and love. 

‘You must close up tight, protect your most needed possessions … your heart, your mind, your soul. You must become a little suitcase and try not to think about home’.  (page vii)

One reader felt that Parrett is trying to craft the story out of the little she knows about the personal histories of her family.  

This was another book club meeting via zoom which seems to be getting easier for us but still not nearly as good as meeting in person.

Members present : 12

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Too much lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Another Covid 19 meeting conducted through Zoom from our living rooms.

Too much lip won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Literature 2019 and was a Queensland Literary Awards Winner. It was also shortlisted in 2019 for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.  

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

This novel by indigenous Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko is the story of Kerry Salter and her dysfunctional family set in the fictional town of Durrongo, a place in northeast New South Wales (near Lismore or Casino). Kerry has stolen a Harley Davidson bike and travels from Brisbane to see her family because her grandfather is dying. Kerry’s life is turbulent as her girlfriend has recently thrown her out of their accommodation too. When she arrives she discovers that part of ‘their’ country is going to be sold to a developer to build a prison. This is an area considered sacred to their Bundjalung culture. It is also an area they have spent a lot of time in during their childhood. Kerry is determined to stop this development proceeding. There are many other issues being dealt with by the family, such as poverty, child abuse and neglect. Her sister Donna has been missing for many years and they are still grieving for her. We later discover that Donna suffered terrible child abuse from her grandfather and set up a new life for herself in Sydney. Accidentally Kerry discovers that Donna is working in the town and encourages her to reconcile with the family. The book ends on a positive note.   

First impressions

  • Immensely readable, enjoyable, got into lingo although I don’t know about Indigenous languages; very colourful and passionate people.
  • Language interesting, and wonderful characters although I only got half way through it
  • Terrific book with 3D characters, not all doom and gloom; confronting issues, domestic violence, drinking, dispossession, humour but with a positive feel.
  • Felt like a Bundjalung version of the film Muriel’s wedding
  • Black humour despite the terrible backstories.
  • Excellent story which flowed, enjoyed the twists and turns, warm emphasis on kinship.
  • Very engaging and larger than life characters, humour carried you along, though having read other books by Lucashenko found this one a little predictable and a little jarring. Felt also that Steve who adores Kerry was a little bit of ‘Chick fantasy’. The whole book is underpinned by experience but the happy ending was a little contrived.
  • Well-written, gritty, compelling, very realistic, probably? Didn’t really ‘enjoy’ it and found it a tough read.
  • Raw and confronting, realism so amazing.
  • Really compelling black humour, but didn’t actually laugh. Window on a culture outside my frame of reference.
  • Lots of horrible episodes but Lucashenko ties up the loose ends. Heard it on audible with an Indigenous reader which made it authentic.
  • A plot-driven issues novel, which makes a contribution to truthtelling. Fiction can tell stories which white people can hear and understand more, perhaps, than by learning about Indigenous lives from political conversations or by reading historical works. Loved the roundness of the characters, most flawed but engaging.

Fiction can help explain why indigenous people behave like they do. Melissa lays bare some of their problems. She was worried about writing this revelation because she thought she might receive criticism from her mob and others but apparently this has not happened. ‘I loved that she was brave enough to show dysfunction within Indigenous communities while also showing the causes of the dysfuntion.’  

Ensuing discussion


Melissa Lucashenko appeared at the Canberra Writer’s Festival in 2019 and talked about carrying a heavy weight writing for her mob. She is trying to explain some fundamental differences in thought systems and culture to white Australians. This novelist is fundamentally a storyteller and is quite fierce and scary. (Her long years working on public policy and with women prisoners has made her very strong.)

All descriptions are from her real experiences or those of others she knows. The scenes are all very grounded.

Did we like the title?  Yes, we loved it and felt it was most appropriate not only for Kerry but also about other characters in the novel too, especially some of the children. One member also thought that it was cheeky. 

Kerry’s honesty is brilliantly stated:

'too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it…’ (page 206).

One member talked about her discomfort at the way her Indigenous friends ‘talked' to their children. She was shocked by their yelling and the way everybody stood up to each other in a loud way, so different from the way she behaved with her kids.

We discussed the issue of anger and how it is related to poverty and race. In the novel there is mention of living on a mission and having nothing, no job and not being allowed to retain Aboriginal culture. The poverty is very real in this book.

Larrakin behaviour combined with poverty and dislocation and drunkenness are all issues for this family.

Love, Steve and whitefellas in the book


The question of a love interest and Steve, a good white fellow was one we debated at some length. Some members thought the ‘love affair’ was a little overblown as Kerry was so rude to him and so dismissive of his opinions. One member wondered if the publisher had suggested this romance angle as a selling point. Steve, Kerry’s friend, is also required for the steamy sex scenes. He is the one good whitefella who is accepted into the family and even invited to go with the other men for a ‘Men’s camp’ and men’s business. Steve learns to stand up for himself against Kerry when their relationship is strong and starts to treat her a bit more like her family does by criticising her for being so rude. 

There is a sense in which we should be able to hear what life is like for people like Kerry. It is better to listen, and that is what Steve does to large extent. 

There are very few other white men in the novel apart from him and the main ‘baddie’, Mayor Buckley. Mayor Buckley is the man everyone hates and who suffers at the conclusion of the novel. 

Humour


Humour is dispensed throughout the novel, and a welcome antidote to the ‘heavy’ issues tackled. We appreciated the way Lucashenko makes fun of Indigenous culture. For instance, about totems as shown in the scene when Brandon is playing on his computer and his uncle encourages him to go and play outside and climb a tree.

Brandon looked at Black Superman like he had two heads.
'What for ? I’m an eel. Eels don’t climb trees’. …
'Eels don’t use iPads, either’. (page 76) 

Indigenous people, just like any people, use their culture in any way they can. This is shown on television in the last few years with all the new Indigenous comedy shows especially. 

There are many scenes of great comedy – the exorcism, the scene when Ken is terrifying everyone with the rifle and Kerry thinks that Steve might have called the cops.

‘No other excuse needed : bang bang, bang.
Oh my God, they killed Kenny’. (p274) 

This is a reference to the TV show South Park

Style and culture, and characterisation


We also discussed the ‘magical realism’ present or not in the novel. One member noted that Indigenous people don’t necessarily see it that way. Alexis Wright was quoted as saying that that description refers to white attitudes, whereas for indigenous people it is all real. What is concrete after all?

We also commented on the amazing names for characters, for example Dr No, Shark, Black Superman. We also liked Pretty Mary (Kerry’s Mum) and Tall Mary. The people at the mission where these older folk grew up were to blame for the lack of imagination with names.  

One reader mentioned that birds for First Nations people are very important too – they bring messages and play a big role in their culture. This member has seen indigenous guides in the Northern Territory talking to birds. The birds can be totems or ancestral beings. 

In the first chapter, Kerry converses with some birds. It is very funny but also is indicative of her relationship with the natural world and totems of the local people. 

Three waark flapped down on the road beside her, drawn to the flattened remains of a king brown which looked to have lost a fight with Scruffy McCarthy’s cattle truck. 
The birds stared at Kerry, cawing obnoxiously before they turned to their snake… the eaters and the eaten of Durrongo, having it out at the crossroads. You don’t see old mate Freddy McCubbin painting that, do ya? .. 
I’m not the only one in Durrongo plagued by arseholes then, Kerry noted. (pp. 7,8)

The scene where Kerry is trying to encourage Brandon to be an enthusiast of the outdoors is hilarious. 

'You ever set a chook shed off?' ... Kerry crowed again.
‘You try!’ she urged. Sulky at first Brandon gradually got into it. … (p77)

Language is a big part of this novel. We all felt the way Lucashenko wrote it was very well done. It seemed forbidding at first to some of us but her use of indigenous words made it authentic. We all understood what she was saying despite no translations. 

Another aspect of the novel is the resolution of the problem of Donna. Uncle Richard is the main mediator between the family and Donna. He is also the first to believe her story of the abuse she suffered from her grandfather and how she protected Kerry. The novel is excellent in explaining that the family doesn’t do forgiveness as that is not the issue for Indigenous people. That is a white person’s concept. It is more a concept of truth-telling. We all thought of the Truth and Justice courts held in various countries in order to cope with past injustices. Ken is required to apologise and there might be punishment. 

Donna behaved in the way many real victims do. They want to control their lives after the violation. She felt alienated from her family. 

Ken, her brother, is the other side of the equation. He had stayed and kept all the anger and hurt inside himself. Everybody deals with trauma differently. Kerry was different again as she had run away (or been pushed by her mother) and often through the book she wants to run back to Brisbane. But there is nothing for her there now. She is also bound to her family and to her country. 

Some of us thought it was a weird plot element that Kerry didn’t try harder to retrieve the stolen money from Mayor Buckley. But would that have made the ending less convincing? Due comeuppance for the white crook?    

We all liked the character of Uncle Richard. He is the strong wise man of the mob. He gives us insight into the hierarchies of the culture. He was a law man and had great authority. But he was also gentle and they respected him. He wasn’t ‘shouty’. His saying that it was all about ‘love’ resonated with everybody. 

Pretty Mary was another wonderful character. She was an alcoholic but also a very 3-D personality. We liked the scenes of her telling fortunes in her tepee. She also loved Pop and wanted to explain to Donna that he was a victim too.

‘Pop told me when he was dying, cos it was eating away at him, worse’n the cancer was', he said. 'Three coppers grabbed him in Brisbane as a kid. Fourteen-year-old. Locked him in the cells and took turns at him all night for winning the Silver Gloves when he was supposed to lose. … But now, if Donna don’t mind, we’ve said we’re sorry, and I’d like to put me old friend in the ground.’ …” (p 295)  

There is a lot of intergenerational trauma in this novel – and it reminded many of us of the memoir we read last month, Rick Morton's One hundred years of dirt, about his white family and their trauma to do with poverty and dislocation. Epigenetics applies in both instances but in different ways of course. Brutal behaviour on an older generation can greatly effect subsequent generations. This is highlighted at the beginning of this novel by the recounting of the boxing match and consequences meted to Kerry’s grandfather when as a young Indigenous man he wins a boxing match in Brisbane. It is then mentioned again at the end of the novel in relation to Donna as quoted above.

We all agreed that the novel’s real strength is her diversity of characters. The complex weaving of men and women, and the leadership by many of the women. This is so true in Indigenous communities today in Australia. One member heard an interview with Melissa Lucashenko about her daughter’s struggle with mental illness and the difficulty of dealing with it. The novelist has had a tough life herself so can write from first hand experiences.

The ending with Donny almost stranded on the island was a funny scene. It was a real island but also possibly a ghost of an island?

‘Nobody to keep him company all night but the ghost of Elvis, and the ancestors he’d never met; an idea that gave him horrors.’ (p. 314) 

Possibly there is a parallel to the scene with Pop in the morgue. 

Kerry later thinks  : ‘it was good to see some spirit returning to the boy. That whale on his arm must be doing him a power of good.’ (p. 315) 

 The scene of the burial of Elvis, the dog was an act of reconciliation – sorry business. One member wondered if it there was something else going on. 

Robbery and criminal behaviour is another strong theme throughout the novel. Bike stealing, Kerry pinching the items from the Town Hall, and the drugs shows an engagement with people on the wrong side of the law and the police. But the sense in which people steal to keep the family going is so insignificant to the larger question of white people’s theft of the whole of Australia. (This is still an issue 250 years to the day that Cook first arrived. Very pertinent.) This is eye opening and confronting to people like us. 

We all felt that the dialogue is well written. It's quite clipped and certainly not flowery. 

This is a great story told with energy and humour. It covers really tough themes in a complex and nuanced way. The characters and stories felt very real. A really worthwhile read. We briefly talked about how different books by Indigenous people are now, from 30 years ago. This novel has been praised by literary judges and awarded many prizes in Australia. You are rewarded too by reading it twice as one mmber managed to do. It contrasts strongly with novels of the past such as Sally Morgan’s My place. The group thinks we have moved a long way in our understanding of our First Nations people but there is still a long way to go. 

Members present : 12